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Adoption 101: The Post I Wish Had Been Written By Someone Else Four Months Ago

Interesting first-person account of a couple beginning the process of an agency adoption. The quality of adoption agencies can vary widely, so anyone engaging an adoption agency should do their homework.

Borrowed Genes

IT BEGINS! The hubs and I have been shown our first birth mother profile, and we gave permission for our agency to share our portfolio with the expectant mother. Although this young lady will be shown a number of profiles, and it is unlikely that we will be chosen the very first time around, it feels good to finally be in this place where someone could choose us if they so desired. The idea that we could be bringing home a baby sooner rather than later makes my heart pitter-patter just to think of it.

Many people have asked me how adoption works these days, specifically open adoption. It is a concept unfamiliar to most people, unless you have gone through the process or love someone who has. WE HAD NO IDEA WHERE TO BEGIN OR WHAT WE WERE DOING.  Also, no one could really explain it particularly well.  I…

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Securing an Adoption: Can parents challenge the adoption, and regain custody?

Adoptive parents are invariably concerned that the biological parents of children they adopt will come forward later and challenge the adoption.  Those who adopt a child want security, and confidence that the child will be safe and stable in their home.  These concerns may be in part due to the 1995 file Losing Isaiah, wherein a crack addicted mother loses her child and the child is later adopted.  Three years later, the biological mother seeks to overturn the adoption and regain custody.  Although the mother is legally successful, the actual result for the child is somewhat ambiguous.  As with most legal dramas adapted for television, the story is designed more for entertainment.

In Florida, parental rights must be terminated before an adoption can be granted by the court.  Fla. Stat. 63.087.  A separate petition is required to terminate parental rights and that petition must be granted before proceeding with an adoption petition.  Exceptions exist to the termination of parental rights requirement, such as in the case of stepparent adoptions and adult adoptions, but the end result of an adoption is the extinguishment of any rights the biological parents have to the child, including the right to custody, visitation or to support the child.  Alabama, which follows a more simplified approach, allows Probate Courts to grant adoptions while simultaneously terminating parental rights.  Therefore, while filed and secured by appropriate legal channels, adoptive parents have no reason to be concerned about biological parents coming forward to regain custody of children.

So what are the wrong legal channels? In my experience, the most fatal move an adoptive parent can make is to neglect the proper notice or service requirements.  Simply put, an adoption petition begins a lawsuit.  In any lawsuit, the petitioner must provide adequate notice of the petition to those with a legal interest in the case.  In other words, adoptive parents must either serve the biological parents with a copy of the petition, or constructively serve the parents with a copy of the petition through publication in a periodical.  Once served, biological parents must present their defenses to the petition, in court.  Failure to do so will likely result in the approval of the adoption petition even if the biological parents fail to appear at the final hearing.  Conversely, if the biological parents are not provided with notice of the petition, the court will lack personal jurisdiction over the parents and it should not grant the adoption.  Furthermore, even if the adoption is granted (without service), the parents could later have the adoption decree set aside for lack of due process (notice).

I have met many adoptive parents who are very reluctant to advise biological parents of the proposed adoption.  However, by securing service and notice, the adoption can be secured in a way that provides long term stability and peace of mind.

Florida Families and Homeowners Win Big

A Florida appellate court has solidified the rights of Florida homeowners who need immediate help after an emergency.  In the case of Accident Cleaners, Inc. v. Universal Ins. Company, homeowners assigned their rights and benefits under an insurance claim to Accident Cleaners, who then provided emergency cleanup services at the home.  Accident Cleaners submitted their invoice to Universal, but Universal refused to pay because it did not have a recognized insurable interest in the property.  Accident Cleaners filed suit but the trial court agreed with Universal.  Accident Cleaners appealed.

