In the Interest of M.L.H. and D.H.H., children. J.S.H., Appellant,
DEPARTMENT OF CHILDREN AND, FAMILIES and GUARDIAN AD LITEM PROGRAM, Appellees.
FINAL UNTIL TIME EXPIRES TO FILE REHEARING MOTION AND, IF
from the Circuit Court for Hillsborough County; Katherine G.
J.S.H., pro se.
Soorus, Assistant Attorney General, Tampa, for Appellee
Department of Children and Families.
J. Lee, Appellate Counsel, Sanford, for Appellee Guardian ad
challenges the order denying his motion for joinder in a
termination of parental rights proceeding involving twins who
were sheltered at birth due to exposure to controlled
substances. J.S.H. is the children's biological father,
but the children's Mother was married to C.M. at the time
of conception and birth. Despite the fact that neither the
Mother nor C.M. has expressed any interest in raising the
children, the trial court has concluded as a matter of law
that J.S.H. lacks standing to assert his rights as the
father. We conclude that this was error and reverse.
was at the hospital when the twins were born in April 2016,
and he is named as the father on their birth certificates.
After the children were sheltered the court appointed counsel
for J.S.H. and granted him visitation. However, the
Department learned that the Mother was married to C.M. at the
time of conception and birth, making him the children's
legal father. In June 2016, the court entered an order
informing J.S.H. that he was no longer a party and suspending
2016, J.S.H. filed paternity test results indicating he was
the children's biological father. On August 29, 2016,
J.S.H. filed a petition for determination of paternity. In
the petition, J.S.H. indicated that he had filed a claim of
paternity with the Putative Father Registry. He asserted he
had provided blankets and clothing for the children and set
up a bedroom for them. He said he had attended every
scheduled visitation. Finally, he noted neither the Mother
nor C.M. had been involved with the children.
Meanwhile, C.M. failed to appear, and the Department filed an
affidavit of diligent search. On September 19, 2016, the
Department filed a petition for termination of the Mother and
C.M.'s parental rights. The petition sought termination
on several bases, all stemming from the legal parents'
abandonment of the children.
court addressed J.S.H.'s petition for paternity at a
status conference in October 2016. The record does not
contain a transcript of that hearing, and the court did not
enter an order on the petition. However, in the order now
before us, the court has indicated that it declared C.M. as
"the legal father by virtue of the fact he was married
to the mother at the time of conception and birth." The
court also "found that [J.S.H.] was not a party to this
case, as he had no legal standing." The court allowed
counsel for J.S.H. to withdraw.
no final order to appeal and no court-appointed attorney,
J.S.H. filed several pro se motions seeking party status,
visitation, and custody. He also filed documents he believed
were proof of his fitness as a parent. Finally, he filed a
motion for appointment of counsel. In February 2017, the
court conducted a judicial review/permanency hearing at which
it considered J.S.H.'s pro se motions. Again the record
does not contain a transcript of this hearing. However, the
court entered an order denying J.S.H.'s pro se motions
and request for appointment of counsel. In the order, the
court indicated that J.S.H. had been advised by his previous
attorney to pursue a judgment of paternity in family court.
retained counsel and filed a petition for determination of
paternity in the domestic relations division (family court)
in March 2017. While J.S.H.'s petition for paternity was
pending in family court, the dependency court conducted an
advisory hearing to address the merits of the petition for
termination. In June 2017, the dependency court entered a
final judgment of termination based on the parents'
failure to appear.
obtained a final judgment of paternity in family court in
July 2017. J.S.H. immediately filed a pro se motion for
reunification in dependency court. He also filed a motion to
compel party status. The dependency court conducted a status
review on August 21, 2017. The record does not contain a
transcript of this hearing, but the docket reflects that the