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Justices: Adoption agency didn’t breach duty to couple

June 3, 2015

The Indiana Supreme Court ruled 4-1 in favor of an adoption agency that it did not have any duties with respect to the putative father registry in excess of statutory requirements. A couple who adopted a baby through the agency – only later to have her removed from their care after the biological father contested the adoption – sued the agency alleging negligence.

Jason and Justina Kramer entered a contract with Catholic Charities in order to adopt a child. The agency told the Kramers that they had the right to obtain information about the risks and benefits of the services they will receive and warned them that even if a mother puts her child up for adoption, a father could still claim custody. Catholic Charities had a statutory obligation to check the putative father registry at least one day after the close of the father’s 30-day deadline to register, which is triggered by the baby’s birth date. Catholic Charities also had an internal unwritten practice of checking the registry once after intake of the birthmother as a client and again right before placement of the child with a potential adoptive family.

A mother agreed to have the Kramers adopt her baby born May 1, 2010. Catholic Charities asked the Indiana Department of Health to check on May 25 and June 1 whether anyone registered as the putative father of the baby girl. A first search showed no potential fathers; a second search showed R.M. registered as the putative father of the baby on April 27. No one can explain why that registration did not show up on the first search.

The Kramers continued with the adoption despite learning of R.M.’s registration. R.M. later contested the adoption and the baby was placed in his custody eight months later, after paterntity was established.

The Kramers alleged Catholic Charities was negligent because it should have checked the registry prior to placing the baby with them and should have notified the couple of its failure. The agency moved for summary judgment, which the trial court granted. The Court of Appeals, in a split decision, reversed.

Justice Mark Massa, writing for the majority, affirmed the trial court in Jason and Justina Kramer v. Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Inc., 71S03-1506-CT-350, which presented at least two issues of first impression for the court.

The Kramers argued that irrespective of the statutory obligations, the adoption agency had a duty to check the registry prior to the baby’s placement. But Massa pointed out they did not cite any authority or evidence beyond Catholic Charities’ informal practice of conducting such pre-placement checks. He also wrote that Catholic Charities, based on its agreement with the Kramers, did not have a duty to disclose its failure to conduct a pre-placement check of the registry.

The Kramers’ argument that had Catholic Charities done a pre-placement check and discovered R.M.’s adoption, the couple would never havea accepted placement or pursed adoption, does favor the imposition of a duty. But forcing adoption agencies to disclose every instance of compliance or non-compliance with their internal procedures could impose significant administrative costs and diminish agencies’ collective ability to perform this public service, Massa continued.

The Kramers failed to show that Catholic Charities had any duties with respect to the putative father registry in excess of statutory requirements, the majority held.

Justice Brent Dickson dissented, writing that Catholic Charities did not affirmatively demonstrate that its exercise of reasonable care to the Kramers under the circumstances is established by undisputed facts. He believed the negligence claim should proceed to trial.

 

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