The Florida Fifth District Court of Appeals reversed the trial court, ruling that when someone sustains a loss to their home that requires immediate services or repairs, the homeowner does not have to pay for the services out of pocket.  Instead, they can assign their rights to payment for these services to the contractor so the work can begin immediately.  Also, the ruling confirms the right of homeowners to recover on a breach of contract when an insurer fails to cover all costs incurred by the insured.

A true win for Florida homeowners in times of need!

For more information about this ruling, click HERE to access the entire opinion of the court.

Financing a Florida Adoption

Tens of thousands of children are adopted every year in the United States.  Expenses can widely vary, depending on whether the adoption is by a relative or nonrelative, domestic or foreign, contested or uncontested and whether an agency is used to facilitate the adoption.  Depending on those and other factors, costs can range from $3,000 to nearly $40,000.  However, financial options exist to minimize the expense of the adoption.

Tax Credit.  Adoptive parents can claim approximately $13,000 per child for qualified expenses, including attorney fees, court costs and travel expenses.  The credit phases out for those with gross incomes between $200,000 and $240,000.  The adoption tax credit cannot exceed your total tax liability, but you can carry excess credits into the following year.  Consult a tax professional for specific information and to verify your eligibility for the adoption tax credit.

Adoption Grants and Employer Assistance. Numerous organizations, such as the Gift of Adoption Fund and others, support adoptive parents as they finance adoption fees and expenses.  Some grants are designed to facilitate only certain kinds of adoption or adoptions from certain areas of the world.  Income levels are often a factor with grants, but a growing number of employers now offer financial assistance for adoptions.  Charter Communications, for example, has assisted one of my own clients to adopt a child who was in need of a stable home.  The child was not related to my clients and verification of the expenses was as simple as a letter from my office.

Loans.  A loan can be utilized, often in conjunction with the above-referenced tax credit, to finance a Florida adoption.  A home equity loan may also be an option to offer lower than average interest rates and tax deductibility for interest payments.

Gifts.  As with any deeply personal matter, family and friends are often willing to assist loved ones to pay adoption fees and expenses.

Payment Plans.  Attorneys and adoption agencies often offer payment plans to spread the cost of an adoption out over a period of time, and thereby help clients to ease the cost of a Florida adoption.  I often agree for clients to pay legal fees, in contested adoptions, on a monthly basis as the fees accrue.  Most attorneys including myself will provide a number of pro bono representation for indigent clients as well.

Andrew D. Wheeler, Attorney at Matthews & Jones, (850) 502-3030

Veterans in Family Law Cases

Words cannot describe what a pleasure it is to represent those who serve our country in the armed forces, especially those who have recently returned from some far off place that I’ve only read about, or seen on CNN.  It’s not just the thought of helping someone who has put their life on the line for our national defense; it’s also the organization and discipline they bring to a case from an administrative stand point.  If I need a particular document to prove some factual or legal point during the representation, they get me the document immediately.  If I ask for a piece of information, they will move the earth to obtain and relay the information, often before I am ready to process it.  Unfortunately, most people do not possess that level of discipline.

But as with all good things, these otherwise positive traits and life experiences can come at a cost. Armed forces personnel seem to develop a sense of discipline that can, for some, result in an abnormally high degree of frustration when confronted with life stressors that are beyond their immediate control. When they return home from tours of duty with PTSD or other psychological issues to cope with, they often have trouble adapting to circumstances that do not resemble the structure and organization of military practices and procedures. The result is often drug or alcohol abuse, and a higher prevalence of domestic violence.  Various studies have verified these effects:

  • 81% of  veterans suffering from depression and PTSD engaged in at least one violent act against their partner in the past year. – Dept. of Veterans Affairs Office of Public Health & Environmental Hazards (Jan 2009)
  • Male veterans with PTSD are 2 to 3 times more likely to engage in domestic violence compared to those without PTSD. – Dept. of Veterans Affairs Office of Public Health & Environmental Hazards (Jan 2009)
  • 44% of the of the veterans who accessed services at the VA were diagnosed with one or more mental health injuries – M.D. Sherman, F. Sautter, M.H. Hope, J.A. Lyons and X. Han, “Domestic Violence in Veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Who Seek Couples Therapy.” Journal of Marital and Family Therapy (2006)

One does not need to conduct a sociological study to conclude that divorce and other family law litigation will result at higher rates under these circumstances.

