In re L.M., 22-0301

CourtCourt of Appeals of Iowa
Writing for the CourtTABOR, PRESIDING JUDGE
PartiesIN THE INTEREST OF L.M., Minor Child, S.M., Father, Appellant, A.T., Mother, Appellant.
Docket Number22-0301
Decision Date27 April 2022

IN THE INTEREST OF L.M., Minor Child, S.M., Father, Appellant, A.T., Mother, Appellant.

No. 22-0301

Court of Appeals of Iowa

April 27, 2022

Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Wapello County, William Owens, Associate Juvenile Judge.

A mother and father separately appeal the termination of their parental rights.

Jonathan Willier, Centerville, for appellant father.

Julie De Vries of De Vries Law Office, PLC, Centerville, for appellant mother.

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

Sam K. Erhardt, Ottumwa, attorney and guardian ad litem for minor child.

Considered by Tabor, P.J., and Greer and Ahlers, JJ.



Parents, April and Stephen, appeal the termination of their legal relationship with one-year-old L.M. Both parents contest the grounds for termination and question whether the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS) made reasonable efforts toward reunification. April also argues termination of her rights was not in L.M.'s best interests. In the alternative, each parent argues for permissive exceptions to termination and seeks a six-month continued placement for L.M.

After reviewing the record, we reach different outcomes for each parent.[1]We affirm termination of April's rights because her unaddressed addiction prevents her from safely parenting L.M. But given Stephen's success with services and visitation while in prison, we find an extension is warranted in his case. So we reverse and remand as to him.

I. Facts and Prior Proceedings

In July 2020, April tested positive for MDMA (ecstasy) and methamphetamine just before delivering L.M. The newborn's umbilical cord blood tested positive for methamphetamine, amphetamines, and THC. At the hospital, April identified Stephen as L.M.'s biological father.[2] But April told the DHS that they did not have an ongoing romantic relationship. Stephen tried to visit the hospital, but he was turned away. Meanwhile, April agreed to a voluntary case


plan proposed by the DHS. That plan included family centered services (FCS) and substance-abuse evaluation and treatment. As part of safety planning, April and L.M. moved in with April's aunt and uncle. In September, April, together with L.M., was admitted into Hope House, an addiction treatment center. But she stayed for only five days before returning to her aunt's home.

As for Stephen, about two weeks after his son's birth, he met with DHS workers. He said he wanted to see L.M., but that he was "letting April do her thing" and did not "want to add something else to an already full plate."[3] Stephen later told the juvenile court that he regretted making that statement and should have handled things differently.

By October 2020, the State petitioned to have L.M. adjudicated as a child in need of assistance (CINA). After several continuances, the juvenile court granted the State's petition in March 2021 and removed L.M. from parental care, assigning legal custody of the child to the DHS. The DHS continued the placement of L.M. with his great aunt and uncle.

After L.M.'s removal, April charted inconsistent progress. Although she showed initial interest in treatment, she lacked follow-through. The few times she did start treatment, she stopped attending or was asked to leave before completing the programs. True, April achieved short bursts of sobriety. But month in and month out, April tested positive for illicit substances, self-reported using, or appeared to be under the influence during visits with L.M.


Likewise, April had mixed success with visitation. Early in the CINA proceedings, she attended visits supervised by FCS or by her aunt. But during an October 2020 visit at the aunt's home, April "became upset and began punching herself in the head." Concerned, the aunt called the police. Eventually, April admitted that she had relapsed. After that incident, April's relationship with the aunt soured. That souring led April to visit L.M. less often. April also backed away from FCS-supervised visits, claiming they took too much of an emotional toll on her. And, as termination neared, she stopped attending altogether.

As for Stephen, despite his full-plate comment, he had supervised visits with L.M. from September 2020 until March 2021, when he started his prison sentence for drug possession and criminal mischief. His commission of those offenses predated L.M.'s birth. And according to the record, Stephen had the chance to receive a deferred judgment or suspended sentence, but opted instead for prison.

