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J.C. v. Madison County Department of Human Resources

Alabama Court of Civil Appeals

August 9, 2019

Madison County Department of Human Resources

          Appeal from Madison Juvenile Court (JU-15-1016.02)

          EDWARDS, JUDGE.

         In May 2017, the Madison County Department of Human Resources ("DHR") filed a petition seeking the termination of the parental rights of J.C. ("the mother") to R.W.N. ("the child"). After a trial held on December 21, 2018, the Madison Juvenile Court ("the juvenile court") entered a judgment terminating the mother's parental rights. The mother timely filed a postjudgment motion, which the juvenile court denied, and the mother timely appealed to this court.

         Neither the testimony at the trial nor the documentary evidence affirmatively establishes the basis for the child's removal from the mother's custody, which occurred in late 2015 or at least by February 2016.[1] However, information contained in the mother's November 2016 substance-abuse assessment at WellStone[2] indicates that the mother was sent by DHR for a drug screening and that, at that screening, the mother had reported using opiates and methamphetamine in the previous 2 weeks; the same assessment reveals that the mother reported having used opiates regularly for the previous 11 years, with periods of abstinence as long as 3 months, and methamphetamine for the previous 10 years, with periods of abstinence lasting approximately 2 weeks. That assessment further indicates that the mother had received mental-health treatment for bipolar disorder between 2003 and 2013; no other information regarding the mother's mental-health diagnoses or treatment appears in the record.

         Grannessi Bates, the DHR caseworker assigned to the family's case in May 2016, testified that, when she was assigned to the case, the mother was already being provided services, including parenting classes, substance-abuse assessment and treatment, random drug screens, and supervised visitation. Bates said that the mother completed parenting classes, and the record contains a certificate memorializing that completion. According to Bates, the mother visited the child regularly and, although she had not been required to pay child support, the mother had furnished the child clothing, shoes, age-appropriate toys, and electronics. However, Bates testified that the mother had not completed substance-abuse treatment and that she had not appeared for the vast majority of her random drug screens, having last submitted to a drug screen on August 24, 2018.

         According to Bates, the mother had entered substance-abuse treatment at WellStone in November 2016, but, she said, the mother did not complete that treatment because, although she had reached step 11 of the 12-step program, the mother had stopped attending classes and was discharged from the program. The Wellstone records introduced into evidence support that testimony.

         Similarly, Tyouna Baker, a substance-abuse therapist at Aletheia House, testified that the mother had begun substance-abuse treatment at Aletheia House in June 2018 but that she had attended only four sessions before she was discharged from the program in August 2018 after failing to attend or to contact the facility. Baker testified that the mother's 2018 substance-abuse assessment at Aletheia House, which included a notation that the mother had admitted to multiple relapses, had indicated that the mother should attend intensive outpatient treatment but that the mother had reported that her work schedule at that time would not permit her to attend that program, which was offered only during the daytime hours.

         Bates was questioned about her observations of the mother. Bates admitted that she had never seen the mother appear to be under the influence of any substance. She answered in the affirmative when asked if the mother had been clear-eyed and had made eye contact when she met with Bates, whether the mother appeared to be healthy during the entire time Bates had been the caseworker, and whether the mother appeared to have maintained a steady weight during DHR's involvement. Bates further indicated that the mother had not appeared drowsy or unstable during their interactions. Bates also testified that DHR was pursuing the termination of the mother's parental rights because DHR's policy required it.

         The mother testified that she is an addict. She explained that, at the time of the termination trial, she was being treated for her opiate addiction at a methadone-treatment facility, where she went at least four days a week to receive a dose of methadone. However, the mother admitted that she also uses Adderall, which, she said, she had taken only two weeks before the trial. The mother testified that she had used Adderall as frequently as once a day during the previous six months but then stated that "it's probably four of five times a week." The mother excused her failure to complete substance-abuse treatment at WellStone by explaining that her brother had died, which, she said, had caused her to fall into a depression and to relapse. The mother said that her longest period of sobriety had been "a couple of months." When asked by the juvenile court why she had not pursued inpatient treatment for her substance-abuse issues, the mother explained that she had to work to pay her rent and utilities and that she had no one to help her do those things, implying that she would lose her employment and possibly her apartment if she went into inpatient treatment.

