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In re Williams, Minors

Supreme Court of Michigan

May 18, 2018

In re WILLIAMS, Minors.

          Argued March 6, 2018

          Bridget M. McCormack Stephen J. Markman Brian K. Zahra David F. Viviano Richard H. Bernstein Kurtis T. Wilder Elizabeth T. Clement

         SYLLABUS

         In 2012, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) initiated a child protective proceeding in the Macomb Circuit Court, Family Division, under MCL 712A.2(b), requesting that the court take jurisdiction of two-year-old JJW and newborn ELW after ELW tested positive for controlled substances at birth. The minor children were removed from the biological parents' care and placed with foster parents. Both children were eligible for membership in the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. In 2015, the biological parents released their rights to the minor children under MCL 710.28 and MCL 710.29 of the Michigan Adoption Code, MCL 710.21 et seq. A referee accepted the parents' releases and entered standard orders terminating the biological parents' rights. In the Oakland Circuit Court, Family Division, the children's foster parents petitioned to adopt the children, the Sault Tribe objected, and Karen D. McDonald, J., denied the foster parents' petition. The court committed the children to the Michigan Children's Institute (MCI) for further case planning. Respondent-father Jack G. Williams then filed a notice in the Macomb Circuit Court to withdraw his prior consent to the termination of his parental rights and demanded the return of the children under MCL 712B.13(3) of the Michigan Indian Family Preservation Act (MIFPA), MCL 712B.1 et seq. The court denied Williams's withdrawal request, reasoning that MCL 712B.13(3) did not apply because Williams had not voluntarily consented to placement for purposes of adoption under MCL 712B.13(3) but instead had released his parental rights to the minor children to DHHS under MCL 710.28. The foster parents appealed the Oakland Circuit Court order denying their adoption petition (Docket No. 334095), and Williams appealed by delayed leave granted the Macomb Circuit Court order denying his motion to withdraw his consent to the termination of his parental rights and for return of the children (Docket No. 335932). The Court of Appeals consolidated the cases. In a per curiam opinion, the Court of Appeals, Sawyer, P.J., and Saad and Riordan, JJ., vacated the Oakland Circuit Court order denying the foster parents' petition for adoption and remanded the adoption case for further proceedings; the Court of Appeals affirmed the Macomb Circuit Court's denial of Williams's motion to withdraw his consent to the termination of his parental rights and to have his children returned to his custody. 320 Mich.App. 88 (2017). Williams sought leave to appeal, and the Michigan Supreme Court granted the application. 501 Mich. 870 (2017).

         In a unanimous opinion by Justice McCormack, the Supreme Court held:

         MIFPA was enacted to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families. One way the act accomplishes this goal is by permitting the parents of Indian children who voluntarily consent to the termination of their parental rights for the purpose of adoption to withdraw that consent at any time before an adoption is finalized. Williams voluntarily consented to termination of his parental rights under MCL 712B.13(1), the court accepted his consent, and he properly requested that his consent be withdrawn under MCL 712B.13(3). Because the adoption of his children had not been finalized, MIFPA required that Williams's request to withdraw his consent be granted.

         1. Among other things, MCL 712B.13(3) of MIFPA permits the parents of Indian children who voluntarily consent to the termination of their parental rights for the purpose of adoption to withdraw that consent at any time before an adoption is finalized. Williams voluntarily consented to the termination of his parental rights under MCL 712B.13(1) by executing a release under MCL 710.28 and MCL 710.29 of the Adoption Code. The court accepted Williams's consent, and Williams later properly requested that his consent be withdrawn under MCL 712B.13(3). That Williams released his children to DHHS rather than to a specific adoptive parent was not relevant to his ability to withdraw his consent; the Court of Appeals correctly concluded that a specific adoptive placement was not required under the plain language of MCL 712B.13(1).

