What Juvenile Court Can and Can’t Do

There are clearly defined limits on the jurisdiction of a juvenile court in Alabama. The Alabama Court of Civil Appeals has reiterated and articulated those limits in the case of S.B.U. v. D.G.B., Case No. 2031054 (Ala. Civ. App. May 13, 2005). Specifically, the juvenile court in Alabama is a court of limited jurisdiction. It can determine custody when a child is otherwise before it, but when parties have divorced and the circuit court has acquired jurisdiction over their children, the circuit court retains jurisdiction over the child unless either (1) there is an emergency that requires intervention or (2) the child is dependent.

In S.B.U., the parties had been divorced. The court awarded joint custody and named the mother the custodial parent. Later, on allegations of drug use by the mother, the parties signed and filed in Marion County juvenile court a “Petition for Temporary Order” (signed by the father) and a “Consent to Temporary Order” (signed by the mother). Acting on the basis of the filings, the juvenile court awarded temporary custody to the father. There was no allegation in the filings or finding in the Order that the child was dependent or that an emergency existed.

Later, the mother filed a “Motion for Custody” before the same juvenile court, and the father responded with a Counterclaim. After the juvenile court awarded custody to the mother (again, with no allegation or finding of emergency or dependcency), the father appealed.

The Appeals Court acted on its own and declared the juvenile court’s second order (the one returning custody to the mother) to be void. The Appeals Court held that the juvenile court lacked subject matter jurisdiction. Because lack of subject matter jurisdiction cannot be waived, the court discmissed the father’s appeal but directed the juvenile court to set aside its second order.

The Appeals Court acknowledged that the juvenile court didn’t appear to have subject matter jurisdiction for its first ruling. Because that ruling was not appealed, however, the Appeals Court declared that question moot.

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