In re Indiana M., No. 2018-187-Appeal.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Rhode Island
Writing for the CourtChief Justice Suttell, for the Court.
Citation230 A.3d 577
Parties IN RE INDIANA M.
Decision Date26 June 2020
Docket NumberNo. 2018-187-Appeal.,16-345-1

230 A.3d 577

IN RE INDIANA M.

No. 2018-187-Appeal.
16-345-1

Supreme Court of Rhode Island.

June 26, 2020


Chief Justice Suttell, for the Court.

Svetoslava Petrova (Petrova or mother) appeals from a Family Court order denying,

230 A.3d 580

without prejudice, Petrova's motion to intervene, as well as her motion to vacate or, in the alternative, to revoke a guardianship regarding her daughter, Indiana. For the reasons set forth herein, we affirm the order of the Family Court.

I

Facts and Travel

For reasons that will become apparent in this opinion, there has never been an evidentiary hearing in this matter. Thus, the "facts" set forth herein are largely based upon the representations of counsel; an affidavit of Erwin Siregar, an attorney in Indonesia retained by the family of the child's father; and the pleadings filed by the Department of Children, Youth, and Families in conjunction with a related neglect petition. We recount the history of this case simply to provide some context for the issues presented on appeal, bearing in mind that none of the facts have been established through court findings.

Fortunately, the most significant matters are essentially uncontested. Indiana was born to Petrova on the island of Bali in Indonesia on October 11, 2012. Petrova is a citizen of Bulgaria who now lives in that country. The child's biological father is Eric Millan (Millan or father). He is a United States citizen, and he left Indonesia "shortly after the birth or prior to the birth[,]" according to mother's attorney. The child lived with mother for the first three years of the child's life, until October 2015, when mother appears to have suffered a severe mental-health episode, causing her to leave her daughter with a daycare provider for approximately eight days.1 During this period, father was contacted and traveled to Indonesia with his mother and brother to take physical custody of Indiana.

Upon their return to the United States, father, who was either unwilling or unable to care for the child, voluntarily placed her with Justin Millan (Justin) and Jora Ehrlich (Jora)2 in Rhode Island. In February 2016, they contacted DCYF. DCYF filed a petition on March 17, 2016, alleging that Indiana had been neglected by both parents. The Family Court granted temporary custody to DCYF, and DCYF placed the child with father. It is apparent, however, that the child continued to reside with Justin and Jora. In June 2016, DCYF reported to the court that it was actively working with father toward reunification and that, if mother was "able to come to the USA, DCYF [would] case plan with her as well." The neglect petition was then continued until September 6, 2016, for trial or disposition.

On that date, a guardianship petition on behalf of Justin and Jora was filed under the provisions of G.L. 1956 § 40-11-12. The petition was signed by father, signifying his consent to the guardianship. Father also appeared in court with counsel to satisfy the hearing justice that he was freely, willfully, and knowingly consenting to the guardianship. The petition was continued until October 14, 2016, at which time Justin and Jora testified that the child had been living with them since October 2015. They further testified that they understood their responsibilities as guardians

230 A.3d 581

and that one or both of the child's parents could petition the court to terminate the guardianship. Indiana's guardian ad litem recommended that the guardianship be granted as being in the best interest of the child. Finally, the hearing justice reviewed the home study prepared by DCYF, specifically noting that Justin and Jora "support[ed] ongoing connections with the birth and extended family." The hearing justice granted the guardianship petition and closed the neglect petition. An order appointing Justin and Jora as guardians of Indiana entered on November 9, 2016.

Several months later, on September 11, 2017, mother filed a "motion to vacate, otherwise grant relief, or in the alternative, to revoke guardianship[.]" She argued that the Family Court proceedings had disregarded the Family Court Rules of Domestic Relations Procedure and violated her Fourteenth Amendment due process rights. Mother asserted that the Family Court lacked the authority to grant the guardianship because she had not been a party to the proceedings and she had not received notice thereof. Mother also contended that the court had violated § 40-11-12 by failing to obtain her written consent to the guardianship. On November 4, 2017, the court entertained arguments regarding mother's motion. Mother was not present, but was represented by counsel.

At the outset of the November 4, 2017 hearing, the hearing justice stated, "I do have the original affidavit filed by DCYF seeking removal of the child in * * * March of 2016. It indicates [that on] February 15 of 2016, the DCYF hotline received a call that the mother of Indiana * * * had abandoned her daughter at a day care for eight days in Bulgaria [sic ]." The hearing justice continued to describe the statements within the affidavit, including that father went to "Bulgaria"3 on October 15, 2015, to retrieve Indiana, that mother was detained at the airport for "exhibiting bizarre and dangerous behavior[,]" and that police found human waste in mother's home. The hearing justice also stated that the affidavit asserted that father had substance-abuse and mental-health issues and that, at one point, he "wanted to bring the child back to Bulgaria to live with mother[.]"

