Appeals from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (A-155-02 & A-156-02) (Hon. Linda Kay Davis, Trial Judge).
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Washington, Chief Judge
Before WASHINGTON, Chief Judge, GLICKMAN, Associate Judge, and ISCOE,*fn1 Associate Judge, Superior Court of the District of Columbia.
Appellant T.H., the biological mother of twins G.H. and L.H. ("twins," "adoptees," "children," or "G.H. and L.H."), is appealing the Superior Court's order 1) granting the adoption petition of A.T.A., the twin's foster mother, and 2) denying the competing adoption petition of L.C.L. and R.M.L., T.H.'s cousin and cousin-in-law respectively. We affirm.
In November 2000, T.H. gave birth to G.H. and L.H. at Howard University Hospital. As a result of T.H.'s serious and longstanding drug addiction the twins were born several weeks premature and with cocaine present in their systems. Neither T.H. nor H.E., the twin's biological father, took custody of the twins when they were ready for discharge. The twins remained at the hospital for ten days after being ready for discharge, and soon thereafter a neglect case was opened for each child. The twins were placed under the care of Lutheran Social Services ("LSS"), which first housed the twins in an institutional foster home and then placed with a foster parent. On March 31, 2001, both parents stipulated the children were neglected pursuant to D.C. Code §§ 16-2301 (9) (C) & (G) (2001). Although the stipulation articulated a goal of reunification, and reunification efforts with the parent continued, LSS was ordered to explore pre-adoptive placement options at a disposition hearing held on April 24, 2001.
Thereafter A.T.A. was identified by LSS as a pre-adoptive placement for the twins. The twins were placed with A.T.A. on July 13, 2001, and have since lived with A.T.A. Sadly, by the time of the permanency hearing, which was held on December 11, 2001, the twin's biological father had died, and T.H. had not attempted to resolve her longstanding drug addition, despite the government's attempt to assist T.H. with substance abuse treatment and housing referrals. On that date, the permanency goal for the twins was changed to adoption. A.T.A. immediately expressed her interest in adopting the twins and the court ordered A.T.A. to be appointed counsel to assist her in the adoption process. Unfortunately, A.T.A. was not appointed counsel in a prompt fashion. On March 14, 2002, A.T.A. filed the necessary forms pro se.
Despite previous failed attempts to find family placement options for the twins L.C.L., T.H.'s estranged cousin, and her husband, R.M.L. contacted LSS on March 11, 2002, stating that the couple had just learned about the twins and wished to adopt them. Before meeting the twins for the first time on April 2, 2002, the Ls filed a complaint in the Superior Court seeking custody of the twins, and also filed petitions for adoption on June 19, 2002. Upon the Ls filing their petitions for adoption, T.H. withheld her consent to A.T.A.'s petitions for adoption in favor of adoption by the Ls.
After considering all the testimony and opinions presented in the case, the trial court concluded A.T.A. established, by clear and convincing evidence, that T.H. was withholding her consent to A.T.A.'s petitions for adoption of the twins against their best interests. The trial court went on to conclude that despite T.H.'s clear preference to have the L's petitions granted, and the weighty consideration that must be accorded to her choice, A.T.A. established, by clear and convincing evidence, that it was in the best interests of the twins to have A.T.A.'s petitions granted. On appeal T.H. contends that the trial court erred by failing to give her choice of caretaker sufficient weight.
Although a trial court normally requires the consent of a biological parent to grant a petition for adoption, a trial court may grant a petition for adoption without the biological parent's consent if the court determines, by clear and convincing evidence, that the biological parent is withholding his or her consent contrary to the child's best interest. D.C. Code §§ 16-304 (a), (b)(2)(A), (e) (2001). We have held that when the trial court makes such a determination, the trial court is required to carefully consider the six factors enumerated in D.C. Code § 16-2353 (b) (2001).*fn2
This court reviews the trial court's determination of whether a parent is withholding consent contrary to the best interests of the child for abuse of discretion. In re T.J., 666 A.2d 1, 11 (D.C. 1995). "We then evaluate whether the trial court's decision is 'supported by substantial reasoning drawn from a firm factual foundation in the record.'" Id. (quoting In re D.I.S., 494 A.2d 1316, 1323 (D.C. 1985)). In this case, the trial court carefully considered the six factors and explained in great detail its conclusion that T.H. was withholding her consent to A.T.A.'s petitions for adoptions of the twins contrary to the twin's best interest, and on that basis, we have no difficulty affirming the trial court's decision.
In rendering its decision the trial court made the following findings. With respect to the first factor, due in large part to the testimony of Dr. Jennifer Carter, the only expert to testify at trial who observed the twins both with A.T.A. and the Ls, the trial court found that the continuity of the children's care was best served by allowing the twins to remain with A.T.A., their primary caretaker. Although the trial court recognized that both A.T.A. and the Ls have the capacity to parent the twins and that there is a positive emotional relationship between the twins and each of these adults, the trial court also noted that the most important of these relationships is the one with A.T.A. because the twins had lived with A.T.A. during the critical time period of six to sixteen months, the period when attachment first forms.*fn3 Moreover, the trial court found A.T.A. has been a wonderful caretaker since the twins were first placed with her in July 2001, and the twins have thrived under her care.
The record also shows that the physical, mental, and emotional health of A.T.A. is exemplary, and that she is exceptionally suited to care for the physical, mental, and emotional needs of the twins. Not only does A.T.A. provide a stable, loving, and moral household for the children, A.T.A. is also experienced to address the twin's special medical needs stemming from their prenatal cocaine exposure and premature birth. With respect to the Ls, although there was no reason to doubt the current physical, mental or emotional health of L.C.L., the trial court was notably concerned by L.C.L.'s lack of candor to the trial court with respect to her previous drug use, which resulted in L.C.L.'s admittance into a residential drug treatment program on two occasions. The trial court was also particularly concerned about the indicia of immaturity R.M.L. demonstrated during the proceedings. Specifically, the trial court was concerned about R.M.L.'s failure to disclose prior domestic relations action during discovery and his apparent lack of ...