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A Chester County, Pa., Common Pleas judge has granted a stepfather custody of his stepson over the objections of the boy’s natural father. The father had agreed to terminate his parental rights, although he did not go through a formal court process. When the boy’s mother died, his father tried to regain custody. Chester County Common Pleas Court Senior Judge Alexander Endy did not return the father’s rights, looking to the fact that he completely lost contact with his son for a substantial amount of time and noting the strong parental relationship between the son and the stepfather. Instead, Endy granted the stepfather’s petition to involuntarily terminate the father’s rights. Endy’s opinion in In re Adoption of S.M.D., PICS Case No. 00-2157 (C.P. Chester Oct. 2, 2000) Endy, S.J. (13 pages), did not refer to the parties by their last names. According to the opinion, the child, Shane, was born to Jennifer and Ryan while they were still in their teens. They never shared a household as an intact family. Jennifer married Charles in 1993. Ryan married in 1995. Ryan had regular visitation with Shane for several years without any formal agreement. However, Ryan said that when Shane was four, Jennifer, without any court order, refused to allow him any further contact with his son. Ryan went to the Chester County Common Pleas Court and received an order granting him shared legal custody. Endy said Ryan was not involved much in Shane’s life beyond his visits. He said Charles took on the day-to-day responsibilities of raising the child, including taking him to doctor appointments and attending parent-teacher conferences. The parties’ relationship grew tense by the late 1990s, Endy said. Ryan did not see or speak to Shane for a 14-month period beginning in June 1999. Ryan, who testified he had a “pervasive passivity to his personality,” said he did not contact his son in the summer of 1999 because he feared a confrontation with Jennifer. But at the same time he was trying to surrender his parental rights in exchange for resolving his financial responsibility for Shane. Ryan soon signed an informal consent to voluntarily terminate his parental rights, stating that it was in Shane’s best interests to live with Jennifer and Charles, free from his interference. “Although not in the statutorily prescribed form, this document memorialized Ryan’s acquiescence in the termination of his relationship with his son in consideration for forgiveness of support arrears,” Endy said. “Ryan did not see Shane, call him, explain to Shane his decision, inquire after his welfare, or even say goodbye following the execution of his consent. He simply disappeared from Shane’s life.” Jennifer and Charles planned to begin proceedings for Charles to adopt Shane in July 2000, but Jennifer died of a ruptured aneurysm. One week later, Charles filed a petition to confirm Ryan’s consent to Shane’s adoption. Ryan contacted Charles seeking to resume visitation and when Charles refused, Ryan said he wanted immediate and permanent custody of Shane. Charles filed a petition for involuntary termination of parental rights and Ryan countersued for custody. Endy first decided Charles had in loco parentis status, giving him the right to seek adoption. The question Endy sought to answer was whether Ryan had abandoned Shane according to the definition in 23 Pa. C.S.A. 2511(a)(1): “The parent has acquiesced in a termination of the close relationship normally existing between parent and child and permitt[ed] the assumption by others of complete parental responsibilities.” Although Ryan could provide Shane with a good home and his interest in seeking custody seemed sincere, Endy said the totality of the circumstances supported the granting of Charles’ petition to terminate. “Ryan has had nothing to do with Shane for more than a year, expressing not even the slightest interest in the child’s welfare until the death of Shane’s mother and the initiation of adoption proceedings,” he said. “Ryan was content to allow another man to rear his child because of his strained relationship with the child’s mother. Rather than exercise reasonable firmness to conquer obstacles to his relationship with Shane, Ryan capitulated, abdicating his parental role without equivocation.” Charles, on the other hand, had provided Shane with love, guidance and financial support, Endy said. “Charles has never wavered in fulfilling Shane’s parental needs and Shane has thrived in his care, even in the face of his recent devastating loss,” he said. “We find Shane’s needs and welfare will be best promoted by terminating Ryan’s parental rights and continuing Charles’ custody of the child pending the consummation of Shane’s adoption by his stepfather.” HIGH COURT RULING Endy’s decision falls right in line with a recent state Supreme Court decision in which a 6-1 majority gave custody of an 8-year-old boy to his stepfather over the objections of his natural father. In Charles v. Stehlik, PICS Case No. 00-0078 (Pa. Jan. 18, 2000) Cappy, J.; Nigro, J., dissenting; Flaherty, J., concurring; 12 pages), six out of seven justices upheld an Allegheny County Common Pleas Court ruling — affirmed by the Superior Court — that Randall Charles should retain primary custody of his stepson, Matthew. Richard Stehlik, the natural father, was awarded partial custody. Writing for the majority, Justice Ralph Cappy said the court’s solution was guided by its main concern in custody cases — the best interests of the child. “In staying true to that maxim, we have decreed that there will be instances where it is proper to award custody to the third party even where there has been no showing that the biological parent is unfit,” Cappy said.

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