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Kingsley v. Kingsley - A Child As A Person

court gregory parental rights

In 1992, Gregory Kingsley, at 11 years of age, was living in foster care while his poor and unemployed mother, Rachel, had lived for two years in Missouri without trying to contact him. His parents were divorced and his brother, Jeremiah, was in foster care suffering from the neurological disorder, Tourette's syndrome. When the Missouri Department of Human Resource Services recommended that Gregory be reunited with his mother, he filed a petition in the juvenile division of Florida's Orange County circuit court to terminate the parental rights of his natural parents. In a separate action, he also filed for adoption by his foster parents in the civil division of the same circuit court.

The first question to be resolved by the courts was whether Gregory as a minor was a "person" under the law who could initiate lawsuits. In July of 1992, the trial court ruled that Gregory was indeed a natural person under the law, and understood the situation. Therefore, Gregory had legal standing to seek termination of the parental rights even though an unemancipated minor.

George and Elizabeth Russ, a Mormon couple with children of their own, had taken Gregory in as a foster child. They also filed adoption papers in September of 1992. Gregory Kingsley's natural father readily agreed to the adoption petition and soon died while the case was still proceeding through the courts. But repeated petitions for termination of parental rights by the mother, Rachel Kingsley, received no response.

Later in September, the court decided to try the issues of termination and adoption together. After two days of trial, the court terminated Rachel's parental rights, and in a separate order, granted the adoption to the Russ'. Rachel appealed to the district court of appeals.

By a 2-1 majority, the District Court of Appeals of Florida for the Fifth District partially affirmed the district court's ruling and remanded Gregory's case back to the district court for further consideration. In presenting the court's findings, Judge Diamantis, writing for the majority, first examined the legal ability of a minor to file a lawsuit. Rachel Kingsley argued that Gregory could not seek termination of parental rights on his own behalf. She contended courts historically ruled that unemancipated minors did not have legal standing to initiate legal actions on their own. The restriction, in fact, was included in Florida civil law which stated,

When an infant or incompetent person has a representative, such as a guardian or other like fiduciary, the representative may sue or defend on behalf of the infant or incompetent person. An infant or incompetent person who does not have a duly appointed representative may sue by next friend or by a guardian ad litem. The court shall appoint a guardian ad litem for an infant or incompetent person not otherwise represented in an action or shall make such other order as it deems proper for the protection of the infant or incompetent person.

A guardian ad litem is a person appointed by the court to represent the child in the best interests of the child. An attorney ad litem is a person appointed by the court to represent a person as his counsel in the legal proceeding. Diamantis was concerned that the district court simply appointing one of Gregory's attorneys as his guardian ad litem was insufficient.

However, Diamantis wrote,

Although we conclude that the trial court erred in allowing Gregory to file the petition in his own name because Gregory lacked the requisite legal capacity, this error was rendered harmless by the fact that separate petitions for termination of parental rights were filed on behalf of Gregory by the foster father, the guardian ad litem, HRS (Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services), and the foster mother.

Diamantis then turned to the second question, termination of Rachel's parental rights. Gregory contended the level of proof needed should be a "preponderance of the evidence" rather than the more stringent "clear and convincing evidence." Gregory argued that a child's right to be raised free of abuse and neglect should be at least equal to a parent's right to maintain a formal relationship with the child. Diamantis disagreed by holding that Florida law applicable to termination of parental rights cases required clear and convincing evidence.

However, Diamantis did find that clear and convincing evidence existed in Gregory's case concerning abandonment and neglect. The Florida Supreme Court had previously defined "clear and convincing evidence" as believable evidence with facts distinctly remembered, testimony specific, and no confusion over the facts. Florida law also defined abandonment as "a situation in which the parent . . . of a child . . . , while being able, makes no provision for the child's support and makes no effort to communicate with the child, which situation is sufficient to evince a willful rejection of parental obligations." Marginal efforts were normally not sufficient. Judge Diamantis concurred with the appeals court finding of abandonment based on strong supporting evidence.

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