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M.B. v. J.C.H.

Supreme Court of West Virginia

November 22, 2017

M.B., Respondent Below, Petitioner
v.
J.C.H. and J.L.H., Petitioners Below, Respondents

         (Tyler County 16-A-2)

          MEMORANDUM DECISION

         Petitioner M.B., by counsel Jessica E. Myers, appeals the Circuit Court of Tyler County's December 12, 2016, order granting respondent's petition for stepparent adoption.[1] Respondents J.C.H. and J.L.H., by counsel Betsy Griffith, filed a response and a supplemental appendix. Petitioner filed a reply. On appeal, petitioner contends that the circuit court erred in finding that petitioner abandoned his child and in granting the petition for stepparent adoption.

         This Court has considered the parties' briefs and the record on appeal. The facts and legal arguments are adequately presented, and the decisional process would not be significantly aided by oral argument. Upon consideration of the standard of review, the briefs, and the record presented, the Court finds no substantial question of law and no prejudicial error. For these reasons, a memorandum decision affirming the circuit court's order is appropriate under Rule 21 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure.

         Petitioner and respondent J.L.H. ("respondent mother") were previously married, and one son was born of this marriage. On November 5, 2009, petitioner and respondent mother divorced. Petitioner was granted visitation every first and third Saturday of the month, and his child support obligation was set at $255.45 per month by way of wage withholding through the Bureau of Child Support Enforcement. Petitioner maintained sporadic contact with his son, but his last contact with the child was in October of 2014.

         On May 16, 2015, respondents married. Approximately one year later, on April 21, 2016, respondents filed a petition for stepparent adoption. The circuit court held a hearing on the petition. Finding that petitioner's payment of child support through wage withholding was insufficient to establish that he had financially supported the child and that he failed to visit or communicate with his child since October of 2014, the circuit court found that petitioner abandoned his child and granted respondents' petition for stepparent adoption. These rulings were memorialized by order entered on December 12, 2016. It is from this order that petitioner appeals.

         We apply the following familiar standard of review:

In reviewing challenges to the findings and conclusions of the circuit court, we apply a two-prong deferential standard of review. We review the final order and the ultimate disposition under an abuse of discretion standard, and we review the circuit court's underlying factual findings under a clearly erroneous standard. Questions of law are subject to a de novo review.

Syl. Pt. 1, In re Adoption of C.R., 233 W.Va. 385, 758 S.E.2d 589 (2014) (citation omitted).

         Further,

(a) Abandonment of a child over the age of six months shall be presumed when the birth parent:
(1) Fails to financially support the child within the means of the birth parent; and
(2) Fails to visit or otherwise communicate with the child when he or she knows where the child resides, is physically and financially able to do so and is not prevented from doing so by the person or authorized agency having the care or custody of the child: Provided, That such failure to act continues uninterrupted for a period of six months immediately preceding the filing of the adoption petition.
....
(d) Notwithstanding any provision in this section to the contrary, any birth parent shall have the opportunity to demonstrate to the court the existence of compelling circumstances preventing said parent from supporting, ...

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