Wednesday, May 18th, 2016
Custody battle goes to Ohio Supreme Court
By Claire Giesige
CELINA - An emotional custody battle over a local 21-month-old child has gone to the Ohio Supreme Court.
The case involves local residents and certified foster family Brian and Kelly Anderson. The child involved was placed with the Andersons 13 days after birth as a foster child, Brian Anderson said. He explained they were initially told to expect a short-term placement, but after a placement with a relative did not materialize, the child remained in their care.
Over the course of the next year, the Andersons developed a "strong, supportive relationship" with the birth mother of the child, Maddy. The birth mother eventually made it known she wanted the child to be adopted by the Andersons, Brian Anderson said.
On March 31, the Andersons petitioned to adopt Maddy in Mercer County Common Pleas Probate Court after the mother on March 28 had applied with the court to place her daughter, who had been removed from the Anderson home and placed with an out-of-state relative, for adoption. The court approved the adoption application.
However, the Allen County Court of Common Pleas, Juvenile Division, on April 1 ruled that Allen County Children Services had authority over the child and Maddy was to stay with the family member pending further decisions, according to a document filed in the Ohio Supreme Court, which was asked to settle the jurisdiction issue.
The filing further states the Mercer County court's jurisdiction was "unauthorized by law." It stated the agency became involved in August 2014, when it filed a complaint alleging dependency and abuse. On Oct. 8, 2014, the complaint was upheld and the court had exercised jurisdiction since, the filing stated. It also noted "three separate motions relating to the custody of (Maddy)" are pending in Allen County.
The Andersons continue to seek Maddy's return. The Andersons pointed to a district court of appeals case in Ohio (Hitchcock v. Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas, Probate Division) in which the court ruled that a juvenile court's continuing jurisdiction did not prevent adoption proceedings in probate court. Anderson added that the birth mother's parental rights have not been terminated.
"She has the right to place her child for adoption and that's what she chose to do," Anderson said. "That has been ignored and that's what's led us to the place we're at."
Family members miss the child and worry about how she's being affected by the move after having lived with the family until she was 19 months old, Anderson said.
"It has been hard on all of us, for my wife and myself and our kids. But the thing that bothers me the most is as hard as it's been for us, I can't imagine what it's like for Maddy. She hasn't seen us now for 60 days," he said. "My thought initially when she was removed was I thought every day might get a little easier. But I was absolutely wrong … every day seems like it gets harder and harder because it's been longer and longer since we've seen her."
The custody battle has sparked a local movement in support of the Andersons. "Bring Maddy Home" signs are on display at various businesses and organizations. Dinners, prayer gatherings and marches have been organized, as well as a social media campaign.
"The outpouring of community support has been 100 times more than we ever could have imagined. I think it just points out the benefits of living in a small tight-knit community like we do," Anderson said. "It's left us pretty much awe-struck at the support and backing, not just from Celina but Mercer County."
However, Allen County Children Services Director Cynthia Scanland said several staff members have received threatening phone calls. She also reported vandalism to employees' homes. The acts came within days after staff members' names and home addresses were posted on numerous social media sites, she said. The actions are being investigated by the Putnam County Sheriff's office.
"It's just unfortunate when our staff members are doing their jobs and doing what the court has ordered us to do," she said. "There are two sides to this. There's focus on the Mercer County court order, but there's also an Allen County court order."
She explained her agency is following orders issued by the Allen County court, "which has exercised jurisdiction of this case from the beginning of our agency's involvement."
"The order issued from the Mercer County Probate Court is in direct conflict with the order issued from Allen County Juvenile Court," she said.
She believes misinformation has inspired menacing voicemails, which she said staff members continue to receive.
Anderson said he and his family do not encourage such acts and added he has a "hard time believing it."
"Everybody knows that while we are fighting the system so to speak, our fight is not through threats and vandalism. It's through banding together as a community," he said. "I don't think anyone in any way shape or form associated with this has performed acts of vandalism or threats."
Scanland would not discuss the case's specifics due to confidentiality laws but said in general the Ohio Revised Code and Administrative Code require agencies to consider placement options in a set order.
"It is a standard requirement and procedure to place a child with an approved relative when reunification with a parent is not a viable option," she said. "Relative placement options are explored very early on as a type of concurrent or supplemental planning but are not primary until all efforts of reunification with a birth parent have been exhausted."
Two writs of prohibition are pending in the Ohio Supreme Court: one filed by the agency seeking to restrain the Mercer court's jurisdiction and one by the Andersons against the Allen County court, involving termination of parental rights/minor child adoption. The Mercer County court must respond by Tuesday. The Allen County court was ordered to respond by noon today.
The Andersons hope for a speedy resolution.
"We're dealing with a 21-month-old child who doesn't understand what's going on. … All she understands is she hasn't seen us in 60 days," Anderson said. "We want a resolution as soon as possible to get her home as soon as possible."