July 31, 2017 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
In an opinion that does a bit to support single fathers’ rights in adoption cases, the Ohio Supreme Court has stopped an adoption and effectively handed the child over to his father. The case, In re Adoption of P.L.H., is not a sweeping victory, but it’s a victory. Its holding is that, in order to demonstrate that a single father “abandoned” the mother of his child during her pregnancy, thereby rendering his consent to the adoption unnecessary, it’s necessary to show that his actions were “willful” and that the abandonment was permanent. That bar is a pretty high one for anyone promoting an adoption based on paternal abandonment to clear.
The father, C.W. and mother, S.C. were students at the same university in Ohio. He graduated and took a job in Louisiana. While still a student, she visited him during Mardi Gras and became pregnant by him. When she discovered her pregnancy, she told him that she intended to place the child for adoption. C.W. was ambivalent about the adoption. Early on, he told S.C. that he wasn’t certain what he wanted to do.
On March 6, the day after the phone conversation in which S.C. told him about the pregnancy, C.W. wrote, “I don’t know [if I’ll] want it to be adopted or not. I won’t for a couple months.” C.W. told S.C. that he was raised without a father and that he “made a vow” never to let his own child grow up without a father.
Despite being hundreds of miles apart, the two continued communications that were always loving and friendly, with C.W. inquiring after S.C.’s health and that of her baby. All was well until September of 2015 when C.W. told her he’d made up his mind to care for the child himself.
On September 2, 2015, S.C. sent a text message asking for C.W.’s address so that she could send him a consent form for the adoption. C.W. gave his address, but he stated that he would not sign anything until he talked to his mother. S.C. then called C.W., apparently the next day. She testified that she was “shocked” and caught off guard that C.W. was “not okay with” the adoption.
From there on, S.C. essentially stopped responding to C.W.’s attempts to communicate. Eventually, he hired a lawyer who sent a letter to her lawyer announcing C.W.’s intention to oppose the adoption.
Enclosed with the letter was a copy of C.W.’s registration form for the Ohio Putative Father Registry, which had been completed on September 4, 2015. The letter also stated that C.W. “is able to assist the birth mother with her medical expenses associated with the pregnancy, and necessary costs for her care. [C.W.] certainly does not want the birth mother to believe she has been abandoned during her pregnancy, and we are willing to ensure all appropriate bills are cared for as needed.”
Despite all that, S.C. and the potential adoptive parents ignored C.W. and went ahead with the adoption process the day after the child was born, November, 3, 2105. C.W. only learned about the birth of his son via Facebook, at which time he, filed a complaint to establish paternity and a motion for temporary custody on December 3, 2015, in Butler County Juvenile Court.1 On that same day, the probate court issued a notice to C.W. that it had scheduled a hearing on the appellees’ adoption petition. C.W. filed a timely objection indicating that he did not consent to the adoption and that he sought to obtain sole custody of the child.
Amazingly, on those facts, both the trial court and the appellate court found that C.W. had “abandoned” S.C. and so his consent to the adoption wasn’t required. They did so by simply ignoring the plain wording of the statute applicable to the case.
R.C. 3107.07(B) states that the consent of a timely registered putative father is not necessary if the probate court finds either that the putative father “has willfully abandoned or failed to care for and support the minor,” R.C. 3107.07(B)(2)(b), or “has willfully abandoned the mother of the minor during her pregnancy and up to the time of her surrender of the minor…”
Despite the statute’s imposing no obligation on the father to provide financial support to the mother, both lower courts emphasized C.W.’s not having done so in their conclusion that he’d abandoned her. The Supreme Court rightly pointed out that courts aren’t free to make up statutory requirements where there are none. It also observed that the only person to abandon anyone was S.C. who, upon learning that C.W. wanted to raise his son himself, cut off almost all communication between them.
The lower courts also relied on the fact that there had been no communication between the two for almost three months during S.C.’s pregnancy. But that, said the Supreme Court, didn’t amount to abandonment because it wasn’t permanent. C.W. initiated and maintained contact as best he could after that.
Finally, the Court refused to remand the case to the trial court for further proceedings.
Remand for that purpose is not necessary here, however, because the record contains no evidence, let alone clear and convincing evidence, to support a finding that C.W. voluntarily or intentionally deserted, forsook or abdicated all responsibility for S.C. during her pregnancy.
In short, there are no further legal proceedings in this case. The child is C.W.’s.
Plus, the Court established a high bar for anyone who seeks to prove willful abandonment by a father in an adoption case. In future, that will be a hard claim to prove and an easy one to rebut. In re Adoption of P.L.H. is a win for fathers and the children who need them.
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