The girl was born in 2006, and two years later while the family lived in Coweta County, her father killed her mother. He took the child to his parents in Florida and later killed himself there.
Coweta juvenile court awarded temporary custody of the girl to her maternal grandmother, Denise Dunbar, unbeknownst to Shannon Ertter, another of Dunbar’s daughters who lives in Florida.
Ertter, with her husband, Michael, then filed a petition in Cobb Superior Court, where Dunbar lived, seeking permanent custody.
In June 2010, Cobb Superior Court Judge Lark Ingram awarded the Ertters permanent custody, finding it was in the girl’s best interests. The order notes that Shannon Ertter and her mother, Dunbar, are estranged.
Ingram’s ruling notes that the Ertters are a stable family, raising their own two children and active in their communities, while Dunbar was unemployed and had been divorced three times. It also includes a psychologist’s report that Dunbar appears to have “antisocial beliefs and attitudes.”
Dunbar has since moved to Florida.
In November 2010, a divided Court of Appeals reversed Ingram’s ruling, finding that where courts have concurrent jurisdiction in a matter, the court that first exercises its jurisdiction may proceed.
On Monday, the Georgia Supreme Court said the Court of Appeals was wrong, in that juvenile courts do not have authority to award permanent custody without a transfer order from a superior court, which it did not have in this case.
“Since the superior court and the juvenile court did not have concurrent jurisdiction over the issue of permanent custody of the child, it was error for the Court of Appeals to rely on the principle of priority jurisdiction,” Justice Robert Benham wrote in the Supreme Court opinion released Monday.
Marietta lawyer Hylton Dupree, one of three lawyers representing the Ertters, said the child has already been living with the Ertters in Florida since 2010 and is doing well.
“She’s adjusted real well,” he said. “Her paternal grandparents live in Florida, as well, and they’re very nice people.”
Dunbar was represented by Marietta lawyer B. Wayne Phillips.
“This case has been tragic since day one,” Phillips said. “My client lost her youngest daughter, then got into a custody battle with one of her other daughters. It’s been very difficult for my client. Her primary concern is, and has always been, the best interests of child. She felt she was best suited, but the courts have spoken and she’s just committed to at this point for things to work out as best they can for the girl, who is just delightful.”