3. 'Courts are not constituted for the purpose of making advisory decrees or resolving academic disputes.' Mainella v. Board of Trustees of Policemen's Pension or Relief Fund of City of Fairmont, 126 W.Va. 183, 185-86, 27 S.E.2d 486, 487-88 (1943). Syl. Pt. 2, in part, Harshbarger v. Gainer, 184 W.Va. 656, 403 S.E.2d 399 (1991).
4. The best interests of a child are served by preserving important relationships in that child's life. Syl. pt. 2, State ex rel. Treadway v. McCoy, 189 W.Va. 210, 429 S.E.2d 492 (1993).
5. A child has a right to continued association with individuals with whom he has formed a close emotional bond, including foster parents, provided that a determination is made that such continued contact is in the best interests of the child. Syl. Pt. 11, In re Jonathan G., 198 W.Va. 716, 482 S.E.2d 893 (1996).
6. A statutory provision which is clear and unambiguous and plainly expresses the legislative intent will not be interpreted by the courts but will be given full force and effect. Syl. Pt. 2, State v. Epperly, 135 W.Va. 877, 65 S.E.2d 488 (1951).
By means of this original jurisdiction action, Kathryn Kutil and Cheryl Hess (hereinafter collectively referred to as Petitioners) seek a writ of prohibition to bar enforcement of the November 21, 2008, order (See footnote 1) of the Circuit Court of Fayette County. Petitioners specifically are seeking to prevent the female infant, Baby Girl C. (hereinafter B.G.C.), (See footnote 2) from being removed from their foster home. B.G.C. was placed in Petitioners' home as a foster child by the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (hereinafter DHHR) (See footnote 3) shortly after the child's birth. Petitioners are a same sex couple whose home had been approved by DHHR for both foster care and adoption. The removal of the infant was ordered at the conclusion of an abuse and neglect permanency hearing at which the lower court accepted the recommendation that B.G.C.'s case be transferred to the adoption unit of DHHR. In its removal order, the lower court directed that B.G.C. be moved from her temporary foster home and placed in a household interested in adoption that is a traditional family having a mother and a father rather than a household headed by a same sex couple or single person. In consideration of the arguments of the parties, (See footnote 4) copies of court documents supplied with the briefs as exhibits and applicable legal authorities, we grant the relief requested.
29. It also appears to the Court that the fairness showed by the Court by allowing the child to remain with the foster parents pending resolution of the case is now being used to support the argument that, since the child is developing bonds with the intervenors, the child should not be removed from the intervenors' care, and that adoption by the intervenors should be recommended without purs[ue]ing adoptive parents which could provide a more traditional home setting.
The November 12 order also includes the following conclusions of law:
4. The Court CONCLUDES that Circuit Courts are not
required to accept the Permanency Plan of the DHHR and may
either accept, reject or modify said recommendation depending
on whether or not the Court finds it to be in the best interests of
the child at issue.
5. The Court CONCLUDES that the polar star in all matters involving children is what is in the best interest of the child.
8. The Court CONCLUDES that, if at all possible, it is in
the best interest of children to be raised by a traditionally
defined family, that is, a family consisting of both a mother and
a father. The Court CONCLUDES that non-traditional
families, such as the intervenors, should only be considered as
appropriate permanent/adoptive placements if the DHHR first
makes a sufficient effort to place the child in a traditional home
and those efforts fail. In other words, if the DHHR has
attempted in good faith to secure a traditional family to adopt
the child and the DHHR's attempts fail, then a non-traditional
family may be considered as an adoptive placement. This did
not occur in the present case.
9. For the above stated reasons, the Court CONCLUDES that it can only tentatively approve the Permanency Plan pending argument/hearing to address the issues raised in this hearing regarding the Permanency Plan, including the extent of the Court's authority over the execution of the Permanency Plan . . . and argument/evidence in support of and in opposition to the guardian ad litem's pending motions.
