Absent Parents and Termination of Parental Rights: New Case Law

A judge may draw a negative inference from a parent’s absence and find that the parent is unfit, terminating parental rights, according to a recent decision of the Massachusetts Appeals Court.

In Adoption of Talik, the Court terminated parental rights of a mother failed to attend a trial regarding reunification with her child.  Adoption of Talik, 92 Mass. App. Ct. 367 (2017). The child, born in 2013, tested positive for narcotics at birth and was placed in the custody of the Department of Children and Families, then shortly after discharged to the care of his foster parents.

DCF drafted a service plan for the mother, with the goal of reunifying the mother and the child. Under that plan, the mother was to participate in substance abuse treatment, provide toxicology screens, and attend visits with her child, among other tasks. Due to a lack of attendance, the mother was discharged from the program.

Soon thereafter, DCF’s goal changed to that of adoption. A relative of the child who resided in California expressed interest in having the child placed with her, and California Child Protective Services conducted a placement study. The study concluded that the relative’s home did not meet the proper standards for placement as applied in Massachusetts, and the child remained with his foster parents. The mother sued, claiming that DCF abused its discretion, and seeking to have the child placed in the care of the relative.

During the trial, the mother’s attorney was present, but the mother was absent despite having had notice of the proceedings. The judge issued a decision terminating the mother’s parental rights and approving DCF’s plan to have the child adopted by his foster parents. On appeal, the mother argued an abuse of discretion by the trial judge.

The Appeals Court affirmed the trial judge’s decision. “[A]n adverse inference may be drawn against a parent who, despite having received notice, is absent from a child custody or termination proceeding, even though such an inference would be impermissible in a criminal matter absent affirmative evidence showing consciousness of guilt,” the Court stated. “Where a parent has notice of a proceeding to determine his parental rights and the parent does not attend or provide an explanation for not attending, the absence may suggest that the parent has abandoned his rights in the child or cannot meet the child’s best interests.” Id., at 371-372.

The Court further explained that the trial judge has discretion to determine whether to draw such an inference, considering whether such inference is fair and reasonable based on all applicable circumstances. In the present case, the Court noted, the judge did not abuse his discretion, given the mother’s history of substance abuse, long history of domestic violence, failure to continue treatment, and noncompliance with the service plan.

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Open Adoption Agreements and Enforceability: New Case Law

In a recent case, of interest to adoption attorneys and parties alike, the Massachusetts Appeals Court discussed open adoption agreements, specifically the enforcement of clauses in those agreements which were at the sole discretion of the adoptive parents.

In the case at hand, the adoptive parents adopted two children who were both born to the biological parents. The first child was born in 2008 and placed with the adoptive parents at age thirteen months. As family law lawyers, it’s not uncommon to see substance abuse and mental health issues transcend from biological parents to adoptive children. This particular adoptive child had diagnoses of fetal alcohol syndrome, neurosensory hearing loss, and anxiety. The second child, her sister, was born in 2012 with neonatal abstinence syndrome; she was placed in the adoptive parents’ care immediately after her discharge from intensive care.

The parties opted for an open adoption, putting in place open adoption agreements for each child, executed by the biological parents and adoptive parents. The biological parents were allowed visitation with the children.

Regarding the agreement between the parties, the Court explained as follows: “As pertinent here, the agreement provides that, in the event a visit “causes undue stress or anxiety to the Child,” the adoptive parents “have the sole ability to modify visitation to conform to what they believe is in that child’s best interest, including the ability to terminate the visit.” Further, “[t]he visits will be considered unduly stressful if either as a result of a visit, or in anticipation of one, the Child demonstrates, either verbally or behaviorally, that the visit is detrimental to the [child’s] welfare.” 2  This guidance is instructive to an adoption attorney considering the route of open adoption for his or her client.

In addition, the agreement provided that the biological parents were to provide the adoptive parents with a working phone number at all times. It also provided that either side may seek specific performance from the other.

In June 2014, the adoptive mother sent a letter to the biological parents, notifying them that visitations were terminated. As reasons, she listed that the biological parents failed to provide a working phone number, and that they refused to stop referring to themselves as “mom and dad,” thereby causing the children stress and anxiety.

At a hearing regarding the biological parents’ rights to visitation, the judge issued an order reinstating visitation. She found that the failure to provide a working phone number was not a material breach of the agreement, and that there was no evidence that using the term “mom and dad” was detrimental to the children’s welfare. Experienced adoption attorneys would clearly have an valid argument on either side of that issue.

