The Court of Appeals in IN RE PETITION OF J.O. & P.O., decided on December 12, 2017, reversed and remanded the trial court’s grant of an adoption petition.

The central issue in the case was the viability of the two competing adoption petitions filed at the trial level. The child was born to a mother who had known mental health issues and on the day of the child’s birth, the mother was admitted to a psychiatric ward for treatment.

Shortly after birth, the child was placed in an Child and Family Services (CFSA) pre-adoptive foster home and over the course of few months another family related kinship foster home was identified and equally competed to have the child placed there instead.

The child ended up splitting time between both homes and both homes turned out to be a fit and proper placement with the child bonding with both families. The foster parents as well as the kinship family both filed for competing adoption petitions, which was litigated at trial.

The trial court in determining which home was better suited for the child or which placement was in the best interests of the child had one additional legal parameter to consider: the parental choice of a fit custodian.

The DC law requires the trial court to give a “weighty consideration” to the parents’ choice of a fit custodian. At trial, the biological mother executed a written consent to the kinship foster parents’ adoption petition, rather than the Child and Family Services (CFSA) designated foster home.

The DC Courts have held that even if a parent may not be fit to parent his or her child, he or she is still entitled to a deference in designating a preferred caregiver so that their children can be raised by someone with whom they have close familial ties.

The issue on appeal was whether the mother was in fact competent to designate her choice and what was the legal definition of competency.

The trial court record revealed that the mother had a long medical and mental health history. She has suffered from:

  • A traumatic brain injury at age nineteen
  • She had a history of substance abuse
  • Mood symptoms,
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Attention deficient disorder,
  • Impaired decision making, and
  • Had previously been hospitalized on at least two occasions for psychiatric reasons

The mother’s doctor at trial also diagnosed her with mood disorder, psychosis, and testified that she required inpatient psychiatric hospitalization.

The doctor also questioned the mother’s mental capacity to give a knowing and informed consent without first having a mental capacity evaluation within hours before the consent.

The courts have held that competency is generally defined as:

  • Possessing sufficient mind to understand,
  • In a reasonable manner, the
  • Nature, extent, character, and effect of the particular transaction one is engaged in.

Competency in an adoption setting, and in order to give an informed consent requires:

  • The parent to be able to determine what is in the child’s best interest and select a caregiver accordingly, and
  • The parent to be capable of planning for their child’s future.

The Court of Appeals held that the mother was lacking in both categories. That her significant mental health issues hindered her from properly recognizing what was in her child’s best interest as well as she was incapable of planning for her child’s future.

This case is significant because it defined and outlined the competency criteria in adoption proceedings and by extension in family cases.

In conclusion, the Court of Appeals disagreed with the trial court and ruled that the mother was not competent to designate her choice, and that her choice should not have been given a weighty consideration by the trial court.

The decision to reverse the case may have also been influenced by the testimony of two psychologists who had evaluated the CFSA designated foster home. Both therapists had recommended placement in this home long term. Qualified expert opinion carries  significant legal weight.

Refer to our DC adoption page for more information on this subject.

Contact our Washington DC Family Lawyer/DC adoption lawyer to schedule a thorough case evaluation and analysis.

Categories: Family Law.