I will answer this question in the context of Utah law because I am licensed as an attorney and practice divorce and family law in the state of Utah.
For the typical child in your situation, i.e., one who wants to obtain a modified order from the court changes the award of child custody from one parent to another, there is precious little that the child can do to affect this kind of change.
In fairness, there are some good policy reasons for why this situation arises. For example:
Young children often have poor judgment and may not know whether residing primarily with the parent the children wants to reside is in the child’s best interest.
– A 9-year-old child may say he/she wants to live with a particular parent not because that parent is a fit parent but just the opposite, i.e., doesn’t ensure the child completes homework, chores, doesn’t ensure the child practices good hygiene, feeds the child junk for meals, imposes no discipline, etc.
– A tween-age or teen-age child may say he/she wants to live with a particular parent not because that parent is a fit parent but because that parent lets the child run wild, skip school, drink, smoke, take drugs, be sexually active, etc.
Many young children can be too easily manipulated and/or intimidated into saying that they want what they don’t really want by way of the custody and parent-time schedule.
Some feel that seeking the input of children on the subject of the child custody and parent-time awards “traumatizes” (this word is grossly overused in family law) children by placing them in a position where they must favor or choose one parent over another.
These are clearly factors worth carefully considering if and when a child objects to residing with a particular parent or objects to a particular custody or parent-time schedule. But too often courts invoke these factors as a reason to utterly silence and to completely ignore anything a child has to say on. Why?
Is it because all minor children are clearly unable to be taken seriously because of their status as minor children? Obviously not. While some children may be too young or too immature to have sound bases for, or to make sound arguments for, their custodial preferences, plenty of children are more than sufficiently intelligent and mature and responsible to be credible witnesses on their own behalf. And we’ll never know whether a child is a credible or an incredible witness if we don’t inquire with the child first. Courts reject the testimony of lying and incompetent witnesses all the time (as well they should), yet many courts reject a child’s testimony without giving the child a chance to speak on the grounds that they might lie, that they might be coached, and/or that they might be too stupid or naïve to be taken seriously. That’s no different than convicting a defendant without a fair trial because he “might be” guilty.
Is it because asking a child to express his/her opinions is inherently and irreparably harmful to all children, or even to most children? Obviously not. If a child tells his/her parents and the court, “Don’t ask me to talk about this,” then it may be that honoring that child’s wishes is best. By the same token, however, if a child tells his/her parents and the court something to the effect of:
“I have a greater stake in the child custody and parent-time awards than anyone else involved in this case.”
“I have experiences, observations, opinions, and desires that deserve to be considered before the court makes these decisions that will affect my life for years to come as a youth and throughout my life as an adult.”
So why do some (most, though not all) courts refuse to hear from children about their custodial preferences and the reasons for those preferences? Why do some courts muzzle the children from the outset? Why do they refuse to weigh the credibility and evidentiary value of what the children who want to be heard have to say? In my opinion, it’s laziness disguised as “prudence” and “compassion”.
So, what does a child who wants and deserves a change of custody do? This may sound radical, but it’s really not: get your own attorney to help you. That’s the legal way to do it. And it’s easier said than done. You’ll be excoriated and mocked for trying. You may even be threatened. Be prepared for all this. There are all kinds of extralegal “self-help” methods that are easier and cheap or free by comparison, but that has never been an excuse to break the rules (unless the rules are inherently unfair or administered unfairly). I encourage children in your situation to work through the system even when it’s organized and administered to work against you.
Third District Juvenile Court, Salt Lake Department
The Honorable Monica Diaz
Kelton Reed and Lisa Lokken
Attorneys for Appellant
Sean D. Reyes, John M. Peterson, and Carol L.C.
Verdoia, Attorneys for Appellee
Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem
Before JUDGES MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, DAVID N.
MORTENSEN, and AMY J. OLIVER.
¶1 R.S. (Mother) appeals the juvenile court’s order terminating her parental rights with respect to K.R. (Brother) and R.B. (Sister) (collectively, the children). Mother alleges the juvenile court exceeded its discretion in determining that it was strictly necessary to terminate her rights rather than awarding permanent custody and guardianship to the children’s maternal grandmother (Grandmother). We affirm.
¶2 In January 2022, the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) received a report that Mother was using drugs and neglecting Sister, who was an infant at the time. Four-year-old Brother was already living with Grandmother, and DCFS soon placed Sister with Grandmother as well.
