Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (A-453-01). (Hon. John M. Campbell, Trial Judge, neglect proceeding). (Hon. Arthur L. Burnett, Sr., Trial Judge, adoption proceeding).
Before Steadman, Farrell and Washington, Associate Judges.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Washington, Associate Judge
Biological mother R.W. appeals the adoption of her son D.W. by H.B., his maternal aunt. First, R.W. contends that the trial court erred by staying the adoption petition for six months, rather than dismissing it, after concluding at that point that it lacked clear and convincing evidence to support waiving her consent to the adoption. Second, R.W. argues that the trial court abused its discretion when it granted the adoption petition six months later. We affirm.
D.W., the subject of the adoption petition, was born on July 31, 1995, to birth mother R.W., then thirty-three years old and the mother of two other children -- a daughter named I.R. who was born on February 14, 1978, and a son named A.R., whose date of birth is unknown. According to the interim report prepared for the trial court by the District of Columbia Child and Family Services Agency ("CFSA"), D.W. lived with R.W. from the time he was born until August 13, 1996, when he first came to the attention of the CFSA. At the time, R.W. was suffering a nervous breakdown related to the recent deaths of her oldest son, A.R., and both A.R. and I.R's father. CFSA received a report that the birth mother R.W. was using crack cocaine and wandering the streets with D.W. at all hours of the day and night. R.W. had also reportedly left D.W. alone in her apartment on a number of occasions. Following an altercation with her teenage daughter, I.R., R.W. was taken by police to the Emergency Psychiatric Response Division and later admitted to Saint Elizabeths Hospital. While R.W. was receiving treatment at Saint Elizabeths, CFSA instituted a neglect proceeding. Following an emergency neglect hearing on September 10, 1996, D.W. was sent to live with R.W.'s half-sister, H.B. To date, D.W. has remained in this "temporary" placement.
Initially, R.W. had unsupervised weekly visits with her son. These visits, however, did not go smoothly and, as a result, the court ordered that the visits be supervised. On August 31, 2000, the neglect judge terminated R.W.'s visitation rights altogether, based on an ex parte report submitted by CFSA social worker Clayton Spitzer, which described R.W. as behaving in an "abnormal and potentially dangerous" way. On December 15, 2000, the neglect judge issued a no-contact order directing R.W. to stay away from both H.B. and D.W. In April 2001, R.W. petitioned the court for visitation; however, the neglect judge denied her motion on August 13, 2001.
H.B. filed a petition for adoption on August 22, 2001. On February 15, 2002, the trial court issued an order directing each of D.W.'s parents to show cause why his or her consent to the proposed adoption should not be waived. Although D.W.'s putative father D.S. signed a waiver of rights and denial of paternity, his mother R.W. was opposed to the adoption and refused to sign the consent. As a result, a show cause hearing was held on May 28 and May 29, 2002 to determine whether R.W.'s consent to the adoption could be waived.
1. The Show Cause Hearing
On May 28, 2002, the trial court heard testimony from the following individuals: CFSA social worker Clayton Spitzer, petitioner H.B., respondent R.W., and R.W.'s now grown daughter I.R. Clayton Spitzer, who had served as case manager since October 1998, testified in favor of the adoption; however, as the trial court recognized, his testimony was more favorable to the mother than it was to waiving her consent. On cross-examination, Spitzer admitted that he had lost a good portion of the notes he had taken following his encounters with birth mother R.W. Further, he testified that it appeared that R.W. had completed the Harbor Lights drug rehabilitation program in addition to a course on anger management. He was also aware that R.W. regularly attended both NA and AA meetings, brought birthday gifts and cards for D.W., and to his knowledge, had a good relationship with her son D.W. In recommendation of H.B. as an adoptive parent, Spitzer testified that he had visited her home and found it to be a "very pleasant, single-unit home with bedrooms and nicely furnished and a comfortable living situation." A review of D.W.'s medical records indicated that D.W. was healthy and up-to-date on all his immunizations. Spitzer also testified that D.W. was doing extremely well in school. In addition, based on his observations of D.W. and H.B. together, Spitzer concluded that their relationship was "very close."
Next, H.B. testified in support of her adoption petition. According to H.B., then age fifty-seven, she had cared for D.W. continuously since he was thirteen months old. H.B. explained that although she initially allowed her younger sister R.W. to come over to her house and visit with D.W., that visitation arrangement did not work. According to H.B., R.W. repeatedly tried to take her son from H.B.'s home without permission, would come over unannounced and demand, "hollering and screaming," to see her son, broke a window in H.B.'s home with a vase on one occasion, and on another occasion stood in the lobby of H.B.'s apartment with her pants pulled down and "shook her naked behind at everybody." Despite these problems, H.B. testified that she would not object to supervised visitation "as long as [R.W.]'s not on drugs and straight." H.B. indicated that D.W. still refers to R.W. as his "mother" and that he loves her. She testified that R.W. would frequently give her son Christmas and birthday gifts.
After H.B. stepped down, R.W.'s twenty-four-year-old daughter I.R. took the stand in opposition to the adoption petition. I.R., who has two children of her own, testified that her mother raised her until she was nineteen years of age and, in her view, had been an excellent parent.*fn2 I.R. testified that her half-brother D.W. frequently talked about his mother and asked her whether he could call her. She explained that her mother's problems began in 1996 when she had a nervous breakdown following the deaths of I.R.'s father and older brother. I.R. believed that her mother was finally bouncing back from the tragedy and that her brother would adjust well in her care.
R.W. took the stand next and testified against the adoption of her son. She offered testimony to establish that she had the resources to care for him. Initially, she explained that she would soon begin a job at Walter Reed Army Medical Center that would pay close to thirty thousand dollars per year. She testified that she was living with her fiancé in an apartment, and although she was not the leaseholder, she was in a position to get her own apartment if the need arose. With respect to her educational level, R.W. testified that she had completed nearly two years of college. In addition, she related that she had participated in the Harbor Lights drug treatment program from April to August 2001 and went to meetings every day to cope with her addictions to drugs and alcohol. R.W. had also been seeing a therapist to prevent her from relapsing into drug and alcohol abuse. R.W. explained that her relationship with her half-sister H.B. had never been close, and that H.B. had made it difficult for her to reunite with her son. She denied her sister's accusations that she had broken her sister's window with a vase and removed her pants in the lobby of her sister's apartment building. Finally, she testified that she loved her son and believed that if the adoption went through, she would never see him again.
At the end of the first day of the hearing, the trial court indicated that it believed the case was a "close" one and that it was considering staying the adoption for three to six months and recommending that the neglect judge authorize R.W. to have protective supervision over her son during this period. In order to assess the feasibility of this option, the trial court indicated that it would first need to question R.W.'s fiancé to get a sense of whether he would bring stability into the child's life. In ...