Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District, First Division
from the Circuit Court of Saline County, Missouri The
Honorable Dennis Allen Rolf, Judge
Cynthia L. Martin, P.J., James Edward Welsh, and Karen King
Edward Welsh, Presiding Judge.
Villalta de Rubio ("Mother") appeals the circuit
court's judgment granting her petition to dissolve her
marriage to Santos E. Rubio Herrera ("Father").
Mother claims that the court erred in denying her request for
an "Order of Special Findings" as to the
parties' minor child ("Son") for purposes of
applying for Special Immigrant Juvenile status with the
federal government. We affirm.
and Father were married on December 22, 1997, in El Salvador.
The parties have two children, a daughter, born in 1996, and
Son, born in 1998. Mother and Father separated in 2003, when
Father abandoned the family.
in 2005, Mother left the children in the care of her mother
in El Salvador and unlawfully entered the United States. She
settled in Saline County, Missouri. Ten years later, in April
2015, Son unlawfully entered the country to reunify with
Mother. Son was apprehended by immigration officials and
placed in the custody of the Department of Health and Human
Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement. In May 2015,
Son was released into Mother's custody pending
disposition of his immigration case.
months later, in February 2016, Mother filed a petition for
dissolution of her marriage, pursuant to Chapter 452
RSMo. Mother, Father, and Son all are citizens
of El Salvador. None are United States citizens, nor do they
have any valid immigration status. At the time of the
dissolution proceedings, Mother and Son were living in Saline
County, and Father's whereabouts were unknown. Mother
served Father by publication, and an appropriate affidavit of
publication was timely filed with the court.
petition, Mother requested sole legal and sole physical
custody of Son, who was seventeen years old at the time.
Mother alleged that Father had abandoned Son in 2003 and that
she is the only parent willing and able to care for him. She
also alleged that Son "is subject to removal
proceedings" (i.e., deportation) and "may
be eligible to file an application for Special Immigrant
Juvenile Status with the United States Citizenship and
Immigration Services (USCIS)." To facilitate that,
Mother sought "three Special Findings of Fact which will
assist [Son] residing in the United States." In short,
the findings Mother requested were (1) that Son is dependent
upon the trial court, (2) that reunification with one or both
parents is not viable due to abandonment, pursuant to state
law, and (3) that it is not in Son's best interest to be
returned to El Salvador.
14, 2016, Mother and Son appeared for a "default"
dissolution hearing. Father did not appear. Mother testified
that she was seeking sole legal and physical custody of Son
as Father had not communicated with or supported him since
2003. She stated that it would be in Son's best interest
to remain in the United States in her custody because Son
would be in danger from gangs if he returned to El Salvador
and because there is no one there to care for him.
testified that he was seventeen years old and a citizen of El
Salvador. He stated that he did not want to return
to his home country because of safety concerns and because
there was no one to care for him there. Son confirmed that
Father had abandoned him in 2003. He stated that he was
currently living with his mother and wished to remain in her
counsel offered a proposed parenting plan that granted her
sole legal and sole physical custody of Son on the basis that
"this arrangement [would] be in the best interest of the
child due to [Father]'s abandonment and neglect of
[Son]." In addition, Mother's counsel filed a
proposed Order of Special Findings of Fact and a memorandum
in support. The memorandum explained that the order is a
required predicate for Son to apply to the federal government
for Special Immigrant Juvenile status and that the requisite
findings could be obtained only from a state or juvenile
court having jurisdiction over the minor child.
30, 2016, the circuit court issued its Judgment of
Dissolution finding that service by publication was proper
and that Father had abandoned both Mother and Son. The court
granted Mother "sole legal and physical custody and care
of [Son]" and incorporated Mother's proposed
parenting plan into the judgment. The court denied
Mother's request for an Order of Special Findings of
Fact, however, noting that:
[W]ithout personal service on [Father], a guardian-ad-litem
for the minor child, the child being a party to the action,
and one of the child's parents being a United States
citizen, the requested special findings would be
inappropriate. . . .
thereafter obtained a sworn affidavit from Father, in which
he attested that he refused to appear for any hearing on the
matter and waived personal service. Father reaffirmed his
abandonment of Son and attested that he would continue to
abandon Son even if Son were returned to El Salvador.
13, 2016, Mother filed a motion to reconsider her request for
the Order of Special Findings of Fact based on Father's
waiver of personal service and sworn affidavit. Mother argued
in her motion that an Order of Special Findings of Fact
should have been issued because (1) it was established that
the trial court has jurisdiction over Son, and (2) the
court's granting sole legal and physical custody to
Mother and adopting her parenting plan satisfied the second
and third requested special finding of facts, in that it was
not in Son's best interest to return to his home country
but to stay in the United States in her custody and care.
hearing on Mother's motion, her counsel explained the
purpose of the special findings of fact and why only a state
court can issue such findings. Without receiving any further
testimony, the court denied the motion to reconsider. The
court also declined Mother's request for findings of fact
and conclusions of law on that decision.
Standard of Review - Dissolution Case
reviewing a dissolution of marriage action, we will affirm
the trial court's judgment unless we find that it is not
supported by substantial evidence, it is against the weight
of the evidence, or it erroneously declares or applies the
law. Cox v. Cox, 504 S.W.3d 212, 216 (Mo. App. 2016)
(citing Murphy v. Carron, 536 S.W.2d 30, 32 (Mo.
banc 1976)). "In assessing the sufficiency of the
evidence, we examine the evidence and all its reasonable
inferences in the light most favorable to the judgment, and
we disregard all evidence and inferences to the
contrary." Id. at 216-17. We review questions
of law de novo. Pearson v. Koster, 367
S.W.3d 36, 43 (Mo. banc 2012).