Category: Venue

In re R.G. – 2023 UT App 144 THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS








No. 20220635-CA

Filed November 24, 2023

Second District Juvenile Court, Ogden Department

The Honorable Tasha Williams

No. 1183589

Keith Andrew Fitzgerald, Attorney for Appellant

Sean D. Reyes and John M. Peterson,

Attorneys for Appellee

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

JUDGE MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES JOHN D. LUTHY and AMY J. OLIVER concurred.


¶1 G.G. (Father) appeals the juvenile court’s order terminating his parental rights to R.G. (Child). Father argues the juvenile court erred in finding that termination of his parental rights was strictly necessary, because placement of Child with Father’s sister in another state was an option. Because Father has not persuaded us that the court committed reversible error, we affirm its order terminating Father’s parental rights.


¶2        Child was born in January 2020. The following day, the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) received a referral indicating that Child’s mother (Mother)[2] had tested positive for illegal substances both at the time of Child’s birth and during her pregnancy. Thereafter, a DCFS caseworker put a safety plan in place and Child was allowed to leave the hospital and return home with Father and Mother.

¶3        Almost exactly one month later, the juvenile court held a pretrial shelter hearing, which Father did not attend. Following the hearing, the court entered an order removing Child from Father’s and Mother’s custody and placing Child in the temporary custody of DCFS. That same day, a DCFS caseworker (Caseworker) held a kinship meeting to discuss placement options for Child. Despite being informed of the meeting, neither Father nor Mother chose to attend. Nevertheless, Caseworker identified an in-state kinship placement with a foster family (Foster Family) that had previously adopted two of Child’s biological half-siblings.

¶4        A verified petition for custody and legal guardianship was filed one day after the shelter hearing. A few days later, Mother told Caseworker that she wanted Child to be placed with Father’s sister (Aunt), who lived in Georgia. Father made the same request.

¶5        In March 2020, Father attended a pretrial hearing on the verified petition. Based on Father’s admissions to the allegations in the petition, the juvenile court adjudicated Child neglected as to Father.[3] Child was placed in DCFS’s custody, and the court set Child’s permanency goal as reunification with a concurrent goal of adoption. The court ordered that reunification services be provided to Father and that Father comply with a child and family plan.

¶6        In May 2020, Caseworker contacted Aunt to begin the placement process provided by the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children (the ICPC).[4] Caseworker explained that the next step was to fill out paperwork to send to the Utah state office. She noted that the time required to complete the paperwork would depend on how soon she could obtain the necessary documents, including Child’s social security card and birth certificate. Because Caseworker did not have those documents for Child on file, she requested them from the parents and from the social security office.

¶7        For the remainder of 2020, the juvenile court held periodic review hearings as required by statute. At the first hearing in June,

the court ordered DCFS “to move forward with the ICPC.” At a hearing in August, the State informed the court that “the ICPC has been put on hold due to [DCFS] not having a social security number, or birth certificate for [Child].”

¶8        After multiple failed attempts to obtain Child’s social security card and birth certificate from the parents, Caseworker was finally able to obtain the documents from the social security office, which had taken several extra months due to closures related to the COVID-19 pandemic. On November 6, 2020, DCFS informed the juvenile court that it had completed its portion of the ICPC paperwork and asked the court to send the paperwork to Georgia so that the Georgia state office could complete its part. The juvenile court signed the order on November 10.

¶9        Reunification services to Father were terminated in February 2021 due to Father’s noncompliance with the child and family plan. In June, the State filed a petition to terminate Father’s parental rights.

¶10 In September 2021, the juvenile court held a pretrial hearing on the termination petition, during which the status of the ICPC was discussed. Father’s counsel indicated that Aunt had “completed and submitted” to Georgia all the required paperwork. However, DCFS reported that Caseworker had contacted the Georgia state office regarding the ICPC but there had been no information provided as to its status. Father then addressed the court. He explained that Aunt notified him that morning that she had completed the ICPC paperwork. Father also informed the court that he was willing to relinquish his rights to Child if Aunt could adopt her, and he reminded the court that his desire “from the get-go” had been to place Child with Aunt. Based in part on the unresolved questions related to the status of the ICPC, the court scheduled a second pretrial hearing to take place in October.

¶11      At the October pretrial hearing, the State reported the status of the ICPC:

[DCFS] was able to get an update from the state of Georgia and that update was filed with the Court. It does show that there were some additional documents that need to be turned in. There was a deadline of July 30th for those to be submitted and as of the date of the report which is dated September 13th, they have not been turned in. I don’t think we have anything more current than that as far as what’s happening with the ICPC but it appears that is stalled until the family turns in the necessary documents.

In response to this update, Aunt told the court that she had submitted the completed ICPC paperwork, completed a required class, and was currently participating in a home study. After discussing the status of the ICPC, the parties discussed its relevance. The guardian ad litem (the GAL) and the State indicated that the ICPC was a “backup plan” because Child was in a kinship placement with Foster Family and had been there for a “long” time. Mother and Father disagreed with this assessment. Counsel for both parents stated that the original reason for requesting the ICPC was to allow Aunt to be the primary placement. Following this discussion, the court concluded that regardless of Child’s placement goal, the parties were in “a holding pattern” and Child could not yet be placed with Aunt because “the home study hasn’t been approved” and the ICPC was therefore not complete.

¶12      Trial on the State’s petition to terminate parental rights began in November 2021. Despite having proper notice, Father failed to appear at the termination trial. Father’s counsel moved to be released due to this failure, and the juvenile court granted counsel’s motion. The trial then proceeded by proffer. At the close

of trial, the court entered an order terminating Father’s parental rights, which Father subsequently appealed. Thereafter, the State, the GAL, Father, and Mother filed a stipulated motion for summary reversal. This court granted the motion and accordingly vacated the termination order and remanded the matter for a new trial.

¶13 The second termination trial occurred over the course of three days in April 2022. The juvenile court heard testimony from Caseworker, Father, and Child’s foster parents (Foster Parents). Caseworker testified that at the beginning of the case, Father expressed interest in having Child placed with Aunt in Georgia. Caseworker explained that because Aunt lives out-of-state, DCFS cannot place Child with Aunt unless Aunt has an approved ICPC. Caseworker testified that she started the ICPC process in April 2020 and that she completed the ICPC paperwork and sent it to Georgia in November 2020. Caseworker stated that she would have been able to submit the paperwork sooner had Father provided Child’s social security card and birth certificate to her directly, but because he did not, Caseworker had to obtain the documents from the social security office, which had been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

¶14 Caseworker testified that since submitting the ICPC paperwork, she had received “minimal updates” from Georgia— despite the fact that she had followed up “[a]bout every month” —and that she did not have any control over the Georgia state office. She explained that she did not contact Aunt directly during the ICPC process because the “proper channel” for all communication related to an ICPC is between the state offices; however, Caseworker testified that had Aunt contacted DCFS and requested visitation, DCFS “would have given it to her.” Caseworker noted that the most recent ICPC update from Georgia was given on February 3, 2022, which stated, “Home study is being written with an expected completion date of 2/14/2022. Will be sent for approval at that time.” At the time of trial, however,

Caseworker had not been informed whether the home study had been approved or not, nor had she received any kind of final report on the ICPC.

