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W. N. v. Cullman County Department of Human Resources

Alabama Court of Civil Appeals

March 15, 2019

W. N.
Cullman County Department of Human Resources

          Appeals from Cullman Juvenile Court (JU-17-151.02 and JU-17-151.03)

          Donaldson, Judge.

         W.N., the paternal grandmother of J.C.L. ("the child"), appeals from a judgment of the Cullman Juvenile Court ("the juvenile court"), entered in two separate actions, that denied her petition seeking custody of the child and terminated the parental rights of L.L. and J.L. to the child. Because W.N. did not timely appeal from the judgment entered in case no. JU-17-151.03, we dismiss appeal no. 2171167. See Rule 2(a)(1), Ala. R. App. P. We affirm the judgment entered in case no. JU-17-151.02, appeal no. 2171166, for the reasons expressed below.

         Facts and Procedural History

         The child was born on March 30, 2017, to L.L. ("the mother") and J.L. (hereinafter sometimes referred to as "the father").[1] Hospital staff contacted the Cullman County Department of Human Resources ("DHR") with concerns regarding the parents' inabilities to properly care for the child. The child was initially placed with W.N. ("the grandmother") on a safety plan. Shortly thereafter, DHR discovered that several allegations of physical abuse and neglect involving J.L., the grandmother's son, had been made against the grandmother and that she had pleaded guilty to child endangerment when J.L. was a baby. On April 3, 2017, after a shelter-care hearing, the child was placed in a foster-care home, where he remained at the time of the trial.

         On April 6, 2017, the grandmother filed a petition seeking custody of the child; that petition initiated case no. JU-17-151.02 ("the .02 action").[2] On April 13, 2018, DHR filed a petition seeking to terminate the mother's and the father's parental rights; that petition was assigned case no. JU-17-151.03 ("the .03 action"). In its petition, DHR alleged, among other things, that the parents suffered from intellectual disabilities and that, as a result, neither parent could care for the child.

         On August 22, 2018, the juvenile court held a trial on the grandmother's custody petition and DHR's petition seeking to terminate the mother's and the father's parental rights. At the beginning of the trial, the parties stipulated to the mental incapacity of the mother and the father.

         Dr. Barry Wood, a clinical psychologist, testified that he had performed psychological evaluations on the mother, the father, the grandmother, and T.N. ("the grandmother's husband"). Dr. Wood testified that he had completed various assessments on the parties. Dr. Wood testified that one assessment in particular had scales within it to help determine whether a person is being truthful. Dr. Wood explained that the grandmother's scale was "overly elevated," which indicated that she had not been honest. Dr. Wood also testified that the grandmother had an intelligence quotient ("IQ") within the range of borderline intellectual functioning and had had special education throughout school. Dr. Wood diagnosed the grandmother with specified personality disorder, borderline intellectual functioning, and recurrent depression. Dr. Wood opined that the grandmother should be undergoing mental-health treatment because of the "significantly increased probability [she] will have recurrence of depression and said self-injurious behavior[/]suicidal behavior." Dr. Wood testified that he questioned the grandmother's capability to protect a child, explaining that J.L. had been molested as a child and that the grandmother had been charged with endangering the welfare of J.L. when he was a child. Dr. Wood's psychological report concluded that the grandmother "is unable to parent adequately."

         Dr. Wood testified that he diagnosed the grandmother's husband with mild neurocognitive disorder, which, he explained, could have many different causes. Dr. Wood testified that he was not surprised to learn that the grandmother's husband had been diagnosed as having dementia. He also testified, and the parties stipulated, that the parents were not competent to parent the child.

         Patricia Bicknell, a foster-care supervisor with DHR, testified that, in September 2017, after attempts to reunite the child with the parents had failed, DHR began working with the grandmother to attempt to place the child with her. In February 2018, however, the permanency plan changed to adoption because "there wasn't enough progress within the family" and the child and the family had still not bonded at that point.

         Leah Miller, a foster-care and resource social worker with DHR, testified that she became involved with the family in April 2018 after the previous worker left her employment with DHR. During her involvement, the grandmother and her husband, and the parents, had supervised visitation with the child twice each week.

