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In re Doe

Supreme Court of Idaho

December 21, 2018

In the Matter of: JANE and JOHN DOE II, Children Under Eighteen (18) Years of Age.
v.
JANE DOE (2018-20), Respondent-Appellant. JOHN and JANE DOE I, Petitioners-Respondents,

          Appeal from the District Court of the Fifth Judicial District, State of Idaho, Twin Falls County. Hon. Roger B. Harris, Magistrate Judge.

         Judgment terminating parental rights, affirmed.

          Twin Falls County Public Defenders Office, Twin Falls, for appellant. Laura Z. O'Connell argued.

          Roy Nielson Barini-Garcia & Platts, Twin Falls, for respondents. Eric B. Nielson argued.

          BURDICK, CHIEF JUSTICE.

         Jane Doe ("Mother") appeals the Twin Falls County magistrate court's termination of her parental rights to her minor children, Jane Doe II ("T.T.") and John Doe II ("D.T."). On February 7, 2017, John and Jane Doe I[1] ("Guardians") filed a petition to terminate Mother's parental rights to T.T. and D.T. that was amended on May 17, 2017. After holding a one-day trial, the magistrate court ("trial court") ordered written closing arguments by both parties. Afterwards, the termination petition was granted.[2] The trial court found: (1) Mother had neglected her children; (2) Mother had abandoned her children; and (3) termination of Mother's parental rights was in the best interest of the children. Because each of these findings was supported by clear and convincing evidence, the trial court granted Guardians' request for termination. The trial court entered a final judgment to that effect on May 11, 2018. Mother timely appeals.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Mother voluntarily placed T.T. and D.T. under Guardian's care in December 2015. This voluntary placement was instigated by Mother's desire to avoid removal of the children by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare ("the Department") which would have resulted in their placement in foster care. At the time of their placement, both T.T. and D.T. were less than two years of age (17 and 2 months old, respectively). At the time of this appeal, both children have remained in Guardians' exclusive care for over two-and-a-half years.

         T.T. is the elder of the two children. When Mother first became pregnant with T.T., she initially told everyone at her workplace that she had cancer instead of explaining that she was, in fact, pregnant. Prior to T.T.'s birth, Mother asked one of her coworkers whether she might want to adopt T.T., who Mother claimed was her sister's child. Once T.T. was born, Mother would frequently leave T.T. in the care of others-sometimes for weeks at a time-and these caretakers would often purchase formula, food, diapers, clothing, and other items for the child. These caretakers would also arrange and pay for babysitting when they couldn't watch T.T. instead of Mother arranging for T.T.'s care. When Mother would deliver T.T. to others for supervision, T.T. would be hungry, fussy, and dirty to the point of matted hair and a diaper rash so severe that the child would be bleeding and have to be bathed immediately and ointment applied to the diaper rash. Mother appeared to show no tenderness toward the child and was usually taking T.T. from person to person so as to not have to care for the child herself.

         D.T. is the younger of the two children. D.T.'s short life thus far has been marked by significant medical issues. D.T. was only in Mother's care for a period of less than two months which spanned the time from his birth until placement with Guardians. In that short time, D.T. had already experienced a trip to the emergency room for breathing difficulties. D.T.'s visit to the emergency room occurred the night before he was placed in Guardians' custody.

         By the time D.T. was born, Mother no longer worked, had changed housing several times, and had settled in a house with other residents. Mother's practice of continuing to ask others to watch the children continued at the house. When no such arrangement could be secured, Mother would often leave the children alone and unattended while she watched television upstairs or went outside to smoke cigarettes. It was around this time that Guardians began to care for T.T. and D.T., including caring for the children upwards of five days a week. Eventually, Mother's pattern of inattention to her children became a cause for concern for the residents of the house, and this concern prompted a call to the Department.

         While there is some conflicting testimony as to what happened the morning the Department became involved, what is clear is that D.T. was left unattended in a bassinet for several hours while Mother went to work. Mother left D.T. to attend work but contends that she expected a babysitter to arrive shortly after her departure. In any event, a resident of the house awoke to find D.T. alone (T.T. was staying with Mother's parent at the time) and unattended in a bassinet. After discovering the newborn with no supervision, the resident, knowing that Guardian typically cared for the children during the week, contacted Guardian for advice. Guardian had, in fact, previously informed Mother that she would not be able to watch the children that morning. Eventually, the resident decided to contact the police, prompting Guardian to depart for the house and, after the police officer arrived, Guardian requested that the children be placed in her custody instead of placing them in foster care. The police officer contacted Mother, causing Mother to come to the scene where she eventually agreed to the children's placement with Guardians for the immediate future. Thereafter, Mother was given the option of placing the children either with Guardians or in foster care. Mother selected Guardians and a formal guardianship was put into place.