¶15      Lastly, Caseworker testified that under DCFS guidelines, Child was considered to be in a kinship placement because she was placed with Foster Family—the family that had adopted two of Child’s biological half-siblings. Caseworker also noted that DCFS has no “level of preference” for different kinship placements. Therefore, even if the approved ICPC had been received, DCFS had already satisfied its “internal standards” by placing Child with kin.

¶16 Regarding placement options, Father testified that although Child “is in good hands” with Foster Family, he wanted her to be placed with Aunt, a desire that he had expressed since the beginning of the case. Father acknowledged that Aunt has never met Child and that removing Child from Foster Family would be a “disruption.” However, Father blamed DCFS for the delay in the ICPC approval, claiming that Aunt had done “everything she possibly could.”

¶17 Foster Parents both testified about Child’s strong relationship with Foster Family. Child’s foster mother (Foster Mother) stated that Child is “almost inseparable” from her foster sibling and that Child and her biological half-siblings “have a great relationship.” Foster Parents expressed their desire to adopt Child, and Foster Mother explained that it would be “devastating” for the entire family, including Child, if Child were to be removed from their home.

¶18      In addition, Foster Mother testified that allowing Child to remain in contact with Father might not be in her best interest because “[t]here’s just a lot of anxiety that happens with [Child] after visits.” Specifically, Child “was having night terrors . . . when we were doing visits. She would wake up crying, but you couldn’t actually wake her up. She was just crying . . . .” Foster

Mother stated that the night terrors stopped when the visits with Father stopped.

¶19      Moreover, Father had a history of engaging in violent and threatening behavior. Specifically, Father threatened Caseworker when she canceled a visit after Father failed to check in, and from then on, DCFS was required to provide extra security during Father’s visits. Father also threatened Foster Parents and had been found looking up Foster Parents’ contact information. And Father admitted to committing violent acts against Mother on several occasions.

¶20 On June 28, 2022, approximately two months after the termination trial, the juvenile court entered a thirty-page order terminating Father’s parental rights to Child. The court found that DCFS made “reasonable efforts” in pursuing the ICPC, including that Caseworker had worked to obtain the necessary documentation and complete the ICPC paperwork as quickly as possible, that Caseworker followed up on the status of the ICPC “about every month,” that Georgia had provided “minimal updates” on the ICPC throughout the case, and that Father’s testimony that Aunt had completed the ICPC and was “cleared” was not credible. Further, the court found that it was in Child’s best interest to remain with Foster Family because Child had become “integrated” into Foster Family, because Child had developed strong bonds with her foster sibling and half-siblings, and because removing Child from her existing placement would be difficult. Moreover, the court found that Aunt “did not request contact with [Child] and has not met her.” Based on these findings, the court concluded that termination was strictly necessary to protect Child’s best interest. It explained:

[T]his Court must consider all the permanency options for [Child] and whether she can be equally protected and benefitted by an option other than termination. One option is for a placement with

[Aunt] in Georgia. However, at the time of trial the ICPC had not been approved, legally barring such placement. Further, at this point, the placement is not in [Child’s] best interest. [Child] has never met [Aunt] and [Aunt] has never requested visits with her. [Child] has no familial relationship with [Aunt]. . . . When viewed from [Child’s] point of view, as required by statute, termination is strictly necessary so that the loving family attachments she has made with [Foster Family] and her biological [half-siblings] can be preserved through adoption.

¶21      Father filed a notice of appeal of the juvenile court’s termination order on July 7, 2022. On July 18, the court held a post-termination review hearing. Because Father’s parental rights had been terminated, he did not attend the hearing; only the State, Caseworker, and the GAL were present. The parties discussed Child’s welfare as well as the status of the ICPC. Following the hearing, the court issued an order indicating that the ICPC had been approved but declining to alter Child’s placement. The court reasoned as follows:

[DCFS’s] court report indicates that [Child] continues to do well in the foster placement with her biological siblings. In June, 2022 [DCFS] received an approved ICPC from Georgia for [Aunt]. [Aunt] has never met [Child] and has no relationship with her. She never requested contact or updates during the case. It would not be appropriate or in [Child’s] best interest to change placements at this point in the case so [DCFS] sent a Case Closure Form to Georgia.


¶22 Father appeals the juvenile court’s order terminating his parental rights to Child, arguing that the court erred in concluding it was strictly necessary to terminate his parental rights. “We review deferentially a lower court’s best-interest determination and will overturn it only if it either failed to consider all of the facts or considered all of the facts and its decision was nonetheless against the clear weight of the evidence.”[5] In re J.J.W., 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 18, 520 P.3d 38 (quotation simplified)However, Father acknowledges that he did not raise this issue below, and he therefore asks us to review the court’s strictly necessary determination for plain error.[6] To succeed on a claim of plain error, Father must show that “(1) an error exists; (2) the error should have been obvious to the juvenile court; and (3) the error is harmful, i.e., absent the error, there is a reasonable likelihood of a more favorable outcome.” In re S.T., 2022 UT App 130, ¶ 14, 521 P.3d 887 (quotation simplified).


¶23      Father argues the juvenile court erred in determining that

it was strictly necessary to terminate his parental rights because the court did not adequately consider other feasible placement options for Child. Father’s challenge largely concerns the court’s consideration of the ICPC and whether Aunt was a feasible placement option. Because Father did not raise this issue below, to succeed on appeal he must show that a harmful error exists and that the error should have been obvious to the juvenile court. See In re J.A.L., 2022 UT 12, ¶ 12, 506 P.3d 606.

