Iowa

As discussed in a previous post on the increasing use of technology in family law, people interested and involved in adoption are also making use of the internet.  The New York Times published a story a few months ago explaining the positives and negatives of using the internet as a resource in adopting a child.  The article referenced a study completed by  The Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute.  The Institute found both positive and negative effects of internet use on the adoption process.

Of course, the internet can serve as a wonderful and informative place to turn when researching adoption options.   There are hundreds, if not thousands, of personal blogs, articles and adoption stories online that can be an inspiration and a comfort to adopting families.  Adoption can be an extremely long, consuming and detailed process and these resources and advice can be invaluable to families looking to find out more about the adoption journey.  Additionally, many birth parents and their biological children have used the internet as a tool to reunite.  Others have used the internet to search out prospective adoption agencies or used the internet as a tool to complete research on the adoption laws in certain states or even other countries.  There are countless ways in which the internet can be used as a helpful place to turn when thinking of or going through adoption.

If you happen to be looking for information on adoption in Iowa, a reliable place to begin your research is in the law itself.  Iowa Code Chapter 600 controls adoption law in Iowa.  Here you will find information on adoption petitions, qualifications for filing for adoption, international adoption, closed adoption records, and much more.  However, adoption law and the process itself can be extremely complicated and it is always helpful to consult an attorney well-versed in Iowa adoption law before starting your adoption journey.

Internet use in adoptionHowever, as the Times story indicates, the internet can also prove to be a place where the unsuspecting can easily be taken advantage of.  The Donaldson Adoption Institute study describes cases in which fraudulent adoption agencies scammed thousands of dollars away from unsuspecting people simply attempting to gain more information about adoption.  Adoption is known as a very expensive process, and therefore makes it even easier for criminals to nab cash from people.

Another problem that crops up with internet access, and in particular Facebook and other social networking sites, is when adopted children attempt to contact their birth parents and vice versa.  This could lead to potentially dangerous situations of abusive or criminal biological parents, whose parental rights have been terminated, contacting their biological children and attempting to meet with them in person.  Internet access to biological parents and children can also prove problematic for the adoptive parents if they are caught unaware and have not prepared their course of action for this meeting.  The study tells of one case where a child was contacted and needed to attend therapy after the incident.

As with all things “internet”, there are positives and negatives on both ends of the spectrum.  The internet has clearly lead to many happy reunions, useful research sites, and legitimate adoption agencies where adoptive parents have found their new children.  However, it has also clearly led to crimes, sometimes dangerous, when not used cautiously.  What do you think?  Should there be more regulation of adoption websites?  Possibly some way to tell fraudulent sites from legitimate sites?  Should Facebook and other social networking sites put more effort into security measures, or should it be left up to parents to protect their children from who they may find?

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Recently, the Iowa Court of Appeals decided a case involving spousal support.  (The court also discussed the award of attorney fees and the husband’s child support obligation.)  The case, In Re the Marriage of Jeffrey A. Richter and Lisa M. Richter, involved a marriage that had produced four children.  The parties had appealed the decree entered in their dissolution, with both parties arguing that the spousal support awarded was incorrect.

Spousal Support in Iowa

The court explains the issue of spousal support in its decision:

Spousal support “is an allowance to the spouse in lieu of the legal obligation for support.” In re Marriage of Sjulin, 431 N.W.2d 773, 775 (Iowa 1988). Spousal support is a discretionary award dependent upon each party’s earning capacity and present standards of living, as well as the ability to pay and the relative need for support. See In re Marriage of Kurtt, 561 N.W.2d 385, 387 (Iowa Ct. App. 1997). Spousal support “is not an absolute right; an award depends on the circumstances of each particular case.” In re Marriage of Dieger, 584 N.W.2d 567, 570 (Iowa Ct. App. 1998).

Factors Considered by the Court in Awarding Spousal Support

The Iowa Code addresses spousal support in Section 598.21(A).  Here, the criteria for determining support are listed.  They are:

  1. The length of the marriage
  2. The age and physical and emotional health of the parties
  3. The distribution of property made in the dissolution
  4. The education level of each party at the time of the marriage and at the time the action is commenced
  5. The earning capacity of the party seeking maintenance
  6. The feasibility of the party seeking maintenance becoming self-supporting at a standard of living reasonably comparable to that enjoyed during the marriage
  7. The tax consequences
  8. Any mutual financial agreements between the parties
  9. Any antenuptial agreement
  10. Other factors the court determines relevant

As the court notes, they give “considerable discretion” to the district court in awarding alimony and will only decide differently than the district court when there has been a failure to do equity.

