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Adoption by Stefan S.

Supreme Court of Maine

January 9, 2020

ADOPTION BY STEFAN S.

          Argued: December 5, 2019

          Caleb J. Gannon, Esq., and John E. Baldacci, Jr., Esq. (orally), Lipman & Katz, Augusta, for appellant father

          Maryellen Sullivan, Esq., and Joe Lewis, Esq. (orally), Port City Legal, Portland, for appellees mother and stepfather

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

          JABAR, J.

         [¶1] The father of two children appeals from judgments of the Kennebec County Probate Court (E. Mitchell, J.) terminating his parental rights in anticipation of adoptions pursuant to 18-A M.R.S. § 9-204(b) (2018); 22 M.R.S. § 4055(1)(A)(2), (B)(2)(a), and (B)(2)(b)(ii) (2018).[1] He argues on appeal that the record contains insufficient evidence to support the court's findings that he is an unfit parent and that termination of his parental rights is in his children's best interests. See 18-A M.R.S. § 9-204(b) (2018); 22 M.R.S. § 4055(1)(B)(2). He also contends that the court erred as a matter of law by reaching these two findings in an improper sequence, and by failing to consider open adoptions that would have left his parental rights intact. We affirm the judgments.

         I. BACKGROUND

         [¶2] On July 30, 2018, the mother and stepfather of the children filed petitions to adopt the children the Kennebec County Probate Court, seeking to establish the stepfather as the children's legal father pursuant to 18-A M.R.S. § 9-103 (2018). Soon thereafter, the mother filed petitions to terminate the father's parental rights pursuant to 18-A M.R.S. § 9-204 (2018), thereby freeing the children for adoption by the stepfather. The father was duly served with notice of the petitions to terminate his parental rights, to which he registered his objection. The court held a one-day hearing on the matter on May 22, 2019. On June 10, 2019, the court entered judgments terminating the father's parental rights with regard to the children. The father did not file a motion for further findings of fact and conclusions of law, M.R. Civ. P. 52, or any other post-trial motion. The father timely appealed from both orders. M.R. App. P. 2B(c)(1).

         [¶3] The following facts are drawn from the court's explicit findings and the trial record. See Guardianship of Ard, 2017 ME 12, ¶ 15, 154 A.3d 609 ("In the absence of a motion for findings of fact, see M.R. Civ. P. 52(a), we assume that the court found all of the facts needed to support its decision if those facts are supported by competent evidence." (quotation marks omitted)). The older child was born in 2006 and is developmentally disabled. He attends public school, where he receives intensive special education services as part of an Individualized Education Program (IEP). The younger child was born in 2009 and also has been diagnosed with genetic and behavioral disorders. He attends a public school where his education is directed by an IEP and he receives one-on-one supervision at all times during the school day. He exhibits aggressive behaviors and is sometimes violent.

         [¶4] The mother and father divorced in 2012, and a parental rights and responsibilities order was issued in conjunction with the divorce, awarding primary residence to the mother and contact rights to the father. In practice, the amount of time that each child spent with the father varied over time. Beginning in 2015, the father's contact with the children declined gradually. The father has not seen the children since July 2016, and has had no communication with the children since May 2018. This lack of contact is at least partially the result of the mother's conduct-the court found that she "wrongfully made it difficult for [the father] to contact her." Since at least 2015, the children have resided primarily with the mother and stepfather. The stepfather is consistently involved in caring for the children and interacts on a daily basis with their educational and medical providers.

         [¶5] The two orders issued by the court are mirror images of one another except for the relevant child's name. The court made the following findings with regard to both children:

[T]he termination of the parental rights of [the father] thereby freeing the child for adoption by [the stepfather] would be in the child's best interests. This Court also specifically finds that [the father's] failure to make any attempt to establish a family relationship with the child, or contribute in any way toward the child's financial support, constitutes clear and convincing evidence that [the father] has been unwilling or unable to take responsibility for the child within a time reasonably calculated to meet the child's needs.

         [¶6] The court also found that "[the father] has not taken the necessary steps in a reasonable time frame to care for his son with highly special needs well known to him. He has been absent from his life for over two years and owes over $30, 000 in child support." Although the court noted that the mother had wrongfully made it difficult for the father to contact her or the children, the court found that the father "made no effort to legally enforce his rights or to contact [the child's] medical providers or his school." The medical and educational professionals who worked with the children "had never met [the father]." The court stated that both children "will need special care and attention for the rest of [their lives]," and that the father "has done nothing to assist with this challenge and did not demonstrate a valid reason for his absence."

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Legal Standard

         [¶7] "When a private individual invokes court action to terminate parental rights . . . the court engages in state action that implicates the constitutionally protected liberty interest a parent has in parenting his or her child free from state interference." Adoption of Isabelle T.,2017 ME 220, ¶ 3, 175 A.3d 639. These protections are not absolute. Id. ΒΆΒΆ 5-6. "A state may interfere with a parent's fundamental right to parent a child when the court makes a finding, by clear and convincing evidence, that the parent is ...


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