In re Williams

Decision Date18 May 2018
Docket NumberCalendar No. 3,Docket No. 155994
Citation501 Mich. 289,915 N.W.2d 328
Parties IN RE WILLIAMS, Minors.
CourtMichigan Supreme Court

Eric J. Smith, Prosecuting Attorney, Joshua D. Abbott, Chief Appellate Attorney, and John Ange and Emil Semaan, Assistant Prosecuting Attorneys, for the Department of Health and Human Services.

Vivek S. Sankaran for Jack G. Williams.

Rosette, LLP (by Tanya Gibbs ), amici curiae, for the American Indian Law Section of the State Bar of Michigan.

Kathryn E. Fort, Neoshia Roemer, and Elizabeth Eggert, amici curiae, for the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

BEFORE THE ENTIRE BENCH

McCormack, J.

At issue is the ability of the parent of an Indian child to withdraw his consent to the termination of his parental rights for the purpose of adoption before a final order of adoption has entered. Typically, a termination of parental rights becomes final and irrevocable when a court enters the termination order. The Legislature carved out an exception to this general rule, however, for the parents of Indian children who voluntarily release their parental rights or consent to termination of those rights under the Michigan Indian Family Preservation Act (MIFPA), MCL 712B.1 et seq . MIFPA, like its federal progenitor, the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), 25 USC 1901 et seq ., was enacted to "[p]rotect the best interests of Indian children and promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families." MCL 712B.5(a). The protections in both acts aim to address the historical injustice caused by the removal of Indian children from their families and tribes. ICWA sets a floor, establishing the minimum national standards that must be met before an Indian child may be removed from his or her family in the context of child protective proceedings. 25 USC 1902. MIFPA similarly provides special protections when an Indian child is involved in certain proceedings in Michigan courts. Sometimes the protections afforded under MIFPA are greater than those provided under ICWA, as with the issue we consider today: when may the parent of an Indian child withdraw consent to the termination of parental rights.

Jack Williams, a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians (Sault Tribe), has two children, both of whom are eligible for tribal membership and are Indian children as defined in MIFPA. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) instituted child protective proceedings against Williams, but before the trial court terminated Williams's parental rights to the children, he released those rights under §§ 28 and 29 of the Michigan Adoption Code, MCL 710.28 and MCL 710.29. DHHS did not object, and the court accepted his release.

Before the adoptions of his children were finalized, Williams filed a notice in the trial court to withdraw his consent to the termination of his parental rights, citing MIFPA's withdrawal provision, MCL 712B.13(3). But the trial court denied his request because he had released his children to DHHS rather than to a specific adoptive parent. The Court of Appeals affirmed, but for different reasons.

Williams believes the plain language of MCL 712B.13(3) entitled him to withdraw his consent because the trial court had not yet entered a final order of adoption for his children. We agree.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Williams's children were first removed from his care and placed in foster care in 2012, and DHHS eventually filed a petition to terminate Williams's parental rights. Before the termination hearing, however, Williams consented to the termination of his parental rights by executing releases under §§ 28 and 29 of the Adoption Code. Williams signed State Court Administrative Office (SCAO) forms releasing his parental rights to both children "for the purpose of adoption" and accompanying statements of his intent to sign for both children a "Release of the Child for Purposes of Adoption." DHHS did not object.

As acknowledged by Williams, a referee had advised him that there was no guarantee that the minor children would be adopted by their foster parents. The referee accepted Williams's releases, referred the case to an adoption agency, and entered standard orders terminating Williams's parental rights based on the releases and accompanying statements.1 The children's foster parents then petitioned to adopt the children. But the Sault Tribe intervened and objected to the adoption under ICWA and MIFPA, which require that proper notice of child custody proceedings be given to the child's tribe, enable tribes to intervene in such proceedings, and allow tribes to object to an adoption.

As a result, the trial court denied the foster parents' adoption petition and placed the children with new foster parents. That same month, after having learned that the original foster parents' petition to adopt the children had been denied, Williams filed a request to withdraw his consent to the termination of his parental rights under MCL 712B.13(3) of MIFPA.

The trial court denied Williams's request, holding that Williams was not entitled to withdraw his release once the court had entered the order terminating his parental rights because Williams had released his children to DHHS rather than to a specific adoptive parent. The Court of Appeals affirmed, but for different reasons. It held that Williams could not withdraw his release because he had not executed a separate consent under MCL 712B.13(1) and, because MCL 712B.15 of MIFPA applies when a release is executed under §§ 28 and 29 of the Adoption Code during a child protective proceeding brought under MCL 712A.2(b), MCL 712B.15"does not address or provide for withdrawal of the release." In re Williams , 320 Mich. App. 88, 120-121, 902 N.W.2d 901 (2017).2 This Court granted leave to appeal to address whether, under MIFPA, Williams was entitled "to withdraw his consent to the termination of his parental rights for the purpose of adoption at any time before entry of a final order of adoption. MCL 712B.13(3)." In re Williams , 501 Mich. 870, 870-871, 901 N.W.2d 856 (2017).