Having represented many of these individuals in family law cases, I’ve witnessed affected military personnel react to courtroom settings in different ways.  Some clients are overwhelmed by stress or depression, leading them to resist rehabilitative services in favor of self-medication and substance abuse, or withdrawal into depression, or both.  Others insist on exercising too much control over their case and totally refuse to participate in case plans to rebuild a healthy family dynamic.  Others openly accept responsibility for their circumstances, and utilize their heightened discipline to affect positive change.

Dependency cases in family courts can demonstrate the struggles of affected veterans on a very personal level. For those who are unfamiliar, a dependency case is one where a child is alleged to be abused or neglected, or imminently threatened with abuse or neglect, for one or more of many reasons. Very often the issue revolves around substance abuse.  I recall a young father in a family court dependency case in 2008 who had recently returned from combat and begun using marijuana to cope with anxiety and PTSD.  The child was not injured or even neglected, but his drug abuse and condition created an imminent threat of abuse or neglect.  The Alabama Department of Human Resources therefore intervened to protect the child from that risk.

The young man was a great client who followed my advice and, after some early setbacks, regained a healthy relationship with his child. However, he often visibly trembled in the courtroom hallway waiting for his case to be heard by the judge. This wasn’t a criminal case and he was not at risk of being incarcerated.  He was deeply concerned for both himself and his child, which is obviously a good thing, but his unrelenting anxiety was an issue for him in the case until he got proper psychological treatment (in that case, a temporary mixture of counseling and psychotropic medication).  In other words, until he found proper outlets to address his post-deployment psychological conditions, the temptation to self-medicate through drug abuse was overwhelming. In time, we addressed the issues in court and the young man resumed a normal life. This was a relatively mild dependency case, but more sever issues can develop through domestic violence. Nevertheless, almost every case or set of circumstances has a remedy that will benefit an affected individual.

Some affected veterans do not fair as well in legal proceedings. Acknowledging a need for rehabilitation and participating in various services can be difficult enough, but it is certainly harder for those who are trained to be stronger than the average person.

Veterans can find help in almost any community, and some service providers will cater to the needs of military personnel.  In the Destin/Niceville area of Florida, a list of providers is provided by the Mental Health Association of Okaloosa and Walton Counties.  Click HERE for more information.

Kiwanis International: Serving the Community by Helping Children

As a teenager and young adult, I perceived Kiwanis as an organization for the more “seasoned” members of our society, and didn’t give it another thought.  I knew Kiwanis was a charitable organization but, like most young people, noble or charitable purposes were not a high priority for me in my younger years. Kiwanis never really entered my narrow field of vision.  However, I grew up, and wanting to help and do more for children in my own area, I decided to learn more about Kiwanis and its mission to help children.

By coincidence I met an attorney named Liz Lafollette at a local bar association meeting in Okaloosa Island, Florida.  Liz is a member of the Destin Kiwanis Club and a past president; She suggested that I attend a meeting and consider joining.  The Destin club meets every other Thursday at a local church. The club is an eighteen member group of “mighty but strong” participants who are committed to helping children throughout the Destin, Florida area.  I attended my first Kiwanis club meeting and found everyone to be very personable and inviting.  A local building named Randy Wise spoke to the club about Building Homes for Heroes.  I enjoyed the opportunity to meet other people in the area with a similar interest in helping others.  The meeting was low-key and casual, and I was instantly comfortable in the group.  I’m already looking forward to the next meeting.

