May it Please the Court

Petitioner Appears in Person and Through Counsel

By Sara Ehret, ’14Photograph: Ehret and Schmidt

Enrolling in the Law Clinic was the best decision I made during my law school career. In fact, one of the reasons I chose to attend Washburn Law was the Clinic opportunity. I will graduate in May 2014 and needed to acquire the ever-desirable practical experience so many employers seek in graduates. During the summer, I practiced in the family law and immigration areas, where I represented clients in divorces with minor children of the marriage, an immigration matter, and a stepparent adoption. The adoption case quickly turned into one of my favorite cases even though it was challenging at times. In the end, it was definitely the most rewarding.

The adoption process started in late June and the final hearing was held at the end of August. (I was granted permission to enroll as a Directed Intern during the fall 2013 semester). More than half the 200 hours I worked in Clinic over the summer was spent on this one case. My client came to the Law Clinic seeking to adopt her stepson. I began the process thinking it would be a simple case. However, like many cases, it became much more complicated as it progressed.

One of the first issues I faced was interpreting the statutes. The statute was clearly written for a stepfather adoption, not a stepmother adoption. I spent many hours reconciling the language of the statute with the issues and making sure my arguments made sense.

In addition, I had to interpret the stepparent statute to determine when an adoption can be granted without parental consent. If the biological parents were married, attempted to marry, or their marriage was voided for some other reason, an adoption can only be granted if the mother has failed to assume the duties of a parent for the last two years. However, if paternity was established through genetic testing, open acknowledgment, or rape, the factors for determining unfitness are much broader. Recent case law helped me to understand what I needed to prove since the biological mother refused to give consent.

During this case, I learned how to serve notice on a person without any idea of where to locate them. For an adoption, all interested parties must have notice, including both biological parents. We had very little knowledge of how to find the biological mother, as she had not been in the child’s life for many years. I was unsuccessful in my attempts to serve her through mail so I served her through publication in the newspaper. Service by publication requires permission from the judge, but first I had to provide proof that both the biological father and I exercised as much effort as reasonable to locate the biological mother.

In this case, we were ultimately able to find the mother through Facebook. After passing this information on to the mother’s court appointed lawyer, she actually got in touch with the biological mother. The statute does not accept Facebook as a legally acceptable alternative to mailing notice, at least not yet. But Facebook did lead to actual notice through more traditional methods of service.

Not knowing if the biological mother would attend the hearing, I had to prepare for two different hearing scenarios:

In the first scenario, the biological mother appears and refuses to consent to the adoption. I was prepared to examine the biological father, his mother, his sister, and my client to obtain evidence of the biological mother’s history with the child. I also prepared cross-examination questions for the biological mother, exhibits, and a closing statement. In essence, I prepared for a full hearing. In this scenario, if the judge determines the biological mother is fit and has rights to the child, he dismisses the adoption.

In the second scenario, and the one that played out that day in court, the biological mother does not appear and it is not necessary to call witnesses, submit exhibits, or give a closing statement. Instead, I only have to prove that it is in the best interest of the child for my client to be his mother. I did have to call my client to the stand to establish she qualified as a fit parent. The best part of the hearing was the presence of the child in the courtroom and hearing him cheer on his soon-to-be official mom as she gave her testimony. Ultimately, the adoption was granted.

I saw the good, the bad, and the ugly while working on this case. I encountered a few bumps in the road while handling this case start to finish, but the joy I experienced while helping bring a family together made the efforts well worth it.

Prior to enrolling in Clinic, I had taken the adoption class and struggled. I was fully prepared to not incorporate adoptions into my practice after graduation. I felt defeated.

Now that I have successfully completed an adoption, I am confident that if I do not immediately know the answer, I now know where to find the answers, and I am not intimidated at the thought of representing another client in a similar matter.

Enrolling in Clinic was the best decision I made during my law school career. I feel the experience and confidence I gained through my Clinic experience has helped to turn me into a “ready to practice” lawyer. I look forward to bringing more families together in the future.

Photograph: Professor Lynette Petty

Professor Lynette Petty was the supervising attorney for this case.