State v. Doe (In re Doe), Docket No. 49375

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Idaho
Writing for the CourtSTEGNER, Justice.
Citation514 P.3d 991
Parties In the MATTER OF: John DOE I, Jane Doe I, and John Doe II, Children Under Eighteen (18) Years of Age. State of Idaho, Department of Health and Welfare, Petitioner-Respondent, v. John Doe (2021-54), Respondent-Appellant.
Docket NumberDocket No. 49375
Decision Date02 August 2022

514 P.3d 991

In the MATTER OF: John DOE I, Jane Doe I, and John Doe II, Children Under Eighteen (18) Years of Age.

State of Idaho, Department of Health and Welfare, Petitioner-Respondent,
v.
John Doe (2021-54), Respondent-Appellant.

Docket No. 49375

Supreme Court of Idaho, Boise, April 2022 Term.

Opinion Filed: August 2, 2022


Timothy D. French, Office of the Public Defender, Idaho Falls, for appellant, John Doe.

Mark V. Withers, Deputy Idaho Attorney General, Idaho Falls, for respondent, State of Idaho.

STEGNER, Justice.

John Doe (Father) appeals from the magistrate court's decision to terminate his parental rights to his three children: John Doe I (age 12), Jane Doe (age 11), and John Doe II (age 7). The children and their biological mother (Mother) lived in Idaho when the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare (the Department) petitioned to terminate Mother's parental rights. Mother eventually voluntarily stipulated to the termination of her parental rights. Father resided in Tennessee during these proceedings and could not be located by the Department for several months. The Department amended its original petition in Idaho to establish jurisdiction over Father. The Department then moved to obtain authorization to serve the petition on Father by publication in the Tennessee city where Father resided. The magistrate court granted the Department's request. Ultimately, Father was located in Tennessee and accepted personal service. The Department then filed a petition seeking to terminate Father's parental rights. The matter subsequently went to trial.

Father participated in the termination trial via Zoom from Tennessee. Throughout the proceeding, Father's internet connection proved to be unreliable, and he was repeatedly disconnected from the proceeding. Father rejoined the proceeding when the connection was reestablished. Father moved to continue the trial because of the connectivity issue, which the magistrate court denied, noting that it had given the parties the option of joining the proceedings remotely, but that they were required to ensure they had a reliable internet connection. Following the trial, the magistrate court terminated Father's parental rights based on the grounds of abandonment, neglect, and the inability to discharge parental responsibilities. Father timely appealed. For the reasons discussed, we affirm the decision of the magistrate court.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

In August of 2020, the Department filed a petition under the Child Protective Act against Mother regarding John Doe I, Jane Doe, and John Doe II to remove the children from Mother's custody after locating the family in a mobile home that did not have electricity or running water. After unsuccessfully working a case plan and a judicial finding of aggravated circumstances, discussed below, Mother stipulated to the termination of her parental rights for her children. At a hearing, the magistrate court accepted Mother's voluntary termination of her parental rights, finding that Mother's consent to termination was knowing, intelligent, and voluntary. The magistrate court then entered its findings, concluding that Mother had neglected the children, was unable to discharge her parental responsibilities, and that termination was in the best interests of the children.

Prior to Mother's stipulation, the Department filed a motion for a finding of aggravated circumstances and sought an order suspending

514 P.3d 996

visitation and reunification efforts. This motion stemmed from allegations by the children of sexual abuse voiced to their foster parents after they had been removed from Mother's care. The allegations were made against Mother, Mother's relatives, and Father, the biological father of John Doe I and John Doe II, and the legal father of Jane Doe. Specifically, Mother's oldest daughter, H.H. (age 16), whose biological father is not Father, alleged that Father had been sexually abusing her in Tennessee since she was eight years old. The magistrate court concluded that aggravated circumstances could not be determined against Father because he had not been served or notified and therefore had no opportunity to respond to allegations contained in the motion. Consequently, the magistrate court denied the Department's motion without prejudice and suggested the Department serve Father and proceed accordingly if it sought to terminate his parental rights.