¶3 Following a disposition hearing, the Court set a primary goal of reunification and set up a child and family plan. Mother received an initial substance abuse and mental health assessment but made no progress toward receiving treatment. She took only five of ninety-six required drug tests and tested positive on all five.
¶4 Nevertheless, Mother continued to demonstrate an attachment to the children. She participated in visits with the children on a bi-weekly basis, although she did miss some visits and had not seen the children for several weeks prior to the termination trial. The visits were supervised by a DCFS caseworker (Caseworker), and the children had to travel six-and-a-half hours round trip to attend. On some occasions, Mother cancelled visits without notifying Grandmother, leading the children to make the trip unnecessarily. Brother became upset when Mother missed visits with him.
¶5 Early on, Caseworker observed Mother having “inappropriate conversations” with Brother regarding Grandmother, such as telling him that Grandmother was not properly caring for him. Caseworker would redirect Mother to more appropriate topics, and “with reminders, this behavior . . . stopped.” Mother engaged with the children during visits and planned activities for them to do together.
¶6 Grandmother and Mother used to have a good relationship, but it had deteriorated due to Mother’s drug use and the DCFS case. According to Grandmother, Brother’s behavior would “deregulate for a couple days” after visits with Mother and he would become belligerent toward Grandmother. Mother would send Grandmother insulting text messages, and she had trouble respecting boundaries Grandmother set. Both women indicated they would not be comfortable “co-parenting” with one another.
¶7 Following the termination trial, the juvenile court found several grounds for termination, which Mother does not challenge on appeal. The court then turned to the best interest analysis, including the question of whether termination of parental rights was strictly necessary.
¶8 The court considered whether awarding permanent guardianship to Grandmother was an alternative to termination that could “equally protect and benefit the children.” However, the court ultimately determined that termination was strictly necessary for the following reasons:
· Mother and Grandmother “do not have a relationship” and are “unable to communicate regarding the children’s needs and wellbeing.” And while Grandmother attempts to set reasonable boundaries, Mother does not respect them. Mother herself acknowledged that “having her and [Grandmother] co-parent would not be healthy for the children.”
· Mother had a history of making inappropriate comments regarding Grandmother to Brother during parent time. These comments led Brother to become belligerent toward Grandmother following visits. Although Mother had stopped making such comments at the direction of Caseworker, the court was concerned that she would “revert to making these comments, without the oversight of the Division.” The court found that pitting the children against their caregiver in this way was “unhealthy” for their “emotional development and wellbeing.”
· Visits with Mother “are emotionally hard on the children.” Brother experiences behavioral problems after visits with Mother.
· The children have to travel six-and-a-half hours round trip to visit Mother. Because Mother does not communicate with Grandmother, she does not let her know when she is unable to attend visits. This has led the children to “endure the travel time needlessly.” Additionally, it is emotionally hard on Brother when Mother misses visits. The long travel time, emotional harm due to missed visits, and Mother’s inability to communicate with Grandmother combine to undermine the children’s stability. “They need to know that their relationships are stable and that they can count on the adults in their lives. . . . [Mother] missing visits undermines and disregards the children’s psychological and emotional security.”
· The children are happy and thriving in Grandmother’s care. She addresses their physical, mental, developmental, and emotional needs. The children are bonded to their extended family, which consists of Grandmother’s husband and other children living in Grandmother’s home. The children “need a permanent home,” and “[f]rom the children’s point of view, that home is [Grandmother’s] home.”
Based on these factors, the court found that termination of Mother’s parental rights was “strictly necessary from the children’s point of view.”
¶9 Mother challenges the juvenile court’s determination that termination of her rights was strictly necessary. “Whether a parent’s rights should be terminated presents a mixed question of law and fact.” In re B.W., 2022 UT App 131, ¶ 45, 521 P.3d 896 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 525 P.3d 1269 (Utah 2023). “We will overturn a termination decision only if the juvenile court either failed to consider all of the facts or considered all of the facts and its decision was nonetheless against the clear weight of the evidence.” Id. (quotation simplified).
¶10 Mother asserts (1) that the court did not appropriately weigh certain evidence and (2) that the court inappropriately focused on the needs of the adults rather than the children by basing its decision on Mother and Grandmother’s inability to “coparent” the children.
