In re Adoption of MRD and TMD: Twin Exceptions fail to authorize adoption of Twins
A Father leaves a Mother shortly before she learns she’s pregnant. With almost no exception, the Father has no contact with his Twin Children for the next eight years until he gets married and suddenly files for custody. The Mother, who has raised the Twins with their maternal Grandfather, wants to terminate the Father’s rights to the Twins to avoid a custody battle, and so Grandfather agrees to “Adopt” the children with her.
But the Adoption Statute isn’t designed to help avoid a Custody fight; it’s designed to allow a child to “bond” the new family unit, and so the moving parent must agree to terminate her own parental rights to the child to terminate the other parent’s rights, unless one of two exceptions is met: 1) where a parent’s new spouse is the adopting party; or 2) for “cause shown,” an exception that turns out to be every bit as pointless as it sounds.
The “cause” exception apparently arises from In re Adoption of R.B.F., 569 Pa. 269 (2002), a case about same-sex, long-term committed couples where the parent wished for a partner to adopt under the spousal exception noted above, but couldn’t because same-sex marriage was then illegal. As Justice Baer points out in his exceptional concurrence, the ongoing vitality of such an “exception” is dubious.
Justice Todd writes for the Court, applauding the Grandfather’s “stepping up” to raise, discipline, provide for and love the Twins, but insists that the “relinquishment” requirement under the Adoption Statute can only be relieved when the adopting party is the parent’s spouse, or for “cause shown.”
“With great admiration for my distinguished colleagues, I am constrained to disagree.” Justice Baer’s typically respectful concurrence agrees in judgment, but “To me, this case is straight-forward.” The Grandfather is not the Mother’s spouse (indeed, he cannot be under Pennsylvania law), and thus, the only valid exception does not qualify. The legislature’s chosen public policy is that children are better off with two parents, that the permanency of marriage is harder to get out of than mere partnership, and that terminating the rights of an absent parent may have unintended consequences, such as cutting of a child’s future ability to inherit through that parent.
Justice Todd takes the unusual step of writing a special concurrence with her own opinion so that, “unconstrained by majority authorship,” she can call on the legislature to provide more latitude for non-traditional family relationships. “[I]n today’s society . . . there are situations where, in my view, it is unfair to require a single parent to have a spouse or partner as a prerequisite to seeking the termination of the rights of the child’s other legal, but absent, parent.”
Justice Wecht offers his view that petitions for termination of parental rights “are not to be used as weapons in child custody litigation, and that our courts must rebuff such attempts” to use “extreme and last-ditch” measures to resolve custody disputes. Justice Wecht closes his opinion with the sharpness one is accustomed to expect from custody disputes, speculating that the trial judge’s ruling in this case “create[d] a potpourri of remedies” for the Mother, and arguing that “it is critically important that our judges not make bad situations worse by allowing often-angry parents to turn custody disputes into orphan factories.”