I also researched Kiwanis a bit more and discovered that the organization is much more involved in global activities than a local meeting could suggest.  Kiwanis International is a very large, global organization that is committed to helping children all over the world.  According to kiwanis.org, “Kiwanis and its family of clubs—nearly 600,000 members strong—annually raise more than US$100 million and dedicate more than 18 million volunteer hours to strengthen communities and serve children.”  As large organization with significant manpower and resources, the group is capable of accomplishing a great deal to promote their purposes.

Kiwanis clubs in the region coordinate their activities to maximize their effect.  Formal activities of the club include events such as pancake breakfasts, silent auctions and selling books of tickets to local amusement parks, such as The Track in Destin.  The proceeds of these activities are then funneled to causes associated with local children.  Informal activities include bi-weekly meetings, quarterly socials at a member’s house or other locations.  Obviously, relationships are forged between members that transcend formal meetings or obligations of the club. I’m knew to the group but the camaraderie among members to accomplish something special was appreciated.  I’m looking forward to a long partnership with Kiwanis and to helping children in Destin and northwest Florida.  We have a lot to do to help the countless children in need in Destin, Niceville, Okaloosa and Walton County areas. So, if you find yourself wanting or needing to get involved in an organization that helps better the lives of children, join us!

Adopting Children when the Parents do not Consent

Adoptions are joyous and pleasant events for both the petitioners and the child involved. Those who file a petition for adoption are seeking to become legal parents of a child, sometimes for the first time.  However, not every adoption case is uncontested, and on rare occasions, a parent or both parents will refuse to consent to the adoption petition and ask the judge to deny the adoption.

Consent is the most important issue in any adoption case. You might even conclude, with a fair amount of accuracy, that it is the only issue since the adoption cannot be granted without consent in one form or another. However, a common misconception is that the parents must express their consent through a signed document for the adoption to be granted. This is not true.

In order for an adoption to be granted in Florida or in Alabama, the parents must consent to the adoption.   The easiest and simplest way to accomplish this legal requirement is through a signed and notarized consent to adoption. The standard consent to adoption form advises the parent of their rights in the adoption case, including their right not to sign the consent, their right to legal representation, that they have not received anything to coerce them into signing the consent, that they have received at least two copies of the document, their right to withdraw the consent within a specified time and other rights that are protected under the law.   Parents enjoy fundamental rights to their children, but those rights can and often are waived. The written adoption consent form is the means by which a parent can waive their legal rights to their child and facilitate an uncontested adoption. However, in some cases, a child’s parents are either not available to determine whether they will consent or they openly dispute the adoption petition and ask the court to deny the petition.

Where the parents of a child refuse to consent to an adoption petition, the petition may nevertheless be granted if the parents have implied their consent by failing to protect their rights to a parent-child relationship. Both Florida and Alabama have enacted statutes which allow a child to be adopted even if the parents refuse to consent to the petition if the facts meet certain criteria, which may be proven under the totality of circumstances, including:

  • failing to visit with the child for a significant period of time;
  • failing to financially support the child;
  • failing to communicate with the child, in-person or by telephone;
  • leaving the child with others without provision for their support or identification;
  • failing to emotionally support the child;
  • failing to respond to a properly served adoption petition within the legally required period of time;
  • committing an act of abuse against the child;
  • any other set of continuing acts or omissions that result in a waiver of the parent-child relationship.

Alabama analyzes implied consent under a six-month standard to determine whether a parent has maintained a significant relationship with the child.  Florida utilizes a broader totality of the circumstances test with respect to the time needed for a legal abandonment, and the consequent termination of parental rights.  In either event, the issue is whether or not the parent has failed to protect their relationship with the child and thereby forfeited their rights to the other was protected parent-child relationship.

