In our haste to report on last week’s Pennsylvania Supreme Court case on support duties of non-parents, we overlooked another case decided on December 21, clarifying when an order conferring standing on a party in a custody case becomes appealable.

“Standing” is the legal term for the right to be a party in a lawsuit. The kid next door may be cute but that doesn’t give me the right to seek custody of him just because I would be a better parent.  There has to be a recognized legal nexus between the natural or adoptive parents of a child and the right of some non-parent to claim custodial rights.

The case we last reported on offers a good example. The Serbian father of the children was no longer involved once the children arrived in America and birth mother married step-father.  Step-father took on the role of parent for several years and when that relationship ended step-father stepped forward and asserted that because he had acted as a parent, he had the rights of a parent.  The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania offered no comment on whether this gentleman was or wasn’t a substitute parent, but faced with a lower court decision awarding him joint legal and physical custody of the children, they decided he was eligible to pay child support for children he had half the time.

K.C. and V.C. v. L.A. is a little different. The defendant is the natural mother of L.A., who was born in 2011.  The natural parents did not do so well and a child welfare agency in Northampton County sought to have L.A. declared dependent, meaning that the child was not having basic needs met by the biological parents.  The agency secured an award of physical custody and then placed the child with a maternal aunt of the mother and a friend with whom the maternal aunt resided.  In Spring, 2013 the Court vacated the dependency placement and awarded custody to the biological father.  The aunt and her friend were given partial physical custody of the child on alternate weekends.  The Father lived with his own mother and her current husband.

Two months after being awarded custody and when the child was only 18 months old, the natural father passed away. The decedent’s mother and her husband filed to assume custody.  At that point the child had been with them for nine months although they were not part of the custody order, as Father was the actual person awarded custody.  The maternal aunt and friend filed a claim of their own noting that they had physical custody of the child for seven months under the aegis of the dependency finding. Typically when a child is found dependent as L.A. was, the agency is awarded legal and physical custody subject to their right to place the child wherever the agency deems suitable.

When aunt and friend filed to intervene, the deceased Father’s mother and her current husband objected noting that the only custody maternal aunt and friend had was under the dependency award. In other words, no court had deemed them to be fit parents. They were merely the choice placement of the agency that had taken the children away from the natural parents because basic needs were not met.

The request of aunt and friend to intervene was denied by the trial court. We don’t have that decision, but typically, the placement of a very young child with a maternal aunt is not any more than a convenience for agencies that are overwhelmed with demands just like these.  The argument of the agency goes: “Look your honor, the child is two months old and the natural parents are not getting the job done.  We don’t have a lot of places to send a two month old child and the maternal aunt and her friend seem able and sincere and we will keep an eye on them while we try to correct the problems that forced us to take the child away from his/her natural parents.” In this case, natural Father seems to have stepped up to the plate and ended up with primary custody.  Unfortunately, he died almost immediately after he won custody.

The request of aunt and friend for “standing” to try to resume custody in the wake of natural father’s death being denied, the aunt and friend filed an appeal. The Superior Court quashed (i.e., dismissed) the appeal because it was not a final adjudication of the custody action brought by paternal grandmother and her husband.  The Superior Court ruling had a precedential foundation.  It has long been the law that appeals from custody orders must relate to orders that “dispose of all claims.”  See G.B. v. M.M.B. 670 A.2d 714 (Pa. Super. 1996).  The goal here is to avoid piecemeal disposition of custody claims on appeal.

Aunt and friend were not taking no for an answer. After all, they had physical custody of L.A. for seven months and Father (while resident with his mother and stepfather) had custody for perhaps nine months.

While the basic premise of appellate rules is to not decide cases piecemeal, a large body of law has evolved concerning what are termed “collateral orders”. These are orders which do not dispose of the whole case but which may change the course of the entire litigation.  In this case, paternal grandmother was seeking custody premised upon the rights awarded to her deceased son.  Her son held those rights for nine months before he died.  The parties who had physical custody of the child for the preceding seven months asserted that they should have custody and the Superior Court said they could not even make a case.