Spousal Support Decision

In this case, the husband has monthly income of approximately $10,000 and the wife has a monthly income of approximately $3000.  After monthly living expenses are considered, there was a $6000 difference between incomes.  The four children lived with the wife.  The district court decided that since the wife was awarded over $20,000 more in the distribution of property, that it was appropriate to award her less spousal support and for a shorter amount of time.  The court awarded her $2200 per month in traditional alimony for twelve years.

Both parties appealed this decision.  The court of appeals agreed with the district court’s award.

Factors in Determining Spousal Support

As in other cases determining spousal support, or alimony, the court took several of the factors listed in Iowa Code Section into consideration.  In affirming the ruling, the court noted that the marriage lasted twelve years.  The husband had a higher earning capacity than the wife.  There were four children produced during the marriage and the wife was working part-time, which was agreed upon at the time of the birth of their youngest child by both parties.  The wife’s employer provided a letter stating that there would be no full time work opportunities for the wife in the near future.

The court states that the amount of alimony is enough for the wife to continue caring for the children as they were cared for during the marriage and gives her time to become fully employed.

 

 

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A case originating in Hamilton County Iowa was recently reviewed and decided by the Iowa Court of Appeals.  In their decision, the court affirmed the decision of the district court to deny the petitioner’s request to modify their dissolution decree.

Case Background

The original divorce decree involved in this case was entered in March of 1999.  The parties, Kevin Arndt and Shanon Green had two children during the course of their marriage, a son and a daughter.  In the decree, the couple agreed to joint legal custody with Shanon retaining physical care of the children.  However, the couple ended up alternating care of the children every two weeks.  Kevin was ordered to pay $300 in support every month in child support.

Modifications of the Dissolution Decree

There were several modifications made to the decree including one increase and one decrease to the amount of support Kevin was ordered to pay.  The modifications were made in 2001 and 2003.  There was also a modification to the custody arrangement of the children.  A second modification in 2003 ordered the couple to alternate care of the children on a weekly basis and neither was required to pay child support.

Shanon petitioned the court again in 2009 to modify the decree so that the physical care of the children be placed with her.  In order to modify the decree, Shanon was required to show a “substantial and material change in circumstances” had occurred.  She alleged that her ex-husband  was not exercising his weeks of childcare, that he had stopped communicating with her, and that he was failing to “properly guide” their son who was involved in delinquency proceedings at the time.

District Court’s Decision Regarding the Modification Petition

By the time the case actually came to trial, the parties had come to the agreement that their son should be placed in the physical care of Kevin, however, could not stipulate to the placement of their 15 year old daughter.  Because of the daughter’s age, her opinion was taken into consideration.  She liked being with her mother during the week because it accommodated her scheduled activities, however, was clear that she preferred being with her father when it did not interfere with her activities.

The District Court ruled that Shanon had not met her burden to establish material and substantial change in circumstances.  Shanon appealed to the Iowa Court of Appeals.

Iowa Child Custody Modification Law

 

“Once a physical care arrangement is established, the party seeking to modify it bears a heightened burden, and we will modify the arrangement only for most cogent reasons.”  Dale v. Pearson, 555 N.W.2d 243, 245 (Iowa Ct. App. 1996).

There is a high burden to meet if a party wants to modify a decree of the court.  The petitioner must establish, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the circumstances since the decree was entered have changed to substantially and materially that the children’s best interests necessitate a change to the decree.  The circumstances necessitating the change to the decree must not have already been considered by the court when the decree was entered and must not be temporary.

If the court decides that this first burden has been met, they will then decide if the petitioning party is able to care more effectively for the child.

Factors to be considered in modifying custody include:

  1. Best interests of the children
  2. Child’s preference (but less weight in modification than in initial custody proceedings)
  3. Siblings should not be separated
  4. Conduct of the custodial parent (including whether the parent encourages and facilitates the child’s relationship with the other parent),including denial of visitation or contact.
  5. Stability for the Child

 

IA Court of Appeals Decision

The court did not find the evidence supported a change in the share care arrangement of the parties.  Shanon failed to show a substantial and material change in circumstances to necessitate a modification to the dissolution decree.  The court did find evidence to support a modification to Kevin’s ordered amount of child support.  Kevin is now ordered to pay $173.13 in support of the two children.

