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#379 Third Department Caselaw Round-Up for May 31, 2012, Part 4 of 6

May 3, 2013

379 Post 05-31-12, Part 4 Third Department May.pngThe first case illustrates the rarely seen doctrine of equitable estoppel. However, when this doctrine appears, it always seems to be in the context of paternity, at least in family court proceedings. The crux of this doctrine, in family law, is this: what is the child's perspective?

The second case involves another TPR petition.


379 Post-2 Saratoga County.pngCase #268
#512981
In the Matter of Starla D.
Saratoga Family-Jensen
Issues: Best Interests; Child Support; Equitable Estoppel
Cited statutes: FCA Art. 5-B
Affirmed

The mother, an Alabama resident, filed a paternity petition in New York, seeking genetic testing of her son's purported biological father. This was both to confirm paternity and to then seek an award of child support. In other words: Baby Daddy, pay-up.

Because a question of equitable estoppel arose, the support magistrate was compelled to transfer the matter to the family court judge for a ruling on whether or not the petitioner-mother should be barred from seeking this relief. The purported biological father moved to dismiss the petition on equitable estoppel grounds and the motion was denied. A hearing ensued and the purported biological father was then ordered to undergo genetic testing.

The purported biological father appealed.

The law on this doctrine is clear: "the doctrine of equitable estoppel may be used by a purported biological father to prevent a child's mother from asserting biological paternity when the mother has acquiesced in the development of a close relationship between the child and another father figure, and it would be detrimental to the child's interests to disrupt that relationship". So, basically, it's a two-pronged test: 1) did the mother consent to the development of a close relationship? AND 2) was that relationship so important to the child that its disruption (via genetic testing) would be contrary to the best interests of the child?

Here, while the first prong is met (or, at least, seems to be met), the second prong most definitely is not met. While the child may have called various father figures in his life "dad" - namely his mother's boyfriend, her father, and at least one family friend - the record seemed to reveal that the child was self-aware enough to understand that none of these men were, in fact, his father. Because of this, the child's psyche would likely not be damaged by discovering that the purported biological father was in fact his actual biological father. Quite to the contrary, it might actually be beneficial to the child to finally have a definitive answer to the biggest question in his life!

This result would have been different if the child had bonded with a man over a substantial period of time (several years?), the man held himself out to be the child's father, and the child believed the man to be his father.

However, I have some real problems with the reasoning in this decision. The Third Department implies that "a recognized and operative parent-child relationship" does not exist where the father figure did not play "a significant role in raising, nurturing or caring for the child", did not provide "food, clothing and shelter for the child for most of his life" or otherwise did not carry out "all [of] the traditional responsibilities of a father".

You're kidding me, right? Because, if so, that would automatically rule out about a quarter of the men who regularly appear in family courts throughout the state. And check out those adjectives; they immediately send up red flags. WHO "recognized" such a relationship? WHO determined what "traditional" responsibilities of a father are? Because, if one thing is for sure in modern American society, very little is "recognized" anymore and almost nothing is "traditional".

One has to wonder when these justices last presided in family court to be this far removed from reality. On any given day in family court, you will find biological fathers themselves who (sadly) fall far short of this high mark. So why the hell hold a "father figure" to a higher threshold than one would be compelled to hold a biological father!? It doesn't make any sense.

I think the Third Department muddied the waters on this one by injecting a point they did not need to make to affirm the trial court's order. Was there a close relationship between the child and a father figure which the mother had consented to, yes or no? Clearly, the answer has to be yes in this case. But was that close relationship so important to the child that it precluded genetic testing of purported biological fathers, yes or no? Clearly, the answer has to be no in this case. End of analysis.


379 Post-3 Schenectady County.pngCase #269
#513036
In the Matter of Hannah T.
Schenectady Family-Clark
Issues: Adoption; Best Interests; Clear and Convincing Evidence; Domestic Violence; Foster Care; Jail; Permanent Neglect; Surrender; Suspended Judgment; Termination of Parental Rights
Cited statutes: SSL ยง384-b
Affirmed

The parents have three young children, all of whom were placed in foster care, one of whom was placed in foster care shortly after birth. The father went to jail for a crime of domestic violence against the mother, was released, re-imprisoned, and rereleased over the following three plus years.

After three years, DSS had had enough and filed a TRP petition against the father. After a hearing, the father's parental rights were terminated as to all three children. The mother surrendered her rights to two of the children and she had her parental rights terminated with regard to the third child, in a separate proceeding.

The father appealed.

Once again: too little, too late. The father simply did not do, or follow through with, any of the things he was requested by DSS to do in order to regain custody of his children. And, worst of all (for the father), all that time in foster care allowed the children to bond with their foster families.

One of the reasons why these cases are difficult to win is because DSS very often gives the offending parent(s) substantial time (one or more years!) within which to comply with their various directives. In this case, despite being incarcerated for most of the time, the father had over three years to comply. How long should these children be forced to wait until their birth parents actually start acting like parents?