In an opinion authored by Madame Justice Todd, the Court notes that the prevailing public policy is to avoid appellate review of cases before they have been fully decided. But, the exception to that rule is invoked where failure to permit the appeal effectively “kills” the case.  In a unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court finds that dismissal of aunt and friend’s claim was appealable because the dismissal “killed” the case.  In effect, natural Father being dead and natural mother otherwise “absent without leave” (AWOL) there were effectively only two real contestants for this infant child; the paternal grandmother whose rights arose purely from the fact that the natural father lived with her when he secured custody and the aunt whose right to custody was also “derived” from the decision of the Office of Children and Youth to place the child awarded to them with the aunt.

Unless granted the right to intervene, the aunt and her friend asserted that the petition of paternal grandmother and her husband would never be contested because there was no one with standing to contest it except for the absent natural mother. The appellants had enjoyed custody for seven months. The paternal grandmother had never had custody.  The child was awarded to her son who happened to be resident with her when he got custody and when he died.

The Supreme Court decided that (a) the order putting the aunt and friend out of court was severable from the rest of the custody case because there was no one else who sought custody and (b) any claims they might have asserted were lost because they can’t appeal from a custody order to which they were never afforded the status of parties. The Court distinguishes this from other civil orders affecting standing because there is an important and immediate impact on children.  In particular it cites In re Barnes Foundation, 871 A.2d 792 (Pa. 2005) where the Court held that the intervenors lost their right to appeal the final decision because they had not preserved an appeal on the issue of intervention.  The Court reasoned that while Barnes does not involve an issue as prescient as child custody, the principle of early intervention is all the more important where children are involved.

So the principle is clear. If a party seeking custodial rights is denied the opportunity to participate, the appeal is collateral and must be taken within thirty days of the date the order denying intervention or standing is entered.  The applicable rule is Pa. R.A.P. 313.

But let’s also consider the collateral impact of the collateral appeal doctrine with an eye cast in the direction of the announced goal of affording child custody decisions a “fast track” for disposition. The subject child was born in December, 2011.  The child is placed with aunt and friend in February, 2012.  In September, 2012, Father secures shared custody.  In April 2013, the child is awarded to Father.  He dies. In June, 2013 his mother files to be custodian.  Later that month aunt and friend file to intervene.  It takes more than 18 months for the trial court to decide that the intervention should be denied.  In 90 days, the Superior Court quashes the appeal.  The Petition for Allowance had to have been filed in April-May 2015, if timely.  The case is reported as “submitted” on October 21 and was disposed of with opinion by the Supreme Court in 60 days.  So, effectively from June 6, 2013 (date of primary custodian’s death) until December, 2015, the life of a then 18 month old child is in limbo.  That’s 31 months to decide that the folks who had physical custody for seven months did have standing to challenge the custody action of the folks who had physical custody for nine months.  We have written law telling us that these matters need to be expedited.  But this child lost a father at 18 months and still doesn’t know where he will live almost three years after father died.  The appellate process through two such courts consumed a little more than 8 months.  But it took the trial court an extraordinary eighteen months to decide whether aunt and friend had standing.  Query, if you are the trial judge on remand and looking at the factors explicated in the custody statute, does the 2.5 year status quo since father died count as a stability factor for a child whose life was little more than a series of disruptions prior to Father’s death. Under a pure “best interests” analysis that would seem to be true.  But, in a world where fairness is also a factor at some level, does the belated and ultimately erroneous ruling of the trial and Superior Courts count against the prevailing party in the subsequent proceedings?  In this case, it is difficult to justify eighteen months to decide whether a party has standing.  That delay created a status that will be difficult to undo unless the paternal grandmother and spouse have completely dropped the proverbial custodial ball.  On this record, they will defend a case against another set of claimants (aunt and friend) who have not so much as seen the subject child since April, 2013.  That amounts to 31 of the 48 months young L.A. has been alive.

