Family Law Case Review

Case: In Re Adoption of M.L.; J.H. v. J.L. and C.L.
by Mike Kohlhaas, Bingham Greenebaum Doll

HELD: Trial court properly permitted child’s adoption without the consent of the natural father because there was sufficient evidence to support a finding that the natural father was unfit, and that the adoption was in the best interests of the child.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY: In 2008, Adoptive Parents became concerned that their grandson (“Child”) and his half-brother were not being properly supervised. They obtained a guardianship over both children. Child’s natural father (“Father”) consented to the guardianship. Since then, Child and his half-brother have remained in the care of Adoptive Parents.

In 2010, Adoptive Parents petitioned to adopt Child. Father contested the adoption. After an evidentiary hearing, the trial court determined that Father’s consent to the adoption was not required statutorily because Father had failed to communicate with Child for over a year, had failed to support Child for over a year, and was generally an unfit parent. Father appealed, arguing an insufficiency of the evidence that his consent to the adoption was not required.

The Court of Appeals reviewed the record concerning Father’s history. There was substantial evidence of mental illness, substance abuse, frequent changes in residence (including evictions), arrest, suicide attempts, inability to hold a job, suspended driver’s license, and other signs of instability in Father’s life. There were periods when Father would come to visit Child, but the Adoptive Parents testified as to unusual behaviors by Father during those visits. The record also included evidence of a close bond between Child and the Adoptive Parents, and a stable and supportive environment provided by Adoptive Parents to Child.

The Court of Appeals reviewed the relevant portions of Ind. Code 31-19-9-8, which provide for situations when a natural parent’s consent is not required for adoption:

(2) A parent of a child in the custody of another person if for a period of at least one (1) year the parent:

(a) fails without justifiable cause to communicate significantly with the child when able to do so; or

(b) knowing fails to provide for the care and support of the child when able to do so as required by law or judicial decree.

(11) A parent if:

(a) a petitioner for adoption proves by clear and convincing evidence that the parent is unfit to be a parent; and

(b) the best interests of the child sought to be adopted would be served if the court dispensed with the parent’s consent.

The trial court had concluded that all of these factors has been established. However, the Court of Appeals focused on subsection (11). After an extended discussion of what, as a matter of law, constitutes an “unfit” parent, the Court of Appeals agreed that the evidence supported a finding that Father was not fit. Turning to the issue of Child’s best interests, the Court of Appeals noted evidence of the stable, nurturing environment that Adoptive Parents had provided, that there was a strong bond, and that all of Child’s needs were being provided for.

Thus, the Court of Appeals affirmed, agreeing that Father’s consent to the adoption was not required.

To view the text of this opinion in its entirety, click here: In Re Adoption of M.L.; J.H. v. J.L. and C.L.

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