Adoption Act; Involuntary Termination of Parental Rights
In the Interest of: K.T., 2022 WL 1793083 (Pa. Super. 2022) (unreported), allocatur granted Aug. 18, 2022, appeal dockets 37 – 38 WAP 2022
This case arises from a petition to involuntarily terminate the parental rights of K.S.T. (Mother) as to her six-year-old daughter, Child, which was filed by the Allegheny County Office of Children, Youth, and Families (CYF).
The orphans’ court summarized the following background related to Mother’s history and involvement with CYF:
Mother first came to the attention of CYS dating back to 2009, but the present case regarding [C]hild began upon [C]hild’s birth in 2016 when [C]hild was born drug exposed, resulting in concerns about Mother’s substance use.
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Due to continued substance abuse and housing instability, as well as a report of an incident involving Mother’s older child, CYF removed [C]hild from the home on March 7, 2017. By this time, CYF had become concerned with Mother’s mental health… In June of 2017, [C]hild [, who was originally placed with her maternal grandmother] was re-placed with her godmother, [N.P.], an adoptive resource, where she has remained since that time.
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Mother has had continuing issues with substance abuse, having attempted several times to abstain, with the help of CYF, which started at a young age.
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She started out hanging out at bars and started using marijuana at the age of 14 or 15. This became a daily habit and she eventually started using cocaine, which was sometimes offered to her by patrons at the adult entertainment club where she worked. Her early life has resulted in the diagnosis of several mood and personality disorders. As a result, she has experienced issues focusing, as well as regulating her responses to stress. This had led to a history of summary citations and criminal charge(s).
Mother has made progress in dealing with her mental health concerns, as well as substance use concerns, but has had trouble improving her judgment and achieving and maintaining a stable pattern of adjustment. Mother continues to be unable to understand the role of drugs in her life and how they affect behavior otherwise and, in combination with the other concerns regarding her mental health, this results in a guarded prognosis for improvement.
Slip op. at 2-3. Superior Court summarized the evidence before the orphans’ court as follows:
The court noted that of seven witnesses called by CYF at the two-day trial, only two testified as to the bond between Mother and Child: Amanda McCloy, caseworker for CYF and Dr. Neil Rosenblum, a clinical psychologist who performed three individual and interactional evaluations of Mother and Child, and of foster mother and Child, over a two and one-half year period. Id. at 16-17; See CYF Exhibit 3 – Forensic Evaluation Reports by Neil D. Rosenblum, Ph.D., 5/19/18, 1/14/20, 12/18/20.
In its opinion, the court highlighted Dr. Rosenblum’s forensic evaluation reports regarding Child’s eagerness to spend time with Mother as well as his testimony regarding Child’s attachment to Mother, the fact that she very much enjoys seeing and spending time with Mother, and the reluctance Child displayed at having to leave Mother at the end of a visit. TCO at 17. The court further accentuated Dr. Rosenblum’s testimony that there has been no significant period of time where Mother and Child have not been in some sort of contact, and that Mother sees Child more than many of the parents he has evaluated in similar situations. Id. at 18. Finally, the court referred to Dr. Rosenblum’s specific statement that Child should be allowed to maintain some degree of contact with Mother. Id. The orphans’ court concluded that “the evidence clearly established that if the emotional bond between [Child] and [Mother] was permanently severed, then [Child] would be adversely affected,” and that it was “within its discretion when it denied CYF’s petition to terminate Mother’s parental rights.” Id. at 18-19.