The recent Superior Court decision In re Adoption of M.R.D. and T.M.D. offers a new challenge in the context of who can be an adoptive parent.  While in her early 20s a young woman ventured to South Dakota to teach school.  She met a young man in 2002 and when she returned to Pennsylvania in 2003, he briefly followed her back here.  Just before he returned to South Dakota, it would appear that Mother became pregnant with twins.  They were born in Pennsylvania in October, 2004.  At the time Mother was living with her own Father.  The Father of the children did visit Pennsylvania to visit shortly after the children were born but he then returned to South Dakota and did not come back until 2006.  That trip was also a brief one and the Father did not encourage any visits in South Dakota by mother and children.  Later in 2006, Mother and the children moved into a rental home owned by her father.  South Dakota Father was aware of this move but little else changed and Father was last heard from in January, 2007.

In January 2013, Mother filed to terminate Father’s parental rights.  This appears to have been in response to Father’s action requesting an award of custody.  At the time Father had not seen the children in seven years.  His last written communication with the children had been in January, 2007.  It would appear that he provided little to no financial support since their birth.  And aside from the first two visits, Mother did not try to make the children aware of the identity of their Father.

What made this adoption unusual was the fact that for the second time in recent Pennsylvania history, the proposed adopting parent was Mother’s own father.  It appears undisputed that this gentleman had effectively provided the same kinds of parenting support that a natural Father is expected to provide.

The first part of the case was easy.  Father provided the textbook facts typical of parental abandonment such as would justify termination of his rights in an adoption.  The more difficult question was whether the children’s grandfather was an eligible adoptive parent.

In the 2-1 decision Judges Donohue and Stabile answered in the negative. They held that the purpose behind the statute remains “to foster a new parent-child relationship.” Absent such a relationship, the purpose is likely to provide disagreeable parents with a “new….dangerous, tactic” to employ in the world of child custody litigation; cross petitions to terminate. Accordingly, they reversed the Lycoming County ruling terminating Father’s parental rights.

The pinion properly observes that grandfather is functioning in many ways as a substitute parent. But the greater challenge here is that in a world where families are evolving as a matter of fact, if not necessarily as a matter of law, what does it take to qualify for the appellation “parent” besides biology or residence while married to a woman who has become pregnant?

We are commonly asked by clients:  “If my spouse has had no contact nor provided support for a period of six months or more, can’t I terminate his/her parental rights?” Under the Adoption law, that is true but most people miss the fact that the termination is part of an adoption that offers the child a substitute parent. If you have no player to sub for the parent who is not playing, you don’t have a basis to terminate parental rights.  And per this ruling (to which there was a length dissent) granddad is deemed an “ineligible receiver.”



Copyright: 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: 123RF Stock Photo

We’ve written about the process of terminating a parent’s custodial rights to their child an different cases presenting unique and unusual circumstances. In some instances, the process is almost rote due to parental ambivalence to the situation; the parent has made no real effort to be a parent to the child and allows the process of termination and adoption by a step-parent or third party to move forward unimpeded.

There are other times when a parent fights the termination and desperately tries to retain their custodial rights under any number of challenging and difficult circumstances. There may be legitimate justifications for the termination, or there may be zealous advocates unwilling to give a parent a chance to reassert themselves in the parental role. The decision is made based on the child’s best interests and appealing the trial court’s decision to terminate parental rights is difficult due to the deference to the trial court’s discretion and determinations of credibility.

A recent Pennsylvania case, however, highlights that despite the best efforts of the parents, the Court, Children and Youth Services, and other members of the support system, it is still in the best interests of a child to terminate the parents’ rights. Such is the case of In the interest of: M.T. et. al., 2014 Pa.Super. 223.

This case involves parents who consented to the removal of their two young children. Abuse and neglect had occurred resulting in significant injuries the kids. The parents acquiesced to the removal of the children and to undertake a structured reunification plan. Unfortunately, this couple simply could not get themselves sufficiently together – even allowing for being intellectually deficient – despite what appears to be an understanding by those agencies and third parties involved that they were making efforts to follow the plan.