Many attorneys who are new to the area of adoption law are quick to confuse an adoption case with a custody dispute. Although both forms of cases involve children, and ultimately the placement of children, these are two distinct areas of family law.  Indeed, it has been my experience that many attorneys who advertise as family law attorneys are simply divorce attorneys with little or no experience in adoption law. The scope of a contested adoption trial is very narrow when compared to that of a custody trial. Implied consent is not a general “best interests” analysis, it is an analysis of the resulting effect of a parents action or lack of action upon the parent-child relationship. Where a court determines that a parent has failed to protect their relationship with the child, it will not examine issues like adequate housing, criminal background, drug abuse or other issues that are common in a general best interests analysis. Obviously, these factual issues will  sometimes play a large role in a parent’s willingness or ability to maintain a significant relationship with their child, but they are essentially irrelevant in an implied consent or abandonment adoption case.

Most of the clients I have represented in contested adoption cases already have a child in their physical custody, and the parents have encountered life circumstances that prevented them from being able to visit with the child for a very long time. Rarely are the particular circumstances that led to their absence worthy of any respect (drugs, apathy etc.), but the parent is now faced with a legal reality that they have forfeited something very important. Therefore, in order to preserve a sense of self-respect, the parent will often refuse to consent to an adoption and force a judge to grant the adoption over the parents objection.  Every parent has a right to their day in court but judges can and often do grant petitions for adoption even in the absence of expressed parental consent.

If you have a child in your custody and you believe that the child has come to see you as his or her parent, and those circumstances are unlikely to change, you may consider an adoption to provide the child with stability and certainty for their future. And adoption is not a temporary option or measure, it is a permanent termination of the parents rights when a parent has failed to protect those rights.  It is a serious and often drastic measure to take, but it may be exactly what a particular child needs to better their circumstances and prosper in life.

Andrew D. Wheeler

The quick and cheap divorce is not a myth, but it may cost you a lot!

Many of the people who contact me for representation in a contested divorce case are interacting with the legal system for the first time.  That’s usually a good thing.  Sometimes they’ve called other attorneys before calling me, and have already learned that the legal fees associated with a contested divorce can range from expensive to really expensive, depending on the issues presented, the degree of animosity and the particular attorney(s) they contacted.  They’re often looking for the best deal available, and I can’t say I blame them.  But here’s a bit of hard truth about the high legal fees associated with a contested divorce…  If you’re involved in a contested divorce, you don’t want it to be cheap.

Let’s start with the definition of a contested divorce.  Simply put, in a contested divorce, the parties do not agree on one or more of the issues.  What are the issues you ask?  Custody, visitation, child support, property division and spousal support.  Important, often life-altering stuff.  If the parties to a divorce agree on all of these issues, and they often do, then the divorce can be filed with a marital settlement agreement, and a host of other documents, thus avoiding lengthy court hearings and high legal fees.  However, if the parties disagree about the proper resolution of ANY one or more of the five issues stated above, they must go to court and ask the court to resolve the case based upon the evidence presented.  That’s where it get’s expensive.  And let’s be honest, even if every attorney had the same level of knowledge and experience, more costs more and less costs less.

Any lawsuit starts with a deluge of meetings, research, analyzing, drafting, filing, teleconferencing, deposing, organizing and negotiating.  That’s before the court appearances start.  Then the attorney travels, argues and continues to engage in meetings, research, analyzing, drafting…  You get the point.  Every attorney brings there on background and experience, skill set and style to a divorce case, but it takes time and skill to resolve a contested divorce, and that costs money.

So, if you’re involved in a contested divorce, you’ve identified something very valuable to you, but your estranged spouse is trying to take it away from you.  How much do you want to fight for what you want? What is this particular thing worth to you? Are you being reasonable about your demands? Are you likely to succeed even if you do fight like hell? What do experienced family law attorneys charge in your geographic area? Is the attorney capable of appealing the trial court decision if you are dissatisfied with the decision? Is your attorney prepared to engage in serious settlement negotiations or mediation to resolve the case? There are countless other questions and unavoidable decisions that must be made, and none of them are easy.  All of the answers will affect the cost of the divorce and your decision to invest in the case.

