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In re Child of Philip S.

Supreme Court of Maine

January 2, 2020

IN RE CHILD OF PHILIP S. [1]

          Argued: November 6, 2019

          James M. Dunleavy, Esq. (orally), Currier, Trask & Dunleavy P.A., Presque Isle, for appellants paternal uncle and aunt

          Aaron M. Frey, Attorney General, and Hunter C. Umphrey, Asst. Atty. Gen. (orally), Office of the Attorney General, Augusta, for appellee Department of Health and Human Services

          Panel: SAUFLEY, C.J., and ALEXANDER, MEAD, GORMAN, JABAR, and HUMPHREY, JJ. [*]

          SAUFLEY, C.J.

         [¶1] The paternal uncle and aunt of the child of Philip S. appeal from a judgment of the District Court (Caribou, Soucy, J.) dismissing for lack of standing their family matter complaint seeking a determination of de facto parentage. See 19-A M.R.S. § 1891 (2018). They contend that the court erred in concluding, based on its findings of fact, that they lacked standing. We affirm the judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         [¶2] Because the uncle and aunt sought a determination of de facto parentage while a child protection matter was pending with respect to the child, we begin with the child protection history. The facts are drawn from the procedural record and from the courts supported findings of fact reached after an evidentiary hearing.

         [¶3] In the spring of 2015, when the child was less than six months old, he was first placed in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services in a non-kinship foster placement. As to the father, the court found jeopardy based on violence between the parents and the effects on the child of the fathers substance abuse. By mid-2016, the child was placed with his father, who was by then separated from the mother and residing with his supportive parents, and the case was closed.

         [¶4] The uncle and aunt moved to Maine in April and May 2016 when the child was transitioning back into his fathers care. The uncle and aunt are both licensed mental health treatment providers. At first, they resided with the father and the child at the childs grandparents home. They moved into their own home after a couple of months, however, and in July, the father and the child moved in with them. The uncle and aunt wanted to assist the father with his recovery and help him become independent.

         [¶5] Beginning in the fall of 2016, while the father was living with the uncle and aunt, he began to see the childs mother again. The two fell back into fighting with each other and using drugs, and the fathers mental health suffered as he withdrew from family interaction and left the house for extended periods of time. The uncle and aunt increasingly provided care for the child when the father was absent. The father accepted their help, but he was resentful of what he perceived as an intrusion on his parenting of the child. The father had remained in contact with the non-kinship foster mother, with whom the child had been placed in 2015, and he repeatedly turned to her as a resource to care for the child overnight.

         [¶6] In August 2017, while the child was with him, the father used drugs with the mother and a friend. Neither the father nor the child returned to the uncle and aunts home that night. The following morning, the father-still intoxicated and in a desperate state-went to the police station with the child. He asked that the child be placed in the former foster mothers care if he were arrested.

         [¶7] The Department opened a new child protection matter and placed the child in the uncle and aunts home as a kinship placement, on the condition that the father not return to the household. The uncle and aunt provided care for the child until, in March 2018, they left the child with the father at the grandparents home without authorized supervision[2] and the child attempted to ingest some of the fathers prescription medications. As a result of the uncle and aunts continued failure to acknowledge that leaving the child with his father without supervision created a risk to the child, the Department removed the child from the uncle and aunts care and placed him with the same foster parents who had cared for him during his previous removal from his parents custody.

         [¶8] In June 2018, the uncle and aunt moved to intervene in the child protection matter, for placement of the child with them, and to establish de facto parentage. One month later, they commenced the separate family matter complaint at issue here, seeking a determination of de facto parentage. They attached a joint affidavit summarizing their care for the child during his life.

         [¶9] The Department objected to the motions filed in the child protection matter and moved to dismiss the family matter complaint based on a lack of standing, filing the affidavit of a Department caseworker. The court scheduled a trial in both matters, and the Department moved to consolidate the matters and to seal the family matter-a motion that the court later granted.

         [¶10] Over the course of four trial dates in October and December 2018, and January 2019, the court held the trial on de facto parentage standing and the motions pending in the ...


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