The hearing justice inquired why mother had waited two years to come forward, to which mother's counsel responded that he was pressing a motion to intervene.4 Father's counsel stated that "[i]t's father's belief that wholeheartedly this child is where she belongs." The hearing justice stated that the motion to vacate the guardianship was the only matter before her, and that its determination would be based on the best interests of the child and whether there was a significant change in circumstances such that mother was "fit and able to take care of the child[,]" which was mother's burden to prove. Petrova argued that, because she had not been a party to the proceedings, the guardianship was "void and illegal." The hearing justice continued the hearing until January 22, 2018, so that Julie Emmer, the DCYF

230 A.3d 582

social caseworker previously involved with the child, could be present in court.

On that date, the hearing on Petrova's motion to vacate the guardianship resumed. Through counsel, mother represented that she had "tried on at least five occasions * * * going back to 2015" to come to the United States, but she had been unable to obtain a temporary visa. She argued that the guardianship was void because her due process rights had been violated, she had not been properly served, and her consent to the guardianship should have been required.

When asked by the hearing justice about Emmer's communication with mother, Emmer stated that she communicated with mother "quite regularly via e-mail and phone[,]" and that mother "was very aware of the guardianship. * * * I read it to her on the phone. I mean, she was very aware of the guardianship. She knew the date."5 Emmer also referenced an article in a Bali newspaper which described mother "leaving Indiana at the day care for eight days" as well as the fact that, "when the police went into the home, there was feces everywhere. The home was deplorable. There was broken glass and artwork." She added that mother had admitted to these things, explaining that mother had been in a "physically abusive relationship," "was not emotionally well," and had "essentially blacked out for a period of time[.]" Emmer stated that she had "actively case planned" with mother.

The hearing justice denied mother's motion to vacate the guardianship, noting that the guardianship petition had been granted based upon father's representation that he was the only parent who had physical placement of the child in the United States. She further concluded that leaving the guardianship in place was in the best interest of the child. An order entered on March 28, 2018, denying mother's motion and directing that the guardianship "remain in full force and effect until a significant change in circumstances is demonstrated." Mother filed a notice of appeal on May 18, 2018.6

II

Standard of Review

This Court employs an abuse-of-discretion standard when reviewing the rulings on motions before the Family Court because "it is the trial justice who is in the best position to determine what factors may be relevant on a case-by-case basis, and his or her discretion in this regard should not be unduly constrained." McDonough v. McDonough , 962 A.2d 47, 52 (R.I. 2009) (brackets omitted) (quoting Dupré v. Dupré , 857 A.2d 242, 257 (R.I. 2004) ). As always, we review questions of law, including those involving statutory interpretation, de novo . In re Toryn C. , 982 A.2d 592, 594 (R.I. 2009).

230 A.3d 583

III

Discussion

On appeal, mother argues that her due process rights were...

To continue reading

Request your trial
2 practice notes
  • In re Manuel P., No. 2019-452-Appeal.
    • United States
    • Rhode Island Supreme Court
    • 17 Junio 2021
    ...simply because they have not been model parents or have lost temporary custody of their child to the [s]tate.’ " In re Indiana M. , 230 A.3d 577, 583 (R.I. 2020) (quoting Santosky v. Kramer , 455 U.S. 745, 753, 102 S.Ct. 1388, 71 L.Ed.2d 599 (1982) ); see Troxel v. Granville , 530 U.S.......
  • In re Jae'La G., 2021-23-Appeal.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Rhode Island
    • 17 Junio 2022
    ...they have not been model parents or have lost temporary custody of their child to the [s]tate." Id. (quoting In re Indiana M., 230 A.3d 577, 583 (R.I. 2020)). The fundamental right of parents, however, is "not absolute[.]" Id. (quoting In re Indiana M., 230 A.3d at 586). The ......
2 cases
  • In re Manuel P., No. 2019-452-Appeal.
    • United States
    • Rhode Island Supreme Court
    • 17 Junio 2021
    ...simply because they have not been model parents or have lost temporary custody of their child to the [s]tate.’ " In re Indiana M. , 230 A.3d 577, 583 (R.I. 2020) (quoting Santosky v. Kramer , 455 U.S. 745, 753, 102 S.Ct. 1388, 71 L.Ed.2d 599 (1982) ); see Troxel v. Granville , 530 U.S.......
  • In re Jae'La G., 2021-23-Appeal.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Rhode Island
    • 17 Junio 2022
    ...they have not been model parents or have lost temporary custody of their child to the [s]tate." Id. (quoting In re Indiana M., 230 A.3d 577, 583 (R.I. 2020)). The fundamental right of parents, however, is "not absolute[.]" Id. (quoting In re Indiana M., 230 A.3d at 586). The ......

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT