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Idaho Department of Health and Welfare v. Doe

Supreme Court of Idaho

July 22, 2016

JOHN DOE (2016-09), Respondent-Appellant and JANE DOE, Respondent,
CASA, guardian ad litem, Intervenor-Respondent.

         2016 Opinion No. 77

         Appeal from the District Court of the First Judicial District of the State of Idaho, in and for Bonner County. Hon. Debra A. Heise, Magistrate Judge.

         The judgment of the magistrate court is affirmed.

          Monica F. Brennan, James Vernon & Weeks, P.A., Coeur d'Alene, argued for appellant.

          Denise L. Rosen, Deputy Attorney General, Coeur d'Alene, argued for respondent.

          PER CURIAM.

         This is an appeal out of Kootenai County from a judgment terminating a father's parental rights in his three minor children. We affirm the judgment of the magistrate court.


         Factual Background.

         In 2006, John Doe ("Father") and Mother were the parents of three minor daughters who were approximately 5, 6, and 7 years of age. On August 8, 2006, a federal grand jury in Idaho issued an indictment charging Father with "caus[ing] another to travel in interstate commerce from California to Idaho, with the intent that murder be committed in violation of the laws of the United States and the State of Idaho." The indictment alleged that Father had agreed to pay another person $10, 000 to murder Mother. A jury found Father guilty of the offense, and in a judgment entered on August 8, 2006, the federal court sentenced him to 120 months in the custody of the United States Bureau of Prisons and three years of supervision following his release from prison. The federal court also sentenced him to a fine of $17, 500.

         Following Father's arrest and incarceration, Mother had sole custody of their three minor daughters. Mother also had custody of her son from a prior marriage, but he will not be further mentioned because he turned eighteen years of age before the termination proceedings were commenced.

         On July 21, 2013, the three daughters were approximately 12, 13, and 14 years of age. The oldest daughter was still hospitalized following her suicide attempt. On that date, a Sandpoint police officer received information that Mother had stabbed herself in the face with a pen and had been talking about killing herself. After investigating the matter, the officer took Mother to the hospital, and he took the two younger daughters into shelter care.

         On July 23, 2013, the prosecuting attorney filed a petition under the Child Protective Act (CPA) regarding the two younger daughters. The shelter care hearing was held the same day before Magistrate Judge Lori T. Meulenberg. A public defender had been appointed to represent both Mother and Father. Father appeared by telephone from prison and requested appointment of separate counsel. Therefore, the public defender represented Mother and separate counsel was later appointed to represent Father. All parties stipulated that the two children came within the jurisdiction of the court due to an unstable home environment. The Department of Health and Welfare ("Department") requested that they remain in shelter care, but Father objected and requested that they be placed with his adult son in Arizona. At the conclusion of the hearing, the court ordered that the two children be placed in the temporary legal custody of the Department.

         The adjudicatory hearing regarding the two children was held before Magistrate Judge Debra A. Heise on August 21, 2013, with Father and Mother represented by separate counsel. After the hearing, the court ordered that custody of the two children be vested in the Department for an indeterminate period not to exceed each child's eighteenth birthday. The court later ordered that the petition be amended to include the oldest daughter in the proceedings. On September 16, 2013, the prosecutor filed an amended petition to add the oldest child.

         The Department proposed separate case plans for Father and Mother. At a hearing held before Judge Meulenberg on September 17, 2013, Mother appeared with counsel and accepted her case plan. Father's counsel was present, and Father appeared by telephone. Father's case plan described the areas of concern as follows:

[Father] was convicted of Use of Interstate Facilities in commission of Murder-for-Hire, and has been incarcerated in Federal prison for 7 years as of the date of this plan. In addition, there are six reports concerning abuse of a child and one report of sexual abuse of a child in which [Father] was named as the alleged perpetrator. [Father] has demonstrated significant mental health issues through threatening behaviors, chaotic and intimidating letters addressed to [Mother], his daughters, and prior Department social worker. . . .

         The case plan provided that Father would complete various tasks, including that he would obtain a full neuro-psychological evaluation within sixty days of his release from prison; that he would have no contact with the three daughters until he is engaged in treatment after his release from prison; and that he would not attempt to intimidate Mother, the daughters, or any Department social worker. Father objected to the recommended tasks and asserted that his conviction had nothing to do with his parenting abilities. The matter was scheduled for another hearing on February 25, 2014, to address Father's objections. On December 12 and 19, 2013, Father filed requests for appointment of a different attorney to represent him. On December 30, 2013, the court appointed a new attorney for Father.