¶24 “Because the relationship between parent and child is constitutionally protected, a court may only terminate parental rights upon a finding that termination is strictly necessary to the best interest[] of the child.”[7] In re S.T., 2022 UT App 130, ¶ 33, 521 P.3d 887 (quotation simplified). Here, the juvenile court determined it was strictly necessary to terminate Father’s parental rights because there was no option available, short of termination and adoption, that would equally protect and benefit Child. In


making this determination, the court considered, among other options, permanent guardianship with Foster Parents and permanent guardianship with Aunt. Ultimately, the court decided against placement with Aunt for two reasons. First, Aunt was in Georgia, and “at the time of trial the ICPC had not been approved, legally barring such placement.” Second, placement with Aunt was not in Child’s best interest because Child “has never met [Aunt] and [Aunt] has never requested visits with her. [Child] has no familial relationship with [Aunt].”

¶25      Father assails the juvenile court’s reasoning on both points. As to the first, Father contends the ICPC was approved before termination was ordered and therefore it should have been adjudicated with the termination petition. And as to the second, Father contends the court’s analysis was inadequate and based on categorical concerns. For the reasons discussed below, his attack is unavailing.

¶26      First, Father mischaracterizes the record regarding the ICPC. Father asserts that the ICPC “was definitively completed before the written order of termination of parental rights [was] entered” but that the results were “concealed by DCFS until post-termination proceedings.”[8] But Father’s position on this point is undermined by his concession that “[n]one of the parties can conclusively state [when the ICPC was approved] because [DCFS] never presented this information.” Indeed, it is unclear from the record whether DCFS received the approved ICPC before or after the court entered its final order terminating Father’s parental rights. The only definitive information available in the record is that the termination trial was held in April 2022; the court entered its termination order on June 28; and on July 18, the court held a post-termination review hearing, during which DCFS reported that in June 2022 it had “received an approved ICPC from Georgia” for Aunt. Therefore, while the approved ICPC may have been received by DCFS while the matter was still under advisement by the court, Father has not demonstrated that this was absolutely the case.

¶27 Furthermore, regardless of whether the approved ICPC was presented to the juvenile court pre- or post-termination, on the facts of this case, Father cannot demonstrate that the court’s strictly necessary determination would have been any different had it received the ICPC earlier.[9] As an initial matter, it is undisputed that DCFS informed the court about the approved ICPC and the court considered the implications of that approval during a post-termination review hearing. Indeed, during the review hearing, the court stated that although the ICPC for Aunt had been approved, “[i]t would not be appropriate or in [Child’s] best interest to change placements at this point in the case.” The court reasoned that Child “continues to do well in the foster placement with her biological [half-]siblings,” whereas Aunt “has never met [Child] and has no relationship with her. [Aunt] never requested contact or updates during the case.” Because the court’s decision to not change Child’s placement post-termination rested at least in part on Aunt’s lack of engagement throughout the duration of the years-long case—including after the ICPC was approved—there is no indication that an earlier receipt of the approved ICPC would have had any bearing on the court’s reasoning. See In re G.D., 2021 UT 19, ¶ 81, 491 P.3d 867 (finding that a juvenile court’s strictly necessary analysis was not deficient where the court declined to “admit and consider the evidence [the appellants] presented after trial” because neither Utah law nor Utah caselaw “requires a juvenile court to consider supplemental evidence that merely elaborates on a factor the court already considered in its ‘strictly necessary’ analysis—especially when that evidence does not address or refute the considerations on which the court relied to reach its conclusion”).

¶28 Relatedly, Father glosses over the import of an approved ICPC. While an approved ICPC is a precursor to any out-of-state placement, an approved ICPC does not guarantee placement. After a child is removed from a parent’s custody, the juvenile court must “determine whether there is a relative . . . who is able and willing to care for the child.” Utah Code § 80-3-302(6)(a). If the court identifies an out-of-state relative as a potential placement, the court must comply with the procedures and requirements outlined in the ICPC before ordering that the child be placed in another state. See id. § 80-2-905. Following the approval of an ICPC, the court “shall give preferential consideration to a relative’s . . . request for placement of the child, if the placement is in the best interest of the child.” Id. § 80-3-302(7)(a)(i) (emphasis added). In other words, the plain language of the statute “does not guarantee that an identified relative . . . will receive custody of the child.” Id. § 80-3-302(18). Accordingly, the court was not required to place Child with Aunt if doing so was not in Child’s best interest. And as discussed below, the court’s best interest analysis was adequate to foreclose placement with Aunt.

¶29      Moreover, contrary to Father’s assertion, the juvenile court properly considered feasible placement options other than termination and adoption. As stated above, the court articulated two reasons in support of its strictly necessary determination. In addition to concluding that Aunt was legally barred as a placement option because the ICPC was still pending, the court found that placement with Aunt was not in Child’s best interest because Child “has never met [Aunt] and [Aunt] has never requested visits with her. [Child] has no familial relationship with [Aunt].” On the facts of this case, this determination was not erroneous.

¶30      Our legislature has expressed a strong preference for maintaining familial bonds. To that end, a court may terminate a parent’s rights only if termination is strictly necessary to promote a child’s best interest. Courts ordering termination “must start the best interest analysis from the legislatively mandated position that ‘[w]herever possible, family life should be strengthened and preserved.’” In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 66, 472 P.3d 827 (quoting Utah Code § 80-4-104(12)(a)). However, once a parent is found to be unfit, a court may terminate the parent’s rights if doing so “is strictly necessary for the welfare and best interest of the child.” Id. ¶ 62. At this stage, the court must “consider the welfare and best interest of the child of paramount importance in determining whether termination of parental rights shall be ordered.” Utah Code § 80-4-104(12)(a).

¶31      In evaluating whether termination is strictly necessary, a juvenile court must consider, “among other relevant factors,” whether “the efforts to place the child with kin who have, or are willing to come forward to care for the child, were given due weight.” Id. § 80-4-104(12)(b)(ii). This requires the court to “explore whether other feasible options exist that could address

the specific problems or issues facing the family, short of imposing the ultimate remedy of terminating the parent’s rights.” In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 67 (quotation simplified). This inquiry cannot be satisfied merely by relying on the “categorical concern” that adoption offers the highest degree of permanency.” In re J.A.L., 2022 UT 12, ¶ 25. Instead, the court must analyze the “particularized circumstances of the case” and explore whether an alternative arrangement “can equally protect and benefit the children in the case before it.” Id. (quotation simplified). And “when two placement options would equally benefit a child, the strictly necessary requirement operates as a preference for a placement option that does not necessitate termination over an option that does.” In re G.D., 2021 UT 19, ¶ 75.

¶32 Father contends the juvenile court erred in finding that termination was strictly necessary because the court ignored that Aunt “was the preferred placement” and instead relied on “categorial concerns” to support its determination. However, neither point is well taken, and the court’s rationale is sufficient to justify its decision to terminate Father’s parental rights.

