Padgett v. Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services

Decision Date28 March 1991
Docket NumberNos. 74357,74358,s. 74357
CourtFlorida Supreme Court

Lawrence J. Semento of Lawrence J. Semento, P.A., Mount Dora, for petitioner, Thomas Padgett.

Mark A. Nacke of Michael H. Hatfield P.A., Umatilla, for petitioner, Mary Hartline Padgett.

Linda K. Harris, Deputy Gen. Counsel, Dept. of Health and Rehabilitative Services, Tallahassee, for respondent.

SHAW, Chief Justice.

We have for review Padgett v. Department of Health & Rehabilitative Services, 543 So.2d 1317, 1318 (Fla. 5th DCA 1989), in which the district court certified the following: "[W]e ... certify the question of "prospective" abuse, neglect or abandonment under Chapter 39 to be one of great public importance...." We have jurisdiction. Art. V, § 3(b)(4), Fla. Const. Because we find the term "prospective" abuse, neglect or abandonment to be misleading and inapplicable to the present cases, 1 we rephrase the question as follows:


We answer in the affirmative under conditions explained below. We approve the district court decision.

Two years before W.L.P. was born, five children born to Thomas Padgett during a previous marriage were committed to the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) for adoption based in part on the following findings involving four of the children:

5. Dr. Myron A. Harvey, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist, evaluated [the four Padgett children] during July, 1981, and he has been involved in psychological therapy with those children up to the present date. Dr. Harvey testified that at the time of his evaluation, each of the four (4) Padgett children he examined manifested emotional and behavioral disorders, together with a low level of intelligence functioning.

6. Dr. Harvey further testified that in his opinion, the emotional disorders and low I.Q. of the Padgett children were the result of their living in a deprived environment devoid of learning stimuli and emotional contact. He further testified that the Padgett children have shown substantial improvements in both intelligence level and behavior since they began living in the structured environment of the Florida Baptist Children's Home.


9. Thomas William Padgett, former husband of [the children's natural mother], testified that on approximately four (4) occasions during their marriage, the children's natural mother would leave the marital home and abandon the children with the father. During those absences which lasted several weeks, the mother would not visit with or otherwise contact the children. Thomas William Padgett further testified that on several occasions when he returned home from work he found some or all of his children bound at the wrists and tied to the furniture and their mother not being present.

The court concluded that the children were dependent due to the extreme neglect of Thomas as well as his wife. Dr. Harvey later testified in the instant proceeding that two of the children showed signs of sexual abuse.

The year before W.L.P. was born, Mary Padgett gave birth to a child that promptly was placed in HRS custody and was permanently committed for adoption on the following grounds:

3. The child has been in the custody of the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services since June 1, 1984, shortly following her birth. She was taken into custody by the Department on or about that date after the Department was notified by hospital authorities that the mother was "poking" her newborn child and displaying other inappropriate conduct with the child.

4. Dr. Frank Carrera, a psychiatrist in Gainesville, Florida, performed a psychiatric evaluation on the mother on August 30, 1984, which included a detailed review of her prior psychiatric history. Dr. Carrera testified that the child's mother is a chronic schizophrenic and he traced a history of numerous psychiatric hospitalizations of the mother for schizophrenia over the past several years.

5. Dr. Carrera further testified that the treatment prognosis for the mother was very poor and that, in his opinion, the mother would never be able to effectively parent her child.

On December 12, 1985, two days after W.L.P. was born, HRS filed a petition for detention of W.L.P. based on the fact that Mary Padgett 1) had recently given birth to a child who was placed in HRS custody, 2) was receiving mental health care, and 3) had tried to perform an abortion on herself with a pair of scissors to prevent the birth of W.L.P. The trial court entered a dependency detention order on the same day and subsequently placed W.L.P. in the care of the maternal grandmother. On September 27, 1986, the court issued an amended order of dependency, finding both parents unfit and placing the child in foster care. The parents and HRS signed a performance agreement, whereby HRS agreed that W.L.P. would be returned if the parents could demonstrate sufficient parenting ability after undergoing psychotherapy and attending parenting classes.

