Issues surrounding the custody of minor children are very emotional and, as a result, often end in major disagreements between divorcing spouses. In a recent case before the Oregon Court of Appeals, the court affirmed the lower court’s order terminating the parental rights of a child’s mother and granting the child’s step-mother’s petition to adopt her.
The Facts of the Case
The child was born in October 2016 and lived with her mother for the first year and a half of her life. However, in 2018, the Department of Human Services (DHS) removed the child and her siblings from their mother’s custody after determining that she was experiencing substance use disorder and other mental health issues. The children were placed in foster care.
In November 2018, the child’s father filed a petition to establish paternity of L. At the time, the child’s birth certificate mistakenly listed the mother’s then-partner as the child’s father, although that was not the case. In February 2019, father established paternity, and the child was placed in his custody. At the time, the child’s father was in a committed relationship with who would become the child’s stepmother. The child has been in the custody of her father and stepmother’s care since March 2019.
In March 2019, Mother agreed to award Father primary physical and legal custody of the child. Mother retained the right to have parenting time with her daughter, subject to her commitment to stay substance-free. During a scheduled parenting time session, Father suspected mother of being under the influence and requested she take a urine test. The test came back positive.
Father and Stepmother eventually moved and, while they tried to provide notice to Mother, they could not locate her. Notice was sent to Mother’s parents’ home, and Father stayed in touch with them after the move. Then, in July 2020, Father and Stepmother filed a petition to legally adopt the child.
Mother objected, but the court determined that she deserted and willfully neglected the child without just and sufficient cause. Thus, the court held that it would proceed without Mother’s consent. Subsequently, the court granted Father and Stepmother’s petition, terminating Mother’s parental rights. Mother appealed.
On appeal, Mother argued that it was not in her daughter’s best interests to terminate her parental rights and allow Stepmother to adopt the child. The court rejected Mother’s arguments, holding that the trial court did not err in finding that Mother “deserted and willfully neglected” the child. The court pointed to the fact that Mother did not try to visit the child, never tried to contact Father or Stepmother, and did not send her any letters, birthday cards, or anything else that would indicate she valued a continued relationship with her daughter.
The court acknowledged Mother’s testimony that she made at least some effort to reach Father and Stepmother; however, the court ultimately deferred to the trial court’s determination because it was in the best position to assess Mother’s credibility.