Articles Posted in Alaska Supreme Court

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The Office of Children’s Services (OCS) took custody of a three-month-old child after he was found outside alone on a cold winter day. The child’s mother had an alcohol abuse problem and had failed repeated attempts at treatment. The father also had problems with alcohol abuse, never completing treatment, and spending much of the relevant time period in jail or on probation. The mother and father had a second child while OCS’s case was pending, and the agency took custody of that child as too. OCS then petitioned to terminate parental rights to both children. The superior court granted OCS’s petition following trial. The parents appealed: the father argued the superior court erred when it found OCS’s proposed expert witness, an experienced attorney and guardian ad litem, qualified to testify about whether the children would likely suffer emotional or physical harm if returned to their parents’ care. The Alaska Supreme Court agreed the record did not support a conclusion that the witness met the heightened standard for expert testimony under the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA); for that reason the Court reversed the termination order and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "Eva H. v. Alaska, Dept. of Health & Social Services, Office of Children's Services" on Justia Law

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The superior court terminated a mother’s and father’s parental rights, finding their two children were in need of aid based on abandonment, incarceration, risk of domestic violence, and substance abuse. The court also determined that the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) had satisfied its duty to make reasonable efforts to reunify the parents and children. The mother and father separately appealed the court’s reasonable-efforts determinations; the mother also appealed the court’s findings that the children were in need of aid based on abandonment and domestic violence. Consolidating the cases, the Alaska Supreme Court found no reversible error, and affirmed the superior court’s decision to terminate the mother’s and father’s parental rights. View "Violet C. v. State, Dept. of Health & Social Services, Office of Children's Services" on Justia Law

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A mother wanted to relocate with her daughter from Alaska to New York. She sought primary custody, alleging that the father’s drinking and busy schedule made him an improper guardian for their two-year-old. The superior court concluded that it was in the child’s best interests to remain in Alaska in her father’s custody. The mother appealed, arguing the superior court erred in its analysis. The Alaska Supreme Court determined the superior court did not properly consider the effect of separating the child from her mother, vacated the custody order and remanded for further analysis. However, the Court affirmed the superior court's decision not to order protective measures to ensure the father's sobriety while caring for the child. View "Saffir v. Wheeler" on Justia Law

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Bill and Clara are the parents of Noah and Olwen, ages 12 and 5 at the time of the termination trial. Noah and Olwen were Indian children within the meaning of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) based on their affiliation with the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island (theTribe). Bill and Clara had a lengthy history of alcohol abuse and domestic violence. Noah and Olwen suffered primarily through neglect and mental injury from exposure to their parents’ conduct. While Bill’s and Clara’s violence was typically directed at each other or other family members, there were reports of alleged physical abuse of Noah. The superior court terminated the parents' rights to their children. The parents appealed, arguing the superior court erred in finding, by clear and convincing evidence, that OCS made active efforts to prevent the breakup of the Indian family. Because the Alaska Supreme Court determined there was insufficient evidence to support an active efforts finding under a clear and convincing evidence standard, it reversed the superior court’s active efforts finding, vacated the termination order, and remanded for further proceedings. View "Bill S. v. State, Dept. of Health & Social Services, Office of Children's Services" on Justia Law

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An Alaskan superior court denied a father’s motion to modify custody because it did not believe it had subject matter jurisdiction under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) to modify an Oregon custody order. The father appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court, arguing arguing that the superior court erred in failing to consider the controlling statute that governs the court’s jurisdiction to modify an out-of-state order. The father also appeals an order imposing sanctions, including costs and attorney’s fees. The Supreme Court agreed that the controlling statute, AS 25.30.320, allowed the superior court to modify an out-of-state custody order if it “determines that neither the child, nor a parent, nor a person acting as a parent presently resides in the other state.” It did not appear from the record that the superior court considered this subsection of the statute. The Court therefore vacated the superior court’s order denying the motion to modify for lack of jurisdiction. And because the sanctions order was premised on the court’s jurisdictional ruling, it too was vacated. View "Fox v. Grace" on Justia Law

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A divorced mother and father shared joint legal custody of their son. The mother moved for a modification of legal custody, alleging that the father was failing to cooperate on important issues such as counseling, the selection of a middle school, and medical care; she also moved for a declaration that the parents did not have to mediate their custody disputes before filing a modification motion, as required by their custody agreement. The superior court denied the request for declaratory relief and denied the motion for modification of custody without a hearing. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court agreed with the superior court that the motion for declaratory relief was properly denied, as neither party was seeking to enforce the mediation provision and it presented no actual controversy. However, the Court concluded the mother’s allegations in her motion to modify legal custody made a prima facie showing that the parents’ lack of cooperation was serious enough to negatively affect the child’s well-being, and that the mother was therefore entitled to an evidentiary hearing on modification. The trial court’s order was therefore reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Edith A. v. Jonah A." on Justia Law

