Termination of Parental Rights; Adoption Act; “Good Cause” pursuant to 23 Pa.C.S. § 2901
In re: Adoption of C.M., 2020 WL 5269235 (Pa. Super.) (unreported), allocatur granted Jan. 7, 2021, appeal docket 1 MAP 2021
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allocatur in this case to consider whether Maternal Grandparents were required to demonstrate “good cause” pursuant to 23 Pa.C.S. § 2901 in order to complete the adoption of their granddaughter where the proposed adoption would not promote a new parent-child relationship or create a new family unit.
This case arises from the trial court’s grant of the petition of D.M. and P.M. (Grandparents), joined by B.M. (Mother), to involuntarily terminate J.C.’s (Father) parental rights to his daughter. C.M. Grandparents and Mother conceded that the motive for the adoption was to ensure that, if something unfortunate happened to Mother, who suffered from a medical condition, C.M. has a secure future with Maternal Grandparents, as opposed to Father, who had recently invoked his custodial rights following a two year period of absence in C.M.’s life. Father appealed on the basis that the termination of his parental rights pursuant to § 2511(a)(1) and (b) does not promote the statutory intent or legislative purpose of the Adoption Act, arguing that:
Custody gamesmanship is precisely what occurred in this matter. Mother’s testimony was clear that it was not until Father pursued a claim for custody of the child that she decided it was time to file for termination of his parental rights. While Appellees have procedurally complied with the Adoption Act, the testimony of both [M]aternal [G]randfather and Mother was clear that there is no new family unit being created as a result of this adoption, as the parties’ roles in the child’s life will not change. Mother testified that she has no intentions or plans to move out of Grandparents’ home. Mother specifically testified that she did not foresee any change in her daily care of and routines with the child whether or not termination was granted.
Slip op. at 9 (quoting Father’s Brief).
Superior Court agreed with Father that Grandparents’ adoption amounted to “custody gamesmanship.” The court went on to hold that the proposed adoption does not promote the purpose of the Adoption Act insofar as it does not create a new family unit or a new parent-child relationship. In so holding, the court addressed the Supreme Court’s decision in In re Adoption of M.R.D., 145 A.3d 1117 (Pa. 2016), which decided the question whether a grandparent may stand in the stead of an adopting spouse. Superior Court explained:
The Supreme Court reversed the termination of a father’s parental rights where an unmarried mother sought termination and adoption by the maternal grandfather while retaining her parental rights. In finding there was not a valid adoption, the Court recognized, in part:
Because a termination petition filed by one parent against the other must occur in the context of an anticipated adoption, and because adoption is a statutory right, we note that the parent seeking termination must strictly comply with all pertinent provisions of the Adoption Act in order for the adoption to be valid. While the Adoption Act provides that any individual may become an adopting parent, relevant to the instant matter, Section 2711 of the Act requires the parent seeking termination to consent to the adoption and to relinquish his or her parental rights. Requiring parental consent to the adoption and the relinquishment of his or her parental rights permits the child and the adoptive parent or parents to establish a new parent-child relationship. Thus, where no new parent-child relationship is contemplated, the involuntary termination of parental rights is not permitted under the Adoption Act.
The purpose behind the termination or relinquishment of an existing parent’s rights prior to an adoption is to facilitate a new parent-child relationship between the child and the adoptive parent, and to protect the integrity and stability of the new family unit.
In re Adoption of M.R.D., supra at 1120, 1127-28 (cleaned up, emphases added). In support of its decision, the Court further stated:
although the orphans’ court rejected the possibility in the instant case, permitting Grandfather to adopt and co-parent Children with mother would nevertheless open the door for misuse of adoption proceedings by spiteful parents as a means to involuntarily terminate the rights of unwanted parents, potentially allowing grandparents, cousins, pastors, coaches, and a litany of other individuals who have a close relationship with a child to stand in as prospective adoptive parents so that termination may be achieved. Given that the complete and irrevocable termination of parental rights is one of the most serious and severe steps a court can take, we must ensure that we do not open the floodgates to such gamesmanship.
Id. at 1129 (cleaned up).
