RN v. State (In re JN)

Docket NumberS-23-0033
Decision Date23 August 2023
Citation2023 WY 83
PartiesIN THE INTEREST OF: JN, minor child, v. THE STATE OF WYOMING, Appellee (Petitioner). RN, Appellant (Respondent),
CourtWyoming Supreme Court

Appeal from the District Court of Laramie County The Honorable Thomas T.C. Campbell, Judge

Representing Appellant:

Brittany Thorpe, Domonkos & Thorpe, LLC, Cheyenne Wyoming.

Representing Appellee:

Sylvia Lee Hackl, District Attorney; Jeffrey O'Holleran, Assistant District Attorney.

Office of the Guardian ad Litem:

Joseph R. Belcher, Director; Kimberly A. Skoutary-Johnson, Chief Trial and Appellate Counsel.



[¶1] JN was taken into protective custody on April 9, 2021, and thereafter DFS implemented a case plan for Mother with the goal of family reunification. After eighteen months during which Mother made little to no progress on the plan, the district court changed the permanency plan to adoption. The order included no findings regarding DFS' reasonable efforts to reunite Mother and JN. Mother appeals and we reverse and remand.


[¶2] Mother presents three issues that we consolidate into two:

1. Did the juvenile court abuse its discretion by changing the permanency plan from family reunification to adoption without making the required finding that DFS made reasonable efforts toward reunification?

2. Did the juvenile court abuse its discretion when it changed the permanency plan from family reunification to adoption?


[¶3] The Cheyenne Police Department was dispatched to a hotel on April 9, 2021, regarding a trespassing complaint. Upon arriving at the scene, the officer encountered Mother and JN; Mother was extremely intoxicated. Mother was supposed to leave the hotel earlier that morning but refused. When the officer asked where she lived, she could not tell him. The officer took JN into protective custody.

[¶4] The juvenile court held a shelter care hearing and found it was contrary to JN's welfare to remain with Mother and ordered legal custody to DFS. A petition alleging neglect was filed and held in abeyance for six months when the parties entered into a consent decree in August of 2021. The consent decree required Mother to obey all laws and follow the terms of her case plan with DFS. Her case plan focused on achieving and maintaining her sobriety and stabilizing her mental and emotional health, and the permanency plan goal was family reunification. Mother was required to participate in random drug and alcohol testing, attend substance abuse support groups, and share with DFS her progress and compliance with treatment recommendations. The consent decree was extended an additional six months in January 2022; however, the State moved to revoke the consent decree in March 2022 due to Mother's significant number of missed and failed drug and alcohol tests.[1] [¶5] The juvenile court held a twelve-month review hearing in April 2022 and determined the permanency plan should remain family reunification. In September 2022, the Multidisciplinary Team (MDT) filed a report with a nonunanimous recommendation to change the permanency plan to adoption. The DFS caseworker and JN's therapist both recommended the permanency plan remain family reunification. JN's court appointed special advocate (CASA), Guardian ad Litem (GAL), and foster mother recommended the permanency plan change to adoption.

[¶6] In November 2022, the juvenile court held an evidentiary permanency hearing. The court heard testimony from JN's foster mother, JN's CASA, and the DFS caseworker. The DFS caseworker testified that DFS provided services to Mother such as supervised visits, drug testing, housing assistance, food stamps, addiction medication, and support groups to help her achieve her case plan goals, particularly as it related to her sobriety. Mother used medication to treat her alcoholism and alcohol cravings but did not enroll in an in-patient treatment facility until the day before the evidentiary hearing. Up to that point, Mother had made little to no progress on maintaining her sobriety; however, the caseworker was encouraged by Mother's enrollment in the treatment facility and maintained her recommendation to keep family reunification as the permanency plan goal.

[¶7] JN's foster mother testified that JN'S relationship with Mother had changed and adoption would be in JN's best interest. JN's CASA also recommended the permanency plan change to adoption.

[¶8] The juvenile court made an oral ruling changing the permanency plan from family reunification to adoption. It addressed the length of time the case had been open, Mother's failure to make progress on her case plan despite multiple opportunities, and the best interests of JN; however, it did not directly address DFS' efforts to reunify the family. The court filed an Order Upon Evidentiary Permanency Hearing one month later which made no finding on DFS' reasonable efforts to reunify the family. The Order stated DFS "shall monitor the provision of services in accordance with a continuing case plan of working toward the permanency plan of adoption" and "the petition for termination of parental rights shall be filed by the State" in sixty days. Other specific language pertinent to this appeal will be addressed later in the opinion.


