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State ex rel. J.S.

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Fourth Circuit

February 7, 2018


         APPEAL FROM JUVENILE COURT ORLEANS PARISH NO. 2016-333-01-TR-A, SECTION "A" Honorable Ernestine S. Gray, Judge

          Katherine M. Dowling Department of Children and Family Services COUNSEL FOR STATE OF LOUISIANA/APPELLANT


          Court composed of Judge Terri F. Love, Judge Paula A. Brown, Judge Dennis R. Bagneris, Sr., Pro Tempore

          TERRI F. LOVE, JUDGE.

         This case arises from the trial court's denial of the Department of Children & Family Services' ("State") petition to terminate parental rights. The trial court found that termination of the mother's parental rights was not in the best interest of the child considering the mother is attending and making progress in her therapy sessions, the close relationship shared by the parent and child, and Louisiana's reluctance to terminate parental rights but in the most extreme circumstances. Based on the totality of the circumstances presented, we find the decision to deny termination of parental rights was not manifest error. Accordingly, the trial court's ruling denying the State's petition to terminate parental rights is affirmed.


         On July 29, 2016, J.S.[1] entered foster care, following allegations that her mother D.S. physically abused her for which D.S. was arrested. The State filed a Child in Need of Care petition, and J.S. was subsequently adjudicated a Child in Need of Care. Thereafter, the State filed a petition to terminate parental rights against D.S. based on a 16-year old conviction in Alaska relating to the abuse of her son. Meanwhile, D.S. was charged in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court with respect to the alleged physical abuse of her daughter J.S. D.S. later pled guilty pursuant to La. C.Cr.P. art. 894 to one count of domestic abuse battery in violation of La. R.S. 14:35.3 and was placed on probation. As a condition of probation, D.S. was required to enroll in and complete a court approved domestic abuse intervention program and court approved parenting classes. She complied with the requirements of her probation and all services ordered by the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court.

         Evidence was presented at trial that D.S. also complied with all services requested by the State and orders of Orleans Parish Juvenile Court. Additionally, D.S. participated in programs offered through the Salvation Army, including "Tokens of Hope, " a service that provides ongoing case management services for her and J.S.

         At trial, D.S. acknowledged her prior conviction involving her son as well as her conviction relating to the abuse of J.S. With respect to the incident involving J.S., D.S. testified that she was angry at the person she was living with at the time, who had accused her of "sleeping around." D.S. stated that she took her anger out on J.S. by slapping her. She further testified that she has learned better ways to manage her anger and stress. She stated that when she begins to feel angry or stressed she can take a walk outside, confide in friends, and utilize the resources, services, and programs offered through her current support system.

         Dr. Julie Larrieu ("Dr. Larrieu"), a Professor of Psychiatry in Behavior Sciences at Tulane University School of Medicine and member of the Tulane Parenting Education Program (T-PEP), testified as an expert in clinical psychology with an emphasis in parent-child relationships and infant mental health. Based on her evaluation of D.S., over the course of treatment, Dr. Larrieu testified that D.S. has difficulty opening up and trusting people. Dr. Larrieu opined that at the time of the trial, she did not believe D.S. could safely parent J.S. She testified that D.S. had only made "minimal clinical progress" over the course of 30 sessions. She explained that in order for D.S. to progress to the second stage of treatment, she must acknowledge and take responsibility for what happened to J.S. and understand what she needs to do differently to keep herself and her daughter safe.

         Dr. Larrieu opined that because it could take years to rehabilitate, D.S. would be unable to make the progress needed to safely parent in a "timeframe sensitive for [J.S.]" Nevertheless, Dr. Larrieu admitted certain factors at the outset of her treatment slowed her progress. Dr. Larrieu acknowledged that D.S. explained that she was instructed initially not to discuss the allegations involving J.S. because criminal charges were pending at the time. Dr. Larrieu conceded, however, that when the criminal matter was resolved, D.S. had become more forthcoming as trust was built. Although in her opinion D.S. could not assess whether someone was safe or not, Dr. Larrieu further acknowledged that D.S. raised the issue voluntarily after she was offered assistance and support, on two separate occasions, from men she did not know well. Dr. Larrieu admitted that the discussion arose during therapy sessions and that afterwards D.S. did not accept assistance or make any arrangements with either individual.

         Dr. Larrieu testified that depending on the parent's own trauma history, on average, it takes 35-50 sessions for a parent to "make real sustain[ed] behavior changes so that [misconduct] does not happen again." Dr. Larrieu indicated that D.S. had excellent attendance. At the time of the trial, D.S. had attended 30 sessions, and she and her daughter had been observed four times together. She expressed concern that because J.S. thinks she has to take psychological and emotional responsibility, she will be unable to develop her own identity and sense of self. Dr. Larrieu testified that it was apparent from observations together that J.S. and D.S. "really love each other."

         Jessica Casby ("Ms. Casby"), a foster care social worker employed by DCFS, testified that J.S. has expressed a desire to live with her mother. Similarly, Sharon Alexis ("Ms. Alexis"), the Shelter Manager at The Salvation Army and "Tokens of Hope" program coordinator, testified as to her interactions with D.S. She stated that Tokens of Hope is an intensive case management program that aids homeless men and women to break the cycle of homelessness by assessing their needs and providing access to helpful resources. Ms. Alexis testified that D.S. is an ...

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