A juvenile court in Alabama has limited jurisdiction. It begins with a finding that a child is dependent. Without that finding, the juvenile court has no power, and every action it takes in a case is void.
We see this simple principle illustrated in K.S. v. H.S., Case No. 2071034 (Ala. Civ. App. March 6, 2009). The paternal grandmother filed a petition in juvenile court seeking temporary custody of the child, and the juvenile court granted the petition the same day. At the time of the petition, there were no other issues before the court concerning the child.
After the award of temporary custody Mom and the grandmother disagreed about visitation, and the juvenile court became involved in this dispute. The mother eventually petitioned the court to restore custody to her but waited two years after the juvenile court’s original award of temporary custody to do so. It was more than two years after the filing of the original petition before the juvenile court held a final hearing, and another year after that before the juvenile court rendered its judgment. The mother filed a timely appeal from this judgment.
The parties did not raise the issue of juvenile court jurisdiction in their appeal briefs, but the appeals court raised the issue ex mero motu (on its own motion). The juvenile court’s jurisdiction is solely derived from and dependent upon statute, in this case Ala. Code § 12-15-30. That statute, said the appeals court, requires for juvenile court jurisdiction that the child be alleged to be dependent or be “otherwise before the court.” There was no allegation that the child was dependent, and because there was no other matter involving this child, the child was not otherwise before the court.
The appeals court said that the paternal grandmother’s original petition was basically a complaint the the mother would not allow her to see the grandchildren. “For example, the grandmother alleged that the mother had ‘taken great pleasure in depriving the minor child from any contact’ with the grandmother and had ‘viciously taunted and tortured’ the grandmother by letting other individuals know that the child had visited [the grandmother’s home county] without the mother informing the grandmother of those visits.” The court cited K.R. v. D.H., 988 So. 2d 1050 (Ala. Civ. App. 2008) in which the appeals court had also found lack of jurisdiction in the absence of facts demonstrating the child was dependent.
At its heart, the grandmother’s 2004 petition in this case was based on a dispute between the mother and the grandmother over visitation. From a complete reading of the petition filed in 2004, it is clear that the grandmother’s purpose in seeking custody was not out of a fear that the child was being abused or in any way mistreated. Indeed, she alleged that she had not seen the child in the two years before she filed the 2004 petition. Her purpose in filing the petition was to gain custody of the child, at least temporarily, because she was being deprived of visitation. Because the 2004 petition could not properly be treated as a dependency petition, we cannot hold that the juvenile court had jurisdiction on the basis that the child was before that court on a dependency petition.
K.S. at 7.
The appeals court, having found that the juvenile court lacked jurisdiction to act, ruled that the judgment it eventually rendered was void. Because a void judgment will not support an appeal, the appeals court dismissed the appeal.