Adoption: Abandonment Includes Lack of Meaningful Contact

The Missouri Supreme Court issued an opinion this week affirming a decision by a circuit court terminating a father’s parental rights and granting a step-parent adoption.
S.S.S., L.W.V. & M.T.S-V vs. C.V.S., SC96307. The Court found that father abandoned and neglected his child. The Court’s opinion was not unanimous. The opinion appears to depart from prior law in situations of abandonment and neglect. Abandonment occurs where a parent voluntarily and intentionally fails to parent a child for sixty days when a child is under the age of one year and for six months for a child one year or older. Section 453.040(7) RSMo. Neglect includes the failure to provide “necessary care and protection.” Section 453.040(7) RSMo. There were a number of different circumstances the circuit court relied upon in finding that father abandoned and neglected the child, including, but not limited to: father was able to see his child only a few times a year (father lived in the State of California); father was late to some of the visits; the child did not have a strong bond with father; paternal grandmother sent money to the child from Father’s trust/inheritance, but the money did not come directly from father. The Court looked at the quality of father’s contacts with the child and determined that “the circuit court could have reasonably found, despite frequent contacts and visits, Father’s relationship with Child was merely superficial or tenuous.” The Court found father did not have “meaningful contact” with the child.

In a dissenting opinion, several judges disagreed with the majority. The dissent concluded, “The circuit court’s judgment was against the weight of the evidence and results in a significant departure from prior case law establishing for involuntary termination of parental rights….” The dissent reasoned that mother and step-father must prove willful abandonment by the father, not that the father must prove he has not willfully abandoned the child. Second, the dissent concluded, “There is no evidence father demonstrated a long-term lack of interest in the child or had only ‘occasional contact’ with the child.” Third, the dissent concluded that “the circuit court’s determination that father does not have meaningful interaction with the child and is ‘superficial and tenuous’ is not supported by the record and misapplies the law.”

The Missouri Supreme Court’s decision affirming an adoption where a parent has superficial or tenuous contact with a child rather than meaningful contact arguably broadens a court’s ability to terminate a parent’s rights to a child. It’s also clear that each type of adoption case will be decided on the particular facts involved.

Scott Hamblin regularly practices in the area of family law, including adoptions, divorce and child custody, child support, guardianship and modifications.

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