DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) -- Parents must be given preference in regaining custody of their children in cases where other people have been caring for the kids through a guardianship, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday.
In a decision involving the case of a single mother and her child's grandparents, the court established parents have a fundamental right to the care, custody and control of their children. The court declared that in cases in which parents are seeking the return of their children and dissolving of a guardianship, "the juvenile court must start with the rebuttable presumption that the child's best interests are served by reuniting the minor child with their parent."
The ruling was prompted by the case of a girl who was born to a 16-year-old woman in May 2009 in Webster City. The girl's parents married in 2011 and lived with her father's parents until July 2013, when she and her parents moved into their own home. The marriage failed and the child went back to live with her grandparents with visits from her mother on weekends. In 2014 the mother and grandparents agreed to a temporary guardianship so the child could benefit from the grandparents' health insurance and could travel with them.
In 2018, the mother wrote a letter to the grandparents seeking to end the guardianship and to regain custody of her daughter, but she received no response. She hired legal counsel to initiate proceedings to terminate the guardianship of the girl, then age 11, in June 2020.
By then, the mother had a job and had lived in the same single- family home with her boyfriend in Woolstock for at least the prior three years. She had a bedroom for her daughter and said she was ready and able to parent.
The juvenile court terminated the guardianship, concluding the mother proved the guardianship was no longer necessary and the termination was not harmful to the child. The grandparents appealed and the Iowa Court of Appeals reversed the juvenile court, concluding the guardianship benefited the child and her interest outweighed the mother's interest.
The Supreme Court on Friday overturned the appeals court.
"In light of parents' fundamental liberty interests in the care, custody, and control of their children and the presumption that fit parents act in their children's best interests, we must give 'due regard for the superior rights of a fit, proper, and suitable parent' over all others," Chief Justice Susan Christensen wrote in the opinion supported unanimously by the court.
Attorneys for the mother and for the grandparents did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment about the ruling.