State ex.rel A.G, 20210914-CA

CourtCourt of Appeals of Utah
Writing for the CourtHARRIS, JUDGE
Citation2022 UT App 126
PartiesS.A., Appellant, v. State of Utah, Appellee. STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF A.G., J.K., AND D.K., PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.
Docket Number20210914-CA
Decision Date10 November 2022

2022 UT App 126

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF A.G., J.K., AND D.K., PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

S.A., Appellant,
v.

State of Utah, Appellee.

No. 20210914-CA

Court of Appeals of Utah

November 10, 2022


Third District Juvenile Court, Salt Lake Department The Honorable Mark W. May No. 1189413

Julie J. Nelson and Mark R. Anderson, Attorneys for Appellant

Sean D. Reyes, Carol L.C. Verdoia, and John M. Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

Judge Ryan M. Harris authored this Opinion, in which Judge Gregory K. Orme and Senior Judge Kate Appleby concurred. [1]

HARRIS, JUDGE

¶1 This case requires us to determine whether, under the language of the governing statute, parents who intend to relinquish their parental rights in connection with a child welfare proceeding may effectuate that relinquishment under oath orally

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in court, without ever signing anything, or whether they must at some point sign a document effectuating that relinquishment.

¶2 In this case, S.A. (Mother)-while under oath-told the juvenile court that she wanted to relinquish her parental rights to A.G., J.K., and D.K. (collectively, the Children), and that she was doing so knowingly and voluntarily. Relying on those sworn representations, the court accepted Mother's relinquishment, and later entered an order terminating Mother's parental rights. But Mother did not sign any document indicating that she was relinquishing her rights, and on that basis she challenged her relinquishment as incomplete and invalid. The juvenile court rejected that challenge, interpreting the governing statute as allowing relinquishment, under certain circumstances, without a signed document from the parent.

¶3 Mother now appeals that determination, asserting that the juvenile court's interpretation of the governing statute was incorrect. We agree with Mother that the statute requires the relinquishing parent to-at some point-sign a document effectuating the relinquishment. Accordingly, we reverse the termination order and remand this case for further proceedings.

BACKGROUND

¶4 In 2020, while the Children were living with Mother, the Division of Child and Family Services received a referral indicating that the Children might be endangered in Mother's care. Based on, among other things, items that were found at the home after a search, the State filed a petition seeking to take custody of the Children, and later filed a petition seeking to terminate Mother's parental rights.

¶5 Eventually, the juvenile court set a date for the termination trial, and the parties stipulated that the trial would occur virtually, using a videoconference platform. When the day for trial arrived,

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the parties appeared on the virtual platform and informed the court that a trial would not be necessary because "a resolution had been reached" in which Mother "was going to voluntarily relinquish her parental rights." The court's clerk then administered an oath to Mother, and Mother's attorney (Counsel) began to ask Mother questions intended to shed light on whether Mother truly intended to knowingly and voluntarily relinquish her parental rights. The context of some of these questions indicates that the parties had planned for Mother to sign a document effectuating her relinquishment. For instance, Counsel asked Mother to confirm that they had "had the chance to talk about" the document Mother was "intending to sign today," and Mother indicated that they had.

¶6 After a few preliminary questions, however, Mother referred to the possibility that there had been an "agreement" for an "open adoption." At that point, Counsel asked for a recess to confer with Mother off the record in a separate "chatroom," which request the court granted.

¶7 A few minutes later, Mother and Counsel returned to the virtual courtroom, and the court went back on the record. Counsel resumed asking Mother questions, and Mother stated that she intended to relinquish her parental rights to the Children, that no one was forcing her to do so, and that she understood that her relinquishment would be "irrevocable and [could not] be changed upon signature." The court then followed up with some questions of its own, asking Mother whether she was "doing this of her own free will," and the following exchange occurred:

Mother: Of course, of my own free will. I agree to relinquish my rights as an open adoption would occur; if that makes sense
The Court: No. There's no condition of an open adoption.
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Mother: So is this not going to be an open adoption?
Counsel: [Mother], we've discussed this.
The Court: There is no requirement for an open adoption. That is entirely up to the foster parents.
Mother: Okay.
The Court: You understand that?
Mother: Yeah.
The Court: And you're still willing to proceed today?
Mother: Yeah.

