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In re Adoption of S.D.W

Supreme Court of North Carolina

June 12, 2014

IN RE ADOPTION OF S.D.W

Heard in the Supreme Court February 18, 2014.

Mecklenburg County. No. 10SP8507. Elizabeth T. Trosch, Judge.

Thurman, Wilson, Boutwell & Galvin, P.A., by W. David Thurman, John D. Boutwell, and Alexander W. Warner, for petitioner-appellants adoptive parents and appellant Christian Adoption Services, Inc.

Jonathan McGirt for respondent-appellee father Gregory Johns.

Claiborne & Fox, PLLC, by Amy Wallas Fox; and Herring & Mills, PLLC, by Bobby Mills, for American Academy of Adoption Attorneys, amicus curiae.

EDMUNDS, Justice. Justice JACKSON dissenting.

OPINION

Page 375

EDMUNDS, Justice.

On discretionary review pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 7A-31 of a unanimous decision of the Court of Appeals, __ N.C.App. __, 745 S.E.2d 38 (2013), reversing orders entered on 10 November 2011 and 17 February 2012 by Judge Elizabeth T. Trosch in District Court, Mecklenburg County, and remanding for an evidentiary hearing and entry of a revised order. Heard in the Supreme Court on 18 February 2014.

The issue presented in this case concerns the legal ability of a biological father who is unaware that he has fathered a child to object to the mother's decision to place the child for adoption. Appellee Gregory Johns (" Johns" ) contends that his state and federal due process rights were violated because the adoption deprived him of his rights as a father. We conclude that obtaining notice of the pregnancy and birth was not beyond Johns's control and that he had sufficient opportunity to acknowledge paternity and establish himself as a responsible parent within the time set by statute. Because he failed to do so, he falls outside the class of responsible biological fathers who enjoy a constitutionally protected relationship with their natural children. As a result, Johns's due process claim fails. We reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals remanding the matter for additional evidence.

Laura Marshburn Welker (" Welker" ) and Johns acknowledge that they are the biological parents of the minor child " S.D.W." Although they neither married nor cohabited, Johns and Welker were involved in an intimate relationship from approximately May 2009 to February or March 2010. Johns described their involvement as " mostly physical," adding that the couple " had sex[ ] 10 to 20 times a week."

During this time, Johns was aware that Welker had given birth about three years

Page 376

previously to a son who was then living with Welker's mother. Understanding that Welker used a form of birth control that he characterized as an " IUD band," Johns did not wear condoms during intercourse with Welker. In the summer of 2009, Welker became pregnant and she and Johns decided that she would have an abortion. After that pregnancy was terminated, Welker told Johns that she was using another form of birth control. According to Johns: " It's either a shot or a patch. I know she wasn't taking pills every day, that I do know. I don't remember seeing a patch, but I remember we were talking about it, but I'm - - I would say it was a shot, a birth control shot." Johns continued his practice of not wearing a condom.

At some time around the end of January 2010, Johns broke up with Welker. Even so, until early March 2010, they engaged in additional acts of sexual intercourse during three to five visits Welker made to Johns's home. Thereafter, Welker cut off all contact with Johns, and except for Johns's birthday on 26 November 2010 when Welker stopped by his home to mark the occasion with another act of sexual intercourse, there was no further communication between them until late April 2011.

In the interim, Welker gave birth to S.D.W. on 10 October 2010. The next day, 11 October, she executed an " Affidavit of Parentage" incorrectly naming " Gregory Thomas James" as the father and leaving blank the line for the father's last known address. At the same time, she executed a Department of Social Services form relinquishing custody of S.D.W. to adoption agency Christian Adoption Services, Inc. (" the agency" ) through its director, James M. Woodward. The agency identified Benjamin Allen Jones and Heather Pitts Jones (" the Joneses" or " petitioners" ) as prospective adoptive parents for S.D.W., and on 12 October, the infant was placed in their custody, where he has remained. On 27 October, Welker signed a form provided by the agency titled " Birth Father Information," in which she again misidentified the father as " Gregory Thomas James."

The Joneses filed a petition to adopt S.D.W. on 2 November 2010. The agency, relying on the false name provided by Welker, attempted to locate the biological father. On 16 November 2010, after failing to find " Gregory Thomas James," the agency filed a petition to terminate the parental rights of the absent father, an action that resulted in a stay in the adoption proceedings. N.C.G.S. § 48-2-402 (2013).

In late April 2011, Johns first heard that Welker had given birth. After calling Welker on 25 April 2011 and confirming with her both that the child was his and that she had placed the child for adoption, Johns took steps to assert his intention to obtain custodial rights of S.D.W. and to prevent the adoption from proceeding. Welker also contacted the agency in late April to disclose Johns's correct identity, leading counsel for the agency on 2 May 2011 to voluntarily dismiss without prejudice the action to terminate parental rights.

As a result of the dismissal, the temporary stay was removed on 5 May 2011 and petitioners gave notice of their intention to proceed with the adoption. On 17 May 2011, a Notice of Pendency of Adoption Proceedings was served on Johns's brother. On 24 May 2011, acting pro se, Johns sent letters to the Clerk of Court of Mecklenburg County and to counsel for the agency, introducing himself, requesting DNA testing, asking that the adoption be terminated, and advising that he would not surrender his parental rights over S.D.W. On 15 August 2011, Johns, now represented by counsel, filed verified motions in the District Court, Mecklenburg County, seeking to intervene in the adoption proceeding, to dismiss the adoption petition, to secure child custody, and to obtain related relief.

On 19 September 2011, petitioners filed their Response to Respondent's Motions and Motion for Summary Judgment. In this response, petitioners acknowledged that " [a]n issue of fact and law exists as to whether [Johns's] [c]onsent is required" but opposed Johns's Motion to Intervene, arguing that Johns was not a party and that he lacked standing because " he has not seen the minor child nor has he acted in a way that is consistent with the interests, rights, and duties of a parent." Petitioners moved for

Page 377

summary judgment, contending that Johns had failed to carry his burden of showing his consent was required under N.C.G.S. § § 48-3-601 and 48-3-603. The former statute provides, ...


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