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Knight v. Brittingham

April 4, 2000

HAROLD LAURENCE KNIGHT AND DAWN MARIE KNIGHT, PETITIONERS-APPELLEES,
V.
RYAN JAMES BRITTINGHAM, DARRYL J. BRITTINGHAM, TERESA E. BRADLEY, GEOFFREY CLENNY, LINDA CLENNY, AND ALL WHOM IT MAY CONCERN, RESPONDENTS-APPELLANTS.
WILLIAM BRITTINGHAM AND KATHY BRITTINGHAM, COUNTERPETITIONERS-APPELLANTS,
V.
RYAN JAMES BRITTINGHAM, DARRYL J. BRITTINGHAM, TERESA E. BRADLEY, GEOFFREY CLENNY, LINDA CLENNY, HAROLD LAURENCE KNIGHT, DAWN MARIE KNIGHT, AND ALL WHOM IT MAY CONCERN, COUNTERRESPONDENTS-APPELLEES.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Madison County. No. 96-AD-189 consolidated with No. 97-AD-84 Honorable Daniel J. Stack, Judge, presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Kuehn

Eight-year-old Ryan James Brittingham was the subject of two competing petitions for adoption. Al and Kathy Brittingham, Ryan's biological paternal uncle and aunt, appeal the trial court's December 9, 1998, judgment of adoption in favor of Harold and Dawn Knight. We vacate the visitation portion of the judgment and otherwise affirm.

CHRONOLOGICAL FACTS

Teresa Bradley and Darryl Brittingham never married but had four children-Jessica, now 12, Nicole, now 10, Ryan, now 8, and Miranda, now 6. There is a fifth child, named Jennifer, but the record does not contain much information about her. We believe that Teresa Bradley is Jennifer's mother, but even that detail may not be correct, and we know nothing about her biological father. We are also unclear as to Jennifer's living arrangements but believe that she resides with a grandparent. In this order, when we refer to the girls, we are referring to Jessica, Nicole, and Miranda only.

Not much is contained within the record regarding Darryl Brittingham except that he has a long history of drug and alcohol abuse. The briefs indicate that the last time he saw any of his children was in May 1995. There is a July 1995 Missouri child abuse/neglect report indicating that Teresa dropped Ryan and the three girls off at Darryl's motel room without his knowledge while Darryl was out drinking. Whether or not Darryl saw the children before the Missouri Division of Family Services stepped in on that occasion is not known. All parties involved unanimously agree that he was not much of a father.

Teresa Bradley does have some interest in her children but seems to simply have been overwhelmed by her situation. She also has a long history of drug and alcohol abuse. She lived with her children in Missouri, where there were several child abuse/neglect investigations. Teresa's typical pattern involved leaving her children in the care of a babysitter or landlord and then not returning for days. Oftentimes she left without informing anyone that she was leaving, and in those cases, the landlord was not immediately aware that she had been placed in charge of Teresa's children. Not all of the reports were substantiated, and some involved only Nicole and Miranda.

Ryan and the three girls remained together until late in 1995. In November of that year, Teresa left all four children at a babysitter's home and then disappeared. When she resurfaced four days later, she admitted having spent the time "drinking and partying." The following month, she disappeared for a week. When interviewed by the Missouri Division of Family Services representative, Teresa indicated that she had just lost her job and that it was time to place the children in foster care as she simply could not take care of them. Teresa stated that her father would not allow Teresa and the children to live with him, and Teresa was not interested in moving into a shelter until alternate arrangements could be made. Later, Teresa confessed to the babysitter that she had a new boyfriend and that she did not want to "sabotage" this new relationship.

Teresa's brother and his wife, Dennis and Lisa Bradley, offered to take the four children into their home. They did so in December 1995 without financial assistance. In February 1996, Lisa Bradley needed to return to work and could not afford the day care needed for Teresa's children in addition to her own two. Therefore, she asked Teresa to come and take her children back. She came and got the children. In March 1996, the problems began again, and Teresa brought two of the children back to Dennis and Lisa Bradley-Jessica and Ryan. Ryan never actually stayed with the Bradleys this time but went to stay with Lisa's brother and his wife, Geoffrey and Linda Clenny. Although Teresa had never met the Clennys and while they were not blood relatives, she had no problem with Ryan going to live with them. Teresa kept Nicole and Miranda. In April 1996, Teresa began leaving Nicole and Miranda in the care of her landlord and disappearing. Although the date is difficult to read, it appears that on April 30, 1996, with Teresa's full consent, the Madison County Circuit Court granted guardianship of Jessica to Dennis and Lisa Bradley and granted guardianship of Ryan to Geoffrey and Linda Clenny. On May 3, 1996, Nicole and Miranda were taken into Missouri protective custody and placed in a foster home. By May 10, 1996, Al and Kathy Brittingham expressed an interest in taking their nieces, Nicole and Miranda, into their home as foster parents. On June 10, 1996, a Missouri court granted Al and Kathy Brittingham physical custody of Nicole and Miranda. In August 1996, Linda Clenny contacted the Missouri Division of Family Services to advise that they could no longer care for Ryan due to his extreme misbehavior. In late August 1996, Ryan was taken in by Linda Clenny's cousin and her husband, Dawn and Harold Knight. Later that year, in September, Lisa Bradley began experiencing some health problems and called Darryl Brittingham's brother and his wife, Al and Kathy Brittingham, about taking over the care of Jessica. In early September 1996, Jessica joined her two younger sisters and began living at the home of her uncle and aunt, Al and Kathy Brittingham. On September 16, 1996, the trial court terminated the Bradleys' guardianship of Jessica.

