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In re M.R.F.

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

March 28, 2018

IN THE INTEREST OF: M.R.F., III, A MINOR APPEAL OF: K.L.C. AND J.M.C. Appellants

          Appeal from the Order May 26, 2017 In the Court of Common Pleas of Lawrence County Civil Division at No(s): No. 33 of 2014

          BEFORE: BOWES, J., STABILE, J., and FORD ELLIOTT, P.J.E.

          OPINION

          BOWES, J.

         Foster parents, K.L.C. and J.M.C. (collectively Appellants), appeal the juvenile court order denying their motion to intervene in the ongoing dependency proceedings involving now four-year-old M.R.F., III ("M.R.F.").[1]We affirm.

         The juvenile court succinctly summarized the underlying facts and procedural history as follows:

M.R.F. . . . came into the legal and physical custody of Lawrence County Children and Youth Services ("LCCYS") following a domestic violence incident involving his biological parents[, T.S. ("Mother") and M.F., Jr. ("Father")]. Charges were filed against both the Mother and Father as a result of the incident and both were briefly jailed. A dependency action was filed because both parents were in jail and unavailable to care for the child. Mother was released within days and all charges against her were dismissed. M.R.F. . . . was adjudicated dependent with a permanency goal of reunification. LCCYS placed M.R.F. . . . with [Appellants] in a foster home setting [during May 2014, ] when he was approximately three (3) months old and [he] has remained in that foster placement since that time. On or around February 3, 2016, LCCYS filed a Motion for Goal Change and a Petition for Involuntary Termination of Parental Rights of [Mother] and [Father]. Subsequent to the filing of the Petition for Involuntary Termination by LCCYS, the Father executed a Consent to Adoption on March 9, 2016 and by Order of Court dated May 13, 2016 his Consent was confirmed and his parental rights were terminated. The Petition for Involuntary Termination of Parental Rights of the Mother was denied by Order of . . . Court dated July 6, 2016. The Motion for Goal Change was also denied, and the permanency goal for M.R.F. . . . has never been changed from reunification with Mother[.]

         Trial Court Order and Opinion, 5/25/17, 1-2.

         Essentially, the juvenile court found that Mother made substantial compliance with the permanency plan insofar as she attended visitations with M.R.F. regularly and progressed through the allotted reunification services. In addition, the court determined that Mother made significant progress toward alleviating the circumstances which necessitated M.R.F.'s original placement. Specifically, Mother cooperated with criminal authorities, terminated her involvement with Father, and demonstrated her dedication to M.R.F. by maintaining a stable living environment.

         On May 2, 2017, the juvenile court confirmed that reunification with Mother was the appropriate permanency goal. Adoption remained the concurrent goal. In an effort to facilitate M.R.F.'s reunification with Mother, the juvenile court awarded Mother one overnight visitation and one four-hour community visit with her son per week. LCCYS retained legal and physical custody of the child, and the juvenile court concluded that his current placement in foster care was appropriate. The agency did not appeal the orphans' court's order denying the petition to terminate Mother's parental rights or the juvenile court's ensuing permanency order that extended the scope of Mother's visitations with her son.

         On June 6, 2017, Appellants countered the juvenile court's permanency review order by filing the motion to intervene that is the genesis of the instant appeal. In pertinent part, Appellants asserted that LCCYS deemed them to be a preadoptive placement resource and, during April 2016, the Statewide Adoption and Permanency Network ("SWAN") approved them as adoptive parents. The petition continued that the designation of prospective adoptive parents made them indispensable parties in the dependency proceedings and satisfied the requirements of standing under the Juvenile Act. Appellants requested standing to intervene in the dependency proceedings, including notice of hearings, copies of orders and reports, and the ability to formally express their opinions and preferences concerning how to best achieve M.R.F.'s safety, permanency and wellbeing. Most importantly, notwithstanding the orphans' court's refusal to terminate Mother's parental rights and the juvenile court's subsequent affirmation of reunification as the permanency goal, Appellants entreated the trial court to proceed with their adoption of M.R.F.

         The juvenile court held an evidentiary hearing on May 23, 2017. Appellants testified in support of their petition and presented the testimony of Kayla Gould, the LCCYS caseworker assigned to the family since 2016. Significantly, Ms. Gould testified that the agency considered Appellants to be a preadoptive placement resource and confirmed that they completed SWAN training in anticipation of adoption following the termination of Mother's parental rights. N.T., 5/23/17, at 42-43. On May 25, 2017, the juvenile court entered a memorandum order and opinion that denied Appellants' petition to intervene and explained the basis for its decision. This timely appeal followed.

         Appellants assert four issues for our review:

A. Whether the [t]rial [c]ourt erred and abused its discretion by concluding [Appellants'] status as foster parents has never changed and that [Appellants] failed to present evidence which supported their claim that they are pre-adoptive/prospective adoptive[2] parents of the above-named minor child.
B. Whether the [t]rial [c]ourt erred and abused its discretion by failing to permit the introduction of testimony necessary for the [c]ourt to give full and adequate consideration to the best interests, health and safety of the child, which is the focus of every case involving the care of children.
C. Whether the [t]rial [c]ourt erred and abused its discretion by failing to permit the introduction of testimony necessary for the [c]ourt to give full and adequate consideration of the substantial, direct and immediate nature of [Appellants'] interest in the above-named child and dependency matter.
D. Whether the [t]rial [c]ourt abused its discretion and erred as a matter of law by concluding that [Appellants] do not fit within any classes of individuals who have standing to intervene in the dependency action and are not entitled to intervene in the ...

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