In the interim, the Department made efforts to locate Father, which were unsuccessful. On April 30, 2021, the Department filed a motion to serve Father by publication using a local newspaper circulated in Crump, Tennessee, Father's last known address. The magistrate court granted the motion and service by publication was completed. However, on May 27, 2021, Father accepted personal service. After he accepted service, the Department filed an amended petition under the Child Protective Act to add Father to a previously filed petition which only included Mother at the time. The Department then filed a subsequent petition to terminate Father's parental rights.

The magistrate court scheduled the termination trial to take place on September 24, 2021, noting that parties could appear by Zoom "provided [they] ha[d] a reliable internet connection for the duration of the trial." Shortly before trial, the Department filed an amended petition, including a more detailed description of the allegations against Father.

The termination trial took place as scheduled. As the magistrate court was identifying the various parties present, both in person and via Zoom, it became apparent that Father, who was participating via Zoom from Tennessee, was having connectivity issues. Counsel for Father asked the magistrate court if it could make a record of "when the connection is lost and he signs back on." The magistrate court responded to the motion, noting that it had previously cautioned Father of the need to have a reliable connection if he chose to appear remotely and the trial proceeded. After a preliminary matter was addressed, the magistrate court noted that Father had lost his connection again:

I will note also for the record at this time that [Father] is no longer with us. I don't know when he dropped out again. He's coming on and off. So we'll let him in as soon as we can. I don't want to do the yoyo all the time, but I'll try to let you know as soon as he jumps in or when he's off, but I may not get it all the time.

The Department then presented its case, eliciting testimony from several witnesses. The first witness was David Strong, one of H.H.’s counselors, to whom she had disclosed sexual abuse by Father. As the Department called its second witness, Father's counsel inquired of the magistrate court whether Father was still connected to the Zoom call. The magistrate court informed counsel that Father was not. Father's counsel then moved for a continuance, which the magistrate court denied: "Your motion is denied. He was told he needed to get a good connection prior to, at the pretrial conference. This is a civil proceeding. He does not necessarily have to be present in this proceeding. ... So the [c]ourt will deny the motion. It's his responsibility."

The trial proceeded to the remaining witnesses: Officer Patrick Malugen with the Wayne County Sherriff's Office in Tennessee, who investigated H.H.’s allegations of sexual abuse against Father; H.H., who recounted her accusations against Father; Spencer Cook, another counselor for H.H.; Charles Brown, the Records Manager for the Department of Children's Services in Tennessee; Michael Worley, the biological father of Mother's youngest child (not subject to this case), who helped raise John Doe I, Jane Doe, and John Doe II; J.B., Father's mother; Kailee Jackson, a social worker for the Department; Makayla Gray, another social

514 P.3d 997

worker for the Department; and Elmer Fleischman, the guardian ad litem appointed for all three children in this case.

As Charles Brown was testifying, the Department sought to admit Exhibit 66, which consisted of numerous records from the Tennessee Department of Children's Services ("Tennessee Department") relating to Father's children as well as H.H., under Idaho Rule of Evidence 803(6), the business records exception to the rule against hearsay. Father objected, arguing that the records were prepared as part of an investigation and in anticipation of litigation. The magistrate court overruled Father's objection, finding that the records fell within the parameters of Rule 803(6).

After the Department rested, Father neither testified nor called any witnesses. The magistrate court ordered written closing arguments to be filed simultaneously. The magistrate court entered its Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law on December 8, 2021. The magistrate court concluded that the Department had established a prima facie case of abandonment against Father, in that he had not seen the three children for well over one year and had not established any just cause for his failure. Next, the magistrate court concluded that Father had neglected the children due to his instability and unwillingness to provide proper parental care to the children. The magistrate court also concluded that Father was unable to discharge his parental responsibilities as demonstrated by his untreated substance abuse issues and...

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