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In re Adoption of SSO

Supreme Court of Wyoming

December 5, 2017

IN THE MATTER OF THE ADOPTION OF SSO:
v.
STATE OF WYOMING, DEPARTMENT OF FAMILY SERVICES, and FH and RH, Appellees (Petitioners). RB, Appellant (Respondent),

         Appeal from the District Court of Sheridan County The Honorable John G. Fenn, Judge

          Representing Appellant: Timothy C. Cotton, CottonLegal, Casper Wyoming.

          Representing Appellee State of Wyoming, Department of Family Services: Peter K. Michael, Wyoming Attorney General; Misha Westby, Deputy Attorney General; Jill E. Kucera, Senior Assistant Attorney General. Argument by Ms. Kucera.

          Representing Appellees FH and RH: Anthony T. Wendtland and Debra J. Wendtland, Wendtland & Wendtland, LLP, Sheridan. Wyoming. Argument by Mr. Wendtland.

          Before BURKE, C.J., and HILL, DAVIS, FOX, and KAUTZ, JJ.

          FOX, Justice.

         [¶1] RB, the biological father of SSO, entered an appearance to contest adoption proceedings and SSO's foster parents, the petitioners for adoption, moved to strike his entry of appearance and objection to the adoption. The adoption court determined that RB's parental rights had previously been terminated, granted the foster parents' motion to strike, and granted their petition for adoption. RB appeals and we affirm.

         ISSUE

         [¶2] The issue is whether RB has standing to challenge the adoption of SSO.

         FACTS

         [¶3] During her short life, SSO has been the subject of three independent proceedings and two previous appeals to this Court: the Juvenile Case (Fourth Judicial District Juvenile Case No. JV-2013-9, In Interest of SO, 2016 WY 99, 382 P.3d 51 (Wyo. 2016) (affirming juvenile court's order denying maternal grandparents' motion seeking to transfer placement of SSO from foster parents to grandparents)), the Termination of Parental Rights Case (the Termination Case) (Fourth Judicial District Case No. CV-2014-324, In re SSO, 2015 WY 124, 357 P.3d 754 (Wyo. 2015) (affirming order terminating parental rights of Mother)), and the Adoption Case (Fourth Judicial District Case No. AD-2015-18, petition for writ of review denied, S-16-0087, April 26, 2016). The Adoption Case is the subject of this appeal. The underlying facts are set forth in In Interest of SO, 2016 WY 99, ¶¶ 3-9, 382 P.3d at 52-53, and will be only briefly summarized here.

         [¶4] SSO has been in foster care since February 7, 2013, three days after her birth. On September 17, 2014, after efforts of the Department of Family Services (the Department) to reunify SSO with Mother failed, the Department filed its petition seeking to terminate the parental rights of Mother and then unknown father, initiating the Termination Case. Mother had previously identified four potential fathers, all of whom were genetically tested and determined not to be the father of SSO. The Department personally served Mother its petition to terminate and served the unknown father by publication. A trial was scheduled for February 10-13, 2015. Shortly before trial, Mother identified a fifth potential father, RB, appellant here. He was not genetically tested prior to the trial. On March 5, 2015, and while the court's decision on the termination was pending, the Department provided notice to the court that RB had been determined to be the biological father of SSO. On March 13, 2015, the district court entered an order terminating both Mother's and "Unknown Father's" parental rights. Mother appealed the order terminating parental rights, but RB did not. (In fact, RB relinquished his parental rights to SSO "specifically for the minor child to be adopted by [her maternal grandparents]" on August 1, 2015, and he filed notice of that relinquishment in the Juvenile Case.) This Court affirmed the termination of parental rights order on Mother's appeal. In re SSO, 2015 WY 124, 357 P.3d 754.

         [¶5] Shortly thereafter, on November 30, 2015, SSO's foster parents, FH and RH, filed a petition for decree of adoption, initiating the Adoption Case. The maternal grandparents attempted to intervene in the Adoption Case, but on March 11, 2016, their motion was denied. The grandparents filed a petition for writ of review with this Court, which was denied on April 26, 2016. On April 28, 2016, RB entered an appearance in the Adoption Case and objected to the foster parents' adoption of SSO. The foster parents filed a motion to strike RB's entry of appearance and objection to the adoption, arguing that RB's parental rights had been terminated and, therefore, he had no standing to object to the adoption. In response, RB argued that he had not properly been served in the Termination Case, that his rights had, therefore, not effectively been terminated, and, consequently, that he had standing to appear in the Adoption Case. On May 23, 2016, the district court stayed the adoption proceedings for 120 days to allow RB to challenge the termination order "in the proper forum" and to give him "time to pursue other judicial remedies that may be available."

         [¶6] RB did not challenge the Order Terminating Parental Rights during the 120-day stay. Accordingly, the district court determined that his rights had been terminated and he had no standing to enter an appearance in the Adoption Case or to challenge the adoption, and it granted the foster parents' motion to strike his entry of appearance and objection to adoption. The district court entered a Final Decree of Adoption, granting SSO's foster parents' petition. RB filed separate appeals, of the order granting the foster ...


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