Supreme Court reverses Court of Appeals and affirms the Family Court’s termination of father’s parental rights

Today’s Supreme Court opinion in Doe v. Roe, 386 S.C. 624, 690 S.E.2d 573 (2010), reverses the Court of Appeals and affirms the Family Court’s termination of Father’s parental rights when Father waited until daughter was nine months old before seeking to establish his parental rights.  Justice Pleicones dissented, finding that “the Court of Appeals correctly decided the case…”

In Doe, Mother found out she was pregnant and informed both Father and another man she was dating about the pregnancy.  Mother told both men that either one could be the biological father. They agreed that the other man would take the DNA test after the child’s birth to hold down costs.  Mother later become engaged to this other man; DNA testing excluded him as the child’s biological father.
Father, upon being informed of the DNA results waited until the child was nine months old, neither supporting nor visiting, before finally filing for visitation.  Mother counterclaimed for termination of parental rights, with the goal of seeking to have her fiancé adopt the child.  The trial took place when the child was nineteen months old: father still had not paid child support or visited with the child.

The Supreme Court agreed with the Family Court that Father had failed to provide sufficient reasons to excuse him from the duty to provide financial support or visit with his daughter.  Thus, the court found that there were statutory bases to terminate his parental rights.  The Supreme Court further found that it was in the child’s best interests that Father’s parental rights be terminated:

Father’s behavior as it relates to the statutory grounds for termination is appropriately reviewed for purposes of the best interest analysis because such conduct “evinces a settled purpose to forego parental duties.”  S.C. Dep’t of Soc. Servs. v. Headden, 354 S.C. at 610, 582 S.E.2d at 423 (citation omitted).  Here, Father without a doubt did not even attempt to fulfill his parental duties of support and visitation.  Although we recognize Father filed this action and sought visitation when Daughter was nine months old, we nonetheless hold that this action simply “came too late” for it to have any significant import.  Id. at 611, 582 S.E.2d at 423.

In addition to the evidence which supports the statutory grounds of failing to visit and failing to support, we note the following facts and their impact on the best interest analysis:

First, we find Father’s work history reflects an inability to keep a job and several instances of being fired for cause.  The testimony at the hearing shows he is not financially independent.  Moreover, Father’s criminal record is cause for concern.  Collectively, this evidence not only indicates that he would likely continue to have trouble meeting his financial obligations toward the child, but more importantly, it also evinces a high level of both instability and immaturity that is inherently contrary to the best interest of Daughter.

Second, Father could produce no evidence that he ever asked for visitation with Daughter prior to filing the lawsuit.  Yet, the testimony showed Mother generally responded to Father’s attempts to communicate with her; moreover, his own mother had visited with Daughter after she came home from the hospital.  Thus, there was no apparent roadblock to Father visiting Daughter.  What this signifies is that Father was consciously indifferent to the rights – and emotional needs – of his infant daughter for at least nine months.

The Supreme Court “reiterate[d] the TPR statute makes clear that if the parent’s interests conflict with those of the child, it is the child’s interests that shall prevail.” citing § 63-7-2620 (emphasis in original).

Doe reaffirms that “[p]arental rights do not spring full-blown from the biological connection between parent and child. They require relationships more enduring.” A father of a child born out-of-wedlock needs to take immediate steps to visit and support his child if he wishes to avoid a potential termination of his parental rights.


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