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Recently, the Des Moines Register published an article regarding two lawsuits filed against the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS).  The lawsuits allege that children in Iowa are being removed from their homes as a result of voluntary agreements signed by non-custodial parents.  Voluntary removal agreements are not part of any official court proceedings.  They are used outside of formal court supervision to remove children from reported harmful situations.

DHS explains that voluntary removal agreements are used as a first option in an attempt to place the child with relatives or foster care parents.  They believe that with the agreement being voluntary, DHS will be able to remove the child from any perceived harm more quickly than if they had to file a formal Child in Need of Assistance petition and have the child declared a ward of the state.

Concerns

More Children Being Placed in Foster Care

There are, however, concerns about the voluntary removal process.  There are more foster care placements because of the voluntary agreements.  An Iowa City attorney, Natalie Cronk, has filed the aforementioned two lawsuits claiming that as a result of the voluntary agreements, children are being placed in foster care without proof that they were unsafe in their original home.  Cronk states that the burden of proof has shifted to the parents to prove that their home is unsafe, rather than DHS having to prove there are unsafe conditions in the home.

Non-Custodial Parents Signing Voluntary Removal Agreements

Also, a major concern with voluntary removal agreements is that non-custodial parents are allowed to sign them.  In the two lawsuits filed, non-custodial parents signed voluntary removal agreements causing the child to be removed from their custodial parents.  DHS states that they cannot know who has custody when they respond to allegations of abuse.

Voluntary Removal Agreements and Parents’ Rights

Cronk believes that voluntary removal agreements violate parents’ rights, however, parents sign them because they are at risk of losing their child permanently.  Another concern is the lack of court supervision and lack of representation with the agreements.  Children do not have their own guardian ad litems, and it is DHS social workers who make decisions rather than judges.  Some in the child welfare system are concerned because there are voluntary removal agreements being used in cases involving serious risks to children, including meth, sexual abuse and domestic violence.

DHS attempts to take parents’ rights into consideration by involving them in family team meetings.  These meetings involve all of the parties and involved professionals of a case together to make decisions about the child’s welfare.

Violation of Parents’ Rights or Focusing DHS Services?

The question raised by these two lawsuits is whether the voluntary removal agreements are a threat to parents’ rights or a way for DHS to better focus their attention on very high risk cases and provide attention to all children who need it in Iowa.

There has been a similar situation in Illinois where a class action lawsuit against the use of voluntary safety plans (Illinois’ equivalent to Iowa’s voluntary removal agreements).  The Family Defense Center out of Chicago won that case against the State of Illinois, however the decision was overturned by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals which ruled that any safety plan is voluntary under the law.

 

 

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An editorial  in the Huffington Post, written by Micki McWade, a Collaborative Divorce Coach, Psychotherapist, Author and Parent Educator and Collaborative Trainer, addresses the issue of when one spouse has the desire to obtain a divorce and the other does not.  McWade suggests that only very rarely are divorces mutual decisions made by couples, and that it is much more likely that one person in the relationship desires a change.  The degree to which the non-consenting spouse resists can vary greatly however.

When one spouse wants to slow the divorce process, there are many avenues they can use to do so, however, all will most likely cause legal fees to skyrocket and their marital resources to diminish.  If there are children involved, this can cost them more than their financial security, but also their children’s.  It may also cause much more animosity throughout the divorce process which would also be unfortunate for any children involved.

Salvaging a Relationship Gone Bad

In her article, McWade addresses many of the emotional issues that are involved in a relationship where one party wants to divorce and the other does not.  She believes that if one party has already decided they want to divorce and do not want to make efforts to salvage the relationship, there is very little the other spouse can do to change their minds.  McWade suggests that the divorce-minded party may have already been in the divorce “state of mind” for a length of time.  Although the idea of a divorce may be shocking or overwhelming to the other party, it may be long overdue for the initiating spouse.

Iowa Divorce (Dissolution) Law

Iowa Divorce Conciliation Efforts and Waiting Periods

In her article, McWade also touches upon something that is reflected in Iowa divorce (or officially called, dissolution) law.  Even if one party resists in a divorce, if the other party desires a divorce, they will receive one.  In Iowa, a judge may require parties to participate in conciliation efforts for sixty days.  Also, there is a waiting period of ninety days between the initial dissolution petition and when the court can enter a final dissolution decree.  Although there are circumstances that allow a judge to waive the waiting period, it is generally enforced.

