[Tallahassee, Florida] – The Florida Guardian ad Litem Program has won a resounding legal victory in the United States Supreme Court – upholding the principle that a child’s best interests are paramount in contested paternity proceedings.
The victory came on Dec. 11, 2017, when the high court rejected the 11th-hour claims of a Florida man, M.L., who asserted he was the biological father of J.L., who was born addicted to cocaine in 2015. The Department of Children and Families had removed the newborn from his biological mother and soon placed him with the foster parents who want to adopt the child. On the eve of the termination of rights hearing, the father – who had previously shown little interest in the child – tried to prevent the court from making J.L. legally free for adoption by his foster parents. This would have had the effect of removing him from the family he has come to know as his own.
“The child’s parents had basically abandoned him,” said Guardian ad Litem Executive Director Alan Abramowitz. “But he was in a loving, stable foster home, and it was in his best interests to have a forever family.”
The Guardian ad Litem Program fought to prevent the last-minute disruption – all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
At J.L.’s shelter hearing in January 2015, DCF advised the court the mother was married but estranged from her husband, who had no interest in the child. The mother identified M.L. as the biological father. He later claimed to have been present at J.L.’s birth and was named on the birth certificate. However, under Florida law, the mother’s husband was J.L.’s legal father.
Court records show that the mother, husband, and M.L. all attended a subsequent hearing, and M.L. was advised on how to establish paternity. The mother, her husband and M.L. were referred for DNA testing in March 2015. Yet M.L. “waited a year and a half to establish his paternity, until after DCF filed its termination petition, and he still did not have DNA confirmation that he was the child’s biological father.” M.L. v. Dep’t of Children & Fams., 227 So. 3d 142, 146 (Fla. 4th DCA 2017).
Despite M.L.’s lengthy delay, the trial court entertained his emergency motion to intervene and to stay the pending termination trial. After the court denied the motion, it still permitted M.L. to file an amended motion to intervene. The court even continued the trial, admonishing the parties to complete anything they needed to prior to the trial. The court heard and denied M.L.’s amended motion, conducted the termination trial, and entered an order terminating the rights of the mother and her husband.
GAL was the lone voice fighting for the child. On Monday, the high court declined to review a ruling by the Fourth District Court of Appeal that M.L. had waited too long to assert his rights.
“I was thrilled to advocate in the United States Supreme Court for the legal rights of this child,” said GAL appellate attorney Thomasina Moore. “He’s been scheduled to be adopted, and it’s been postponed. The court’s ruling affirms that children’s interests must come first in dependency proceedings.”
Thanks to the high court ruling, J.L.’s adoption was finalized on Friday, Dec. 15, 2017.