This is not a rant.  Again, I completely understand the desire to be efficient with one’s finances.  But if your going to file for a divorce, and it won’t be the friendly sort, be prepared to fight for what you want and to invest in that decision.  Given the opportunity, your attorney will stand with you and fight for the things that matter most.

Abused and Neglected Children: Who’s watching out for them these days?

I’ve met a lot of foster children over the years.  The vast majority of them are there for reasons that I could explain, but never justify.  Drugs, neglect and worst of all outright abuse put thousands of children in foster care every year.  I could tell war story after heart breaking war story all day, but in the end those children will still end up in foster care.  Still others are abused, but are able to escape foster care by landing a placement with a relative.  While the case is heard in court, and until the case is closed, somebody will be responsible for watching over these children, listening to them, advocating for them at court and, in general, helping them through a terrible chapter in their lives by protecting their best interests.  The person charged with that responsibility is called a Guardian ad litem, or GAL for short.

The GAL is simply the most important player in any family law case.  The GAL is appointed to represent the child(ren), and to make recommendations to the court that promote the best interests of the child.  Since the overriding consideration of any family or dependency court is to protect the best interests of children, the GAL’s recommendation is usually on point (at least from a policy standpoint).  Assuming the GAL has conducted a thorough investigation prior to making a recommendation, the court should lean heavily upon the GAL’s recommendation because the recommendation will presumably promote the goals of the court.  Here’s the dark side of that same coin: Elected judges will rarely do something that is counter to a recommendation that presumably is in the best interests of the child.  Even with the confidentiality afforded to abuse and neglect cases, a move like that has a higher likelihood of landing that judge in the nightly news if the child is exposed to hazards or injured because he or she ruled against a GAL’s recommendation.  Either way, and regardless of the motivation, judges rarely issue orders that oppose the GAL’s recommendation.

GAL’s also command a great deal of respect from the attorneys on the case.  Attorneys are often paid a significant sum of money to appear in court to represent the parents, or another party with an interests in custody of a child.  Most take great pride in the work they provide, and if they want to improve their odds of a favorable ruling, they will make a sincere effort to persuade the GAL that their client can best promote the child’s best interests.  It was always amusing to me how even the most arrogant of attorneys suddenly wanted to become my good friend, and treat me with a new found respect, if I were appointed to represent the children in their family law case.

GALs in Alabama must be certified in order to represent children in abuse or neglect cases in family courts.  The certification requirements include a six-hour certification course, and a two-hour annual recertification courses.  Not all Florida GALs are certified, but Florida’s certification course includes thirty hours of training.  It’s all an improvement as far as I’m concerned since GALs weren’t always certified (that’s a relatively new development, circa 2003).

If you are involved in a case with a GAL, follow their guidance carefully and assist them to do their jobs.  They’re there to help, and if you oppose to their participation in the case, the judge will undoubtedly hear about it.  GALs submit written reports of the investigation prior to every hearing.  Your participation and cooperation will aid the court to reach a fair resolution of your case, and help you immensely in the eye of the court.  Most importantly, the child will have a much better chance of being protected because the court will have more information to fashion an order.

Andrew D. Wheeler

Want to keep custody of your child? Good, but you may want to keep the child in Florida!

I had an opportunity to help a struggling mother in Florida who was involved in a custody battle with her child’s paternal grandparents. The child had gone to visit the grandparents, who lived in Alabama, but the child never came back. During the week-long visit, the grandparents filed a dependency petition against the mother, in Alabama, and refused to return the child. The petition alleged that the child was abused and neglected by the mother while in her custody, that the father was deployed on active military duty, and that they needed a custody order from the Alabama court to take care of the child. They obtained temporary custody at an initial hearing in the case, and the mother’s case went down hill from there.