         2. The Court of Appeals concluded that Williams was still not entitled to withdraw his consent under MCL 712B.13 for two other reasons: because the record did not establish that Williams executed a consent under MCL 712B.13(1), and because he was a participant in a child protective proceeding otherwise governed by MCL 712B.15, which, the Court of Appeals concluded, does not address or provide for withdrawal of a release. The Court of Appeals erred by concluding that Williams was not entitled to withdraw his consent under MCL 712B.13(3) because he had failed to execute a consent under MCL 712B.13(1). According to the Court of Appeals, MCL 712B.13(3) required Williams to execute a consent under MCL 712B.13(1) in conjunction with signing a second form-either a consent to adopt (MCL 710.43 and MCL 710.44 of the Adoption Code) or a consent to release (MCL 710.28 and MCL 710.29 of the Adoption Code). Contrary to the Court of Appeals' conclusion, the phrase "in conjunction with" as used in MCL 712B.13(3) does not require the signing of two separate forms. A consent under MCL 712B.13(1) also acts as the release required by MCL 710.28 and MCL 710.29 of the Adoption Code. A release under MCL 710.28 and MCL 710.29 of the Adoption Code and a consent under MCL 712B.13(1) and (2) of MIFPA are conjoined in the execution of the Supreme Court Administrative Office form titled "Release of Indian Child by Parent." Although Williams signed a different form given to him by the referee in this case that contained fewer protections than he was entitled to, that fact could not be used against him to deprive him of those protections.

         3. The Court of Appeals also erred by holding that as a participant in a child protective proceeding otherwise governed by the protections of MCL 712B.15, Williams was unable to benefit from the withdrawal provision of MCL 712B.13. Both MCL 712B.13 and MCL 712B.15 of MIFPA applied at different times in Williams's case. MCL 712B.15 applies when an Indian child is the subject of a child protective proceeding and a parent does not provide consent to the termination of his or her parental rights for the express purpose of adoption. MCL 712B.13 applies when a parent consents to adoptive placement or the termination of his or her parental rights for the express purpose of adoption. Thus, when the state seeks to terminate the rights of a parent of an Indian child and the parent does not consent, the parent can count on the protections of MCL 712B.15. But if a parent of an Indian child willingly consents to the termination of his or her parental rights for the purpose of adoption, the parent can then rely on the added protections of MCL 712B.13, which does not exclude from its coverage parents who are participants in involuntary child protective proceedings when they provide consent as described in MCL 712B.13(1). When the court accepted Williams's release, and the proceedings went from adversarial to cooperative, the protections of MCL 712B.15 did not apply. They will apply once again after Williams withdraws his consent under MCL 712B.13(3). What matters is whether the parent consents to the termination of his or her parental rights by executing a release of those rights under the Adoption Code. That's exactly what Williams did. And if the court accepts that consent, the parent has the right to withdraw it at any time before entry of a final order of adoption by filing a written demand requesting the return of the child under MCL 712B.13(3). By consenting to the termination of his or her parental rights under MCL 712B.13, a parent of an Indian child reduces the evidentiary and procedural burdens on the state. He or she is thereby entitled to the statute's benefit-the right to withdraw consent under MCL 712B.13(3). The statute contemplates a parent doing exactly what Williams did here. Although the state had begun termination proceedings against him and although he had a right to all of the protections of MCL 712B.15, he voluntarily released his rights under MCL 712B.13(1). DHHS did not object to his consent, and the court accepted it. He was therefore entitled to withdraw his consent at any time before entry of a final order of adoption.

         4. Williams, however, was not entitled to the return of his children to his custody. Instead of returning to Williams's custody, the children had to be returned to the position they were in before Williams consented to the termination of his parental rights, and DHHS could decide to pursue termination of Williams's parental rights under MCL 712B.15(5). Consequently, the children were to remain in foster care, and the procedures and protections of MCL 712B.15 would govern the future resolution of the matter.

         Reversed and remanded.

          BEFORE THE ENTIRE BENCH

          OPINION

          McCormack, J.

