IN RE ADOPTION OF I.C.
MADISON ELAINE HALL APPELLEE KEVIN SCOTT CLARK AND JUNIORETTE MARIE CLARK APPELLANTS
APPEAL FROM THE BENTON COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT [NO. PR-2013-300-3] HONORABLE TOM SMITH, JUDGE
H. Keith Morrison, for appellants.
Tina Adcock-Thomas, for appellee.
BRANDON J. HARRISON, Judge
Juniorette and Kevin Clark appeal the circuit court's denial of their petition for adoption. They argue that the court erred in (1) allowing the birth mother, Madison Hall, to withdraw her relinquishment of her parental rights outside the five days allowed by statute, and (2) not approving Hall's relinquishment under Ark. Code Ann. § 9-9-220(b) (Repl. 2009). We cannot address the arguments on appeal, and affirm the court's denial, because the Clarks did not also appeal the court's decision that it was not in the child's best interest to be adopted.
On 5 June 2013, the Clarks filed a petition for adoption in the Benton County Circuit Court. The petition explained that the child to be adopted was born on June 1 and that the mother of the child, Hall, had signed a relinquishment of her parental rights and consent to adoption, which was attached to the petition. In this document, Hall relinquished all rights and obligations to her child, consented to adoption by the Clarks and stated that adoption was in her child's best interest, waived her right to revoke the relinquishment within ten days after the child's birth, and acknowledged that she had five days after the birth of the baby to revoke her relinquishment by filing a notarized affidavit of withdrawal with the Benton County Clerk. Hall signed this document on 10 January 2013.
On 6 June 2013, the Clarks filed a motion to gain custody of the child or, in the alternative, to require Hall to appear in court with the child. The motion explained that Hall had failed to communicate with the Clarks and had taken the child from the hospital. The Clarks expressed concern for the child's safety and questioned Hall's stability and parenting skills. The court ordered Hall to appear with the child on 11 June 2013. On that date, Hall appeared and informed the court that she was withdrawing her consent to the adoption. The Clarks' counsel argued that Hall's attempted withdrawal was outside the five-day period allowed by statute and requested a formal adoption hearing so that proof could be offered on whether Hall's relinquishment was valid.
After another preliminary hearing and trial briefs filed by the parties, the court held a final hearing on 16 August 2013. Hall testified that at the end of 2012, when she was approximately four months pregnant, her friend Mariah introduced her to Tabitha Easley, who could help her find someone to adopt the baby. Hall felt that adoption was the best option because she was homeless and did not have any support or help to care for the baby. Along with providing food and transportation, Easley located several families interested in adopting the baby, and from those families, Hall chose the Clarks. On 10 January 2013, Hall met with the Clarks, reviewed the relinquishment-and-adoption agreement, and signed the agreement in the presence of a notary.
Hall acknowledged during the hearing that she understood when she signed the form that she had until five days after the birth to change her mind. About three or four months before the baby was born, however, Hall began to have doubts about the adoption. She did not communicate those doubts to Easley or to the Clarks, but she did speak to family and friends about it. After the baby was born, Hall told several nurses that she had changed her mind about the adoption. She claimed to have spoken to approximately fifteen attorneys in the five days after the baby was born "to see how I'm supposed to do it. I didn't know how I was supposed to." She said that she had never filed any revocation with the probate clerk and was not given a copy of the consent that she signed in January.
Tabitha Easley, who connected Hall with the Clarks, testified that she does not work for any adoption agency or group but "just help[s] people in the community that have a heart for adoption." Easley stated that Hall and the Clarks met at her home on January 10 and that she (Easley) explained the consent form and specifically the five-day waiver to Hall. According to Easley, Hall did not question the consent form.
Easley stated that she continued to communicate with Hall for the next several months, mostly through text messaging, but that Hall stopped communicating on April 20. On that date, Hall was admitted to the hospital and her friend Mariah told Easley that Hall was in labor. Easley then informed the Clarks and they were headed to the hospital when Hall sent Easley a text message that it was just food poisoning, that she was not in labor, and that she did not want the Clarks there until she was in labor. After that date, Hall did not respond. Easley speculated that Hall cut off contact because "the Clarks showed up at the hospital, and we were informed that it was because of drug use, that [Hall] was fearful of being in trouble for drugs."
Juniorette Clark testified that she knew Easley because they had gone to church together for several years and that Easley knew that the Clarks were interested in adopting a child. Among other things, she said that on January 10 she asked Hall if she was sure about her decision and if she understood what to do if she changed her mind, and Hall said, "Yes, but I'm not going to." According to Juniorette, Hall signed two copies of the consent agreement, and she and the Clarks each received a copy. Kevin Clark also testified that Hall signed two copies and received one.
At the hearing's conclusion, the court denied the petition for adoption. It found that, under Ark. Code Ann. § 9-9-220, the relinquishment of parental rights was subject to court approval and that it did not approve because (1) Hall did not receive a copy of the consent agreement, and "without a copy . . . being given to the mother, you can't make informed consent and waiver, " and (2) the Clarks were put on notice as of April 20 that Hall had possibly changed her mind. The court found that no external duress or intimidation from the Clarks occurred, but that
the circumstances of an unwed mother who's being kicked out of her house, is homeless, is foodless, is having everybody telling her this is the right thing to do, and then when you combine that with the fact that after we signed the document, without any attorney, or legal consent done to understand what it means what we're signing. I do find that there is ...