Family Law Keyed to Weisberg

back
Topic /161
Scarpetta v. Spence-Chapin Adoption Service

Citation. People ex rel. Scarpetta v. Spence-Chapin Adoption Service, 28 N.Y.2d 185, 269 N.E.2d 787, 321 N.Y.S.2d 65, 1971 N.Y. LEXIS 1438 (N.Y. 1971)

Brief Fact Summary. Mother attempted to regain custody of her child after surrendering her child to adoptive services.

Synopsis of Rule of Law. A mother should be allowed to regain custody of her child provided there is some showing of improvidence in the making of the surrender, that the interest of such child will be promoted and that such parent is fit, competent, and able to duly maintain, support and educate such child.

Facts. An infant child was born to Olga Scarpetta on May 18, 1970. Four days after birth, she placed the infant for boarding care with Spence-Chapin Adoption Service. On June 18, the baby was placed with a family for adoption. Five days later, the mother repented her actions and requested the return of the child. The mother commenced a habeas corpus proceeding. Before surrender of the child, the mother had several interviews with representatives of the adoption agency, However, shortly before or after the birth of the child, her well-to-do family in Columbia assured her of their support and urged her to raise her own child.

Issue. May a mother who has surrendered her child to an authorized adoption agency regain the child’s custody?

Held. The surrender of the child was improvident and the child’s best interests would be best served by its return to the natural mother.
Several jurisdictions hold that a parent has an absolute right to regain custody prior to the final adoption decree. Others adhere to the rule that the parent’s surrender is final, absent fraud or duress. The majority of jurisdictions place the parent’s right to regain custody within the discretion of the court.

In New York, a surrender executed by a mother is expressly sanctioned by law. Until there has been an actual adoption the surrender remains under, and subject to, judicial supervision. Documents of surrender are unilateral, not contracts or deeds, and are almost always executed under circumstances which may cast doubt upon their voluntariness or on understanding of the consequences. However, courts have the obligation not to permit surrenders to be undone except for the weightiest reasons.

The court should exercise its power to direct a change of custody from the agency back to the natural parent only when it determines that the interests of such child will be promoted thereby and that such parent is fit, competent and able to duly maintain, support, and educate such child.

The primacy of status accorded the natural parent is not materially altered by the fact of surrender under the statute, although it is a factor to be considered. The agency’s suggestion that the surrender constitutes an abandonment would frustrate the legislative policy, which allows a mother to regain custody of her child provided there is some showing of improvidence in the making of the surrender, that the interest of such child will be promoted and that such parent is fit, competent, and able to duly maintain, support and educate such child.

The agency who would withhold a child from mother must sustain the burden of establishing the parent is unfit and that the child’s welfare compels the awarding its custody to the nonparent. The Court also finds no merit to the contention that failure to allow the prospective adoptive parents to intervene in the proceeding deprived them of due process of law because they do not have legal custody of the child.

Discussion. The Court finds that surrender of a child to an adoption agency does not constitute abandonment, and the child should be returned to the natural mother so long as there is some showing of improvidence in the making of the surrender, that the interest of such child will be promoted and that such parent is fit, competent, and able to duly maintain, support and educate such child.