         Once the guardianship was established, Guardians realized that T.T. exhibited a number of alarming behaviors. It became clear that T.T. had serious issues with hoarding food and self-stimulation. Guardian found T.T. to be hungry-eating to the point of pain. In addition, Guardian noticed that T.T. would frequently masturbate, going so far as inserting foreign objects into her vagina to the point of injury. These sexualized behaviors were especially alarming given that at the time the guardianship was established, T.T. was only a year and a half old. Given these concerns, Guardians sought the help of a licensed social worker for counseling for T.T.

         The counselor observed that T.T. would masturbate daily, hoard food, and would never stop eating if food were available-to the point where T.T. would rummage through garbage cans looking for food. T.T.'s counselor opined that the child's issue with food is the result of periods of starvation during her very early childhood. The counselor testified that T.T.'s sexual behaviors likely stem from being sexually abused as an infant. The social worker testified that girls of T.T.'s age do not usually recognize their genitals as sexual organs unless someone shows them how to masturbate, they are sexually abused, or they see someone else masturbating.

         D.T. was less than two months old when he was entrusted into the care of Guardians. Guardians immediately took the newborn to see the family doctor given D.T.'s perceptible difficulty breathing and keeping food down. D.T. has several conditions that have required medical intervention including problems with reflux that causes difficulties with his larynx and trachea. He has issues keeping food down which necessitates placement of a feeding tube. Most recently, D.T. has developed seizures. These issues have required surgeries on both his stomach and the top part of his throat. As described by his doctor, D.T. is a sort of "moving target" given that his symptoms and conditions don't fit into well-defined syndromes or illnesses making his future medical needs unpredictable. D.T. currently receives nourishment from a feeding tube attached to a small backpack that he must constantly wear. Guardians have taken D.T. to all of his medical appointments, including those that are a considerable distance away from home, and paid for the portions of D.T.'s medical expenses not covered by insurance.

         During the time her children were under the Guardians' care, Mother lived a nomadic lifestyle and used methamphetamine. For significant periods of time, Mother was homeless. While Mother has on occasion attempted to reach out to T.T. and D.T. during their time under Guardians' care, Mother has never attempted to reunite with her children. Mother moved back in with her own mother. Since then she has enjoyed some semblance of stability in her life and secured employment. Despite this stability, Mother is still not requesting to reunite with or regain custody of her children. She wishes the guardianship to continue regardless of the disposition of this case.

         Guardians have been the exclusive caretakers of T.T. and D.T. Guardians have been present at every surgery, medical appointment, and counseling session while taking an active role in learning how to care for T.T. and D.T. and handle their physical and behavioral challenges. The children have bonded with Guardians over the course of the guardianship. The children consider themselves part of Guardians' family. Despite their hardships and obstacles, D.T. and T.T. have progressed and are thriving in Guardians' home. Even though D.T.'s medical issues are some of the most demanding his physician has ever seen, his physician is impressed by Guardians' ability to provide care for the infant. Likewise, T.T. has progressed in the counseling secured by Guardians. The children have had limited contact with Mother since the guardianship began, but at least one visit from Mother caused T.T. to regress in much of her progress. The child suffered from uncontrollable bowel movements for several weeks after the visit. T.T.'s counselor opined that this regression was likely a negative emotional reaction to seeing her Mother.

         On February 7, 2017, a little over a year after the guardianship was established, Guardians filed a petition to terminate Mother's parental rights to T.T. and D.T. as well as an amended petition on May 17, 2017. Subsequent to filing their petition for termination of parental rights and adoption, Guardians were the subject an Investigative Report and a Pre-Adoption Home Study Report by the Department. Both inquiries resulted in the conclusion and recommendation that the children remain with Guardians. After holding a one-day trial and the submission of written closing arguments by both parties, the trial court granted Guardians' petition on the basis that Mother neglected and abandoned the children and that termination was in the children's best interests. The trial court entered a judgment to that effect on May 11, 2018. Mother timely appeals.

         II. ...


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