The Clennys and the Knights did not contact Teresa Bradley or Darryl Brittingham to inform them that Ryan had come to live with the Knights at their Glen Carbon home. At that time, the Knights did not know how to contact either parent. On November 2, 1996, after Al and Kathy Brittingham contacted the Clennys regarding Ryan's whereabouts, the Clennys contacted the Knights, and the Knights called the Brittinghams back that same night. More phone calls took place that month, and the Knights attended the girls' baptisms over in Missouri.

The Knights claim that during this family gathering, they laid out their plans to adopt Ryan and that the Brittinghams advised that their plate was simply "too full" with respect to children. The Brittinghams claim that they arrived at an absolute agreement with the Knights that the Knights would turn Ryan over to them by the beginning of 1997. A November 1996 letter from Kathy Brittingham to Dawn Knight details that the truth was somewhere in the middle. In the letter, the Brittinghams clearly ask the Knights to contemplate Ryan's best interests-not the Knights' own best interests. In other words, it could definitely be inferred that the Brittinghams were aware of the Knights' plans to adopt Ryan but were asking them to really consider Ryan's welfare before acting upon their desires. The letter makes no mention of an agreement to turn Ryan over on a date certain.

The Knights filed their petition to adopt Ryan on December 5, 1996, and amended it on December 10, 1996. The petition specifically listed Ryan, his biological mother and father, and the Clennys (who still were his legal guardians) as respondents. On February 26, 1997, Al and Kathy Brittingham intervened. The Brittinghams filed their own petition to adopt Ryan on May 6, 1997 and the two matters were consolidated. On May 20, 1997, Darryl Brittingham consented to Ryan's adoption by his brother and sister-in-law only.

Beginning in November 1996, Ryan began visiting with his three sisters over at the Brittinghams or at more neutral locations. Visitation was unstructured and sporadic. At some point, the Knights were told by their attorney and/or by Ryan's court-appointed guardian ad litem that due to jurisdictional concerns, Ryan should not engage in subsequent out-of-state visitation. Ultimately, on November 20, 1997, the court intervened and ordered regular visitation.

The case was tried on May 5 and 7, 1998, June 2, 1998, and August 18, 1998. On June 3, 1998, Teresa Bradley filed her irrevocable consent for Ryan's adoption by the Brittinghams only. At trial, Ryan's counselor, Dr. Linda Cassens, testified that Ryan was extremely bonded with the Knights and considered them his family. She also testified that based upon her observations and communication with Ryan, Ryan's best interests would be served by granting the Knights' adoption petition. Ryan's guardian ad litem filed her report, in which she expressed similar opinions. She recommended that the Knights be allowed to adopt Ryan. She believed that Ryan should still see his three sisters on a regular basis. Because of the animosity that the Brittinghams-especially Al Brittingham-displayed towards the Knights, the guardian felt that Ryan stood a far greater chance of continued visitation with his three sisters if he was adopted by the Knights than any chance of continued visitation with his older "brother" and the Knights should the Brittinghams' petition be granted. On September 24, 1998, the trial court granted the Knights' petition for adoption, thereby denying the Brittinghams' petition. This order also contained an order for visitation so that Ryan would still see his three sisters and other biological relatives. Several orders were entered on December 9, 1998, specifically, an order denying the Brittinghams' motion for relief from the order of adoption, one terminating the parental rights of Darryl Brittingham and Teresa Bradley, and one entering the court's judgment of adoption.

KNIGHTS' BACKGROUND

The Knights live in Glen Carbon. One child was born during their marriage-Joey. Joey was 12 when the trial court entered the order of adoption. They reside in a three-bedroom home, along with a dog and a cat. Harold is a truck dispatcher and Dawn works in various educational capacities for a school district, and so her schedule mirrors that of her children. Annual household income at the time of the adoption was $46,000. Ryan could ...


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