¶33 Father asserts that Aunt “was the preferred placement” because “[t]his is a case where both placement options would equally benefit” Child and “placement with [Aunt] did not necessitate termination of parental rights.” This assertion is without merit. Our caselaw is clear that the preferential status afforded to a placement option that does not necessitate termination exists only where the two placement options “equally benefit” the child. See id. But here, there is no evidence to suggest that placement with Aunt would “equally benefit” Child.

¶34 Indeed, the juvenile court’s comprehensive termination order included multiple findings concerning Aunt. Specifically, the court found that Caseworker had contacted Aunt in May 2020 to start the ICPC process. Despite this contact, at the time of trial approximately two years later, Aunt had “not request[ed] contact

with [Child] and [had] not met her.” Although Aunt may have not been available as a placement option prior to approval of the ICPC, nothing was preventing her from contacting Child and forming a relationship with her. And given the duration of the proceedings, Aunt was given ample time to do so.

¶35      Conversely, the juvenile court found that Child was in an appropriate adoptive placement with Foster Family. Among other things, Child had been living with Foster Family since “shortly before she turned one month old,” and Child had developed strong bonds with her foster sibling and two half-siblings. Yet Father does not grapple with the import of these relationships. Notably, Child is in a kinship placement with Foster Family since Child’s biological half-siblings were adopted into Foster Family. Moreover, as this court has recently recognized, “the biological connection between siblings matters.” See In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 42, 518 P.3d 993 (“The importance of sibling relationships is well recognized by courts and social science scholars, because a sibling relationship can be an independent emotionally supporting factor for children in ways quite distinctive from other relationships, and there are benefits and experiences that a child reaps from a relationship with his or her brother(s) or sister(s) which truly cannot be derived from any other. Such bonds are often especially important to children who experience chaotic circumstances like abuse or neglect, because in such circumstances, they learn very early to depend on and cooperate with each other to cope with their common problems.” (quotation simplified)), cert. granted, 525 P.3d 1279 (Utah 2023). Given the court’s competing findings about each potential placement, we cannot say that placing Child with Aunt—an individual she has never met—would equally benefit Child where Child is already in a kinship placement with her half-siblings. As a result, Aunt was not a preferred placement.

¶36 Moreover, the juvenile court did not merely rely on categorical concerns when determining that termination was strictly necessary. On this point, Father contends the court’s decision was based on the categorical concern that removing a child from a foster family with whom the child is bonded will disrupt and negatively impact the child’s life. See id. ¶ 56. To be sure, the court’s determination hinged in large part on Child’s attachments to Foster Family, including to her two biological half-siblings, and the potential detriment to Child that would result from removal from that placement. However, the court’s conclusion was also based on the fact that Aunt’s relationship with Child was nonexistent and that placing Child with Aunt would therefore be particularly destabilizing. Consideration of the effects of a potential disruption, when based on case-specific facts, is entirely proper. Indeed, courts are statutorily required to consider continuity of care when determining whether to terminate parental rights. See Utah Code § 80-4-303(1)(a) (requiring courts to consider “the physical, mental, or emotional condition and needs of the child”); id. § 80-4-304(5) (requiring courts to consider “the length of time the child has lived in a stable, satisfactory foster home and the desirability of the child continuing to live in that environment”). And this court has recently recognized as much, noting that the potential effect of changing a placement is “a legitimate concern, and one that courts should take into account.” In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 56. In sum, the court’s determination here was not based on a categorical concern inasmuch as the court considered case-specific facts such as the impact of the potential disruption in light of Child’s nonexistent relationship with Aunt.

¶37 Finally, and very importantly, even if Father is correct in his assertion that the ICPC was completed before the termination trial, the ICPC approval and resulting potential for placement with Aunt was not the lynchpin of the juvenile court’s strictly necessary determination. As discussed above, placement with Aunt was not in the best interest of Child because of the shortcomings in that option as identified by the court. And a permanent guardianship with Foster Parents put in place to preserve Father’s residual parental rights and ensure Child’s connection to her half-siblings was also not in Child’s best interest as the court identified significant problems with Father’s continued parental connection to Child vis-à-vis Foster Family. Specifically, the court found that Child had “already experienced anxiety and night terrors during visits” with Father and that Father’s “threats toward [Foster Family] and his propensity for violence puts [Child and Foster Family] at risk.”


¶38 Father has not shown the juvenile court clearly erred in determining that it was strictly necessary to terminate his parental rights. Regardless of when the court received the approved ICPC, it adequately considered the results. Further, an approved ICPC does not guarantee placement, and Father has not demonstrated that the court plainly erred when considering other feasible placement options. Accordingly, we affirm the court’s order terminating Father’s parental rights.


Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277


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Do Abusive Parents Get Custody of Their Children? Can Relatives Get Custody Instead?

Do abusive parents get sole custody of their children, even when their children don’t want them to have it? If the children want to stay with a relative who can take care of them instead, can the court award the relative custody of the children and only allow the abusive parents visitation rights?

Do abusive parents get sole custody even when their children don’t want that? Yes, that can happen. Just because it can happen does not mean it will always happen, but there are many times when abusive parents still get custody of their children. The reasons can vary, but usually they are (in no particular order):

  • the parents deny being abusive, and if there isn’t enough evidence to refute their denials, the court gets fooled into believing the parents.
  • the parents may be abusive, but not considered abusive enough to justify stripping them of their parental rights to child custody; in those situations, even though the court may not deprive the parents of child custody, the court can and often will condition the keeping of their custodial rights upon the parents refraining from future abuse and completing courses on good and proper parenting.

If children want to stay with a relative who can take care of them, can the court award the relative custody of the children and only allow the abusive parents visitation? Yes, that can happen too, but only if the court finds sufficiently compelling reasons to infringe upon the parents rights of custody in favor of someone else exercising custody of the children. a child merely expressing a preference for someone other than his or her parents is never enough to justify a change of custody from the parents to someone else. Interfering with the parents’ rights to custody of their own children is very difficult because those parental rights are considered some of the most basic of human and fundamental rights.

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277

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2018 UT App 224 – In re Adoption of B.N.A. – wrong district court

2018 UT App 224 – In re Adoption of B.N.A.


C.E.L., Appellant,
T.L. AND A.L., Appellees.

Opinion No. 20180316-CA
Filed December 6, 2018

Third District Court, Tooele Department
The Honorable Matthew Bates
No. 172300016

Karra J. Porter and Crystal Lynn Orgill, Attorneys for Appellant

Ronald D. Wilkinson, Marianne P. Card, and Sara Pfrommer, Attorneys for Appellees

JUDGE RYAN M. HARRIS authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES JILL M. POHLMAN and DIANA HAGEN concurred.