The adoptive parents appealed. They argued that the hearing judge erred in not following the law regarding enforcement of open adoption agreements, abrogating their statutory and contractual rights. They also argued that they had exercised their explicit right to terminate visitation based on the biological parents’ breach of the agreement.

The Appeals Court vacated the judge’s order, siding with the adoptive parents, and holding that the judge overstepped her bounds. “The fact that the judge did not follow the requirements of the statute or the agreement when she modified the agreement suggests that she believed that she was exercising her general equitable powers,” the Appeals Court explained. “As we have already observed however, the court’s general equitable powers are not available for use in matters controlled by the provisions of [the applicable law], or in contradiction of the applicable and specific contract provisions. Equity cannot be used when there is a prescribed and adequate remedy at law…Instead, the judge must follow the requirements of the statute and the agreement.” 3

The Appeals Court also explained that the biological parents were granted sole discretionary powers as to the occurrence of a condition—in this case, provision of a working phone number, among others. When this is the case, the court explained, the standard to review is whether the parties acted honestly and in good faith.

“The judge must follow the requirements of the relevant statutes, applicable provisions of the agreement, and our common law as related to contract interpretation and enforcement,” The Court noted. “[T}he judge should consider whatever evidence is probative, and necessary, to determine whether the adoptive parents acted honestly and in good faith in terminating the agreement. Pending final disposition, the judge may make such temporary orders for continued visitation as she may deem appropriate.”

 

1 S.M. & another v. M.P. & another, No. 15-P-1047 (April 12, 2017-July 14, 2017).

2 Id., at 4.

3 Id., at 8.

Is Parental Consent Needed in an Adoption Case?

Typically, written consent of certain parties is required before an adoption may take place; the requirements are set forth in Massachusetts General Laws, chapter 210, section 2. If the child being adopted is over the age of 12, consent by the child is needed. If the person being adopted is an adult who is married, consent of the person’s spouse is also needed.
In addition, written consent of the “lawful parents” must also be obtained before the adoption may go forward. If the child was born during a valid marriage, both biological parents must provide consent. If the child was born out of wedlock, only the consent of the mother is required; the father is entitled to notice of the adoption proceedings and may request custody, so long as he was adjudicated the father, or has filed a parental responsibility form with the Department of Children and Families.

According to the statute, the form of written consent must take the following shape:

I, as the (relationship) of (name of child), age , of the sex , born in (place of birth), on (date of birth), do hereby voluntarily and unconditionally surrender (child) to the care and custody of (agency or person receiving custody) for the purpose of adoption or such other disposition as may be made by a court of competent jurisdiction. I waive notice of any legal proceeding affecting the custody, guardianship, adoption or other disposition of (child).

I UNDERSTAND THAT THIS SURRENDER IS FINAL AND CANNOT BE REVOKED.

Under some circumstances, however, the courts may dispense with parental consent and allow an adoption to proceed without it. As with all issues dealing with custody, the court will use the “best interest of the child” standard: the court may dispense with parental consent only where it is in the best interests of the child to do so. According to Massachusetts General Laws, chapter 210, section 3, there are many statutory factors which the court will consider in determining parental fitness. Some of them include:

• Abandonment of the child;
• Severe or repetitive conduct of a physically, emotionally or sexually abusive or neglectful nature toward the child or toward another child in the home;
• Willful failure to visit the child where the child is not within the parent’s custody;
• A prior pattern of parental neglect or misconduct or an assault constituting a felony which resulted in serious bodily injury to the child and a likelihood of future harm to the child
based on such prior pattern or assault; and many others.

In one important case, the Supreme Judicial Court considered whether the trial judge erred in holding that a mother was proven by clear and convincing evidence to be an unfit parent, dispensing with the requirement of parental consent in the adoption of her two children. “The judge made ninety-seven findings of fact, each of which is supported by the evidence. The findings establish that Mary’s long-term history of substance abuse and mental illness (the latter of which continued through trial), combined with patterns of ongoing, repeated, serious parental neglect, abuse and misconduct, made her an unfit parent,” the Court noted. “The judge was warranted in finding and concluding that, while Mary had made progress in some areas, she ‘had made no progress in ways that would assist her in getting her children back.’”

If you have any questions about issues of divorce, custody, or support, you may schedule a free consultation with our office. Call 978-225-9030 during regular business hours or complete our contact form online, and we will get back to you at our earliest opportunity.

 

[1] Mass. Gen. Laws, ch. 210, s. 2.

[2] Mass. Gen. Laws, ch. 210, s. 3.

[3] Adoption of Georgia, 433 Mass. 62 (2000).

[4] Id., at 66.