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In re R.M.

Supreme Court of Vermont

May 9, 2014

In re R.M., R-C.M. and C.M., Juveniles

Editorial Note:

This decision has been designated as "Supreme Court of Vermont Appeals Disposed of Without Published Opinion or Memorandum Decision." table in the Atlantic Reporter

Appeal from: Superior Court, Wash. Fam. Division. DOCKET NOS. 178-10-12, 179-10-12, & 180-10 12 Wnjv. Trial Judge: Thomas J. Devine.

Reiber, C.J., Skoglund, and Robinson, JJ.

OPINION

ENTRY ORDER

In the above-entitled cause, the Clerk will enter:

Mother appeals from the termination of her residual parental rights in R.M., C.M., and R.-C.M. She argues that the court did not adequately assess R.-C.M.'s best interests. We affirm.

R.M. was born in April 1997; C.M. in January 1999; and R.-C.M. in May 2002. In March 2009, the Department for Children and Families (DCF) filed petitions alleging that the children were in need of care or supervision (CHINS) based on habitual truancy. The case was put on inactive status because mother and the children, who had left the state, could not be found. In September 2011, upon learning that the children were back in Vermont, DCF requested an emergency care order. The court granted its request after a hearing and placed the children in DCF custody. The court adjudicated the children as CHINS in February 2012 based on the parties' stipulation. Following a contested disposition hearing, the children remained in DCF custody. In January 2013, DCF moved to terminate both parents' residual rights. Following a hearing, the court agreed that termination was in the children's best interests.

The court found as follows. Before the children came into DCF custody, they were subjected to instability, domestic violence, and unsanitary living conditions. The family moved frequently, sometimes staying with friends and relatives, and sometimes staying in homeless shelters. R.M. did not attend school for over two years. Her parents were physically violent with one another. Both parents physically disciplined the children, including slapping the children in the face. Sometime around 2005, mother and father split up and mother's nineteen-year-old boyfriend Pat began living with the family. Pat physically abused the children on a regular basis. The family lived in a filthy home and eventually, they were evicted. In 2009, mother, Pat, and the children moved to New York, and then to Pennsylvania. They lived in Pennsylvania for the next two years until being evicted. The children were sent to live with an aunt and uncle, and when that did not work out, they were sent to live with one of mother's adult sons. The children were then sent to Vermont to stay with another adult son. They were taken into emergency DCF custody in the fall of 2011, not long after their return to Vermont.

DCF's case plan for mother, approved by the court in May 2012, contained four major components: obtain safe and appropriate housing; maintain consistent and successful visitation; engage in successful mental health treatment; and obtain parent education, including instruction on hygiene and cleanliness. The court found that mother failed to comply with these goals. At the time of the termination hearing in January 2014, she remained without her own housing. She was unemployed. She did not make progress in obtaining parent education. She had stopped going to counseling in May 2013. While mother had maintained regular contact with the children while they were in DCF custody, the visits were not successful. The visits were stressful for the older children. While the children loved mother, they had a poor relationship with her. They were confused and angry about what had happened to them and they were not enthusiastic about seeing mother.

Mother believed that she had parented the children appropriately and that there was no reason for DCF to have become involved with the family. She denied subjecting the children to deplorable living conditions. She blamed the truant officer for not ensuring that the children were in school. She acknowledged fighting between her husband and her older sons, but she blamed this on her husband's medication. She agreed that she and Pat had slapped the children in the face, but stated that it did not happen every time and that it was not against the law. The court found mother did not seem to understand that the children had experienced trauma while in her care. After almost three years of case plans and services, mother still lacked insight into the children's needs and the challenges presented for reunification.

The court found that the children had been living together in the same foster home since March 2012. They were doing very well there. The foster parents were committed and experienced and they had enabled the children to make a successful transition to their new home. The children moved as a close-knit team. They were initially suspicious of others, but that outlook was improving. The children had settled into a structured and stable routine and they were attending school regularly. They were an integrated part of the foster family and the foster parents sought to adopt them. The older children testified that they wanted to be adopted by their foster parents. R.C.-M. had a strong bond with her siblings and wanted to be where they were. She spoke positively about her foster home and stated that, if no one's feelings would be hurt, she wanted to stay with her foster parents. The court found that R.-C.M., like the other children, had been through a lot of upheaval, and that she was now in stable environment. It was stressful for her and the other children not to know with certainty where they would be living in the future.

Based on these and numerous other findings, the court concluded that mother had stagnated in her ability to parent and that termination of her rights was in the children's best interests. The court found that all of the statutory best-interest criteria favored termination. The first factor concerns the children's interaction with their natural parents, foster parents, siblings, and others who might significantly affect the children's best interests. The court explained that although the children and mother loved one another, there was stress in mother's relationship with the two older children. R.M.'s negative view of her mother had remained unchanged in over two years. C.M. remained ambivalent about parent-child contact. Of the three children, the court observed that R.-C.M. seemed to have the best relationship with mother. Nonetheless, the court continued, separating the children was not an option. The evidence overwhelmingly showed that the children were closely bonded. When the children entered foster care, they did so as a unit. Initially, the older children exhibited an unhealthy level of anxiety about their siblings. With sustained therapeutic support, that anxiety had lessened. But the children remained deeply committed to one another's safety and well-being. The court found that the children had been in their foster home for almost two years. Over time, they had developed a close and loving relationship with their foster parents. They wanted to be adopted by the foster parents. While the children's preferences were not dispositive, the court found that they underscored the close relationship that the children had with their foster parents. For these reasons, the court found that the first statutory best-interest factor favored termination of mother's rights.

The court also found that the children had adjusted well to their foster home, their school, and their community. They were beginning to thrive and credible testimony from the children's therapists showed that moving the children from this ...


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