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.”