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In re Adoption of L.F.R.

Supreme Court of Montana

January 8, 2019

IN THE MATTER OF THE ADOPTION OF: L.F.R. A Minor Child.

          Submitted on Briefs: October 31, 2018

          APPEAL FROM: District Court of the Thirteenth Judicial District, In and For the County of Yellowstone, Cause No. DA 18-0023 Honorable Donald L. Harris, Presiding Judge

          For Appellant: Andrew Keith Randles, Self-Represented, Shawmut, Montana

          For Appellee: Brianne E. Radovich, Attorney at Law, Billings, Montana

          JIM RICE, JUSTICE.

         ¶1 A.K.R. (Father) appeals from the Order and Decree of Adoption issued by the Thirteenth Judicial District Court, Yellowstone County, terminating his parental rights and ordering the adoption of his minor daughter, L.F.R., by her stepfather, K.J.D. We reverse and remand for further proceedings, addressing the following issue:

Did the District Court err by terminating Father's parental rights in violation of his right to counsel?

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND[1]

         ¶2 L.F.R. is the natural child of Father and S.M.T. (Mother). The District Court found that L.F.R. "has been with [Mother] and in her custody ever since birth," but that L.F.R.'s paternal great-grandparents "have been parenting the minor child under the Final Parenting Plan dated April 16, 2015." Prior to and during the time covered by the Final Parenting Plan, Father failed to exercise his visitation rights with L.F.R., did not financially contribute to L.F.R.'s care, or otherwise be involved "in any meaningful way" with her life.

         ¶3 In December 2015, Mother married K.J.D., who became L.F.R.'s stepfather. L.F.R. began living with Mother and K.J.D., and, in March 2018, K.J.D. petitioned for termination of Father's parental rights, and for adoption of L.F.R., pursuant to § 42-2-608, MCA. At the May 7, 2018 hearing on the petition, K.J.D., Mother, and L.F.R.'s paternal great-grandparents all appeared and were represented by counsel. Father also appeared, but was not represented by counsel.

         ¶4 On May 12, 2018, the District Court entered an order terminating Father's parental rights and granting K.J.D.'s petition to adopt L.F.R., concluding the adoption was in L.F.R.'s best interests. The District Court did not address either any position taken by L.F.R.'s great-grandparents on the petition, or the status of their interest under the Final Parenting Plan.

         ¶5 Father appeals, contending the District Court's failure to notify him of his right to counsel during the proceeding violated his constitutional rights. Additional facts will be discussed herein.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         ¶6 The Court's review of constitutional questions is plenary. A.W.S. v. A.W., 2014 MT 322, ¶ 10, 377 Mont. 234, 339 P.3d 414. We review a district court's decision to terminate parental rights for abuse of discretion, determining whether the court's underlying factual findings were clearly erroneous. J.M. v. R.H., 2015 MT 231, ...


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