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Court of Appeals of Indiana rules on biology vs. best interest of the child

On Behalf of | Feb 1, 2022 | Child Custody

Indiana courts have long held that in custody issues, the best interest of the child should be their primary concern. A recent case before the Court of Appeals of Indiana puts that idea to the test. In G.S., Jr. vs. H.L., the court had to choose between a child’s biological, but largely uninvolved, father and the stepfather who had raised the child for many years. Indiana law gives a rather high presumption that a biological parent should have custody over their own child. That presumption can be overcome, however.

Defining “best interest of a child”

Indiana law considers many factors in determining a custody case and deciding what might be in a particular child’s best interest. These factors include:

  • The child’s interactions and relationships with other family members and adults
  • The child’s connection to their home, school and community
  • Wishes of the child’s parents
  • Evidence of the child’s care by a de facto guardian

The law provides an entire section on considerations of care by a de facto guardian, or someone who cares for the child but is not a legal parent, such as the stepfather in the current case. The law clearly states that the court can provide custody to a de facto guardian if it finds that to be in the child’s best interest.

The rights of a natural parent

The court in G.S., Jr. vs. H.L. faced the question of giving custody to a stepparent, a de facto guardian in this case, over the biological father of a child. The father had only sporadic interaction with the child, whereas the stepparent had cared for the child, even though he and the child’s mother were no longer together. The mother was not seeking custody, but the father was. The mother also supported the stepfather’s claim.

The trial court determined that the child’s strongest emotional bond was with the stepfather, and it was in the child’s best interest to remain in his custody, while having liberal parenting time with both biological parents.

On appeal, the father argued that the trial court failed to overcome the presumption in favor of the biological parent by clear and convincing evidence, the legal standard for such cases. The appellate court disagreed. Trial courts have much leeway to interpret the facts and make findings. As long as the trial court did not abuse its discretion, the appellate court will generally accept its findings, as it did in this case.

The takeaway

Adults other than a child’s parents can be extremely important in a child’s upbringing. Courts do not often grant an unrelated adult custody in place of a biological parent, but this case shows that it can happen when such a placement is clearly in a child’s best interest.