HARRIS, Judge:

¶1        Utah adoption law provides that “[a]doption proceedings shall be commenced by filing a petition with the clerk of the district court . . . in the district where the prospective adoptive parent resides.” Utah Code Ann. § 78B-6-105(1)(a) (LexisNexis Supp. 2018). In this case, we must determine what the consequences are, under this statute, if prospective adoptive parents file an adoption petition in the wrong district. The biological father (Father) of the child in question (Child) contends that the statute speaks to a court’s subject-matter jurisdiction, and asserts that a petition filed in the wrong district must be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. The prospective adoptive parents (Petitioners), on the other hand, contend that the statute speaks simply to venue, and assert that when a petition is filed in the wrong district, the court has jurisdiction to continue to adjudicate the case, but must transfer the case upon request to the proper district. For the reasons set forth herein, we find Petitioners’ position persuasive, and therefore affirm the district court’s decision to deny Father’s motion to dismiss.


¶2        In early 2014, Father engaged in a brief romantic relationship with a woman (Mother) who became pregnant and gave birth to Child in November 2014. After the relationship ended, Father asserts that he had no further communication or interaction with Mother, and therefore claims to have been unaware of Mother’s pregnancy or of Child’s existence until after Child was born, and unaware that he was Child’s father until December 2017. It is undisputed that Father has never had any relationship with Child, who is now four years old.

¶3        In the meantime, in the spring of 2017 Mother decided to place Child for adoption, and began working with an adoption agency toward that end. The adoption agency selected Petitioners as a potential adoptive family, and Petitioners filed a petition for adoption in April 2017. Despite the fact that Petitioners reside in Utah County, part of Utah’s Fourth Judicial District, they filed their petition in Tooele County, part of Utah’s Third Judicial District.

¶4        Immediately after filing their petition, Petitioners asked the court to authorize a “commissioner” to take Mother’s relinquishment, in accordance with Utah Code section 78B-6-124(1)(b). The court approved Petitioner’s request, and signed an order appointing a representative of the adoption agency to take Mother’s relinquishment. After the order was signed, Mother met with the representative and signed a document relinquishing her parental rights to Child. One of that document’s provisions stated that Mother’s relinquishment was irrevocable “as to [Petitioners],” but that Mother was “not . . . consenting to the adoption of [Child] by any other person or persons.” In addition, the document provided that, “[i]f [Petitioners] are unable to complete the adoption of [Child] for any reason, and the adoption petition is dismissed or denied, it is in [Child’s] best interest that he be returned to [Mother’s] custody and control.”[1] Soon after Mother signed the relinquishment, Petitioners filed a copy of it with the court, and a few days later the court signed an order awarding temporary custody of Child to Petitioners.

¶5        Just a few months later, before the adoption was finalized, Mother filed a motion to set aside her relinquishment, asserting that she did not sign the document freely and voluntarily. The district court, after a half-day evidentiary hearing, determined that Mother had acted voluntarily and was not under duress or undue influence, and denied Mother’s motion. The court’s decision to deny Mother’s motion is not at issue in this appeal.

¶6        About a month later, in early January 2018, Father entered an appearance in the adoption case and filed a motion seeking leave to intervene, asking that the adoption proceedings be dismissed. A few weeks later, Father filed a second motion, raising for the first time his argument—advanced here in this appeal—that the district court did not have subject-matter jurisdiction over the case because Petitioners filed their petition in the wrong district.

¶7        After full briefing and oral argument, the district court denied Father’s motion to dismiss, and determined that it did have subject-matter jurisdiction over the case. Father then asked for permission to appeal the district court’s interlocutory order regarding jurisdiction, and we granted that request.


¶8        The issue presented in this case is one of statutory interpretation: whether Utah Code section 78B-6-105(1)(a) acts as a limit on a district court’s subject-matter jurisdiction, or is merely a venue statute. “We review questions of statutory interpretation for correctness, affording no deference to the district court’s legal conclusions.” State v. Stewart, 2018 UT 24, ¶ 5 (quotation simplified).


¶9        The statute in question states, in fairly straightforward language, that “[a]doption proceedings shall be commenced by filing a petition with the clerk of the district court,” and that, if the prospective adoptive parent is a Utah resident, the petition is to be filed “in the district where the prospective adoptive parent resides.” Utah Code Ann. § 78B-6-105(1)(a). All parties agree that this language demands that adoption proceedings be initiated by the filing of a petition. And all parties agree that, at least in adoption cases that are to be filed in district court rather than juvenile court, see id. § 78B-6-105(1)(c), and in which the prospective adoptive parent is a Utah resident, see id. § 78B-6-105(1)(a), this petition is supposed to be filed in the district where the prospective adoptive parent resides. On these points, the language appears plain and unambiguous.

¶10 The statute is not as plain, however, when it comes to setting forth the consequences that attach when a petitioner files an adoption petition in the wrong judicial district.[2] Father asserts that a petition filed in the wrong district must be dismissed, because he reads the statute as speaking to a court’s subject-matter jurisdiction to adjudicate the case. Petitioners, on the other hand, point out that any Utah district court has subject-matter jurisdiction over adoption cases as a class, and read the statute as a venue provision that does not implicate a court’s jurisdiction, but merely allows any party to request that the petition be transferred to the proper district. To resolve this dispute, we start by examining the concept of subject-matter jurisdiction, and then return to a further examination of the text of the statute.

¶11 “The notion of ‘jurisdiction’ is a slippery one.” In re adoption of B.B., 2017 UT 59, ¶ 125, 417 P.3d 1. The word “jurisdiction” means “different things in different circumstances.” Id. Sometimes, it is used to refer to “the scope of a court’s power to issue a certain form of relief,” while at other times the word is used to refer to “the territorial authority of the court that issues a decision,” but “neither of these notions of jurisdiction goes to a court’s subject-matter jurisdiction.” Id. ¶¶ 125–27.

¶12 Subject-matter jurisdiction is a “special” type of jurisdictional concept, one that is “distinct from other notions of jurisdiction in that we require our courts to consider such issues sua sponte” and, unlike other notions of jurisdiction, we “do not allow the parties to waive or forfeit [subject-matter jurisdiction] from consideration.” Id. ¶ 128. This distinction is “crucial,” because “[i]f an issue is subject-matter jurisdictional, the general rules of finality and preservation are off the table,” and that can “undermine the premises of efficiency, speedy resolution, and finality that generally undergird our justice system.” Id.