         The mother testified that she had been employed at a gasoline station and convenience store when the child was first removed from her custody. She reported that, at that time, her hours of employment were from 6:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. According to the mother, she had had difficulty making it to the drug-screening facility, which operates from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. However, the mother testified that she had changed employment six months before the termination trial and that, at the time of trial, she was working at a discount store during the third shift or from 10:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m.[3] The mother candidly admitted that her failure to attend any drug screens for the previous six months was due more to the fact that she knew that she would test positive rather than conflicts with her work schedule. The mother testified that she had undergone a drug assessment in the days before the termination trial and that she had enrolled in a substance-abuse-treatment program at Aletheia House, which, she said, was scheduled to begin on January 3, 2019.

         The mother testified that she had lived in the same apartment for almost 5 years at the time of the trial, and she presented as evidence a lease-extension addendum indicating that the mother had extended her existing lease for an additional 12-month period in December 2018. The mother introduced photographs depicting the apartment, which appeared clean and appropriate. The mother also testified that she owns an automobile and provided documentary evidence indicating that the automobile was insured. The mother said that her employer had indicated that she could move to the first shift if she received custody of the child.

         Bates testified that the child, who was 13 years old at the time of the trial, makes very good grades at school. She said that the child had initially been placed with a relative but that that placement had lasted for approximately two months. According to Bates, the child's second placement had lasted about the same length of time but had ended because DHR learned that the foster parent, a single man, had been sexually abusing the child and another child in his care. Bates said that the child was then placed with a single female foster parent, with whom the child remained for almost a year; however, Bates explained that the child had disrupted that placement by acting out and using coarse language. Bates testified that the child was then placed in a two-parent foster home, where he remained for a year. Bates said that that family had considered adopting the child, but, she said, the child had disrupted that placement when the foster parents disciplined him by taking away a cellular telephone that he was not allowed to have and the child threatened to kill himself. At the time of the trial, Bates testified, the child was in a new therapeutic foster-care placement with another single male, who, Bates said, the child appeared to be comfortable with.

         Bates testified that the child had been described as polite and respectful. She said that, at the time he was removed from the mother's custody, the child had been making good grades and, as far as she knew, had not had attendance problems at school. According to Bates, the child had continued to excel at school, making all A's. Bates further admitted that the child's behavior should be credited to his mother.

         Regarding the child's bond with his mother, Bates testified that the child "loves her with everything that is in him." She commented that she believed that the child's attachment to the mother prevents him from bonding with his foster parents because, she opined, he feels that forming attachments with them would be a betrayal of his mother. In answer to the question whether permanency would help the child, Bates answered "yes and no" and further explained that "he does need a permanent ... living situation, but, ... if it [is] not with his mom, its not going to work anyways."

         Bates testified that the child's behavior --specifically, the "meltdown" over the cellular telephone and his threat of suicide -- had resulted in his placement in a therapeutic foster home. However, she commented that the child's behaviors were not so drastic that he would not be able to return to a normal foster home. She noted that the child would often act out more and use inappropriate language when he knew a court date was approaching but that he was not otherwise a difficult child.

         According to Bates, the permanency plan for the child was adoption with no known resource. Bates admitted that, as a teenaged child, the child's chances at being adopted are low; she commented that, once he is placed on the "heart gallery," the child might be adopted out of the state, which she felt might be more difficult for him. Bates further noted that, if the child's behavior worsened, or if he made more threats of suicide, the child's placement opportunities would be limited to therapeutic foster care, which, she said, was ...

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