Idaho Dep't of Health & Welfare v. Jane Doe (In re John Doe)

Decision Date09 September 2016
Docket NumberDocket No. 44092
Citation389 P.3d 141,161 Idaho 596
CourtIdaho Supreme Court
Parties In the Matter of John Doe, a Child Under Eighteen Years of Age. IDAHO DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND WELFARE, Petitioner-Respondent, and Guardian ad Litem/CASA, Intervenor-Respondent, v. Jane DOE (2016-14), Respondent-Appellant.

Canyon County Public Defender's Office, Caldwell, for appellant.

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

Scarlett Law, PLLC, Nampa, for respondent Guardian ad Litem/CASA.

ON THE BRIEFS

HORTON, Justice.

This appeal arises from a magistrate court's judgment terminating the parent-child relationship between Appellant Jane Doe (Doe) and her child, M.R. We vacate the judgment and remand for additional findings of fact and conclusions of law.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Doe has a long history of involvement with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare (the Department), beginning in 2000. Doe was removed from her biological parents in 2000 and 2004 for physical abuse. The abuse resulted in head wounds

and scarring and necessitated surgeries. Doe later disclosed sexual abuse by her parents. Her parents consented to termination of their parental rights to Doe in 2004. Doe turned eighteen while in foster care, aging out of the system. Doe gave birth to M.R. in 2011 and began living with M.R. in a separate residence on her parents' property.

In August of 2012, Doe was arrested for aggravated assault. M.R. was sixteen months old at the time of Doe's arrest. Upon her incarceration, Doe "signed over temporary guardianship" of M.R. to her parents. Doe was eventually sentenced to serve five years, with two years fixed, and the court retained jurisdiction. Doe was unsuccessful on her rider, and in June of 2014 the district court relinquished jurisdiction because of Doe's "aggressive behavior" while in prison. Doe testified that the earliest date that she might be released is May of 2017. At that time, M.R. will be six years old. He has not been in Doe's care since her arrest.

In October of 2014, M.R. came into the care of the Department because of physical abuse of another child in Doe's parents' home. A case plan was approved in December of 2014, which included tasks that Doe was to complete while incarcerated. Doe failed to complete certain case plan requirements, specifically, counseling and a parenting class after being transferred to a different prison facility.

On November 12, 2015, the Department filed a Petition for Termination of the Parent-Child Relationship. Following a hearing on March 21, 2016, the magistrate court found that the Department had met its burden of proving, by clear and convincing evidence, two grounds upon which termination could be granted: (1) neglect, due to Doe's failure to comply with her case plan; and (2) Doe's incarceration for a substantial portion of M.R.'s minority. The magistrate court further found, again by clear and convincing evidence, that termination of Doe's parental rights was in M.R.'s best interests. Doe timely appealed.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

"Pursuant to Idaho Code section 16–2005(1), a court may terminate parental rights if it finds that doing so is in the best interests of the child and that at least one of five grounds for termination is satisfied." In re Doe (2014–23) , 157 Idaho 920, 923, 342 P.3d 632, 635 (2015). "The grounds for terminating a parent-child relationship must be proved by clear and convincing evidence." In re Doe (2013–15) , 156 Idaho 103, 105–06, 320 P.3d 1262, 1264–65 (2014) ; see also I.C. § 16–2009. "Clear and convincing evidence is evidence that indicates the thing to be proved is highly probable or reasonably certain."

In re Doe (2014–17) , 157 Idaho 694, 699, 339 P.3d 755, 760 (2014). "This Court must ‘conduct an independent review of the magistrate court record, but must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the magistrate court's judgment, as the magistrate court has the opportunity to observe witnesses' demeanor, to assess their credibility, to detect prejudice or motive and to judge the character of the parties.’ " In re Doe (2014–23) , 157 Idaho at 923, 342 P.3d at 635 (quoting Doe v. Doe , 150 Idaho 46, 49, 244 P.3d 190, 193 (2010) ).

III. ANALYSIS

On appeal, Doe asserts that the magistrate court erred in finding neglect, since she was unable to comply with the requirements of her case plan while incarcerated. Doe also contends that her incarceration was not and is not likely to be for a substantial portion of M.R.'s minority, since her incarceration will last a maximum of five years and she will likely be released within a year. Finally, Doe argues that the Department failed to produce evidence that termination is in Doe's best interests.

