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In re J.T.B.

March 26, 2009

IN RE PETITION OF J.T.B., T.W., APPELLANT.


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (ADA95-07). (Hon. Carol Dalton, Magistrate Judge). (Hon. Linda K. Davis, Reviewing Judge).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reid, Associate Judge

Argued December 11, 2008

Before REID, GLICKMAN, and THOMPSON, Associate Judges.

Appellant, T.W., the birth mother of M.W., appeals from an order of the Honorable Linda K. Davis (sitting as a Reviewing Judge in the Family Court) which denied T.W.'s motion and amended motion for review of the Final Decree of Adoption, issued by the Honorable Carol Dalton (Magistrate Judge) in response to appellee, J.T.B.'s petition to adopt M.W. We hold that Super. Ct. Adoption R. 52 requires the Family Court to issue written findings of fact and conclusions of law prior to granting or denying a decree of adoption, even though the court may have made oral findings and conclusions on the record. However, we agree with the Reviewing Judge that the error in failing to adhere strictly to the written findings and conclusion requirement of R. 52 was harmless in this case. Discerning no other error on this record, we affirm the judgment of the Family Court.

FACTUAL SUMMARY

The record shows that since her birth in August 2001, M.W. has lived with T.W. for less than one month. T.W., a victim of abuse by her biological father, and abandonment by her birth mother, grew up initially with relatives and then in foster care. She has had a history of multiple problems, including substance abuse, mental illness, and criminal behavior. T.W. took the child to her maternal aunt's home in early September 2001.*fn1 On August 13, 2002, due to her difficulties with T.W. with respect to the care of M.W., the aunt took M.W. to the District's Child and Family Services Agency ("CFSA"). The following day, the District formally removed M.W. from her birth mother's care, and placed M.W. with the aunt. At that time, CFSA's goal was reunification of M.W. with her mother.

However, between 2002 and 2007, T.W. displayed erratic behavior and generally failed to cooperate with CFSA in implementing its plans for reunification. Hence, CFSA's goal for M.W. eventually changed from reunification with her mother to adoption. On March 8, 2004, the aunt filed a petition to adopt M.W., but questions arose concerning the aunt's cognitive skills and physical condition. Examinations of the aunt revealed a depressive disorder, arthritis, and headaches. In September 2005, a therapist concluded that the aunt "was overwhelmed in parenting [M.W.], and hence, she was not a viable option for providing long-term care of [M.W.]." Moreover, the aunt had a history of involvement with CFSA in the 1980s and 1990s when she allegedly abused her sons. Consequently, in May 2006, CFSA informed the aunt that it would not support her petition for adoption of M.W. Instead, CFSA began to recruit an adoption parent and focused on J.T.B., who began weekly supervised visitations with M.W. in late September 2006, unsupervised day visits in late October 2006, and unsupervised overnight visits in early November 2006. In late December 2006, CFSA removed M.W. from the aunt's home and placed the child with J.T.B., a divorcee who resided in Maryland.*fn2

J.T.B. lodged her petition for adoption of M.W. in late April 2007. Subsequently, CFSA submitted to the Family Court its adoption report and recommendation, dated December 4 and 5, 2007, supporting J.T.B.'s petition. CFSA outlined an extensive history of neglect proceedings involving M.W., T.W.'s history, the aunt's history, and background on J.T.B., including her parents, siblings, work experience, and former marriage.

On January 29, 2007, and October 9, 2007, evidentiary hearings took place before Magistrate Judge Dalton. The January 29, 2007 hearing was styled as a show cause hearing (as to why the consent of the biological parents to the adoption of M.W. should not be waived) and a permanency hearing (adoption). Benita Alvarez, M.W.'s special education teacher responded to questions about M.W.'s educational needs, her classes, the goal of preparing her to enter the regular school population, and her completion of homework assignments under the aunt and under J.T.B. She noted that while she was under the aunt's care, M.W. was "very, very polite and interacted well with adults," but her homework projects were not always completed. She acknowledged that M.W. called the aunt "Momma" and had a "close relationship" with the aunt. Since M.W. has been with J.T.B., all of her homework assignments have been submitted, and she "has been producing better."

Ana Burgos, a social worker and a facilitator with CFSA's Family Team Meeting Unit, was assigned to M.W.'s case from August 2004 to February 2006. Initially, there were few issues with the aunt. Eventually, though, Ms. Burgos "started becoming concerned about [the aunt's] judgment and ability to follow through in meeting M.[W.'s] needs," especially in understanding and helping to meet the child's developmental and speech therapy needs, as well as health requirements such as taking care of M.W.'s dental cavities. She elaborated on her efforts to be supportive of the aunt's desire to adopt M.W. She attempted to persuade the aunt to prepare herself for the adoption by getting her GED, expanding her social network, and finding employment.

Talaya Myers, a CFSA social worker in Adoption Services, took over M.W.'s case from February 2006 to September 15, 2006. When Ms. Myers first began the case assignment, the aunt worked for a cleaning service and sometimes had difficulty arranging day care or after school care for M.W. The aunt did not have "a backup support person," and did not have the resources to buy adequate food, especially when she was unable to go to her cleaning job.*fn3 Ms. Myers referred the aunt to an adoption support group because she "tend[ed] to be reclusive . . . or isolated." She also referred M.W. and the aunt to a center that provided family and individual therapy. Ms. Myers had "no doubt" about the aunt's love for M.W. "[S]he always made sure that [M.W.] was clean and appropriately dressed," and Ms. Myers noted that the aunt kept all of M.W.'s dental and medical appointments. While she supported the aunt's petition for adoption initially, and agreed with others that the aunt "was definitely a good foster parent for M.[W.]," Ms. Myers concurred with others in CFSA that the aunt could not qualify as "an independent adoption parent of M.[W.]." As Ms. Myers indicated, CFSA personnel assigned to M.W. and the aunt finally concluded that they would have had to continue their involvement if the aunt adopted M.W., "and that's not what we look for when we do adoptions."

Counsel for the aunt cross-examined Ms. Myers. She explicitly asked, "what were the reasons why you didn't support the adoption [of M.W. by the aunt]?" Ms. Myers explained:

One of the primary reasons was [the aunt] demonstrated that she had a lack of forethought as far as planning for the future, let's say if something were to happen, there was no backup plan. She never had a support system in place to say, . . . if something were to happen to me, this person can take over for M.[W.] and care for her.

And I believe that it was CFSA's position, as well as my position, that we always had to initiate service, say, well, do you see that M.[W.] is struggling maybe with pronouncing some words? Why don't you try this or why don't you try that. We would always have to make a recommendation to try something or to initiate services or identify resources. [W]e asked her if she knew any community resources in her neighborhood to assist her in time of need. She said she did not.

Even with the summer camp, we had to push for her to put M.[W.] into a summer camp for socialization and also to assist her[, the aunt,] to go back to work.

Ms. Myers believed that the aunt could have pursued her GED diploma and vocational training, in an effort to move from the temporary cleaning job that ...


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