In re S.C., 22-1171

CourtCourt of Appeals of Iowa
Writing for the CourtTABOR, JUDGE.
PartiesIN THE INTEREST OF S.C., F.C., M.C., A.C., and M.C., Minor Children, M.C., Mother, Appellant.
Docket Number22-1171
Decision Date17 November 2022

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

No. 22-1171

Court of Appeals of Iowa

November 17, 2022


Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Buena Vista County, Andrew Smith, District Associate Judge.

A mother appeals an order terminating her parental rights to five children. AFFIRMED.

Jessica R. Noll (until withdrawal), Sioux City, and Tisha Halverson of Klay, Veldhuizen, Bindner, DeJong &Halverson, PLC, Paullina, for appellant mother.

Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Kathryn K. Lang, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee State.

Justin F. Reininger of Boerner &Goldsmith Law Frim, P.C., Ida Grove, attorney for S.C. and guardian ad litem for all minor children.

Lisa Mazurek of Miller, Miller, Miller, P.C., Cherokee, attorney for F.C., M.C., A.C., and M.C.

Considered by Bower, C.J., and Tabor and Badding, JJ.

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TABOR, JUDGE.

Maria, a mother of five, appeals the juvenile court's order terminating her parental rights. She alleges the State failed to prove that the children could not be returned to her custody. Maria also contends termination was not in the children's best interests, citing their strong connection with her. At a minimum, she asks for more time to work toward reunification.

After our independent review, we reach the same conclusion as the district court.[1] Maria's recent use of methamphetamine and her lack of candor about the lapse rules out a safe return of the children to her custody. And the children's need for permanency after thirty months of removal overrides the detriment of severing the legal bond with their mother. We thus affirm the termination order.

I. Facts and Prior Proceedings

The children are M.A.C. (born in 2007), A.G.C. (born in 2012), M.B.C. (born in 2015), F.B.C. (born in 2017), and S.C.C. (born in 2020). The Iowa Department of Human Services became involved with their family in 2019, based on reports that Maria was using methamphetamine. The department also had concerns about lack of supervision and poor school attendance. When Maria tested positive for methamphetamine in January 2020, the department removed the four older children from her home. They have not returned to her custody since then.

Maria admitted using methamphetamine again in February 2020, and entered in-patient treatment that April, discharging successfully in June. Pregnant

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with her fifth child, Maria moved in with her mother. Given Maria's progress, the department moved the children from foster care to their grandmother's home. When the children were in her mother's home, Maria participated in their care. S.C.C. was born in December 2020.

But the relative placement proved precarious. The department received reports that the children "were often left to fend for themselves" without the grandmother or other adults providing meals. A child abuse assessment found that the baby, S.C.C., and then five-year-old M.B.C. were left in the care of their eight-year-old brother, A.G.C., for "an unknown amount of time." Given the supervision concerns at the grandmother's house, the department moved the children back to foster care.[2]

To her credit, Maria took the opportunity to reengage in services, attending family treatment court and substance-abuse therapy. But while a permanency hearing was pending in the spring of 2021, a service provider dropped in on Maria and found her to be "very intoxicated." Maria also admitted using methamphetamine again. Even after that setback, Maria was consistent in her visitation with the children and continued to access services for her substance abuse and mental health.

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Then Maria experienced more trauma. In January 2022, she suffered an injury to her arm when S.C.C.'s father, Saul, cut her with a knife. He was charged with domestic abuse assault. Maria testified at a combined permanencytermination hearing that she intended to end her relationship with Saul, noting that she handled the situation better than she would have in the past.[3] Indeed, her counselor reported that Maria was making less impulsive decisions and using better coping skills. In a February 2022 order, the juvenile court terminated the parental rights of the children's four fathers.[4] But the court found that the evidence supported giving Maria six more months to work toward reunification. The court set strict expectations for Maria, among them that she "refrain from use of all moodaltering substances, including, but not limited to, alcohol, illegal drugs, or the abuse of prescription medication."

Unfortunately, she did not meet that expectation. In late February or early March, she accepted an invitation to smoke methamphetamine with a former drug associate. She testified she turned him down at first, saying "I'm doing good in life right now." But when he showed her "a pipe of meth" it was a "new trigger" for her and she "jumped in the car with that person." She recalled using the drug for hours at his place. She did not report the lapse to service providers.[5] The department

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found out when she tested positive in late March.[6] Maria missed a visit with her children after the positive drug test; she later explained that she had "just shut down" emotionally. During that shutdown, she failed to ensure that A.G.C. took his prescription medication. And as the juvenile court explained in its termination ruling, even before the positive drug test, Maria had been lax about supervising the children during semi-supervised visits at the grandmother's house.

Cutting short Maria's six-month extension for reunification, the court scheduled a permanency review and termination-of-parental-rights hearing in June 2022. The court heard testimony from Maria, the department case manager, a foster parent, and the service provider. At the close of the trial, the State and the children's guardian ad litem (GAL) recommended termination of parental rights. The attorney for the four older children told the court that fourteen-year-old M.A.C. opposed termination of his mother's parental rights and that the siblings wished to remain together. Noting the foster family was caring for all the siblings, the children's attorney asked the court to "give Maria the balance of the six months previously ordered." Maria's counsel seconded that recommendation and urged the court to order the department to expand her visitation.

In its written ruling, the juvenile court sided with the State and GAL, finding termination was proper under Iowa Code sections 232.116(1)(f) (2022) (for the older children) and (h) (as to S.C.C.). The court rejected Maria's request to delay permanency, believing she had been "provided an extreme measure of patience." Maria now appeals the termination ruling.

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II. Analysis A. Statutory Grounds

Maria contends the State did not prove by clear and convincing evidence that the children could not be safely returned to her care. That is the fourth element of both paragraph (f) and paragraph...

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