10. The Court CONCLUDES it is necessary and in the best interest of the child to ORDER that the DHHR place the child in a traditional home setting with a mother and a father. The Court deems such action necessary to materially promote the best interests of the child. In recognition of the bonds that may have formed between the child and the intervenors, and to lessen any stress on the child, the Court CONCLUDES that it is in the best interests of the infant child that the removal from the intervenors' home and placement in a traditional home should be completed over a two week transitional period. The purpose of the removal and transfer to a traditional home is to materially promote the best interests of the child by encouraging and facilitating adoptive placement of the child with a traditionally defined family and to ease the child's transition when and if such adoptive placement occurs.
(Emphasis in original.) The order also set November 21, 2008, as the date on which the evidentiary hearing regarding the permanency plan would be held.
On November 17, 2008, Petitioners petitioned this Court for a writ of prohibition accompanied by a motion for an emergency stay of the lower court's order of removal. The lower court rendered both matters moot by entering an order on November 18, 2008, staying its removal order.
DHHR had objected to the removal of B.G.C. from Petitioner's home until the day of the November 21, 2008, evidentiary hearing. Prior to the hearing convening that day, DHHR informed the lower court by fax that B.G.C. needed to be moved to another foster care home because Petitioners' home was over the capacity limit set for foster homes. (See footnote 11) At the hearing it was made known that the last foster placement by DHHR in Petitioners' home had occurred on October 31, 2008, shortly before either of the permanency plan hearings.
The evidence presented at the November 21, 2008, hearing included the testimony of DHHR adoption and child protective service workers, both Petitioners and two expert witnesses _ a clinical psychologist called by the GAL, and a clinical/forensic psychiatrist called by Petitioners. (See footnote 12) At the conclusion of the hearing, the lower court renewed its previous finding that adoption was the proper permanency plan for B.G.C. and ordered from the bench that B.G.C. be removed from Petitioners' home by noon the following day for placement in the home of a married couple DHHR had identified as a potential adoptive home. The lower court later summarized the basis for its action in a December 2, 2008, order. This order included the following relevant findings of fact and conclusions of law:
13. The Court FINDS that the Kutil-Hess household may be the most appropriate adoptive placement home for the child, but it is unfair not to allow the child the option to be adopted by a traditional family. The child should be given the opportunity to be adopted by mother-father adoption and not be locked into a single parent adoption.
* * * * *
15. The Court FINDS that the Permanency Plan of transition to the DHHR Adoption Unit is appropriate and should be accepted by this Court.
16. The Court FINDS that [B.G.C.] is presently in the intervenors' home, however, the DHHR has found the intervenors' home is over capacity and has asked the Court to remove the child with a transitional period, based upon that reason. Thus, the Court FINDS that [B.G.C.] should be moved immediately. The Court FINDS that placement of [B.G.C.] in a home with a married mother and father pending such adoption process is most appropriate for the child's well being.
In determining whether to entertain and issue the writ of prohibition for cases not involving an absence of jurisdiction but only where it is claimed that the lower tribunal exceeded its legitimate powers, this Court will examine five factors: (1) whether the party seeking the writ has no other adequate means, such as direct appeal, to obtain the desired relief; (2) whether the petitioner will be damaged or prejudiced in a way that is not correctable on appeal; (3) whether the lower tribunal's order is clearly erroneous as a matter of law; (4) whether the lower tribunal's order is an oft repeated error or manifests persistent disregard for either procedural or substantive law; and (5) whether the lower tribunal's order raises new and important problems or issues of law of first impression. These factors are general guidelines that serve as a useful starting point for determining whether a discretionary writ of prohibition should issue. Although all five factors need not be satisfied, it is clear that the third factor, the existence of clear error as a matter of law, should be given substantial weight.
With this standard in mind, we proceed to consider whether it was proper for the lower court to order removal of the infant from Petitioners' home.
Petitioners assert that the lower court was exceeding its legitimate authority by ordering the removal of B.G.C. from their home for placement in a traditional home which the court defined as headed by a mother and a father. Respondent asserts that removal was legally required under the circumstances before it because: (1) Petitioners as a couple are not permitted to adopt a child under the provisions of the adoption statute, and (2) the number of children residing in Petitioners' foster home exceeded the statutory limit. It is upon these legal foundations that Respondent maintains that it was necessary to order removal of the child from the home. Respondent further contends it also was appropriate to order placement of B.G.C. with a suitable married couple interested in adoption given the legislative preference expressed in the adoption statutes for adoption by married couples.
