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In re T.J.

September 21, 1995


The opinion of the court was delivered by: King, Associate Judge

Argued May 11, 1995

Rehearing and Rehearing En Banc Denied April 17, 1996

Before WAGNER, Chief Judge, and STEADMAN and KING, Associate Judges.

T.J., a five-year old boy ("adoptee," "child," or "T.J."), M.D., T.J.'s maternal great-aunt ("great-aunt"), and C.J., T.J.'s mother, ("mother," "natural mother," or "C.J."), are appealing the Superior Court's order granting the adoption petition of M.H., T.J.'s foster mother, ("foster mother") and denying the custody complaint of the great-aunt. The neglect, adoption, and custody cases were consolidated, and the adoption and custody issues were tried before Judge Stephen F. Eilperin in November 1993. The parties to the consolidated cases were the District of Columbia ("District"); the child, through his court-appointed guardian ad litem; the foster mother, the adoption petitioner; the great-aunt, the custody complainant; and, the child's parents, the mother and D.L. ("the father"). At trial, the District, the guardian ad litem, and both the child's parents supported the great-aunt's custody petition. We reverse.

I. Procedural History

A. The Neglect Case

The proceedings began in the trial court as a petition filed by the government on April 17, 1991, pursuant to D.C.Code § 16-2301 et seq., alleging that the child, then 19 months old, was a neglected child. Following an initial court hearing, held the same day, the court found probable cause to support the neglect allegations and placed the child in shelter care with the D.C. Department of Human Services ("DHS"). The child was subsequently placed at St. Anne's Infant and Maternity Home ("St. Anne's"), an institutional facility for neglected children, where he remained for approximately one year. On January 23, 1992, following a trial on the neglect petition, Judge Gregory E. Mize adjudicated the child neglected pursuant to D.C.Code § 16-2301(9)(C),*fn1 because of the mother's mental illness. Judge Mize specifically rejected a neglect adjudication pursuant to D.C.Code § 16-2301(9)(B), because the child was not without "proper care or control, subsistence, education ... or other care or control necessary for his physical, mental or emotional health." DHS then, through a private foster-care agency on contract with DHS, For Love of Children ("FLOC"), placed the child in foster care with the foster mother and J.S., her female companion. On March 31, 1992, following a disposition hearing on the neglect case, the trial court entered a disposition order committing the child to DHS.

Thereafter, the trial court conducted regular review hearings in the neglect case during which the court received information on the mother's condition, including psychiatric evaluations and assessments. On July 8, 1992, the great-aunt appeared in court and expressed interest in obtaining custody of the child. On November 5, 1992, having been advised that DHS and FLOC would be recommending an immediate change in placement for the child to the great-aunt's home, the foster mother filed a petition to adopt the child. On May 24, 1993, the great-aunt filed a complaint for custody, which was consolidated with the neglect and adoption cases.

B. The adoption petition and custody complaint dispositions

The trial court conducted a seven-day fact-finding hearing on the adoption petition and custody complaint on November 15-19 and 22-23, 1993, at which the foster mother, her partner, and the great-aunt testified. The mother, who appeared briefly on one day of the proceedings, did not testify. The father did not appear. Both the child's parents, however, supported the great-aunt's custody complaint. A total of sixteen witnesses testified, and a number of reports and exhibits were received into evidence. On January 7, 1994, the trial court entered an order granting the foster mother's adoption petition, denying the great-aunt's custody complaint, and effectively terminating the mother's parental rights.

Concluding that there was no real possibility that either biological parent could raise the child, the court found, by clear and convincing evidence, when pitting the foster mother against the natural parents, that the parents were withholding their consent to the adoption contrary to T.J.'s best interest. In the contest for custody between the great-aunt and the foster mother, the court found, by a preponderance of the evidence, that it was in the best interest of the child to grant the foster mother's adoption petition. The court found that both the foster mother and the great-aunt would provide T.J. with a warm and loving home, and that he would have a clearer sense of his racial, cultural, and family identity if he was raised by the great-aunt with his extended family. Nevertheless, because of the strong attachment that had formed between the child and the foster mother, the court determined that the risk of harm to the child if he was removed from his foster mother's care outweighed those considerations. Thus, concluded the trial judge, it was in the child's best interest to be adopted by the foster mother. This consolidated appeal followed. Because the parties contentions focused on the weight of the evidence and the parties' relative evidentiary burdens, we will set forth the evidence in some detail.

