In re M.M.

Decision Date02 October 2015
Docket NumberNo. 15–144.,15–144.
Citation133 A.3d 379
Parties In re M.M. and C.M., Juveniles.
CourtVermont Supreme Court

Matthew F. Valerio, Defender General, and Joshua O'Hara, Appellate Defender, Montpelier, for Appellant Mother.

William H. Sorrell, Attorney General, and Benjamin D. Battles, Assistant Attorney General, Montpelier, for Appellee State.

Present: DOOLEY, SKOGLUND, ROBINSON and EATON, JJ., and BURGESS, J. (Ret.), Specially Assigned.

EATON

, J.

¶ 1. Mother appeals from the trial court's order finding M.M. and C.M. to be children in need of care or supervision (CHINS). We affirm.

¶ 2. M.M. was born in September 2006; C.M. was born on June 25, 2014. The Department for Children and Families (DCF) began working with mother in June 2012. On June 25, 2014, DCF filed a petition alleging that M.M. and C.M. were CHINS. The parties agreed to a conditional care order with mother retaining custody subject to extensive conditions. Father was incarcerated at the time.

¶ 3. Following a January 2015 merits hearing, the court found the children to be CHINS. The trial court made the following findings. Mother became an opiate addict at age eighteen after which she "embarked on an unhappy diaspora of addiction." She has been on and off Suboxone

for nine years. Mother's addiction issues may include alcohol. In October 2013, mother was arrested for driving while intoxicated. Her BAC Datamaster test result was .159%, roughly twice the legal limit for intoxication, which the court found sufficiently high to show an unhealthy tolerance for alcohol. Daughter M.M., then age seven, was riding in mother's car at the time of mother's DWI. She was not in a child safety seat or booster seat but was instead lying on the backseat with a seatbelt draped over her. The arresting officer was very familiar with mother and M.M. and he recognized them on contact. He had previously stopped and warned mother for allowing M.M. to ride in the car without proper restraints. The officer estimated that M.M. weighed fifty pounds at the time of mother's DWI.

¶ 4. The court found that mother has been on and off treatment over the years. Some of the events that interrupted her prolonged treatment were outside of her control, such as the retirement of one of her doctors. It concluded that others, like losing her license and therefore her transportation to treatment in April 2014, were entirely her own fault. From the late fall of 2013 to May 2014, mother was not in treatment. Mother became pregnant with C.M. in the fall of 2013. During that fall and winter, mother was using street, or unprescribed, buprenorphine

(Suboxone ).

¶ 5. In the spring of 2014, after mother revealed her street buprenorphine

use, a public health nurse told mother that she should continue to use the drug to avoid the harmful prospect of intrauterine damage to the unborn child and herself if she suddenly stopped. When mother returned to professional treatment on May 20, 2014, she was prescribed Subutex, a form of Suboxone. As a result of her self-medication—which itself then necessitated her being prescribed Subutex for her last month of pregnancy—C.M. was born opioid-dependent and required two months to be weaned off of opioids.

¶ 6. Despite her recent DWI incident, mother used alcohol on one occasion in February 2014 while five months pregnant with C.M. Mother also smokes cigarettes and did so throughout her pregnancy. The court found that not only was C.M. born significantly underweight at five pounds, but he also had a heart defect

. There was no medical opinion provided linking mother's continued smoking during pregnancy or her episode with alcohol to any medical issues with the child in utero, although mother admitted that she had been told by hospital personnel that her smoking and drug use may have contributed to the baby's small birth weight.

¶ 7. As indicated above, DCF had been working with mother since June 2012. DCF was attempting to assist mother with issues involving domestic abuse by her male partner, failure to supervise M.M., and her admitted history of substance abuse. Mother was an inconsistent participant in DCF's efforts to assist her, sometimes refusing to sign releases and disappearing for periods of time, but being cooperative and actively engaged in services at other times. For his part, father had apparently been in and out of jail and not engaged with the children.

¶ 8. At times, mother had responded to DCF concerns. When confronted about significant dental neglect of M.M., for example, mother scheduled a dentist's appointment and remedied the problem. The court concluded that M.M.'s dental neglect could likely have worsened had DCF not threatened intervention. Fortunately for mother and the children, mother's father and his girlfriend had consistently stepped up to support mother and protect the children.

¶ 9. Based on its findings, the court concluded that at the time the petition was filed both children were CHINS.1 The court determined that M.M. was grossly neglected when on two occasions mother drove while M.M. was unrestrained by an appropriate car seat. In the second incident, mother was driving while highly intoxicated. The court found that mother exposed her young child to a grave and real risk of serious bodily injury by driving drunk with M.M. unrestrained in the car. The court concluded that C.M. was CHINS at the time of the petition as well. He was born, in part due to mother's substance abuse, addicted to opiates2 and with a low birth weight. He required two months to be weaned off of substances, substances that were present because of mother's addiction. While all of C.M.'s health problems might not be directly attributable to mother's addiction (mother claimed that his heart condition was genetic), the court noted that it was uncontroverted that the child was born addicted. The court also noted that while mother was seemingly not ready to take responsibility for that during her testimony, it was simply a fact that could not be disputed.

