FINAL UNTIL TIME EXPIRES TO FILE MOTION FOR REHEARING AND
DISPOSITION THEREOF IF FILED
from the Circuit Court for St. Johns County, John M.
William S. Graessle and Jonathan W. Graessle, of William S.
Graessle, P.A., Jacksonville, and J. Stephen Alexander, of
Alexander Law Firm, LLC, St. Augustine, for Appellant.
M. Callaway, of Robert P. Eshelman, P.A., Jacksonville, for
Appearance for C.C. and M.C.
case involves a natural parent's constitutional right to
raise his own child, even if that determination is not
necessarily in the best interest of the child. For the
reasons set forth below, we reverse the order terminating
S.M.K's ("Father") parental rights, which
deemed Father's consent unnecessary for the relative
adoption of O.R.K. ("Child"), pursuant to section
63.062(2), Florida Statutes (2016). The trial court found
that Father had abandoned Child. During the proceedings,
Father's knowledge of Child's whereabouts was a
critical issue in the court's determination.
September 2015, S.L.E. ("Mother") gave birth to
Child in Florida. There is no disagreement regarding
Father's paternity. Soon after Child's birth, the
family traveled to Indiana. The reason for the trip was in
dispute, although both parties acknowledged that Father was
renovating a house in Indiana. At one point, Mother testified
that she believed the trip was a short term visit. At another
point, she testified that the three were planning to move
into the house, but when they arrived the house was
uninhabitable. Father testified that the trip was
intended to be a permanent move.
claimed that a few weeks after arriving in Indiana, Father
stole her car and "went on a crack bender." In late
November 2015, Mother returned to Florida with Child without
Father's consent. Upon returning to Florida, Mother and
Child temporarily lived with M.C. ("Aunt") and C.C.
("Uncle") in St. Augustine. Mother left with Child
in January 2016 and returned to her place of residence, which
was a boat in Titusville. Within a week, Mother returned
Child to Aunt because she was unable to care for Child
remained in contact with Mother subsequent to her departure,
and in December 2015, followed Mother to Florida, residing in
the Bradenton area with his sister. Father arranged a meeting
with Mother in Daytona Beach and drove there from Bradenton,
but minutes before the meeting and despite knowing Father had
driven from Bradenton, Mother informed him that she would not
February 2016, Father requested that the Manatee County
Sheriff's Department perform a wellness check on Child.
Father provided law enforcement Aunt and Uncle's address
as a possible location. He did not hear back from law
enforcement on the results of the check, nor did he inquire.
Mother claimed she communicated with Father through texts and
that Father knew Child was living with Aunt and Uncle, Mother
failed to produce any of the text messages to substantiate
that claim. Father maintained that he did not know the
whereabouts of Child: Child could have been at Aunt's
home, at maternal grandmother's home, with Mother on her
boat, or wherever else Mother was residing.
also claimed that Father did not financially support her
during their relationship or her pregnancy, maintaining that
Father only marginally assisted with Child's care while
in Indiana. Mother described her relationship with Father as
"abusive, tumultuous, " and testified that the
police were called several times during their relationship.
The volatility of the relationship was echoed by Aunt, who
described Father as abusive and threatening toward Mother.
Mother also testified that Father has four other children,
all of whom he has abandoned.
2016, Father filed a complaint to establish paternity of
Child in St. Augustine. He listed Mother as respondent and Aunt
and Uncle as interested parties. As of the filing date of the
complaint, Child was less than one year old and residing with
Aunt and Uncle. Mother and Aunt opposed the complaint,
claiming that Father was abusive, unemployed, ...