A trial court erred when it denied a mother’s consensual termination of parental rights petition against the father due to concerns of a potential risk of conflict of interest involving the mother’s legal counsel.
L.N., biological mother of a 5-year-old girl who is autistic and non-verbal, sought termination of the parental rights of biological father M.C. She used Heartland Adoption Agency to file the petition, and Heartland is owned by mother’s attorneys.
The record indicates M.C. had not regularly paid child support and had minimal contact with the child. He appeared in court and agreed to the termination of his parental rights. But the court denied the termination petition, observing there was a serious risk the lawyers’ duty to their client may conflict with their financial interest in the adoption agency. The court also ruled Heartland acted outside its authority in filing the petition.
Mother chose to forgo sporadic child support from M.C. to facilitate and ensure her daughter’s SSI disability payment, according to the record. As the child’s sole caregiver, she said the occasional support payment created burdensome paperwork to file to offset SSI benefits.
“(W)e conclude that Heartland Adoption Agency’s petition to terminate M.C.’s parental rights to M.N. at Mother’s request met the statutory requirements of Indiana Code section 31-35-1-4, and the trial court erred when it concluded that Heartland Adoption Agency acted outside the scope of its statutory authorization as a licensed child placing agency when it filed the petition to terminate M.C.’s parental rights,” Judge Paul Mathias wrote for the panel.
The appeals court noted reasonable conflict-of-interest concerns, but found them insufficient to affirm the trial court’s denial.
“The trial court’s generalized concern that a conflict of interest could arise between Mother and Heartland Adoption Agency is well-taken, and perhaps the better course for Mother would have been to proceed through another licensed agency, rather than one owned by her attorneys,” Mathias wrote.
“However, Mother’s resources are clearly limited, and under the specific facts of this case, all involved parties are pursuing the same goal. Heartland Adoption Agency’s petition to terminate M.C.’s parental rights is the simplest and most expedient approach,” the panel held in reversing denial of the termination petition.