Appeals from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (ADA 373-03) (Hon. Odessa F. Vincent, Trial Judge).
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Washington, Chief Judge
Before WASHINGTON, Chief Judge, and FISHER and BLACKBURNE-RIGSBY, Associate Judges.
Appellants T.B. and S.E., the natural parents of T.E. ("the child"), appeal the Superior Court's order granting the adoption petition of T.W.M., the child's foster mother, and denying the competing adoption petition of A.E., T.E.'s second cousin and the natural parents' choice of caregiver for the child. We reverse and remand.
A. Neglect Determination & Foster Care
T.E. was born prematurely on October 9, 2001, to Appellants T.B. (the father) and S.E. (the mother). S.E. left the child at the hospital, and on November 29, 2001, T.E. was placed in foster care. S.E. was not able to care for the child due to her substance abuse problems, so she was allowed only two-hour weekly supervised visits with T.E. On November 30, 2001, a petition was filed alleging that T.E. was a neglected child pursuant to D.C. Code §§ 16-2301 (9)(B) and (C) (1997 Repl.).*fn1 On January 31, 2002, S.E. stipulated to neglect pursuant to D.C. Code § 16-2301 (9)(C).
T.B. did not participate in the neglect proceedings, as he was incarcerated at the time and did not appear before the neglect judge.
Following a Disposition Hearing, on January 15, 2002, the neglect judge placed T.E. in her mother's protective supervision while she participated in the Nurture for Life ("NFL") drug treatment program. The NFL program provided S.E. with housing, substance abuse therapy, parenting classes, and General Equivalency Diploma (GED) study courses. S.E. absconded from the program in October 2002, leaving T.E. behind. Subsequently, the child was placed in foster care with her maternal aunt, who was already caring for several of T.E.'s siblings.
On October 18, 2002, at a Permanency Hearing, the neglect judge committed T.E. to the Child and Family Services Agency ("CFSA") and determined that she should remain in her maternal aunt's custody. The neglect judge also allowed Appellants supervised visits with T.E. and set forth certain criteria with which S.E. and T.B. had to comply if they wished to regain custody of T.E. Subsequently, on November 21, 2002, T.E. was removed from her maternal aunt's care and placed in foster care with T.W.M.
Shortly after T.E. was placed into foster care with T.W.M., A.E., T.E.'s second cousin contacted CFSA about getting custody of the child. A.E. is a divorcee*fn2 and single mother with a stable job. CFSA arranged supervised visits between A.E. and T.E., which began January 18, 2003.*fn3 A.E. consistently met with the child whenever the visits could be arranged.
A.E. and T.E. developed a good relationship, as did T.E. and A.E.'s young son. A.E. took the child to festivals, family gatherings, various sporting events, and the circus. A.E. enrolled her in gymnastics classes, and bought clothing and shoes for T.E.
On March 13, 2003, the permanency goal for T.E. was changed from reunification to adoption by A.E., and on May 5, 2003, the court ordered unsupervised, overnight weekend visits between A.E. and T.E. A.E. picked up the child from ...