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In re J.C.

Supreme Court of Iowa

December 26, 2014

IN THE INTEREST OF J.C., Minor Child. D.C., Father, Appellant

Page 496

On review from the Iowa Court of Appeals. Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Constance Cohen, Associate Juvenile Judge. The State and a child's guardian ad litem seek further review of a court of appeals decision reversing a juvenile court order dismissing the child's established father as a necessary party in child in need of assistance proceedings and termination of parental rights proceedings.

Colin R. McCormack, Van Cleaf & McCormack Law Firm, L.L.P., Des Moines, for appellant father.

Amanda M. DeMichelis, Chariton, for mother.

Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Bruce L. Kempkes, Assistant Attorney General, and Stephanie E. Brown, Assistant County Attorney, for appellee.

Michael J. Bandstra, Bandstra Law Office, Des Moines, attorney and guardian ad litem for minor child.

ZAGER, Justice. All justices concur except Wiggins, J., who dissents.

OPINION

Page 497

ZAGER, Justice.

This further review requires us to determine whether under the applicable juvenile statutes an established, or legal, father who is not a biological or adoptive father is a necessary party to child in need of assistance (CINA) proceedings and termination of parental rights proceedings. Daniel is J.C.'s established father; he is not her biological or adoptive father. After a hearing on the motion to determine paternity filed by the child's guardian ad litem, the juvenile court concluded under the applicable statutes that Daniel was not a necessary party to the CINA proceedings

Page 498

and termination of parental rights proceedings and dismissed him as a party. Daniel appealed, and the court of appeals reversed. The court of appeals found the applicable statutes unambiguous, but concluded that the express language of the statutes leads to the absurd result of excluding Daniel as a necessary party to the CINA proceedings. Therefore, the court of appeals held Daniel was a necessary party to the CINA proceedings and reversed the juvenile court. The child's guardian ad litem and the State sought further review, which we granted. For the reasons set forth below, we vacate the decision of the court of appeals and affirm the decision of the juvenile court.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

J.C. was born to Khrista on December 26, 2010. At that time, Khrista was an inmate at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women. When Khrista was incarcerated in May 2010, an intake medical examination revealed she was pregnant.

Daniel wrote to Khrista and began coming to visit her in prison in July. On December 3, 2010, after Daniel had spoken with an attorney about his rights to the unborn child, Khrista and Daniel were married at the prison.

Daniel and Khrista had not been romantically involved before Khrista was incarcerated, but the two were friends. Daniel and Khrista first met at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in 2008, and they continued to socialize at subsequent meetings. Outside of the meetings, they had coffee a couple of times. Daniel and Khrista never dated or had sexual relations before they were married or before J.C. was born.

Daniel and Khrista knew Daniel is not J.C.'s biological father, and DNA testing confirmed J.C.'s biological father is Robert. Nonetheless, after J.C. was born, J.C. was released to Daniel's custody because he is J.C.'s established father based on his marriage to Khrista. See Callender v. Skiles, 591 N.W.2d 182, 185 (Iowa 1999) (citing Iowa Code § 600B.41A(1) (1997)). " Khrista wanted Dan[iel] to take care of [J.C.] so she didn't lose [custody of] her." While Khrista was in prison, Daniel took J.C. to visit Khrista on weekends so mother and daughter could bond. Daniel and J.C. missed visits to the prison on just two weekends.

Daniel cared for J.C. on his own until Khrista was paroled in May 2013. After her release, Khrista moved in with Daniel and J.C. However on June 25, Daniel filed for divorce after Khrista moved out with J.C. and assumed custody of J.C. Robert eventually filed a petition in district court to disestablish Daniel's paternity.

J.C. came to the attention of the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS) in late October when it was alleged Khrista was using methamphetamine. A child protection worker met with Khrista, who denied current methamphetamine use. Khrista's parole officer confirmed that Khrista had recently tested negative for methamphetamine, opiates, and benzodiazepines. On October 30, Khrista submitted to a hair drug test.

On November 3, Urbandale police stopped a vehicle driven by Khrista. Also in the car were J.C., one of Khrista's other children, and a male passenger. Police discovered two small bags of methamphetamine, and Khrista admitted it belonged to her. She also confessed to smoking methamphetamine the day before. On November 5, DHS received the results of Khrista's October 30 drug test. The test came back positive for methamphetamine.

On November 5, the State filed an application for order of temporary removal in juvenile court. The juvenile court granted

Page 499

the application that same day and temporarily placed J.C. in Daniel's custody. Thereafter, on November 7, while Robert's petition to disestablish Daniel's paternity was pending in district court, the State filed a CINA petition. The CINA petition identified Daniel as J.C.'s established father and Robert as J.C.'s biological father. The State sent notices to Khrista, Robert, and Daniel. On November 14, however, the juvenile court ordered J.C. removed from Daniel's care because he had tested positive for methamphetamine. That same day, the State received the results of a drug test performed on J.C. The test results showed that J.C. also tested positive for the presence of amphetamine and methamphetamine.

