Slade R. v. State, S-18252

CourtSupreme Court of Alaska (US)
PartiesSLADE R., Appellant, v. STATE OF ALASKA, DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH & SOCIAL SERVICES, OFFICE OF CHILDREN'S SERVICES, Appellee.
Docket NumberS-18252,1917
Decision Date31 August 2022

SLADE R., Appellant,
v.

STATE OF ALASKA, DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH & SOCIAL SERVICES, OFFICE OF CHILDREN'S SERVICES, Appellee.

No. S-18252

No. 1917

Supreme Court of Alaska

August 31, 2022


UNPUBLISHED See Alaska Appellate Rule 214(d)

Appeal from the Superior Court of the State of Alaska, Third Judicial District, Anchorage, Adolf V. Zeman, Judge.Superior Court No. 3AN-19-00594 CN

Olena Kalytiak Davis, Anchorage, for Appellant.

Charles E. Brasington, Assistant Attorney General, Anchorage, and Treg R. Taylor, Attorney General, Juneau, for Appellee.

Notice of nonparticipation filed by Laura Hartz, Assistant Public Advocate, and James Stinson, Public Advocate, Anchorage, for Guardian Ad Litem.

Before: Winfree, Chief Justice, Maassen, Borghesan, and Henderson, Justices. [Carney, Justice, not participating.]

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND JUDGMENT [*]

I. INTRODUCTION

The Office of Children's Services (OCS) took emergency custody of a young child after she sustained serious injuries while in her mother's care. In the two

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years afterward, the child's father moved in and out of jail and the mother left Alaska. OCS petitioned to terminate the father's parental rights. The superior court granted the petition, finding that the child was in need of aid due to abandonment, the father's incarceration, and the father's substance abuse, and that OCS made reasonable efforts to reunite the father with his daughter. The father appeals. Seeing no reversible error, we affirm the termination of his parental rights.

II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

A. Facts

Ainsley was born in Anchorage in March 2019 to Slade R. and Brynn S.[1]OCS received a protective services report at Ainsley's birth due to concerns that Brynn was using heroin, but Ainsley tested negative for substances. Three months after Ainsley's birth, Slade was incarcerated.

In October 2019 Brynn brought Ainsley to the emergency room due to head swelling. Brynn told medical professionals there that the swelling had resulted from two or three separate falls. The medical professionals concluded that Ainsley's injuries - including a skull fracture, a bilateral scalp hematoma, a left arm fracture, a subconjunctival hemorrhage, a torn frenulum, scrapes and cuts, and puncture wounds - were severe, inconsistent with Brynn's account, and indicative of nonaccidental trauma. OCS received a second protective services report following these observations.

Shortly after the emergency room visit, OCS took custody of Ainsley and placed her in a foster home. Slade, awaiting the resolution of various criminal charges against him, was still in jail at this time. Slade's mother requested placement, which OCS denied due to concerns about her ability to meet Ainsley's significant medical needs.

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In November 2019 Ainsley's first foster family returned her to OCS. OCS then placed Ainsley with Delta, a licensed foster parent, and her husband. The placement was intended to be for a short term only, but Delta, in light of Ainsley's significant needs, ended up assuming her long-term care. Ainsley's health problems included dysphagia, silent aspiration, and delayed gastric emptying.

Ainsley's first OCS caseworker met with Brynn and Slade in late 2019 to develop case plans for both parents. Slade's case plan set two goals for him: (1) to "be a productive member of society and be able to care for [Ainsley]"; and (2) to "learn and use parenting skills to properly care for [Ainsley]."

OCS later became aware of the extent of Ainsley's medical needs, which require her to avoid drinking liquids or eating pureed foods, to receive hydration and nutrition from a surgically placed gastrostomy tube (g-tube[2]), and to attend a variety of medical and therapy appointments each week. In light of these needs, the caseworker modified Slade's case plan to require him to (1) "learn and use parenting skills to properly care for [Ainsley]," and (2) "learn what [Ainsley]'s medical and emotional needs are in order to safely care and provide for her." To accomplish the first goal, the case plan instructed Slade to complete parenting and anger management classes; the caseworker made referrals for these classes. To accomplish the second goal, the case plan directed Slade to (1) "continue working with [Delta] to learn [Ainsley]'s needs," (2) "attend [Ainsley's] appointments," and (3) "maintain consistent family contact with [Ainsley]."