Iowa No-Fault Divorce

Additionally, Iowa is a “no-fault” divorce state.  This means that a spouse who wishes to obtain a divorce has no requirement to blame their spouse for any wrongdoing.  This allows the divorce to be (hopefully) less contentious and be completed more quickly.  This does not mean issues of wrongdoing will not arise in the divorce, especially if child custody issues are involved, however, it does mean that the petitioning party does not have to “accuse” their spouse of anything specific to obtain a divorce.

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Termination of Parental Rights Ruling

The Iowa Court of Appeals entered a judgment affirming a ruling by Judge Constance Cohen, of the District Court of Polk County, in In the Interest of L.C.H.  The juvenile court terminated the parental rights of the parents of a young infant.  The father did not appeal the decision.  The mother was incarcerated and the child tested positive for marijuana at the child’s birth.  The child was removed from the mother’s custody and the maternal grandmother provided care for the child.

The baby was adjudicated to be a Child in Need of Assistance, or CINA.  The mother continued to be incarcerated, however, did complete parenting and victim impact classes.  While at a halfway house, the mother took advantage of visits with her child.  Despite some progress, the court found the mother’s insight into her drug, alcohol and violence was lacking.

Grounds for Termination of Parental Rights

Eventually, the State petitioned to terminate the parental rights of both parents when it became clear that the infant would not be able to be returned to their care in the foreseeable future.  The court terminate the parental rights of the mother under Iowa Code Sections 232.116(1)(d), (h), (l) (2011):

232.116  GROUNDS FOR TERMINATION.

1.  Except as provided in subsection 3, the court may order the termination of both the parental rights with respect to a child and the relationship between the parent and the child on any of the following grounds:

d.  The court finds that both of the following have occurred:

(1)  The court has previously adjudicated the child to be a child in need of assistance after finding the child to have been physically or sexually abused or neglected as the result of the acts or omissions of one or both parents, or the court has previously adjudicated a child who is a member of the same family to be a child in need of assistance after such a finding.

(2)  Subsequent to the child in need of assistance adjudication, the parents were offered or received services to correct the circumstance which led to the adjudication, and the circumstance continues to exist despite the offer or receipt of services.

h.  The court finds that all of the following have occurred:

(1)  The child is three years of age or younger.

(2)  The child has been adjudicated a child in need of assistance pursuant to section 232.96.

(3)  The child has been removed from the physical custody of the child’s parents for at least six months of the last twelve months, or for the last six consecutive months and any trial period at home has been less than thirty days.

(4)  There is clear and convincing evidence that the child cannot be returned to the custody of the child’s parents as provided in section 232.102 at the present time.

l.  The court finds that all of the following have occurred:

(1)  The child has been adjudicated a child in need of assistance pursuant to section 232.96 and custody has been transferred from the child’s parents for placement pursuant to section 232.102.

(2)  The parent has a severe, chronic substance abuse problem, and presents a danger to self or others as evidenced by prior acts.

(3)  There is clear and convincing evidence that the parent’s prognosis indicates that the child will not be able to be returned to the custody of the parent within a reasonable period of time considering the child’s age and need for a permanent home.

Unfortunately, the mother had last seen her child 4 months previously, causing the court to find the child “has no significant attachment (to the mother) because of incarceration.”  The court also noted the mother has a “severe and chronic substance abuse problem” and that the mother is not willing to admit she has a problem.  Without “an admission that there is a problem, change is unlikely.”

Guardianship by Grandmother?

In her appeal, the mother argues that a guardianship by the maternal grandmother is the appropriate course of action rather than a termination of her parental rights.  However, the court notes that a guardianship is not a “preferred outcome” for a young infant.  The court describes that chaotic conditions in the parent’s lives and comes to the conclusion that the baby would not be able to return to the parents any time in the foreseeable future.

In Iowa, district probate courts have jurisdiction over guardianships.  Guardians are responsible for the physical custody of the ward.  Unlike conservators, they are not responsible for the ward’s financial decisions.

The baby was thriving under the maternal grandmother’s care, and the grandmother was willing to adopt. So, although the court was not required to terminate parental rights when there is a relative who has legal custody of the child (Iowa Code section 232.116(3)(a)), here the court felt it was necessary.  They did not find clear and convincing evidence that termination would be detrimental to the child (Iowa Code 232.116(3)(c)).

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The decrease in the amount of marriages and the change in what a family unit looks like in the United States has prompted lawmakers in CA to propose a bill that would allow a child to have more than two parents.  The New York Times reported last week on a bill that has passed the California Senate with Democrats voting for and Republicans against.

