An Interesting Parental Rights / Grandparent Visitation / Stepparent Adoption Case

The case is In re Adoption of J.P. (Ark. Dec. 15, 2011), and it involves both a conflict between a father and a deceased mother’s parents (and grandparent), and a challenge to the adoption by the father’s new wife (the child’s godmother, as it happens). The Arkansas Supreme Court indirectly relies on the father’s constitutional parental rights to overturn a lower court award of visitation to the grandparents and great-grandmother, who had been closely involved with the child’s upbringing but who were now less involved in the child’s life because of a rift with the father. The court concludes that the father’s rights aren’t absolute, and that a sufficient showing of harm to the child could justify granting visitation rights to the grandparents and great-grandmother, but that no such showing was made here.

But the court refuses to allow the new wife (and godmother) to adopt the child, for reasons related to the rift with the grandparents and great-grandmother:

Before an adoption petition can be granted, the circuit court must find from clear and convincing evidence that the adoption is in the best interest of the child…. Here, the circuit court found, in pertinent part:

Although Derek and Andrea testified that it was coincidence, the restriction of [Doris]’s and [Bertie]’s contact with [J.P.] began when Derek and Andrea started dating. From an observation of Andrea as a witness, the Court finds Andrea’s attitude toward [J.P.] to be possessive and exclusive of the maternal family. The Court finds that an adoption of [J.P.] by Andrea would not be conducive to fostering a relationship between [J.P.] and his maternal family. A hindrance or loss of a relationship with his maternal family would not be in the best interest of [J.P.]

Considering all the best interest factors, the Court finds that the adoption of [J.P.] by Andrea is not currently in the best interest of [J.P.] The Petition for Adoption is denied.

It is clear from Andrea’s testimony that tension existed between her and J.P.’s maternal family. It is that tension that troubled the circuit court and served as the court’s basis for finding that the adoption was not currently in J.P.’s best interest; we do not disagree. That is not to say that it would not be in his best interest at some point in the future. However, giving due regard to the opportunity and superior position of the circuit court to judge the witnesses before it, we cannot say the circuit court’s finding that adoption was not currently in J.P.’s best interest was clearly against the preponderance of the evidence. For this reason, we affirm the circuit court’s denial of the petition for adoption.

So the father (1) has a presumptive constitutional right to limit visitation by other family members — but (2) he does not have a right to give his new wife the legal status of parent, and (3) the court may indeed deny the adoption partly based on the father’s exercise (see item 1) of his constitutional right to limit contact between the child and the other family members.

To be sure, there is no constitutional right to adopt a child, whether one is a stepparent or not. But in many (though not all) situations, the government is generally not allowed to condition benefits (such as the ability to adopt) on one’s exercise of constitutional rights: I take it, for instance, that the government generally may not deny prospective parents the right to adopt a child on the grounds of the parents’ political views. Likewise, two courts have generally held that the government may not deny prospective parents the right to adopt or to be foster parents based on their exercise of a constitutional right to engage in same-sex sexual relations, see here and here. If a parent has a constitutional right to limit visitation by other family members, is it proper to use the exercise of that constitutional right to deny him and his spouse the ability to have the spouse adopt the child? In any case, this struck me as an interesting question, and an interesting decision that was worth blogging about.