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Slade was released from jail in February 2020. He met with the caseworker again the day of his release; the caseworker then set up in-person contact with Ainsley, which began in June. Slade later testified at trial that he visited Ainsley consistently until September 2020. Slade also attended one of Ainsley's appointments in person before COVID-19 pandemic restrictions were imposed. After the onset of the pandemic, many medical providers began allowing only one caretaker to attend appointments in person, which left Slade unable to physically attend Ainsley's appointments. Although Delta arranged for Slade's virtual participation at the appointments, he did not attend any of them. The caseworker followed up with Slade to highlight the need to attend these appointments and to maintain contact with Delta.

In late September a warrant was issued for Slade's arrest; he then stopped visiting Ainsley. OCS sent Slade text messages indicating that the agency would discontinue visits if he kept missing them. Slade ultimately missed a month and a half of scheduled visits. Slade maintained that he missed these visits because he feared being arrested if he appeared for visitation at OCS offices; he explained that he wanted to collect enough bail money to gain release before turning himself in on the warrant. The case was transferred to a second caseworker during this time.

Slade was arrested in November and returned to jail. Slade had no contact with Ainsley or Delta after his arrest. After an eight-day release in early 2021, Slade was again returned to jail.

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B. Proceedings

OCS petitioned to terminate Brynn and Slade's parental rights in June 2021. OCS alleged that Ainsley was in need of aid based on abandonment,[3] incarceration,[4]physical harm,[5] mental harm,[6] neglect,[7] and parental substance abuse.[8] A third caseworker took over the case a month after the petition was filed. Brynn, who had left Alaska for Arkansas, relinquished her parental rights the week before trial. Slade, who was still incarcerated, proceeded to trial.

A termination trial took place on two days in September. OCS called Delta and Slade's second and third caseworkers to testify as witnesses, while Slade testified on his own behalf.

Delta's testimony focused on Ainsley's special needs and the type of care Delta provided to meet them. Delta testified that she took Ainsley to four to six medical and therapy appointments a week. These appointments included weekly home visits with a developmental support program and periodic appointments with her pediatric gastroenterologist, developmental neurologist, nutritionist, speech therapist, occupational therapist, and pediatrician. Delta also testified that she fed Ainsley through her g-tube five times a day and gave her medication and water with a syringe four times a day.

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Delta described the difficulties caused by Ainsley's g-tube: sometimes the tube would "just pop" out of Ainsley's body; if the tube was not quickly replaced, the opening for the tube would start to close. Delta testified that because of this problem, she had to take Ainsley to the emergency room six times. Delta mentioned that she took a special class to learn how to take care of the g-tube.

Delta also testified that she and her family had to restructure their days to ensure that Ainsley could get enough food while avoiding cyclical vomiting, which happens when she is fed too quickly due to her gastric emptying condition. Delta then testified that she must be vigilant to stop Ainsley from eating or drinking anything she cannot safely consume because of her history of silent aspiration.

When asked whether others could learn to meet Ainsley's needs, Delta said yes, but that "dedication[,]... patience[,] and willingness to learn" would be essential. She observed that despite having five other children - two of whom also had special needs-Ainsley's care took up seventy percent of her time. Delta testified that she had no special training before Ainsley was placed with her family; she needed to be taught and did not think she would have been able to understand how to take care of Ainsley without the support she received from Ainsley's medical team.

Delta also testified about her communication with Slade. She testified that she arranged for Slade's remote participation and told him to contact her for Ainsley's appointment schedule, but he did not follow through. Delta added that Slade had last contacted her in August or September 2020.

Slade's OCS caseworkers testified next. The second worker to handle his case testified that she worked on case planning with Slade over the phone before he went to jail in November 2020 but did not call him in jail. When questioned about the possibility of family contact during Slade's incarceration, the second caseworker testified that she "was told that... family contact was not being allowed by [the Department of

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Corrections (DOC)]." The third caseworker testified that she had spoken with Slade once over the phone since receiving the case in July 2021. She added that because the termination trial had already been scheduled when she was assigned the case, her activities consisted mainly of "coordinating" and "getting things in place prior to the [trial]."

Finally, Slade testified about a number of topics, including his participation in his case plan and his incarceration. Slade testified that the first caseworker - with whom he had a good working relationship - had instructed him to get in touch...

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