You’d think relatives would get preference in adoptions, but in Philadelphia you’d be wrong.
Victoria O’Brian, 50, has a great-nephew in the city, but she didn’t get to adopt him, and is blocked from even seeing him.
Here’s how it happened: In December 2010, her niece Dawn Zahner gave birth to a son named Anthony four years before she died. Because Dawn was addicted to drugs when she gave birth, the Department of Human Services was notified.
In January 2011, says O’Brian — who has an adult son — she contacted DHS to become a foster parent to her great-nephew. “They did a background check on me. It came back clean,” she says, but DHS placed the child in foster care. The foster family has had him ever since, and recently adopted him.
This is a slightly unusual outcome, DHS spokeswoman Alicia Taylor tells me. At DHS, she says, “family is always looked at first,” but it turns out that has no legal bearing.
In an October 2016 adoption order in this case, Family Court Supervising Judge Walter J. Olszewski wrote: “Any preference in favor of a relative only relates to standing to participate in adoption proceedings.” It does not amount to preference for a blood relative.
That came as news to me. All other things being equal, blood relatives should get priority. (Anthony’s biological father had surrendered his parental rights.)
O’Brian — who lives in Lambertville, N.J., with her husband, Scott — says she went through three lawyers and $10,000 fighting to claim her relative. She is deflated and feels disrespected.
The adoption is final, and the adoptive parents — who changed Anthony’s first name — prefer no contact between their son and his great-aunt.
That strikes me as cruel, but let’s see how we got here.
Before the final decision about his fate, Anthony got a court-appointed attorney through the Defender Association of Philadelphia. I thought the child advocate might be able to shed light on the situation, but lawyer Lisa Barrimond did not return my calls.
In awarding adoptive rights — because of privacy issues, I’m withholding the parents’ names — Judge Olszewski wrote that between 2011 and 2014, O’Brian “made no attempts to get Anthony into her care and custody.”
O’Brian disputes that, saying she went to a custody hearing in 2012 with Dawn, but left before it was over because “Dawn told me to, and I didn’t know what I was doing.”
That was a terrible mistake, because the judge took it as a lack of interest.
The judge noted that Anthony had been with the same foster parents since infancy — folks who, “with love, care, and affection, have woven Anthony into their blended family tapestry complete with several other children as siblings.”
For a time in 2014, the year Dawn died, O’Brian was given visitation rights with Anthony, supervised by a social worker, but the visits were terminated after the foster parents told the judge that Anthony showed anxiety before and after her visits.
O’Brian flatly denies that and produced a picture of herself with a smiling Anthony.
O’Brian knows the adoption can’t be reversed. “I would have liked to adopt him,” she says, “but I at least want to see him and watch him grow.”
We live in a time when family values seem to be crumbling. Anthony’s new family is not his only family, and it’s heartless for his new parents to cut him off from any contact with his past.
No judge can demand they keep O’Brian in their son’s life. Only their hearts can do that.