¶13 Because subject-matter jurisdiction is “special” and “distinct” from other jurisdictional concepts, see id., due to the fact that “parties can raise subject matter jurisdiction at any time during a proceeding, it makes sense to cabin the issues that fall under the category of subject matter jurisdiction,” Johnson v. Johnson, 2010 UT 28, ¶ 10, 234 P.3d 1100; see also In re adoption of B.B., 2017 UT 59, ¶ 129 (stating that “our law has been careful to cabin the notion of subject-matter jurisdiction”). In recent years, our supreme court has made a concerted effort to do just that, “routinely rebuff[ing] attempts by litigants to recast merits arguments as issues of subject-matter jurisdiction,” and instructing trial courts that they must “guard[] against the faux elevation of a court’s failure to comply with the requirements for exercising its authority to the same level of gravity as a lack of subject matter jurisdiction.” In re adoption of B.B., 2017 UT 59, ¶ 130 n.14 (quotation simplified); see also Johnson, 2010 UT 28, ¶ 9 (stating that “[t]he concept of subject matter jurisdiction does not embrace all cases where the court’s competence is at issue,” and that “[w]here the court has jurisdiction over the class of case involved, judgment is not void on the ground that the right involved in the suit did not embrace the relief granted”); Chen v. Stewart, 2004 UT 82, ¶ 36, 100 P.3d 1177 (determining that the parties mischaracterized their claim as one grounded in subject-matter jurisdiction in a futile attempt to avoid waiver), abrogated on other grounds by State v. Nielsen, 2014 UT 10, 326 P.3d 645. In Johnson, for instance, the court held that a district court had subject-matter jurisdiction over a divorce case, even though the parties were never actually legally married to begin with, because subject-matter jurisdiction is generally determined by reference to a “class of cases, rather than the specifics of an individual case.” Johnson, 2010 UT 28, ¶ 10. “Because the district court clearly has the authority to adjudicate divorces, looking to the specific facts of a particular case is inconsistent with our usual definition of subject matter jurisdiction.” Id. ¶ 12.

¶14 In fact, our supreme court has limited the concept of subject-matter jurisdiction to two specific situations: “(a) statutory limits on the authority of the court to adjudicate a class of cases,” and “(b) timing and other limits on the justiciability of the proceeding before the court (such as standing, ripeness, and mootness).” In re adoption of B.B., 2017 UT 59, ¶ 121 (quotation simplified); see also id. ¶ 153 (stating that “[o]ur law has long assessed subject-matter jurisdiction at the categorical level—encompassing only statutory limits on the classes of cases to be decided by the court and traditional limits on justiciability”). Neither of these situations is present here.

¶15 Starting with the second category first, Father does not assert that any of the common “justiciability” doctrines apply here, and therefore we need not analyze the potential applicability of any of those doctrines to the facts of this case.

¶16 And with regard to the first category, the text of the statute in question contains no express “limits” on the authority of Utah district courts to adjudicate adoption cases generally, as a class. Even Father wisely concedes that “[d]istrict courts may generally handle adoptions.” Indeed, “in Utah our district courts are courts of general jurisdiction” that have “general power to hear ‘all matters civil and criminal’ so long as they are ‘not excepted in the Utah Constitution and not prohibited by law.’” Id. ¶ 143 (quoting Utah Code section 78A-5-102(1)). More specifically, as concerns adoption cases, our supreme court has noted that “Utah district courts clearly have subject matter jurisdiction over adoption proceedings as a class of cases.” In re adoption of Baby E.Z., 2011 UT 38, ¶ 34, 266 P.3d 702; see also In re adoption of B.B., 2017 UT 59, ¶ 137 (stating that, “[b]y statute, our Utah courts are expressly authorized to assume jurisdiction over adoption petitions”).

¶17 When the legislature intends to place a statutory limit on a district court’s jurisdictional ability to hear a category of cases, it certainly knows how to do so expressly. See In re adoption of B.B., 2017 UT 59, ¶ 143 (stating that “[t]he code . . . places certain restrictions on the jurisdiction of our district courts,” but that such restrictions “are expressly denominated as such—as jurisdictional limits”). For instance, the legislature will identify certain claims as within the “exclusive jurisdiction” of an administrative agency or of a particular type of court, see, e.g., Utah Code Ann. § 34A-2-407(12)(a)–(b) (LexisNexis Supp. 2018) (identifying claims within the “exclusive jurisdiction” of the Labor Commission); id. § 78A-6-103(2) (Supp. 2018) (identifying the “exclusive jurisdiction” of juvenile courts over certain matters), or will note that “no court has jurisdiction” to entertain certain actions, see, e.g., id. § 31A-27a-105(1)(b) (2017) (stating that “[n]o court has jurisdiction to entertain, hear, or determine a delinquency proceeding commenced by any person other than the commissioner of this state”). The subsection of the statute at issue here has no such express limitation on jurisdiction. See id. § 78B-6-105(1)(a).[3] It does not identify adoption cases as within the “exclusive jurisdiction” of the judicial district in which the prospective adoptive parent resides, nor does it state that “no court” but the courts in the district in which the adoptive parents reside has jurisdiction over a case.[4]

¶18 Indeed, while the linguistic structure of the statutory subsection in question is not at all similar to other statutes containing express jurisdictional limits, it is quite similar to other statutes concerning venue. Several of Utah’s venue statutes require that a particular cause of action “be brought and tried” or “commenced and tried” in a particular location. See, e.g., id. § 78B-3-305(1) (stating that “[a]ll transitory causes of action arising outside the state, except those mentioned in Section 78B-3-306, shall . . . be brought and tried in the county where any defendant resides”); id. § 78B-3-306 (stating that “[a]ll transitory causes of action arising outside the state in favor of residents of this state shall be brought and tried in the county where the plaintiff resides, or in the county where the principal defendant resides”). We find it difficult to ignore the similarities between these venue statutes and the statute in question, which states that “[a]doption proceedings shall be commenced by filing a petition with the clerk of the district court . . . where the prospective adoptive parent resides.” See id. § 78B-6-105(1)(a).

