This decision has been designated as "Supreme Court of Vermont Appeals Disposed of Without Published Opinion or Memorandum Decision." table in the Atlantic Reporter
APPEALED FROM: Superior Court, Chit. Fam. Division. DOCKET NO. 376-12-12 Cnjv. Trial Judge: Linda Levitt.
Reiber, C. J., Dooley, and Skoglund, JJ.
In the above-entitled cause, the Clerk will enter:
Father appeals from the termination of his parental rights to his daughter, A.M., born in December 2012. Father argues that the court's finding that father will not be able to parent within a reasonable period of time is not supported by the evidence and the court's findings on father's contact with A.M. misapprehend the record. We affirm.
Mother has a history of drug addiction, mental health problems, criminal activity and homelessness. At birth, A.M. experienced withdrawal symptoms due to mother's use of drugs during her pregnancy. After birth, the Department for Children and Families (DCF) initially placed A.M. with father's sister and filed a petition to have A.M. declared a child in need of care or supervision (CHINS). Mother stipulated that A.M. was CHINS in January 2013, and father did so later. The placement with father's sister lasted only a few weeks, and then A.M. was placed in a foster home where she has remained since late December 2012.
Father has a long history of drug addiction and crime. He began using drugs at age twelve. He had twenty-four convictions from 1993 to 2013 and an array of correctional rule violations from his time in jail. He has four other children, and his parental rights to all of those children have been terminated. When A.M. was born, father was incarcerated on charges of escape and driving while under the influence. The initial disposition had concurrent goals of reunification with mother and adoption. Father was required to complete programs on parenting, anger and drugs. He was released in September 2013 and placed on furlough status. Father is classified as a high-risk violent offender and receives the highest level of supervision from the Department of Corrections. Father will be supervised until 2025 and has a poor history of complying with furlough agreements. Father had three visits with A.M. while in jail. After his release, he visited with A.M. in the DCF office. He has not engaged in any activities with A.M. outside a supervised setting. At the time of the final hearing, father had been drug-free since his release from jail, and had been in counseling for five weeks. He was living with a pastor and saving money for an apartment.
A.M.'s attorney and guardian moved to terminate parental rights to A.M. and the State joined the petition. Following a hearing, the court issued a written order. The court found that parents' progress had stagnated. As to father, the court found that father's ability to parent had stagnated insofar as he did not have a close relationship with A.M. and visits with father were stressful for A.M. The court also found that father's recent lifestyle changes were too short-lived to demonstrate that they were sustainable and that he could provide a stable, loving home for A.M. The court also found that termination was in A.M.'s best interests explaining, that, among other reasons, father would not be able to parent A.M. within a reasonable period of time. Father appealed.
To terminate parental rights, the court must determine by clear and convincing evidence first that there is a change of circumstances, and second that termination is in the child's best interests. See 33 V.S.A. § 5113(b); In re B.W., 162 Vt. 287, 291, 648 A.2d 652 (1994). In assessing the child's best interests, the court must consider the statutory criteria. 33 V.S.A. § 5114. The most important factor is whether the parent will be able to resume parenting duties within a reasonable period of time. In re J.B., 167 Vt. 637, 639, 712 A.2d 895 (1998) (mem.). On appeal, we will uphold the family court's conclusions if supported by the findings and affirm the findings unless clearly erroneous. Id.
Father first argues that the family division's finding that he will not be able to parent within a reasonable period of time is not supported by the evidence. Father's argument revolves around the court's finding that it was not reasonable for A.M. to wait " a year or more to see if father could responsibly care for her." Father claims that this finding is not supported by the evidence, which was that it may take eight months to a year-not a year or more-to see if father could achieve stability and care for his daughter. Father argues also that the evidence indicated A.M. could wait for four months to achieve permanency and therefore it was premature to determine that father would not be able to parent within a reasonable period of time.
There was no error. The testimony father points to came from A.M.'s DCF social worker, who testified that she would like to see father maintain stability for " eight months to year minimum" before father could assume parenting A.M. This evidence is not at odds with the court's finding that A.M. would have to wait " a year or more" for father to attain the necessary permanency to parent her. The social worker's testimony was not the only evidence regarding father's readiness to parent. There was also evidence of father's long-standing history of drug abuse, criminal behavior and failure to comply with furlough conditions. It was not error for the court to find based on that evidence combined with the social worker's testimony that father would require " a year or more" to make the necessary lifestyle changes that would allow him to parent A.M.
Whether it would take father eight months, one year, or more to achieve goals necessary to begin parenting A.M., the court's other findings indicate that all of those times were too long when measured from A.M.'s perspective. See In re B.S., 166 Vt. 345, 353, 693 A.2d 716 (1997) (" The period of time must be viewed from the perspective of the needs of the child." ). The court found that given A.M.'s young age, she needed permanency as soon as possible. Moreover, while father claims that termination was premature because the DCF social worker testified that A.M. could wait for four months, there was no evidence father would be ready in four months. More importantly, the court did not accept that A.M. ...