II. LEGAL BACKGROUND
A. STANDARD OF REVIEW

We review de novo the interpretation and application of statutes. In re Sanders , 495 Mich. 394, 404, 852 N.W.2d 524 (2014). That means we review these questions independently, with no required deference to the trial court. If statutory language is unambiguous, we enforce it as written.

Fluor Enterprises, Inc v. Dep't of Treasury , 477 Mich. 170, 174, 730 N.W.2d 722 (2007).

B. STATUTORY BACKGROUND OF ICWA AND MIFPA

Congress enacted ICWA in part because "an alarmingly high percentage of Indian families are broken up by the removal, often unwarranted, of their children from them by nontribal public and private agencies...." 25 USC 1901. ICWA's purpose is "to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families," 25 USC 1902, and "to protect and preserve Indian families, tribes, and tribal culture," In re England , 314 Mich. App. 245, 250-251, 887 N.W.2d 10 (2016).

ICWA's provisions accomplish these objectives by, for example, requiring notice to the child's parents or Indian custodian, and the Indian child's tribe of the start of an involuntary child custody proceeding involving an Indian child. 25 USC 1912(a). ICWA also imposes heightened evidentiary and procedural burdens on the state to sustain the termination of parental rights, such as qualified expert witness testimony and proof beyond a reasonable doubt. See 25 USC 1912(f).

In 2012, the Legislature adopted MIFPA to establish state law standards for child welfare and adoption proceedings involving Indian children. 2012 PA 565. Some of these standards provide greater protections for Indian families than those provided by ICWA. The goal of MIFPA is explicit: to require courts to "[p]rotect the best interests of Indian children and promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families," MCL 712B.5(a), and to "[e]nsure that the [DHHS] uses practices, in accordance with [ICWA], this chapter, and other applicable law, that are designed to prevent the voluntary or involuntary out-of-home care placement of Indian children," MCL 712B.5(b). One example of a protection that MIFPA provides to the parents of an Indian child that ICWA does not is the opportunity for parents who consent to the termination of their parental rights for purposes of adoption to withdraw that consent at any time before entry of a final order of adoption. MCL 712B.13(3). MCL 712B.13 provides, in relevant part:

(1) ... [I]f a parent consents to adoptive placement or the termination of his or her parental rights for the express purpose of adoption by executing a release under sections 28 and 29 of [the Adoption Code], or consent under sections 43 and 44 of [the Adoption Code], the following requirements must be met:
* * *
(3) If the placement is for purposes of adoption, a consent under subsection (1) of the Indian child's parent must be executed in conjunction with either a consent to adopt, as required by sections 43 and 44 of [the Adoption Code], or a release, as required by sections 28 and 29 of [the Adoption Code]. A parent who executes a consent under this section may withdraw his or her consent at any time before entry of a final order of adoption by filing a written demand requesting the return of the Indian child. Once a demand is filed with the court, the court shall order the return of the Indian child. Withdrawal of consent under this section constitutes a withdrawal of a release executed under sections 28 and 29 of [the Adoption Code] or a consent to adopt executed under sections 43 and 44 of [the Adoption Code]. [Emphasis added.]

ICWA, by contrast, allows for withdrawal of consent "at any time prior to the entry of a final decree of termination or adoption, as the case may be...." 25 USC 1913(c) ; In re Kiogima , 189 Mich. App. 6, 13, 472 N.W.2d 13 (1991).

This is our first opportunity to consider whether the withdrawal provision of MCL 712B.13(3)...

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2 cases
  • In re Beers
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Michigan — District of US
    • 11 septembre 2018
    ...MIFPA to establish state law standards for child welfare and adoption proceedings involving Indian children." In re Williams , 501 Mich. 289, 298, 915 N.W.2d 328 (2018). MIFPA was designed to protect the best interests of Indian children, to promote the security and stability of Indian trib......
  • In re Peterson
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Michigan — District of US
    • 9 novembre 2021
    ... ... Indian Child Welfare Act and the Michigan Indian Family ... Preservation Act, MCL 712B.1 et seq., both provide ... protections aimed "to address the historical injustice ... caused by the removal of Indian children from their families ... and tribes." In re Williams, 501 Mich. 289, ... 294; 915 N.W.2d 328 (2018). As our Supreme Court has ... explained: ... [The Indian Child Welfare Act] sets a floor, establishing the ... minimum national standards that must be met before an Indian ... child may be removed from his or her family in ... ...
1 books & journal articles
  • Review of the Year 2019 in Family Law: Case Digests
    • United States
    • ABA General Library Family Law Quarterly No. 53-4, January 2020
    • 1 janvier 2020
    ...electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. Michigan. In re Williams , 915 N.W.2d 328 (Mich. 2018). This case is about child custody and child welfare. A child whose father was a member of an Indian tribe was placed into a fos......

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