         At the hearing on February 25, 2014, before Judge Meulenberg, Father appeared by telephone and took the position that he would not participate in the case plan unless he was permitted to have contact with his daughters. He also stated that he wanted a new attorney. The court attempted to discuss the case plan with Father, but he interrupted the court and stated that the reports were false and contrived and that he was being asked to do things that were unnecessary and inappropriate. The court found that the case plan was the best reasonably available option for the protection of the children and adopted the plan. The following day, Father's counsel moved to withdraw, and several days later Father moved to discharge his attorney and requested that Monica Flood Brennan be appointed to represent him. The court granted the motions and appointed Ms. Brennan to represent Father.

         Judge Meulenberg continued having scheduled review hearings in the case, at which Father appeared by telephone and Ms. Brennan appeared for him in person. On August 5, September 2, and September 29, 2014, Judge Meulenberg held a permanency hearing at which Father appeared by telephone and through Ms. Brennan. At the conclusion of the hearing, the court adopted a permanency plan, which included a provision that the Department commence proceedings to terminate Father's parental rights in all three children. The court found that such plan was in the best interests of the children because:

These three young women have been traumatized. They have depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, behavioral issues, eating disorders, and suicidal ideation. Sexual abuse allegations have been made against the father and the mother. All three children have consistently expressed fear of [Father] and desire to have no communication with him. This family is not in a place where reunification is possible at this time. Further, it is in the best interest of the children to be in separate homes at this time.

         In October, Father was released from prison and began residing with his adult son in Arizona.

         On January 13, 2015, Ms. Brennan filed a motion asking the court to reconsider its decision that the Department should commence termination proceedings. On May 22, 2015, the court issued an order denying reconsideration.

         On June 16, 2015, the Department filed a petition to terminate Father's parental rights in the children. The evidentiary hearing on the petition was scheduled before Judge Heise for five consecutive days, from August 31 through September 4, 2015. The evidentiary hearing extended beyond the scheduled five days to include three days in October (14–16) and six days in January 2016 (19–22 and 28–29). Following the hearing, the court issued a written decision finding that the Department had proved, by clear and convincing evidence, three independent grounds for terminating Father's parental rights. Father then appealed. Pursuant to Father's request, his appeal also included the CPA proceedings.


         Only One Ground for Termination Will Be Addressed on Appeal.

         "The trial court must find that grounds for terminating parental rights have been proved by clear and convincing evidence." Dep't of Health and Welfare v. Doe, 149 Idaho 207, 210, 233 P.3d 138, 141 (2010). "On appeal, the appellate court does not reweigh the evidence to determine if it was clear and convincing." Id. "In an action to terminate parental rights where a trial court has noted explicitly and applied a clear and convincing standard, an appellate court will not disturb the trial court's findings unless they are not supported by substantial and competent evidence." State v. Doe, 144 Idaho 534, 535, 164 P.3d 814, 815 (2007). "Substantial and competent evidence is relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept to support a conclusion." Anderson v. Harper's, Inc., 143 Idaho 193, 195, 141 P.3d 1062, 1064 (2006). "It is the province of the trial court to determine the credibility of witnesses, the weight to be given their testimony, and the inferences to be drawn from the evidence." KMST, LLC v. Cnty. of Ada, 138 Idaho 577, 581, 67 P.3d 56, 60 (2003).

         The Department alleged the following six grounds for terminating Father's parental rights:

a. The parent[s] has/have abandoned the children by willfully failing to maintain a normal parental relationship, including but not limited to reasonable support or regular personal contact and/or;
b. The parent[s] has/have abandoned the children by willfully failing to maintain a normal parental relationship with the children for a period of one year or longer and/or;
c. The parent[s] has/have neglected the children as defined in Idaho Code § 16-1602(25) and/or;
d. The parent[s] has/have neglected the children because the parents have failed to comply with the court's orders in a children protective act case or the case plan, and reunification of the children with their parent[s] has not occurred within the time standards set forth in Idaho Code § 16-1629(9) and/or:
e. The parent[s] are unable to discharge parental responsibilities and such inability will continue for a prolonged, indeterminate period and will be injurious to the health, morals or well-being of the children and/or:
f. Termination is in the best interest of the parent[s] and the children.

         The magistrate court found that the Department had proved three of those grounds: (1) Father had neglected the children by engaging in conduct defined in Idaho Code section 16-1602(28), I.C. §§ 16-2005(1)(b), 16-2002(3)(a); (2) Father had neglected the children by failing to comply with the case plan in the CPA proceedings, I.C. §§ 16-2005(1)(b), 16-2002(3)(b); and (3) termination of the parent-child relationship was in the best interest of Father and the children, I.C. § 16-2005(3). The statutory grounds are independent, and a finding of any one of ...

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