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Sabrina V. v. State

Supreme Court of Alaska

May 31, 2019

SABRINA V., Appellant,
v.
STATE OF ALASKA, DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND SOCIAL SERVICES, OFFICE OF CHILDREN'S SERVICES, Appellee.

          Appeal from the Superior Court No. 3PA-16-00092 CN of the State of Alaska, Third Judicial District, Palmer, Kari Kristiansen, Judge.

          Sharon Barr, Assistant Public Defender, and Quinlan Steiner, Public Defender, Anchorage, for Appellant.

          Mary Ann Lundquist, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Fairbanks, and Kevin G. Clarkson, Attorney General, Juneau, for Appellee.

          Before: Bolger, Chief Justice, Winfree, Stowers, Maassen, and Carney, Justices.

          OPINION

          CARNEY, JUSTICE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         A mother appeals the termination of her parental rights after she signed and then attempted to withdraw a voluntary relinquishment of parental rights. At the time she signed the relinquishment, her child was living with his paternal grandmother, who hoped to adopt him. When it later became clear that the grandmother would not be able to adopt the child, the mother signed a notice of her withdrawal of relinquishment although the ten-day window for withdrawal had passed. Three days later she filed the notice in superior court. That same day, apparently without being aware of the withdrawal notice, the court issued an order terminating the mother's parental rights. The mother appeals. She argues that the court retained discretion to allow her withdrawal even though the ten-day period had passed and that termination of her parental rights was not in the child's best interests. Because, assuming the superior court had discretion to allow the untimely withdrawal, it did not abuse its discretion by declining to do so, we affirm the termination of her parental rights.

         II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

         A. Background

         Sabrina V. is the mother of Kaleb D., who was born in 2005.[1] By 2016 Kaleb was living in Wasilla with his father, who is now deceased. Sabrina had apparently been living outside of Alaska for some years. It does not appear that the parents had a court order regarding Kaleb's custody.

         Sabrina also has an older daughter, Lizzie, from a previous relationship. Lizzie was committed to the custody of the Office of Children's Services (OCS) in September 2014 in an earlier child in need of aid (CINA) case. In February 2016, after a successful six-month home visit with Sabrina in Montana, OCS released Lizzie to Sabrina.

         B. Pre-Relinquishment CINA Proceedings

         Kaleb's father died in April 2016; the cause of death was unknown but may have been related to complications from a recent surgery. OCS filed an emergency petition for temporary custody and to adjudicate Kaleb as a child in need of aid.[2] The petition stated that Kaleb's father had been Kaleb's "sole caregiver." OCS claimed to have "no current contact information" for Sabrina despite having released Lizzie to her roughly two months earlier; Sabrina later testified that her residence had not changed between her reunification with Lizzie and the initiation of CINA proceedings for Kaleb. At the emergency probable cause hearing an OCS caseworker testified that Kaleb had told OCS he had not seen Sabrina in roughly two years and that she "wasn't a good mom." The court granted OCS temporary custody.

         OCS apparently found contact information for Sabrina by June 2016.[3] In an August 2016 predisposition report[4] OCS stated that, when contacted, Sabrina had said she was unable to care for Kaleb because she was about to move from Montana to Washington. In late August the court adjudicated Kaleb in need of aid and granted OCS custody pending disposition. By September 2016 OCS had begun to investigate two of Kaleb's paternal relatives to determine if they could adopt him. Because the relatives lived in Oklahoma, OCS was working with its counterpart there pursuant to the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children (ICPC).[5]

         At the disposition hearing[6] the following month the court found that Sabrina had not yet established a relationship with Kaleb and had "made very little effort to stay in contact with him when she left Alaska." The court also found that because of Sabrina's history of drug use and involvement with OCS, it would be contrary to Kaleb's best interests to place him with her. The court committed Kaleb to OCS's custody for up to two years.[7]

         Around June 2017 OCS changed the primary goal for Kaleb from reunification with Sabrina to adoption. Kaleb was then living in Oklahoma with a paternal uncle, who OCS hoped would be able to adopt him. At a permanency hearing in August, Sabrina's attorney reported that the parties had negotiated a consent to adoption.[8] Sabrina later signed the consent to adoption by Kaleb's paternal uncle, and the court approved it in January 2018.

