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In re A. L.

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Third Division

September 12, 2019

IN THE INTEREST OF A. L. et al., minor children.

          DILLARD, P. J., GOBEIL and HODGES, JJ.

          GOBEIL, JUDGE.

         This appeal was filed by the appellant-mother, Allison Madourie, to challenge the juvenile court's order dismissing her motion seeking reunification and change of child custody based on the court's determination that Georgia is an inconvenient forum for adjudicating the claims. Because the juvenile court failed to make specific findings on the record demonstrating that it considered the eight factors in OCGA § 19-9-67 (b), and also erred by dismissing the motion, we vacate the juvenile court's order and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with the requirements of OCGA § 19-9-67 (b) and (c).

         The record shows that Appellant is the mother of two minor children, A. L. (born on November 1, 2010) and J. L. (born on October 2, 2008). In January 2015, while the children resided in Georgia, the Henry County Department of Family and Children Services ("DFCS") filed a dependency action in the Henry County Juvenile Court and the children were removed from Appellant's custody.[1] On June 17, 2015, the juvenile court awarded temporary custody of the children to their biological father.[2] Shortly thereafter, the children and their father moved to and became residents of Florida.[3]

         Pursuant to the parties' agreement, Appellant exercised visitation with the children at her residence in Georgia for two months during summers and two weeks during the Christmas holidays. On June 19, 2017, while the children were visiting in Georgia, Appellant filed a "Motion for Reunification and Change of Custody" in the juvenile court dependency case. In support of the motion, Appellant requested that several fact witnesses be allowed to testify remotely by telephone or other video conferencing methods since they were out of state and unable to appear personally at the hearing.

         During the hearing on Appellant's motion, the juvenile court inquired into its own jurisdiction and ultimately declined to exercise jurisdiction based upon its conclusion that Georgia no longer was a convenient forum to resolve the issue. The court noted that the children have lived, attended school, and received counseling in Florida for more than two years; most of the witnesses lived outside of Georgia; and, DFCS and the guardian ad litem in Georgia did not have direct access to review the children's school or counseling records and home environment in Florida.

         Following entry of the dismissal order, the instant appeal ensued. Appellant asserts that the juvenile court erred in ruling that Georgia is no longer a convenient forum and erred in dismissing her motion on that basis.[4]

         Appellant's motion relating to child custody fell within the purview of the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act ("UCCJEA"). See OCGA § 19-9-41 (4) (the definition of a "child custody proceeding" under the UCCJEA includes a child dependency proceeding in which the issue of child custody may appear); In the Interest of J. S. J., 253 Ga.App. 174, 177 (1) (558 S.E.2d 763) (2002) (applying former definitions statute and ruling that the UCCJEA governs a proceeding regarding child dependency in which child custody is one of many issues). The juvenile court's decision that it was an inconvenient forum is thus governed by OCGA § 19-9-67 of the UCCJEA.

         Under OCGA § 19-9-67 (a), "[a] court of this state which has jurisdiction under [the UCCJEA] may decline to exercise its jurisdiction at any time if it determines that it is an inconvenient forum under the circumstances and that a court of another state is a more appropriate forum." Subsection (b) of the statute further provides:

Before determining whether it is an inconvenient forum, a court of this state shall consider whether it is appropriate for a court of another state to exercise jurisdiction. For this purpose, the court shall allow the parties to submit information and shall consider all relevant factors, including:
(1) Whether family violence has occurred and is likely to continue in the future and which state could best protect the parties and the child;
(2) The length of time the child has resided outside this state;
(3) The distance between the court in this state and the court in the state that would ...

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