Slip op. at 14-15. Superior Court emphasized that the Supreme Court’s express holding in In re Adoption of M.R.D. is not dispositive of this case because the issue that the Supreme Court addressed there related to “whether a legal parent may establish cause under Section 2901 to excuse the relinquishment requirement and proceed with a proposed adoption by a grandparent.” Slip op. at 14, quoting In re Adoption of M.R.D. Nevertheless, the court reasoned:
… the rationale the Supreme Court employed in In re Adoption of M.R.D., is instructive because, in order to reach its ultimate holding, the Supreme Court had to determine what constituted a new parent–child relationship. As the High Court observed, “where no new parent-child relationship is contemplated, the involuntary termination of parental rights is not permitted under the Adoption Act.” Id. at 1120 (cleaned up) (citations omitted). As framed by the Supreme Court, it had to decide whether “Mother and Grandfather … can establish that permitting Grandfather to adopt Children while Mother retains her parental rights will promote a new family unit or that it is otherwise unnecessary to require Mother to relinquish her parental rights under the circumstances of this case.” Id. at 1128.
The present case does not involve the anticipation of a valid adoption that promotes a new parent-child relationship or creates a new family unit. Appellees simply desire to secure C.M.’s future should something happen to Mother, i.e., maintain the status quo without Father’s interference.
Slip op. at 15.
In dissent, Judge Pellegrini disagreed with the majority’s conclusion because “it, in effect, amends that provision of the Adoption Code and does not accept the facts as found by the orphans’ court.” Dissent Slip op. at 2. Judge Pellegrini concluded that In re Adoption of M.R.D. was not applicable to this case, reasoning that:
That case involved the mother’s petition to terminate father’s parental rights under 23 Pa.C.S. § 2901 allowing an orphans’ court to terminate parental rights for “good cause shown” even though the other spouse is going to retain his or her parental rights. What In re Adoption of M.R.D. addressed was whether there was “good cause” to terminate father’s parental rights when mother retained hers. Our Supreme Court held that because of the factors previously mentioned, “good cause” was not “shown.”
This case is not a “good cause shown” case brought under 23 Pa.C.S. § 2901 because the application here is not that of the Mother but of the Maternal Grandparents, who have a right to independently seek adoption under 23 Pa.C.S. § 2512(a)(3). Once Mother has relinquished her parental rights, the focus is on whether the Maternal Grandparents’ petition meets the statutory basis for adoption and termination of parental rights. Resolution of the issue does not involve a good cause analysis, only whether the statutory requirements are met. Accordingly, the good cause exception does not apply.
Dissent Slip op. at 8-9. Moreover, the dissent found the facts In re Adoption of M.R.D. distinguishable, explaining that:
In In re Adoption of M.R.D. our Supreme Court reasoned that the mother and the maternal grandfather would not create an intact family unit because the maternal grandfather planned to live separately from the mother and the children. In this case, allowing the adoption as an intact family because Maternal Grandparents, Mother and C.M. would live together, giving C.M. permanency in relationships. Just because they had lived together as a family unit before (Mother will continue to provide parental duties so long as her health allows) does not disqualify them as a family unit or a new family unit. For example, foster parents have custody of children and perform parental duties but that does not foreclose a finding that it was not a new family unit.
Dissent Slip op. at 9-10. Judge Pellegrini further found that the majority failed to apply “the clear statutory standards” of the Adoption Act by adding an additional requirement that if one of the parents is going to perform some parental duties, then there cannot be an adoption notwithstanding the fact that Maternal Grandparents met the statutory requirements. Dissent Slip op. at 9. Furthermore, the dissent noted, that the orphans’ court found that Maternal Grandparents had established by clear and convincing evidence that Father failed to parent this child for over two years and that “in the six months immediately preceding the filing of the petition, Father had no contact with and provided no support for the child and utterly failed to perform any parental duties or responsibilities.” Dissent Slip op. at 12. Thus, the dissent concluded that:
Given that our standard of review requires us to accept the findings of fact and credibility determinations of the orphans’ court and apply the Adoption Code as written, not as we think it should be written, because I can discern no error of law or abuse of discretion in any of the orphans’ court’s findings or conclusions, I would affirm its decision.
Dissent Slip op. at 15.
The Supreme Court granted allocatur to consider:
(1) Whether the Superior Court, in reversing an order granting the involuntary termination of parental rights where the petitioners did not seek a good cause exception pursuant to 23 Pa.C.S. §2901, erred by misapprehending and improperly applying the essential holding in the Supreme Court case of In Re: Adoption of M.R.D., 145 A.3d 1117 (Pa. 2016).
(2) Whether the Superior Court improperly disturbed the factual and credibility findings of the trial court in a termination of parental rights proceeding to conclude the proposed adoption was unlawful “custody gamesmanship.”