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Court Holds for Grandmother in Adoption-Child Custody Dispute

After an emotional battle, the Georgia Court of Appeals held in favor of a grandmother's adoption of her grandchild, the legality of which was disputed by the child's former foster parents. In the unusual dispute, both the grandmother and the foster parents sought to be legally considered the state's first choice to be granted permanent child custody.

The foster parents, Keith and Christine Owen took long-term foster custody of the five-year-old girl in January 2005 after the girl was removed from the home where she lived with her mother and her maternal grandmother, Kathy Watts. She lived with the Owens until October 2006, when the Owens petitioned to adopt her.

The very next day, the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) took the child back from the Owens and placed her with Ms. Watts. Six months later, the child's mother and legal father voluntarily surrendered their parental rights in favor of Watts, who then petitioned to adopt the girl.

Ms. Watts' 2006 adoption petition was overturned by a Court of Appeals panel, which ruled that there was not enough evidence to show that it was in the girl's best interest to be adopted by Ms. Watts.

The girl continued to live with Ms. Watts through August 2009, and the Owens continued to press for their own adoption of her. Their 2009 petition was denied. Since the child hadn't lived with the Owens since October 2006, and because she was thriving in Ms. Watts' care, the court found it was not in her best interest to uproot her again.

Does the Foster Parent's Bill of Rights Give Adoption Preference Rights?

In their appeal, the Owens argued that a Georgia law called the "Foster Parent's Bill of Rights" should give them priority status as potential adoptive parents. The law states that "foster parents have the right to be considered, where appropriate, as the first choice as a permanent parent...."

The Court of Appeals held that the law only required the Department of Human Services to consider the foster parents' petition, not to consent to it. The Department has absolute discretion in deciding whether to consent to adoptions of children in its custody.

The Best Interest of the Child Is Paramount in Child Custody Cases

Ultimately, decisions about child custody must always be made based on what is in the best interest of the child. The trial court had found that, although there was no evidence that the Owens were not capable parents, it was best for the girl to continue to live with Ms. Watts, where she had settled into a permanent and emotionally stable home. The Court of Appeals held that the trial court had not abused its discretion in making that determination. 

Related Resource:

"Owen v. Watts" (Court of Appeals of Georgia, April 13, 2010)

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