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In re Termination of Parent-Child Relationship of Doe

Supreme Court of Idaho

December 22, 2017

In the Matter of the Termination of the Parent-Child Relationship of JOHN DOE I (2017-21), a Child, and JANE DOE and JOHN DOE.
v.
JOHN DOE I, a Child (2017-21), Appellant. IDAHO DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND WELFARE, Petitioner-Respondent,

         2017 Opinion No. 133

         Appeal from the District Court of the Third Judicial District of the State of Idaho, Canyon County. Hon. Frank P. Kotyk, Magistrate Judge.

         The magistrate court's judgments terminating parental rights of mother and father are reversed.

          Krista L. Howard, Interim Canyon County Public Defender, Caldwell, for appellant.

          Hon. Lawrence G. Wasden, Idaho Attorney General, Boise, for respondent Idaho Department of Health & Welfare.

          Danielle Scarlett, Nampa, for respondent Guardian ad Litem.

          BRODY, Justice.

         This cases involves the statutory termination of parental rights by two adoptive parents after John Doe I ("Child") was alleged to have sexually assaulted a sibling. The magistrate court entered judgments (one for each parent) terminating the Does' parental rights on three grounds: inability to discharge parental responsibilities, best interest of the Does and Child, and voluntary consent. Child now appeals. We reverse the judgments terminating the parental rights of the Does.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         John and Jane Doe adopted Child in June 2016. The Does' adoption came after a previous out-of-state adoption of Child was ended through legal termination of parental rights (the Department calls this a "disrupted adoption"). In September 2016, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare ("the Department") received a report from Jane Doe that Child had sexually assaulted his younger sister (aged nine), another adoptive child of the Does. Child was twelve years old at the time of the incident. Thereafter, the Does worked with the Department and juvenile corrections personnel to determine the best course of action with regard to Child.

         In October 2016, Child's juvenile corrections proceeding was expanded to a child protective proceeding, and he was placed in shelter care with the Department. The expansion order specifies that "[t]he parents indicate [Child] will never be able to return to their home due to the safety of the other children." In addition to their adoptive children, the Does also have two biological children-aged eight and ten-who lived in their home at the time of the incident. Child was subsequently taken to a residential care facility in Utah ("the Utah facility") to receive treatment, including mental health services. The decision to place Child with the Utah facility was made jointly by the Does and the Department. The treatment program was not permanent placement, but Child's completion of the program was expected to take up to a year.

         Shortly after Child was taken to the Utah facility, the magistrate court decreed that Child was to be placed under the protective custody of the Department because it would be contrary to Child's welfare to remain in the Does' home. The magistrate court then held a hearing on the case plan submitted by the Department and approved the plan without any objections from the parties. The case plan is not included in the record, but at the hearing the magistrate court noted that it featured a reunification plan and an alternative placement plan; at that time, Child's only role was to complete his treatment at the Utah facility. Child was represented at the hearing by counsel and appeared by telephone.

         In March 2017, the magistrate court conducted a status review hearing, at which time counsel for the Does requested an opportunity for her clients to provide sworn testimony regarding their voluntary termination of the parent-child relationship. The magistrate court denied the request and described it as procedurally improper because the State and the Department had not yet moved to change the permanency goal of the case plan or filed a petition for termination of parental rights. During the hearing, counsel for Child made a preemptive objection to termination on the grounds that (1) terminating the parent-child relationship would place Child in foster care for the remainder of his minority and (2) the Does had an obligation to support their child. Counsel for the Does stated that her clients had exhausted every option as far as relative and kinship placement of Child, and that termination was the only possible resolution given that Child could not return to their care and custody. Counsel for the guardian ad litem acknowledged that her client was supportive of termination. Child appeared telephonically.

         In April 2017, the Department filed a Verified Petition for Termination of the Parent-Child Relationship on the grounds of John and Jane Doe being unable to discharge parental responsibilities. The Petition also stated that termination was in the best interest of Child. A petition for adoption was not filed in conjunction with the Petition. Attached to the Petition is the Department's Report of Investigation for Termination of Parental Rights. On the same day, the magistrate court held a six-month review hearing, during which John and Jane Doe each executed a Voluntary Termination of Parental Rights. The Does provided sworn testimony regarding their intent to terminate their parental rights and were each subject to cross-examination. Following the Does' testimony, counsel for Child objected to (1) relieving the Department from making reasonable efforts at reunification and (2) changing Child's permanency goal to termination of parental rights and adoption. The magistrate court approved both matters over counsel's objections. Child filed an objection to the Department's Petition.

