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Kansas Supreme Court decision against grandmother could shape foster care custody rights

 A photo of the Kansas Judicial Center.
Blaise Mesa
Kansas News Service
The Kansas Supreme Court ruled the grandmother had no standing to challenge the case.

The decision could have wide-ranging impacts for biological families aggrieved by a judge's decision on whether to give custody rights to adoptive or foster families.

TOPEKA, Kansas — A woman lost her appeal to wrestle custody of her grandchild from the Kansas foster care system when the Kansas Supreme Court ruled against her on Friday.

A 4-month-old, called N.E. in court documents, was placed into foster care. The baby’s grandmother wanted custody, but a lower court gave the child to a foster family, who ultimately adopted the child.

A Reno County judge said placing the child with the grandmother will “never be in a child's best interest” because she was disabled and “the alternative is a young healthy family.”

Attorneys for the grandmother shook off health concerns and said state law requires that family, or kinship placements, get the first chance at custody. Attorney Mitchell Engel, arguing for the grandmother, said in May 18 oral arguments that the judge’s ruling was erroneous.

“It just can’t be that an interested party, grandma who's supposed to get substantial consideration in this custody, has no ability to ever challenge these type of rulings based on no evidence,” Engel said.

The Kansas Supreme Court’s ruling against the grandmother didn’t say whether she was fit. Instead, it said she had no standing to challenge the decision because she didn’t appeal temporary custody orders and had no objection to the termination of parental rights. The majority opinion also says placement decisions are not appealable.

Court documents show the lower court had already ruled on decisions in the custody case before the grandmother's appeals were considered.

Justice Melissa Standridge dissented from the opinion and said the grandmother filed a motion for custody a month before the court considered adoption of N.E. and multiple months before parental rights were terminated. COVID-19 restrictions delayed some hearings.

The decision can have wide-reaching implications for how families appeal custody decisions and whether a ruling by the judge is final.

Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at blaise@kcur.org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. 

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Blaise Mesa is based in Topeka, where he covers the Legislature and state government for the Kansas City Beacon. He previously covered social services and criminal justice for the Kansas News Service.
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