A trial court correctly ruled that the superintendent of the Michigan Children’s Institute “arbitrarily and capriciously” denied consent for the petitioner to adopt her niece, the Michigan Court of Appeals has decided.
In In re RC, Minor (Docket No. 343736), the biological parents’ rights had been terminated and the child, RC, was committed to the Michigan Children’s Institute (MCI) for adoption planning. RC was placed in the care of the petitioner, Lucinda Carrier, who had obtained a foster care license and was the child’s paternal aunt. Thereafter, the petitioner sought to legally adopt RC.
The MCI superintendent denied the petitioner’s request to adopt RC. The denial was based on several factors, including: 1) the petitioner’s perceived lack of honesty and credibility; 2) the fact that the petitioner had been substantiated for neglect and placed on the Central Registry; and 3) the petitioner’s foster-care license had been revoked because of licensing violations.
At a hearing held pursuant to MCL 710.45 (known as a §45 hearing), the MCI superintendent testified that the main reason for the denial was her concern about how RC reacted after being removed from the petitioner’s care.
The petitioner appealed the denial. After a five-day hearing, the Wayne County Circuit Court ruled the MCI superintendent’s decision to deny consent to adopt was arbitrary and capricious.
The Court of Appeals affirmed in 2-1 decision. Judges Michael J. Kelly and Patrick M. Meter joined the majority opinion. Judge Colleen A. O’Brien dissented.
Arbitrary & Capricious Decision
According to the Court of Appeals majority, much of the information on which the MCI superintendent relied was “false and misleading” and the superintendent “should have been aware” the information was inaccurate.
In particular, the Court of Appeals pointed out the MCI superintendent sent an email to the Foster Care Review Board on April 12, 2017, in which she stated that she “will be denying her [the petitioner’s] consent to adopt [RC].”
Regarding this email, the trial court had observed: “This unequivocal statement was made before any complete review of the circumstances was done and before [the petitioner] had an opportunity to respond to all the faulty claims that had been made regarding her. As can be seen in the discussion herein various claims regarding [the petitioner] and her actions which were used to establish her as a careless and irresponsible caregiver who could not be trusted to keep [RC] safe were flat out wrong. And yet denial of consent was [the superintendent’s] position, and once she reached this conclusion her actions appear to be more of an effort to muster support for this decision than to fairly evaluate [the petitioner’s] request for consent to adopt.”
“In other words,” the Court of Appeals said, “the trial court found that the superintendent made the decision to deny consent on April 12, 2017, and that, after that point in time, her actions were taken to support that decision.”
Looking at the underlying record, the Court of Appeals concluded the trial court’s findings were “amply supported” by the testimony presented and the documents submitted.
“The record reflects that the superintendent first stated that she would deny consent to adopt before April 10, 2017 …. At that point in time, a full investigation had not been conducted and the superintendent admitted such an investigation would typically take three months. Subsequently, on April 12, 2017, the superintendent unequivocally stated that she intended to deny … consent to adopt. She made that statement to the Foster Care Review Board which relied on it and denied [the petitioner] an appeal of the removal decision.”
The Court of Appeals flatly refuted the MCI superintendent’s assertion that she had not yet made up her mind at that point in time. “[Her] future actions belie that statement,” the appellate court said. “Primarily, when [the petitioner] successfully obtained a stay of the removal in circuit court, the MCI and [the adoption agency] had a phone conference before the follow-up court hearing, during which it was stated that MCI’s ‘position’ was consent had been ‘verbally’ denied and that the Foster Care Review Board should not hear the case. When the circuit court continued the stay and ordered the Foster Care Review Board to hear the case, the MCI e-mailed [the adoption agency] with a request that they ‘complete the adoption denial request and route to [an MCI consultant] prior to [the superintendent’s] return so that she can make a decision prior to the next hearing or shortly after that?’”
The adoption agency caseworker’s response to this request was that an additional licensing investigation had been requested, but she would write the denial earlier at the MCI’s request, the Court of Appeals observed. At the subsequent §45 hearing, “she stated that it was her own decision to deny, but the trial court was not required to credit that decision, especially in light of the fact that [the adoption agency caseworker] repeatedly testified (and stated in writing) that she knew the superintendent’s decision was going to be to deny consent,” the appellate court said.
“Given the … facts, it is unsurprising that the recommendation to deny was submitted before the Foster Care Review Board actually reviewed the removal decision,” the Court of Appeals stated. “Furthermore, … it is equally unsurprising that the Foster Care Review Board stated in its opinion that the superintendent had made a decision to deny consent to adopt … and that the decision would be finalized in June 2017.
Meanwhile, while the denial of consent was finalized in September 2017, the record showed the MCI superintendent already knew her decision would be challenged at a §45 hearing, the Court of Appeals noted. “In fact, she testified that she wanted an independent person to observe one of the visits so as to have an objective witness to testify. She also personally observed one of the visits. The court found that her reliance on RC’s reluctance to engage [the petitioner] was not, in fact, a genuine reason for the removal decision.”
Based on the foregoing, the trial court “did not commit clear legal error in its application of the standard of review” and “did not clearly err by finding that the superintendent’s reasons for denying consent to adopt were arbitrary and capricious,” the Court of Appeals concluded.
Dissent: Law Misapplied
In her dissent, Judge O’Brien said this case was about whether the trial court applied the proper standard when reviewing the MCI superintendent’s decision – not about whether the superintendent properly denied the petitioner’s consent to adopt.
“The trial court’s review of the superintendent’s decision was limited by MCL 710.45, under which ‘a family court’s review of the superintendent’s decision to withhold consent to adopt a state ward is limited to determining whether the adoption petitioner has established clear and convincing evidence that the MCI superintendent’s withholding of consent was arbitrary and capricious,’” the judge wrote. “Because I would conclude that the trial court misapplied MCL 710.45, I would reverse the trial court and reinstate the superintendent’s decision to deny petitioner consent to adopt RC.”
Judge O’Brien concluded, “In sum, I believe that the trial court misapplied the law; it was required to address the superintendent’s reasons for withholding consent to adopt, and it failed to do so. Because I would hold that this failure amounted to clear legal error warranting reversal, I respectfully dissent.”