¶19      Moreover, in 2004 the legislature amended the title of the statute. Before the amendment, the statute had been captioned “Jurisdiction of district and juvenile court – Time for filing.” See id. § 78-30-7 (LexisNexis 2003).[5] In the 2004 legislative session, without materially altering the relevant language of the statute itself, the legislature changed the title of the statute to read as it does now: “District court venue – Jurisdiction of juvenile court – Jurisdiction over nonresidents – Time for filing.” See Adoption Amendments, ch. 122, § 11, 2004 Utah Laws 546, 553;[6] see also Utah Code Ann. § 78B-6-105. “The title of a statute is not part of the text of a statute, and absent ambiguity, it is generally not used to determine a statute’s intent. However, it is persuasive and can aid in ascertaining the statute’s correct interpretation and application.” Blaisdell v. Dentrix Dental Sys., Inc., 2012 UT 37, ¶ 10, 284 P.3d 616 (quotation simplified). In this case, in which we must determine whether the statute is a jurisdictional statute or a venue statute, we find it significant that the legislature has specifically categorized the statute as one speaking to venue rather than to subject-matter jurisdiction.

¶20 Despite all of these persuasive indications that the relevant statute speaks only to venue and not to subject-matter jurisdiction, Father directs us to two of our previous decisions that have referred to the statute as “jurisdictional.” See In re adoption of S.L.F., 2001 UT App 183, 27 P.3d 583; In re adoption of K.O., 748 P.2d 588 (Utah Ct. App. 1988). Father asserts that those cases constitute binding authority that the statute is jurisdictional and compel the dismissal of Petitioner’s petition.

¶21 Father’s argument certainly has some force. In those cases, we did refer to the statute as containing a “jurisdiction requirement,” see In re adoption of K.O., 748 P.2d at 591; see also In re adoption of S.L.F., 2001 UT App 183, ¶ 17, and even went so far as to state that “[w]ithout knowing the [petitioners’] residence . . . , this Court cannot ascertain whether or not the trial court had jurisdiction to grant the adoption,” In re adoption of K.O., 748 P.2d at 591. In one of the cases, we implicitly rejected the argument Petitioners advance here, namely, that the adoption statute was merely a “venue” statute, and held that “until the adoption petition was properly filed in Second District Court, where [the prospective adoptive parent] resides, the proceeding had not been ‘commenced’ as required” by the statute. In re adoption of S.L.F., 2001 UT App 183, ¶ 16 n.1.[7] And in the other, we specifically stated that, if the trial court on remand “determines that it had no jurisdiction to hear the adoption because the [petitioners] were not residents of Cache County, Utah at the time of filing, that proceeding was void.” In re adoption of K.O., 748 P.2d at 592.

¶22 It is undeniably the case that one panel of this court is bound to follow the previous decisions of another panel of this court, unless we make a specific decision to overrule or disavow the earlier precedent. See State v. Legg, 2018 UT 12, ¶ 9, 417 P.3d 592 (stating that “[u]nder the doctrine of horizontal stare decisis, the first decision by a court on a particular question of law governs later decisions by the same court,” and specifically holding that “[t]he doctrine of horizontal stare decisis applies as between different panels of the court of appeals” (quotation simplified)). However, the principle of horizontal stare decisis only applies if the previous precedent remains robust. See United States v. Plouffe, 445 F.3d 1126, 1128 (9th Cir. 2006) (stating that “where an intervening higher authority has issued an opinion that is clearly irreconcilable with our prior circuit precedent, a panel is free to act disregarding that precedent” (quotation simplified)); see also 21 C.J.S. Courts § 190 (2018) (stating that “stare decisis does not preclude a decision that reflects developments in the law since the courts must consider statutory or case law changes that undermine or contradict the viability of prior precedent”).

¶23 While the two cases upon which Father relies have not been explicitly overruled, two developments have taken place in the decades since those cases were decided that cause us to doubt the continuing vitality of those cases’ discussions of jurisdiction. First, both of those cases were decided prior to 2004, when our legislature amended the title of the statute to specify that the statute, at least as concerns district courts, is intended to speak to venue and not to jurisdiction. Second, since those cases were decided, our supreme court has significantly “cabin[ed] the issues that fall under the category of subject matter jurisdiction,” Johnson, 2010 UT 28, ¶ 10, and has made clear that subject-matter jurisdiction applies to only two situations, neither of which is present in this case. Our fealty is first and foremost to the mandates of our supreme court and to the enactments of our legislature, and where our precedent conflicts with more recent supreme court pronouncements or statutory changes, we are duty-bound to follow the path our supreme court and our legislature have set. See Ortega v. Ridgewood Estates LLC, 2016 UT App 131, ¶ 30, 379 P.3d 18 (“We are bound by vertical stare decisis to follow strictly the decisions rendered by the Utah Supreme Court.” (quotation simplified)); Beltran v. Allen, 926 P.2d 892, 898 (Utah Ct. App. 1996) (stating that “it is the Utah statute, as interpreted by majority holdings of the Utah Supreme Court, which controls the outcome of this case”).[8]

¶24 For these reasons, we conclude that Utah Code section 78B-6-105(1)(a) speaks to venue, and does not limit a court’s subject-matter jurisdiction. Accordingly, unless the adoption is one that must be filed in juvenile court pursuant to Utah Code section 78A-6-103(1)(o), see Utah Code Ann. § 78B-6-105(1)(c), any district court has subject-matter jurisdiction to adjudicate an adoption case, even one filed in the wrong district, but must transfer the case to the correct district upon the filing of a proper request. Cf. id. § 78B-3-308 (stating that, when a case is filed in the wrong venue, a party may file “a written motion requesting the trial be moved to the proper county”).


¶25 The provision in Utah’s adoption code that requires that an adoption case be “commenced” by the filing of a petition in a particular judicial district is a provision that speaks to venue, and not to subject-matter jurisdiction. Petitioners did indeed file their petition in the wrong venue, but this did not deprive the court of subject-matter jurisdiction, because any district court in Utah has subject-matter jurisdiction over any adoption case that does not have to be filed in juvenile court. The consequence for filing in the wrong district is not automatic dismissal; it is that any party, upon proper motion, may request that the case be transferred to the correct district. Unless and until such a request is made, however, the court in which the case is filed may continue to adjudicate the case, and its rulings are not void. For all of these reasons, we affirm the district court’s decision to deny Father’s motion to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, and we remand the case to the district court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277


[1] 1. This provision of the relinquishment explains why the parties are litigating about whether Utah Code section 78B-6-105(1)(a) speaks to subject-matter jurisdiction or to venue: if the statute is jurisdictional, Petitioners’ petition should be dismissed, and in that event Father intends to assert that Child should be returned to Mother’s custody and control.

