Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (ADA230-00) Hon. Arthur L. Burnett, Sr., Trial Judge.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Nebeker, Senior Judge
Before SCHWELB and FARRELL, Associate Judges, and NEBEKER, Senior Judge.
Opinion for the court by Senior Judge NEBEKER
Dissenting opinion by Associate Judge SCHWELB at p. 15.
Appellant, the biological mother of S.A.S., challenges the termination of her parental rights and adoption of S.A.S. by her paternal great-aunt, A.C.G. She asserts that the trial court erred in concluding that there was sufficient evidence in the record to support the termination order. In addition, appellant contends that the adoption was not in the best interests of the child because the court did not adequately consider the advanced age of A.C.G. at the time of the adoption. We affirm.
S.A.S., a female, was born in December 1996. She lived with her biological parents in an apartment in Prince George's County, Maryland, until she was approximately two months old when the relationship between her biological parents ended. Appellant effectively evicted the child and her father from the family home and placed the child and her belongings out on the street in inclement weather. As a result, the father and child went to live in the home of the father's aunt, A.C.G. A Maryland court order gave custody of the child to the father who in turn gave temporary guardianship to A.C.G.*fn1 Thus, S.A.S has lived with and been cared for by her great-aunt, A.C.G., for virtually all of her life.
A.C.G. assumed the primary responsibility for S.A.S.' care and upbringing and it is undisputed that A.C.G. has provided a loving home for this child with little financial support from either parent. For approximately two and one-half years, S.A.S. participated in weekend visits every other weekend at the home of appellant and her half-siblings. In August 1999, A.C.G. observed dramatic changes in the child's behavior after she returned from a weekend visit with her mother. S.A.S. began putting toys in her vagina and reported to A.C.G. that her eleven-year old half-brother, Ke.D. was putting crayons in her rectum and other objects in her vagina. A.C.G. attempted to convey her concerns to appellant but the results of this conversation were unproductive, although between August and November 1999, S.A.S' behavior improved and she did not report any further incidents of inappropriate contact during the weekend visits with appellant and her half-siblings.
In November 1999, however, S.A.S. began exhibiting other disturbing behaviors such as pulling up her dress, cursing, touching her vagina, and touching other people inappropriately. A.C.G. took S.A.S. to Child Protective Services and then for a physical examination at Children's National Medical Center soon after S.A.S. told guests during Christmas dinner that Ke.D. was playing with her "pee pee" all the time. The government filed a neglect petition in January 2000 alleging that appellant failed to protect S.A.S. from being sexually abused by her half-brother.
S.A.S. was referred to a psychologist and was treated for approximately one and one-half years for posttraumatic stress disorder from the trauma caused by the sexual abuse. Appellant did not cooperate with the psychologist's treatment plan for S.A.S. and she refused to have her son, Ke.D., undergo a psychological evaluation to determine if he needed treatment. The Honorable Kaye K. Christian found on March 27, 2000, that S.A.S. was neglected because appellant failed to protect her from her half-brother's sexual abuse and she was without proper parental care and control. Judge Christian's order also awarded appellant weekly supervised visitation.*fn2
The weekly supervised visitation with S.A.S. and appellant and her half-sister continued, with appellant canceling only two or three visits because of work. Social workers noted that appellant interacted appropriately with S.A.S. and that S.A.S. seemed to enjoy these visits. But the social worker also indicated that appellant did not have her son, Ke.D., evaluated during this period and that without such an evaluation, reunification of the family would be difficult since it was important to ensure S.A.S.' safety and well-being in appellant's home.
A.C.G. filed a petition to adopt S.A.S. on June 7, 2000. She told the trial court that she wished to pursue adoption instead of guardianship because an adoption would offer more permanency and stability for the child. The Honorable Arthur L. Burnett, Sr. conducted a nine-day adoption trial where he heard testimony from twelve witnesses and received numerous reports and exhibits as evidence. Ultimately, the trial judge issued a forty-page opinion and findings of fact that granted A.C.G.'s adoption petition and terminated the parental rights of both appellant and the biological father.
Appellant argues that there is not sufficient evidence in the record to support the termination of her parental rights. We recognize that the termination of parental rights has long-lasting repercussions for both the biological parent and the child, but based on our standard of review, we find that there is no reversible error in the trial court's decision to terminate appellant's parental rights and grant A.C.G's petition to adopt S.A.S.
We review the trial court's legal determinations de novo and its findings of fact under a clearly erroneous standard. In re J.D.W., 711 A.2d 826, 830 (D.C. 1998). In evaluating the best interests of the child, D.C. Code § 16-2353 (b) provides four factors to consider in determining whether a biological parent's rights should be terminated. They are:
(1) the child's need for continuity of care and caretakers and for timely integration into a stable and permanent home, taking into account the differences in the development and the ...