Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia; Hon. Bruce S. Mencher, Trial Judge
Before Terry, Schwelb, and Farrell, Associate Judged. Opinion for the court by Associate Judge Farrell. Concurring opinion by Associate Judge Schwelb.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Farrell
FARRELL, Associate Judge: In this appeal from the grant of a petition for adoption, B.M., the natural mother, challenges the trial court's Conclusion--which had the effect of terminating her parental rights--that her refusal to consent to the adoption was not in the best interest of her child, D.R.M. She asserts that the court erred in applying the statutory standards governing termination of the parent-child relationship set out in D.C. Code 16-2353 (b) (1989), and in failing to consider the criteria for determining whether an adoption petition should be granted set forth in D.C. Cede § 16-309 (b). She further contends that, by failing to accord adequate weight to her pattern of visits with the child beginning nineteen months after the child's birth, the court violated her constitutionally protected right to raise her offspring. Finally, she claims that the court placed too much emphasis on her failure to comply with a case plan developed by the Department of Human Services (DHS).
Because the record reveals that the Judge carefully considered all relevant factors in the course of his inquiry, including those set out in § 16-309 (b), we conclude that his use of standards relating to termination of parental rights as an analytical framework was not erroneous. We also find clear and convincing evidence in the record to support the Judge's Conclusion that the mother's belated pattern of visits with the child did not result in a relationship so strong as alone to warrant denial of the adoption petition, and accordingly we reject the constitutional claim. Finally, we find no error in the Judge's consideration of B.M.'s performance under the case plan. Accordingly, we affirm.
D.R.M. was born on October 5, 1985, at the Washington Hospital Center. Two days later, a hospital social worker notified the District of Columbia Department of Social Services after the mother, B.M., left the hospital without D.R.M. In a meeting with a social worker on October 15, 1985, B.M. indicated that she was experiencing emotional problems and uncertain whether she wanted to keep the baby. She voluntarily signed the child into the emergency care of DHS. On that day, D.R.M. was removed from the hospital and placed in a foster home, where she remained until the foster parent died on March 29, 1986, at which time she was placed in a second foster home.
In November 1985, Donna Dixon, a social worker in the Child and Family Services Division of DHS, began attempts to contact B.M. to explore the possibility of reuniting her with D.R.M. At the same time, she ascertained that neither of the men who could possibly be the father nor any member of B.M.'s family had any interest in caring for the child. *fn1 After months of unanswered telephone calls and letters, Ms. Dixon finally spoke with B.M. in April of 1986. B.M. expressed an interest in seeing D.R.M., and Ms. Dixon indicated her willingness to assist B.M. in working toward reunification, offering to set appointments to discuss formulation of a case plan and visitation arrangements. B.M. failed to attend the initial appointment, and subsequent attempts to reach her by mail and telephone proved fruitless.
On April 15, 1986, acting on a petition filed by Ms. Dixon and the Corporation Counsel, the Family Division of the Superior Court, Judge Graae, ordered the child placed in shelter care pending further action by the Family Division. *fn2 His order allowed B.M. supervised visitation rights arranged through the social worker.
In October 1986, approximately a year after the child's birth, Ms. Dixon referred D.R.M.'s case to the Adoption Unit of DHS recommending "permanency planning"--meaning either adoption or long-term foster care. Ms. Dixon based her recommendation on B.M.'s continuing failure to work with DHS toward reunification with D.R.M., and the unwillingness of family members to care for the child. According to Ms. Dixon's testimony during the adoption hearing, although reunification was still a possibility, these circumstances necessitated long-term planning.
On October 17, 1986, the Family Division, Judge Huhn, adJudged D.R.M. neglected and ordered the child committed to the custody of DHS and placed in a suitable foster home. *fn3 B.M. did not contest this determination or Disposition. She entered a stipulation admitting that she had not seen D.R.M. since her birth, was presently unable to provide a home or care for D.R.M., and did not expect to be able to assume parental responsibilities until she obtained a job, suitable housing, and day care, and achieved other stabilizing measures. The stipulation discussed the prospect of reunification, but provided that prior to reunification of the mother with D.R.M., the mother must: 1) fully cooperate with the assigned social worker, 2) maintain regular and frequent visitation with the child, and 3) follow through with all appropriate referrals, including submitting to a psychiatric evaluation, participating in counseling, and attending parenting classes. The stipulation also provided that B.M. had visitation rights.
Following Ms. Dixon's referral, the DHS Adoption and Placement Resources Branch, in consultation with Ms. Dixon and others, identified petitioner in November 1986 as a likely adoptive parent for D.R.M. D.R.M. was placed in the petitioner's home on November 21, 1986, as an "at risk" adoptive placement. *fn4 Concerned over D.R.M.'s uncertain legal status owing to the continued existence of B.M.'s parental rights, *fn5 petitioner filed a petition for adoption the same day.
Following the placement, Ms. Dixon continued her attempts to have B.M. meet with her to develop a case plan identifying goals that would favor reunification if accomplished by B.M. Reports submitted by Ms. Dixon in status hearings on D.R.M.'s neglect commitment chronicle Dixon's lack of success, and B.M.'s continuing failure to abide by the terms of the stipulation requiring cooperation with the social worker. *fn6 Acknowledging that she had been contacted during this period, B.M. testified that she "was not interested in doing a case plan" but that she did want to see her child.
Finally, on April 27, 1987, B.M. met with Ms. Dixon to work on the case plan. The two discussed D.R.M.'s placement, the fact that it could result in adoption, and the need for serious effort on B.M.'s part to secure reunification. Like the stipulation, the plan required B.M. to obtain stable employment and housing, to allow home visits by representatives of the agency, to follow through on the social worker's referrals and recommendations for psychiatric evaluations and counseling and parenting classes, and to maintain frequent and regular visits with the child.
Regular visits were scheduled with D.R.M. commencing May 13, 1987, most of which B.M. attended. B.M. also attended psychiatric evaluations in May and August 1987, although her cooperation with the examining psychologist during the second session was poor. In the meantime, the Adoption Branch completed its post-placement evaluation of the petitioner. *fn7 On March 23, 1987, the Commissioner on Social Services approved a report recommending that the court grant an interlocutory decree of adoption which would become final after six months. *fn8
Because B.M. had not relinquished her parental rights and they had not been terminated by court order, *fn9 the court on June 22, 1987, entered an order requiring B.M. to show cause why the adoption petition should not be granted. On motion of counsel for B.M., the court on August 17, 1987, consolidated the ongoing neglect proceeding and the contested adoption proceeding. Following a four-day hearing in November 1987, the Family Division, Judge Mencher, granted the petition for adoption after concluding that the evidence ...