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In re A.J.C.

Supreme Court of Montana

September 18, 2018

IN RE THE MATTER OF: A.J.C., A Minor Child.
v.
LAURA SCHAEFER, Petitioner and Appellee. DENNIS RAMSEY CROMWELL, Petitioner and Appellant,

          Submitted on Briefs: June 6, 2018

          District Court of the Twentieth Judicial District, In and For the County of Sanders, Cause No. DR 14-71 Honorable James A. Manley, Presiding Judge

          For Appellant: Tracy Labin Rhodes, Attorney at Law, Missoula, Montana.

          For Appellee: Jean Adele Carter, Attorney at Law, Thompson Falls, Montana.

          OPINION

          Ingrid Gustafson, Judge.

         ¶1 Appellant Dennis Cromwell, the natural father of A.J.C. (Father), appeals the July 20, 2016 Findings, Conclusions and Parenting Plan ordered by the Twentieth Judicial District Court, Sanders County. In a separate but related matter, Father has also appealed the District Court's September 26, 2017 Order Denying Department's Motion to Amend the Permanency Plan and Order of Dismissal.[1]

         ¶2 We restate the issue on appeal as follows:

Did the District Court err by allowing a child's grandmother to pursue a parental interest under Title 40 while a dependent neglect case was pending under Title 41?

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         ¶3 On September 22, 2014, the Department of Health and Human Services, Child and Family Services Division (Department) filed a Petition for Emergency Protective Services (EPS) and Temporary Investigative Authority (TIA) in a dependent neglect (DN) matter, designated as DN 14-06 in the District Court. At the time, A.J.C. was eleven years old and was in the legal custody of his mother (Mother), who frequently left him in the care of his grandmother, Appellee Laura Schaefer (Grandmother). Up to that time, Father, who resided in Oregon, had not participated in parenting A.J.C. to any significant degree, nor had he provided consistent and substantial financial support.

         ¶4 After the Department became formally involved with Mother, Father acted to gain custody of A.J.C. On October 14, 2014, at the Department's direction, Father, naming Mother as Respondent, petitioned the District Court for a parenting plan designating him as A.J.C.'s primary residential parent. This petition, DR 14-71, is the cause underlying this appeal.

         ¶5 On November 3, 2014, the District Court granted EPS and TIA in DN 14-06. On November 17, 2014, the District Court entered default against Mother in DR 14-71 because she had failed to appear. On February 20, 2015, Mother appeared in DR 14-71 via counsel and moved to set aside default. Ultimately, Father and Mother stipulated to an interim parenting plan which had A.J.C. residing with Grandmother during the school year and visiting Father for six weeks during the summer of 2015. The District Court set aside Mother's default and approved the stipulated parenting plan on March 24, 2015, subject to any occurrences in DN 14-06.

         ¶6 On August 13, 2015, Father moved to amend the interim parenting plan, alleging that Mother had not complied with the treatment plan approved by the District Court in DN 14-06. Father asserted that he had agreed to the parenting plan because Mother was in a residential chemical dependency treatment program and he believed placement with Grandmother was appropriate at the time. Father alleged that in the intervening months, Mother had left the residential program and events had occurred which caused him to conclude Grandmother was not an appropriate placement for A.J.C., including Mother being arrested at Grandmother's home, Grandmother allowing a convicted felon to stay at the home while A.J.C. was present, and A.J.C. arriving for his summer visit with Father lacking appropriate clothing and in need of eyeglasses and dental care. Father also alleged that A.J.C. had done well in Oregon and had made friends. Father proposed that A.J.C. reside with him during the school year and visit Mother at Grandmother's home for six weeks each summer.

         ¶7 On September 2, 2015, Grandmother filed a Petition to Establish a Parental Interest as a separate action, which the District Court designated DR 15-37. Grandmother alleged that Mother was not complying with her treatment plan and that Father had abandoned A.J.C. Grandmother argued that she met the criteria for a third-party interest in A.J.C. ...


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