¶11 Before terminating a parent’s rights, the court must find that termination is “strictly necessary to promote the child’s best interest.” In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 60, 472 P.3d 827. And this analysis must be undertaken from the child’s point of view. See Utah Code § 80-4-301(1); In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 64. “Termination is strictly necessary only when, after exploring possible placements for the child, the juvenile court concludes that no other feasible options exist that could address the specific problems or issues facing the family, short of imposing the ultimate remedy of terminating the parent’s rights.” In re J.P., 2021 UT App 134, ¶ 15, 502 P.3d 1247 (quotation simplified). “If the child can be equally protected and benefited by an option other than termination, termination is not strictly necessary.” Id. (quotation simplified).
¶12 The strictly necessary analysis “is designed to ensure that the court pause long enough to thoughtfully consider the range of available options that could promote the child’s welfare and best interest.” In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 69. “[I]f a court has complied with its statutory obligations, its resultant best interest determination is entitled to deference.” In re B.W., 2022 UT App 131, ¶ 69. Thus, a parent’s mere dissatisfaction “with the manner in which the juvenile court weighed the evidence . . . has no traction on appeal.” In re J.P., 2021 UT App 134, ¶ 23.
¶13 Mother argues that the court’s finding that Brother was upset when she missed visits should weigh against a finding that termination was strictly necessary. She also asserts that the court should have given more weight to her recent history of stopping her inappropriate comments to Brother rather than inferring that she was likely to resume such comments in the future. These arguments ultimately take issue with “the manner in which the juvenile court weighed the evidence” rather than its compliance with its statutory mandate. See id. The court’s findings are entitled to deference, and we will not disturb them on appeal. See In re B.W., 2022 UT App 131, ¶ 69.
¶14 Mother next asserts that the court’s focus on her and Grandmother’s inability to “co-parent” the children was inappropriate and led it to consider the strictly necessary analysis from the adults’ perspective rather than the children’s perspective. See Utah Code § 80-4-301(1) (dictating that the strictly necessary analysis must be undertaken from the child’s point of view). Mother argues that a permanent custody and guardianship order does not result in “co-parenting” but rather involves “the Guardian call[ing] the shots” while “the parent has a handful of residual rights.” We take Mother’s point that co-parenting may not have been quite the right term to use in describing the relationship between a parent and a permanent guardian. However, we are more concerned with the substance of the court’s analysis than the term it used. And that analysis indicates that the court’s true concern was whether it was in the children’s best interests to be pitted between a parent and guardian who could neither cooperate nor communicate with one another.
¶15 “[L]ong-term guardianship arrangements are typically only in a child’s best interest where the guardians and the parent have a working, relatively healthy relationship in which they are both willing to work together to preserve the parent-child relationship and where the child has a healthy relationship with both the guardian and the parent.” In re J.P., 2021 UT App 134, ¶ 22 (quotation simplified). Thus, when a parent and guardian have “little to no relationship,” the particular circumstances of the case may indicate that permanent custody and guardianship will not meet the children’s needs as well as termination of parental rights. See id. That is what the juvenile court found here, and such a finding was not an abuse of its discretion under the circumstances.
¶16 Furthermore, we are not convinced that the juvenile court inappropriately conducted the strictly necessary analysis from the adults’ point of view rather than that of the children. The court explicitly discussed the effect Mother and Grandmother’s inability to cooperate had on the children, finding that being put in the middle of the conflict was “unhealthy” for the children’s “emotional development and wellbeing” and undermined their stability, that the children suffered when Mother did not communicate with Grandmother about missing visits, and that Mother herself acknowledged that the conflict was “unhealthy” for the children. These findings indicate that the court considered the conflict between Mother and Grandmother from the children’s point of view in determining that the conflict made termination of Mother’s rights strictly necessary.
¶17 The juvenile court here carefully considered whether the children could be equally benefited and protected by a permanent custody and guardianship arrangement as opposed to termination of Mother’s parental rights. It also made detailed findings in support of its determination that termination was strictly necessary from the children’s point of view. Accordingly, the juvenile court’s decision to terminate Mother’s parental rights is affirmed.
 Nevertheless, as the guardian ad litem observes, it is not apparent from the record that Mother was “up to the tasks involved with residual parental rights,” given that she has not paid child support, has not respected the boundaries Grandmother has put in place, has not progressed past supervised visitation, and has disappointed the children by failing to communicate about missed visits.
JUDGE RYAN M. HARRIS authored this Opinion, in which
JUDGES DAVID N. MORTENSEN and JOHN D. LUTHY concurred.
