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Regenold v. Baby Fold

OPINION FILED SEPTEMBER 30, 1976.

LINDA FAY REGENOLD, PETITIONER-APPELLEE,

v.

THE BABY FOLD, INC., RESPONDENT-APPELLANT. — (RICHARD RILEY ET AL., INTERVENORS-APPELLANTS.)



APPEAL from the Circuit Court of McLean County; the Hon. JAMES A. KNECHT, Judge, presiding.

MR. JUSTICE CRAVEN DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

This is an appeal by the respondent, The Baby Fold, Inc. (Baby Fold), and the intervenors, Richard and Priscilla Riley, of an order entered by the circuit court of McLean County after a hearing on a habeas corpus petition filed by Linda Fay Regenold, the natural mother of Jason Regenold, a minor. The trial court found that petitioner was entitled to custody and control of the child, and ordered intervenors to return the child to petitioner. This court has stayed the trial court's order pending a decision on appeal.

On October 20, 1975, petitioner, a 19-year-old mother who had been divorced on September 23, 1975, contacted and visited The Baby Fold, a child welfare agency, relative to her infant son, Jason (born August 2, 1974). On October 22, 1975, petitioner returned to Baby Fold with her son, signed what is entitled "Final and Irrevocable Surrender For Purposes of Adoption" and surrendered custody of her son to a worker of Baby Fold. On October 24, 1975, petitioner again visited Baby Fold, was informed of the placement, and gave certain medical history information about the child to the staff at Baby Fold. On October 26, 1975, petitioner visited a married couple who had known her since birth, and sought their aid in procuring the return of her child. By October 28, 1975, an attorney representing petitioner had contacted Baby Fold seeking the return of the child. On December 1, 1975, petitioner filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus. A hearing was conducted January 26, 1976, after which, on February 13, 1976, the trial court invalidated petitioner's surrender and consent to adoption, and ordered the child returned to petitioner.

The facts are in dispute as to the reason petitioner contacted Baby Fold. Petitioner testified that she wanted to talk to someone. She introduced evidence indicating that she was living under a great deal of stress at the time of placement; she was a 19-year-old mother who had then been divorced for one month; her husband had communicated to her through various letters indicating that he was unable to accept the finality of their divorce; her parents, with whom she lived, constantly argued; her mother was divorcing her father, and intended to force petitioner and her child out of the home; she had to adjust to the responsibility of a new position at her job; she had conflicts with her mother over the responsibility of rearing her three-year-old brother; the brother was a threat to her son's physical well-being; she faced various financial difficulties; she was under medication and feared that she faced a partial hysterectomy if the medication was ineffective. Psychiatric testimony was introduced which concluded that petitioner was suffering from severe stress and "transient situational disturbance." Petitioner's position is that Baby Fold brought up the subject of adoption as a solution to her problem, and that due to the severe emotional duress under which she was living and of which Baby Fold was aware, Baby Fold's hasty actions in accepting her surrender without exploring other solutions constituted fraud or duress which invalidated her surrender.

Baby Fold's position is that it did nothing out of the ordinary, and that petitioner contacted Baby Fold for the purposes of surrendering her child. Baby Fold introduced evidence indicating that the procedure it followed is not unusual. Plaintiff was counseled on Monday, October 20, 1975, at which time she filled out and signed a family history form. A witness for Baby Fold testified that, at that time, the alternatives of short term foster care or permanent adoption were discussed. Petitioner was asked during the October 20, 1975, interview if she wanted to consider her action and someone "suggested Wednesday." Exactly what was meant by "suggested Wednesday" is unclear from the record, but apparently the phrase referred to the date of surrender of the child. On Wednesday, the surrender papers were signed and the child was surrendered. The surrender form was read to the petitioner before she signed it.

On the basis of the evidence, the trial court invalidated petitioner's surrender stating:

"The court finds, in the circumstances present in this case, that the surrender is invalid in that it was not executed as the free and voluntary act of the petitioner.

The execution of the surrender was a reaction to the severe environmental stress and pressure under which the petitioner was operating. Her action in signing the surrender was neither voluntary or understanding. There is no doubt that, in the circumstances present here, the petitioner was not exercising her own free will in signing the surrender. The emotional disturbance that she was experiencing and the environmental stress and pressure upon her combined to produce a result which was the product of duress."

Besides the problems facing petitioner as enumerated above, the trial court observed and found that Baby Fold:

"[B]y failing to make meaningful attempts to solve the petitioner's problems; by acting with unseemly haste in taking the surrender, and by accepting a surrender from someone subject to the assorted pressures facing petitioner thereby became a subtle, but active participant in the chain of events which denied the petitioner the exercise of her free will and deprived her of her infant son."

Respondent appeals, contending that the decision of the trial court is contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence. Section 11 of the Adoption Act was amended in 1973 to provide in pertinent part:

"A consent * * * shall be irrevocable unless it shall have been obtained by fraud or duress on the part of the person before whom such consent, surrender, or other document equivalent to a surrender is acknowledged * * *." (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 4, par. 9.1-11.)

Petitioner persuasively argues that section 11 is constitutionally void under due process and equal protection standards in that it legislatively precludes invalidation of actions performed under duress, depending on the source of the duress. We note that the trial court, by its findings, clearly invited a comprehensive review of the statute as amended. Although we entertain serious doubts as to the constitutional validity of the statute, we need not resolve that issue. We conclude that the stress petitioner has established, regardless of its source, as a matter of law does not amount to the duress which is necessary to vitiate her consent.

• 1, 2 Duress, in the context of consent for adoption, has been defined in numerous decisions. This court's most recent statement on the subject can be found in In re Sims (1975), 30 Ill. App.3d 406, 332 N.E.2d ...


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