As to Respondent's first ground for removal, it is not at all clear that the issue of joint adoption by unmarried parties was before the court. It is important to keep in mind that the purpose of the permanency hearing in an abuse and neglect case is to determine what type of permanent placement would provide the level of custody, care, commitment, nurturing and discipline that is consistent with . . . [a] child's best interests. State v. Michael M., 202 W.Va. 350, 358, 504 S.E.2d 177, 185 (1998). And although adoption is the preferred permanent placement for a child when parental rights are terminated, (See footnote 14) it is but one permanent placement option which DHHR may recommend in its permanency plan. (See footnote 15)
It was made abundantly clear during the course of the hearings in the present case that the permanency plan is designed to recommend a general course of action regarding future placement of a child after parental rights have been terminated, and that it would be premature for DHHR to recommend a particular adoptive home at the permanency hearing. Certainly, DHHR has the responsibility to develop a permanent placement plan for a child contemporaneously with reunification efforts, (See footnote 16) but the details of the plan necessarily depend on the course of action the court determines to be most suitable under the circumstances. According to the testimony of DHHR workers, a particularized plan for a child whose recommended permanent placement is an adoptive home would not be completed until after the child's case is transferred to DHHR's adoption unit because the agency's operations involving adoptive home selection are run separately from DHHR's operations involving services for abuse and neglect victims. We further note that although Petitioners may have indicated the desire to make B.G.C. a permanent part of their household, there was no formal joint or individual request for adoption pending before the court at the permanency hearings.
This Court has clearly and consistently maintained that '[c]ourts are not constituted for the purpose of making advisory decrees or resolving academic disputes.' Mainella v. Board of Trustees of Policemen's Pension or Relief Fund of City of Fairmont, 126 W.Va. 183, 185-86, 27 S.E.2d 486, 487-88 (1943). Syl. Pt. 2, in part, Harshbarger v. Gainer, 184 W.Va. 656, 403 S.E.2d 399 (1991). It was thus inappropriate for the lower court to rule as a matter of law on the subject of the propriety of joint adoption of a child by a same sex couple because it was not a matter pending before the court. Moreover, Petitioners have represented to this Court that joint adoption is not being sought, and Ms. Kutil has informed DHHR of her interest in adopting B.G.C. as a single person.
We next consider whether overcapacity suffices as a ground for removal of B.G.C. from her home. As was noted earlier, there were seven children residing in Petitioners' foster home during the time period when both permanency hearings occurred. Whether the upper limit for the number of children who may reside in a foster home is five or six, (See footnote 17) Petitioners' foster home was overcapacity and the situation needed to be corrected. (See footnote 18) Our concern lies with the manner in which the problem was rectified.
In its response to the pending writ of prohibition, DHHR stated that the change in the agency's position regarding removal of B.G.C. only occurred because of overcrowding at Petitioners' home and the ready availability of a foster home that was
willing and capable at the time to accept the infant, . . . . [and the agency] did not at that time have a placement available for the children who were most recently placed in the Petitioners' home. DHHR then added, Nowhere has WVDHHR indicated that the home provided by Petitioners was anything other than loving and nurturing. Despite the number of times that this Court has stated the best interest of the child is the polar star upon which decisions involving children are to be based, (See footnote 19) DHHR did not even consider whether the individual needs of B.G.C. would be best served by removing her from Petitioners' care, but instead opted for a swift and ready solution to the problem the agency created. The agency simply turned a blind eye to the fact that B.G.C. had been placed in the foster home a number of months before some of the other children then in the home, and ignored any consideration of the impact relocation would have on B.G.C.'s emotional, physical and mental development. By following the lead of DHHR, the lower court erred in not closely examining the individual needs of B.G.C. as well as of the other children placed in Petitioners' home to determine how the best interests of all the children would be served while remedying the overcapacity problem of the foster home.
