February 6, 2014
IN RE: ADOPTION OF J.B.W., A MINOR, D.O.B. 12/16/03 APPEAL OF: R.A.G. AND A.L.G.
Appeal from the Order Entered July 1, 2013 In the Court of Common Pleas of Elk County Orphans' Court at No(s): 58 OF 2011, O.C.
BEFORE: BENDER, P.J., LAZARUS, J., and MUNDY, J.
A.L.G. ("Mother") and R.A.G. ("Mother's Husband") appeal from the order of the Court of Common Pleas of Elk County denying their petition for termination of appellee/participant B.J.W.'s ("Father") parental rights to J.B.W., a minor, now ten years old. After careful review, we affirm on the opinion authored by the Honorable Richard A. Masson.
Mother and Father married in 1996 and separated in 2002; they reconciled in February 2003 until April 2003. During the separation, Mother began a physical relationship with R.A.G. J.B.W. was born in December 2003, and Mother and Father's names are on J.B.W.'s birth certificate. Since the time of his birth until he was 8 years old, Mother has held Father out as J.B.W.'s natural father.
After Mother and Father separated in 2003, Mother resumed her relationship with R.A.G. They married in 2011. R.A.G. suspected J.B.W. might be his child, so he and J.B.W. submitted to a private DNA test, indicating that the probability that R.A.G. was J.B.W.'s biological father was 99.99998%.
Mother and R.A.G. filed a petition to involuntarily terminate Father's parental rights to J.B.W. pursuant to 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 2511(a)(3). The court held a hearing, and following the first day of testimony, the court ordered a Bonding Assessment of J.B.W. with both Father and R.A.G. The assessment concluded that J.B.W. always and only identified B.J.W. as his "Dad, " that J.B.W. does not emotionally identify with R.A.G. in a completely "father-son" manner, and that termination would have a significantly negative impact on J.B.W. that could cause "serious emotional trauma to the child." Bonding Assessment, 4/30/2012, at 3-4. J.B.W.'s in camera testimony indicated that he felt pulled in two directions, but he referred to Father as his "real dad, " and he referred to R.A.G. as his "stepdad." Hearing, 4/3/2012, at 158, 161-62.
Although the parties stipulated to the DNA test results, Father requested the results be barred from evidence and consideration under the doctrine of paternity by estoppel. After a second day of testimony, the trial court directed the parties to submit findings of fact and conclusions of law.
On July 1, 2013, President Judge Masson issued findings of fact and conclusions of law, and determined that: (1) the paternity test results were barred under the doctrine of paternity by estoppel; and (2) Mother and R.A.G. failed to meet their burden of proof to support termination of Father's parental rights under sections 2511(a) and (b).
Our standard of review is as follows:
Appellate court must apply an abuse of discretion standard when considering a trial court's determination of a petition for termination of parental rights. As in dependency cases, our standard of review requires [that we] accept the findings of fact and credibility determinations of the trial court if they are supported by the record. In re: R.J.T., 9 A.3d 1179, 1190 (Pa. 2010). If the factual findings are supported, appellate courts review to determine if the trial court made an error of law or abused its discretion. As has been often stated, an abuse of discretion does not result merely because the reviewing court might have reached a different conclusion. Instead, a decision may be reversed for an abuse of discretion only upon demonstration of manifest unreasonableness, partiality, prejudice, bias, or ill will. As [was] discussed in R.J.T., there are clear reasons for applying an abuse of discretion standard of review in these cases. We observed that, unlike trial courts, appellate courts are not equipped to make the fact-specific determinations on a cold record, where the trial judges are observing the parties during the relevant hearing and often presiding over numerous other hearings regarding the child and parents. R.J.T., 9 A.3d at 1190. Therefore, even where the facts could support an opposite result, as is often the case in dependency and termination cases, an appellate court must resist the urge to second guess the trial court and impose its own credibility determinations and judgment; instead we must defer to the trial judges so long as the factual findings are supported by the record and the court's legal conclusions are not the result of an error of law or an abuse of discretion.
In re Adoption of S.P., 47 A.3d 817, 826-27 (Pa. 2012) (some internal citations omitted).
The burden is upon the petitioner to prove by clear and convincing evidence that the asserted grounds for seeking the termination of parental rights are valid. In re R.N.J., 985 A.2d 273, 276 (Pa.Super. 2009). We have explained:
The standard of clear and convincing evidence is defined as testimony that is so "clear, direct, weighty and convincing as to enable the trier of fact to come to a clear conviction, without hesitance, of the truth of the precise facts in issue."
Id., quoting In re J.L.C., 837 A.2d 1247, 1251 (Pa.Super. 2003).
After our review of the parties' briefs,  the record and the relevant law, we conclude that President's Judge Masson's findings of fact are supported in the record and his conclusions of law are proper in light of those findings. In re R.J.T., supra. Mother's and R.A.G.'s attempts to present evidence to disavow Father's paternity is clearly not admissible under these circumstances, where doing so runs contrary to J.B.W.'s best interests and where Mother and R.A.G. stood by and benefitted from this position for eight years. See K.E.M. v. P.C.S., 38 A.3d 798 (Pa. 2012); see also Buccieri v. Campagna, 889 A.2d 1220 (Pa.Super. 2005) (putative father was estopped by his own past conduct from obtaining genetic tests to establish his paternity and assert paternal rights; where principle of estoppel is operative, paternity tests may well be irrelevant, for law will not permit person to challenge status which he or she has previously accepted); Miscovich v. Miscovich, 688 A.2d 726 (Pa.Super. 1997) (right to blood test must be balanced against competing societal or family interests). Mother and R.A.G., therefore, could not establish termination was warranted, by clear and convincing evidence, under section 2511(a)(3). In any event, the court determined termination would not serve the child's best interests. 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 2511(b). See Trial Court Op., at 12-15.
As the trial court aptly summarized: "Although the scientific evidence demonstrates that [R.A.G.] is the biological father, the best interests of J.B.W. warrant that [Mother and Mother's Husband] be estopped from asserting [R.A.G.]'s paternity." Trial Court Opinion, 7/1/2013, at 13. We are bound to protect those interests. We find no error or abuse of discretion. In re Adoption of S.P., supra.
We affirm the order denying the petition for involuntary termination of Father's parental rights based on President Judge Masson's opinion. The parties are instructed to attach a copy of that opinion in the event of further proceedings.