In re D.C., 22-AP-041

Citation22-AP-041
Case DateJuly 14, 2022
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Vermont

In re D.C., Juvenile R.C., Father* & A.C., Mother*

No. 22-AP-041

Supreme Court of Vermont

July 14, 2022


In the case title, an asterisk (*) indicates an appellant and a double asterisk (**) indicates a cross-appellant. Decisions of a three-justice panel are not to be considered as precedent before any tribunal.

APPEALED FROM: Superior Court, Bennington Unit, Family Division CASE NO. 20-JV-00166 Trial Judge: Kerry Ann McDonald-Cady

ENTRY ORDER

In the above-entitled cause, the Clerk will enter:

Parents appeal from the termination of their rights in D.C. They essentially challenge the trial court's assessment of the weight of the evidence. We affirm.

D.C. was born to parents in September 2020. Parents have two other children together and their rights in those children have been terminated. Mother has four additional children, all of whom have been removed from her care. Father's rights in another child were terminated as well. The court found that the main risk factors for mother included: a lack of capacity to execute parenting skills; inconsistent visitation; substance-abuse issues with alcohol; lack of engagement with the Department for Children and Families (DCF) and service providers; and issues of domestic violence with father. Father's risk factors included: lack of engagement with DCF and service providers; inconsistent visitation; substance-abuse issues with alcohol; struggles with anger management; and issues of domestic violence with mother.

D.C. was taken into custody at birth pursuant to an emergency care order. Although DCF requested continued custody at the temporary care hearing, the court placed D.C. with mother in September 2020 pursuant to a conditional care order (CCO). The CCO was vacated in early October 2020 after DCF expressed concern about mother's capacity to meet D.C.'s daily needs, including failing to follow safe sleep practices. A DCF case worker found numerous safety hazards in D.C.'s crib, including blankets and pillows inside the crib along with cat hair and cat litter. Mother had seven cats inside her one-bedroom apartment.

1

In January 2021, D.C. was adjudicated as a child in need of care or supervision (CHINS). DCF's case plans contained numerous action steps for each parent. Mother was required, among other things, to show that she could parent D.C., meaning that she would attend all visits, feed and change D.C. as needed, and follow the recommendations of providers to meet his needs. Mother was also required to continue attending mental-health counseling. Father was required, among other things, to attend all visits with D.C., complete a psychosexual assessment, provide a copy of the assessment to DCF, and follow any recommendations for treatment. DCF sought to terminate both parents' rights at initial disposition. Following a hearing, the court granted its request.

The court's findings are essentially unchallenged on appeal. The court found that D.C. has been living with the same foster family since he was seven-weeks old; he was sixteen-months old at the time of the court's decision. D.C. was thriving in his foster parents' care, and they were meeting his needs.

Mother missed numerous visits with D.C. while he was in custody, which had a negative impact on the Family Time Coaching she received via Easter Seals and led to a reduction of her visitation time. DCF tried several shared parenting meetings with both mother and father, all of which were unsuccessful. Mother's last appearance at Family Time visits was in August 2021 and Easter Seals stopped providing services to mother in October 2021 due to her lack of engagement. When mother did attend Family Time visits, she struggled to meet D.C.'s needs. She could not retain the skills taught to her, such as holding D.C. while she bottle-fed him, or demonstrate those skills without prompting. Mother was not consistently engaged with D.C. during visits and did not ask questions about his development.

The DCF caseworker expressed concern about mother's inconsistent attendance at visits and her cognitive capacity to parent. The case worker noted that mother had been referred to Family Time coaching in prior cases and those services were similarly closed due to lack of engagement. The caseworker observed that mother had limited interactions with D.C. during visits despite the modeling offered by service providers. Mother also failed to recognize hazards to D.C., including choking hazards. The caseworker questioned mother's commitment to learning how to parent given her lack of attendance and engagement with Easter Seals and particularly given that mother was aware through her prior cases how important it was to be engaged in these services. Mother also failed to follow through with developmental disability services offered to her, leading to that service being closed in November 2021. Additionally, mother stopped working with a mental-health therapist.

The court noted that, overall, mother's disposition case plan goals were the same goals as in prior case plans and mother had not demonstrated her ability to parent D.C. despite repeated attempts to provide her the opportunity to do so. Mother blamed DCF and felt she did nothing to warrant the removal of her children from her care.

Turning to father, the court found that his visits with D.C. went very well. Father came prepared for the visits and he was fully engaged with D.C. He was willing to take recommendations offered by the visit supervisor and demonstrated that he could care for D.C. during visits. D.C. was excited to see father and sad when they parted. Father cancelled numerous visits, however, which was a concern. Father made progress in other areas as well.

2

He completed a mental-health assessment and attended therapy addressing his mental health and substance use, although he missed some meetings and had not completed his mental-health counseling. He was better able to manage his anger and he was maintaining his sobriety.

Based on these and other findings, the court concluded by clear and convincing evidence that termination of parents' rights was in D.C.'s best interests. It concluded that all the statutory best-interest factors supported termination of mother's rights. It found that mother did not fully nurture her bond with D.C. due to inconsistent visitation and limited engagement during visits that did occur. She did not play a constructive role in D.C.'s life. Mother failed to take advantage of the most accessible case-plan goal-attending visits-and she lacked insight into how missed visits diminished her ability to bond with D.C. D.C. was well-adjusted to his foster home and happy and playful in the company of his foster parents. D.C.'s routine was much more limited with mother and his demeanor was markedly different during their visits. The court found that the evidence overwhelmingly showed that mother...

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