         On June 29, 2017, the magistrate court conducted a hearing on the termination of parental rights. Once more, Child appeared by telephone from the Utah facility. The Department social worker who drafted the Department Report was subject to examination. The magistrate court provided the parties with an opportunity to present additional evidence and witnesses, but both sides rested their cases. The magistrate court ruled from the bench that the Does' parental rights were to be terminated based on a finding by clear and convincing evidence that (1) the Does provided voluntary consent; (2) the Does were unable to discharge parental responsibilities and such inability would continue for a prolonged indeterminate period and would be injurious to the health, morals, or well-being of Child; and (3) termination was in the best interest of the Does and Child. The magistrate court subsequently issued written Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law. The magistrate court also entered judgments terminating the parent-child relationships between Child and John and Jane Doe, and vesting legal custody and guardianship with the Department. Child now appeals.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The State must prove the grounds for terminating a parent-child relationship by clear and convincing evidence. Idaho Code § 16-2009; State v. Doe, 143 Idaho 383, 386, 146 P.3d 649, 652 (2006). "In an action to terminate parental rights, where the trial court has explicitly determined the case by application of the clear and convincing evidentiary standard, this Court must determine if the decision was supported by substantial and competent evidence." In re Doe, 146 Idaho 759, 761, 203 P.3d 689, 691 (2009). "Substantial competent evidence is 'such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Id. (quoting In re Doe, 143 Idaho 343, 345-46, 144 P.3d 597, 599-600 (2006)). "'[T]his Court will indulge all reasonable inferences in support of the trial court's judgment' when reviewing an order that parental rights be terminated." Matter of Aragon, 120 Idaho 606, 608, 818 P.2d 310, 312 (1991) (quoting In Interest of Castro, 102 Idaho 218, 221, 628 P.2d 1052, 1055 (1981)).

         III. ANALYSIS

         Child's appeal centers on the issue of whether the magistrate court's decision to terminate parental rights violated his due process rights. Child first argues that his procedural due process rights were violated based on the manner in which the magistrate court conducted the termination proceeding. He also contends that his substantive due process rights were violated, both generally and absent a showing that reasonable efforts were made to reunite him with the Does. These arguments are addressed in turn.

         A. The magistrate court did not violate Child's procedural due process rights.

         Child contends that his due process rights were violated because the magistrate court did not hold a trial prior to terminating the Does' parental rights. Child argues that he was entitled to a "sufficient, thorough hearing with full opportunity to both hear the evidence and arguments against one's position and to be heard as to one's own evidence." The Department contends that the magistrate court met all of the statutory requirements necessary to protect Child's rights. Particularly, the Department argues, a termination hearing was held pursuant to Idaho Code section 16-2009 and the magistrate court's findings were thereafter articulated in writing pursuant to section 16-2010(1).

         When terminating parental rights, the parties' respective liberty interests are statutorily protected by the requirements of a hearing at which the grounds for termination must be established by clear and convincing evidence. I.C. § 16-2009. Section 16-2009 provides:

Cases under this act shall be heard by the court without a jury. The hearing may be conducted in an informal manner and may be adjourned from time to time. Stenographic notes or mechanical recording of the hearing shall be required. The general public shall be excluded and only such persons admitted whose presence is requested by any person entitled to notice under the provisions of section 16-2007, Idaho Code, or as the judge shall find to have a direct interest in the case or in the work of the court; provided that persons so admitted shall not disclose any information secured at the hearing which would identify an individual child or parent. The court may require the presence of witnesses deemed necessary to the disposition of the petition, except that a parent who has executed a waiver pursuant to section 16-2007, Idaho Code, shall not be required to appear at the hearing.
The parent or guardian ad litem shall be notified as soon as practicable after the filing of a petition and prior to the start of a hearing of his right to have counsel, and if counsel is requested and the parent or guardian is financially unable to employ counsel, counsel shall be provided. The prosecuting attorneys of ...

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