The California Supreme Court sided with grandparents and others who want to adopt children over their parents' objections in a pair of rulings that legal experts said would make it easier for guardians to prevail in adoption cases.
Acting in two parental rights cases, the state high court unanimously upheld the constitutionality of a 2003 law that allows a court to end those rights when the parent has failed to take responsibility for the child for two years and adoption by the guardian would benefit the child.
The rulings clear the way for the adoption of potentially scores of California children being reared by grandparents or other legal guardians, a common situation when the parents are poor, disabled, addicts or in prison.
"As guardianship continues for an extended period, the child develops an interest in a stable, continuing placement, and the guardian acquires a recognized interest in the care and custody of the child," wrote Justice Carol A. Corrigan, author of Thursday's decisions.
C. Athena Roussos, who represented the guardians in one of the cases, said the ruling "really furthers the rights of children."
But Kimball J.P. Sargeant, who represented a parent, said the decision struck at "a fundamental constitutional right to parent." He said it was particularly troubling that the ruling came when the sputtering economy might force parents who lose their jobs and homes to place their children with other family members.
"It makes guardianships much more problematic for parents because basically what this means is that, if they agree to a guardianship, those to whom they entrust their children can adopt them two years later," Sargeant said.
The rulings apply to guardianships initiated by private parties, not by the state.
In one of the cases, a mother with a history of drug addiction contended that the 2003 law was unconstitutional because it did not require a showing that she was unfit at the time the court revoked her parental rights. The court said that "some showing of parental unfitness" was generally required, but "current unfitness" was "not always necessary."
In the other case, the court overturned an appeals court ruling that said the law was unconstitutional as it applied to an unwed father. The high court said the father could lose his parental rights if it was in "the best interest of the child."
The rulings mean that parents could lose their children even if they visited them while they lived with guardians.
In the first case, a heroin addict with a criminal history tried to block her daughter's paternal relatives from adopting Ann S., born in 2000. With the woman's consent, Ann's aunt and her husband had become the legal guardians when Ann was 17 months old.
The guardians have been married more than 25 years. They tried and failed to revoke the mother's rights while she was in prison in 2003. The mother was released the next year and did "appear to be trying to turn her life around," a licensed family therapist told a court at the time.
But an adoption study by a social worker concluded it would be "extremely detrimental" to Ann if she were not permanently placed with her guardians. The report said Ann was a friendly, normal 4-year-old child who called her guardians "Mama" and "Papa" and lived with them in a large and comfortable home.
The lower court ruled in favor of the guardians, and the mother appealed the case to the state high court, which ruled that reunification of mother and daughter was "at best a remote possibility."
Sargeant, the mother's lawyer, said Thursday that the mother was back in prison on a conviction in a case that was still pending when she was released in 2004. He said she had been sending her daughter cards and letters, taking parenting classes and doing "everything she can" pending her release.
Roussos, the lawyer for Ann's guardians, said they were overjoyed with the ruling and planned to adopt Ann as soon as it became final. The couple lives in a rural community in Yolo County.
In the other case, an unwed father tried to block his parents from adopting his child, Charlotte D.
Both of her parents had drug and alcohol problems, the court said. The mother has not seen the child since 1995, and the father, who lived for a while with his parents and daughter, had threatened his mother physically and injured his father, it said.
Once, Charlotte's father brought her into his room, placed the family cat in a sack and swung it around "until it screamed," the court said.
The grandparents, who live in Ventura County, tried to adopt Charlotte in 2004. A county adoption worker reported that Charlotte described her father as "scary." The report said Charlotte, then 9, was "a very attractive, petite, personable, precocious, sensitive, articulate child" who played the violin, participated in the school band, loved to ski and was taking tennis lessons.
An appeals court later ruled that the father should have been given an opportunity to prove he was a fit parent. But the state high court said the evidence showed overwhelmingly that he was not.
"He failed to make child support payments, behaved inappropriately and even cruelly to Charlotte and to both of his parents, abused his visitation rights and persistently engaged in criminal behavior," the court concluded.