Another state can exercise jurisdiction over a Florida child, but generally that jurisdiction will only exist on an emergency basis until the case can be transferred to the child’s home state. If any jurisdiction existed in Alabama, it would have been temporary or emergency jurisdiction under Alabama’s version of the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA). The UCCJEA protects children on an emergency basis when the child has been abandoned, or the court otherwise needs to act immediately to protect the child’s safety. However, the official comments to Alabama’s UCCJEA state: “[A] custody determination made under the emergency jurisdiction provisions of this section is a temporary order. The purpose of the order is to protect the child until the state that has jurisdiction under Sections 201-203 enters an order.” Sections 201-203 refer to the child’s home state, the state where the child has already been subjected to a custody order, the state where the child has significant connections or where the home state has declined jurisdiction. Florida has enacted its own version of the UCCJEA with similar policies and procedures. None of these provisions provided a factual or legal basis for continuing jurisdiction in Alabama… until the Florida judge refused to exercise jurisdiction through a letter to the Alabama court. The reason: Unless a case was filed in Florida, the judge simply saw no reason to assert jurisdiction as the home state.

When the Florida judge refused to exercise jurisdiction over the case, the Alabama family court had no choice but to use the scant information before it to address the allegations and decide the case itself. There is no question that the mother had her share of personal and economic problems, but it was not clear that she was unable to adequately care for the child. Moreover, proving that her Florida home was appropriate for the child was practically impossible because the Alabama social worker could not perform what otherwise would have been a routine home evaluation (they weren’t authorized to travel into Florida to evaluate the mother’s home). The Alabama judge, who understandably wanted some kind of assurance that the home was suitable, chose to err on the side of caution and leave custody with the grandparents. They, of course, had no trouble being evaluated by the Alabama social worker who was assigned to the case (the social worker’s office was a mere 2-3 miles from the grandparents home).

The time that passed while this case was in court was also frustrating. It took nearly two years to get to a trial because of emergency hearings, preliminary hearings, review hearings, motion hearings and, quite frankly, an election that resulted in a new judge being elected in the Alabama court. Indeed, I only became involved in the case many months after the dependency petition had already been filed and the grandparents had been awarded temporary custody in Alabama. By this time, the mother, who was initially very active in the case and prepared to protect her parental rights, seemed to have given up hope that she would ever regain custody of her child. The distance between her Florida home and the child was significant, and the court had only granted supervised visitation due to the nature of the allegations made by the grandparents. Therefore, by the time the Florida judge refused to hear the case, the mother’s relationship with her child was strained at best. She gave up and I lost contact with her before the final court hearing in the case.

In retrospect, I still doubt the Florida judge understood that the mother, the father, the child and all of the relevant facts were in the State of Florida when he refused to exercise jurisdiction. It was his administrative call to make, but to expect the Alabama grandparents to travel to Florida and file their petition (as he apparently did) simply made no logical sense. There is no question that the mother had her share of personal problems, but I believe she could have prevailed in the case, either through a final order in the Alabama family court, or on appeal. As an attorney who desperately wanted to fight this battle, and win, I was professionally very disappointed that the mother ended her fight – she could have won.

The lessons to be learned from this case are simple. Hire an experienced attorney at the beginning of your case, and fight from a position of strength, before opposing parties have gained significant advantages that may be difficult to overcome. If the mother in my case had been represented before the grandparents gained temporary custody, her chances of success would have been greatly improved because she could have challenged any basis for emergency jurisdiction. Also, she could have filed a case in Florida, before the grandparents gained a custody interest in Alabama, and avoided the path that followed.

Fight to the end! Various post-judgment or appellate actions were at the mother’s disposal, but she had apparently lost the will to fight for custody. Arguably, even if emergency jurisdiction existed in Alabama, the Alabama judge should have given the grandparents a reasonable period of time to file a case in Florida (the child’s home state), and dismissed the Alabama case if they failed to do so. In other words, the informal letter from the Florida judge declining to exercise jurisdiction may have been legally inadequate; that action should have come through a formal court order from a Florida court. If the final custody order in Alabama had been set aside on appeal, the mother would have had another opportunity to gain custody of her daughter.