¶1 When Daisy Martinez and Fernando Sanchez-Garcia divorced, they both lived in Cache County and, under the terms of their stipulated divorce decree, Martinez was the primary physical custodian of and caregiver for their children. Some two years later, Martinez moved with the children to Layton, about sixty miles away. At that point, Sanchez-Garcia asked for a modification of the custody arrangement, one that would give him primary physical custody of the children in Cache County. After a trial, the court ruled in favor of Sanchez-Garcia, modifying the custody order to make him the primary physical custodian, unless Martinez were to move back to Cache County. Martinez now appeals the court’s modification order, asserting that the court failed to make a finding that circumstances had materially and substantially changed, and that the court failed to take into account her status, up to that point, as primary caregiver. We find merit in Martinez’s arguments, and therefore vacate the court’s modification order and remand for further proceedings.
¶2 After five years of marriage, Martinez and Sanchez-Garcia divorced in 2017. Their stipulated divorce decree provided that the parties would share “joint legal custody and joint physical custody” of their two children, and that Martinez would have primary physical custody, with Sanchez-Garcia awarded parent-time that was something less than 50/50. The decree required the parties to “inform each other of any change of address . . . at least thirty (30) days prior to the change, if practicable,” and stated that, if “either party relocate[s] to a residence more than 150 miles away,” then “the relocating party shall provide notice pursuant to” Utah’s relocation statute. See Utah Code § 30-3-37.
¶3 Some two years later, Martinez notified Sanchez-Garcia that she planned to move to Colorado with the children that summer so that she could attend nursing school. She later incorporated her relocation request into a petition to modify the divorce decree, asking the court to give her sole physical custody of the children as necessary to facilitate her move. Sanchez-Garcia responded by filing a counter-petition to modify, asking the court to change the custody provisions of the decree to give him sole physical custody of the children in the event Martinez were to relocate to Colorado.
¶4 After a hearing, a court commissioner determined that relocation to Colorado was not in the best interest of the children, and therefore recommended that Martinez’s request for relocation with the children be denied, and that, if Martinez were to relocate to Colorado, primary physical custody should shift to Sanchez-Garcia. Martinez objected to the commissioner’s recommendation, and asked the district court to appoint a custody evaluator, which the court eventually did.
¶5 After completing his assessment, the custody evaluator announced his recommendation: if Martinez relocated to Colorado, Sanchez-Garcia should be granted sole physical custody of the children, with Martinez receiving parent-time pursuant to Utah’s relocation statute, see Utah Code § 30-3-37, but if Martinez remained in Cache County, the custody arrangement should be “50/50 parent time.”
¶6 Soon after receiving the custody evaluator’s recommendation, Martinez decided not to move to Colorado, and effectively withdrew her petition to modify regarding that potential move (although she did continue to press for an income-related modification of child support obligations). She did not, however, remain in Cache County; instead, she relocated with the children to Layton, Utah, a city located some sixty miles from her previous residence, and she did so without providing any advance notice to Sanchez-Garcia. He objected to Martinez’s move to Layton, and eventually amended his counter-petition to reflect this new development, asking the court to modify the custody order anyway, even though Martinez was not moving to Colorado, because she had relocated to Layton.
¶7 The court held a one-day bench trial to consider Sanchez-Garcia’s counter-petition regarding Martinez’s relocation to Layton, as well as Martinez’s petition regarding amendment of the parties’ child support obligations. The court heard testimony from both parties, as well as from the custody evaluator. In his testimony, Sanchez-Garcia described how his parent-time initially consisted of daily visits but no overnights, but gradually changed to a fairly consistent schedule of one weekday and alternate weekends. He noted that he has “to kind of share [his] parent time” with his extended family, who are very involved in the children’s lives. He expressed frustration that his parent-time was sometimes “covered up with sports and stuff like that.” And he explained that Martinez’s extended family was also very involved in the children’s lives, noting that “70 percent of the time” he was instructed to drop the children off, after parent-time, not at Martinez’s house but at the residence of one of her extended family members. When asked what his preferred parent-time would be, he answered “50/50” like “what [the custody evaluator] said.” But he acknowledged, on cross-examination, that he had never exercised his allotted four weeks of summer parent-time. And when asked if Martinez had offered to keep the children on their Cache County soccer teams, even after her move to Layton, Sanchez-Garcia confirmed that she had but said he declined the offer because his “work schedule was getting kind of crazy” and he would not be able to get the children to practice.
