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IN RE J.D.W.

May 14, 1998

IN RE J.D.W. J.G. AND A.G., APPELLANTS.


APPEAL FROM THE SUPERIOR COURT, MARY ELLEN ABRECHT, J. [711 A2d Page 827]

Before Terry, Steadman and King, Associate Judges.

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

[711 A2d Page 828]

This is a case in which two pairs of prospective adoptive parents, both deemed fit, are competing to adopt a young child whose birth mother (who is not a party to this appeal) gave "consent" first to one pair and then, nearly a year and a half later, to the other. We are asked to reverse an order of the trial court granting the petition of the latter pair, appellees J.C.W. and H.W. (the "Wilsons") *fn1 to adopt J.D.W. (the "child"), a five-year-old child at the time of trial, and dismissing the petition of the former pair, appellants J.G. and A.G. (the "Grants").

The court's order followed a three-day trial on the competing petitions of the Wilsons, who are the child's maternal uncle and the uncle's wife, and the Grants, his foster parents of more than three years. The court, applying D.C.Code § 16-309(b) (1997), found that "a preponderance of the evidence of the best interests of [the child] favors allowing the [Wilsons] . . . to adopt him." We affirm.

I.

The child was born to G.W. ("the mother") on March 10, 1991. His biological father, whose current whereabouts are unknown, has had no involvement with him since his birth and has provided no support. Immediately after his birth, the mother voluntarily relinquished custody and the child entered the foster care system, spending more than one year at St. Ann's Infant and Maternity Home and several months with a foster family. In December 1992, after a brief reunion [711 A2d Page 829]

with the mother, she again relinquished custody voluntarily, whereupon District authorities placed the child into the foster care of the Grants. He lived with the Grants between that date and August 1996, when, pursuant to the adoption decree appealed from here, he began living with the Wilsons.

Mr. and Mrs. Wilson, the mother's brother and sister in-law, began visitation with the child in November 1993. Initially, they were permitted two one-hour visits per month under the supervision of the Catholic Charities organization. By October 1994 the visits were increased to one day every weekend at their home.

Mrs. Wilson testified that the mother called her and her husband in February 1994 and requested that they adopt the child. Mrs. Wilson indicated that they wanted to adopt the child, and that was the reason they had begun visitation at Catholic Charities. In her testimony, the mother confirmed that she had asked the Wilsons to adopt her son and that they had agreed to do so. *fn2

Despite these discussions with the Wilsons, on November 2, 1994, the mother executed a written, notarized consent to the Grants to adopt her son. Accompanying the consent were two letters, one expressing gratitude to the Grants for agreeing to adopt and the other, addressed to the child, stating that the mother thought it in his best interests to become part of the Grant family. On the basis of the November 2, 1994, consent, the Grants filed their petition to adopt the child in February 1995.

At trial, the mother's motivation for giving consent to the Grants was probed. The mother herself testified that she signed the consent form as a way of "lashing out" and getting "revenge" against the Wilsons because "they weren't there" for her during a crisis in her life sparked by drug use. *fn3 She further indicated that when she gave her consent she believed that she could rescind it within one year. She claimed that she orally informed an official at Catholic Charities within the year after the consent that she had changed her mind and wanted the Wilsons to adopt her son.

Further calling the mother's intentions into question, Mrs. Wilson testified that she reported the mother to Family Protective Services on October 28, 1994 — less than a week before the mother executed the consent to the Grants for her son's adoption — for allegedly neglecting her two other children. She also stated her belief that the mother had been using drugs during the time period when she granted the November 2, 1994, consent.

In August 1995, the Wilsons filed a petition to adopt the child. Shortly before trial on the consolidated petitions of the Grants and the Wilsons, the Wilsons produced a written consent, signed by the mother, favoring their petition.

The trial court held that the November 2, 1994, consent in favor of the Grants is "the only valid consent and cannot be withdrawn," citing In re J.M.A.L. v. Lutheran Social Services, 418 A.2d 133 (D.C. 1980), and In re S.E.D., 324 A.2d 200 (D.C. 1974). It further found by clear and convincing evidence that, at the same time, the mother's consent was withheld from the Wilsons contrary to the best interests of the child. As a consequence, the court concluded that it could consider the Wilsons' petition on the same footing as the Grants' pursuant to D.C.Code § 16-304(e) (1997). Finally, weighing the [711 A2d Page 830]

preponderance of the evidence, the court held that the best interests of the child favored granting the petition of the Wilsons and ...


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