¶ 10. While the children were CHINS, the court noted some positive progress by mother since C.M.'s birth. Mother was substance free and in treatment. She lived in her own apartment and no longer at her father's home. She was trying to quit smoking. DCF allowed the children to be placed with mother. In short, the court concluded, mother seemed to be on a positive trajectory toward overcoming her addiction and being a responsible parent.

¶ 11. Mother appeals from the court's order, raising numerous arguments. She first takes issue with some of the court's findings, arguing that: C.M. was born at five pounds, fifteen ounces, which is not "significantly underweight"; C.M. was not "addicted" to opiates as that term is technically defined; the court erroneously stated that mother became pregnant with C.M. "because" she was using drugs; mother was "in treatment" from the fall of 2013 to May 20, 2014, even though she refused to sign releases; and her high BAC did not demonstrate an "unhealthy tolerance for alcohol." As to C.M., mother contends that he was not CHINS simply because he was opiate-dependent at birth and that the court construed the CHINS statute too broadly in reaching its decision.3 Mother also asserts that M.M. was not CHINS because the DWI and the dental neglect occurred well before the CHINS petition was filed.

¶ 12. A child is CHINS if he or she "is without proper parental care or subsistence, education, medical, or other care necessary for his or her well-being." 33 V.S.A. § 5102(3)(B)

. As we recently reiterated, "the focus of a CHINS proceeding is the welfare of the child. The State must prove, and the court must determine [by a preponderance of the evidence], if the allegations in a CHINS petition have been established." In re B.R., 2014 VT 37, ¶ 13, 196 Vt. 304, 97 A.3d 867 (quotation and citation omitted). A child does not need to suffer "actual harm" before he or she can be adjudicated CHINS. In re L.M., 2014 VT 17, ¶ 29, 195 Vt. 637, 93 A.3d 553. On review, we will uphold the trial court's findings unless they are clearly erroneous, and the court's legal conclusions will stand when supported by the findings. In re D.D., 2013 VT 79, ¶ 34, 194 Vt. 508, 82 A.3d 1143. It is not our role "to second-guess the family court or to reweigh the evidence." In re S.B., 174 Vt. 427, 429, 800 A.2d 476, 479 (2002) (mem.).

¶ 13. None of the alleged factual errors identified by mother are significant and none warrant reversal. See In re R.W., 2011 VT 124, ¶ 17, 191 Vt. 108, 39 A.3d 682

(stating that Supreme Court applies harmless error analysis in juvenile cases, and will reverse judgment only where error has affected substantial rights of party); see also In re D.D., 2013 VT 79, ¶ 34, 194 Vt. 508, 82 A.3d 1143 (reiterating that in juvenile proceedings court's decision will not be reversed, even if some of trial court's findings are unsupported, "if the remainder of the court's findings, which are supported by the record, are sufficient to sustain the decision" (quotation and brackets omitted)).

¶ 14. The court stated that C.M. was five pounds at birth, which it characterized as "significantly underweight" and as a "low birth weight." Mother points to her testimony that C.M. was five pounds, fifteen ounces, when born. Even if the court incorrectly believed that a five or six pound newborn is "underweight," it was not a significant finding in light of other evidence of the newborn's condition. We note that mother herself testified that she was told by hospital employees that the child was "a little small," and that there had been concern during her pregnancy, given her drug use and her smoking throughout the pregnancy, that the child would have a low birth weight.

¶ 15. It cannot reasonably be disputed that C.M. was "addicted" to opioids at birth applying a common-sense definition of that term, or that he needed two months to be weaned off of drugs. It is of no moment that the court used the word "ad...

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4 cases
  • In re A.L.C.M.
    • United States
    • West Virginia Supreme Court
    • June 9, 2017
  • In re J.C., 15–273.
    • United States
    • Vermont Supreme Court
    • January 22, 2016
    ...the majority supplies its own explanation that is not reflected in the trial court's analysis.* See In re M.M., 2015 VT 122, ¶ 12, ––– Vt. ––––, 133 A.3d 379 (“It is not our role to second-guess the family court or to reweigh the evidence.” (quotation omitted)).¶ 26. Second, absent mother's......
  • In re M.L., 17–339
    • United States
    • Vermont Supreme Court
    • March 16, 2018
    ...the court is still whether the child was CHINS "at the time of the filing of the petition." In re M.M., 2015 VT 122, ¶¶ 23–24, 200 Vt. 540, 133 A.3d 379 (quotation omitted). If a child is clearly not without or beyond parental control at the time of the CHINS petition, the child may still b......
  • In re M.L., 2017-339
    • United States
    • Vermont Supreme Court
    • March 16, 2018
    ...the court is still whether the child was CHINS "at the time of the filing of the petition." In re M.M., 2015 VT 122, ¶¶ 23-24, 200 Vt. 540, 133 A.3d 379 (quotation omitted). If a child is clearly not without or beyond parental control at the time of the CHINS petition, the child may still b......

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