Appeals from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (A325-03 and A326-03). (Hon. Hiram E. Puig-Lugo, Trial Judge).
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ruiz, Associate Judge
Before SCHWELB, RUIZ and REID, Associate Judges.
D.J., the appellant, challenges the Superior Court's decision to waive her consent to the adoption of L.J. and T.J., her minor children, by J.L. and R.L., a married couple.*fn1 Concluding that the trial judge properly considered the evidence presented for his review, and did not abuse discretion in reaching his decision, we affirm.
The evidence at trial consisted primarily of the testimony of three caseworkers from the Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) who had been involved with the case. The court first heard from Tabitha Kelly, who had been assigned to the case from February 2001 until October 2002. Ms. Kelly testified that during the course of "countless conversations," "at least once or twice a week" with D.J., she became aware of the mother's drug use. As a result, Ms. Kelly referred Ms. J. to several out-patient drug counseling programs, but noted that she had not ever fully complied with the requirements of any. In fact, Ms. J. tested positive for the presence of drugs several times throughout 2001. In addition, Ms. Kelly noted that although there was scheduled weekly visitation "historically Ms. J. was at least 30 minutes late for most of her visits," and Ms. J. also missed about one visit per month. In conclusion, she observed that "Ms. J. just - she can't stay sober. And she can't parent her children. She's not available to her children."
Ms. Kelly also testified that the reason why the children had come to the attention of CFSA was that in 1999, M.E., the children's stepfather, had struck T.J. causing an hematoma to form over the child's left ear. Following that incident, the children were returned to their mother with the caveat that they could not be left alone with M.E. However, when in March 2000 Ms. J. was arrested and jailed overnight, the children were removed, so as to keep them from M.E.'s sole care. In June of that year they were found to be neglected as a result of Ms. J.'s drug use. Once placed in the Ls.' care, the children had a "warm, loving" relationship with their foster parents and bonded well with their foster siblings.*fn2 As a result, Ms. Kelly testified, although the children initially wanted to return to their mother's care, L.J. and T.J. "were clear if they could not be with [their] mom, they wanted to be with the petitioners."
Another CFSA caseworker, Natalie Walker, also testified for the petitioners. Ms. Walker had been assigned to the case from October 2002 until April 2003. Like Ms. Kelly, Ms. Walker informed the court that Ms. J. was "inconsistent" in her visits, and "often showed up to the visits very late, or sometimes the visits were cancelled because they didn't show up and the Ls. weren't aware of them not coming. So it was - that was basically the nature. Either she arrived late or didn't arrive at all." Ms. J.'s failure to visit regularly caused the children to become "very disappointed because they wanted to see her." Ms. Walker also told the court that at one visit Ms. J. asked the children with whom they wanted to live, and they had told their mother that they preferred living with their foster parents. In the wake of this occurrence, Ms. J. "had given the indication that she felt that they kind of betrayed her because they were choosing Ms. L. over her." Ms. Walker testified that the foster parents provided a "very nurturing, very family-like environment. I think that Ms. L. has gone above and beyond in trying to create a family setting for them and making them feel a part of the family."
The third witness for the petitioners was Karra Hancock, who was the CFSA caseworker assigned to the case at the time of the hearing, and had handled the case since July 2003. Ms. Hancock testified that the children had told her only ten days before the hearing that "they would like to continue to live with Mr. and Mrs. L." and "have not asked me to return to the care of their mother." On cross-examination, Ms. Hancock was even more specific, stating that in her last visit with the children, they "told me that they did not want to go with [their mother]."
The petitioners also called D.J. as a witness. Ms. J. admitted that she had previously pled guilty to possession of heroin, and had not completed a required detoxification program. She also admitted that her children had told her that they wanted to live with the petitioners "until I was able for them to come home." The mother informed the court that although she has had a substance abuse problem for over twenty years, "I've been dealing with it off and on, off and on and staying clean." During that time, she said, "I've always loved and took care of my kids. I want my children."
M.E. was called as a witness by D.J. He denied having hit T.J. in the incident that led to the first neglect petition. Mr. E. was of the opinion that although he was aware of Ms. J.'s drug use, she was "a very good mother."
The court took judicial notice of the fact that on July 28, 2000, Judge Dorsey had entered a written order in which he found L.J. and T.J. to have been neglected within the meaning of D.C. Code §§ 16-2301 (9)(B) and (C). This adjudication was based on evidence that the police had executed a search warrant at Ms. J.'s home and "found empty ziplock bags with residue, a cut straw, crack pipes, a Xanax pill in a pill box, and at least 30 prescription pill bottles." As a result, "the children lived in an environment littered with drug paraphernalia, including open pill bottles, empty ziplocks with drug residue, cut straws, and crack pipes."
After considering this evidence, the trial judge found that "D.J. had a drug addiction and that her addiction had a direct impact on her ability to discharge her parental responsibilities." The judge also found that D.J.'s participation in detoxification programs was "sporadic," and that her drug dependency continued. Additionally, he noted that "Ms. J. has at times been very inconsistent with her visits with the children." The trial judge also found that once the two children were placed with the Ls., "they have treated L. and T. as their own, incorporating the children into all family activities. They have taken the children with them on family trips to Florida and New York. L. and T. have bonded and developed positive relationships with the petitioners' 2 biological children who reside in the same home. The children interact with each other as siblings. L. and T. have expressed a desire to stay with J.L. and R.L. on a permanent basis. They refer to the petitioners as mom and dad."
Summing up the evidence, the trial judge noted that the Ls. "have provided the children with a stable and permanent family home" for nearly four years. Despite sincere efforts, Ms. J. "ha[d] not shown that she can stay sober," and her "inability to embrace sobriety" demonstrated an inability to provide for the children's physical, mental, and emotional needs. Thus, the trial judge concluded, "the evidence is clear that the quality of the interaction and relationship between the children [and the Ls.' family] is positive, constructive and healthy," whereas "Ms. J. does simply not appear as strong, reliable and stable." With respect to the children's desire, the judge concluded that "at the onset, it appears that the children were willing to stay with the petitioners, as long as they could not be reunited with their mother. But as time went by, the children grew older, resolved in awareness of what was happening. They have come to embrace the petitioners as their parents, and have requested through either [sic] statements of the social workers, that the connection between the petitioners and the children become [in] legal terms, a permanent one." Lastly, the judge considered the ...