An adult sibling has standing to initiate child-protective proceedings against his parents over the care of his minor sister, the Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled in a published and binding decision.
The petitioner in In re F. Nikooyi, Minor (Docket No. 358717) is the respondents’ adult child and the sibling of FN, his younger sister. He filed a petition in the Macomb County Circuit Court alleging the respondents were unfit to raise FN without state supervision. He claimed his upbringing was mentally abusive and dysfunctional, and that court intervention was necessary to save FN from enduring the same. He asked the trial court to order supervision of FN’s psychological development and unspecified “treatment” for the respondents.
The trial court dismissed the petition, holding that the petitioner did not have standing to bring his claim under MCL 712A.11(1).
The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, finding the plain language of the statute did not keep the petitioner from filing a child-protective claim.
“The trial court dismissed the petition with prejudice for lack of standing because petitioner was unable to provide legal support to demonstrate he had standing to initiate child protective proceedings,” the Court of Appeals said. “If the Legislature wanted to restrict who may initiate child protective proceedings, it would have done so statutorily – as it did with termination-of-parental-rights proceedings.”
Judges Kathleen Jansen, David H. Sawyer and Michael J. Riordan were on the panel that issued the opinion.
Sibling Has Standing
On appeal, the petitioner argued he had standing to file the petition because, under the statute, “any person” may initiate child-protective proceedings. He also asserted the trial court abused its discretion by failing to consider the merits of the petition because he provided sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the respondents created an unfit home environment for FN.
The Court of Appeals agreed, finding the trial court erroneously dismissed the petition for lack of standing “and this amounted to error requiring reversal.”
Although the statutes and the court rules that govern the filing of child-protective proceedings do not define “person,” the plain language of these statutes and the court rules “does not restrict who may initiate proceedings or request a preliminary inquiry, and courts may not judicially construe statutory language that is ‘clear and unambiguous,’” the Court of Appeals explained, citing In re Jagers, 224 Mich App 359 (1997).
MCL 712A.11(1) permits a trial court to conduct a preliminary inquiry pursuant to information from “a person” and MCR 3.903(A)(22) defines a petitioner as “the person or agency who requests the court to take action,” the Court of Appeals pointed out. Therefore, “it is clear anyone who complies with MCR 3.961(B)’s petition requirements has standing to initiate child protective proceedings, thereby allowing the trial court to consider the merits of the petition at a preliminary inquiry.”
According to the Court of Appeals, if the Michigan Legislature wanted to restrict who can initiate child-protective proceedings, then it would have done so statutorily, just like it did with termination of parental rights proceedings. “By specifically outlining who may petition for termination of parental rights, the Legislature implicitly prohibited any others from doing so. Conversely, by allowing any ‘person’ to initiate child protective proceedings, the Legislature expressly provided anyone who has knowledge of potential child abuse or neglect with standing to request court action to protect the child. To read the law regarding initiation of child protective proceedings any more restrictively would ignore both the plain language and expansive purpose of the Juvenile Code.”
The Court of Appeals continued by noting that, under the plain language of the statute, the courts have previously held that a prosecutor “assuredly qualifies” as a “person” and can initiate child- protective proceedings. “Similarly, the adult sibling of a minor assuredly qualifies as a person and may initiate proceedings to protect the minor. Consequently, given the plain meaning of MCL 712A.11(1), petitioner had standing to file the petition to initiate child protective proceedings against his parents regarding their care of FN.”
Moreover, the Court of Appeals noted the petition that was filed included all the necessary components: 1) FN’s name, address, and age; 2) the respondent’s names and address; 3) a description of “essential facts” alleging FN was subject to abuse, neglect or an unfit home environment under MCL 712A.2(b)(1) and (2); and 4) a request for supervision of NF’s psychological development and treatment for respondents. “Because petitioner did not request any form of placement for FN or termination of respondents’ parental rights, the trial court had discretion to dismiss the petition after a preliminary inquiry,” the appeals court observed. “The trial court necessarily abused its discretion, however, by erroneously dismissing the petition for lack of standing.”
In conclusion, the Court of Appeals held that the petitioner filed a valid petition to initiate child-protective proceedings, and the trial court was required to consider the merits of the petition and make a ruling regarding how to proceed. “In failing to do so, the trial court’s erroneous dismissal of the petition for lack of standing directly impacted the outcome of the case by eliminating the possibility of further child protective proceedings. Consequently, reversal is warranted for the trial court to consider the petition’s merits and to make a discretionary decision about how to proceed with the petition under MCR 3.962(B).”