Increasing Number of States Recognizing Third Parents

This may seem like a revolutionary idea – for a child to have more than two parents, however, there are several states that have recognized similar situations in recent years.  As the NY Times reports, Delaware and the District of Columbia have passed laws that allow for third “de facto” parents.  Other states such as Oregon

“Non-Traditional” families may gain increased legal recognition if recently introduced California legislation becomes law.

and Massachusetts have had their courts recognize third parents throughout the last decade.

The CA bill would allow judges to acknowledge that a child has more than two legal parents.  This recognition would allow families that include same-sex couples to have legal relationships where they may not have been able to previously.  There are many possibilities for today’s varied family structures to have more security – insurance, schools, hospitals, etc. would all be more accessible to people acting as parents because they would now be able to be legally recognized as parents.

The bill would not only benefit families that include a same-sex couple.  For example, if a husband and wife divorce, this bill would allow the new spouse of either biological parent to be able to adopt any children from the previous marriage without having to terminate the parental rights of the biological parent.

Opponents of Recognizing Third Parents

Opponents of the law have concerns however.  They believe that this bill would “open the door” to same sex marriage, which they believe is wrong.  Critics also point out the confusion this could cause when it comes to child support payments.  It isn’t clear at this point what the effects would be on child support, however, it seems that it could only be beneficial to the child to have more sources of child support available.  The recognition of additional parents may also reduce the incredible stress on many state foster care systems because there would be more relatives available for placement when children are removed from their homes.

Opponents are also wary of slippery slope situations where a child could have a dozen parents, or more.  However, the bill does not seem to allow a free for all – it allows a judge to recognize an additional legal parental relationship between an adult and a child in addition to the child’s biological mother and father.  The judge would have to find that the recognition of this additional parent is in the child’s best interest.

Recognizing a Third Parent in Iowa

Currently, Iowa is not one of the states that recognizes a third parent relationship.  When child custody is an issue in Iowa,

Iowa law requires that the court, “insofar as is reasonable and in the best interests of the child,” shall order the custody award, including liberal visitation rights where appropriate, which will assure the child the opportunity for maximum continuing physical and emotional contact with both parents after the parents have separated and dissolved the marriage, and which will encourage parents to share the rights and responsibilities of raising the child unless physical harm or significant emotional harm to the child, other children, or a parent is likely to result from such contact with one parent.

As in other states, it is unclear how the recognition of a third parent would change child custody practices in Iowa.  A bill similar to the CA bill has not yet been introduced in Iowa, however, if the CA bill is successful, it may open the door for such legislation in other states, including Iowa.

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Recently, CNN reported on a disturbing story  involving a set of Egyptian parents in a United Arab Emirates airport who, rather than waiting for their son’s visa paperwork to process, decided to put him in one of their suitcases and continue with their travels.  Their 5 month old son was discovered by a baggage x-ray machine and had been in the parent’s carry-on luggage.  The boy was reportedly in good health when found, however, the airport police reported that this was the first incident of its kind.

Child Abuse in the Middle East

The United Arab Emirates is a country consisting of a federation of seven emirates with a single national president.  With just a quick Google search, one can find many child abuse stories originating in this part of the world.  Although it does sound like efforts to minimize and eliminate child abuse are increasing, the religious and political institutions that exist in the middle east may make it more difficult to control.  Many acts that would be considered criminal in the United States (and even in the middle eastern countries) are kept secret within families because of a concern to protect an individual’s or a family’s honor.

Child Abuse in Iowa

Here in Iowa, Code section 232.68  provides the definitions of what is considered child abuse.  The Department of Human Services (DHS) has the legal authority to conduct an assessment of child abuse when it is alleged that:

  • The victim is a child
  • There has been:
    • Physical Abuse
    • Mental Injury
    • Sexual Abuse
    • Child Prostitution
    • Presence of Illegal Drugs
    • Denial of Critical Care
    • Manufacturing or Possession of a Dangerous Substance
    • Bestiality in the Presence of a Child
  • The abuse is the result of the acts or omissions of the person responsible for the care of the child

If the incident that occurred in the United Arab Emirates had happened in Iowa, it certainly could have been reported to DHS for physical abuse of a child as well as the denial of critical care.

Reporting Child Abuse in Iowa

If you believe you have witnessed child abuse in Iowa, call the Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-362-2178.  It is available 24 hours a day and 7 days a week and you may remain anonymous if you choose.  However, if the child is in imminent danger, it is important that you call 911 immediately.

 

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