STATE OF LOUISIANA IN THE INTEREST OF A.L.D. AND L.S.D.
WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEAL, SECOND CIRCUIT,
PARISH OF CADDO
JOHNSON, CHIEF JUSTICE
granted a writ in this termination of parental rights case to
determine if the court of appeal erred in reversing a
district court judgment terminating the parental rights of
the father, C.K.D. After reviewing the record and the
applicable law, we find no manifest error in the district
court's ruling that termination was supported by clear
and convincing evidence and that termination was in the best
interests of the children. Thus, we reverse the ruling of the
court of appeal and reinstate the district court's
judgment, terminating C.K.D.'s parental rights as to
A.L.D. and L.S.D. pursuant to Louisiana Children's Code
AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
about May 4, 2016, the minor child A.L.D. was removed from
the care of his mother, N.M.L., and his father, C.K.D. On May
31, 2016, the Department of Children and Family Services for
the State of Louisiana ("DCFS") filed a petition
alleging that A.L.D. was a child in need of care
("CINC"). During the course of the investigation,
one-year-old A.L.D. tested positive for methamphetamines. On
June 10, 2016, N.M.L. gave birth to L.S.D., also C.K.D.'s
child. At the CINC trial on July 13, 2016, the parents
stipulated that A.L.D. was in need of care. The parents were
drug-tested, and both tested positive for methamphetamines.
L.S.D., a one-month-old infant at the time, also tested
positive for methamphetamines. On August 23, 2016, DCFS filed
a petition regarding L.S.D., and that child was also
developed a case plan for the parents, which was approved by
the district court. As it relates to C.K.D., the plan
required him, among other things, to remain drug free,
maintain a safe and stable home that met the basic needs of
his children, complete random drug screens, and obtain a
legal source of income to support his children. The plan was
amended to require that C.K.D. complete parenting classes,
anger management, and mental health counseling and to pay
$25/month per child to DCFS for the support of his children.
initially placed the children with C.K.D.'s mother, D.D.
In May 2017, DCFS received reports that C.K.D. was improperly
living with D.D., and that D.D. was possibly using drugs
while caring for the children. C.K.D., D.D., and both
children tested positive for drugs. As a result, DCFS removed
the children from D.D.'s home and placed them in
non-relative foster care with G.B.
filed a petition to terminate both parents' parental
rights on October 9, 2017. As to C.K.D., the petition alleged
he struggled to comply with the requirements of his
court-approved case plan. Specifically, DCFS alleged that
although he participated in Active Recovery and received a
certificate of completion for Phase I of substance abuse
treatment in November 2016, he tested positive for cocaine
and methamphetamines in December 2016. DCFS asserted he
continued to test positive for those substances and marijuana
in May 2017, and that he struggled to maintain compliance
with treatment for substance abuse or mental health
counseling despite some initial success. DCFS further alleged
that C.K.D. had not maintained a safe and stable home that
could support the return of his children, and he has not
maintained contact with the agency. The petition also alleged
C.K.D. failed to pay $25 per child per month in contributions
to the care of his children as required by his case plan and
that he had no contact with the children since May 2017.
filed a motion to grant guardianship to her uncle, D.L., and
the matters were consolidated for a December 11, 2017, trial.
During a two-day trial, the district court heard testimony
and considered evidence on both issues, took judicial notice
of the non-hearsay portions of the CINC proceedings, and
ultimately entered judgment terminating both N.M.L.'s and
C.K.D.'s parental rights as to A.L.D. and
L.S.D.N.M.L.'s motion to grant guardianship
to D.L. was denied, presumably as moot. The district
court stated that C.K.D.'s parental rights were
terminated pursuant to La. Ch. C. art. 1015(6). C.K.D. filed
a motion for new trial, which was denied. C.K.D. appealed the
court of appeal reversed the termination of C.K.D.'s
parental rights and remanded the case to the district court
for further proceedings, ordering that DCFS maintain custody
of the children, the CINC proceeding be reinstated, and the
children remain placed with their great-uncle,
State in Interest of A.L.D., 52, 239 (La.App. 2 Cir.