Dr. Rosenblum testified at great length regarding both the Mother-Child relationship and Child’s relationship with her foster mother. He opined unequivocally that Child’s strong, primary attachment is to her foster mother; foster mother’s home is the only home Child can remember, she thrives under her foster mother’s care, and she would experience significant trauma if she were removed from the foster home. N.T., 5/13/21 at 120-21, 127. At the hearing, he summarized his observations of the Mother/Child relationship as follows:
Well, [Child] certainly knows her mother. She is always glad to see her. I would say they have a playful relationship. Mother does tend to try to be active with her and engage in positive activities. I would say that [Mother] is not as – doesn’t treat [Child] in as mature a fashion as her foster mother does. She tends to fuss over her, refer to her as her baby. She is her youngest child. She doesn’t provide her with the same degree of structure or exposure to learning or cognitive activities as foster mother does and she is not as directive in getting her to engage in learning activities or developmental activities that would expand her knowledge. But she’s nurturing. She’s affectionate with [Child].
N.T., 5/13/21 at 85.
Dr. Rosenblum referred to foster mother as Child’s “instrumental parent,” and to the relationship between Mother and Child as “a more ancillary relationship.” Id. at 90. However, when questioned as to whether, if Child were to have less or even no contact with Mother, the lack of contact would be so detrimental to Child that the court should not terminate parental rights, Dr. Rosenblum responded,
No. I think it would be a loss, but in my clinical opinion it does not outweigh the need for the opportunity to move forward in her life with the continuity of care and with the sound direction that [Child] – and emotional support that she receives in her current family environment.
Id. at 130.
Slip op. at 7-10. Based on this evidence, the orphans’ court determined that CYF established the grounds for termination under Section 2511(a), but that CYF failed to provide clear and convincing evidence that termination best served Child’s needs and welfare under Section 2511(b), which provides in relevant part:
(b) Other considerations. – The court in terminating the rights of a parent shall give primary consideration to the developmental, physical and emotional needs and welfare of the child. The rights of a parent shall not be terminated solely on the basis of environmental factors such as inadequate housing, furnishings, income, clothing and medical care if found to beyond the control of the parent.
23 Pa. C.S. § 2511(b). Specifically, orphans’ court found that the evidence presented proved that Child had an emotional bond with Mother, and permanently severing that bond would have a detrimental impact on Child. CYF and the Child appealed to Superior Court. While CYF acknowledged that the record supported the conclusion that there is an emotional bond between Mother and Child, it argued that the orphans’ court erred in failing to examine Child’s bond with her foster parent or consider Child’s need for permanency as part of its needs and welfare analysis. Child argued that the court took Dr. Rosenblum’s reports and testimony out of context to support its conclusion that termination of Mother’s parental rights would not serve Child’s needs and welfare.
Superior Court affirmed the orphans’ court denial of the termination petition, reasoning that:
Over the course of two days of hearings, the orphans’ court questioned Dr. Rosenblum at length as to whether he believed Mother might ever mature to the point where she might provide a safe and secure family environment in which Child could grow. The orphans’ court heard testimony from Dr. Rosenblum as to Child’s relationship with her foster mother and listened as well to his opinion as to the trauma he believes Child would experience if she were removed from her foster mother’s home. The record contains, inter alia, Dr. Rosenblum’s final forensic evaluation, wherein he concludes that the foster mother, who works as a teaching assistant at the same school Child attends, is “very nurturing and emotionally supportive” and has done “an excellent job of providing [Child] with a safe, stable and secure family environment.” Forensic Evaluation Report, 12/18/20, at 11.
Our Supreme Court has instructed us that:
Termination of parental rights is among the most powerful legal remedies that the judicial system possesses. The decision to sever permanently a parent’s relationship with a child is often bound up in complex factual scenarios involving difficult family dynamics and multiple service providers. Our trial courts are tasked with carefully considering and weighing all of the evidence presented at termination hearings in determining whether the petitioning party has met its burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence that termination meets the exacting standards outline in the Adoption Act.
In the Interest of S.K.L.R., 256 A.3d at 1129.
