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

Alabama Court of Civil Appeals

March 15, 2019


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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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          Appeals from Cullman Juvenile Court (JU-17-151.02 and JU-17-151.03). Wells R. turner III, Judge

          Andria Richter, Cullman, for appellant.

         Steve Marshall, atty. gen., and Sharon E. Ficquette, gen. counsel, and Elizabeth L. Hendrix, asst. atty. gen., Department of Human Resources, for appellee.


         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.

Page 873

          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.

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          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, ...

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