The appeal is derived from the trial court’s decision to change the case goal for the children from reunification with their biological parents to placement and adoption by third parties. The parents appealed the decision to change the goal on the basis that it was improperly modified and that they had met all the requirements of the unification. They argued that there was insufficient evidence to show the children’s best interests were met by terminating their parental rights.

The Superior Court was unable to re-weigh the evidence and had to accept the trial court’s decision as to the credibility of witnesses. The trial court offered a well-reasoned and well-support justification for the goal change, including, the county agency’s demonstration that the conditions requiring the children’s placement persisted in the household, as well as a lack of acknowledgment that abuse occurred, and reliance on the grandparents (who perpetrated some of the abuse) for support.

In short, despite the combined efforts of the service providers, seventeen months had passed and the parents were unable to complete their reunification plan. At that point, it was in the children’s best interests to change the goal from reunification to adoption.

Unlike other situations, the biological parents had contact with the children – they would not have their rights terminated using the six month threshold for contact with the children. Instead, the trial court relied upon the testimony and evidence from the county agency and others to determine that despite being actively in a reunification plan that the children’s interests were best served by terminating that plan and moving the children toward adoption. Though they were bonded with their parents, the termination and adoption of the children by others served their interests more than to continue to hope that the parents would break through and fulfill the reunification requirements.

This is not to say the parents are sympathetic figures – the physical abuse the children experienced is horrible and included broken bones and burns. What this case highlights is that even those people working within the process of reunification will continue to be viewed against the standard of the children’s best interests and that those interests can run contrary to the desires, efforts, and wishes of the parents. Revising the plan goals and pursuing termination was firmly rooted in examining the efforts and progress of the parents over seventeen months and determining that the children’s best interests were served by ending the reunification process and allowing the children to move forward with adopted parents who offered the safety and stability they need to thrive.


Aaron Weems is an attorney and editor of the Pennsylvania Family Law Blog. Aaron is a partner in Fox Rothschild’s Blue Bell, Pennsylvania office and practices throughout the greater Philadelphia region. Aaron can be reached at 610-397-7989;, and on Twitter@AaronWeemsAtty.

Leslie Spoltore, one of our partners in our Wilmington office, posted President Barack Obama’s proclamation making November National Adoption Month. Family law is an area which often deals with difficult issues and outcomes where neither side feels like they’ve won even if the outcome is in their favor.

Adoptions, on the other hand, can be an extremely positive event where all those involved – the adoptive parents, the judge, the clerks at the Courthouse – all have a single-minded purpose of creating a new family and permanent family for a child. While some adoptions can become difficult due to competing interests of various adults, the overwhelming majority of them arise from two parents wanting to create a better life for child.

The full text of the President’s proclamation can be found at our Delaware Trial Practice Blog.


Aaron Weems is an attorney and editor of the Pennsylvania Family Law Blog. Aaron is a partner in Fox Rothschild’s Blue Bell, Pennsylvania office and practices throughout the greater Philadelphia region. Aaron can be reached at 610-397-7989;, and on Twitter@AaronWeemsAtty.

One of the most difficult concepts for lay persons to understand in the law is the rule stating that only relevant evidence is admissible in judicial proceedings.  The concept would seem self-evident as no one would disagree with the principle that courts should not waste time considering irrelevant evidence.  But when faced with a case that directly affects them, lawyers and clients alike tend to want to blur the line because we want to prove to the world that our opponents are somehow unscrupulous or at least unworthy to win a legal point.

My own episode came last week in a custody proceeding where my client was fixated upon the fact that his spouse had been having one if not two different affairs in the 24 months leading up to their separation.  Needless to say, there is no denying the sting of learning that a spouse was involved in such relationships at a time when his or her partner thought that all was either well or, at least satisfactory. But in the custody conference we had with the court, I was having a difficult time persuading my client that the focus of our presentation needed to be on what contributions he had made to the rearing of his kids in contrast with the pain he was experiencing as the victim of infidelity that his two youngsters knew nothing about.

Then I read K.G. v. E.D. a decision by Judge Coonahan published in the Montgomery Law Reporter.  151 Montg. Co. Law Reporter 151 (2014).  The facts as reported in the case are fascinating.

