Justia Family Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Vermont Supreme Court
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Juvenile N.M. appealed the family division’s order granting the request of the Department for Children and Families (DCF) to place him in an out-of-state secure facility. Juvenile argued he was entitled to an independent, second evidentiary hearing, pursuant to 33 V.S.A. 5291(d), on the question of whether he should be placed in the secure facility. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded section 5291(d) was inapplicable in the post-disposition phase of this case, and therefore denied the request. Insofar as juvenile made no other arguments in support of his appeal, the appeal was dismissed. View "In re N.M., Juvenile" on Justia Law

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In consolidated appeals, a mother challenged decisions by the family division of the superior court denying her motions for an extension of time to file a notice of appeal and to vacate the order terminating her parental rights to K.S., and concluding that K.S. was not an Indian child for purposes of the Indian Child Welfare Act. In March 2018, a relative reported that mother had “tossed” K.S. onto a bed during a family argument and that father had used excessive physical discipline on K.S.’s older brother. K.S. was later found to have a buckle fracture on her wrist, which her parents were unable to explain. The Department for Children and Families (DCF) sought and obtained emergency custody of K.S. and her brother, and filed petitions alleging that they were children in need of care or supervision (CHINS). Mother and father later stipulated to the merits of the CHINS petitions. At the October hearing, mother testified that she understood that she was permanently giving up her parental rights, that her decision was voluntary, and that she believed the decision was in K.S.’s best interests. The court accepted the parties’ stipulations and granted the termination petitions. In December 2019, mother hired a new attorney, who filed a motion for relief from the termination order pursuant to Vermont Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b). Mother alleged that the attorney who represented her at the relinquishment hearing had rendered ineffective assistance, that the underlying facts did not support termination of mother’s parental rights, and that her relinquishment was involuntary because she did not understand the proceedings. The family division denied the motion, finding that mother’s relinquishment was knowing and voluntary and not the result of coercion by DCF or the foster parents. The court further concluded that it was not required to conduct a separate "best interests" analysis when mother voluntarily relinquished her rights, and she failed to establish that her counsel’s performance was ineffective. Mother untimely filed her notice of appeal, and while a decision on the untimely notice was pending, she filed a second motion to vacate the termination order, adding the argument that the court failed to give notice to the Cherokee tribes or to apply the substantive provisions of the Indian Child Welfare Act. The Vermont Supreme Court found no reversible error and affirmed the termination orders. View "In re K.S." on Justia Law

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This case arose out of a wife’s longstanding efforts to collect money owed to her by her ex-husband under a 2013 final divorce order that was reduced to a money judgment in 2018. Husband contended his then-current assets, including a home and tractor, were exempt from collection under 21 V.S.A. 681 because he purchased them with workers’ compensation settlement funds. He argued in the alternative that, with respect to the tractor, that the tractor should be exempt under 12 V.S.A. 2740(19) because it was “reasonably necessary” for his support. Husband further argued that an investment account he held is a Workers’ Compensation Medicare Set-Aside Account (WCMSA) that is also exempt from collection. Finding no reversible error in the trial court judgment, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "Geraw v. Geraw" on Justia Law

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Petitioners T.O. and L.O. were the grandparents of S.O., a child adjudicated as a child in need of care or supervision (CHINS). Petitioners appealed an order of the Human Services Board concluding that the Board lacked jurisdiction to determine whether DCF failed to comply with certain provisions of state and federal law concerning the care of children by relatives. Finding no reversible error, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed the Board’s judgment. View "In re Appeal of T.O. & L.O." on Justia Law

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Father appealed the dismissal of his motion to vacate the family court’s order terminating his parental rights to son C.L.S. In his motion, father argued the termination order had to be set aside under Vermont Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b) because he received ineffective assistance of counsel. The family court determined that it lacked jurisdiction under 33 V.S.A. 5103(d) because father filed the motion after C.L.S. was adopted, and dismissed the motion. After review, the Vermont Supreme Court concluded the family court correctly interpreted section 5103(d), and that its application of the statute did not deprive father of his rights to due process or equal protection. View "In re C.L.S., Juvenile" on Justia Law

