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NPO publishes blog articles to inform and to stimulate conversation about issues of importance to NPO's mission.  All blog articles express the opinions of the authors as individuals and do not necessarily reflect the views of National Parents Organization, its Board of Directors, or its executives.  

September 1, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

The case of Caroline Stearns vs. Adoption by Gentle Care raises one important issue and it’s not one the courts will decide or even address.

Stearns is a 40-year-old Ohio mother of five. Back in 2013, she had a brief affair with a man she’d known for 10 years, Steve Lump, and became pregnant. Her boyfriend, Jeff Griffiths was none too pleased to learn that she was pregnant by another man and so he encouraged her to place the child for adoption. Stearns did that with the assistance of an Ohio adoption agency, Adoption by Gentle Care.

Her son was born by C-Section on March 31, 2014. Five days later, Stearns executed documents permanently surrendering the boy for adoption by a couple she’d chosen. About eight days after that, she contacted AGC saying she wanted to rescind her consent to the adoption. AGC refused and the legal fight was on. Not wanting to get involved in a legal battle with a biological parent who was having second thoughts about giving up her child, the adoptive parents returned the child to AGC and dismissed their petition for adoption.

But AGC was determined to hold on to what it plainly considered an asset, an income-producing property, i.e. an infant whose mother had signed the necessary documents relinquishing her parental rights. So Stearns filed a Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus to try to get her son back from AGC that had already placed him in temporary foster care.

Legally, there was only one way Stearns could prevail. She had to convince the court that her signature on the various adoption forms had been procured involuntarily. The trial court found that there was no duress involved and that her relinquishment of her son for adoption had been done voluntarily. The Tenth District Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed that ruling. The Ohio Supreme Court will shortly decide whether to uphold or overturn the ruling of the appellate court.

The various briefs submitted to the Supreme Court offer sharply differing views on the subject of duress. Stearns filed a brief as did one amicus curiae, Dr. Kate Livingston, director of the Ohio Birthparent Group, “a community organization committed to supporting the life-long needs of birthparents through peer support, advocacy and community education.” Dr. Livingston’s Ph.D. is in Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies from Ohio State University. AGC of course filed its own brief.

From those briefs, it’s hard to decide the issue of whether Stearns’ relinquishment of her son was voluntary under applicable law or not. What seems clear is that her communications to AGC, the hospital where she gave birth, her aunt and others were inconsistent. On one hand she was “100%” going to have her child adopted and was “at peace with her decision.” On the other, she told AGC she thought she “really didn’t have a choice” because of pressure by Griffith to place the child and her familial problems if she didn’t. AGC was also contacted by Stearns’ aunt who told them she was “really struggling” with her decision and uncomfortable placing the child.

In short, the picture drawn of Stearns by the various briefs citing various testimony is one of a mother trying to decide between keeping her child and maintaining peace at home with her boyfriend. I say that fully cognizant of the fact that there was a good bit of testimony at trial to the effect that Stearns is less than honest a fair amount of the time. I do so because the evidence of her confused and conflicted state is undisputed. Her statements on one side or the other about desiring adoption or not are not questioned by neither side.

How will the Ohio Supreme Court rule in this case? I’d bet good money that the justices affirm the rulings of the lower courts. The fact is that there’s plenty of evidence to support the trial court’s finding of no duress and no one seriously questions the applicable law. (Actually, Stearns’ lawyer attempts to claim that the employees of AGC were fiduciaries for Stearns, an argument I’d call a complete non-starter.) Given that, I don’t foresee Stearns prevailing in this case.

But beyond the courtroom and beyond the law, let’s take a look at the realities of this case. The simple fact is that, as I suggested before, AGC is acting purely out of pecuniary interest. The adoptive parents did the obviously right thing; once they understood that the child’s birth mother was contesting the adoption, they handed the child back to AGC and went on their way, doubtless to attempt to adopt a child who needed adopting. Good for them.

Not so AGC. The agency could easily have returned the boy to his mother and washed their hands of the matter, but instead opted to hang onto its “property,” i.e. the child. The purpose in doing so of course was to force adoption on a child who doesn’t need it and therefore get paid. That Stearns may truly have acted voluntarily is of considerable legal importance because her relationship with AGC was a contractual one and the courts so treat it.

But it strikes me that there’s more to this case and every adoption case than the legal conveyance of one piece of property by one party to another assisted by a third. An adoption is not the same as the sale of a house; it intimately involves the well-being of a child. And, as I’ve said many times before, it also involves the well-being of another child somewhere who’s unknown to anyone in the Stearns case.

Assuming the case ends the way I think it will, Caroline Stearns’ son will be adopted by someone. Those adults will be looking to adopt and they’ll settle on her child. But her child doesn’t need to be adopted; he has a fit mother who wants to raise him. When he’s adopted, another child somewhere who has no fit parents will miss out on good, loving adoptive parents of its own. That’s the crime the adoption industry invariably commits when it opts to force adoption on children with fit parents who, for one reason or another, have less knowledge of the intricacies of adoption law than do the agencies themselves.

As long as adoption agencies treat children as profit centers, we’ll continue to see this sort of thing. The law needs to change to permit fit birth parents to retain their children as opposed to everyone else and if adoption agencies lose a bit of money every so often, so be it. In too many ways the law protects the financial interests of one party or another at the expense of children’s welfare. That has to change.

 

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#adoption, #duress, #forcedadoption, #birthmother

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