A single woman decides in Fall, 2009 that she will explore what dating possibilities she can find on  There she encounters a profile for a man describing himself as divorced.  You can fast forward the next chapter but suffice to say that by Spring, 2010 she is pregnant.  In late December a daughter is born. Father comes to the hospital the day after delivery and all seems to go well until it is time to provide information about him on the birth certificate.  If the opinion gets it right Father is willing to identify himself only with first and last initials and refuses to provide a social security number. Thus he ends up not identified on the birth certificate.

While marriage was discussed Father confines himself to visits to see Mother and daughter several times per week.  When the child is one month old he arrives with a legal form which he says is intended to confirm his rights as father.  She thought the form odd but signed it anyway and life went on.  When Mother’s maternity leave ended, Father said he would keep the child during the day at his home in Northern Delaware and arrange for a nanny.  The plan was supposed to be temporary until the couple actually established a common household but that wasn’t coming about.  At one point Father suggested he keep the child for several days in a row so that the baby could get used to the nanny.  When Mother tried to get the child back, her request was not immediately complied with.  On a day in early March, 2011, our couple meets at a restaurant in Maryland where Father tells her he is actually married but that the relationship is an open one.  He also revealed that the document Mother signed in late January, 2011 was a consent to allow Father and his current wife to adopt the baby.

By March 7 Mother files and emergency custody complaint.  Father responds with a petition to stay the custody action because there is a prior pending adoption underway.  The case then swings over to Orphans’ Court where the adoption is pending with Mother seeking to revoke her consent to adoption premised upon an allegation that the consent was fraudulently obtained.  A stay was briefly in place but that was quickly lifted and the parties entered into a consent agreement by which Father had primary custody and Mother had alternate weekends.

In October, 2011 the Orphans’ Court revoked the consent and dismissed the adoption proceedings. Father appealed that to the Superior Court without success and then failed in his request for the Supreme Court to review the order terminating the adoption.  The fact that the adoption proceedings were in the Superior Court appears to have prevented the family division from hearing the custody case. The custody case began in March, 2013 and continued for fifteen days concluding in August, 2013 with an award of shared legal and physical custody which both parties appealed.

Needless to say, in the custody proceedings, Mother came on strong with what must have been a fascinating record and set of judicial findings from the Orphans’ Court about the means and method Father employed to engineer an adoption of a child he wasn’t too pleased to be having in the first place. Father probably did not endear himself to the Court by appealing the orders terminating the adoption to the Supreme Court and testifying that he did not agree that the adoption was sought fraudulently.

Mother was not without her own baggage.  While she had held several conventional jobs, at some time either before or during the time she met Father she worked in the sex trade as a masseuse.  One also has to question what Mother was thinking when she signed a consent to adoption; a document that is not really that ambiguous in its content.  Mother testified that she had worked in retail and accounting management, areas where one is presumably required to examine documents with care.

Judge Coonahan wasn’t having any of this form a basis for her decision.  As she properly noted, in a custody proceeding the evidence needs to relate to the best interests of the child and not the character of the parties or conduct that is unrelated to raising a child.  As the judge put it at the outset of the trial: “It was a different inquiry {in Orphans’ Court}. {That Court proceeding}… had a different focus, a different responsibility. ….  I make my own credibility findings.”

As the Court observed, it was not there to redress Father’s purported wrongs in trying to secure an adoption.  The determination in custody court was directed to the relative abilities of the parents to perform in the role of parents.

It is clear from this opinion that Mother assumed that the findings of the Orphans’ Court and the Superior Court with respect to Father’s “adoption” proceedings so besmirched his character as to make him an unworthy parent as a matter of law.  Certainly, one would have to reach far to find anything about Father’s conduct or that of his real wife in pursuing adoption that speaks well of their character.  But that is not the standard.  The standard is how well do these people perform as parents to a child now just over three years of age.

One may argue that a person who is found to have sought an adoption wrongfully is, by definition, an unfit parent.  If you review older case law, you can find plenty to suggest that a parent who worked in the sex industry should also be labeled unfit.  We live in a different day and it is one where the word unfit must be reflective of conduct that affects the child both negatively and directly.

