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September 2, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Yesterday I posted a piece on the case of Caroline Stearns vs. Adoption by Gentle Care and, not entirely by coincidence, the Ohio Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the matter the same day. Now, as I prepared Thursday’s post, I wondered why the highest court in the state would hear such a case. After all, the only real issue was whether Ms. Stearns had given up her son for adoption of her own free will or under duress. (Of course her lawyer attempted to claim, apparently for the first time on appeal, that the adoption agency’s social worker in some way acted as a fiduciary for Ms. Stearns. I called that a “non-starter” and oral argument on the “issue” obviously backs me up.)

But the issue of duress is one of fact and appellate courts are legendary for deferring to trial courts in matters of fact. Trial court judges hear all the evidence and can weigh the credibility of the witnesses. Judges sitting in courts of appeal have no such vantage point and, as a matter of law and long precedent, do not substitute their own assessment of the weight of evidence for that of the trial judge.

And yet, listening to the questions and comments of the various justices, it is impossible not to conclude that that is exactly what they intend to do in Stearns vs. AGC.

What I expected to hear was what we essentially always hear from courts of appeals – that they will not overturn findings of fact made by trial court judges unless those findings are manifestly against the weight of credible, admissible evidence. And in the Stearns case, they plainly are not. There was in fact ample evidence to conclude that the relinquishment of her son for adoption was voluntary on Stearns’ part. Yes, there was competing evidence that it wasn’t, but that is all but invariably the situation in trials. Few parties come to court with no evidence supporting their side.

So I expected to hear the justices saying that there was substantial evidence supporting the trial court’s ruling and they would not second guess the judge. In over 45 minutes of oral argument, not a single word was spoken to that effect, not one.

And so we are left to imagine just what the Court is up to. Again, if the justices viewed the case as they should, it’s a matter of fact only and the trial court must be upheld. (No one questions the law on duress.) The Supreme Court of Ohio doesn’t agree to hear cases that are strictly questions of fact. Therefore, we must conclude that the court intends to make new law.

But about what?

The most obvious answer is that the adoption agency apparently failed to provide Stearns with face-to-face discussion of her option to give the child up temporarily, i.e. for 30 days as is allowed by Ohio law. If that’s all the justices are interested in, then the case will only stand for the proposition that simply getting Mom’s signature on a document saying she understands her rights isn’t enough to comply with the regulations governing adoption.

But the questions asked by the justices aimed at many issues other than that narrow one. Interestingly, one justice asked the same question I’ve asked so many times, “Why didn’t the adoption agency simply return the child to his mother when the adoptive parents dismissed their Petition for Adoption because Stearns was opposing it?” The child has been in foster care for two years while the legal case has run its course. Why didn’t AGC hand over the child and move on to the next adoption?

In that regard, the justices seemed to think, as I do, that the agency did so because it saw the child as a source of income more than a human being in need of his chance at a good, stable family life.

AGC’s lawyer of course denied that, but his denial was interesting. He essentially said that, according to AGC, Stearns isn’t likely to act in her son’s best interests and so the social workers there decided he should be adopted despite everything. Needless to say, that’s a remarkable assertion of power on AGC’s part. Where they believe they get the authority to disallow a parent’s rights to her child is one I’ll never understand, but whatever their mindset, AGC has no such authority.

And that’s what gives me hope about the outcome of this case. Maybe, just maybe, the Court will rule that adoption agencies have no such authority and are obligated under similar circumstances to go to court and produce evidence that the parent is unfit or otherwise unable to act in the child’s best interests.

Such a ruling would certainly make sense. It is outrageous in the extreme that AGC arrogated to itself the power to decide the child’s best interests. Unsurprisingly, it happened to rule in its best interests as well. Keeping the child from his mother preserved AGC’s opportunity to make money ($30,000!) on his adoption and indeed, the foster couple he’s living with may have already filed suit to do just that. And of course Stearns is mother to five children, none of whom have ever been investigated by child welfare authorities due to allegations of abuse or neglect. In short, as far as we can tell, AGC is the only entity to ever question Stearns’ parenting.

Now, if the Court were to put such an onus on adoption agencies, what would trigger the requirement of going to court to obtain a ruling on the child’s best interests? In this case, AGC thought it had done its due diligence and had a relinquishment of rights signed by Stearns. Should adoption agencies be required to reverse their field every time a birth parent reverses theirs? At what point should parents be entitled to change their minds? One of the key aspects of adoption law today is its desire for finality. That’s the sole justification for putative father registries that now exist in over 30 states. By removing the father from the process, they help to ensure that dads won’t turn up years after the fact and claim their parental rights.

I’m done speculating on what the Ohio Court might do in the Stearns case. But if the justices’ questioning is any indication, Stearns may just get her son back and Ohio adoption law may change.

 

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