II. Facts

A. Events leading to the Custody and Adoption Petitions

The child, an African-American boy, was born September 15, 1989, to mother, C.J., and father, D.L. He lived with his mother until he was nineteen months old. The mother suffers from a chronic mental illness (schizoaffective disorder) which, even with treatment, renders her unable to take care of her son on any kind of long-term basis. The child's father has never lived with the mother or the child, has never been involved in the child's life, and has no plans to assume care of the child.

The child was first brought to DHS's attention by his mother in November 1990, when she requested that DHS temporarily place her son in its care because she was experiencing mental problems and was afraid she would not be able to provide appropriate care for him. Several days later, DHS returned the child to her care. Over the next five months, on about four occasions, the mother requested and received emergency care placement for the child for periods of three to ten days because she was overwhelmed with the task of caring for him. On some of these occasions, the child was placed with his great-aunt. In February 1991, the mother placed the child in voluntary foster care at St. Anne's for one month, after which he was returned to her care. On April 17, 1991, the mother again indicated her inability to care for the child and the District filed a neglect petition alleging, inter alia, that the mother was unable to care for the child due to mental illness. The child, then nineteen months old, was placed at St. Anne's. During that period, the great-aunt was unwilling to care for the child for an extended period without the mother's consent or a court order giving her custody. The great-aunt testified that she was seeking to avoid a repetition of the conflicts she had encountered with the mother, including threats of violence and vandalism to her home by the mother, which occurred ten years earlier, when the great-aunt assumed custody of A.J., the mother's twelve-year old daughter, who is T.J.'s sister.

The child remained at St. Anne's for approximately one year pending a fact-finding hearing and disposition. During that time, he experienced behavioral, emotional, learning, and speech problems attributed to his early chaotic life with his mother. St. Anne's initiated behavioral, language and speech therapy, which continued some time after his placement with his foster family. The mother visited the child frequently during his stay at St. Anne's, and the great-aunt visited him once, because she would not "go over [the mother's] head" by visiting the child. On July 8, 1992, three months after the child was committed to foster care with the foster mother, the great-aunt appeared in court and expressed an interest in obtaining custody of the child. She later filed a custody complaint on May 24, 1993.

B. The Foster Care Placement

The foster mother became a foster parent through FLOC, an organization which administers a program for foster care. Before M.H. became T.J.'s foster mother, she, and her companion, J.S., attended a FLOC training program, where they were instructed that foster care is a temporary service, with a goal of returning the child to the birth family, first to the birth parents, if possible, and then to birth relatives. The foster mother signed a contract to that effect.

In the first few months while the child lived with his foster mother, he continued to exhibit severe behavioral and emotional problems-tantrums, hysterical crying, physical aggression, sleep problems, aimless and unfocused movement and motor activity, destructive play, and inability to relate to people. Additionally, he only spoke between ten to twenty words. He became clingy towards his foster mother, making separation from her very difficult, and was withdrawn and non-responsive towards others at school and home. His behavior improved after a few months in foster care. The child became talkative, his tantrums subsided, and he displayed a significant interest in physical activity. At the home of his foster mother, the child has his own room and access to a recreation room, a den, and a backyard in which he can play. The child attends an interracial kindergarten and interacts well with children there. He attends church and has friends of various races. The foster mother and her companion, who are both white, have taken the child to various African-American festivals and celebrations, read books to him with African-American characters and have posters of Martin Luther King and of black children portrayed in a positive way. The child is fully integrated into his foster family, his school and church, and his multi-cultural, multi-racial neighborhood and community. The foster mother has a close network of friends and acquaintances, both married and single, through school, work, church and her neighborhood.

