In re C.M., 22-0331

CourtCourt of Appeals of Iowa
Writing for the CourtPOTTERFIELD, SENIOR JUDGE
PartiesIN THE INTEREST OF C.M. and J.M., Minor Children, A.M., Mother, Appellant.
Docket Number22-0331
Decision Date27 April 2022

IN THE INTEREST OF C.M. and J.M., Minor Children, A.M., Mother, Appellant.

No. 22-0331

Court of Appeals of Iowa

April 27, 2022


Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Tama County, Casey D. Jones, District Associate Judge.

The mother appeals the termination of her parental rights to two of her children.

Melissa A. Nine of Nine Law Office, Marshalltown, for appellant mother.

Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Mary A. Triick, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee State.

Deborah M. Skelton, Walford, attorney and guardian ad litem for minor children.

Considered by Tabor, P.J., Ahlers, J., and Potterfield, S.J. [*]

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POTTERFIELD, SENIOR JUDGE

The juvenile court terminated the mother's parental rights to two of her children, [1] C.M. and J.M., born in 2013 and 2014 respectively.[2] On appeal, the mother argues the juvenile court wrongly denied her motions to continue the termination trial. Alternatively, she argues termination of her rights is not in the children's best interests and a permissive factor weighs against termination.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

The Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS) has been involved with this family off and on since 2013. The current involvement began in November 2019, [3]upon allegations the mother was physically abusing J.M. A short time later, DHS received a report the mother may have left C.M. and J.M.-then six and five years old-alone without adult supervision. There were indicators the mother was struggling with addiction; she was asked to undergo a drug test but did not do it.

The children were removed from parental custody in April 2020 and remained outside of the mother's care at the time of the termination hearing in January 2022.

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The mother attended inpatient substance-abuse treatment for fewer than thirty days in April and May 2021, but she quickly relapsed on methamphetamine- testing positive for the substance on June 3, 2021. In August, the mother admitted to using methamphetamine. At the termination trial on January 25, 2022, she gave her last date of use as January 14.

The mother entered inpatient treatment a second time on January 18-one week before the termination trial was scheduled to take place. On January 23, she filed a written motion to continue the termination trial. The court denied the motion. The mother was not present at the beginning of trial on January 25, and her attorney orally moved to continue trial. The court denied the second motion. The mother arrived in the courtroom at 11:26 a.m. and was personally present for the rest of the trial.

The mother conceded that the children could not be returned to her care yet, testifying, "I believe I still need to complete my substance abuse treatment." The juvenile court terminated the mother's parental rights under Iowa Code section 232.116(1)(d), (f), and (l) (2021). She appeals.

II. Discussion.

A. Motions to Continue.

The mother made two separate motions to continue and relied on separate grounds for each. We review a juvenile court's denial of a motion to continue for an abuse of discretion. In re M.D., 921 N.W.2d 229, 232 (Iowa 2018). "A court abuses its discretion when 'the decision is grounded on reasons that are clearly untenable or unreasonable . . . .'" Id. (citation omitted). "A motion for continuance shall not be granted except for good cause." Iowa Ct. R. 8.5. When considering

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the juvenile court's denial of the motion, "we will reverse only 'if injustice will result to the party desiring the continuance.'" In re R.B., 832 N.W.2d 375, 378 (Iowa Ct. App. 2013) (citation omitted). "The concept of justice incorporates a prejudice component, which must be viewed in a pragmatic fashion." Id.

"[T]ermination hearings involve state action that threatens to deprive parents of their liberty interests in the case, custody, and control of their children," so a parent's right to due process is implicated. M.D., 921 N.W.2d at 233. Insofar as the mother argued a continuance was necessary to protect her due process rights, our review is de novo. See id. at 232. ("Constitutional claims, such as the deprivation of due process, are also reviewed de novo."). Achieving procedural due process "involves a careful balancing of the personal interest of litigants, the ability of the court system to accommodate and provide safeguards for litigants, and the broad interests of the government to both provide safeguards and protect the interests of all." Id. at 233. When evaluating a due process challenge, we must keep all of the competing interests in mind; while a continuance may be helpful to a parent, "such continuances may be detrimental to the best interests of the children." Id.

First Motion. The mother filed a written motion to continue on the afternoon of January 23, 2022-less than two days before the termination trial was scheduled to start at 9:00 a.m. on January 25. The mother asked the court to continue the termination trial because she "checked into inpatient [substance-abuse] treatment" on January 18. She also asked for a continuance because "the State . . . filed nearly 100 exhibits, on the eve of trial" and she would not be able to review the exhibits with her attorney. The mother asserted, "Termination of one's

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parental rights where the Mother and her attorney are not afforded proper notice to be heard would violate the Mother's due process rights." In an attachment to the motion, a certified alcohol and drug counselor stated the mother was receiving inpatient services and "will not be able to be present for an all-day hearing while she is engaging in inpatient treatment services." The mother's potential discharge date from treatment was listed as February 8.

The court denied the mother's motion on January 24, noting the termination petition was filed September 16, 2021, and the mother's substance abuse "ha[d] been a concern for much longer than that." The court recognized the mother "had ample time previously to [seek treatment]" and concluded "the current treatment is not a sufficient reason to delay permanency for the child[ren]." In denying the mother's motion to continue, the court provided that the mother could appear by telephone if she chose.

Here on appeal, the mother argues the court's denial of her motion forced her to choose between violating the court's order that she complete inpatient treatment or abandon her right to be present during the termination trial. But this situation is not quite the catch-22 the mother paints it to be. The mother's delayed participation in substance-abuse treatment is not outside of her control; her use of methamphetamine has been an issue throughout this case.[4] She attended inpatient treatment from April 27 to May 15, 2021, but relapsed almost immediately after, as she tested positive for methamphetamine on June 3. The mother then

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admitted using methamphetamine in August and, at the termination trial, testified her last date of use was January 14, 2022. It was long apparent the mother was in need of more substance-abuse treatment, but she waited more than seven months after her June 2021 relapse to enter treatment again. Her delay in entering treatment does not constitute good cause for a continuance. See In re K.A., 516 N.W.2d 35, 37 (Iowa Ct. App. 1994) (affirming court's denial of motion to continue by mother, who was attending inpatient treatment, because "[t]he children involved in this termination proceeding cannot spare more time waiting for their mother to achieve goals of the case plan which were set forth two years ago").

Plus, perhaps even more significantly, the mother's initial request for a continuance implied she would not be able to participate because she could not leave inpatient treatment. The court resolved this issue by ordering that the mother could participate via phone rather than attending in person. It was not until after 3:00 p.m. on the day of the trial-after the mother had already left treatment and was in the courtroom-that the mother uploaded evidence from a drug counselor stating "it is not practical for her to be involved in an 8-hour phone or Zoom hearing."[5] The mother urges us to conclude the court abused its discretion by forcing her to leave treatment when it denied her first motion to continue, but the court had no reason to know the mother would be unable to participate via telephone at the time it entered its ruling.

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The mother also argues the prejudice to her-by the court's denial of her motion to continue-"is greatly compounded by the filing of 106 exhibits by the State of Iowa on the eve of trial, at a time when the mother was in an inpatient treatment facility and unavailable." The mother relies on the fact her attorney was "recently" appointed to represent her. The mother's attorney filed her appearance in the case on October 20, 2021-more than three months before the termination trial took...

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