No evidence was produced at the hearings as to Petitioners providing anything but quality care in their foster home, or of any particular problems B.G.C. was experiencing in her foster home environment. Consequently, the main concern in solving the
overcrowding problem should have been what affect the disruption of relocation would have on the emotional and physical well-being of the individual children in the home. The length of time each of the foster children was in the home no doubt would affect the strength of the emotional bond that had developed between each child and Petitioners as well as their sense of comfort and security with their home environment. The only home B.G.C. had ever known in the eleven months of her life had been Petitioners' foster home. Surely bonding had occurred between the infant and Petitioners to a much larger extent than with children who had lived in the household for a much shorter period of time. We have been clear in pointing out that [t]he best interests of a child are served by preserving important relationships in that child's life. Syl. pt. 2, State ex rel. Treadway v. McCoy, 189 W.Va. 210, 429 S.E.2d 492 (1993). This concern extends to the relationship a child in foster care has with foster parents. As we held in syllabus point eleven of In re Jonathan G., 198 W.Va. 716, 482 S.E.2d 893 (1996), [a] child has a right to continued association with individuals with whom he has formed a close emotional bond, including foster parents, provided that a determination is made that such continued contact is in the best interests of the child. Cf. In re Clifford K., 217 W.Va. 625, 619 S.E.2d 138 (2005) (recognizing that a foster parent may attain the status of psychological parent when the relationship is not temporary in duration and exists with the consent and encouragement of a child's legal parent or guardian). The GAL contends that because B.G.C. is a child under the age of two she is less apt to have bonded with her foster parents. He relies on language we quoted from a Pennsylvania Superior Court in our decision in West Virginia Department of Human Services v. La Rea Ann C.L., 175 W.Va. 330, 332 S.E.2d 632 (1985) to support this proposition. This reliance is misplaced. The fundamental issue decided in La Rea Ann C.L. is that a minor parent's right to revoke the relinquishment of child custody ceases to be absolute when an unreasonable period of time has passed. Id. at Syl. Pt. 2. We further determined that in such circumstances the best interests of the child not only be considered but be given primary importance. Id. The case was then remanded with instruction to the trial court to receive evidence to make a finding of fact on the child's best interests presently. Id. at 337, 332 S.E.2d at 638. Thus, whether a given child has bonded with a parental figure is a question of fact.
The situation before us involves a removal decision where the foster home environment or care provided in a foster home is not in question, and removal of a child is necessary to correct problems created by bureaucratic error. When presented with such situations, courts need to safeguard the best interests of the children by examining evidence of the emotional, physical and mental needs of the individual children under the particular circumstances of a case, and then balancing the relative interests of the children in order to decide which child or children would be less traumatized or detrimentally affected by being removed from the home. No such examination or balancing occurred in the present case. However, even though the relevant analysis regarding the best interests of the children placed in Petitioners' home is a significant oversight, it is unnecessary for the lower court to further address that issue as we have been informed that the overcrowding problem has been resolved. During oral argument in this case, the Court was told that the foster home is no longer overcapacity, with only five children, including B.G.C., presently residing in Petitioners' home. Consequently, removal of B.G.C. to resolve an overcrowding problem is moot.
In consideration of the foregoing discussion of the grounds upon which Respondent ordered removal of B.G.C., such action constituted clear error and the writ of prohibition is granted on the removal issue.
Finding no merit in the grounds for removal asserted by Respondent, we must also consider Respondent's contention that removal of B.G.C. to a foster home representing a more traditional family unit consisting of a married mother and father who are interested in adoption furthers a legislative preference expressed in the adoption statutes.
West Virginia Code § 48-22-201 (2001) (Repl. Vol. 2004) provides that
[a]ny person not married or any person, with his or spouse's consent, or any husband and wife jointly, may petition a circuit court of the county wherein such person or persons reside for a decree of adoption of any minor child or person who may be adopted by the petitioner or petitioners.