Periodically I am asked questions about name changes for children or whether a mother is obligated to use the biological father’s last name for the child (answer: she’s not). A child’s last name is obviously an important and complicated issue that relates to the child’s identity and understanding of their history and parents. Mishandling a child’s last name can have emotional and legal repercussions for the child later in life.

A recent case out of Lawrence County in Pennsylvania highlights the standards used to consider whether changing a child’s name is in their best interests. The case In Re: Jessica Benegasi Foore involved a petition by the mother to remove the last name of the child’s biological father (“Foore”). The Court agreed on the basis that the child did not have a relationship with her father, thus there was no risk of alienation or interference with that relationship, but also because the name change would mirror that of her mother and half-sibling. The court considered that sharing the same name as the other members of her family would make the transition into school easier and provide her with better emotional security. The court also recognized that the father’s name carried with a negative connotation and poor reputation.

The considerations made the court in this case are not exhaustive, but provide a good insight into what facts make for successful name change petitions.

In Re: Jessica Benegasi Foore, C.P. Lawrence County, No. 70097 of 2011, M.D. (C.C.P. July 17, 2013).


A South Carolina attorney was recently disciplined for failing to have an active email address.

Despite characterizing herself as “retired” and not having a client in thirty years, the South Carolina Disciplinary Board still found that she “poses a substantial threat of serious harm to the public and to the administration of justice” for repeatedly failing to comply with the Court’s rule about having an active email address.

This case got me thinking about my practice, particularly my frustration with the tiny but hardcore group of attorneys who refuse to use email. One more than one occasion, I have had to take extra measures to hand deliver, courier, or Federal Express a document or correspondence to an attorney who does not use email. This has cost my client extra money to accommodate someone who is a rare exception in an industry that has accepted email, faxes, and smartphones (albeit, begrudgingly at times).

In one situation, I hand delivered a copy of a sizable responsive pleading to an attorney’s office. Faxing wasn’t an option and mailing would not work due to the forthcoming weekend. Though I could have served the document on the attorney at our hearing and been in complete conformity with the rules, I wanted to give the attorney the courtesy of having the pleading in advance. Had he used email, he would have had the PDF Friday afternoon to peruse at his convenience over the weekend. No good deed goes unpunished, however, and though his practice methods made service before the end of business on Friday virtually impossible (or, alternatively, cost prohibitive to the client), he nevertheless wrote a letter to tell me my hand delivery on Monday morning, in advance of the hearing, was “offensive.”

I scanned the letter into the system for future reference and dropped it in the recycle bin.

I recognize that some attorneys feel email is the scourge of the 21st century. The incorporation of email into smartphones makes us tethered to work around the clock. But in an industry that is essentially about customer service, it seems irresponsible – and in South Carolina, a breach of professional responsibility – not to have an active email account to communicate with clients, counsel, and the Court. To the best of my knowledge, no attorney in Pennsylvania has been disciplined for not having an email address or, even minimally, a fax machine. I can only speculate that it is a matter of time before a client – having become frustrated by being limited to either in person visits, phone calls, or “snail mail” letters – finds a new attorney or worse, files a disciplinary complaint against them.


My colleague, Aaron Weems, blogged in the beginning of May about the Supreme Court’s decision to hear the case of Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl.  The Supreme Court issued an opinion in that matter of on June 25, 2013.  At issue in this case was the application of the Indian Child Welfare Act (“ICWA”) to a South Carolina Adoption Case.


A couple, with the consent of the biological mother, adopted a child.  The biological father was estranged from the biological mother and the child.  Therefore, under South Carolina law, the adoptive parents did not need the consent of the biological father and proceeded with the adoption.  However, the biological father learned of the intended adoption and objected.  The basis for the biological father’s objection was that he was a registered member of a Native American Tribe, qualified for protection under the ICWA and the ICWA barred the adoption.  The South Carolina Supreme Court agreed and placed the child with the biological father.

