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In re J.C.

Supreme Court of Vermont

January 22, 2016

In re J.C. & T.F., Juveniles

On Appeal from Superior Court, Franklin Unit, Family Division Alison S. Arms, J.

Matthew Valerio, Defender General, and Joshua S. O'Hara, Appellate Defender, Montpelier, for Appellant Mother.

William H. Sorrell, Attorney General, and Martha E. Csala, Assistant Attorney General, Montpelier, for Appellee Department for Children and Families.

Michael Rose, St. Albans, for Appellee Juveniles.

PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Dooley, Skoglund, Robinson and Eaton, JJ.


¶ 1. Mother appeals from a superior court order adjudicating the minors J.C. and T.F. to be children in need of care and supervision (CHINS). Mother contends that the evidence and findings fail to support the judgment, and that the court's findings were conclusory and inadequate. We affirm.

¶ 2. This proceeding commenced with the filing of CHINS petitions in June 2014, based on reports and observations of social-service providers concerning mother's care of the children during the preceding six months. At the time, mother was living with her child, J.C., who was almost five years old, her husband and their daughter, T.F., who was almost two years old, and her husband's daughter K.P., who was then six years old. K.P. is the subject of a separate CHINS proceeding. The trial court held a merits hearing as to J.C. and T.F. in May 2015, and issued a written ruling in July 2015.

¶ 3. The facts may be summarized as follows. An in-home service provider with the Early Head Start program who visited the family on several occasions in May 2014 observed a number of cruel and abusive interactions between mother and her stepdaughter K.P. Mother told K.P. that "she didn't want her anymore, " informed the Head Start provider that she wanted to paddle K.P. "until she bled, " admitted that she had not given K.P. anything to drink for two days to teach her a lesson for "stealing food from the refrigerator, " reported that she had made K.P. stand in a corner for hours, and stated that she "want[ed] to be the next one on T.V. for killing her kid K.P."

¶ 4. Based on the Head Start provider's report, a social worker with the Department for Children and Families also visited the home. She observed that mother appeared to be stressed, overwhelmed, and agitated throughout the visits, noted similarly cruel treatment of K.P., and also observed an incident in which mother grabbed J.C. by the arms and forced the child onto a couch. Mother testified that she regularly suffered from depression, and had been prescribed medication but was not taking it. Father testified about his own extensive history of drug abuse and struggles to stay clean and sober. Although his work kept him away from the home for much of the time, he testified that he had no concerns about mother's treatment of the children.

¶ 5. The court concluded that mother had emotionally and physically abused K.P., and further concluded that the evidence demonstrated mother's general inability to properly care for J.C. and T.F. and her need for parenting education. The court noted father's need for continued substance abuse treatment. Based on these conclusions, the court adjudicated both children to be CHINS, and set the matter for a disposition hearing. This appeal by mother followed.

¶ 6. When reviewing a CHINS adjudication, we will "uphold the court's factual findings unless clearly erroneous and the court's legal conclusions when supported by those findings." In re D.D., 2013 VT 79, ¶ 34, 194 Vt. 508, 82 A.3d 1143.

¶ 7. A child is "in need of care or supervision" when, among other possible situations, he or she is "without proper parental care or subsistence, education, medical, or other care necessary for his or her well-being." 33 V.S.A. § 5102(3)(B). As we have explained, "[t]he focus of a CHINS proceeding is the welfare of the child, and therefore a court may adjudicate the child as CHINS even if the allegations are established as to one parent but not the other." In re C.P., 2012 VT 100, ¶ 28, 193 Vt. 29, 71 A.3d 1142. The principal issue "is whether, given all of the circumstances, the child is without proper 'parental' care, such that the child's well-being is threatened, " a "question of fact, . . . and each case must be determined on its own facts." In re G.C., 170 Vt. 329, 334, 749 A.2d 28, 32 (2000) (quotation omitted). Because the critical focus in a CHINS proceeding is on the child's well-being, the State is not required to demonstrate that the child has suffered actual harm, but rather is subject to a risk of harm. See In re L.M., 2014 VT 17, ¶ 29, 195 Vt. 637, 43 A.3d 553 (noting that State did not "need to establish actual harm" to show that child was CHINS); see also E.J.R. v. Young, 162 Vt. 219, 223, 646 A.2d 1284, 1287 (1994) (explaining that "[a]ctual and completed harmful acts cannot be, and are not, a precondition to a CHINS finding"). It is equally well settled that "[t]he family court may rely on evidence of the treatment of a sibling in concluding that a child is a CHINS." Young, 162 Vt. at 224, 646 A.2d at 1287; see also In re J.J.P., 168 Vt. 143, 148, 719 A.2d 394, 397 (1998) ("The court may rely on evidence of a parent's treatment of siblings to show a pattern of abuse and neglect, and a general inability to protect the children from harm.").

ΒΆ 8. Mother concedes that evidence of a parent's treatment of a sibling may be relevant in deciding whether a child is CHINS. She contends, however, that such treatment "is not alone conclusive" and that the trial court here erred "when it concluded that treatment of a sibling alone, without any connection to the children ...

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