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Seana Collins lost a legal battle for her grandson when he was adopted by a family in 2011. But the Utah Supreme Court says the American Fork woman never got a fair shake in court.
In a ruling issued Tuesday, the court determined that a juvenile court erred when it allowed foster parents to adopt Collins' now 5-year-old grandson. The adoption happened in 2011 after concerns surfaced about the boy's well-being.
The decision sends the case back to juvenile court for a hearing during which Collins will get to argue that giving her custody of the boy will be in his best interest.
Collins' attorney Ronald Wilkinson praised the decision, saying it sets a precedent for prioritizing children's best interests.
"I'm thrilled that Utah law has been significantly clarified and that kids are coming first instead of efficiency," he said.
Sara Pfrommer, another attorney representing Collins, said the decision means everyone who has an interest in adopting a child now has the right to be heard in court.
Assistant Attorney General John Peterson, who represented the state in the case, pointed out that the ruling doesn't automatically change who has custody of the boy. Rather, Collins will simply have a chance to argue her case. Peterson also said that while he could understand the need to balance due process, the decision was disappointing.
"In a way I'm disappointed in that I think it's going to create a lot of expensive and ugly litigation," Peterson said.
The case began in 2010, when the Division of Child and Family Services removed the boy from his home over concerns that his mother who was 14 when she became pregnant had neglected him. During oral arguments last year, attorneys said Collins served as a kind of surrogate mother to the boy and effectively raised him as a sibling of her five children who still lived at home.
According to court documents, DCFS initially wanted to reunite the boy with his mother an approach Collins supported but eventually gave up when she failed to progress. The boy was subsequently placed in a foster home.
In mid 2011, Collins began trying to get custody of the boy. At Wilkinson's behest, Collins filed a motion asking the court to either grant her custody or visitation rights, or to allow her to adopt the boy if that became an option.
But according to Wilkinson, the state was uncooperative. Collins was barred from attending some hearings and, according to court documents, her visitation rights were terminated "because the visits had become confusing" to the boy.
The juvenile court eventually gave priority to an adoption request from the foster parents. On Dec. 23, 2011, they won the battle and were granted the right to adopt. The supreme court decision argues that the juvenile court never considered the merits of Collins' case.
"It was absolutely heart wrenching," Wilkinson said of the outcome.
The supreme court decision states that the juvenile court should hold hearings to consider the merits of competing adoption requests, like those of Collins and the foster parents.
"In order to properly determine the best interests of children placed for adoption," the decision states, "courts must hold a hearing and consider the merits of competing petitions."
In an email Wednesday, Collins said the boy "deserves to be with his blood family who have always wanted him and love him very, very much."
A new hearing in the case has not yet been scheduled.