Michigan Supreme Court Holds After Parental Rights Termination, No Preference for Placing Children with Relatives at Guardianship Hearing

On April 23rd, 2014, the Michigan Supreme Court held that there is no preference for the placement of children with relatives as part of a guardianship determination under MCL 712A.19c(2) after a court terminates a parent's rights to their children.

In In re COH, ERH, JRG, & KBH, MINORS, Docket No. 147515, the Michigan Supreme Court addressed an appeal by the Department of Human Services (DHS).  From the opinion's syllabus:

The Department of Human Services (DHS) petitioned the Muskegon Circuit Court, Family Division, to terminate the parental rights of the mother and two fathers of the minor children COH, ERH, JRG, and KBH, who had been removed from the mother’s home and placed in foster care. At the dispositional hearing, Lori Scribner, the biological grandmother of three of the children, submitted a letter expressing interest in becoming all four children’s guardian if they were not returned to their mother. The court concluded that terminating the mother’s rights was not in the children’s best interests, although it granted the petition with respect to the fathers. The following year, the DHS again petitioned to terminate the mother’s parental rights. The mother pleaded no contest to the allegations in the petition, and Scribner moved to be appointed the children’s guardian under MCL 712.19c and MCR 3.979. The court, William C. Marietti, J., denied Scribner’s motion after considering the best-interest factors from the Child Custody Act, MCL 722.21 et seq., and admitted the children to the Michigan Children’s Institute (MCI) under MCL 400.203. Scribner requested consent from the MCI superintendent to adopt the children, but the superintendent denied it, and the trial court denied Scribner’s motion to reverse the denial. Scribner appealed both this decision and the order denying her petition for guardianship. After consolidating the appeals, the Court of Appeals, TALBOT, P.J., and MARKEY and RIORDAN, JJ., reversed the order denying Scribner’s petition for guardianship in an unpublished opinion per curiam issued June 25, 2013 (Docket Nos. 309161 and 312691) and remanded for the entry of an order appointing Scribner guardian. The Supreme Court granted the DHS’s application for leave to appeal. 495 Mich 870 (2013). 

In a unanimous opinion by Justice CAVANAGH, the Supreme Court held

The preference created in MCL 722.954a for a child who has been removed from the parental home to be placed with relatives applies when the DHS is making its initial placement decision, but it does not apply to a court’s decision regarding whether to appoint a guardian for the child under MCL 712A.19c(2). In deciding whether to appoint a guardian under MCL 712A.19c(2), a court must determine whether the guardianship is in the child’s best interests. In so doing, the court has the discretion to consider the best-interest factors from the Child Custody Act, MCL 722.23; the Adoption Code, MCL 710.22(g); or any other factors that may be relevant under the circumstances of a particular case. 

1. The Court of Appeals erred by holding that the preference set forth in MCL 722.954a for placing a child with relatives after the initial removal from a parent’s custody applies to a court’s decision under MCL 712A.19c whether to appoint a guardian for a child whose parents’ rights have been terminated. MCL 722.954a applies from the moment a child is removed from his or her parents’ care and throughout the review process, but there is no indication in the statutory language that the Legislature intended this preference to apply beyond the time frame identified within MCL 722.954a. Similarly, MCL 712A.19c expressly applies only to instances in which a child remains in placement following the termination of parental rights, which occurs after the DHS makes the initial placement decision regulated by MCL 722.954a. Moreover, MCL 712A.19c(14) expressly provides that MCL 712A.19c, which includes the court’s authority to appoint a guardian under MCL 712A.19c(2), applies only to cases in which parental rights to the child were terminated, and MCL 712A.19a(7)(c) establishes a separate process for appointing a guardian before parental rights have been terminated. The fact that MCL 712A.19c(2) refers neither to MCL 722.954a nor to “relatives” bolsters the conclusion that the preference for placement with relatives created in MCL 722.954a does not apply outside the period for determining a child’s initial placement immediately after removal. 

2. MCL 712A.19c(2) provides that at a review hearing for a child who remains in placement after parental rights were terminated, the trial court may appoint a guardian if it determines that doing so is in the child’s best interests. Because MCL 712A.19c(2) does not direct a court to apply certain factors or otherwise limit a court’s method for determining the child’s best interests, a trial court has discretion to determine the best method for analyzing the child’s best interests by considering the circumstances relevant to the particular case. While the Adoption Code factors set forth in MCL 710.22(g) provide a useful list of considerations that may be relevant to a guardianship decision, neither the language of MCL 712A.19c(2) nor the similarities between a guardianship and an adoption requires application of the Adoption Code factors to all guardianship petitions. Depending on the circumstances, a case may more reasonably lend itself to application of the Child Custody Act factors, some combination of the Adoption Code and Child Custody Act factors, or a unique set of factors developed by the trial court for purposes of a particular case. 

3. The trial court did not abuse its discretion by applying the best-interest factors from the Child Custody Act rather than those set forth in the Adoption Code to decide Scribner’s petition for a guardianship under MCL 712A.19c. The Child Custody Act factors incorporate a comparative analysis, which was a logical method for determining which of the two placement options was in the children’s best interests. The court did not clearly err in its factual findings regarding these factors or in its conclusion that a guardianship with Scribner was not in the children’s best interests under MCL 722.19c(2). Because the Court of Appeals erroneously concluded that a preference for placement with relatives existed under MCL 712.19c(2) and substituted its judgment for the trial courts’ on questions of fact regarding the children’s best interests, the Court of Appeals judgment was reversed and the case remanded to that Court for consideration of Scribner’s appeal of the MCI Superintendent’s denial of consent to adopt the children.