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In re Doe Children

Supreme Court of Idaho

September 14, 2016

In the Interest of the DOE CHILDREN, Children Under the Age of Eighteen Years.
v.
JANE DOE (2016-11), Respondent-Appellant. IDAHO DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND WELFARE, Petitioner-Respondent, and GUARDIAN AD LITEM / CASA, Intervenor-Respondent,

         2016 Opinion No. 102

         Appeal from the District Court of the Seventh Judicial District of the State of Idaho, Bonneville County. Hon. Ralph L. Savage, Magistrate Judge.

         The judgment of the magistrate court is affirmed. Costs on appeal are awarded to respondent.

          Bonneville County Public Defender, Idaho Falls, attorneys for appellant.

          Hon. Lawrence G. Wasden, Idaho Attorney General, Boise, attorney for respondent.

          W. JONES, JUSTICE.

         I. Nature of the Case

         In an expedited appeal out of Bonneville County, Jane Doe ("Mother") appeals a magistrate court's judgment terminating her parental rights as to her children, D.M., A.M., J.S., A.L., and R.L. She asserts that the State failed to produce clear and convincing evidence sufficient to overcome the presumption that she could parent her children. Specifically, Mother argues that: (1) the last eight months of her participation in the case plan contravene a finding of neglect; and (2) the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare ("IDHW") failed to help reunify the family.

         II. Factual and Procedural Background

         Mother has five children, D.M. (born 2007), A.M. (born 2008), J.S. (born 2013), A.L. (born 2014), and R.L. (born 2015).

         On May 22, 2014, a petition under the Child Protective Act was filed, asking a magistrate court to determine whether the children were within the jurisdiction of the Child Protective Act, Idaho Code Title 16, Chapter 16, and whether the children were "abandoned; abused; neglected; homeless and/or lacking a stable home environment." Additionally, the petition asked the magistrate court to place the children under the protective supervision of the IDHW. The petition originated due to "ongoing neglect of the children" and also because A.L. was born with methamphetamine in her system. After an adjudicatory proceeding, the magistrate court held the following: (1) the children are within the jurisdiction of the Child Protection Act; (2) the children are placed under the protective supervision of the IDHW in the children's own home; and (3) Mother will cooperate with the IDHW in the development of a case plan.

         On August 11, 2014, the magistrate court approved a case plan that required Mother to secure independent housing, attend parent-teacher conferences, and earn her GED. The magistrate court included a warning that "[Mother's] failure to comply with the plan could result in the filing of a petition to terminate parental rights."

         The children were placed in shelter care on August 20, 2014, due to Mother's continued non-compliance and neglect, which included failure to follow the case plan, discharge from drug and alcohol treatment due to failure to attend, and home cleanliness and safety issues. A redisposition hearing occurred on August 22, 2014, which resulted in the magistrate court: (1) finding that it was in the best interest of the children to vest legal custody of the children to the IDHW; (2) finding that efforts to prevent removal were reasonable; and (3) granting an extended home visit subject to Mother's continued compliance and cooperation with the IDHW in the preparation of case plans.

         After a hearing on September 15, 2014, the magistrate court approved an amended case plan requiring, inter alia, that Mother earn her GED and obtain independent housing. Once again, the magistrate court warned that "[Mother's] failure to comply with the plan could result in the filing of a petition to terminate parental rights." The previously granted extended home visit ended on September 10, 2014, due to Mother's continued neglect, failure to comply with the case plan, and failure to follow the rules at the Haven Shelter, where she temporarily resided. Consequently, the children have remained in the IDHW's custody since August 20, 2014, and in a foster home since September 10, 2014.

         In review hearings on February 9 and May 18, 2015, the magistrate court found that Mother's non-compliance with the case plan had persisted. The magistrate court cited the IDHW's reports in each of its orders. Prior to the second hearing, the IDHW reported as follows:

[Mother] is currently incarcerated on felony drug charges. [She] was released to pre-trial services in which she did not follow the terms of that release and that was revoked. [She] also failed to attend her court hearings and there were warrants for her arrest. [She] has been involved in 3 different treatments since this case began and has been kicked out of all 3 for failure to comply. [She] has tested positive on numerous drug tests and failed to produce or show for many as well. [She] has not been employed since this case opened. [She] was moved into the Haven and given her children back to her. She failed to comply with any of the Haven rules and left the Haven. [She] continues to reside with her grandmother, even though she knows the children cannot return to this location. [She] struggles on her visitations with her children and often sits on her cell phone, even though asked to put it away, or argues with [father of A.L.] in the visitation. The visitations with her children are horrible and the children run out of the room and away from [her]. The visitation monitor attempts parent coaching and [Mother] flat out refuses to listen or comply.

         The magistrate court again warned Mother that failure to comply with the case plan could result in the filing of a petition to terminate parental rights. Additionally, the magistrate court noted that the IDHW had continued to make reasonable efforts to reunify the children with their parents, but such efforts were unsuccessful.

         Following a hearing on August 17, 2015, the magistrate court approved the permanency plan calling for termination of parental rights and adoption. The magistrate court did not suspend reunification efforts, but warned that if Mother did not demonstrate remarkable progress on her case plan and in drug court, the IDHW would be authorized to suspend further reunification efforts and visitation between Mother and her children. At the time of the permanency order, the children had been in the IDHW's custody for twelve months.