The Supreme Court of the United States reversed and remanded, interpreting the ICWA narrowly to apply only in situations in which a Native American family’s break-up would be precipitated by the involuntary termination of a parent’s rights.  In the case before the Court, there was no existing familial unit to be broken up by the termination of the biological father’s parental rights, and, therefore, the ICWA was not applicable.

In this most recent U.S. Supreme Court term, the Court has heard two cases involving the domestic relations of a state.  In addition to the arguments on same sex marriage, on April 16th, the Court also heard argument on the adoption of a three-year girl.  The law at issue is the Indian Child Welfare Act. 

The Act, passed in the 1970’s gives Indian tribes exclusive jurisdiction over any child custody proceeding involving a Native American child who resided or was domiciled on Native American land.  The Act was passed to address the removal of Native American children by public and private adoption agencies and it places priority on allowing the child to grow up in the traditions of their culture by allowing the tribe and the child’s relatives a say in the placement of the child.  What is unusual about this Act compared to most state’s custody laws is that is significantly broadens the class of individuals that have standing to raise issues about the adoption.  Most states limit standing to the biological parents and, under some laws, the grandparents of the child.


The Indian Child Welfare Act, in this instance, was applied to overturn the adoption of a girl by a South Carolina couple.  The girl, now three years old, was returned to her biological father in Oklahoma, a member of the Cherokee Nation, after he sought to overturn the adoption based on the natural mother’s failure to obtain his consent.  The case made its way through the entirety of the South Carolina legal system and sided with the natural father on the basis of the Act, despite identifying the adopting parents as “ideal parents” – small comfort to them, no doubt.


The adoptive couple’s appeal is based on two questions:


(1) Whether a non-custodial parent can invoke ICWA to block an adoption voluntarily and lawfully initiated by a non-Indian parent under state law, and;

(2) Whether ICWA defines "parent" in 25 U.S.C. § 1903(9) to include an unwed biological father who has not complied with state law rules to attain legal status as a parent.


The second question is interesting due to the case law in various states as to whether or not unwed biological fathers have the same decree of protections as mothers.  In Pennsylvania, any adoption requires the voluntary or involuntary termination of both biological parents’ rights, and both parents are protected under Pennsylvania’s child custody law; marital status is irrelevant and updates to the custody statute made it (parental) gender neutral.  This does not presume that complications can occur in instances where paternity is not established, but generally, adoptions in Pennsylvania require notice of an attempt to terminate parental rights and afford the biological parents the opportunity to contest the termination.


The Supreme Court’s decision in this case may result in the clarifications to existing law as to the definition of “parent” under the Act and the extend of the scope the Act has for addressing the adoption of Native American children where the proceeding otherwise satisfied prevailing state law.  The Act, as a Federal statute, would preempt the laws of the states where the adoption occurred so ultimately the Supreme Court will render a decision fairly narrow in scope as to whether the Act applies to this adoption and, if so, the overturn of the South Carolina adoption would be upheld.


It is worth remembering that nuanced, debated legal issues impact the actual lives of people.  The parents that raised this child from infancy until she was three were abruptly taken from this child’s life; the father of the child may never have known the mother put his daughter up for adoption and is now trying to forge a relationship with the child.  Whatever the Court’s decision, one side will be bitterly disappointed and likely never to see this child again.  

I am currently in the process of finalizing an adoption for a grandmother and her grandson.  The grandmother initially came to me in 2009, but she unfortunately suffered a stroke and could not complete the adoption process.  However, she is now healthy and anxious to legally "formalize" her relationship with her grandson, so that he can have consistency and stability in his life.  I am happy to be able to assist in bringing a family together.

I have been impressed throughout this process by the grandmother’s fortitude and her determination to get better so that she can care for her grandson.  She knows that family is important, and she is taking the necessary steps (which are sometimes difficult) to provide for her family.  Not only is she formalizing their relationship legally, she is getting her grandson the emotional help he needs to feel comfortable and safe in her care.   There are many resources available for those in her situation, and she has been smart to utilize them.

For those of you learning more about the process, check out the following links: