Court tells judge to file opinion in child welfare case

HOLLIDAYSBURG – A three-judge Pennsylvania Superior Court panel has ordered a Blair County judge to file an opinion in a child welfare case in which it was recommended a mother’s parental rights involving two children, ages 9 and 12, be terminated.

The new goal for the children is adoption.

The mother, referred to in the opinion only by her initials, has appealed the ruling by Blair County Judge Timothy M. Sullivan.

The Superior Court panel including Jack A. Panella, Christine L. Donohue and Cheryl Lynn Allen inferred that the lack of an opinion from Sullivan was delaying a decision in the case, and the panel made its point by stating:

“Our Supreme Court stated, ‘over the past 15 years, a substantial shift has occurred in our society’s approach to dependent children, requiring vigilance to the need to expedite children’s placement in permanent, safe, stable and loving homes.’ Despite the need for expeditious handling of these cases, we are unable to proceed until the trial court effectuates its duty.”

The Superior Court opinion went on to order Sullivan to file an opinion within 21 days.

Sullivan said he respected the Superior Court panel, but he disagrees with its conclusions that he had not filed an opinion.

The judge said he filed a two-page opinion and attached the findings he made in the case that followed hearings held on July 23, Oct. 28 and Nov. 26.

The findings and his conclusion covered several pages.

Sullivan said he confirmed the court received those items, yet the court reported in its opinion that “the trial court responded with a one-sentence letter to the Blair County prothonotary stating, ‘The letter will confirm I will stand on the record relative to this appeal.”‘

Sullivan said he felt he didn’t need to rewrite all of his findings over again to satisfy the need of the appeals court for an understanding of his court decisions.

But, Sullivan said, he will write a new opinion, probably during the weekend, and send it to the Superior Court.

Sullivan’s decisions in the case were issued last December, and the mother – through her attorney – raised two issues on appeal: whether the court erred in terminating the mother’s rights and whether the court erred in changing the goal for the children to adoption rather than reunification.

The judge said when such a statement of appeal is made, the issuance of an opinion by the judge is not mandatory, but, he said, he did issue a short opinion and the many pages of findings he based it on.

Pennsylvania’s higher courts have become more involved in child welfare cases because of the emphasis on placement of children removed from their homes for safety reasons or neglect.

The idea, as expressed by the higher courts, is to make sure children have permanent homes and are not constantly being moved about in foster care or into group homes.

In Blair County, these hearings involving permanency are presided over by Sullivan and President Judge Jolene G. Kopriva.

The Superior Court stated it wants Sullivan to provide an “analysis” of the questions raised by the mother concerning termination and the goal change.