Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (A-482-00)
Before Wagner, Chief Judge, and Schwelb and Farrell, Associate Judges
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Schwelb, Associate Judge
(Hon. John H. Bayly, Jr., Trial Judge, neglect proceeding) (Hon. Arthur L. Burnett, Sr., Trial Judge, adoption proceeding)
G.T.G., the biological mother of J.G. Jr., born on February 1, 1997, appeals from a final decree of adoption of J.G. Jr. by S.M.T., J.G. Jr.'s maternal great-aunt. The mother contends that the trial judge erred by permitting the adoption over her objection and by finding that a waiver of the statutory consent requirement, see D.C. Code § 16-304 (e) (2001), was in the best interest of the child. We affirm.
A. The neglect proceedings.
J.G. Jr. began his life in unfortunate and shameful circumstances. His first few months were spent in a dirty and unkempt home, with clothes piled in the bathtub and dirty baby bottles and dirty dishes in the sink. The judge who presided over a child neglect proceeding involving J.G. Jr. (Bayly, J.) found the conditions in which the boy lived to be "deplorable." More significantly, J.G. Jr.'s treatment in these conditions was even more deplorable.
On September 22, 1997, when he was less than eight months old, J.G. Jr. was brought to a hospital emergency room because he was choking. The boy was wearing a soaked and soiled diaper. His weight was that of a two-month-old baby. *fn1 A medical examination revealed, and the neglect judge found, that J.G. Jr. had suffered numerous grave injuries, including multiple rib fractures, several broken bones, subdural bleeding and hemorrhage of the brain, a retinal hemorrhage, a swollen ankle, scratches near his nose, and a bruise on his head. The authorities were promptly notified, and the Office of Corporation Counsel instituted a neglect proceeding in which both parents were accused of abusing their young son.
At the time that J.G. Jr. was brought to the hospital, his biological father, J.G. Sr. was living with the boy's mother, but the two parents were not then married. The mother and the father gave conflicting explanations of their son's injuries. The mother, who at that time was nineteen years of age, admitted to a third party that she sometimes shook her son when she was frustrated with him; the mother also claimed that the boy fell off a couch while he was in his father's care. The father asserted that J.G. Jr. fell off a swing prior to his admission to the hospital. After hearing expert medical testimony, the neglect judge found that "none of [J.G. Jr's.] injuries could have been inflicted by falling off a couch or a swing," and that the boy's parents had failed to provide an adequate explanation for his injuries. The judge concluded that J.G. Jr. had received "negligent treatment and maltreatment" from his parents, that the boy was an abused and neglected child, and that his younger brother was in "imminent danger of abuse." At disposition on May 28, 1998, J.G. Jr. was placed in the legal custody of his maternal great-aunt, with whom he had been living since September 1997.
B. The petition for adoption.
Unfortunately, the record is quite sparse regarding the course of the neglect proceedings after the trial court's initial disposition. *fn2 If the mother made any attempt to regain custody, there is no evidence in the record of any such attempt on her part, and the evidence strongly suggests that no effort to reunify the family was made by the m other. On September 28, 2000, the great-aunt filed a petition to adopt J.G. Jr. Both the father and the mother refused to consent to the proposed adoption. On August 26, 2001, the judge presiding over the adoption proceedings (Burnett, J.) issued an order directing each parent to show cause why his or her consent to the proposed adoption should not be waived. Judge Burnett scheduled an evidentiary hearing to determine whether such cause existed.
C. The evidentiary hearing.
The evidentiary hearing before Judge Burnett was held on December 11, 2001. Considering the gravity of the issues, the evidence presented at the hearing was less than exhaustive. For example, although J.G. Jr.'s mother had four living children and was eight months pregnant with a fifth, *fn3 no testimony was adduced or information provided with respect to the circumstances or whereabouts of J.G. Jr.'s siblings. Indeed, the record consists primarily of Judge Bayly's findings of fact in the neglect proceeding and the testimony before Judge Burnett of the great-aunt, the mother, and the father. *fn4
The great-aunt testified in support of her petition. She told the court that neither the mother nor the father had ever provided her with any financial support for J.G. Jr. She had suggested that the mother at least bring her son a teddy bear, but the mother had not done so, nor had the mother ever sent a card for the boy's birthday or for Thanksgiving or Christmas.
According to the great-aunt, the mother visited J.G. Jr. regularly until the boy was about two years old. The great-aunt testified that the two women got along w ell at the time J.G. Jr. was p laced with her. The relationship deteriorated when the great-aunt determined that the mother was living with J.G. Sr., the father of J.G. Jr., and the mother's other children; that the mother was being abused by or fighting with the father; and that the police had on one occasion placed the mother under arrest. The great-aunt also testified that the mother had become pregnant several times during the period that J.G. Jr. lived w ith the great-aunt, that the pregnancies had interfered with the mother's visitation, and that, while pregnant, the mother had not even telephoned her son; instead, seeking to promote a relationship between J.G. Jr. and his mother, the great-aunt occasionally called the mother on the boy's behalf. The great-aunt acknowledged on cross-examination, however, that the mother and son "have a good relationship," that J.G. Jr. "loves his mother," and that the mother "also loves [J.G. Jr.]."
The mother testified on her own behalf in opposition to the proposed adoption. She asserted that her failure at times to visit her son was due to serious complications with her pregnancies. *fn5 The mother described her living arrangements over the past years; at one time, she had a place of her own, but it was overcrowded and "not fit," *fn6 so she moved to a shelter; at the time of the hearing, she was living with her godmother, but she claimed to be on the waiting list to receive Section 8 public housing. *fn7 On direct examination, the mother testified as follows:
Q. Are you able to provide a home today to J.?
She attributed her inability to care for J.G. Jr. to her housing situation.
The mother also testified that she had been employed during part of the period since
J.G. Jr.'s birth, and that she had saved some money for her children. She stated, how ever, that she had not placed this m oney in a bank account, but had it in a "safe place," the location of which she was reluctant to disclose. *fn8 The mother indicated that at one time, she had saved as much as $600.00, *fn9 but that this amount had been depleted to $480.00 at the time of her testimony. She ...