[2] Father emphasizes the statute’s use of the word “shall,” which is usually interpreted as a mandatory command, see Utah Code Ann. § 68-3-12(1)(j) (LexisNexis 2016) (defining “shall” as meaning “that an action is required or mandatory”), and argues that adoption petitioners are commanded to file their adoption petition in the proper district. This argument is correct, as far as it goes, but the legislature’s use of the word “shall,” in this context, fails to answer the question at the center of this dispute because it tells us nothing about what the intended consequences are for filing the petition in the wrong place. Indeed, this case nicely illustrates one reason why some legal scholars have noted that the word “shall” is “a semantic mess”: because “a recurrent issue in the huge constellation of shall-must holdings” concerns “the effect of failing to honor a mandatory provision’s terms,” which presents “an issue for a treatise on remedies, not interpretation.” Antonin Scalia & Bryan A. Garner, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts 113, 115 (2012).

[3] Father points out that subsection (1)(c) of the statute appears to be jurisdictional, in that it places some adoption cases within the exclusive jurisdiction of the juvenile court, and infers therefrom that the other subsections must therefore also be jurisdictional. Father is arguably correct that subsection (1)(c) speaks to a juvenile court’s subject-matter jurisdiction—that provision states that adoption proceedings “shall be commenced by filing a petition” in “juvenile court as provided in Subsection 78A-6-103(1).” See Utah Code Ann. § 78B-6-105(1)(c) (LexisNexis Supp. 2018). The referenced section of the Juvenile Court Act states that “the juvenile court has exclusive original jurisdiction” over “adoptions” in cases where “the juvenile court has previously entered an order terminating the rights of a parent and finds that adoption is in the best interest of the child.” See id. § 78A-6-103(1)(o) (Supp. 2018). This language does appear to encompass express limits on the authority of courts other than juvenile courts to hear a particular sub-class of adoption cases. However, it does not follow that, just because subsection (c) is jurisdictional, subsections (a) and (b) must also be jurisdictional. On this issue, the title of the statute provides helpful guidance, instructing us that the statute concerns itself with “[d]istrict court venue” but with “[j]urisdiction of juvenile court.” See id. § 78B-6-105; see also infra ¶ 19. As we read the statute, the legislature has placed most adoption cases within the broad subject-matter jurisdiction of district courts, but has placed one sub-class of adoption cases within the narrower subject-matter jurisdiction of juvenile courts. Within the first (broader) category, we do not perceive the legislature as having set any jurisdictional limits on the ability of any particular judicial district or individual district court to hear any of the cases that fall within their purview.

[4] Furthermore, unlike some other comparable state statutes, see, e.g., Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-22-109 (2018) (requiring specific documents to be filed with an adoption petition), Utah’s statute does not impose any requirements on petitioners to file specific documents (such as, for instance, relinquishments or consents) with adoption petitions. Father points to some of these other state statutes, and notes that courts in other states have found such requirements to be jurisdictional. See, e.g., In re JWT, 2005 WY 4, ¶¶ 5–6, 104 P.3d 93. Father’s argument is unavailing here, however, because Utah’s statute imposes no such requirements, and therefore we need not consider whether our legislature intended any such requirements to be jurisdictional.

[5] In 2008, Utah Code section 78-30-7 was renumbered as Utah Code section 78B-6-105. See Title 78 Recodification and Revision, ch. 3, § 864, 2008 Utah Laws 48, 443.

[6] The “redline” version of the bill that effected the title change did not show the new title in “redline” format, even though all proposed changes to the body of the statute were clearly marked. Father infers from this that the legislators themselves (as opposed, presumably, to legislative staff) may not have known that the title was even being changed, and therefore asserts that “the title change does not imply any legislative intent.” We find Father’s argument speculative—we simply do not know why the change to the title of the bill was not redlined, or whether that fact has any significance. Legislative history certainly has a role to play in helping courts interpret ambiguous statutes, see, e.g., Allred v. Saunders, 2014 UT 43, ¶ 18, 342 P.3d 204 (stating that “it is sometimes appropriate to consider legislative history when interpreting statutes”), but in order to shed any meaningful light on the question of statutory meaning, the legislative history in question must itself be “reliable,” see Graves v. North E. Services, Inc., 2015 UT 28, ¶ 67, 345 P.3d 619 (stating that “[w]e may resolve ambiguities in the text of the law by reference to reliable indications of legislative understanding or intent” (emphasis added)). It is certainly mysterious that the title change was not redlined even though the rest of the proposed (…continued)

changes were. But without knowing more about the reasons why that happened, or about what (if any) significance that had to the legislators who considered the bill, we find Father’s argument insufficiently persuasive to overcome the basic fact that, prior to 2004, the title proclaimed the statute to be jurisdictional, but that since 2004, the legislature has chosen a title that proclaims the statute to be a venue statute, at least as concerns district courts.

[7] Even in In re adoption of S.L.F., there is some indication that— prior to our supreme court’s more recent cases—this court and the district courts were conceptualizing subject-matter jurisdiction too broadly. In that case, a potential adoptive parent filed an adoption petition in Salt Lake County (in the Third Judicial District), even though she lived in Davis County (in the Second Judicial District). See In re adoption of S.L.F., 2001 UT App 183, ¶ 3, 27 P.3d 583. Later, the parent made a “motion for a change of venue,” asking that the petition be transferred to Davis County. Id. ¶ 5. The Salt Lake County district court granted the motion, and transferred the petition to Davis County. Id. Had there been a jurisdictional defect of the kind Father envisions, transfer would not have been possible— indeed, the only action a court without jurisdiction can take is to dismiss the case. See, e.g., Hollenbach v. Salt Lake City Civil Service Comm’n, 2013 UT App 62, ¶ 3, 299 P.3d 1148 (per curiam) (stating that “when a court lacks jurisdiction, it retains only the authority to dismiss the action” (quotation simplified)). No party took issue with the Salt Lake County district court’s decision to transfer (rather than dismiss) the case, and we did not reach the propriety of that transfer on appeal.

[8] Father also argues that construing the relevant statute as a venue statute rather than as a jurisdictional statute would have “constitutional implications,” because he points out that fathers are required to “strictly” comply with other provisions of Utah’s adoption code, and argues that “it would be unconstitutional to impose a ‘strict compliance’ standard for biological fathers but a more relaxed standard for adoptive parents.” Our conclusion herein regarding the meaning of the relevant statute—and, specifically, regarding the intended consequences of filing a petition in the wrong district—has nothing to do with requiring “strict” or “relaxed” compliance with the statutory mandates. Our conclusion is simply that the legislature intended the statute to function as a venue statute, and therefore a court does not lack subject-matter jurisdiction over an adoption petition filed in the wrong district any more than it would lack subject-matter jurisdiction over a divorce case or a tort case filed in the wrong county. We see no constitutional infirmities with the legislature’s creation of a venue statute in this context, and therefore reject Father’s constitutional arguments.

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