Understanding How Divorce Court and Juvenile Court Play Together – Part I

This one usually gets me confused, so I’ll sure forgive the Talladega County juvenile intake officer for missing it, and I hope you will too. Today’s note is all about the concurrent jurisdiction of the juvenile court and the domestic relations (divorce) court, and you can read about it in Ex parte G.L., Case No. 2080260 (Ala. Civ. App. February 27, 2009).

The child’s parents had divorced in Jefferson County, and the court awarded custody to Dad, but Dad later gave up custody to Mom, who had since moved several times, ending up in Talladega County. The paternal grandmother filed a petition with the Talladega County Juvenile Court alleging that the child was dependent and asking the court to award custody of the child to her (the paternal grandmother).

The juvenile intake officer knew that the custody of the child had already been set by the domestic relations court in Jefferson County and therefore returned the petitions to the grandmother’s attorney on the grounds that the juvenile court didn’t have jurisdiction. This was an entirely natural thing to do, because in general, the intake officer’s assumption was correct. That is, “once a circuit court acquires jurisdiction over a child pursuant to divorce and decides the question of custody, the circuit court retains jurisdiction until the child reaches majority.” S.B. vs. P.G.B., 611 So. 2d 392 (Ala. Civ. App. 1992). And many’s the juvenile court judge who’s been slapped down by the appeals court after trying to rule on a case in which the court lacked jurisdiction.

This case came to the appeals court after the grandmother petitioned the appeals court for a writ of mandamus. A writ of mandamus (pronounced “man DAM us”) is a request that some judge or some official be ordered to do something. In this case, the grandmother was requesting the appeals court to order the juvenile court to instruct the intake officer to accept and file her complaint.

What bears repeating, and what our unfortunate intake officer forgot, is what comes after the above quote, also from the S.B. case: “There are two exceptions to this rule [that the divorce court has exclusive jurisdiction]. The juvenile court may exercise concurrent jurisdiction over a disposition of custody where there exists an emergency as to the immediate welfare of the child, P.R.G., or where [any person who has knowledge of the facts alleged or is informed of them and believes that they are true] brings a separate action alleging dependency and requesting that custody be removed from the custodial parent due to neglect and inability to care for the child.” By the way, I can’t figure out what that “P.R.G.” means. If you know, please let us all know with a comment.

Responding to the grandmother’s petition, the appeals court said that the allegations in the grandmother’s complaint served to bring her case within both the exceptions stated above, namely (1) that the juvenile court has exclusive jurisdiction over dependency petitions, and (2) that there exists an emergency as to the immediate welfare of the child. Consequently, the appeals court granted the writ of mandamus, ordering the juvenile court to instruct the intake officer to accept the grandmother’s complaint for filing.

So if I have any questions now about the concurrent jurisdiction of the divorce court and the juvenile court, I’m going to call the juvenile court intake officer in Talladega County. I’ll just bet he or she now knows those issues better than most anybody in Alabama.

June 2009 update: On May 22 the appeals court withdrew its original opinion in this case and substituted a revised opinion. Ex parte G.L., Case No. 2080260 (Ala. Civ. App. May 22, 2009). I don’t see anything in the revised opinion, however, that changes what I told you above.

Tomorrow we’ll address another flavor of the juvenile court/divorce court bifurcation, namely what happens when a juvenile court judge “switches hats” in the middle of a case and tries to rule on a case as a circuit court judge. Hint: not pretty.

One comment

  1. walela61 says:

    Re: “P.R.G.”‘s meaning….possibly have been the initials of the child in the case cited? Or, parental rights guidelines? My best two guesses.

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