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In the Matter of the v. John Doe Iii and Jane Doe Ii

June 7, 2011

IN THE MATTER OF THE TERMINATION OF THE PARENTAL RIGHTS OF JOHN (2011-01) DOE AND THE ADOPTION OF JOHN DOE I, JOHN DOE II, AND JANE DOE, MINOR CHILDREN UNDER THE AGE OF EIGHTEEN. JOHN (2011-01) DOE, PETITIONER-APPELLANT,
v.
JOHN DOE III AND JANE DOE II, HUSBAND AND WIFE, RESPONDENTS.



Appeal from the Magistrate Division of the District Court of the Seventh Judicial District, State of Idaho, Bonneville County. Hon. Colin W. Luke, Magistrate.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Lansing, Judge

2011 Opinion No. 34

Stephen W. Kenyon, Clerk

Order terminating parental rights, affirmed.

John Doe (hereinafter Father) appeals from the order of the magistrate court terminating his parental rights to his two sons, ages eleven and nine at the time of trial (hereinafter John Doe I and John Doe II), and his daughter, age five (Jane Doe). We affirm.

I. BACKGROUND

Father and Jane Doe II (hereinafter Mother) are the biological parents of John Doe I, John Doe II, and Jane Doe. The children were all born during the time Father and Mother were married. However, in 2006 Father and Mother separated and Mother filed for a divorce, which was finalized in 2008. Mother then remarried.

During the period of separation before the divorce was concluded, the children lived with Mother. Father had very little contact with them because, he later testified, he was "mentally unable" to put forth the effort as he was dealing with the divorce. The contact between Father and the children increased in early 2008 after the divorce was finalized but then tapered off around mid-July 2008. The magistrate court found that from that time until May 2010, Father had no actual contact with the children except for one telephone contact around Christmas in 2008.

In May of 2010, Mother and her spouse (hereinafter Stepfather) filed a petition for termination of Father's parental rights and to allow the adoption of children by Stepfather. After a two-day trial addressing only the termination of Father's parental rights, the magistrate court concluded that Father had unjustifiably abandoned his children and that it was in the children's best interests to terminate Father's parental rights.

Father appeals, arguing that the magistrate court erred in its determination that Father had abandoned the children, that even if he had abandoned them there was just cause, and that the magistrate erred in its determination that termination was in the best interests of the children.

II. ANALYSIS

A parent's interest in maintaining a relationship with his or her child is a fundamental liberty interest, protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Quilloin v. Walcott, 434 U.S. 246, 255 (1978); State v. Doe, 144 Idaho 839, 842, 172 P.3d 1114, 1117 (2007); Doe v. State, 137 Idaho 758, 760, 53 P.3d 341, 343 (2002). Consequently, a judicial decision to terminate a parent-child relationship must be supported by clear and convincing evidence. Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745, 768-70 (1982); In re Doe, 143 Idaho 343, 345, 144 P.3d 597, 599 (2006); Doe, 137 Idaho at 760, 53 P.3d at 343. On review, this Court will uphold the trial court's findings if they were based on substantial and competent evidence. Doe, 137 Idaho at 760, 53 P.3d at 343. Substantial and competent evidence is "such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion," even if the evidence is conflicting. In re Doe, 143 Idaho at 345-46, 144 P.3d at 599-600 (quoting Folks v. Moscow School Dist. No. 281, 129 Idaho 833, 836, 933 P.2d 642, 645 (1997)); In re Doe, 142 Idaho 594, 597, 130 P.3d 1132, 1135 (2006). The trial court is better positioned than an appellate court to observe a witness's demeanor, assess credibility, detect prejudice or motive, and make character judgments. State, Dep't of Health & Welfare v. Doe, 145 Idaho 662, 664, 182 P.3d 1196, 1198 (2008); In re Aragon, 120 Idaho 606, 608, 818 P.2d 310, 312 (1991). Therefore, the facts, and reasonable inferences to be drawn from those facts, will be viewed in the light most favorable to the trial court's decision. Doe v. Doe, 148 Idaho 243, 245-46, 220 P.3d 1062, 1064-65 (2009); In re Doe, 142 Idaho at 597, 130 P.3d at 1135.

A court may terminate a person's parental rights if it finds both that one of the statutory grounds for termination is present and that termination is in the best interests of the child. Idaho Code § 16-2005(1). Abandonment is one of those statutory grounds. I.C. § 16-2005(1)(a). Abandonment means: the parent has willfully failed to maintain a normal parental relationship including, but not limited to, reasonable support or regular personal contact. Failure of the parent to maintain this relationship without just cause for a period of one (1) year shall constitute prima facie evidence of abandonment under this section . . I.C. § 16-2002(5).

In order to "willfully" fail to maintain a normal parental relationship, the parent must have the ability to maintain it and choose not do so. Doe I v. Doe II, 148 Idaho 713, 716, 228 P.3d 980, 983 (2010). There is no universal standard for defining a "normal parental relationship"; whether such a relationship exists depends on the circumstances of each case. Doe I, 148 Idaho ...


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