Justices reinstate adoption without mother’s consent

An Indiana trial court properly allowed an adoption to proceed without a mother’s consent, the Indiana Supreme Court has ruled, reinstating an adoption petition for the child whose mother failed to communicate or pay child support.

Justice Christopher Goff wrote for the unanimous court in In the Matter of the Adoption of I.B. (Minor Child): J.P. v. V.B., 21S-AD-90.

The case involves J.P., the mother of minor child I.B. J.P. had legal and physical custody of the child for a time, but when she began to struggle with drug use, custody was transferred to I.B.’s father.

J.P. was given supervised parenting time with I.B. and was ordered to pay child support. While she did visit another one of her children, J.P. did not exercise her parenting time with I.B., nor did she pay child support.

Thus, in 2019, stepmother V.B. petitioned to adopt I.B., with the consent of the child’s father. J.P. contested the adoption, arguing she was in “constant contact” with the child, though the father said that contact only included about 13 minutes on the phone per month. The Hamilton Superior Court ultimately granted V.B.’s adoption petition, finding J.P.’s consent was not necessary based on her failure to pay child support or communicate regularly with the child.

The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed, finding a lack of evidence to support the trial court’s ruling. The Supreme Court, however, granted transfer and reinstated the adoption order on Tuesday.

“In this case, we confront the limited question of whether the trial court committed clear error when it determined that Mother failed for one year to (1) significantly communicate with Child without justification, or (2) support Child when able to do so and required by law,” Goff wrote. “We find that ample evidence supports both determinations and that the trial court did not err in granting Stepmother’s petition for adoption.”

Pointing to the cases of E.B.F. v. D.F., 93 N.E.3d 759 (Ind. 2018), In re Adoption of O.R., 16 N.E.3d 965 (Ind. 2014), and In re Adoption of T.L., 4 N.E.3d 658 (Ind. 2014), Goff identified a “familiar theme.”

“A parent who meets society’s expectations by maintaining a connection with her child and by financially supporting her child cannot have her legal relationship with the child severed without her consent,” he wrote. “Conversely, when a parent fails to maintain a meaningful relationship with, or fails to financially support, that child, she loses her right as a natural parent to withhold consent to adoption. Of course, what constitutes failure is a fact-intensive inquiry.”

Turning to the facts of J.P.’s case, the court held, “While Mother did struggle with substance abuse, and while she argued that her troubles and efforts at recovery excused her lack of financial support, she advanced no such argument related to her lack of communication before either the trial court or the Court of Appeals. Instead, the evidence shows a paucity of conversations between Mother and Child and that Mother couldn’t provide basic information about Child’s life, such as who her friends were and where she attended school.”

As to the issue of her failure to pay child support, the court noted J.P.’s annual income, though small, “was nearly enough to satisfy her annual support obligation. … And it was earned when many of her own expenses were paid by others.” J.P. argued her recovery efforts, including treatment and schooling, justified her failure to pay child support, but the justices disagreed.

“Between her schooling, which arguably could have prevented her from working, and her incarceration, Mother was not able to work for twenty-five of the fifty-two weeks at issue. That means she was available to work for twenty-seven weeks,” Goff wrote. “… While Mother didn’t have a license, she owned a car during the year at issue and testified that she drove the car without a license. While we certainly don’t condone her illegal method of transportation … Mother’s decision to drive without a license in other circumstances further supports the trial court’s determination that her unemployment was voluntary.”

Finally, the high court declined to address J.P.’s challenge to the finding that she abandoned I.B., noting the mother “didn’t engage in a separate analysis related to abandonment.”

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