Dr. Hobey subsequently conducted a final evaluation of the Padgetts; she testified as follows:

Q. Dr. Hobey, based on all of your evaluations, your clinical interviews, your testing procedures and your observations of the parents with the child, were you able to formulate an opinion as to the Padgetts' fitness or ability to parent this child that you observed them with, [ ]?

A. Yes, I had extremely grave concerns about the Padgetts' capacity to parent their child in any way resembling adequate fashion. I just don't think they're able to do that.

Q. What was the basis for that opinion, can you explain to the Court?

A. Yes, the basis for this is, I think that they are so--they have so few emotional and cognitive resources of their own, that's one thing. They are very much people who are into their own needs and their own wishes, and I think that they are incapable to recognize the needs and the desires and the abilities of a young child.

I think the things they do with their baby reflect their own needs, rather than being sensitive to the baby's needs.

I think that their expectations for children are absolutely unrealistic. They have absolutely no sense at all what kinds of behaviors are appropriate for a child. I think they are not capable of learning what these behaviors might be.

Q. Do your findings translate, in any way, into a risk of abuse or risk that they would be abusive parents of the child?

A. I think the risk is very high that they would be very abusive.

Q. With both Mary Padgett and Tom Padgett?

A. Yes, both Mary Padgett and Tom Padgett.

Q. What about either of them individually? Did your findings support that either of them individually could parent this child effectively?

A. No.

Q. Dr. Hobey, if you were attempting to prescribe a treatment program for these parents whereby they could overcome their pathologies and become effective parents, do you think you could do that?

A. I don't think I could do that, no.

Q. Why not?

A. I don't think that the Padgetts are really able to engage with a therapist. I don't think that they're sensitive to the fact that they have real problems. I don't think that they are at all able to look at themselves, toward being insightful. In short, I don't think they are capable of learning what they need to learn. We're not talking about a few simple skills that could be acquired in a parenting class. We're talking about long-standing personality problems, which are not treatable.

Dr. Hobey noted that her conclusions were unrelated to the Padgetts' intelligence levels; 2 in her opinion, persons of limited intelligence can be perfectly capable parents.

While the permanent commitment proceeding was pending in the instant cases, two separate incidents took place involving Mary. First, she staged a bizarre "fake rape," in which she abused herself with a hairbrush and then reported to officers that she had been bound and raped by a neighbor. Second, she sexually abused a four-year-old girl who was in her care. The policeman who responded to the call concerning the child testified that when he arrived at Mary's home, he found the girl lying on the bed on a bloody towel, bleeding from her vaginal area. The pediatrician who examined the child found that her internal genitalia had been lacerated and bruised by the penetration of a blunt object, such as a dull knife or a broomstick, with strong force. Mary pled guilty to aggravated child abuse and was placed on probation for five years. As a condition of her probation, she is prohibited from having contact with minor children unless another adult is present.

Based on evidence of the foregoing, the circuit court in the present proceeding issued a final order on August 16, 1988, permanently committing W.L.P. to HRS for adoption, finding as follows:

[ ] The Court finds that there is a substantial likelihood of future abuse and neglect of the child if [the child] were to be returned to the custody of [the] parents. The Court further finds that there are no less restrictive alternatives available other than the permanent commitment of the child to the Department for subsequent adoption, and that it is in the manifest best interest of the child that [the child] be permanently committed to the Department for subsequent adoption.

The district court affirmed but certified the question of whether prospective abuse, neglect or abandonment can serve as grounds for terminating parental rights.

The Padgetts assert that prospective mistreatment cannot support permanent termination of parental rights because no statute so provides. Mary contends that prospective abuse is based on speculation and is equivalent to...

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