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In re Doe

Supreme Court of Idaho

March 14, 2019

In the Matter of: Jane Doe I and John Doe, Children Under Eighteen (18) Years of Age.
v.
JANE DOE, Respondent-Appellant, and GUARDIAN AD LITEM, Intervenor-Respondent. IDAHO DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND WELFARE, Petitioner-Respondent,

          Appeal from the Magistrate Court of the Fifth Judicial District, State of Idaho, Lincoln County. Hon. Daniel Dolan, Magistrate Judge.

         Decree terminating parental rights, affirmed.

          Jeremy L. Pittard, Attorney at Law, Burley, for appellant.

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

          BURDICK, Chief Justice.

         Jane Doe ("Mother") appeals from a Lincoln County magistrate court's judgment terminating her parental rights to her minor children. The judgment also terminated the parental rights of the children's father ("Father"). He appeals in a separate action.

         The children were placed in the custody of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare (the "Department") following a March 2016 petition under the Child Protection Act ("CPA"). After the filing of the petition, the parents stipulated to an unstable home environment. In June 2016, the magistrate court ordered the parents to follow case plans provided by the Department. Roughly eight months later, the State filed a motion to terminate both parents' parental rights based on failure to comply with their case plans and prior neglect. After holding a trial, the magistrate court terminated both parents' parental rights.

         Mother timely appeals and argues that the Department did not make adequate efforts to reunify the family and that the magistrate court erred by finding that the Department's efforts were reasonable. We affirm the termination of Mother's parental rights.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         This appeal concerns the termination of Mother's parental rights to her two minor children. Mother and Father are the biological parents of the children. Prior to the termination trial, the children and parents were the subjects of a nearly two-year-long CPA proceeding. When the prosecutors first filed a petition under the CPA, the parents were listed with separate addresses, but were living together. However, the parents ended and rekindled their relationship at various times prior to and during the CPA proceeding. By the time of the termination trial, Mother and Father were permanently separated and Mother was residing with her parents at their home.

         The Department became involved in early March 2016 after receiving reports of drug use and neglect involving the minor children. Prior to this, the Department had received referrals for the family on two prior occasions in 2013 and 2014 for the same issues. The Department's investigation revealed that both children had been born premature, exposed to drugs in-utero, and tested positive for methamphetamine at birth. Based on these concerns, the Lincoln County prosecutors filed a petition under the Child Protection Act in March 2016.

         The Lincoln County magistrate court opened a CPA proceeding and placed the children in the legal custody of the Department under a protective order. However, the court ordered the children to remain with their parents for the time being. A week later, the Department and a Lincoln County law-enforcement officer conducted an unannounced home visit. The visit revealed that the home was in a state of disarray. Mother was not "able to remain still" and "had what appeared to be methamphetamine sores on her face." She admitted to no longer living at home after an incident of domestic violence involving Father which the children had witnessed. She also stated that she had used methamphetamine within the past week and picked the children up afterwards. Declaring the children to be in imminent danger, the officer removed the children from the parents' custody and placed them in foster care. The children were placed with the foster parent who ultimately would care for the children during the CPA proceeding. At the subsequent shelter-care hearing, the court ordered the children to remain in the Department's custody. At the adjudicatory hearing a month later, both parents stipulated to an unstable home environment as the basis for the CPA proceedings and the children remained in the Department's custody.

         About a month after the adjudicatory hearing, Mother agreed to both participate in and accomplish a case plan provided by the Department. The case plan contained sixteen tasks aimed at addressing "all original areas of concern that brought the family to the attention of the Department" and ensuring "the children will have a safe, stable, sanitary and drug-free home environment." The Department stated its primary goal was reunification and its secondary goal was adoption. Mother preferred making the secondary goal guardianship with her parents rather than adoption. The Department explained that guardianships are disfavored because they are an impermanent solution. The court indicated (according to the court minutes) that "[g]uardianship is something to keep in mind as they work through the plan."

         Over the next several months, the court held numerous review hearings to assess the parents' progress with the case plan and the Department's efforts to reunify the family. In her appellate brief, Mother admits that she failed to satisfactorily complete her case plan during this time:

Suffice it to say that the Appellant recognizes that she did not complete her case plan. She also acknowledges that during the pendency of these proceedings she was a single parent who was dealing with a severe drug addiction and challenging mental health issues.

         During the same timeframe, the Department's stated primary goal was reunification but changed the secondary goal to adoption by relative. To this end, the Department actively sought out and evaluated various family members as possible foster-care placements. Mother's parents applied to become foster parents but were denied due to concerns about their medication use. They administratively appealed the Department's decision, but the appeal was denied for failure to include proper medical forms. They did not appeal the Department's decision to the district court. The Department also looked into having the children's paternal grandparents and maternal aunt as possible foster parents, but their applications were also denied.

         Almost a year after the children were first placed in the Department's custody, the court held a permanency hearing. The Department informed the court that it was looking into whether the children's great uncle was a suitable placement. In its report, the Department had changed its primary goal to adoption and its secondary goal to guardianship in one place, but changed the goals to reunification and adoption (nonrelative) in another. The Department advised the court it would inquire into whether the great uncle was a suitable foster parent, but would then schedule a POST ("Permanency Option Selection Team") meeting. At this hearing, Mother testified and the court extended the disposition of the permanency hearing for 30 days in order to allow the parents to show improvement. However, those 30 days were extended to almost 90 days after the hearing was continued until June 2017.

         Days after the court originally extended the permanency hearing, the Department filed a petition to terminate parental rights. The Department notified the court that its attempts to contact the children's great uncle were unsuccessful. The court accepted the Department's recommendation for adoption as the permanent plan. The court advised the parties to prepare for a termination trial.

         The termination trial was delayed while the parties inquired into whether a guardian ad litem should be appointed for the children's father. Mother's parents independently filed a petition for guardianship of the minor children four days prior to the October trial date. The court then continued the October trial date due to lack of proof regarding whether the parents had been properly served. During the interim, the court heard the grandparents' petition for guardianship. The court concluded that Idaho Code sections 16-1604 and 16-1629(8) give the Department the power and right to determine where and with whom the children reside. The court dismissed the petition because the Department did not consent to the guardianship.

         Commencing in January 2018, the termination trial was split over three days in January and March 2018. Mother did not testify. The parties submitted written closing arguments in July 2018 and the court issued its memorandum decision and final judgment in October 2018.

         II. ISSUES ON APPEAL

         1. Should this Court inquire into the magistrate court's approval of the Department's reasonable efforts to reunify the children with Mother on appeal ...


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