By ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS Associated Press
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — An Ohio father can fight the adoption of the children whose mother he killed, after a divided state Supreme Court said there was a good reason he hadn’t been in touch with them since the slaying: He was following a judge’s order not to contact them.
Under Ohio law, parental consent is not required for adoptions if proof exists that a parent had little or no contact with the child for at least one year before the filing of adoption papers.
In the current case, the father had previously lost his attempts to block the adoption of his daughters by the girls’ maternal grandparents, who took custody of the children after their mother was killed. An appeals court agreed the father couldn’t use his imprisonment to justify his failure to contact the children, since his actions led to the prison sentence.
Then in 2019, the state Supreme Court ruled in a different case that a woman couldn’t stop the father of their child, who was not paying child support, from objecting to the child’s adoption by her new husband. The reason: The father was following a court order that eliminated his responsibility for support payments, an order requested by the mother.
“Every day, families rely on court orders to define parents’ lawful obligations,” said Justice Sharon Kennedy in the majority opinion in that 2019 case. “Our decision today ensures that the judgment of the court with the jurisdiction to set child-support levels can be relied upon.”
Based on that 2019 decision, the man who killed his wife petitioned for a new hearing, and the 8th Ohio District Court of Appeals ruled in his favor. The grandparents appealed, and the state Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
Court records, which do not identify any of the parties, indicate the killing happened in Summit County in 2006, after which the man was sentenced to 23 years to life. He remains in prison, said his attorney, Mary Catherine Barrett.
Because, by following a court order, a parent is prohibited from staying in contact with children, “a probate court should not dispense with the requirement of a parent’s consent,” Justice Melody Stewart wrote Feb. 10 for the 4-3 majority in the current case.
Justice Patrick DeWine ruled in favor of requiring the father’s consent, but said Stewart’s opinion went too far in making a no-contact order a justifiable excuse for not being involved with the children ahead of an adoption request.
What if a parent was following a no-contact order, but also made it clear they wanted nothing to do with the child, DeWine asked.
“Should the parent be able to object to the adoption simply because he or she is subject to a no-contact order, when the evidence suggests that the order is not the reason for the lack of contact?” DeWine said.
Kennedy dissented in this case, saying the 2019 ruling involved a different set of facts. The previous lower court rulings blocking the imprisoned father’s consent should have stayed in place, she said.
The majority opinion “creates an unacceptable consequence for the children in this case: an inability to enjoy their right to an intact childhood and a loving adoptive family,” Kennedy wrote.
The father fought the adoption mainly to preserve the ability of his own mother and other family members to keep in contact with his two daughters, not to disrupt the girls’ situation with their maternal grandparents, Barrett said. One girl has since turned 18, but another is still a minor, she said.
“The only thing this case affects is whether the other grandmother has the right to visit,” Barrett said.
The girls’ maternal grandparents are saddened by the ruling, said Rebecca Clark, the grandparents’ attorney. The couple only initiated adoption proceedings because it would have allowed them to seek out more robust educational opportunities for the girls, both of whom are severely autistic and will never live on their own, Clark said.
“My clients would never have moved for adoption for any other reason,” she said.