SD Supreme Court: State’s Child Custody Laws Are Constitutional

In legal news, the Supreme Court of South Dakota was recently called upon to decide whether the state’s child custody laws, which give grandparents the right to secure custody under extraordinary circumstances, were constitutional.

The case, Feist, Lemieux-Feist v. State, involved paternal grandparents seeking to secure custody of their 4-year-old granddaughter following the split of her parents. Specifically, the grandparents asserted in their custody petition that it was better for the girl to be with them because both parents had substance abuse problems and mental health issues that would prevent them from providing the necessary care.

However, the circuit court eventually dismissed the grandparent’s custody petition, finding that South Dakota’s child custody laws were unconstitutional since they allowed a third party to secure custody absent a finding that the biological parent(s) were unfit.

On appeal, the Supreme Court of South Dakota reversed this finding and remanded (returned) the case to the circuit court for a determination on the grandparent’s custody petition.

Specifically, the Supreme Court examined South Dakota’s child custody laws which mandate that a third party may only become a child’s primary caretaker (i.e., secure custody) if they have an existing relationship with the child. Furthermore, the laws state that a biological parent’s presumed custody rights are only overcome when proof of neglect, abandonment or other extraordinary circumstances can be shown.

The South Dakota Supreme Court also examined the law handed down by the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) which declared that 1) parental relationships are protected by the Constitution and 2) parents therefore have a fundamental right in directing the upbringing of their children.

This was interpreted by the South Dakota Supreme Court to mean that special weight must be given to the wishes of a fit parent regarding their children, something that the state’s existing child custody laws already do. More importantly, the court found that SCOTUS has not expressly stated that a third party seeking to secure custody/visitation rights must demonstrate that a parent is unfit.

“It’s a huge victory for the children of South Dakota because it does provide a placement option with a third party with whom the child already has a substantial attachment, when the child’s parents are deemed unfit or extraordinary circumstances exist as defined by our statute,” said Debra Watson, attorney for the grandparents seeking custody.

To learn more about child custody matters or parental rights, contact an experienced and skilled legal professional.

This post is for informational purposes only and is not to be construed as legal advice.

Stay tuned for more from our Ft. Worth family law blog …

Related Resources:

S.D. High Court Backs Grandparent Child Custody (CBS News)