         In February 2018 OCS petitioned to terminate Sabrina's parental rights. The petition alleged that Sabrina "ha[d] not engaged in any of the identified case plan activities [or] maintained consistent contact" with OCS despite "consistently stat[ing]... her desire to reunify" with Kaleb. In March the guardian ad litem reported that Kaleb's uncle would not be able to adopt Kaleb and that he had been moved to his paternal grandmother's home. His grandmother also lived in Oklahoma and OCS was considering her as a possible adoptive parent.

         C. Proceedings Relating To The Relinquishment And Withdrawal

         Sabrina signed a voluntary relinquishment of her parental rights on May 3 0, 2018, and filed it with the court on June 14.[9] The relinquishment acknowledged that the grandmother's adoption of Kaleb depended upon a positive home study and Kaleb's living with her for six months before the adoption; Sabrina retained the privilege to be notified if the adoption would not proceed. The relinquishment stated that Sabrina could withdraw it "for any reason" within ten days after signing it, and that after ten days the court could order her parental rights terminated at any time if it found termination to be in Kaleb's best interests. The relinquishment also provided that, after a termination order was signed but before the entry of an adoption or legal guardianship decree, Sabrina could seek a review hearing to reinstate her parental rights. The relinquishment incorporated the statutory standards governing such a review hearing: to have the termination order vacated, Sabrina would have to show, by clear and convincing evidence, that reinstatement would be in Kaleb's best interests and that she had been rehabilitated from the issues that led to termination of her parental rights.[10]

         In late June 2018 OCS filed a permanency report stating that Kaleb's grandmother's home was now "seen as a short-term placement given [the grandmother's] medical needs." The report explained that Oklahoma's ICPC home study had determined that her health made her unsuitable to adopt Kaleb.

         Sabrina received a copy of the permanency report shortly after it was filed; this seems to have been her first notice that the grandmother would not be able to adopt Kaleb. On June 29, 2018, Sabrina signed a notice that she was withdrawing her relinquishment of parental rights. The notice stated that she had "signed the relinquishment with the understanding that the permanent plan for [Kaleb was] adoption by [his] paternal grandmother." It also stated that Sabrina "[did] not believe it [was] in [Kaleb]'s best interests to be a legal orphan" and would have withdrawn the relinquishment earlier if she had known of the grandmother's inability to provide a permanent adoptive placement.

         Although Sabrina signed the Notice of Withdrawal and served it on the parties on June 29, it was not logged as filed with the court until July 2. She suggests that this was likely due to the fact that June 29, 2018, fell on a Friday, when Alaska courts and court offices closed at noon.[11] Also on July 2, and apparently without being aware of the Notice of Withdrawal, the court ordered termination of Sabrina's parental rights to Kaleb. Neither Sabrina nor her counsel was present at a hearing addressing permanency the following day, as the court had found that based on the relinquishment and termination, Sabrina was not entitled to notice of the hearing.

         Sabrina moved for reconsideration on July 11. She argued that "[t]he CINA statutes do not directly speak to whether a parent can withdraw [a] relinquishment" more than ten days after signing it, but that nothing in the statutes or rules prohibited it. She urged the court to treat her withdrawal as a motion to amend a pleading, for which leave should be freely given under Alaska Civil Rule 15(a).[12] The court invited OCS and the guardian ad litem to respond; both argued that reconsideration should be denied because Sabrina's withdrawal was untimely.

         On July 25, 2018, the superior court denied reconsideration. The court rejected Sabrina's argument that she should be permitted to withdraw the relinquishment under Civil Rule 15(a), noting that both AS 47.10.089(c) and the terms of the relinquishment specifically provided for a ten-day deadline to withdraw the relinquishment.[13] The court also found that the grandmother's disqualification from adopting Kaleb was not a serious change of circumstances that justified allowing late withdrawal of the relinquishment because Sabrina had only retained the right to be notified, and not the right to withdraw her relinquishment, if the adoption was not possible.

         Sabrina appeals.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         "We review the denial of a motion for reconsideration for abuse of discretion."[14] An abuse of discretion exists if the superior court's decision "is arbitrary, capricious, manifestly unreasonable, or . . . stem[s] from an improper motive."[15]

         "When interpreting CINA statutes and rules, we apply our independent judgment, 'adopting the rule of law that is most persuasive in light of ...


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