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Adoption of Quan

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts

December 18, 2014

Adoption of Quan. [1]

Roberta Mann Driscoll for the father.

Ann Balmelli O'Connor, Committee for Public Counsel Services, for the mother.

Brian R. Pariser for Department of Children and Families.

Robert J. McCarthy, Jr., for the child.

OPINION

The Department of Children and Families (department) and the child in this case, whom we refer to as Quan, appealed from an order of a Juvenile Court judge vacating decrees terminating the parental rights of Quan's biological mother and father. A panel of the Appeals Court, in a memorandum and order pursuant to that court's rule 1:28, Adoption of Quan, 86 Mass.App.Ct. 1103, 11 N.E.3d 674 (2014), reversed the judge's order, effectively reinstating the termination decrees, and remanded the case to the Juvenile Court for a so-called " best interest" hearing regarding the permanent placement of the child. We granted the parents' applications for further appellate review. We affirm the judge's order.

[21 N.E.3d 183] Background.

In July, 2011, the department filed a petition pursuant to G. L. c. 119, § 24, for the care and protection of Quan, who at that time was one year old. Both the mother and father eventually stipulated to the entry of decrees (one against each of them) adjudicating the child to be in need of care and protection, committing him to the custody of the department, and terminating their parental rights. The parents expressly waived the right to trial on the petition, as well as the right to appeal from a final decree entered pursuant to the stipulation, but purported to reserve a right to participate in a subsequent best interest placement hearing. Each parent additionally stipulated that " [t]he adoption of [the child] shall be final and not subject to review," that his or her agreement was " voluntary," and that he or she had " not relied on any representations other than those contained in this agreement." Each parent proposed adoptive or guardianship resources and acknowledged that the department had recruited Quan's foster parents as adoptive resources.

The judge accepted the stipulations. The final decrees indicate that he considered the factors enumerated in G. L. c. 210, § 3 ( c ), and the placement plan proposed by the department, and that he " found that [each] parent lacks the ability, capacity, fitness and readiness to assume parental responsibility for said child, and is currently unfit." The final decrees terminated the parents' parental rights.

Approximately nine months later -- but before any further hearing on the child's permanent placement -- the parents moved for relief from the final decrees. Their motions apparently were prompted by the Appeals Court's recent decision in Adoption of Malik, 84 Mass.App.Ct. 436, 997 N.E.2d 440 (2013).[2] The mother's supporting affidavit averred that her agreement to the termination of her parental

Page 1014

rights was the result of an " agreement and assurances" that she would be " entitled to participate in a best interest hearing," and that she was " assured" that she could appeal from any decision following such a hearing. The father's affidavit averred that he had agreed to termination of his rights on the understanding that he " would have a best interest hearing" and that, based on his belief that there would be such a hearing, he did not appeal. He further alleged that the department had decided to leave Quan in his current placement without a best interest placement hearing and, therefore, that the father had been deprived of his right to appeal.

After a hearing, the judge vacated the decrees terminating the mother's and father's parental rights. He concluded that the parents' stipulations had not been knowing or voluntary but, instead, were the product of a collective misunderstanding by the parents, their counsel, and the judge, all of whom believed that parental rights could be terminated in advance of a [21 N.E.3d 184] best interest placement hearing with the parents retaining the right to participate in the placement hearing and to appeal from any adverse placement decision.[3]

Discussion.

The judge granted relief from the decrees terminating parental rights on the ground that there had been a material mistake of law or neglect, in the sense that the applicable law had changed.[4] See Hingham v. Director of the Div. of Marine Fisheries, 7 Mass.App.Ct. 908, 909, 388 N.E.2d 328 (1979) (Mass. R. Civ. P. 60 [b], 365 Mass. 828 [1974], is appropriate vehicle for raising question of change in law).[5] Motions for relief from final judgment are commended to the judge's discretion, and " a judge's decision will not be overturned, except upon a showing of a clear abuse of discretion." Scannell v. Ed. Ferreirinha & Irmao, Lda., 401 Mass. 155, 158, 514 N.E.2d 1325 (1987). That applies with particular force where, as here, the motion judge was the same judge who conducted the colloquies, accepted the stipulations, and entered the decrees. See Commonwealth v. Grace, 397 Mass. 303, 307, 491 N.E.2d 246 (1986) (same general principle in criminal context). Cf. Chapman ...


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