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State ex rel. C.F.

Supreme Court of Louisiana

December 6, 2017



          GUIDRY, Justice

         This is a proceeding to terminate parental rights involuntarily. The district court found clear and convincing evidence that supported at least one ground for termination of parental rights, but it nevertheless concluded termination was not in the best interest of the child. For the reasons set forth below, we find the district court was clearly wrong in finding that termination of the father's parental rights was not in the best interest of the child. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the district court and render judgment terminating the rights of the father and allowing the child to be adopted. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         The minor child, C.F., was born on December 22, 2006, to E.F., her mother, and C.F., Jr., her father. The mother died of natural causes on December 30, 2013. On June 9, 2014, the Department of Children and Family Services (hereinafter "DCFS"), received a report expressing concern for the child's welfare, who was living with the father in the child's paternal grandfather's home in Kenner. Upon investigation, DCFS learned that C.F.'s mother was deceased and that C.F.'s father had a lengthy history of substance abuse and was reported to be passed out after smoking crack cocaine in the home while the minor child was in his care. On June 20, 2014, DCFS interviewed the father and reported that his behavior was disoriented and his speech slurred. DCFS reported that, during the interview, the father admitted to smoking crack cocaine ten days earlier while the minor child was asleep in the home. The father thereafter made arrangements for C.F. to stay with his sister. For the following six days, DCFS made several attempts to contact the father to transport him for random urine drug screenings and to refer him for substance abuse treatment. In light of the father's alleged lengthy history of substance abuse and failure to cooperate with DCFS, the trial court granted an oral instanter order directing DCFS to take C.F. into its immediate custody.

         On August 12, 2014, the trial court adjudicated C.F. as a child in need of care. The initial case plan goal for permanent placement for C.F. was reunification with a concurrent goal of adoption. The father's case plan required him to find and maintain stable housing for a period of six months; contribute $25.00 per month for C.F.'s care and support; participate in and complete agency-approved substance abuse classes; participate in mental health evaluations and therapy appointments; complete random drug screenings; participate in all court hearings and scheduled Family Team Conferences ("FTCs"); visit with C.F. as scheduled and provide nutritious snacks and age-appropriate toys; and complete agency-approved parenting classes.

         On September 10, 2015, DCFS filed a petition to terminate the father's parental rights to C.F. specifying two grounds for termination: (1) abandonment pursuant to La. Ch. Code art. 1015(4), [1] and (2) failure to comply with the case plan pursuant to La. Ch. Code art. 1015(5).[2] With regard to abandonment, DCFS alleged the father abandoned his daughter by failing to provide any significant contributions to C.F.'s care and support for a period of six months. With regard to the ground of failing to comply with the case plan, DCFS alleged the following particulars to support termination of the father's parental rights:

1) The father has failed to consistently attend court-approved scheduled visitations and communicate with the child;
2) He has not maintained a safe, stable home;
3) He has failed to keep the department apprised of his whereabouts and significant changes affecting his ability to comply with the case plan for services;
4) He has repeatedly failed to comply with the required program of treatment and rehabilitation services;
5) He lacks substantial improvement in redressing the problems preventing reunification;
6) Although the father attended a substance abuse treatment program he continues to have positive test results when screened for drugs; and
7) The conditions that led to the removal or similar potentially harmful conditions persist.

         On September 29, 2016, the matter proceeded to trial on DCFS's petition to terminate parental rights. At trial, Kyra Johnson, a child welfare specialist with DCFS, testified that she is the case worker assigned to C.F.'s case. She testified C.F. came into state custody on June 26, 2014, and had been placed in a certified foster home. She testified C.F. was previously placed into state custody in 2007, when her father admitted to using crack cocaine in C.F.'s presence and her mother, E.F., was discovered passed out in the home. Within the initial six-month period in the 2007 case, C.F. was returned to her parents' custody, though the circumstances surrounding the child's return are not contained in the instant record.

         As to the father's contributions to the care and support of C.F., Ms. Johnson testified that, at the time of trial, the father had made no payments in accordance with his case plan for C.F.'s support. Instead, the father had provided some snacks during his visits with the child and had provided her with a cell phone.

         With regard to compliance with the case plan, Ms. Johnson testified the father received a certificate of completion for the ordered parenting classes and weekly mental health sessions, which included comprehensive evaluations and one-on-one therapy sessions. Ms. Johnson testified the father had completed the required substance abuse program. However, as to satisfying his drug screens, there were some missed screenings, which resulted in automatic positive results pursuant to DCFS procedures, and some positive test results for opiates. Even though the father was warned that a missed drug screen would be deemed a positive outcome, he missed several drug screens prior to December 2015. Ms. Johnson testified the father also tested positive for opiates, but he had indicated to her he had been prescribed pain medication, and on one occasion he did provide proof of such. Ms. Johnson testified the father never tested positive for crack cocaine.

         As to the missed screenings and positive test results, Ms. Johnson testified that, after the filing of the September 2015 petition to terminate, the father did not appear for his December 15, 2015 review hearing. At that hearing, the case plan goal was amended to adoption. The father missed his January and February 2016 drug screens. Ms. Johnson testified she observed a noticeable difference in the father's behavior in December 2015, and the beginning of 2016, believing he may have been still grieving the loss of his wife. After the filing of the petition to terminate, the father indicated to Ms. Johnson that he would surrender his rights to C.F. He told her he felt everyone was "turning back on him" and no one was actually trying to help him get his daughter back. The father did appear for the remainder of the monthly drug screens in 2016, up to the date of trial in September 2016.

         As to the father's visitation with C.F., Ms. Johnson testified that, prior to December of 2015, the father was scheduled to visit with C.F. twice a month, but that he occasionally missed those visits, often not warning DCFS that he would not be attending the visitation. Ms. Johnson testified that during the visits, the interaction between father and daughter was largely initiated by the daughter. Ms. Johnson testified the father was in an accident in March of 2016, which required him to have multiple surgeries. She testified the father missed his monthly visitations with C.F. from March 2016 through July 2016, but while he may not have been mobile initially, he was likely mobile by June 2016. The father visited with C.F. as scheduled in August and September 2016.

         Regarding his income and housing, Ms. Johnson testified the father receives $1, 067.00 per month in social security benefits. She testified the father frequently moved around after C.F. entered state custody, living at times with his own father or his son. Most recently, in June 2016, the father leased a 4-bedroom home in Westwego, which provided space for C.F. and appeared operable with working utilities upon inspection. However, Ms. Johnson testified the father's housing was deemed unsuitable by DCFS because he shared his home with his two adult sons and his daughter-in-law, who each have had open foster care cases. She also testified that one son, and possibly the daughter-in-law, were also signatories to the lease.

         Ms. Johnson testified C.F. is very happy with her foster care family, who is willing to adopt her. She testified C.F. has stated she does not want to be removed from her foster family and would like to be adopted by them. Ms. Johnson stated that C.F. had never indicated she wanted to return to living with her father, and when pressed, she would respond that she wanted to stay with her foster family. Ms. Johnson testified C.F. has been diagnosed with depression since June of 2016 at which time she began medication. C.F. is attending trauma therapy as she has suffered extreme distress from the loss of her mother. Ms. Johnson testified that, since June of 2016, C.F. has begun exhibiting improper behavior, has been caught ...

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