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In re Adoption of D.D.H.

June 6, 2008; as amended June 9, 2008

IN THE MATTER OF THE ADOPTION OF D.D.H., DOB: JANUARY 22, 2007, A MINOR CHILD.


Appeal from Sedgwick District Court; RICHARD T. BALLINGER, judge.

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

1. Interpretation of a statute is a question of law over which this court has unlimited review. An appellate court is not bound by the trial court's interpretation of a statute.

2. The Kansas Adoption and Relinquishment Act, K.S.A. 59-2111 et seq., is to be strictly construed in favor of maintaining the rights of natural parents. The Kansas Legislature intended to expressly permit courts, in weighing decisions whether to terminate parental rights, to consider the best interests of the child as a factor but not as a stand-alone basis for terminating parental rights.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rulon, C.J.

Reversed and remanded with directions.

Before RULON, C.J., ELLIOTT and GREENE, JJ.

D.D.H. was born in January 2007 to K.H. (Mother) and J.H. (Father), who had been married for approximately 6 months. Due to marital problems, Father left the family home on March 14, 2007. On that date, Father took Mother to Catholic Charities, Inc., to discuss placing D.D.H. for adoption. The next day, Mother returned to Catholic Charities to proceed with an adoption. Father contended he never intended to relinquish his parental rights.

On March 16, 2007, Mother and Catholic Charities (Petitioners) filed a petition to terminate Father's parental rights under K.S.A. 2007 Supp. 59-2136(e) and (h). The Petitioners alleged Father's rights should be terminated because he abandoned D.D.H., he was unfit, he failed to adequately provide for the child and mother prior to and after D.D.H.'s birth, and it was in the child's best interests for Father's rights to be terminated.

Father timely filed an answer to the petition, objecting to the termination of his parental rights and disputing the Petitioners' various allegations. Shortly thereafter, Father filed a petition seeking the immediate return of D.D.H. from Catholic Charities.

A trial was conducted on April 30 and May 7, 2007, during which Father, Mother, and other witnesses testified and numerous exhibits were admitted. At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court made various findings of fact and conclusions of law. On May 10, 2007, the trial court filed a journal entry reiterating the court's comments made from the bench. The trial court found the 2006 amendments to K.S.A. 59-2136 established that the "best interests of the child" was a separate standard justifying the termination of parental rights of a non-consenting parent. The court found the Petitioners failed to prove inadequate financial support and found Father did not abandon D.D.H. Moreover, the court specifically declined to make a finding on the issue of Father's fitness as a parent. Instead, the court found Father's parental rights should be terminated based solely on the best interests of the child standard.

Father timely appealed. The Petitioners timely cross-appealed the trial court's refusal to find other grounds for unfitness.

On appeal, Father contends the trial court erred in terminating his parental rights solely on the best interests of the child standard, without any finding he was an unfit parent. Father argues the court misinterpreted and misapplied the statute. We agree.

Resolution of this issue requires interpretation of K.S.A. 2007 Supp. 59-2136. Interpretation of a statute is a question of law over which this court has unlimited review. An appellate court is not bound by the trial court's interpretation of a statute. In re Adoption of S.J.R., 37 Kan. App. 2d 28, 32-33, 149 P.3d 12 (2006).

Prior to 2006, the adoption statute permitting termination of parental rights, K.S.A. 59-2136 ...


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