After a hearing on December 19, the juvenile court adjudicated J.C. a child in need of assistance under Iowa Code sections 232.2(6)( c )(2), ( n ), and ( o ) (2013).[1] On January 17, 2014, the State filed a petition to terminate the parental rights of Khrista and Robert as the parents of J.C.[2] Daniel was also served a copy of the petition and the juvenile court appointed counsel to represent him.

On February 7, J.C.'s guardian ad litem filed a motion to determine paternity in the CINA proceedings. The motion requested " that the Juvenile Court make a finding that pursuant to Iowa Code [chapter] 232, Robert . . . is the 'father' of the child herein." Daniel resisted the motion. On February 25, the juvenile court held a hearing on the motion at which Daniel testified.

The juvenile court issued its order on February 27. The juvenile court first clarified that the proceedings involving the parties pending in district court " came to an instant halt" when the CINA proceedings were initiated because the juvenile court " exercises exclusive jurisdiction over all matters involving custody, guardianship or placement of a child" unless the juvenile court grants concurrent jurisdiction. See id. § § 232.3(1), .61(1).

The juvenile court observed Iowa Code section 232.91 unambiguously includes only parents, guardians, custodians, and guardians ad litem as necessary parties. The juvenile court determined Daniel was not a guardian, custodian, or guardian ad litem, leaving only the possibility he is a parent. Under Iowa Code chapter 232, the juvenile court observed, a parent is " clearly . . . a biological or adoptive mother or father of a child." The juvenile court found Daniel is neither J.C.'s biological father nor her adoptive father. The juvenile court therefore concluded that Daniel was not a necessary party in the pending CINA proceedings and termination of parental rights proceedings. Accordingly, the juvenile court dismissed Daniel as a party.

Daniel filed an application for interlocutory appeal of the juvenile court order. Assuming without deciding the juvenile

Page 500

court's order was not a final judgment, we granted the application and transferred the case to the court of appeals.

The court of appeals reversed the juvenile court. The court of appeals agreed the statutory definition of " parent" under Iowa Code chapter 232 did not include established fathers. However, it reasoned a literal reading of the statute produced " legally absurd consequences that undermine the clear purpose of the statute." Consequently, the court of appeals concluded an established father is a parent under Iowa Code section 232.2(39) and " is entitled to participate in a CINA proceeding involving the father's [established] child to the same extent as a biological or adoptive father."

We granted the applications for further review filed by the guardian ad litem and the State.

II. Standard of Review.

We generally review CINA proceedings and termination of parental rights proceedings de novo. See In re P.L., 778 N.W.2d 33, 40 (Iowa 2010); In re D.D., 653 N.W.2d 359, 361 (Iowa 2002). When so doing, " [w]e review both the facts and the law, and we adjudicate rights anew." In re K.N., 625 N.W.2d 731, 733 (Iowa 2001) (internal quotation marks omitted). When the issue requires statutory interpretation, however, we review for correction of errors at law. See In re G.J.A., 547 N.W.2d 3, 5 (Iowa 1996). As always, our fundamental concern is the child's best interests. K.N., 625 N.W.2d at 733.

III. Discussion.

The primary issue on further review is whether under Iowa Code section 232.91(1), an established father is a parent. The legislature has specifically directed courts to liberally construe Iowa Code chapter 232 to achieve " the care, guidance and control that will best serve the child's welfare and the best interest of the state." Iowa Code § 232.1.

In addition, several settled principles of statutory interpretation arise here. See State v. Romer, 832 N.W.2d 169, 176 (Iowa 2013) (compiling " our time-honored principles of statutory construction" ). We seek the legislature's intent when interpreting statutes. Schaefer v. Putnam, 841 N.W.2d 68, 75 (Iowa 2013). We give words in statutes their common, ordinary meaning in the context within which they are used unless the words are defined in the statute or have an established legal meaning. In re Estate of Bockwoldt, 814 N.W.2d 215, 223 (Iowa 2012). When the legislature has defined words in a statute--that is, when the legislature has opted to " 'act as its own lexicographer'" --those definitions bind us. State v. Fischer, 785 N.W.2d 697, 702 (Iowa 2010) (quoting Henrich v. Lorenz, 448 N.W.2d 327, 332 (Iowa 1989)); see also Hornby v. State, 559 N.W.2d 23, 25 (Iowa 1997) (" [W]here the legislature defines its own terms and meanings in a statute, . . . definitions which may not coincide with the legislative definition must yield to the language of the legislature." (Internal quotation marks omitted.)). We assess the whole statute, not just isolated words and phrases. Hardin Cnty. Drainage Dist. 55, Div. 3, Lateral 10 v. Union Pac. R.R., 826 N.W.2d 507, 512 (Iowa 2013). We look no further than the statute's language when the statute is unambiguous. Bank of Am., N.A. v. Schulte, 843 N.W.2d 876, 880 (Iowa 2014). In other words, unambiguous statutory language is the strongest evidence of the legislature's intent. See McGill v. Fish, 790 N.W.2d 113, 118 (Iowa 2010) (" When the language is unambiguous, it expresses the intent of the legislature that can otherwise be obscured by ambiguous

Page 501

language in a statute." ). " Under the pretext of construction, we may not extend a statute, expand a statute, or change its meaning." Bank of Am., ...


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