A three-year-old girl’s future is in limbo amid a custody battle that started in 2013.
Edward and Tammy Dalsing of Rock Hill legally adopted Braelyn Puckett in September 2015, after having her for years as their foster child, according to S.C. family court documents. On Dec. 15, 2016, a S.C. Court of Appeals vacated the child’s 2015 adoption.
That means Braelyn may be forced to leave the Dalsings.
Braelyn’s biological father Andrew Myers, 25, has waged a fight to get custody. A DNA test in September 2013 proved Myers is Braelyn‘s father. His mother Sherry Powers filed for custody in August of the same year, court documents state. Andrew Myers was in jail at that time.
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Family court documents are normally sealed, but the Dalsings have published the documents on social media.
The Dalsings said the court is not considering the child’s best interest, and they’re fighting to keep her.
“How do you look at your daughter and say we aren’t mom and dad today because the court said we’re not,” Edward said.
It’s a conversation Tammy said the child won’t understand.
“Braelyn counts, and her best interest should come above and beyond everybody’s best interest,” Tammy said.
Edward, 47, and Tammy, 50, are registered foster parents. They have eight children, including five who came to them as foster children.
Myers, who was in jail when Braelyn was born, wants the child to go to his mother Sherry in Virginia. Myers claims in the appeal that his parental rights were violated by the adoption.
Powers, 42, testified in family court that her son has had problems with drugs, credit card fraud and counterfeiting.
At three weeks old, Braelyn was placed with the Dalsings. Her birth mother, Erica Smith, tested positive for drugs in June 2013, according to family court documents.
Braelyn also tested positive for cocaine, court documents state. She came to the Dalsings with a medical condition that needed treatment. Braelyn is considered a special needs child by the state, court records show.
As foster parents, the Dalsings said they did not have power to seek necessary treatment for Braelyn. However, the couple was granted joint custody of Braelyn, along with the S.C. Department of Social Services, in January 2014. That allowed them to get the needed medical treatment, court documents show.
Powers’ plan, court records state, was to have Andrew Myers and Braelyn move in when Myers was released from jail. He was released on parole on Nov. 1, 2016, from the Nottoway Correctional Center in Virginia, according to police records. Powers had sought custody of Braelyn in August 2013. Powers was there when Braelyn was born. She has had supervised visits with her granddaughter and provided clothes, diapers and toys, records state.
Smith had told the courts she wanted the Dalsings to adopt Braelyn. On Sept. 1, 2015, the Dalsings’ adoption of Braelyn was granted, and both Myers and Smith’s parental rights were terminated by the S.C. family court, records show.
“She made that loving choice to put her daughter up for adoption,” Tammy said.
Hollie Bennett, a private practice social worker and adoption investigator who is advocating for the Dalsings, said the mother made a plan for her daughter.
“It’s not a matter of giving up, but a matter of making a plan,” Bennett said. “This mom … identified these two individuals as someone she wanted to parent her child.”
Many court dates followed as the Dalsings and Powers have fought for Braelyn.
The family court ruled that Myers’ consent was not needed for the adoption and his parental rights should be terminated because he had opportunities to form a relationship with Braelyn, even though he was in jail. The judge ruled there was no evidence Myers ever financially supported Braelyn.
Under the South Carolina Adoption Act (SC-63-9), an unmarried mother can give consent for adoption. The father’s consent is required if he has maintained continuous contact with the child through financial support, monthly visits or other means, if physical visits were not possible, according to the law.
Court records state that Myers had asked his mother to stop sending him money, and instead use it for Braelyn. However, records in court did not show evidence that support was given.
In his appeal, Myers claims there was not enough evidence to show he willfully neglected Braelyn. He was in jail and it’s unlikely DSS would take her to Virginia to visit him.
The S.C. adoption law states the court does not have to show that DSS made efforts to encourage Myers to maintain contact with his child.
The appeal also says Myers wrote to his daughter.
However, Myers was not consistent in contacting and providing for Braelyn, said Dale Dove of Dove Law Group, who is representing the Dalsings.
The Dalsings and Sherry Powers were potential adoptive parents for Braelyn, documents state. The court decided the Dalsings were in Braelyn’s best interest.
“We’re the only mom and dad she’s ever had,” Tammy said. “She needs stability.”
The S.C. adoption law states that if the best interests of a child and of an adult are in conflict, the court should favor the child.
Myers appealed the decision and the court overturned the adoption and ordered a new hearing, records state. The court ruled there was not enough evidence that Myers had abandoned Braelyn.
“Mr. Myers remains committed to reunifying with his child,” said Nathan Sheldon, who represents Andrew Myers. “The three-3 judge appellate panel that heard this case issued a very detailed ruling providing the legal explanation for why this case was vacated, reversed and remanded. No case, including termination of parental rights and adoption, is final until the appellate process has been completed. At this time, Mr. Myers continues to patiently wait for the next step in the process.”
Meanwhile, the Dalsings asked the S.C. Court of Appeals to rehear the case.
Bennett said it could take weeks, or months, for the Dalsings to hear back from the appeals court. If the court does not rehear the case, the Dalsings would seek to take their case to the S.C. Supreme Court, Dove said.
Meanwhile, Braelyn remains the Dalsings’ adopted daughter.
The family has started a petition, a website and a Facebook page to share Braelyn’s story.
“All those are available so people can go forth and help be a voice for a little girl that the courts won’t listen to,” Tammy said.