         Miller testified that she had received approximately four reports that DHR had to investigate regarding the grandmother during the time in which she had had the case. One such report involved allegations that the grandmother had been leaving children unattended with the mother and the father, despite their incapacities, while she was supposed to be caring for those children.

         Miller also recounted a history of DHR investigations involving the grandmother. In 1995, the grandmother was "indicated" for leaving the father, who was an infant at that time, in his car seat in the sun. The grandmother had had investigations that were resolved as "not indicated" in 1997, 1998, 1999, and 2000. Miller testified that the grandmother also had a history of involvement with the DHR equivalent in Indiana involving allegations that her daughter had been hospitalized twice for taking medication and that the father had brought "pills" to his school on three separate occasions. It appears, however, that the children were in the care of babysitters or relatives when those incidents occurred.

         Miller further testified that the grandmother had exposed her own children to her father, a registered sex offender, and her brother, S.B., who had been indicated by DHR for sexual abuse. In addition, according to Miller, there had been allegations in 2011 that the father had molested a three-year-old girl and, later, his younger sister. Miller explained that the cases were resolved as "not indicated" because neither victim made a disclosure "but there was reason to suspect the abuse happened."

         Miller testified that she made an unannounced visit to the grandmother's home on August 14, 2018, and that, when she first arrived, the father ran inside and told her that he had to put up a dog that was aggressive and bites. Miller testified: "[A]s soon as I walked into the home, it was just like -- I almost passed out from the smell. It was like feces and urine smell with bleach, like -- you know, I could tell they had been cleaning, but they had just cleaned with bleach and it was very strong."

         Miller was shown pictures that the grandmother had allegedly taken on the date of Miller's visit that showed a freezer and cabinets full of food. Miller testified that the pictures did not accurately depict the amount of food she observed in the grandmother's home on that date. Miller testified that she was concerned that, based on the grandmother's and her family's income and expenses, they should have excess monthly income, but, she asserted, the grandmother and the father had mentioned that they attend food banks and that the food in their house had been scarce.

         Miller testified that the grandmother and the child had not bonded and that the child did not seem interested in the grandmother. As an example, Miller testified that she had observed a visit behind tempered glass when the parties were unaware that she was watching. Miller testified that the parents and the grandmother were sitting on the couch and were ignoring the child, and she saw that the child was about to put something small into his mouth. Miller testified that she had to knock on the glass in order to get the parents' and the grandmother's attention and that, after the grandmother knew Miller was watching, the grandmother got on the floor and began playing with the child.

         America Robinson testified that she had been employed with the Youth Advocate Program ("YAP") for the past year and had served as an advocate for the child. It is not clear from the record, but it appears that YAP became involved as a service provided to the family by DHR.

         Robinson testified that she had supervised the visitations between the child and the parents and the grandmother. Robinson testified that the visitations were initially in the home but that the location of the visitations changed to the YAP office because of a roach infestation in the home. According to Robinson, there is "no obvious bond" between the child and the grandmother or the parents. She explained that the child had typically played on his own and that the grandmother had not interacted with the child unless he came to her. Robinson also testified that the grandmother and the parents had consistently attempted to put the child to sleep an hour into their two-hour visitation.

         Robinson testified that, during visitations in the home, she had witnessed the father hitting and throwing a puppy and that she had told him to stop but that the mother and the grandmother did not appear to be concerned with the father's behavior.

         Robinson had visited the grandmother's home unannounced on July 30, 2018, and, according to Robinson, when she arrived, the mother would not let her come inside but the grandmother eventually let her inside the home. Robinson testified that there were four dogs in the home and that the home smelled of feces and urine. Robinson also testified that there was clothing thrown all over the kitchen floor and dirty dishes and food all over the kitchen counters. Robinson testified that she had been told that they had just finished eating dinner, but, she opined, it did not appear that the food had been from dinner. Robinson further testified that there was "[h]ardly any food" in the home and that the parents and the grandmother had previously mentioned not ...

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