Appeal from decree of Court of Common Pleas, Orphans' Court Division, of Allegheny County, No. 713 of 1969, in case of Commonwealth of Pennsylvania ex rel. Elizabeth Lee Sarver v. Edward Polka and Sylvania Polka, his wife.
Lois J. McKee, for appellant.
M. David Turets, for appellee.
Bell, C. J., Jones, Eagen, O'Brien, Roberts, Pomeroy and Barbieri, JJ. Opinion by Mr. Justice O'Brien.
This is an appeal from a decree of adoption and the dismissal of a petition for writ of habeas corpus filed by Elizabeth Lee Sarver, the natural mother of the adoptive child. In approving the adoption and dismissing the natural mother's petition, the court found that Mrs. Sarver had abandoned her daughter. Mrs. Sarver filed exceptions, which were dismissed after a hearing on November 27, 1970, with one judge filing a dissenting opinion on the issue of abandonment, although he agreed with the dismissal of the habeas corpus petition and the resultant decision that the child should remain in the custody of her aunt and uncle, appellees.
The facts of this unfortunate case are as follows:
The child, Julie Mae Sarver, was born on November 21, 1958, in Liberal, Kansas, approximately six weeks after her natural father, Wilburt Arthur Sarver, had been killed in an automobile accident. In February of 1959, Julie, her mother, her two older brothers and her older sister came to live with her paternal aunt, Sylvania Sarver Polka, and her husband, Edward Polka, who are the appellees in this case. In July of 1962, Elizabeth Sarver and her three older children left the Polka residence, leaving four-year-old Julie Mae with the Polkas. The Sarvers and the Polkas exchanged visits frequently during the years 1963 and 1964. In 1965, the Polkas decided that they would like to adopt Julie, and Elizabeth Sarver apparently agreed to the adoption. However, Elizabeth Sarver changed her mind and never signed the consent contained in the adoption papers which had been prepared.
Nevertheless, after Christmas of 1965, Elizabeth Sarver never visited her daughter, or made any serious attempt
to visit her daughter, up to the time the instant petition for adoption was presented in 1969. During that period of time, the Polkas paid for Julie's entire support, never requesting or receiving any contributions from Elizabeth Sarver.
There was conflicting testimony concerning what attempts, if any, Elizabeth Sarver made to contact Julie during the four-year period. The parties agree that Mrs. Sarver sent Julie a Christmas card and a birthday card in 1965 and again in 1966. The Polkas testified that one additional note was sent. They admit that none was ever shown to Julie because they were addressed to "Julie Mae Polka" from "Betty and Clyde," (Clyde was Elizabeth Sarver's brother-in-law, friend and boarder) at a time when all had agreed to proceed with the adoption, but Elizabeth Sarver had not yet signed the papers. The record indicates that Mrs. Sarver made no attempt to contact Julie or showed any interest in Julie whatsoever in 1967 or 1968, even though Mrs. Sarver admits that she knew that her cards were not being delivered, and she knew at all times where Julie lived and where Julie went to school. It was this latter fact, more than any other, which caused the court to find that "Elizabeth Lee Richmond Sarver did in fact abandon her daughter, Julie Mae Sarver, for a period in excess of six (6) months, from Christmas of 1965 to October of 1969."
The termination by the law of a natural parent's rights to his child on the grounds of abandonment is one of the most severe steps the court can take. The finality of the termination and the harsh connotations of a finding of "abandonment" carry great emotional impact on both the child and the parent. For this reason, our law has been unwilling to tell a child that he has been ...