By Jim Ash
Administrators with Florida’s Statewide Guardian ad Litem program are declaring victory after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a last-minute appeal from the biological father of a toddler born addicted to cocaine.
The high court’s refusal to review the Fourth District Court of Appeal’s ruling in M.L. v. the Department of Children and Families cleared the way for the boy to be adopted by the St. Lucie foster parents he had come to regard as his family.
Guardian ad Litem Executive Director Alan Abramowitz praises the justices for “putting the needs of the child first.”
“The child’s parents had basically abandoned him,” Abramowitz said. “But he was in a loving, stable foster home, and it was in his best interest to have a forever family.”
Victories are rare in a social services system responsible for 25,000 children in “out-of-home care” while it struggles to keep pace with a deadly opioid crisis. A new study by the Florida Coalition of Children found that 60 percent of child removals last year were due to substance abuse, a four-fold increase.
And no victory is total, or clear cut, at least according to Florida Rural Legal Services attorney Andrea White, who represented M.L., the “purported biological” father.
M.L. attended the birth and is listed on the birth certificate, but because the mother was married to someone else at the time — an estranged husband who had been out of the picture for six years — M.L.’s legal standing was practicaly nonexistent, White said.
“The husband was the legal father because they were married. Period. End of story,” White said. “That’s Florida law and it’s really brutal on that point.”
The state removed the six-day-old infant from the mother after doctors saw signs of cocaine withdrawal. It was only after the state had placed the child in foster care, and was attempting to terminate the mother’s parental rights to facilitate an adoption, that M.L. tried to intervene.
A trial judge refused to allow it, saying M.L. was at the mercy of the estranged husband. But the Fourth DCA disagreed, at least on that point.
“While a biological father who is a stranger to an existing marriage into which a child is born has extremely limited rights, his ability to establish his paternity is not left entirely to the husband’s ‘whim,’” the judges wrote.
Instead, the three-judge panel ruled against M.L. because he waited too long.
Even though M.L. had joined the Florida Putative Father’s Registry, and obtained an affidavit from the estranged husband, the Fourth DCA noted that he had failed, after 18 months, to get a DNA test.
“The Florida Legislature has stated that ‘time is of the essence’ in these cases, and at the time of the prospective biological father’s motion to intervene, the child had spent his entire life in the dependency system,” the judges wrote.
The U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the Fourth DCA’s ruling.
White says the mother kept M.L. mostly in the dark, and that he believed she would reunite with the infant. He didn’t know about the adoption until after he was referred to legal aid and obtained counsel, White said.
“You know, our clients here are not always the most sophisticated,” White said. “They don’t understand the law, they don’t understand legal proceedings. This was his first child. . . . He kept asking the caseworkers to help him.”
White says she’s happy the child found a loving home, but the case has devastated her client and left her frustrated.
“If he had had more money and acted more swiftly, he would have his child right now — or at least have the chance to have him,” White said. “Our job shouldn’t be to determine who the shiniest parent is, who has the better house, who has the nicer car.”
Abramowitz said the real tragedy would have been to tear the child from the only family he had ever known.
“I would say a parent’s ability to assert his or her right has a shelf life when an abused child is awaiting permanency.”