Supreme Court reverses in dispute over implied adoption consent

A unanimous Indiana Supreme Court has reversed in an adoption case, holding that a parent’s implied consent to the adoption may not be based solely on their failure to appear at a single hearing.

Justices unanimously agreed with the dissenting judge in a divided Indiana Court of Appeals ruling, reversing and remanding in a per curiam decision, In the Matter of the Adoption of C.A.H., A.C.S. (Father) v. R.S.E. and R.K.E. (Grandparents), 20S-AD-5.

The maternal grandparents of father A.C.S.’s child served as guardians for most of the child’s life and eventually sought adoption, which the child’s mother initially consented to, but she later withdrew her consent. A.C.S. did not consent, but the grandparents argued his consent was not necessary pursuant to Indiana Code section 31-19-9-8.

During more than a year of proceedings, A.C.S. was late to a hearing, failed to appear for a deposition due to his incarceration, and failed to appear during the final hearing after numerous continuances. The Morgan Superior Court ultimately denied his motion for a continuance of the final hearing, finding no cause for his failure to appear, then issued the adoption decree.

A.C.S. moved for relief from judgment, indicating he overslept but had appeared at the courthouse during the scheduled hearing time, but the trial court denied that motion.

A.C.S. appealed the finding that his consent to the adoption was irrevocably implied. He argued he had participated in the adoption proceedings on an “ongoing and consistent” basis.

The COA panel majority had affirmed the adoption decree, finding his consent was irrevocably implied due to his failure to appear at the final hearing. The majority relied on guidance from K.S. v. D.S.,  64 N.E.3d 1209 (Ind. Ct. App. 2016), but Judge Nancy Vaidik dissented, arguing that there was insufficient evidence to support the implied consent conclusion. She opined that she would remand the case to give the father an opportunity to contest the allegations that he failed to communicate with and support the child.

The Indiana Supreme Court agreed with Vaidik on Friday.

First, the justices noted that the Indiana General Assembly has created several means by which a parent’s consent to the adoption of a child may be irrevocably implied, including the parent’s failure to timely prosecute a motion to contest the adoption.

“But Father’s failure to attend the final hearing — one that had been rescheduled once at his request and three times at the request of other parties — is insufficient to overcome the important liberty interests at stake by finding him in default,” the per curiam opinion states.

“Father’s failure to appear at a single hearing also is insufficient to support a finding of implied consent when he appeared at other hearings, maintained contact with his attorney, and otherwise participated in the proceedings,” the opinion continued. “We agree with Judge Vaidik that affirming the trial court’s judgment impermissibly lowers the bar for finding implied consent in adoption cases.”

The unanimous Supreme Court therefore concluded that K.S. is inapposite to the case at hand and remanded for a hearing on the merits of the father’s motion to contest the adoption.

“Finally, we note that Grandparents’ verified petition alleged that Father’s consent to Child’s adoption was unnecessary because he had abandoned Child for at least six months preceding the petition’s filing; failed without justifiable cause to communicate significantly with Child; and failed to provide for Child’s care and support when able to do so. … This opinion does not resolve these claims, and our reversal of the trial court’s order does not mean that Father necessarily will succeed in rebutting these allegations on remand; it simply provides him the opportunity to try,” the justices concluded.

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