Despite incarceration's logistical challenges, Stephen remained part of L.M.'s life. While in prison, Stephen has had weekly visits with his son-once per month in-person and the rest by videoconference. The aunt has facilitated those visits.[4] While the FCS worker did not oversee those interactions, the case manager testified that the DHS had "no reported concerns." April also testified that her aunt was supportive of Stephen's relationship with L.M. Beyond visitation, Stephen has profited from support groups and parenting classes while in prison.


The parole board was expected to consider his release in May 2022.[5] After parole, he expected to live with his sister, though a halfway house remained a possibility.

Concerned by April's stalled progress and Stephen's uncertain future, in October 2021, the State petitioned to terminate their parental rights. After a January 2022 hearing, the juvenile court granted the petition. They both appeal.

II. Analysis

Our review follows a three-step process. In re D.W., 791 N.W.2d 703, 706 (Iowa 2010). First we look for a termination ground. Iowa Code § 232.116(1) (2021). Then we consider the child's best interests. Id. § 232.116(2). And finally, we examine factors weighing against termination. Id. § 232.116(3). Because each parent challenges different steps, we discuss their appeals separately.

A. April's Appeal

1. Grounds for Termination

The juvenile court terminated April's rights under Iowa Code section 232.116(1), paragraphs (g) and (h). April contests both paragraphs. We focus on paragraph (h). See In re S.R., 600 N.W.2d 63, 64 (Iowa 1999) ("[W]e need only find grounds to terminate under one of the sections cited by the juvenile court."). Under that paragraph, a juvenile court may terminate parental rights if:

(1) The child is three years of age or younger.
(2) The child has been adjudicated a child in need of assistance pursuant to section 232.96.
(3) The child has been removed from the physical custody of the child's parents for at least six months of the last twelve months,
or for the last six consecutive months and any trial period at home has been less than thirty days.
(4) There is clear and convincing evidence that the child cannot be returned to the custody of the child's parents as provided in section 232.102 at the present time.

Iowa Code § 232.116(1)(h).

April only challenges the final element. She argues the State did not offer clear and convincing evidence that L.M. couldn't be returned to her custody. Countering, the State points to April's inability to address her addiction. Clear and convincing evidence should leave us with "no serious or substantial doubts as to the correctness or conclusions of law drawn." D.W., 791 N.W.2d at 706 (citations omitted). After our de novo review, we find clear and convincing evidence supports the termination of April's rights.[6]

That evidence starts with April's drug use during her pregnancy, which prompted the CINA adjudication. And, nearly two years later, her substance abuse remains unaddressed. The DHS offered treatment services, ranging from outpatient to residential options. But April did not succeed. In September 2020, she was admitted to Hope House with L.M., staying less than one week. Come


December 2020, she tried again. But just two weeks passed before she was "asked to leave by staff." And the next year spelled more of the same. Indeed, during the termination hearing, the case manager testified that April hadn't "engaged in any sort of substance abuse treatment in the last sixty days." Without treatment, her substance abuse continued unabated. In November 2021-just a few weeks before the termination hearing and over a year into the proceedings- April reported "using nearly daily."

As for mental-health treatment, April registered for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy with several providers. But when these providers tried to schedule an appointment, April never responded. All-in-all, April only attended a handful of sessions during the life of these proceedings.

Most troubling, April stopped seeing L.M. At first, she regularly attended visitations at the Four Oaks agency and at her aunt's home. But with time April's visits tapered off. And, leading up to termination, April went ninety days with no contact with L.M.[7] From this record, we find clear and convincing evidence supporting termination.

Pivoting slightly, April argues that the DHS failed to make reasonable efforts toward reunification.[8] The DHS must provide "every reasonable effort to return the


child to the child's home as quickly as possible consistent with the best interests of the child." Iowa Code § 232.102(7). The State must show it has made reasonable efforts to reunite the family as a part of its ultimate proof the child cannot be safely returned to the parent's care. In re L.T., 924 N.W.2d 521, 527 (Iowa 2019). That said, parents must voice timely objections if they view the offered services as inadequate. In re A.N., No. 02-1985, 2003 WL 291627, at *3 (Iowa Ct. App. Feb. 12, 2003).

To support her reasonable-efforts argument, April points to the decreased number of visits offered after the State petitioned for termination. But even before that change, April's attendance had waned. So it's...

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