A man who had not seen his newborn daughter within the first three years of her life was improperly denied a chance to argue against the termination of his parental rights, Wyoming’s Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
Justices unanimously ruled that Cody John Niland should have been given a chance to argue in court that the termination of his parental rights would not be in the best interests of his daughter.
“Mr. Niland has a protected interest in his right to parent … and that interest was affected ‘in an impermissible way,’” the opinion said. “The termination of Mr. Niland’s parental rights before he had the opportunity to … present evidence or to examine, explain or rebut evidence … was a ‘denial of fundamental fairness’ guaranteed by Wyoming law.”
Justices ordered that Niland be allowed to present arguments in the case.
The ruling stems from the efforts of the state Department of Family Services to terminate Niland’s parental rights over his daughter, identified only as NRAE.
According to the opinion, the girl was born in 2016 and both she and her mother tested positive for methamphetamine. The mother was arrested for child endangerment and the child was placed in foster care.
The mother identified Niland as the child’s father and the department tried to find him, the opinion said.
“The department struggled to find Mr. Niland — sometimes he was homeless, other times he was incarcerated,” the opinion said.
Genetic testing in October 2018 showed Niland to be the father and in December 2018, he expressed an interest in having his daughter placed in his custody.
At the same time, rehabilitation efforts for the girl’s mother were unsuccessful, so the DFS sought to have the parental rights of both the mother and Niland terminated so the child could be adopted.
The DFS argued that the legal requirements for termination of parental rights were met including that the child was left in the care of another for at least one year without provision for the child’s support or communication from the absent period. The DFS also argued that the child had been abandoned by her parents.
Niland argued against termination, saying he did not know the girl was his daughter until the genetic testing was completed more than one year after her birth. He also said he had not been given an opportunity to show he could financially support his daughter.
A district court in Laramie County ruled that evidence supported the legal requirements for the termination.
However, under Wyoming law, before the parental rights can be terminated, a finding must also be entered that such a decision would be in the best interests of the child.
The DFS asked the district court for such a determination and the district court granted the request based on evidence submitted earlier and without hearing arguments from Niland. In addition, the decision was made eight days after the DFS’ request, the opinion said, before Niland’s deadline of 20 days to respond to that request.
Justices agreed that while Niland was given an opportunity to argue that the legal requirements for the termination of parental rights were not met, he was not given a chance to argue that the termination of those rights would not be in the child’s best interest.
“Mr. Niland was denied due process when the district court determined the best interests of the child without providing an opportunity for him to be heard,” the ruling said.
Justices ordered that another hearing be held and that Niland be given a chance to to present his case.