PA High Court Disallows ‘Hybrid’ Family Structure

     (CN) — A grandfather cannot adopt his twin grandsons to help terminate their father’s parental rights, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled, finding that the arrangement would create “confusing hybrid relationships.”
     The twins’ mother, M.D., discovered she was pregnant in 2004 after the father, M.C., had returned to South Dakota in the wake of their failed relationship.
     The father visited the children three times in the first 16 months of their lives, but when the mother suggested visiting the father in South Dakota, he refused.
     By 2009, the father had married and started a new family, but he also talked with an attorney about gaining custody of the twins. He filed for custody in late 2012.
     The children’s grandfather, also with the initials M.D., has played a father-like role in the boys’ lives, including disciplining them, taking them to school functions, vacationing with them and helping them with homework, according to court records.
     The grandfather has also supported the mother and allowed her to live for free in his second home.
     They responded to the father’s custody claim by asking the orphans’ court to terminate his parental rights and to allow the grandfather to adopt his daughter’s children.
     The orphans’ court terminated the father’s rights, finding that he had not performed his duties for years.
     The father appealed, arguing that the grandfather only sought to adopt the boys in retaliation for the father’s custody action.
     The Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the ruling in a 5-3 decision, prompting the father to appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
     He argued that the adoption would create mixed family roles, as the grandfather would be the boys’ legal father as well as their mother’s father. This would create the appearance of an incestuous relationship, the father asserted.
     The mother and grandfather countered that it would be better to make their family unit official than “to permit a stranger from South Dakota, who purposely absented himself from his children’s lives for eight years, to turn this family upside down.”
     The state supreme court ruled Monday that the mother would have to relinquish her own parental rights as well for the grandfather to adopt the twins.
     “Indeed, while the Adoption Act allows a parent to retain his or her rights in cases where a stepparent petitions to adopt his or her child, the Act contains no other provision authorizing a biological parent who consents to an adoption to retain his or her parental rights,” Justice Debra McCloskey Todd wrote.
     The mother and grandfather asked for a waiver of the relinquishment requirement, but the Pennsylvania high court refused.
     “Rather than being involved in a committed, horizontal relationship such as stepparents or same-sex partners, mother and grandfather share a vertical, parent-child relationship,” Todd wrote.
     She noted that the grandfather is married to the grandmother and is part of a separate family unit and that the adoption arrangement would result in “confusing hybrid relationships.”
     “Because of grandmother’s status as a stepmother, mother would be both a mother to children and, technically, their stepsister,” Todd stated.
     In addition, if the mother ever got married, the grandfather could “prevent mother’s spouse from having legal rights over (the) children,” the judge wrote.
     Therefore, since a valid adoption is not anticipated, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed the order terminating the father’s rights.
     Justice David N. Wecht wrote a concurring opinion. He stated that termination of parental rights is “emphatically not a tool to be deployed in custody disputes.”
     Wecht added that the mother’s use of her father as a putative adoptive parent for the boys was “at best a clumsy and overweening attempt to gain advantage in custody.”
     Todd added a special concurring opinion to call for legislative review of the Adoption Act.
     “Given that today’s families are not necessarily the traditional nuclear families that were envisioned at the time our adoption laws were initially drafted, I urge the legislature, with continued focus on the best interests of our Commonwealth’s children, to revisit the adoption and relinquishment requirements for termination of parental rights under the Act,” she wrote.
     Justice Max Baer also wrote a concurring opinion, disagreeing with Todd’s latter comments.
     “Like my colleagues, I appreciate that families of all varieties can and do flourish,” he wrote. “Nevertheless, it is beyond cavil that children are entitled to permanency, and the best model to ensure that permanency is to have children parented by two parents in a permanent relationship—a marriage.”

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