Here, we allow that the record supports a finding that Child’s needs and welfare may best be served by a life in foster mother’s home: “[i]f she remains in her current placement, [Child] faces a very bright future, with a high probability of continued success and sustained emotional growth in the years to come.” Forensic Evaluation Report, 12/18/20, at 11. There is abundant evidence that Child’s bond with her foster mother is a strong one, and the significant trauma that would be caused if Child was removed from the foster home. While our Court has held that the orphans’ court can equally emphasize the relationship between a child and a foster parent, we have not required the court to do so. See N.A.M., 33 A.3d at 103. Here, the orphans’ court’s denial of the termination petition was ultimately informed by its evaluation of the bond that clearly exists between Mother and Child, and its determination that this bond was worth preserving. On appeal, we must review whether the record supports that determination, and we find that it does.
Before the orphans’ court, Dr. Rosenblum’s evaluation, however conditional (“if it can be shaped into a supportive role, not a critical role, not putting foster mother down, not criticizing her care”), was that it would be in Child’s best interest to be allowed to maintain some degree of contact with Mother. N.T., 5/13/21, at 127-128. We cannot reweigh the evidence, and as such we conclude that there is record support for the orphans’ court decision to deny CYF’s termination petition under Section 2511(b).
Slip op. at 10-12.
Judge Murray dissented on the basis that orphans’ court failed to consider “the benefit of permanency” as required by In re T.S.M., 71 A.3d 251, 253 (Pa. 2013). Specifically, the dissent opined that:
In this case, it is undisputed that severance of the parent-child bond would have an adverse effect on Child. However, our Supreme Court has instructed, “Courts must determine whether the trauma caused by breaking th[e parent-child] bond is outweighed by the benefit of moving the child toward a permanent home.” In re T.S.M., 71 A.3d 251, 253 (Pa. 2013) (emphasis added). While the trial court acknowledged Dr. Rosenblum’s expert opinion that termination served Child’s needs and welfare, the court nonetheless based its needs and welfare analysis on Child’s affection for Mother, as well as Dr. Rosenblum’s testimony that severing the bond “would have an adverse effect on the child.” Trial Court Opinion, 11/22/21, at 17- 18.
Dissent slip op. at 2. Moreover, the dissent explained:
In addition to the parental bond, the trial court must “also consider the intangibles, such as the love, comfort, security, and stability the child might have with the foster parent.” In re Adoption of C.D.R., 111 A.3d 1212, 1219 (Pa. Super. 2015). Our Supreme Court has emphasized: “Common sense dictates that courts considering termination must also consider whether the children are in a pre-adoptive home and whether they have a bond with their foster parents.” In re T.S.M., 71 A.3d at 269 (emphasis added). “[A] child’s life cannot be held in abeyance while a parent attempts to attain the maturity necessary to assume parenting responsibilities.” In re Adoption of R.J.S., 901 A.2d 502, 513 (Pa. Super. 2006).
Dissent slip op. at 4.
The Supreme Court granted allocatur to consider the following issues:
1. Whether this Court should grant review to ensure that trial courts across the Commonwealth are uniformly applying the correct standard for evaluating the bond between a child and parent when conducting a needs and welfare analysis under Section 2511(b) of the Adoption Act in an involuntary termination of parental rights case by:
a. Clarifying that the trial court must evaluate whether the bond is necessary and beneficial to the child and not just whether any parent-child bond exists; and
b. Clarifying that the trial court must evaluate whether severing that bond would cause the child to experience extreme emotional consequences and not just any adverse effect?
2. Whether a divided three judge panel of the Superior Court, by ignoring this Court’s decisions in In re T.S.M., 71 A.3d 251 (Pa. 2013) and In re E.M., 680 A.2d 481 (Pa. 1993), erred in affirming the trial court’s denial of a petition for termination of parental rights when the almost 5-year-old child had been in care in a secure and stable kinship pre-adoptive foster home for almost four years, and it was undisputed that the mother was unlikely to ever be able to parent the child, that the mother was still court-ordered to have supervised visits due to concerns about the mother’s behavior, and that the court-appointed psychologist opined that the child needed permanence through adoption by her kinship foster parent with whom the child enjoyed a strong and secure bond?