By Teresa Griffin, Faegre Baker Daniels LLP
On June 11, 2015, the Indiana Supreme Court decided In the Matter of the Adoption of Minor Children: I.B. and W.B.: B.B. v. B.C. and J.L., and Indiana Department of Child Services, 82S05-1502-AD-63, holding that Indiana Code § 31-19-11-1, which bars certain potential adoptees from adopting children because of disqualifying felony convictions, was not unconstitutional as applied.
Maternal grandmother and her fiancé, jointly, petitioned to adopt I.B. and W.B. Paternal grandmother cross-petitioned for adoption. The trial court heard testimony in a two-day contested hearing. At that hearing, the Department of Child Services and Court-appointed Special Advocate recommended adoption by maternal grandmother and fiancé instead of paternal grandmother.
At the hearing, evidence was adduced that both maternal grandmother and fiancé had prior felony convictions from fifteen years or more earlier. Fiancé's prior felony convictions were not disqualifying under adoption statutes. However, maternal grandmother had pleaded guilty to a Class D Felony Neglect of a Dependent, resulting in a two-year suspended sentence for failing to report her ex-husband's molestation of her daughter, the children's mother in this case. DCS and CASA were aware of the convictions, but have no concerns how well either maternal grandmother or fiancé could raise the children. DCS formally waived any disqualifying effect of fiancé's convictions, but maternal grandmother's neglect conviction was disqualifying by statute and could not be waived.
The trial court ultimately granted adoption to maternal grandmother and fiancé and denied paternal grandmother's petition, concluding that it was in the best interest of I.B. and W.B. for maternal grandmother and fiancé to adopt them. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court, holding that the statute disqualifying maternal grandmother as a result of her prior felony conviction was unconstitutional, as applied, amounting to a “irrebuttable presumption” in violation of Due Process and upholding the trial court's determination that the adoption by maternal grandmother and fiancé was in the children's best interests. Paternal grandmother sought transfer, which the Indiana Supreme Court granted.
First, the Indiana Supreme Court reasoned that even if an "irrebuttable presumption" analysis is "still applicable to interests that enjoy constitutionally protected status", as the Court of Appeals concluded, “the Due Process Clause affords only those protections so rigid in the traditions and conscience of our people to be ranked as fundamental.” The Court reasoned that the statute in question “does not target a fundamental right – rather, the complaint is that it lacks a generalized best-interests exception and therefore interferes as-applied with [adoptees’] sibling and family relationship.” Although the children’s best interests are paramount in any adoption, “declaring that the statute's lack of an ad hoc best-interests exception violates Due Process would effectively elevate best interests, and each of its infinite factual variations into constitutional doctrine.” That was a step that the Indiana Supreme Court was unwilling to take.
Secondly, and more fundamentally, the Indiana Supreme Court reasoned that the “‘irrebuttable presumption’ cases must ultimately be analyzed as calling into question, not the adequacy of procedures, but . . . the adequacy of the ‘fit’ between the classification and the policy that the classification serves.” Under that classification analysis, the Indiana Supreme Court held that there is no constitutional defect in barring adoptions by petitioners with felony child neglect convictions. Noting that there is no fundamental right to adopt, because the adoption process depends on so many variables, and that convicted felons are not a protected class, the Supreme Court held that distinguishing between convicted child neglect felons and non-felons is rationally related to the legitimate legislative goal of ensuring that children will not be adopted into a neglectful home.The Indiana Supreme Court vacated the trial court's rulings on the petitions for adoption and remanded to give the trial court the first opportunity to reconsider which adoption petition, if any, was in the children's best interests. Specifically, the Indiana Supreme Court noted that the trial court might consider a guardianship by maternal grandmother and her fiancé, since a joint adoption was statutorily impermissible, but the maternal grandmother's neglect conviction was not a bar to a guardianship.
The Indiana Supreme Court also noted that it may be possible for any disqualifying felony conviction to be expunged and/or converted to a misdemeanor or for maternal grandmother to otherwise seek some form of post-conviction relief, which would potentially requalify her to adopt the children.
Chief Justice Rush delivered the Opinion of the Court in which Justices Dickson, Rucker, David and Massa concurred.
Click here for the full opinion.
This post was written by Teresa Griffin of Faegre Baker Daniels LLP. If you would like to submit content or write an article for the Family Law Section page, please email Rachel Beachy at firstname.lastname@example.org.