The statute thus sets forth three classifications of persons who may adopt: (1) an unmarried person; (2) a married couple jointly, and (3) an individual in a marriage whose spouse consents. Although Respondent recognized that each Petitioner may individually petition to adopt under the statute, he asserts in his brief that the statutes indicate a preference for adoption by married couples. No statutory citation was supplied to support this position and our research reveals no such stated preference. Nor were we able to locate any legislatively assigned preference for adoption into a traditional home or any statutory definition of a traditional home for adoption purposes. As is evident from the clear language of West Virginia Code § 48-22-201, there is no prioritization among the three classifications of those eligible to adopt a child in this state. A statutory provision which is clear and unambiguous and plainly expresses the legislative intent will not be interpreted by the courts but will be given full force and effect. Syl. Pt. 2, State v. Epperly, 135 W.Va. 877, 65 S.E.2d 488 (1951). (See footnote 20)
Notwithstanding Respondent's and GAL's suggestions to the contrary, there
simply is no legislative differentiation between categories of eligible candidates for adoption
under the terms of West Virginia Code § 48-22-201. Such policy determination is clearly
a legislative prerogative, outside of the purview of the courts. The primary concern of courts
in adoption cases is whether there is evidence that the recommended adoptive home
possesses the necessary attributes to meet the individual and specific needs of the child both
at present and in the future. (See footnote 21)
Central to our deliberation in this case is the reason or motivation underlying Respondent's decision to remove a child from her foster care home. The motion to remove the child was not supported by any allegation that B.G.C. was receiving improper or unwise care and management in her foster home, or that she was being subjected to any other legally recognized undesirable condition or influence. W.Va. Code § 49-2-12 (1970) (Repl. Vol. 2004); see also W.Va. Code § 49-2-14 (2002) (Repl. Vol. 2004) (criteria and procedure for removal of child from foster home). Likewise, no evidence supporting a legal reason for removing the child was presented at the hearings. As a matter of fact, the court was never presented with any actual evaluation of the home or evidence of the quality of the
relationship B.G.C. had with Petitioners. Moreover, Respondent deferred hearing testimony from Petitioners' witnesses regarding their parenting abilities. Nevertheless, there also was no indication that Petitioners provided B.G.C. with anything other than a loving and nurturing home. As Respondent observed from the bench at the November 21 hearing, there has been absolutely no allegation that these women have not cared for [B.G.C.] or the other kids and, in fact, all of the evidence indicates that they have done very well and have provided very well for the children. Without any information that the foster care placement with Petitioners was not proceeding well, there was no legal reason for the court to remove B.G.C. from the only home she has known.
It is more than apparent that the only reason why Petitioners were being replaced as foster care providers was to promote the adoption of B.G.C. by what Respondent called in his November 12, 2008, order a traditionally defined family, that is, a family consisting of both a mother and a father. It was only by addressing issues he anticipated would develop and believed would be problems at a later point in this case that Respondent was even able to reach the subject of this conclusion. The conclusion itself thus represents a blurring of legal principles applicable to abuse and neglect and adoption. Moreover, even if our current statutes, rules and regulations could somehow be read to support the adoption preference proposed by Respondent, such a newfound principle would need to be harmonized with established law. Under our current law which encourages adoption by qualified foster parents, one of the Petitioners seeking to adopt B.G.C. individually would at the very least need to be considered if not favored in the selection of the prospective adoptive home. (See footnote 22)
In the present case, all indications thus far are that B.G.C. has formed a close emotional bond and nurturing relationship with her foster parents, which can not be trivialized or ignored. State ex rel. Treadway v. McCoy; In re Jonathan G. As such, it serves as a classic example of a case in which the permanency plan for adoption should move quickly to the desired result of a permanent home for B.G.C. One of the Petitioners who has already adopted a child (See footnote 23) and appreciates the tremendous responsibility adoption entails, has recently expressed the desire to adopt B.G.C. Clearly, that Petitioner should not be excluded from consideration for the reason stated by Respondent. These factors all should serve to facilitate the selection process, which needs to be completed as expeditiously as possible in order to further the best interests of B.G.C. and in recognition and support of the parenting investment which has been made.