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Price v. Grehofsky

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Second Division

March 7, 2019

PRICE
v.
GREHOFSKY

          MILLER, P. J., BROWN and GOSS, JJ.

          MILLER, PRESIDING JUDGE.

         Lauren Price appeals from the trial court's denial of her petition to adopt her stepdaughter, C. N. P., and to terminate the parental rights of the child's biological mother, Tamara Grehofsky. On appeal, Lauren argues that (1) the trial court erred in its application of the statute applicable to stepparent adoptions, OCGA § 19-8-10 (b); (2) the court's denial of her adoption petition violated equal protection under the federal and state constitutions; and (3) the court was overly deferential to Grehofsky's liberty interest in her child, despite the fact that the child's best interests are of equal constitutional weight. After a thorough review of the record, we conclude that there is a lack of clear and convincing evidence that would justify the termination of Grehofsky's parental rights. Accordingly, the trial court properly denied Lauren's petition, and we affirm the trial court's order.

In matters of adoption the [trial] court has a very broad discretion which will not be controlled by the appellate courts except in cases of plain abuse. Thus, if there is any evidence to support the judgment entered in an adoption proceeding, it must be affirmed by this [C]ourt. Furthermore, in cases concerning termination of parental rights, we review the evidence in the light most favorable to the appellee . . . and defer to the trial court in the area of factfinding.

(Citations and punctuation omitted.) Thaggard v. Willard, 285 Ga.App. 384, 385 (646 S.E.2d 479) (2007).

         So viewed, the record shows that Grehofsky gave birth to C. N. P. in January 2007. When the child was born, Grehofsky was a drug addict, and the child was immediately removed from her care along with Grehofsky's two older children.[1] Six months later, C. N. P.'s biological father, Chris Price, legitimized the child and was awarded custody of her.

         In June 2008, Grehofsky was arrested on drug charges and entered drug court, where she met Lauren, who was also enrolled in the program. Lauren and Chris met in 2008 as well. From 2009 to the time of the filing of the adoption petition in 2016, Grehofsky attempted to contact Chris through calls and Facebook messages to discuss C. N. P. Except for one message in 2012 in which Chris told Grehofsky to stop contacting him and Lauren and told Grehofsky she would be hearing from his lawyer, Chris did not respond. Grehofsky also sent gifts and cards to C. N. P. from October 2008 until sometime in 2010. The letters were returned to Grehofsky, but the gifts were not.

         Given her friendship with Lauren, Grehofsky would sometimes ask Lauren about C. N. P. and would seek her help communicating with Chris about the child. The two women also communicated through Facebook messaging, and in one message in 2010, Lauren stated that she wanted Grehofsky to be involved in C. N. P.'s life and had spoken to Chris about it. Grehofsky sent Facebook messages to Lauren about the child until 2012.

         Lauren and Chris had a child and married in 2011. In 2012, Lauren filed for divorce, but she withdrew the petition. Lauren and Chris moved to Texas, where Lauren filed for divorce a second time before withdrawing this petition as well.

         In February 2016, Lauren filed the original petition for termination and adoption in Texas. Thereafter, Lauren and Chris returned to Georgia and had the petition transferred to Glynn County. Lauren then filed an amended petition, attaching Chris's consent to the adoption.

         At the hearing on the petition, Grehofsky testified that she tried to get visitation in 2009, but after paying her attorney an initial fee the attorney told her Chris could not be found and there was no point in pursuing the matter. She stated that she tried to get visitation in 2010 through Georgia Legal Services, but they could not assist her and she could not afford an attorney because she was a stay-at-home parent. She explained that from 2011 until Lauren filed the petition for adoption, she did not know where Chris and C. N. P. were living. She stated that she did not have an address for them, and her attempts to contact Chris through his family went unanswered. She also stated that she did a Google search on him but did not find an address. She repeatedly explained that she called Chris and that he would not answer or return her calls, and that she stopped sending cards to the address she had because her cards were being returned to her. Grehofsky's husband testified that he had seen her send gifts and attempt to contact Chris, but the calls were unsuccessful and her mail was returned.

         When asked what interaction she hoped to gain with C. N. P., Grehofsky stated that she was not trying to take the child away from Lauren and Chris, but that she simply wanted to "give her more love" and "add the love" she and her family had for the child. Grehofsky stated that she was willing to reunite with C. N. P. at the rate that was safest for the child. She further stated that she had been sober since June 2008, she had recently started working as a pharmacy technician, and her two children in her care had been doing well. Grehofsky's husband and one of Grehofsky's friends testified that Grehofsky was a good mother to the two children in her care. Lauren testified that C. N. P. was doing well in school and had only recently been told that Lauren was not her biological mother.

         The trial court denied the petition for adoption. First, the trial court found that Lauren had not produced clear and convincing evidence that Grehofsky lacked justifiable cause for her failure to communicate with C. N. P., reasoning that Chris had "consistently stonewalled" Grehofsky's efforts to communicate up to and through the filing of the petition. Second, the trial court found that Lauren had not produced clear and convincing evidence that Grehofsky lacked justifiable cause for her failure to provide for C. N. P.'s care and support. The court reasoned that Grehofsky had been a stay-at-home mother without an income, and that even if she had income with which to support C. N. P., she would not have known where to send it because she did not know where Chris and C. N. P. lived. Finally, the trial court found that it was not in C. N. P.'s best interests to terminate Grehofsky's parental rights and allow Lauren to adopt the child. The court reasoned that Grehofsky had improved her life and was properly caring for the two children in her care, and while C. N. P. was doing well and feared being removed from her home with Lauren and Chris, there was no indication Grehofsky sought to remove the child from that home, and instead she wanted to reunite at the pace that was best for the child and to add her family's love and support to the child's life. This direct appeal followed. See Sauls v. Atchison, 326 Ga.App. 301, 304 (1) (756 S.E.2d 577) (2014) (order granting stepparent adoption and terminating biological parent's rights was directly appealable).

         1. Lauren first argues that the trial court erred in its application of the statute applicable to stepparent adoptions, OCGA § 19-8-10 (b), in that there was no justifiable cause for Grehofsky's failure to communicate with and provide support for C. N. P., and adoption was in the child's best ...


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