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State ex rel. A.N.

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Fourth Circuit

May 2, 2018

STATE OF LOUISIANA IN THE INTEREST OF A.N. STATE OF LOUISIANA IN THE INTEREST OF J.N. STATE OF LOUISIANA IN THE INTEREST OF S.A.

          APPEAL FROM ST. BERNARD 34TH JUDICIAL DISTRICT COURT NO. 23-360 C\W 23-399, 23-470, DIVISION "A" Honorable Robert A. Buckley, Judge

          LOBRANO, J., CONCURS IN THE RESULT. Hester R. Hilliard HILLIARD LAW FIRM, Richard Wilson Jr.,

          COUNSEL FOR APPELLANT, Elizabeth Lincoln, Department of Children & Family Services, COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE

          (Court composed of Judge Joy Cossich Lobrano, Judge Sandra Cabrina Jenkins, Judge Dennis R. Bagneris, Sr., Pro Tempore*)

          SANDRA CABRINA JENKINS JUDGE

         Pursuant to Louisiana Supreme Court order dated April 27, 2018, Judge Bagneris participated as judge ad hoc of the Court of Appeal, Fourth Circuit in this matter.

         This matter involves the involuntary termination of parental rights. The State of Louisiana through the Department of Children and Family Services ("DCFS") filed a petition for the termination of parental rights of the mother, A.A., as to her minor child, J.N.[1] [2] After a hearing, the trial court determined that DCFS proved by clear and convincing evidence one of the statutory grounds for termination and that termination of the mother's parental rights was in the best interests of J.N. J.N. now appeals the trial court's judgment terminating the mother's parental rights. For the reasons that follow, we find no manifest error in the trial court's judgment, and we affirm.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On January 27, 2016, DCFS initiated an investigation into a report of alleged physical abuse of J.N., a fourteen-year old minor child, by the child's father. In the course of the investigation, DCFS learned that the father had sole physical custody of J.N. and that the mother, A.A., had not exercised physical care or custody of J.N. for approximately three years due to mental health issues that compromised her ability to supervise her child. Regarding the alleged physical abuse, DCFS found no information to substantiate the allegation; both J.N. and the father denied any physical abuse. Prior to closing the investigation, however, DCFS learned that the father passed away, on February 13, 2016, leaving J.N. without a legal caretaker. DCFS then learned that J.N. was residing with the maternal grandmother and was exhibiting defiant, uncontrollable behavior. Based on all the information gathered in the course of the investigation, DCFS filed a request with the trial court for an instanter order, which was granted on March 16, 2016, placing J.N. in the temporary custody of DCFS.[3]

         On March 30, 2016, DCFS filed a petition to have J.N. declared a child in need of care. On May 11, 2016, the trial court held an adjudication hearing on the petition; J.N. and his mother were present and represented by counsel at the hearing. At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court rendered judgment adjudicating J.N. a child in need of care and ordering that J.N. remain in the custody of DCFS, pending further orders of the court, under the specified terms and conditions set forth in an approved case plan. In addition, the trial court approved a case plan for A.A. to regain custody of J.N. and advised A.A. of the case plan, case review, and permanency review procedures and compliance requirements.

         On December 7, 2016, the trial court held a case review hearing, at which A.A. and J.N. were both present and represented by counsel. After consideration of the case report submitted by DCFS, regarding the progress made by A.A. and the reasonable efforts made by DCFS to achieve reunification, the trial court rendered judgment approving the permanent case plan of adoption recommended by DCFS as being the most likely means to achieve permanency and stability for J.N. and in the child's best interests.

         On March 28, 2017, DCFS filed a petition to terminate the parental rights of A.A. and to declare J.N. eligible for adoption. As the grounds for termination under La. Ch.C. art. 1015(5), DCFS alleged that A.A. abandoned J.N. by leaving the child under circumstances demonstrating an intention to permanently avoid parental responsibility by failing to provide significant contributions to the child's care and support for more than six consecutive months. In addition, pursuant to La. Ch. C. art. 1015(6), DCFS alleged that A.A. failed to substantially comply with the required program of treatment and rehabilitation services under the case plan; failed to maintain a stable and safe home; failed to successfully attend, participate, and complete a mental health evaluation and follow through with any recommended treatment plan; and failed to make any of the parental contributions. Finally, DCFS alleged that, despite attempts at intervention, there was no reasonable expectation of significant improvement in A.A.'s conduct in the near future, considering J.N.'s age and need for a stable and permanent home.

         On July 26, 2017, the trial court held a hearing on the termination of parental rights, at which J.N. and A.A. were present and represented by counsel. After considering the evidence and testimony presented, the trial court rendered judgment terminating the parental rights of A.A. and declaring J.N. free and eligible for adoption.

         J.N. now appeals the trial court's August 11, 2017 judgment terminating A.A.'s parental rights.

         LAW AND DISCUSSION

         It is well-settled that a trial court's findings on factually-intense termination of parental rights issues are reviewed on appeal under a manifest error standard of review. State in the Interest of T.M.P., 13-1006, p. 21 (La.App. 4 Cir. 10/23/13), 126 So.3d 741, 753-54. Further, in any case regarding the involuntary termination of parental rights, the courts must balance the often competing interests of the natural parent and the child. State in the Interest of C.A.C., 11-1315, p. 7 (La.App. 4 Cir. 2/1/12), 85 So.3d 142, 146 (citing State ex rel. SNW v. Mitchell, 01-2128, p. 8 (La. 11/28/01), 800 So.2d 809, 814-15). Parents have a natural, fundamental liberty interest to the continuing care, custody, and management of their children that warrants great deference and protection under the law. State in the Interest of D.W., 15-0760, p. 9 (La.App. 4 Cir. 12/2/15), 182 So.3d 281, 287 (quoting State ex rel. K.G., 02-2886, p. 4 (La. 3/18/03), 841 So.2d 759, 762). However, "[t]he child has an interest in terminating parental rights that preclude or delay adoption and inhibit ...


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