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In re Adoption of J.N.

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division III

October 3, 2018

IN THE MATTER OF THE ADOPTION OF J.N., A MINOR

          APPEAL FROM THE WHITE COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT [NO. 73PR-16-247] HONORABLE TOM HUGHES, JUDGE

          The Law Offices of Watson and Watson, PLLC, by: Timothy F. Watson, Jr., for appellant.

          Knollmeyer Law Office, P.A., by: Michael Knollmeyer, for Tami and Adam Nutt.

          BRANDON J. HARRISON, JUDGE

         Carrie Lucas appeals the circuit court's order granting Tami and Adam Nutts' petition to adopt Lucas's biological daughter, J.N. Lucas argues that the circuit court erred in (1) finding that her consent to the adoption was not required because she failed significantly and without justifiable cause to communicate with J.N. and to provide child support and (2) finding that it was in J.N.'s best interest to grant the petition for adoption. We affirm.

         On 19 August 2016, the Nutts petitioned to adopt four-year-old J.N. The petition recited that the Nutts had been appointed guardians of J.N. in November 2013 and that Lucas, the child's mother, had significantly failed, without justifiable cause, to visit or support the child since then; thus, her consent to the adoption was not required. The petition also stated that they were physically and financially able to furnish suitable support and education for J.N. and desired to establish the relationship of parents and child.

         In response, Lucas asserted that she had not failed to visit her child without cause and that the Nutts had willfully and intentionally refused contact between her and J.N. Lucas argued that her consent was required for an adoption and that the adoption would not be in J.N.'s best interest.

         The circuit court convened a hearing on 7 August 2017. Sherry Gentry, a licensed social worker, testified that she performed a home study on the Nutt household and that the house was suitable and in good shape. She also testified that criminal-background checks and child-maltreatment checks on the Nutts were both clear. Gentry recommended that the adoption be approved.

         Tami Nutt testified that she and her husband, Adam, had been married for twenty-one years and had lived in their present home for seventeen years. She said that they have four sons, ages five to twenty, who all live at home. She explained that she first met J.N. in August 2013 while working as a caseworker at a domestic-violence shelter. Lucas and J.N., who was one year old, were staying at the shelter because Lucas was having trouble with her husband, Brad Wells. While she was there, Lucas inquired about adoption agencies and said that she was not ready to be a mom. Lucas told Nutt that she (Lucas) had lived with her parents for the first three months after J.N. was born, but after her parents kicked her out, she lived in an abandoned building for five months. She also stayed on friends' couches. When Lucas arrived at the shelter, J.N. had no clothes that fit her and no shoes. Tami said that Lucas left the shelter around September 2 and asked Tami to take J.N. After speaking with her family, Tami agreed, and both Lucas and J.N. began living with the Nutts. Lucas moved out on October 20 and relocated to Springfield, Missouri. Lucas lived in several different places over the next few years, including at least three shelters in the Springfield area.

         Tami testified that after moving, Lucas first visited J.N. approximately seven months later in May 2014. Lucas stayed for one night and did not show much interest in J.N. Her next visit was Easter weekend of 2015, approximately one year later. Again, Lucas was there for one night and did not interact with J.N. Lucas's third visit was in October 2015. Tami said that Lucas did not ask for visitation again until 2017 and that she (Tami) had never denied Lucas visitation. Tami also said that Lucas had never sent a Christmas present, a birthday present, or called J.N. on her birthday. Lucas had offered no financial support for J.N. until early 2017. According to Tami, Lucas did not see J.N. from October 2015 to January 2017; since then, she had seen J.N. four times. Tami also said that there were a few times that Lucas asked to visit but the family already had plans. But she agreed that she had never denied Lucas visitation or the opportunity to speak with J.N.

         Tami explained that when J.N. came into her family's care, she did not laugh, did not play, was thin, and was not up to date on her shots. Now, J.N. is outgoing, happy, and on a regular routine for napping, eating, bathing, etc. According to Tami, J.N. thinks that the Nutts are her parents and that their sons are her brothers. J.N. and their five-year-old son are especially close and have "grown up like twins." Tami said that J.N. was her "little girl" and that she did not know what she would do without her. Tami explained that she is currently a preschool teacher and that J.N. and her five-year-old son attend school next door.

         On cross-examination, Tami said that Lucas was nineteen years old when she agreed to the guardianship. Tami also explained that she wanted to help Lucas and that she had expected Lucas to regain custody within a year. She agreed that she had told Lucas that she would keep J.N. for as long as it took for Lucas to get back on her feet. She also confirmed that she had taken J.N. to Lebanon, Missouri, to meet Lucas in July 2015.

         Adam Nutt testified that he loves J.N. with all his heart and that they enjoy many activities together such as fishing, swimming, and riding the four-wheeler. He also said that he is willing and able to financially support J.N. for the rest of his life. He acknowledged that he had received a ticket for public intoxication two years ago but said he did not have a drinking problem and had no DWIs.

         Lucas testified that she currently lives in Branson, Missouri, and that she is employed at Big Cedar Lodge. She explained that when the guardianship was created in October 2013, she did not have a car or any source of income, and she thought the guardianship was in J.N.'s best interest. It was her understanding that the temporary guardianship would allow the Nutts to take J.N. to the doctor and otherwise take care of her while she (Lucas) got back on her feet. Lucas agreed that Tami had not stayed in touch with her or made any effort to make sure she and J.N. had time together. She acknowledged that in the first half of 2014, she did not have a job and was living in women's shelters in Springfield. She recalled visiting J.N. "between May and July in 2014" but did not remember if she visited in October. She said that she called the Nutts "once or twice" in 2014 to speak to J.N. According to Lucas, she said something to Tami about wanting J.N. back in November 2015, and Tami said she (Lucas) was no longer welcome to stay with them during visits. Lucas said she thought she visited in January 2016 but was not sure. She denied ever going a full year without seeing J.N. and agreed that she had the feeling that Tami was making it difficult to see J.N. She also said the Nutts had never requested financial support but that she offered support sometime in 2016. Lucas stated that she always brought J.N. little gifts and had bought J.N. a ...


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