In re J.P., 22-AP-029

Case DateMay 13, 2022
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Vermont

In re J.P., Juvenile (K.P., Mother [*] & K.W., Father)

No. 22-AP-029

Supreme Court of Vermont

May 13, 2022

APPEALED FROM: Superior Court, Windham Unit, Family Division CASE NO. 56-4-18 Wmjv Trial Judge: Michael R. Kainen


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

Parents appeal the family division's order terminating their parental rights to their son J.P., who is four years old. We affirm.

The court made the following findings in its order. Immediately after J.P.'s birth in April 2018, the State filed a petition alleging that he was a child in need of care or supervision (CHINS). The petition alleged that mother had significant mental disabilities and a history of extremely dirty and unsafe housing and multiple dysfunctional relationships that involved domestic violence. Her two older children were found to be CHINS based on these factors and mother's rights to them were terminated by relinquishment. Father had a history of violence toward mother and there were multiple reports that he had placed children at risk. The court issued emergency and temporary care orders transferring custody of J.P. to the Department for Children and Families (DCF).

In June 2018, parents stipulated that J.P. was CHINS. DCF arranged for neuropsychological assessments of both parents. Father was found to have below-average intellectual and cognitive abilities. Mother was found to be in the mildly intellectually disabled range and had significant deficits in academic achievement and memory. The psychologist recommended extensive supports to assist parents in developing parenting skills, as well as individual psychotherapy for both parents and psychopharmacological treatment for mother. These recommendations were incorporated into the case plan, which had a goal of reunification with both parents and was approved by the court in November 2018.

Parents initially made some progress. They attended recommended services and apologized for past negative behaviors toward providers. Mother was attending therapy, although she attended every other week instead of weekly as recommended by the case plan. A permanency report filed in April 2019 stated that parents had been able to have more unsupported time with J.P. However, it noted that both parents needed to demonstrate a better


understanding of child development, address their own mental-health needs, and communicate with providers in a productive manner. The report noted that mother continued to struggle with her mental health. She had difficulty staying calm with J.P. and became anxious and overly defensive when providers tried to give her guidance. Both parents became easily overwhelmed when working on more than one or two parenting strategies at a time.

In a subsequent permanency case plan, the DCF case worker noted that parents struggled to adopt new strategies for soothing J.P. when he was fussy or needed a nap. They frequently resorted to giving J.P. a bottle to calm him. Parents had been instructed to use a crib for naps, but instead held J.P. while he was sleeping. Parents did not consistently write the time that J.P. ate or napped in the journal they used to communicate with the foster family. In March 2019, mother became upset with providers and threatened the Family Time coach during a visit, resulting in visitation being moved from the home to DCF's offices. She later apologized and in-home visits resumed.

In August 2019, DCF filed a petition to terminate parental rights and changed the case plan goal to adoption. The revised case plan had not been formally approved by the court up to that point. However, the court found that the parents were aware of the change in the permanency goal and were on notice that DCF believed they were stagnating in their progress, based on the filing of the termination petition and discussions that took place at the time.

Despite the change in goal, the DCF case worker continued to plan for reunification. In March 2020, DCF arranged for a parenting evaluation with a clinical psychologist, Dr. William Halikias. Dr. Halikias found that mother's difficulties were not explained by her mild intellectual disabilities alone. He noted that many individuals with mother's disabilities can parent. Rather, moderate mental illness in the form of anxiety, depression, and avoidant personality, best explained mother's history of social, adaptive, and parenting difficulties. Dr. Halikias reported that mother was highly susceptible to episodes of dysregulation. Mother also did not trust providers and withheld information or did not report accurately. Dr. Halikias opined that there were legitimate safety concerns about mother parenting alone. He concluded that, between the two, father should be viewed as J.P.'s primary caregiver. However, he recommended father be provided therapy to address behavior that was counterproductive, defensive, or perceived by others as threatening. Dr. Halikias believed J.P.'s primary attachment was to his foster parents, but he did have an attachment to parents, particularly father. The court adopted Dr. Halikias's observations as findings.

Parents received Family Time Coaching for fourteen months, which was much longer than the typical coaching session of six months. The service was eventually discontinued because parents were no longer making progress. Father understood coaching recommendations but chose to disregard them. Mother could not maintain what she learned. After DCF changed the case plan goal to adoption in 2019, mother stopped attending therapy and father, who had not been seeing a therapist, refused to begin. There were concerns about parents' ability to respond to J.P.'s medical needs. They incorrectly believed J.P. had a milk allergy and had been diluting his formula. Father frequently became aggressive or threatening during meetings. Both refused to engage in services.

The focus of reunification services was on mother being J.P.'s primary caregiver while father continued to work outside the home. Following the resumption of in-person visits during the summer of 2020, parents had J.P. three days a week for two hours a day, which later increased to five mornings a week. However, mother was unable to respond to J.P.'s cues and


was not sure what to do if he became upset. Both parents were resistant to concerns about how they would deal with J.P. when he became...

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