A recent Massachusetts appellate case discusses a grandparent’s guardianship petition. In this case, a grandmother sought guardianship of her two minor grandchildren. The Appeals Court had to review whether it could offer any relief in this case. Here, the children and the father appealed a ruling, but the grandmother – the original party seeking guardianship – did not.
What is Guardianship?
It is important to explain here that guardianship is not the same as adoption. When a parent is inaccessible or incapable of caring for a minor child, courts may appoint a guardian to make decisions for the minor. Under Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 201, a court may name a guardian custodian of a minor. A court may do so even if a living parent does not consent, if the court deems the parent “unfit” to retain custody. In contrast to a caregiver, the guardian, acting in the minor’s best interests, can make decisions about the minor’s education, health, care, support and welfare—irrespective of the parent’s wishes. This is true until the minor turns 18 or until the court removes the guardian, whichever occurs first.
Guardianship of Tara: Trial Court
In the present case, Guardianship of Tara, the guardianship of two minor children was at issue. In 2017, the Department of Children and Families (“DCF”) instituted a care and protection proceeding against the parents. DCF also assumed emergency custody of the two children. Weeks later, the children’s maternal grandmother filed an action seeking guardianship of her grandchildren. Both parents stipulated to their unfitness. Further, they supported the grandmother’s petitions for guardianship.
After a two-day trial, the Juvenile Court judge ruled against guardianship. The judge found that the grandmother was not qualified to be appointed as the guardian for the children. According to the judge, the appointment would not serve the welfare and best interests of the children. The judge did not make any other disposition regarding what would be in the best interests of the children. The court left the children in DCF custody. The father and the children appealed this decision, but the grandmother did not.
The Massachusetts Appeals Court faced the question of whether it could provide any effective appellate relief. This question arose because the grandmother was not a party to the appeal. “We cannot reverse the denial of the guardianship petition and grant guardianship over the children to the grandmother, as she has accepted the finality of the denial of her request for guardianship,” the court noted. “We cannot force a person, even a relative, to assume guardianship over children and, indeed, G. L. c. 190B, § 5-206 (c), limits such appointment to a ‘qualified person [who] seeks appointment.’ On this record, it appears that the grandmother is no longer seeking appointment as a guardian, and thus that relief is unavailable.”
Appeals Court: Grandparent’s Guardianship Petition No Longer at Stake
The Appeals Court further noted that it asked the parties for supplemental briefs on the question of what relief it could provide. However, the parties failed to explain this. The Appeals Court pointed out that the care and protection trial had not yet happened. And, the trial court had not made a determination regarding the parents’ fitness. Furthermore, the lower court had not decided neither the permanency plan for the children nor the termination of parental rights issue, the Appeals Court pointed out. The parties could continue to litigate those issues, the court stated. They could advocate their cases based on what is in the best interests of the children. However, the guardianship issue was no longer at stake in this appellate proceeding since the grandmother had not appealed the decision and no longer appeared to be seeking guardianship.
“It is well established that courts do not ordinarily adjudicate cases, like this one, in which ‘a court can order ‘no further effective relief,’” the Appeals Court held. “We may occasionally do so ‘where the issue has been ‘fully argued on both sides, where the question was certain, or at least very likely, to arise again in similar factual circumstances, and especially where appellate review could not be obtained before the recurring question would again be moot.’…This principle, however, is inapplicable here.”
The Appeals Court affirmed the trial judge’s ruling.
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