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Adoption of Paisley

Supreme Court of Maine

January 30, 2018

ADOPTION OF PAISLEY

          Argued: December 14, 2017

          Kevin P. Sullivan, Esq. (orally), Sullivan Law, P.C., Augusta, for appellants, adoptive parents of two of Paisley's biological siblings.

          Sarah Irving Gilbert, Esq. (orally), Elliott, MacLean, Gilbert & Coursey, LLP, Camden, for appellee foster parents.

          Janet T. Mills, Attorney General, and Meghan Szylvian, Asst. Atty. Gen. (orally), Office of the Attorney General, Augusta, for appellee Department of Health and Human Services.

          Panel: SAUFLEY, C.J., and ALEXANDER, MEAD, GORMAN, JABAR, HJELM, and HUMPHREY, JJ.

          Majority: SAUFLEY, C.J., and ALEXANDER, MEAD, GORMAN, JABAR, HJELM, and HUMPHREY, JJ.

          ALEXANDER, J.

         [¶1] The appellants, the adoptive parents of two of Paisley's five biological siblings, appeal from a judgment of the District Court (Rockland, Sparaco, J.) denying their petition to adopt Paisley and granting the petition of the appellees, Paisley's foster parents, to adopt her.

         [¶2] The appellants argue that they have standing to appeal the trial court's adoption decree granting the foster parents' petition to adopt Paisley. They challenge the trial court's finding that, pursuant to 18-A M.R.S. §9-302(a)(3) (2017), the Department of Health and Human Services acted unreasonably in withholding consent to the adoption of Paisley by the foster parents. The appellants also challenge the trial court's admission of testimony by the foster parents' expert witness, a child attachment specialist.[1]

         [¶3] In this appeal, we consider the application of the consent to adoption statute, 18-A M.R.S. § 9-302 (2017), to contested adoption proceedings heard in the District Court following a District Court judgment terminating parental rights concerning that child. See 22 M.R.S. §§ 4050-4056 (2017). Adoption proceedings following State initiated proceedings to terminate parental rights are heard in the District Court. See 4 M.R.S. § l52(5-A) (2017); 18-A M.R.S. § 9-103 (2017). See also Adoption of lsabelle T., 2017 ME 220, ¶ 9 n.2, ___ A.3d ___.

         [¶4] As relevant to this appeal, 18-A M.R.S. § 9-302(a) states:

(a) Before an adoption is granted, written consent to the adoption must be given by:
(3) The person or agency having legal custody or guardianship of the child or to whom the child has been surrendered and released, except that the person's or agency's lack of consent, if adjudged unreasonable by a judge . . . may be overruled by the judge. In order for the judge to find that the person or agency acted unreasonably in withholding consent, the petitioner must prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the person or agency acted unreasonably. The court may hold a pretrial conference to determine who will proceed. The court may determine that even though the burden of proof is on the petitioner, the person or agency should proceed if the person or agency has important facts necessary to the petitioner in presenting the petitioner's case. The judge shall consider the following:
(i) Whether the person or agency determined the needs and interests of the child;
(ii) Whether the person or agency determined the ability of the petitioner and other prospective families to meet the child's needs;
(iii) Whether the person or agency made the decision consistent with the facts;
(iv) Whether the harm of removing the child from the child's current placement outweighs any inadequacies of that placement; and
(v) All other factors that have a bearing on a determination of the reasonableness of the person's or agency's decision in withholding consent.

         A petition for adoption must be pending before a consent is executed.

         [¶5] Here, Paisley's parents' rights had been terminated, and because the Department had legal custody of Paisley, section 9-302(a)(3) required that, before any adoption could be granted, the Department's written consent had to be obtained. The Department's refusal to grant consent to adoption by the appellees and its consent to adoption by the appellants was the focus of the District Court hearing. After the hearing, the court, applying section 9-302(a)(3), found that the appellees-the foster parents-had met their burden to prove "by a preponderance of the evidence" that the Department had acted unreasonably in withholding its consent to their adoption of Paisley.

         [¶6] Because the evidence admitted at the trial on the competing petitions for adoption supports the trial court's findings and discretionary determinations, we affirm the judgment.

         I. CASE HISTORY

         [¶7] The following findings, all of which are fully supported by the record, were made by the court in its decision. Paisley was born in October 2015. When she was just twelve days old, the Department took custody of her and ...


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