¶8 The court then solicited input from the State and the guardian ad litem (the GAL) as to whether Mother's relinquishment would be in the best interest of the Children. They each agreed that it would. At the conclusion of the hearing, the court stated that it would "accept [Mother's] voluntary relinquishment of parental rights," and asked Counsel to prepare an order to that effect. Mother did not sign any document during the hearing while in the (virtual) presence of the court; apparently the intent was for Mother to affix her signature to a relinquishment document at some point after the hearing.

¶9 Later that same day, however, Counsel filed a motion- apparently stipulated by all parties-for an expedited in-person hearing, explaining that he had "just been informed that we are unable to obtain [Mother's] signature" on the relinquishment document that the parties had envisioned her signing. After reviewing the motion, the court agreed to hold a hearing two

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days later, but ordered that it be held virtually rather than in-person.

¶10 At the hearing, Counsel appeared on Mother's behalf and asked the court to set aside the relinquishment and reschedule the termination trial. Counsel informed the court that Mother was "now claiming that she was lied to in order to sign or to agree" to relinquishment, and was asserting that "an open adoption had been promised to her," a promise that Counsel stated "did not occur through" him. On this basis, Mother was refusing to sign any document effectuating her relinquishment.

¶11 The court noted that Mother and Counsel had taken a break during the previous hearing to discuss the open adoption issue, and that, after the break, the court had asked Mother questions "specifically on that very issue"; the court also recalled that Mother indicated, in response, that she understood "there was no agreement whatsoever" regarding an open adoption. The court concluded that, for these reasons, it "[didn't] find that [Mother's] position is credible." It also noted that, under its interpretation of the governing statute, it "[didn't] need . . . [Mother] to sign anything for [a] voluntar[y] relinquishment." After hearing briefly from the State and the GAL, the court denied Mother's motion to set aside the relinquishment, again noting that Mother had "voluntarily relinquished her parental rights" and that it "[didn't] need her signature." The court later signed a written order denying Mother's motion, as well as an order terminating Mother's parental rights to the Children.

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶12 Mother now appeals the order terminating her parental rights, asserting that the termination was invalid because she never signed any relinquishment document. In particular, she contends that the governing statute "requires a signature when a parent wishes to voluntarily relinquish their parental rights." The

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question Mother poses is, at root, one of statutory interpretation, and in that context we review a trial court's decisions "for correctness, affording no deference to [its] legal conclusions." See In re Childers-Gray, 2021 UT 13, ¶ 14, 487 P.3d 96.[2]

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ANALYSIS

¶13 We begin our analysis by setting forth the first four subsections of the governing statute:

(1) The individual consenting to termination of parental rights or voluntarily relinquishing parental rights shall sign or confirm the consent or relinquishment under oath before:
(a) a judge of any court that has jurisdiction over proceedings for termination of parental rights in this state or any other state, or a public officer appointed by that court for the purpose of taking consents or relinquishments; or
(b)except as provided in Subsection (2), any person authorized to take consents or relinquishments under Subsections 78B-6-124(1) and (2).
(2) Only the juvenile court is authorized to take consents or relinquishments from a parent who has any child who is in the custody of a state agency or who has a child who is otherwise under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court.
(3)The court, appointed officer, or other authorized person shall certify to the best of that person's information and belief that the individual executing the consent or relinquishment has read and understands the consent or relinquishment and has signed the consent or relinquishment freely and voluntarily.
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(4) A voluntary relinquishment or consent for termination of parental rights is effective when the voluntary relinquishment or consent is signed and may not be revoked.

Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-307 (LexisNexis Supp. 2022) (emphases added). Thus, to summarize, all relinquishments regarding children "in the custody of a state agency" or "under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court" must involve a juvenile court judge. See id. § 80-4-307(2). A parent who is relinquishing rights to any such children must "sign or confirm the consent or relinquishment under oath before" that judge. Id. § 80-4-307(1). The judge, in turn, must "certify to the...

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