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A Better Partnership
May 29, 2014

COA finds that challenge to court's jurisdiction over minor children was untimely where it was not raised until after entry of an order terminating parental rights

In In re Wangler, the Court of Appeals examined the validity of a trial court’s exercise of jurisdiction over three minor children. Following an order terminating the respondent’s parental rights to the children, the respondent appealed the trial court’s order and challenged the trial court’s exercise of jurisdiction over the minor children. Holding that the respondent’s challenge was an impermissible collateral attack on the trial court’s exercise of jurisdiction, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s order terminating the respondent’s parental rights.
Following a complaint alleging that the respondent had used heroin, the trial court placed the children under supervision of the Department of Human Services (DHS) and ordered the parties to undergo mediation. As part of the mediation agreement, the respondent agreed to plead to certain allegations in the petition; however, the actual adjudication was to be held in abeyance for six months while the respondent participated in drug treatment services. After the respondent failed to appear at several dispositional hearings, on January 31, 2013, the trial court exercised formal jurisdiction over the children pursuant to the mediation agreement and authorized the petitioner to petition for termination of the respondent’s parental rights. On February 4, 2013, an order following dispositional review was entered. The petitioner subsequently filed a petition seeking termination of the respondent’s parental rights, and a hearing was held. On July 16, 2013, the trial court entered an order terminating the respondent’s parental rights, and the respondent appealed.
At issue on appeal was whether the respondent’s rights were terminated at an initial disposition such that the respondent’s attack on the trial court’s jurisdiction was a direct appeal or whether there was an order of disposition that respondent should have appealed to properly challenge jurisdiction. According to Michigan law, a respondent may not challenge a court’s adjudication, or exercise of jurisdiction, following an order terminating parental rights after the issuance of a dispositional order. Applying this standard, the Court of Appeals held that the order on February 4, 2013, was appealable as of right because it formally exercised jurisdiction over the children and placed them under DHS supervision. Thus, in order to properly challenge jurisdiction, the respondent was required to raise any jurisdictional challenges in an appeal of the February 4th order. However, because the respondent waited until a termination petition was filed, a termination hearing was held, and her parental rights were terminated, her appeal challenging the trial court’s jurisdiction was an impermissible collateral attack.
By contrast, the dissent argued that the trial court never obtained proper jurisdiction over the children because the court bypassed due process protections by using the mediation agreement as a substitute for an adjudicative trial and a knowing and voluntary plea. Additionally, the dissent also argued that termination was based on impermissible hearsay evidence in violation of the rule requiring legally admissible evidence to support grounds for terminating parental rights. Finally, the dissent noted that termination did occur at the initial disposition, and thus, the respondent’s appeal did not qualify as a collateral attack.

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