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Owen v. Missouri Department of Social Services

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District, Fourth Division

December 19, 2017

MICHAEL OWEN, Respondent,

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cole County, Missouri The Honorable Jon E. Beetem, Judge

          Before: Mark D. Pfeiffer, Chief Judge, and Lisa White Hardwick and Edward R. Ardini, Jr., Judges

          Mark D. Pfeiffer, Chief Judge

         The Missouri Department of Social Services, Children's Division ("Children's Division"), appeals from the judgment of the Circuit Court of Cole County, Missouri ("circuit court"), which concluded as a matter of law that the Children's Division exceeded its authority and ordered the Children's Division to remove Michael Owen's ("Owen") name from the Central Registry.[1] Because the Children's Division was acting within its statutory authority to conduct investigatory proceedings relating to a report of child abuse against a Missouri child committed outside the State of Missouri, we reverse the circuit court's judgment and remand for further proceedings consistent with our ruling today.

         Factual and Procedural History

         In July 2015, K.O. and E.O., minor children, sisters, and Missouri residents, visited their father in Nebraska. K.O. was then thirteen years old. During their visit to Nebraska, their uncle, Owen, came to see them. Owen is a Nebraska resident. Owen, who knew that his nieces were Missouri residents, is alleged to have sexually abused K.O. when he came to visit his nieces during the Nebraska visit.

         Owen's alleged abuse of K.O. was first reported in Missouri. On August 31, 2015, Missouri's Child Abuse Neglect Hotline received a call alleging that Owen had sexually abused K.O. and that the alleged incident had occurred in Nebraska. The Children's Division responded by conducting an investigation. The Children's Division notified Owen in September that he had been named as the alleged perpetrator of sexual abuse. In November, the Children's Division notified Owen that the result of its investigation was that the Children's Division had determined by a preponderance of evidence that Owen had sexually abused K.O. and that Owen had the right to an independent review of the decision by filing a timely request for administrative review or direct judicial review. Owen requested administrative review of the Children's Division's investigation by Missouri's Child Abuse and Neglect Review Board ("CANRB"). On July 25, 2016, CANRB notified Owen that, after reviewing the information Owen and the Children's Division had provided, CANRB upheld the Children's Division's finding; and that Owen's name had been entered in Missouri's Central Registry.

          Thereafter in September 2016, Owen filed a petition for trial de novo of the CANRB decision. Prior to trial, Owen filed a pre-trial motion seeking the circuit court's declaration of law that the Children's Division lacked "jurisdiction" to administratively investigate Owen's out-of-state conduct perpetrated upon a minor child having permanent residency in the State of Missouri and to, ultimately, add his name to Missouri's Central Registry.[2] As relief, Owen requested the circuit court to enter judgment on the pleadings, dismiss the Children's Division investigatory proceedings, and order Owen's name removed from the Central Registry.[3] The circuit court concluded as a matter of law that the proceedings conducted by the Children's Division were not authorized by statute or otherwise, granted Owen's motion, and entered judgment in favor of Owen-specifically directing that Owen's name be removed from the Central Registry.

         The Children's Division timely appealed.

         Standard of Review

         "A trial de novo, although in theory an appeal of the administrative hearing, is an original proceeding and is not an exercise of review jurisdiction." C.S. v. Mo. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 491 S.W.3d 636, 643 (Mo. App. W.D. 2016) (internal quotation omitted). "When the determination of the [Children's Division] is challenged and the alleged perpetrator seeks de novo judicial review in the circuit court, that court conducts a fresh hearing on the matter and is not limited in any way by the previous decisions of the [Children's Division]." Petet v. State, Dep't of Soc. Servs., Div. of Family Servs., 32 S.W.3d 818, 821 (Mo. App. W.D. 2000). "In that de novo review proceeding, the alleged perpetrator is afforded the opportunity for a full hearing on all issues." Id. However, "[i]ssues involving the interpretation of statutory language are questions of law, not judicial discretion." Id. at 822. Where a circuit court has granted judgment on the pleadings as a matter of its interpretation of the law, such "grant of judgment on the pleadings is reviewed de novo" by the appellate courts. Bell v. Phillips, 465 S.W.3d 544, 547 (Mo. App. W.D. 2015) (internal quotation omitted).


         The Children's Division raises two points on appeal, asserting in both that the circuit court erred in concluding as a matter of law that the Children's Division did not have authority to place a non-Missouri resident on Missouri's Central Registry when the non-resident allegedly sexually abused a Missouri child outside the boundary of Missouri. In the Children's Division's first point, it claims that its authority to do so is plainly authorized by the Missouri Child Abuse Act and is fully consistent with the requirements of due process. In its second point, it claims that Owen waived his right to object to the Children's Division's authority to conduct the subject investigatory proceedings because Owen failed to timely raise the defense of personal jurisdiction and, instead, actively consented to the jurisdiction of Missouri forums. We conclude the first point is dispositive of the appeal.

         Poin ...

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