When the child was first placed with his foster mother, the agency goal was reunification with his mother. The foster mother complied with the court-ordered visitation with his natural mother and great-aunt, but made no attempts to add extra visits, lengthen visits or add makeup visits. The FLOC social worker testified that she found it difficult to get the foster mother and her companion to cooperate with regard to permanency planning. The relationship between FLOC and the foster mother deteriorated to the extent that FLOC notified the foster mother in writing that she had breached their contract, and would be terminated as general foster parent, retaining that status only as to T.J. during the pendency of this case.

In July 1992, DHS referred T.J.'s case to its "Project 237."*fn2 The Project 237 social worker assigned to T.J.'s case determined that reunification with his mother was not feasible. On July 6, 1992, the social worker contacted the foster mother's companion, and initiated discussion as to whether the foster mother and her companion would be interested in adopting the child. The social worker also contacted the great-aunt, who indicated that she was not prepared to offer the child a home at that time. The social worker informed the great-aunt of the upcoming court review scheduled for July 8, 1992. The great-aunt attended the July 8, 1992 review hearing, and the judge, without addressing the issue of the child's permanent placement, authorized experimental, overnight/weekend visits for the child with his great-aunt at FLOC's discretion. The social worker testified that the great-aunt did not begin visits with the child until September 11, 1992, followed by a late October visit. Both these meetings took place at FLOC. After these two visits, the FLOC social worker indicated that she wanted to schedule weekend visits, and the foster mother's companion indicated that she did not think it was appropriate because of the child's reactions and regressions after visits with his mother, and during and after the two visits with his great-aunt at FLOC. It was at that point that the foster mother and her companion learned that FLOC would be recommending an immediate change of placement for the child at the scheduled November 18, 1992 court review. The foster mother testified that after consulting with various child mental health professionals, including the child's therapist, she filed the instant petition for adoption on November 5, 1992.

At the November 18, 1992 review hearing, the judge rejected the agency's recommendation for an immediate change of placement, instead ordering an independent psychiatric assessment to evaluate the child's psychological bonding and the effect, if any, a move to his great-aunt's home would have on him. He also ordered a home study of both the great-aunt and the foster mother by the Court's Social Services Division, and experimental, overnight/weekend visits with the great-aunt at FLOC's discretion, but not to exceed once every two weeks.

C. The Parties' Backgrounds

The trial court made the following findings of fact concerning the relevant parties. M.H. and J.S., the foster mother and her companion, are a white lesbian couple who have been together for over five years. M.H., then thirty years old, is an attorney, and J.S., then forty-nine years old, has a masters degree in developmental and educational psychology, and is employed as a sociologist with the Children's Defense Fund. They both have extensive experience with children's issues through their professional and volunteer work. They are a stable, emotionally mature couple, who have established a comfortable home together in a multi-racial, multi-cultural, upper middle-class neighborhood. They are both actively involved in their church's educational and public service activities. They have a network of friends available to take care of the child should it become necessary, but have no relatives on whom they could rely.

M.D., then sixty years old, is the adoptee's great-aunt by marriage, who lives in a single-family home with a fenced-in backyard in the Mount Pleasant area of the District of Columbia. She has successfully raised eight children of her own. She has previously provided a home for the adoptee's mother, and she has had custody of the adoptee's sister, A.J., the natural mother's twelve-year old daughter, since the girl was two years old.*fn3 Two of the great-aunt's older sons live with her, and her other children visit with her regularly. Her home is the hub of a large and extended African-American family where the child has several individuals responsible for meeting his needs. As of November 1993, the adoptee, who had spent approximately twenty-five weekends in the great-aunt's home, appeared, to various observers, to be comfortable there and to interact warmly with the individuals in the home, especially his sister.

One of the great-aunt's sons, G.P., is a narcotics investigator with the Metropolitan Police Department who lives with his wife and two children, ages eleven and seven. The great-aunt takes care of G.P.'s children every weekend, and G.P. and his wife expressed a willingness to help with the adoptee should the need ever arise. The great-aunt's daughter, R.L., a management specialist at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, is married with two children, a three-year old and a ten-year old. The great-aunt takes care of these children while R.L. is at work. The trial court found that R.L. and her husband stand ready to offer the adoptee a home should anything happen to the great-aunt. The trial court recognized that the great-aunt is "an extraordinary person. She is a strong, loving, dignified, highly moral, religious person." She has significant experience in raising her ...

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