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State ex rel. R.J.

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Third Circuit

September 26, 2018

STATE IN THE INTEREST OF R.J., R.T., AND R.A.T.

          APPEAL FROM THE NINTH JUDICIAL DISTRICT COURT PARISH OF RAPIDES, NO. 16-TP-00053 HONORABLE JOHN C. DAVIDSON, DISTRICT JUDGE

          Dmitrc I. Burnes Burnes, Talley & Talley COUNSEL FOR APPELLANT: R.D.T. (mother)

          Guy R. Lain COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE: Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services

          Zebulon M. Winstead Crowell and Owens, LLC COUNSEL FOR APPELLEES: R.J. (minor child) R.T. (minor child) R.A.T. (minor child)

          Court composed of Marc T. Amy, John E. Conery, and Van H. Kyzar, Judges.

          VAN H. KYZAR JUDGE.

         R.D.T.[1] appeals from a trial court judgment terminating her parental rights based upon a finding that she failed to substantially comply with her case plan, that there was no reasonable possibility of her complying with her case plan in the near future, and that it was in the best interest of her children that her parental rights be terminated. For the following reasons, we affirm.

         DISCUSSION OF THE RECORD

         R.D.T. is the biological mother of three minor children: R.J. (birthdate January 21, 2005); R.T. (birthdate August 13, 2010); and R.A.T. (birthdate June 30, 2012). The father of R.J. was acknowledged to be W.C.J., Jr., who the state alleged was currently incarcerated with a release date of April 26, 2075. The fathers of R.T. and R.A.T. are alleged to be S.E. and T.M., respectively. This appeal only concerns the state's case against R.D.T.

         Pursuant to the record, the minor children were taken into custody by the State of Louisiana through the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) by an oral instanter order on February 2, 2014, based on a report that R.D.T. was being arrested on extradition charges from Texas and the children were being left without a caretaker. Previously, R.D.T. was involved with the DCFS back to 2006, in regards to four older children. This is the third time that R.J. has been taken into the state's custody based on an instantar order. The oral instantar order was confirmed by the trial court on February 3, 2014, after which a continued custody hearing was held on February 4, 2014, with the result that the children were continued in the custody of the state.

         On February 19, 2014, the state filed a petition seeking to have the children declared children in need of care based on the following grounds: 1) the state validated claims of dependency and minor head/facial injuries against R.D.T.; 2) R.D.T. being arrested and the children had no available caretaker; upon examination by a doctor, all three children were diagnosed with facial abrasions and bruises; the two oldest children disclosed that R.D.T. hit them and their younger brother; 3) R.J.'s father was incarcerated; R.T.'s alleged father was incarcerated; and the identity of R.A.T.'s father was unknown; 4) diminished caretaker capacities exhibited by R.D.T. The state further requested that the parents be ordered to pay child support to the state while the children were in its custody. Following a March 13, 2014 answer hearing, the trial court adjudicated the children on April 10, 2014, as children in need of care. As part of its judgment, the trial court ordered the children to remain in the custody of the state and it approved DCFS' case plan goal of reunification for the children.

         Following the development of case plans for R.D.T. and the children, case review hearings were held in this matter on August 4, 2014, January 5, 2015, July 6, 2015, January 4, 2016, June 13, 2016, and July 17, 2017. Permanency hearings were held on January 5, 2015, January 4, 2016, January 9, 2017, and January 8, 2018. Initially, the state recommended that the children be reunified with R.D.T. However, that goal was later changed to adoption on July 2, 2015, which the trial court approved on July 6, 2015.

         On October 3, 2016, the state filed a petition to terminate R.D.T.'s parental rights and to certify the children as available for adoption. The petition alleged that R.D.T. failed to adequately participate in her case plan or demonstrate substantial improvement in redressing the problems which led to her children being adjudicated as children in need of care; that she failed to provide court-ordered support for her children for a period in excess of six months, which demonstrated an intent to permanently avoid parental responsibility for the children pursuant to La.Ch.Code art. 1015(4)(b);[2] and that she failed to maintain significant contact with the children for a period of six months, which demonstrated an intent to permanently avoid parental responsibility for the children pursuant to La.Ch.Code art. 1015(4)(c).[3] The mother, through her attorney, answered the petition, denying the allegations set forth by the state.

         Following a two-day trial on the merits, the trial court took the matter under advisement. Thereafter, it rendered written reasons, terminating R.D.T.'s parental rights based on a finding that she failed to substantially comply with her case plan and that there is no reasonable probability of her complying with the case plan in the near future. A written judgment finding that R.D.T.'s parental rights should be terminated; that it was in the best interest of the minor children that R.D.T.'s parental rights be terminated; and that the minor children be certified as available for adoption was rendered by the trial court on February 7, 2018. It is from this judgment that R.D.T. appeals.

         On appeal, R.D.T. raises two assignments of error committed by the trial court:

1. The trial court erred in terminating the parental rights of the mother, R.D.T., when the evidence produced by the State (and by the defense) at trial was insufficient to prove by clear and convincing evidence that she has not substantially complied with her case plan and that there was no reasonable expectation for further improvement in her condition or conduct in the near future nor reasonable expectation that she would complete the case plan as deemed necessary for the safe return of the children.
2. The trial court erred in terminating the parental rights of the mother, R.D.T., after it failed to find that termination was in the best interest of the children.

         OPINION

         In State in the Interest of J.A., 17-500, pp. 3-4 (La, App. 3 Cir. 1/4/18), 237 So.3d 69, 72, this court stated with regard to the termination of parental rights:

A parent has a constitutionally protected liberty interest in establishing and maintaining a meaningful relationship with his or her children. State in Interest of A.C, 93-1125 (La. 1/27/94), 643 So.2d 719. This parental interest includes the "care, custody, and management of their child." State ex rel. J.M., 02-2089, p. 7 (La. 1/28/03), 837 So.2d 1247, 1252. Consistent with the parental interest, the state has a legitimate interest in limiting or terminating parental rights under certain conditions. Id. Because termination of parental rights is a severe action, the state bears the burden of establishing each element of a ground for termination by clear and convincing evidence. La.Ch.Code art. 1035; State ex rel. B.H. v. A.H., 42, 864 (La, App. 2 Cir. 10/24/07), 968 So.2d 881. The statutory grounds for involuntary termination of parental rights are found in La.Ch.Code art. 1015, although "only one ground need be established." State ex rel. B.H., 968 So.2d at 885. Once a ground for termination has been established, the parental rights may be terminated by the trial court if it is in the child's best interest. Id; La.Ch.Code art. 1037.

         A judgment terminating parental rights is reviewed on appeal under the manifest error standard of review. State in the Interest of K.V., 14-163 (La.App. 3 Cir. 11/21/14), 161 So.3d 795.

         The grounds for terminating the parental rights of a parent are set out in La.Ch.Code art. 1015, and include:

(5) Abandonment of the child by placing him in the physical custody of a nonparent, or the department, or by otherwise leaving him under circumstances demonstrating an intention to permanently avoid ...

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