6/27/18), 251 So.3d 554 (2018). The court of appeal concluded
that DCFS did not meet its burden of proving the elements
required for termination under La. Ch. C. art. 1015(6) by
clear and convincing evidence. The court reasoned that C.K.D.
sufficiently demonstrated "substantial parental
compliance" with the case plan and found there was not
clear and convincing evidence at trial to indicate there was
no reasonable expectation of significant improvement in
C.K.D.'s condition or conduct in the near future,
particularly considering the short length of time between the
time the petition for termination was filed and the trial.
Id. at 560-61. The court of appeal also noted that
although the children did not appeal the termination, their
appellate counsel appeared and argued that the district court
was manifestly erroneous in its judgment and that the
children are bonded with their father, who has made strides
towards preserving the parent-child relationship and it was
the position of the children's appellate counsel that
termination was premature and not in their best interests.
Id. at 561.
filed a writ application in this court, which we granted.
State in Interest of A.L.D., 18-1271 (La. 9/21/18),
252 So.3d 490.
termination of the legal relationship existing between
natural parents and children is one of the most drastic
actions the state can take against its citizens. However, the
primary concern of the courts and the state remains to
determine and insure the best interest of the child, which
includes termination of parental rights if justifiable
statutory grounds exist and are proven by the state.
State ex rel. J.M., 02-2089 (La. 1/28/03), 837 So.2d
1247, 1254. Louisiana Children's Code article 1015 sets
forth the grounds for which parental rights may be
terminated. To terminate parental rights, the state has the
burden of proving one of the statutory grounds for
termination by clear and convincing evidence. La. Ch. C. art.
1035(A). "'Clear and convincing' evidence
requires more than a 'preponderance,' but less than
'beyond a reasonable doubt.' Under the 'clear and
convincing' standard, the existence of the disputed fact
must be highly probable or much more probable than its
nonexistence." In re L.M.M., Jr., 17-1988 (La.
6/27/18), ___o. 3d ___, n. 13 (internal citation removed). If
a ground for termination is found, the district court must
then determine whether the termination is in the best
interest of the child. La. Ch. C. art. 1039; State ex
rel. L.B. v. G.B.B., 02-1715 (La. 12/4/02), 831 So.2d
district court terminated C.K.D.'s parental rights on the
basis of Article 1015(6), which provides:
Unless sooner permitted by the court, at least one year has
elapsed since a child was removed from the parent's
custody pursuant to a court order; there has been no
substantial parental compliance with a case plan for services
which has been previously filed by the department and
approved by the court as necessary for the safe return of the
child; and despite earlier intervention, there is no
reasonable expectation of significant improvement in the
parent's condition or conduct in the near future,
considering the child's age and his need for a safe,
stable, and permanent home.
under this Article, DCFS had to prove three elements: (1) it
had been one year since the children had been removed; (2)
C.K.D. had not substantially complied with the case plan for
services; and, (3) there is no reasonable expectation of
significant improvement in C.K.D.'s condition or conduct
in the near future. The dispute in this case centers on
elements two and three.
of Substantial Compliance with Case Plan
Code article 1036 provides that lack of parental compliance
with a case plan under Article 1015(6), may be evidenced by
one or more of the following:
(1) The parent's failure to attend court-approved
scheduled visitations with the child.
(2) The parent's failure to communicate with the child.
(3) The parent's failure to keep the department apprised
of the parent's whereabouts and significant changes
affecting the parent's ability to comply with the case
plan for services.
(4) The parent's failure to contribute to the costs of
the child's foster care, if ordered to do so by the court
when approving the case plan.
(5) The parent's repeated failure to comply with the
required program of treatment and rehabilitation services
provided in the case plan.
(6) The parent's lack of substantial improvement in
redressing the problems preventing reunification.
(7) The persistence of conditions that led to removal or
similar potentially ...