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Juvenile S.R. appealed a family division order granting the Department for Children and Families' (DCF) request to place him in a secure out-of-state psychiatric residential treatment facility pursuant to 33 V.S.A. 5926. In November 2019, mother stipulated that S.R. was CHINS. The stipulated merits order indicated that S.R. and mother were homeless, mother needed to undergo a medical procedure that would preclude her from caring for S.R., and S.R. had mental health and behavioral needs that needed continued treatment. The stipulated order included a statement that S.R. did not meet criteria for voluntary or involuntary mental health admission. Mother stipulated that she was unable to meet S.R.’s needs for stability, housing, and mental and behavioral health services. The COVID-19 pandemic struck, delaying court hearings. Over the following months, S.R. moved through a series of ten to twelve placements. The constant changes in placement prevented S.R. from establishing any therapeutic connections with service providers and also inhibited S.R.’s educational progress. S.R. was charged with delinquency several times after he reportedly became abusive during three of his placements. DCF, Mother and S.R.'s guardian ad litem eventually agreed on a placement in Harbor Point, Virginia. S.R. himself objected to placement at Harbor Point, and to any other placement out-of-state, unless a program could be found in New York, where his mother was living at the time of the hearing. The court ultimately granted DCF’s motion for out-of-state placement, finding that there were no equivalent facilities in Vermont, and that placement at Harbor Point was in S.R.’s best interest. On appeal, S.R. argued the court erred in granting the motion for out-of-state placement in the absence of any psychiatric or psychological evaluation supporting a conclusion that psychiatric residential treatment was necessary for him. He contended his placement was akin to the involuntary commitment of an adult, and that involuntary commitment decisions had to be supported by full psychiatric evaluations and expert testimony. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded the order was not supported by sufficient evidence, and reversed. "While we have no doubt that everyone involved in the proceeding below was concerned with S.R.’s best interest and acted in good faith, and it may be that DCF’s position is ultimately adequately supported, the record simply does not contain the sort of expert evidence required to support long-term placement in a locked psychiatric residential treatment facility over S.R.’s objection." View "In re S.R., Juvenile" on Justia Law

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Ian Baron appealed a Vermont magistrate decision declining to register and exercise jurisdiction over his petition to modify a Virginia child-support order. Baron argued that because the requirements of 15B V.S.A. sections 1602 and 1611 were met, the magistrate was required to register and exercise jurisdiction over his petition to modify. To this, the Vermont Supreme Court agreed, and remanded for further proceedings on whether the Virginia child-support order should have been modified. View "Baron v. McGinty" on Justia Law

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Petitioner H.H. appealed a Vermont Human Services Board order upholding the Department for Children and Families’ (DCF’s) substantiation of a report that she placed her daughter at risk of harm from sexual abuse. The Board granted summary judgment to the State, concluding that the stipulated findings in a related child-in-need-of-care-or-supervision (CHINS) proceeding precluded petitioner from contesting her substantiation and resulting placement on the Child Protection Registry. Petitioner argued the Board erred in applying collateral estoppel on the basis of the CHINS adjudication. To this, the Vermont Supreme Court agreed, reversed and remanded for further proceedings. View "In re Appeal of H.H." on Justia Law

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Husband appealed the parties’ final divorce order relating to property division, arguing that the family division erred by: (1) barring him from conducting discovery of a non-party concerning a trust in which wife had an interest; and (2) awarding wife a lump sum as a retroactive temporary spousal award even though wife had neither requested nor been granted temporary spousal maintenance. The Vermont Supreme Court determined: (1) the Wife's interest in the trust was not vested or subject to modification or divestment as long as Wife's father was alive, so Husband was not entitled to discovery relating to the trust; and (2) the lump-sum payment as part of the property division was "well within" the trial court's discretion, and "any error by the court in characterizing the challenged $18,000 lump-sum award as a payment in lieu of a retroactive award of temporary maintenance is harmless." Accordingly, the Court affirmed. View "Noble v. Noble" on Justia Law

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At issue in this case was whether Vermont had to recognize and register an Alabama order granting plaintiff father, W.H., sole physical and legal custody of juvenile M.P., who resided in Vermont and was in the custody of the Vermont Department for Children and Families (DCF) pursuant to a Vermont court order. The family division concluded that Alabama lacked jurisdiction to adjudicate matters related to M.P.’s custody and denied the registration request. On appeal, plaintiff contended Alabama had jurisdiction under the applicable state and federal laws and that Vermont was therefore obligated to recognize and register the Alabama custody order. Finding no reversible error, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "W.H. v. Department for Children and Families" on Justia Law