         At issue is the ability of the parent of an Indian child to withdraw his consent to the termination of his parental rights for the purpose of adoption before a final order of adoption has entered. Typically, a termination of parental rights becomes final and irrevocable when a court enters the termination order. The Legislature carved out an exception to this general rule, however, for the parents of Indian children who voluntarily release their parental rights or consent to termination of those rights under the Michigan Indian Family Preservation Act (MIFPA), MCL 712B.1 et seq. MIFPA, like its federal progenitor, the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), 25 USC 1901 et seq., was enacted to "[p]rotect the best interests of Indian children and promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families." MCL 712B.5(a). The protections in both acts aim to address the historical injustice caused by the removal of Indian children from their families and tribes. ICWA sets a floor, establishing the minimum national standards that must be met before an Indian child may be removed from his or her family in the context of child protective proceedings. 25 USC 1902. MIFPA similarly provides special protections when an Indian child is involved in certain proceedings in Michigan courts. Sometimes the protections afforded under MIFPA are greater than those provided under ICWA, as with the issue we consider today: when may the parent of an Indian child withdraw consent to the termination of parental rights.

         Jack Williams, a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians (Sault Tribe), has two children, both of whom are eligible for tribal membership and are Indian children as defined in MIFPA. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) instituted child protective proceedings against Williams, but before the trial court terminated Williams's parental rights to the children, he released those rights under §§ 28 and 29 of the Michigan Adoption Code, MCL 710.28 and MCL 710.29. DHHS did not object, and the court accepted his release.

         Before the adoptions of his children were finalized, Williams filed a notice in the trial court to withdraw his consent to the termination of his parental rights, citing MIFPA's withdrawal provision, MCL 712B.13(3). But the trial court denied his request because he had released his children to DHHS rather than to a specific adoptive parent. The Court of Appeals affirmed, but for different reasons.

         Williams believes the plain language of MCL 712B.13(3) entitled him to withdraw his consent because the trial court had not yet entered a final order of adoption for his children. We agree.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Williams's children were first removed from his care and placed in foster care in 2012, and DHHS eventually filed a petition to terminate Williams's parental rights. Before the termination hearing, however, Williams consented to the termination of his parental rights by executing releases under §§ 28 and 29 of the Adoption Code. Williams signed State Court Administrative Office (SCAO) forms releasing his parental rights to both children "for the purpose of adoption" and accompanying statements of his intent to sign for both children a "Release of the Child for Purposes of Adoption." DHHS did not object.

         As acknowledged by Williams, a referee had advised him that there was no guarantee that the minor children would be adopted by their foster parents. The referee accepted Williams's releases, referred the case to an adoption agency, and entered standard orders terminating Williams's parental rights based on the releases and accompanying statements.[1] The children's foster parents then petitioned to adopt the children. But the Sault Tribe intervened and objected to the adoption under ICWA and MIFPA, which require that proper notice of child custody proceedings be given to the child's tribe, enable tribes to intervene in such proceedings, and allow tribes to object to an adoption.

         As a result, the trial court denied the foster parents' adoption petition and placed the children with new foster parents. That same month, after having learned that the original foster parents' petition to adopt the children had been denied, Williams filed a request to withdraw his consent to the termination of his parental rights under MCL 712B.13(3) of MIFPA.

         The trial court denied Williams's request, holding that Williams was not entitled to withdraw his release once the court had entered the order terminating his parental rights because Williams had released his children to DHHS rather than to a specific adoptive parent. The Court of Appeals affirmed, but for different reasons. It held that Williams could not withdraw his release because he had not executed a separate consent under MCL 712B.13(1) and, because MCL 712B.15 of MIFPA applies when a release is executed under §§ 28 and 29 of the Adoption Code during a child protective proceeding brought under MCL 712A.2(b), MCL 712B.15 "does not address or provide for withdrawal of the release." In re Williams, 320 Mich.App. 88, 120-121; 902 N.W.2d 902 (2017).[2] This Court granted leave to appeal to address whether, under MIFPA, Williams was entitled "to withdraw his consent to the termination of his parental rights for the purpose of adoption at any time before entry of a final order of adoption. MCL 712B.13(3)." In re Williams, 501 Mich. 870, 870-871 (2017).

         II. LEGAL BACKGROUND

         A. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         We review de novo the interpretation and application of statutes. In re Sanders, 495 Mich. 394, 404; 852 N.W.2d 524 (2014). That means we review these questions independently, with no required deference to the trial court. If statutory language is unambiguous, we enforce it as written. Fluo ...


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