IN THE INTEREST OF J. C. et al., children.
BARNES, P. J., MERCIER and BROWN, JJ.
mother of J. C. and M. C. ("the children"), appeals
the juvenile court's order transferring custody and
guardianship of the children to their paternal
grandparents. The juvenile court issued the order in
connection with a dependency petition, without any party
having filed a guardianship petition. The Richmond County
Department of Family and Children Services (the
"Department"), the appellee in this matter,
"agrees that the juvenile court committed reversible
error in granting the children's paternal grandparents
custody and guardianship of the children because it failed to
follow the statutory mandates outlined in OCGA §§
15-11-240, 15-11-241 and 15-11-243." We agree and
reverse the juvenile court's order.
August 12, 2016, the Department filed a dependency petition
regarding J. C. (then 7 years old) and M. C. (then 3 years
old), due to the mother's arrest for methamphetamine
possession and the discovery that M. C. had a two week old
leg fracture that was not being treated. The Juvenile Court
of Richmond County entered a preliminary protective order
wherein it found probable cause that the children were
dependent and granted the Department temporary custody.
juvenile court later entered an order finding the children
dependent. The court also adopted a reunification case plan
on April 10, 2017, which required that the mother complete
parenting classes, visit with the children, undergo a
psychological evaluation, enter inpatient substance abuse
treatment, and attend family counseling.
a number of hearings, a status hearing was scheduled for
August 21, 2017. At the August 21, 2017 hearing, the
Department case manager for the children testified that the
children were currently placed with their paternal
grandparents, who lived in Alabama. The case manager
testified that while the mother had "made great
strides," she had not yet completed her case plan
because she had not completed inpatient substance abuse
treatment. The case manger recommended that the court
continue to find the children dependent. At the end of the
hearing, despite the fact that neither the Department nor the
paternal grandparents had filed a petition to change
guardianship, the juvenile court sua sponte transferred
guardianship to the paternal grandparents.
Juvenile Code provides that a juvenile court can appoint a
permanent guardian for a dependent child, but must do so in
accordance with the Dependency Proceedings article. See OCGA
§ 15-11-240 (a). The Dependency Proceedings article
requires that a petition for the appointment of a permanent
guardian set forth specific information, such as "if the
parent of such child has not consented to the permanent
guardianship, the names and addresses of the following
relatives of such child whose parents' whereabouts are
known." OCGA § 15-11-241 (7) (emphasis supplied).
present matter, the parties agree that the mother did not
consent to the transfer of permanent guardianship and that no
guardianship petition was filed. As no guardianship petition
was filed, there was no compliance with OCGA §
15-11-243,  which requires that "[n]otice of a
guardianship petition pursuant to this part shall be given to
a parent of the child who was adjudicated as a dependent
child[.]" OCGA § 15-11-243 (a).
OCGA § 15-11-240 requires that a juvenile court make a
number of findings in order to appoint a permanent guardian,
including that "reasonable efforts to reunify such child
with his or her parents would be detrimental to such
child[.]" OCGA § 15-11-240 (a) (1). The juvenile
court order does not contain those findings.
The fundamental liberty interest of natural parents in the
care, custody, and management of their child does not
evaporate simply because they have not been model parents or
have lost [at least] temporary custody of their child to the
State. Even when blood relationships are strained, parents
retain a vital interest in preventing the irretrievable
destruction of their family life. If anything, persons faced
with forced dissolution of their parental rights have a more
critical need for procedural protections than do those
resisting state intervention into ongoing family affairs.
When the State moves to destroy weakened familial bonds, it
must provide the parents with fundamentally fair procedures.
In the Interest of M. F., 298 Ga. 138, 145 (780
S.E.2d 291) (2015) (citation omitted). The notice and hearing
requirements of the Juvenile Code are mandatory. See In
the Interest of R. B., 346 Ga.App. 564, 570 (2) (816
S.E.2d 706) (2018). By sua sponte transferring guardianship
in the absence of a statutory compliant petition, requisite
notice to the mother, and the requisite findings, the
juvenile court failed to follow the procedures set forth in
OCGA §§ 15-11-240, 15-11-241, 15-11-243, and
29-2-18. As such, we reverse the juvenile
Barnes, P. J., and ...