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A mother appealed an order modifying custody, which awarded sole legal and physical custody of her three children to the father and limited her to supervised visitation pending the children’s full engagement in therapy. The mother argued the father failed to demonstrate a change in circumstances that would justify a modification of custody and that the resulting modification was not in the children’s best interests. After review of the trial court record, the Alaska Supreme Court concluded the superior court did not abuse its discretion when it determined that the mother’s interference with the children’s therapy amounted to a change in circumstances and that the children’s best interests were served by an award of sole legal and physical custody to the father while therapy took hold. View "Georgette S.B. v. Scott B." on Justia Law

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Linda and David Fletcher were married in 1990. They had three children, one of whom was a minor at the time of their 2015 divorce trial. Linda twice petitioned for domestic violence protective orders against David during the marriage, first in 2001 and again in 2010. David moved out of the marital home and into his truck around the time Linda filed the second petition in February 2010. Although David came to the house to pick up his mail, see the children, and do repair and improvement projects, he did not live or sleep in the house again. During the marriage Linda worked in the legal administrative field, and David worked as a union electrical contractor and an electrician. Linda handled the parties’ finances. They ceased maintaining a joint bank account a couple of years into the marriage, and in 2001 separately filed bankruptcy declarations “due to debts arising from David’s business.” Linda paid the family’s monthly expenses and invoiced David each month for his share of the costs to feed, clothe, and house the family. She also paid and invoiced David for his expenses, including car insurance. Linda testified that in 2010, after David moved out of the marital home, they agreed he would pay $1,200 per month for his share of the family expenses. David made these payments sporadically and in installments until 2012, when he instead “made multiple direct and indirect payments to Linda and/or to/for the children.” The parties agreed the home was marital property. David was diagnosed with type II diabetes in 1992; he suffered two heart attacks and a stroke. He had surgery related to the first heart attack. David took between 17 and 20 medications daily. Until 2007 the family had health insurance through Linda’s employer. Linda then switched the children’s healthcare and dropped David from her employer’s insurance plan. David had access to health insurance through his union, but he could not rely on coverage because he was not always able to maintain the required minimum number of hours worked each week. According to one of David’s attorneys, David would qualify for Medicare in January 2017, two years after trial. The primary issues in this divorce case were whether the superior court abused its discretion by determining the parties’ separation date and erred by dividing the marital estate 50/50. The Alaska Supreme Court answered “no” to the former and “yes” to the latter. The case was remanded to the trial court for further proceedings. View "Fletcher v. Fletcher" on Justia Law

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The superior court terminated a father’s parental rights to his son, finding that the child was in need of aid because of abandonment, neglect, and the father’s incarceration and that the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) had satisfied its statutory obligation to make reasonable efforts to reunify parent and child. The father appealed, arguing these findings were unsupported by the evidence. The Alaska Supreme Court agreed with the father: the record showed he initiated efforts to visit the child, who was already in OCS custody, as soon as he learned of his possible paternity; that during the father’s subsequent incarceration he had visitation as often as OCS was able to provide it; and that OCS never created a case plan to direct the father’s efforts toward reunification. The Supreme Court concluded it was clear error to find that the child was in need of aid and that OCS made reasonable efforts toward reunification, and reversed the termination decision. View "Duke S. v. Alaska, Dept. of Health & Social Services, Office of Children's Services" on Justia Law

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Two young siblings were removed from their biological parents’ home and placed with a foster family. The maternal biological grandparents remained involved in the children’s lives and sought to adopt them, as did the foster parents. The grandparents and foster parents entered into a formal settlement agreement, which was incorporated into the ultimate adoption decree. Under the agreement the grandparents waived their right to pursue adoption in exchange for several specific guarantees and assurances, including that the foster parents would comply with a visitation agreement and facilitate a relationship between the children and the grandparents. When the grandparents were later denied post-adoption visitation, they moved to enforce the agreement and then to vacate the adoption. The superior court vacated the adoption after finding that the foster parents made material misrepresentations throughout the pre-adoption process, including specific misrepresentations about their intent to comply with the visitation and relationship agreement. The superior court placed the children back in state custody to determine a suitable adoptive placement. The foster parents appealed, arguing that the grandparents’ sole remedy was enforcement of the visitation agreement. The Alaska Supreme Court found that an adoption could be vacated due to material misrepresentations, and because the adoptive parents did not challenge the court’s factual finding that they never intended to comply with the settlement agreement’s visitation and relationship provisions, the Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s decision vacating the adoption. View "In Re Adoption of E.H. and J.H." on Justia Law