Appeals from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia; (Hon. Linda Turner Hamilton, Trial Judge)
Before Rogers, Chief Judge, Farrell, Associate Judge, and Gallagher, Senior Judge.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Farrell
FARRELL, Associate Judge: On these appeals from the termination of appellant's parental rights, the only issue necessitating a published opinion is appellant's claim that a court-appointed guardian ad litem is not statutorily authorized to file a motion to terminate parental rights (a TPR motion) following an adjudication of neglect, and that a contrary reading of the statute would violate constitutional due process. *fn1 We reject this as well as appellant's remaining contentions, and affirm.
The two statutory provisions which, we conclude, answer the issue of statutory construction appellant poses are as follows. Both were enacted as part of the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect Act of 1977 (PCANA). *fn2 D.C. Code § 16-2304 (1989) provides, in subsection (b)(3):
The Superior Court shall in every case involving a neglected child which results in a judicial proceeding, including the termination of the parent and child relationship pursuant to [D.C. Code §§ 16-2351 through -2365], appoint a guardian ad litem who is an attorney to represent the child in the proceedings. The guardian ad litem shall in general be charged with the representation of the child's best interest.
D.C. Code § 16-2354 (a) in turn states who may initiate a proceeding to terminate the parent and child relationship: "A motion for the termination of the parent and child relationship may be filed by the District of Columbia government or by the child through his or her legal representative" (emphasis added). *fn3
Basic principles of statutory construction dictate that the "legal representative" referred to includes a court-appointed guardian ad litem.
The primary rule of statutory construction is that the intent of the legislature is to be found in the language which it has used. Moreover, the words of the statute should be construed according to their ordinary sense, and with the meaning commonly attributed to them.
J. Parreco & Son v. District of Columbia Rental Hous. Comm'n, 567 A.2d 43, 46 (D.C. 1989) (citations omitted). Perhaps most significant for this case, a statutory provision is to be read, whenever possible, in harmony with other provisions to which it naturally relates. See Carey v. Crane Serv. Co., 457 A.2d 1102, 1108 (D.C. 1983) (quoting United Mine Workers of Am. v. Andrus, 189 U.S. App. D.C. 110, 114, 581 F.2d 888, 892, cert. denied, 439 U.S. 928, 99 S. Ct. 313, 58 L. Ed. 2d 321 (1978)) ("statutory provisions are to be construed not in isolation, but together with other related provisions").
The natural if not the "plain" meaning of "legal representative," in context, includes an attorney appointed by the court expressly to represent and advocate for, see S.S. v. D.M., R.M. and J.S., 597 A.2d 870, 875 (D.C. 1991), the best interests of the child. Section 16-2354 (a) concerns the filing of a motion with the court, a task customarily performed by an attorney. Given the authority expressly conferred on the court-appointed guardian ad litem by § 16-2304 (b)(3), it makes no sense to hold, as appellant would, that the only attorney connoted by the statutory term "legal representative" is one whom the child has privately retained.
Nor is it reasonable to argue, as appellant does, that the meaning of "legal representative" must be derived from the definition of "custodian" and "legal custodian" appearing elsewhere in the statute. *fn4 Applying these definitions, appellant contends that the "legal representative" must be the "person or institution who could exercise most of the powers or duties that a natural parent could exercise in making important decisions concerning the welfare of the child." In this case that institution is the District of Columbia government (specifically the Department of Human Services (DHS)), to whose legal custody the two minor children were committed in 1986.
While this understanding of the term legal representative might make sense in other contexts, *fn5 we deal here with a direct statutory link between the role of a guardian ad litem -- appointed to represent the child in court proceedings -- and the authority to initiate TPR proceedings when a child has been adJudged neglected. Appellant offers no reason why we should ignore this link in favor of a far more speculative connection between the "legal representative" who may bring TPR proceedings and the custodian responsible for the care and safekeeping of the child. Indeed, appellant's construction would make the term "legal representative" largely redundant in the ordinary case where DHS is the child's legal custodian, since the District of Columbia is already authorized expressly to file a TPR motion.
Recourse to the legislative history likewise fails to support appellant's argument. In the course of enacting the PCANA, the Council of the District of Columbia considered several versions of proposed § 16-2354 (a). Appellant points out that an earlier version expressly authorized "the guardian ad litem for the child" (as well as the Corporation Counsel of the District of Columbia) to file a TPR motion. But nothing in the legislative materials suggests that, by replacing this phrase with the term "legal representative," the Council intended to restrict (by excluding guardians ad litem) rather than expand (to include, for example, an attorney retained by the child) the class of attorneys authorized to file TPR motions. The Report of the Committee on the Judiciary and the accompanying the proposed bill, and attachments to the Report, confirm the understanding of drafters and commentators alike that guardians ad litem would be ...