Appeals from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (ADA4-08) (Hon. Fern Flanagan Saddler, Trial Judge) (Hon. Noel T. Johnson, Magistrate Judge)
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Washington, Chief Judge:
Before WASHINGTON, Chief Judge, FISHER, Associate Judge, and PRYOR, Senior Judge.
C.C., the biological mother of minor child, A.S., along with A.S.'s biological grandparents, K.D. and S.D., challenge the adoption of A.S. by her foster mother, C.M., arguing that C.C.'s support for the Ds' petition was not given sufficient consideration. We "recognize, as we always do in such cases, that it is no small matter for a court to permit the adoption of a child over the objection of a mother who loves [her]." In re W.D., 988 A.2d 456, 457 (D.C. 2010) (internal quotations marks omitted). However, because appellants have not demonstrated that the trial court abused its discretion in reaching its decision, we affirm.
The minor child, A.S., was born on October 26, 2004, to C.C., the mother, who at the time was a ward of the District residing in a foster home.*fn1 A year later, A.S. was removed from C.C.'s custody, C.C. stipulated to neglect, and A.S. was placed into foster care. Because of C.C.'s drug use, poor performance of her court-ordered duties, and psychological diagnoses, the court changed the goal for A.S. from reunification to adoption in January of 2007. A.S. has no health concerns or special needs, and received no special services. Social workers testified that she is social, intelligent, inquisitive, resilient, and comfortable with different people. A.S. had been moved from three different foster homes before finally being placed with C.M. in July 2007. C.M. soon petitioned to adopt A.S.
At the time C.M. petitioned to adopt A.S., A.S. had lived with C.M. for almost nine months. C.M. was a fifty-two-year-old single woman with two biological children (a son, twenty-one, and a daughter, sixteen), and a two-year-old adopted daughter. The daughters lived with her, and A.S. shared a bedroom with the adopted daughter. C.M. was in good physical health, was financially stable, and had never been married but had a "boyfriend." C.M. took over custody of A.S. after participating in a long transition plan from her prior foster placement, which involved increasing visitation. A.S. called C.M. "momma" or "mommy" and referred to C.M.'s children as siblings. They enjoyed a warm, affectionate relationship.
C.C. had not met her father, K.D., until 2007, shortly before her twenty-first birthday. K.D. lives in California, and fathered C.C. with a woman who did not provide K.D.'s name for C.C.'s birth certificate and ran off with C.C. soon after she was born. From then until K.D. was introduced to C.C., K.D. made no attempt to locate C.C. K.D. admitted that he led a "wild" lifestyle at that time, but had since changed his life. K.D. has two other children and is now married to S.D. K.D. and S.D. have no children together. K.D. owns a hauling business and is training to be a minister, and S.D. owns a fitness franchise. The couple also operates a re-entry home for ex-drug abusers through their church. When K.D. was contacted by C.C., he traveled to the District to meet her and learned about A.S. (his granddaughter). Soon thereafter, K.D. and S.D. petitioned to adopt A.S., as well.
C.C. never visited the Ds in California, but was confident that A.S. would be "very well taken care of" in their household, and therefore consented to the Ds' petition. Based on her own experience in the "system," C.C. felt strongly that the biological connection would be important for A.S.'s long-term well-being. She stated that if A.S. were moved to California, she would move to California, as well, and would maintain a relationship with A.S.*fn2 She also stated that she believed that A.S. should be raised in a two-parent household, with a male role model.
A contested adoption trial commenced in April of 2008. The evidence at trial consisted of the testimony of C.M., the Ds, C.C., and three expert witnesses. C.M. testified that she first met A.S. while A.S. was transitioning from her previous foster placement into C.M.'s home. By the conclusion of the trial, A.S. had lived in C.M.'s home for eighteen months. C.M. tended to all of A.S.'s medical and educational needs, and A.S. followed C.M.'s directions and guidance. C.M. testified that A.S. also had a strong relationship with C.M.'s two-year-old adopted daughter, having learned to share space, attention, and toys with her. C.M. felt that A.S. was like a daughter to her and that she would be hurt if she could not adopt A.S. C.M. testified that if her petition were granted, she would work with C.C. and the Ds to allow them to maintain a relationship with A.S. She also testified that were the Ds' petition granted, she would work with them to ease the transition.
In support of their petition, the Ds testified that their four visits*fn3 with A.S. went well and that they felt as if A.S. "knew" them. S.D. testified that A.S. would easily transition into their home because of her adaptability, and because "love covers everything."
The trial court heard from three additional witnesses on the issue of which party should adopt A.S. First, A.S.'s social worker, Ms. Murphy, oversaw four ninety-minute visits between A.S. and the Ds and testified that she was pleased with how they went. According to Ms. Murphy, A.S. was initially reluctant to interact with the Ds, but eventually opened up to them. From what she knew of A.S.'s personality, having seen A.S. at least once a week since 2006, Ms. Murphy testified that this behavior was typical of A.S. meeting any new person. She stated that had the Ds started their petition earlier, and had more time to bond with A.S., perhaps she would have supported their petition. However, she noted that removing A.S. from C.M.'s care, after the child had bonded so strongly with C.M., would likely have deleterious effects on A.S. At the time of the trial, she was not sure how an appropriate transition to the Ds' home would be accomplished, given the strong bond A.S. had with C.M. versus her relative unfamiliarity with the Ds.*fn4
Next, Dr. King, a clinical psychologist, who had performed a "bonding study" in July 2007 to assess A.S.'s bond with C.C., C.M., and A.S.'s previous foster parent, testified.*fn5 Dr. King opined that a child bonds based on the amount of time spent with a caregiver, and how that caregiver treats the child. Dr. King further testified that A.S.'s bond with C.M. was strong as evidenced by the quality of their interaction and A.S.'s reaction when C.M. left her during the exercise. He testified that placing A.S. in a home with people A.S. did not know well, like the Ds, would be quite traumatic, and stated that moving A.S. from C.M.'s home to the Ds' home would have detrimental effects that would likely be "immediate and long lasting." He testified that A.S.'s long-standing connection to a sole caregiver would make transitioning her into a new home difficult, requiring several months with no guarantee of success. He also testified that the presence of two parents in a home would make no difference in A.S.'s ability to adapt to the home, and the presence of a male role model in a child's life does not need to come from within the home, as long as the child receives quality care.
Finally, Dr. Missar testified that the methodology Dr. King used for his bonding study was sound. He noted that research does support the conclusion that a child can benefit from a two-parent household, and that if the choice was between two equally able caretakers, most professionals would recommend placing the child in a two-parent home. However, he also testified that while some children are more resilient than others, breaking a bond will affect the child's self-esteem and development in both the short and long term. Given A.S.'s age, Dr. Missar believed that it would not matter if the new caregivers were relatives because A.S. was too young to understand what "biological" means. He ...