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Understanding Contested Adoptions in Pennsylvania

February 8, 2016

By Kathleen M. Tana, Esquire

Adopting a child is a time of great joy. Along with that joy can come mountains of paperwork, however, as one works through the legal process of adoption. This is especially true in cases where an adoption is “contested.”

In any adoption, the rights of the birth parent must be terminated before the adoptive parent can “become” the child’s new parent. This can happen with or without the consent of the birth parent.

A consent adoption is exactly what it sounds like; the birth parent signs a document giving written permission for the court to terminate his/her parental rights and allow the child to be adopted. The process is relatively simple and straightforward.

A “contested” adoption, in which there is an involuntary termination of parental rights, is understandably more complex. Contested adoptions arise in many scenarios, but they most frequently arise when the birth parent either cannot be located or does not respond to communications regarding the adoption, or the birth parent simply refuses to consent to the termination of their parental rights.

In cases where the birth parent cannot be located or will not respond, the adoptive parent(s) must file a formal petition to terminate the birth parent’s rights.  If there is no response, the court may require the adoptive parents to prove that they have conducted a diligent search for the birth parent and have been unable to locate them.  This search may include contacting prisons, motor vehicles registration, welfare agencies or other entities, particularly if the case is interstate or international.

Cases in which the birth parent refuses to consent to the adoption are significantly more complicated. In such cases, the court will convene a contested adoption trial, and may appoint an attorney to represent the birth parent(s).

The key in contested involuntary termination cases is preparation. In Pennsylvania, the law sets forth the criteria necessary to prove that a person’s parental rights should be terminated involuntarily, or, without their consent. The party seeking termination must show that the birth parent has not acted as a parent to the child for a period of six months prior to the filing of the petition and that the termination of the birth parent’s rights is in the best interests of the child.

Documentation and proof is the best way to successfully terminate a birth parent’s rights. The adoptive parent should be prepared to show that the birth parent has not been in touch with the subject child, has not visited, telephoned or been in contact by other electronic means. The adoptive parent should show how long it has been since the last contact, the last support payment, or the last phone call.

The adoptive parent also should be prepared to show that the birth parent could have found the child and/or communicated with the child had they wished to do so. Showing that you have the same address, the same phone number and/or that family members and friends have always known how to reach you is a good way to prove this.

It also will be necessary in a contested adoption to show why the termination of parental rights is in the child’s best interests. The adoptive parents must demonstrate that they can and are doing all the things for the child that any parent would do (providing a home, support, education, and a safe, loving environment, etc.), and also that the birth parent has failed to do these things.

Contested adoptions can be complicated and time-consuming, but they can be managed successfully with an experienced adoption attorney to guide you through the process. If you have questions about adoptions, or any other family law issues, please contact the Domestic Relations / Family Law attorneys at Willig, Williams & Davidson at (215) 656-3600. 

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