         The IDHW petitioned to terminate the parental rights of Mother on August 21, 2015. The petition stemmed from Mother's "neglect of the children, [her] failure to comply with the case plan and court orders, [her] failure to progress in order to reunify with the children within 15 months, and [her] failure to discharge parental responsibilities." Shortly thereafter, Mother gave birth to her fifth child, R.L., who was immediately placed in shelter care for the same reasons listed in the termination petition. The magistrate court held a shelter care hearing regarding R.L. on August 24 and August 31, 2015, during which the director of the Haven Shelter and the case manager testified. The magistrate court found that despite the IDHW's reasonable efforts, the circumstances necessitated placing R.L. in shelter care. The magistrate court warned Mother that she would need to make a "remarkable turnaround between now and the adjudicatory hearing" in order to have R.L. placed in her care at that time.

         Mother's non-compliance with the case plan continued as she broke the Haven Shelter's rules, probation rules, and family drug court rules, which ultimately led to her arrest and incarceration on September 17, 2015. Following a hearing on September 28, 2015, the magistrate court issued an order authorizing the IDHW to suspend visitation and reunification efforts as to the four oldest children. Regarding the youngest child, R.L., the magistrate court found that, due to neglect and lack of a stable home environment, R.L. was within the jurisdiction of the Child Protective Act. Further, the magistrate court held that legal custody of R.L. was vested in the IDHW, but reunification efforts and visitation would continue. Accordingly, the magistrate court required the IDHW to prepare a written case plan for Mother.

         On September 30, 2015, the IDHW amended its previous petition to terminate parental rights to add R.L. On October 19, 2015, the magistrate court held a case plan and permanency hearing pertaining to R.L. The magistrate court approved the case plan and required Mother to earn her GED and obtain independent stable housing. Regarding the permanency hearing, the magistrate court found that the IDHW made reasonable efforts to reunite R.L. with Mother, but due to Mother's non-compliance, the magistrate court concluded it was appropriate to place R.L. on the same track as his four siblings. The magistrate court provided the following reasons for its order: R.L.'s siblings have been in foster care for a significant portion of the last eighteen months during which Mother failed to comply with the case plan and court's orders; Mother was removed from family drug court and the Haven Shelter due to non-compliance; Mother was arrested and incarcerated on September 17, 2015, due to numerous probation violations, including associating with known felons and parolees who are actively using drugs, associating with [father of A.L.] through Facebook and letters, possessing hydrocodone pills without a prescription, sending sexual naked pictures of herself to known felons and parolees, failing to perform community service, failing to work on her GED as ordered by family drug court, continuing to sleep in her room during the day rather than seeking employment or performing other tasks, and engaging in criminal activity on her phone; Mother has demonstrated that she is not likely to be in a position to parent R.L. for a significant period of his life; and Mother has not and will not be able to fulfill her obligation as a parent.

         The termination hearing took place on January 8, 11, and 13, 2016. The magistrate court noted that "[t]he admission of 280 exhibits provided more than enough grounds for termination." Nonetheless, the IDHW offered testimony. The director of the Haven Shelter testified regarding Mother's instability and non-compliance during her time at the Haven Shelter. Mother's probation officer testified that Mother failed to comply with probation and drug court requirements, which led to the revocation of probation and incarceration of Mother. The risk assessor at the IDHW testified regarding Mother's neglect of the children and her failure to comply with the case plans. Ms. Hazekamp, the case manager at the IDHW, testified that it was in the best interests of the children to terminate Mother's parental rights so they could be adopted by the foster family with whom the children are "living, thriving, and bonded." Further, Ms. Hazekamp testified that Mother failed to comply with her case plan and to "even minimally progress in demonstrating a willingness or ability to discharge parental responsibilities." Finally, the guardian ad litem testified as follows: (1) the children were neglected prior to being placed in foster care; (2) termination of parental rights was in the best interests of the children; and (3) the children are thriving in their pre-adoptive placement and deserve permanency and stability. Additionally, the magistrate court noted that Mother acknowledged that "she was asking the court to trust that her future conduct would be much better than her past conduct. She also acknowledged she had put her relationship with men ahead of her children, and she conceded that her past conduct justified the termination of her parental rights."

         On March 7, 2016, the magistrate court issued its Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law. The resulting judgment, which terminated Mother's parental rights, was issued on March 10, 2016. The magistrate court's findings of facts expressed appreciation for Mother's intentions regarding her future, but ultimately held that her past clearly and convincingly justified termination. The magistrate court continued, citing Mother's numerous violations of the law, including drug use. Specifically, the magistrate court recounted the events surrounding A.L.'s birth:

[A.L.] was born . . . positive for methamphetamine. [Mother] admitted to a hospital staff member that she had been using methamphetamine as recently as one week prior to the birth of [A.L.]. [Mother's] behaviors were "very bizarre" while she was in the hospital, wherein she acted in a manner that led hospital personnel to believe she was currently under the influence of drugs.

         The Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law also mentioned the risk assessor's numerous concerns regarding the safety of the children. These concerns stemmed from Mother's drug use while pregnant, positive drug tests, housing and financial instability, failure to follow through with appointments, failure to engage in substance abuse treatment, failure to cooperate with the IDHW, failure to maintain a clean residence, and overall inability to parent. These concerns, as well as other concerns were expressed by the guardian ad litem. The Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law noted that Mother's non-compliance worsened throughout the life of the child protection case, including her incarceration on felony drug charges.

         In all, Mother failed to comply with four different case plans. Since the beginning of Mother's case, there were only two brief periods when she was in an approved residence: (1) seventeen days between August and September of 2014, at the Haven Shelter; and (2) less than three months between June and September of 2015, also at the Haven Shelter. The children were with Mother during her 2014 stay at the Haven Shelter. The director of the Haven Shelter reported that Mother left the room in worse condition than any other resident:

We had to throw away all the mattresses due to urine and food messes. There were feces smeared in the bathroom on the toilet and in the sink and the toilet was plugged up with feces in it. I don't know if the kids had been playing in the toilet with cups or what. There were also feces in the main room on the floor under the bunk beds and other places. ...

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