A. The magistrate court erred when it failed to consider whether it was possible for Doe to comply with her case plan.

The magistrate court found that the Department had proven neglect, applying the definition of neglect provided by Idaho Code section 16–2002(3)(b).1 The statute defines neglect as including the failure to comply with court orders or a case plan in a child protective act case if the Department has temporary or legal custody of the child for more than fifteen of the last twenty-two months. I.C. § 16–2002(3)(b). The magistrate court found that Doe failed to comply with the case plan and reunification had not occurred within the statutory period.

On appeal, Doe argues the magistrate court erred by terminating her parental rights based on her failure to complete the case plan. Doe contends her failure to comply with the case plan was beyond her control. Doe argues that completion of the case plan was impossible while she was incarcerated and that she performed as many tasks of the case plan as possible while incarcerated. The magistrate court summarily rejected similar arguments from Doe's attorney, stating:

In this case, the child has been in custody for 17 months, and there's been no progress on the case plan. I realize that that's due to inability, that you've been unable to established [sic] housing, that you've been unable to get the mental health assessment and proceed with the recommendations, that you've been unable to complete the parenting classes approved by the department, that you've been unable to obtain employment to provide for yourself and M.R. But inability or willfulness or intent are not elements of neglect for failure to complete the case plan.
... So the lack of willfulness, the lack of ability is not a defense, it's not an element of what they have to prove. They have shown failure to complete the case plan....

The Department asserts that Doe's failure to complete tasks within the case plan resulted from her misbehavior while incarcerated. The Department argues that Doe would have been able to make progress on her case plan if she had not had disciplinary issues during her incarceration, and therefore Doe is responsible for her failure to complete the case plan. Although the Department's argument has no small measure of appeal, we are unable to accept it because the magistrate made no findings that connected Doe's conduct with her failure to complete the case plan. To the contrary, the magistrate court unambiguously held that the failure to complete the requirements of a case plan constitutes neglect, even when it is not possible for the parent to complete those tasks. In so holding, the magistrate court erred.

Doe directs us to our decisions in Doe I v. Doe II , 148 Idaho 713, 228 P.3d 980 (2010), and In re Adoption of Doe , 143 Idaho 188, 141 P.3d 1057 (2006), in support of her claim that the magistrate erred by failing to consider whether it was possible for her to perform the tasks called for by her case plan. She quotes Doe I v. Doe II , 148 Idaho at 716, 228 P.3d at 983, where we noted an obvious truth: "For one to willfully fail to do something, he or she must have the ability to do it." Likewise, she notes that we found that a trial court erred by failing to consider evidence of just cause for a parent's failure to provide reasonable support and maintain regular personal contact. In re Adoption of Doe , 143 Idaho at 192, 141 P.3d at 1061. These cases could be distinguished from the instant case because different grounds for termination were being considered. In both cases, termination was sought on the basis of abandonment. Doe I v. Doe II , 148 Idaho at 715, 228 P.3d at 982 ; In re Adoption of Doe , 143 Idaho at 190, 141 P.3d at 1059. However, we do not find the distinction to be material.

We acknowledge that the text of Idaho Code section 16–2002(3)(b) supports the magistrate's decision, as the statute does not include a requirement of willfulness. Rather, the statute simply requires a parent's failure "to comply with the court's orders or the case plan" and the Department having custody of the child for a specified duration. A statement from this Court may also be read as supporting the magistrate court's view that impossibility is not a defense to a claim of neglect predicated upon Idaho Code section 16–2002(3)(b). We recently stated: "Mother argues that because of her disabilities, the trial court could not have found she willfully failed to comply with the case plan or willfully neglected her children. However, willful neglect and willful non-compliance with the case plan is not the standard." In re Doe (2014–17) , 157 Idaho at 700, 339 P.3d at 761.

Nevertheless, we now hold that impossibility may be asserted as a defense to a claim of neglect founded upon failure to comply with the requirements of a case plan. The right to parent one's child is a fundamental liberty interest. Quilloin v. Walcott , 434 U.S. 246, 255, 98 S.Ct. 549, 54 L.Ed.2d 511 (1978). Indeed, the United States Supreme Court has stated that "[t]he liberty interest at issue in this case—the interest of parents in the care, custody, and control of their children—is perhaps the oldest of the...

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