[¶9] We review a change in permanency plan decision for abuse of discretion. Interest of SRS, 2023 WY 50, ¶ 21, 529 P.3d 1074, 1080 (Wyo. 2023) (quoting Interest of SMD, 2022 WY 24, ¶ 27, 503 P.3d 644, 652 (Wyo. 2022)). "To the extent that our review addresses the proper application and interpretation of the Child Protection Act, our review is de novo." In re RE, 2011 WY 170, ¶ 11, 267 P.3d 1092, 1096 (Wyo. 2011) (citing In re SRB-M, 2009 WY 22, ¶ 8, 201 P.3d 1115, 1117 (Wyo. 2009), superseded on other grounds by statute, Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 3-3-1101(a) (2007)).


[¶10] Mother argues that the juvenile court's failure to make findings that DFS made reasonable efforts to finalize her case plan, as required by Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 14-3-431(f) (2021), was an abuse of discretion. We agree.

[¶11] Wyoming Statute § 14-3-431(k)(i) states the juvenile court "shall" determine "whether the department of family services has made reasonable efforts to finalize the plan[.]" (Emphasis added). The statute also states, "At the permanency hearing, the court shall make determinations of reasonable efforts as outlined in W.S. 14-3-440." Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 14-3-431(f) (emphasis added). Under § 14-3-440(f), the juvenile court "shall make the reasonable efforts determinations required under this section at every court hearing" and "[t]he reasonable efforts determinations shall be documented in the court's orders." (Emphasis added).

[¶12] "We have consistently found the word 'shall' in a statute to be mandatory." Archer v. Mills 2021 WY 75A, ¶ 9, 491 P.3d 260, 262 (Wyo. 2021) (citing In re MN, 2007 WY 189, ¶ 5, 171 P.3d 1077, 1080 (Wyo. 2007)). This instance is no different; the governing statutes require the juvenile court to determine whether DFS made reasonable efforts to reunify the family. See, e.g., Interest of SRS, 2023 WY 50, ¶ 22, 529 P.3d at 1080 ("To change a permanency plan, the juvenile court must determine whether the current plan is in the child's best interests and whether DFS has made reasonable efforts to finalize the plan." (quoting Interest of AM, 2021 WY 119, ¶ 11, 497 P.3d 914, 918 (Wyo. 2021))); Interest of SW, 2021 WY 81, ¶ 17, 491 P.3d 264, 269 (Wyo. 2021) (citing Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 14-3-431(k)(i)); Interest of SMD, 2022 WY 24, ¶ 45, 503 P.3d at 657 ("After a trial court makes [the reasonable efforts] determination, reunification efforts are no longer necessary because the plan no longer aims to reunify the family."); Interest of AM, 2021 WY 119, ¶ 16, 497 P.3d at 920. The "[r]easonable efforts determinations shall include whether or not services to the family have been accessible, available[,] and appropriate." Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 14-3-440(e).

[¶13] Reasonable efforts by DFS and a determination by the juvenile court that DFS made these efforts are not mere formalities. See Matter of BAD, 2019 WY 83, ¶ 29, 446 P.3d 222, 229 (Wyo. 2019) (Fox, J., specially concurring) ("We strictly construe the 'applicable statutes against those seeking termination and in favor of the non-consenting parent.'" (quoting In re AE, 2009 WY 78, ¶ 11, 208 P.3d 1323, 1326 (Wyo. 2009))). "[M]ost parents who come into contact with the Department are likely to have significant, unique challenges that make parenting difficult" and "it seems only fair that the reasonable efforts requirement be tailored to meet the propensities of those parents[.]" Id. at ¶ 37, 446 P.3d at 232 (quoting Jeanne M. Kaiser, Finding a Reasonable Way to Enforce the Reasonable Efforts Requirement in Child Protection Cases, 7 Rutgers J.L. & Pub. Pol'y 100, 118 (Fall 2009)). DFS' existence is premised, in part, on helping parents who have unique parenting challenges overcome those challenges and reuniting the parent with their child. Id. at ¶ 24, 446 P.3d at 227-28. The parent-child relationship is a heavily protected fundamental right that requires DFS make reasonable efforts that "go beyond mere matters of form" and must "include real, genuine help to see that all things are done that might conceivably improve the circumstances of the parent and the relationship of the parent with the child." Id.at ¶¶ 23, 37, 446 P.3d at 227, 232 (quoting Matter of Welfare of J.A., 377 N.W.2d 69, 73 (Minn.Ct.App. 1985)). To give the family the best chance at family reunification, these efforts must be made, and the juvenile court must determine the efforts were reasonable.

[¶14] However, when "determining what...

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  • Court Summaries
    • United States
    • Wyoming State Bar Wyoming Lawyer No. 46-5, October 2023
    • Invalid date
    ...policy's effective date did not affect the statute of limitations. In the Interest of JN, minor child and RN v. State of Wyoming S-23-0033 2023 WY 83 August 23, 2023 JN was taken into protective custody on April 9, 2021, and thereafter the Department of Family Services (DFS) implemented a c......

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