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An American Fork woman who contends she was shut out of the opportunity to adopt her grandson from foster care took her fight to the Utah Supreme Court last week.
"I was never allowed even a hearing," said Seana Collins. She tears up when she thinks about the boy, now 5, whom she hasn't seen for more than a year after his adoption by another family. "My younger children feel like they've lost a sibling."
But the state says Collins didn't prove in time she could safely take care of the boy. Allowing the boy's troubled mother to stay in her home at first, which Collins says she did at a social worker's urging, also hurt her claim.
"From the very beginning she did not qualify," guardian ad-litem Martha Pierce, an attorney assigned by the state to look out for the boy's interests, told the Utah Supreme Court. "She was reminded of [the deadlines] several times. She didn't preserve her claim."
Those deadlines are important because moving from family to family is traumatic for a child, according to the state.
"We object to the notion this is somehow the state vs. the grandparent and we're somehow trying to run roughshod over their rights," said Assistant Attorney General John Peterson.
Collins, who was surrounded by family at the hearing, said she couldn't initially afford an attorney and claimed Division of Child and Family Services workers misled her about the process.
"I didn't even know the steps," she said. "I didn't know what I needed to do" to adopt the boy she had helped rear since his birth.
Utah Supreme Court justices asked whether an apparent filing mistake should prevent Collins from being considered to adopt him.
For a juvenile court judge to be "putting blinders on and ignoring a competing adoption petition, particularly when it's a relative … how can that be in the best interests of the child?" asked Justice Thomas Lee.
Collins' attorney, Sara Pfrommer, argued a grandparent's "right to be considered" should be "absolute."
But Justice Christine Durham asked how the court should weigh Collins' rights in considering the best interests of the child.
"Having a conversation with a DCFS worker does not protect your legal rights," Durham said, even if the result was "tragic."
Collins' daughter was 14 when she became pregnant. Given her daughter's age, Collins became something of a surrogate mother to the boy and five of her eight children still living at home thought of the baby as a sibling.
But, in June 2010, Collins' daughter began getting into trouble with alcohol, drugs and stealing. Worried about her then 3-year-old grandson, Collins called police, and DCFS got involved.
Collins said she told social workers from the beginning that she wanted custody of her grandson, but they told her to focus on helping the daughter so she could keep the boy. The 18-year-old girl had nowhere else to go for help or a place to live, so Collins agreed.
But keeping her troubled daughter at home also meant the home wasn't a safe place for the boy, according to the state. When a family placement fell through, the boy was put in foster care.
"I just remember my heart sinking," Collins said during an interview at her home, "but I thought it would just be a short time, that [my daughter] would get better. At the time, I didn't understand drug addiction. She's the only one of my children who ever had this problem."
Collins visited with her grandson as he was shifted to various foster homes, but her daughter continued on a downward spiral. In April 2011, the boy was placed with a family who wanted to adopt him. Within months, Collins' visitation rights ended.
Pierce said visitation was "terminated because she couldn't behave herself. She had said [to the foster mother] in the presence of the child, 'I don't like how things are going. I'm going to fight this.' The child reacted to this."
Collins disputes Pierce's account.
Collins had already filed paperwork in the case, but since her daughter was still trying to keep her maternal rights, she sought visitation, partial custody or adoption. When the papers were filed, a clerk didn't ask for an extra $4 filing fee required for adoptions, said her attorney, Ron Wilkinson. That meant her petition wasn't filed as an adoption request.
After discovering the error, Collins worked to complete a background check and home screening. With her daughter out of the house, she said a DCFS worker told her she had passed.
In November 2011, her daughter's parental rights were terminated. But the worker who had screened Collins wasn't at a hearing the following month. The foster parents' adoption request went through.
Meanwhile, the adoptive family has grown to love the boy, said their attorney, Charisma Buck. "They love the child just as if he were their own."
The Utah Supreme Court took the case under consideration. No immediate deadline was set for a decision.
"No matter how [this case] is resolved," Pfrommer said, "there will be heartbreak."
Tribune reporter Brooke Adams contributed to this story.