In re J.C.F. & H.A.Z.; J.A.C., Appellant.
Argued December 13, 2012
Appeals from the Superior Court Of the District of Columbia ADA-121-11 Hon. Carol Ann Dalton, Trial Judge.
Jennifer A. Renton for appellant.
Sogand Zamani for appellees J.C.F. and H.A.Z.
Irvin B. Nathan, Attorney General for the District of Columbia, Todd S. Kim, Solicitor General, Donna M. Murasky, Deputy Solicitor General, and Stacy L. Anderson, Assistant Attorney General, filed a statement in lieu of brief, for the District of Columbia.
Before Glickman and Blackburne-Rigsby, Associate Judges, and Nebeker, Senior Judge.
These appeals arise from a father's challenge to the adoption of his child by the child's step-father with the consent of the mother. After the father withheld his consent, the trial court found by clear and convincing evidence that the father was doing so contrary to the child's best interests. The trial court entered an order waiving the father's consent and entered a final decree granting the adoption. Discerning no abuse of discretion, we affirm.
On July 6, 2011, co-appellee J.C.F. (the step-father), joined by co-appellee H.A.Z. (the mother), filed a petition to adopt S.L.Z (the minor child). Appellant J.A.C. (the father) opposed the adoption. A two-day trial followed. The salient facts, as found by the court based on the credited testimony of the witnesses and other evidence introduced at trial, are as follows.
J.A.C. and H.A.Z. were married in June 2001 in Louisiana, and moved to the District of Columbia in 2006. At the time, J.A.C. was employed by the federal government and was earning approximately $150, 000, while H.A.Z. worked as a school counselor at an elementary school. S.L.Z. was born on October 19, 2008.
The relationship between the mother and father, however, was volatile, as evidenced by J.A.C.'s abusive behavior towards his wife both during and after the pregnancy. For example, while H.A.Z. was approximately four weeks pregnant, J.A.C. pushed and held his wife in a chokehold, then knocked her to the ground and attempted to put her head in a toilet bowl. Several weeks later, J.A.C. kicked his wife in the ribs after she refused to make him a sandwich. When H.A.Z. was five months pregnant, she was driving over a bridge with J.A.C when he hit her on the ear with his mobile phone, causing her to swerve off of the road.
Following the birth of S.L.Z., the father's violent tendencies did not subside. A few months after S.L.Z. was born, J.A.C. yanked his wife's hair, shoving her. J.A.C. at one point spat on his wife at her place of employment. In March 2009, J.A.C. unannounced arrived at the marital home, attempted to engage in sexual intercourse with his wife, and when rebuffed, pushed her against a wall and yanked her hair so hard that a wad of hair came off of her head. Following this incident, H.A.Z. called the police and received a temporary protection order. In lieu of proceeding in court, which H.A.Z. feared would jeopardize J.A.C.'s employment, H.A.Z. and J.A.C. entered into a no-contact agreement. However, J.A.C. repeatedly violated the no-contact agreement. J.A.C.'s abusiveness continued when in late 2009, he yanked the child out of the mother's arm and when, two months later, J.A.C. verbally abused the mother by referring to her and her genitalia in derogatory terms. When H.A.Z. attempted to call 911, J.A.C. pulled the phone cord out of the wall. On another occasion, following a fit of anger, J.A.C. drove away in the family car, leaving H.A.Z. without a vehicle. H.A.Z.'s parents were forced to purchase a car for their daughter.
J.A.C.'s actions caused serious financial strain for the family and prevented him from providing a substantial amount of financial support for the child. In February 2009, J.A.C. was terminated from his employment, and yet – despite repeated inquiries from the mother regarding the child's insurance coverage – he continually told H.A.Z. that the child was covered by his work insurance through 2009, which was not true. As a result, H.A.Z. incurred substantial medical debt which J.A.C. did not pay. Additionally, J.A.C. has a gambling addiction. To fund his addiction, J.A.C. resorted to, inter alia, theft, forgery, and bank fraud, amassing debt along the way and earning himself a growing criminal record and some time in jail. J.A.C.'s forgery of H.A.Z.'s name on checks drawn from her bank account left H.A.Z. without funds for herself and the child. She had to borrow money until the issue was resolved. Furthermore, J.A.C. failed to make his contribution to the mortgage payments, eventually resulting in the loss of the marital home. In the two years preceding trial, J.A.C. paid only $275 in child support, of which $250 was paid in March 2012, on the eve of trial. J.A.C. asserted that he received approximately three months of treatment for his gambling and was diagnosed with major depressive and anxiety disorder and impulse control disorder. Although J.A.C. testified that he was cured, the court did not find it plausible that J.A.C. no longer had a gambling problem, as J.A.C. sought therapeutic help for a short period and submitted no documentation indicating that he is regularly seeking treatment, notwithstanding the fact that documents entered into evidence indicated that after J.A.C. was discharged he was to transfer to another provider for further treatment. The trial court noted that, as of the spring of 2012, J.A.C. had recently begun employment teaching a two-credit engineering course at a nearby University and was hopeful that he would receive more hours teaching in the fall of 2012.
The father's involvement in S.L.Z.'s life has been erratic and limited. In December 2008, just two months after S.L.Z. was born, J.A.C. left the mother and child and did not return full-time after that date. Although J.A.C. and H.A.Z. entered into a no-contact agreement in March 2009, the terms of the agreement allowed J.A.C. to visit the child. Similarly, after J.A.C. and H.A.Z. legally separated in September 2009, the court granted H.A.Z. temporary custody and J.A.C. a reasonable right to unsupervised visitation with the child. Notwithstanding the fact that the no-contact agreement and custody order permitted J.A.C. to visit with the child, he refused to make arrangements for visitation with the child through H.A.Z. and only sporadically visited the child. For example, in June 2009, J.A.C. took the child to visit with his paternal relatives in Puerto Rico, but provided H.A.Z. with a fake reservation number, leaving H.A.Z. with no idea when the child would be returned. When visiting the child for his first birthday, J.A.C. paid little attention to the child, even falling asleep while the child was crawling, unsupervised near a flight of stairs. By February 2010, ...