¶8 In her testimony, Martinez stated that the children were happy and doing well in Layton, and that her move to Layton had not changed the amount of parent-time Sanchez-Garcia received. To cut down on travel, Martinez had offered Sanchez-Garcia parent-time every Friday instead of his midweek day, and although he mentioned that he wanted a different midweek day, he never specified which one. When asked why she had wanted to move to Colorado, Martinez explained that she had applied to nursing school there because she had found it was easier to gain admission there than to the nursing programs in Cache County. She stated that, after deciding not to move to Colorado, she moved to Layton instead because there were “more school options” there, and because she had remarried and her new husband “works closer to that area” and would not have to commute “through the canyon in the wintertime.” Martinez also explained that her remarriage had placed her in a better financial situation than when the custody evaluation occurred.
¶9 The custody evaluator testified that “the children are very well established with both parents” and recommended “50/50 parent time” if the parents lived near each other. His recommendation was largely influenced by the children’s “very well established support network” in Cache County, but he admitted that his recommendations about the children not moving were specific to a move to Colorado—more than five hundred miles away—and not to Layton—some sixty miles away. While acknowledging that he would be “speculating,” the custody evaluator “hypothesize[d]” that, if he were asked to assess the propriety of Martinez’s move to Layton (rather than Colorado), he “would entertain and evaluate the same concerns of removing the children from a very strong and well supported network.” But he conceded, on cross-examination, that he had not been asked to assess the propriety of a move to Layton, and that he did not “have a basis to form an opinion” about that specific move, especially since he had “not evaluated the children or interact[ed] with them for more than a year”; he testified that, in order to form an opinion about that particular relocation, he “would want to observe the home arrangements,” “understand the arrangements for care [and] how frequently surrogate care is arranged and by whom,” as well as “understand peer relationships, [and] the continuity of contact with extended family and cousins” in Cache County.
¶10 At the conclusion of the trial, the court issued a ruling from the bench granting Sanchez-Garcia’s petition to modify, “consistent with [the custody evaluator’s] recommendations,” and awarded Sanchez-Garcia primary physical custody of the children so long as Martinez remained in Layton. However, the court ruled that, in the event Martinez moved back to Cache County, custody should be shared equally. Nowhere in its oral ruling did the court discuss whether there had been a substantial and material change of circumstances that would justify reexamining the custody provisions of the decree.
¶11 About a month later, the court issued a written order memorializing its ruling. As in the oral ruling, the court did not discuss whether there had been a substantial and material change in circumstances, and made no findings or conclusions in that regard. It stated that it had “considered the evidence in light of the factors set forth in Utah Code [sections] 30-3-10 and 30-3-10.2,” but it discussed only three of those numerous factors in its ruling. It found that “both parents are well and able parents to provide for the children,” but that their “co-parenting skills [had] been compromised by the inability to communicate appropriately.” It noted that the custody evaluator’s recommendation—that the children not move to Colorado—“was based in large part on the fact that there is a family community here in Cache County” on both sides, and that the children’s “interactions” with extended family members “have been an important part of and support for the children’s lives” and that those interactions “significantly affect the children’s best interests.” The court also found that Martinez had “failed with communication,” specifically finding “problematic” her decision not to notify Sanchez-Garcia prior to her relocation to Layton. The court noted, nonspecifically, that it had “relie[d] on the expertise of the custody evaluator in making its orders,” but did not discuss the fact that the evaluator’s recommendations had been made with regard to a potential move to Colorado, and that the evaluator had expressly made no recommendation regarding a move to Layton. And the court did not discuss the fact that Martinez had, up until the court’s ruling, been the children’s primary caregiver for their entire lives.
¶12 Based on these findings, the court concluded that it was in the children’s best interest to be “brought back to reside in Cache County.” The court specified that, in the event that Martinez came back to Cache County with them, “the parties will have parent-time on a one week on, one week off alternating schedule,” but if Martinez remained in Layton, she would enjoy only statutory minimum parent-time.
ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW
¶13 Martinez now appeals from the district court’s ruling on Sanchez-Garcia’s counter-petition to modify the parties’ divorce decree, and she raises two issues that require our consideration. First, she contends that the court failed to make any findings regarding whether a substantial and material change in circumstances had occurred. This is a matter we review without deference, because a district “court must make findings on all material issues” when ruling on a modification petition, and a court’s “failure to delineate what circumstances have changed and why these changes support the modification . . . constitutes reversible error unless the facts in the record are clear, uncontroverted and only support the judgment.” Diener v. Diener, 2004 UT App 314, ¶ 7, 98 P.3d 1178 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 106 P.3d 743 (Utah 2005).
¶14 Second, Martinez challenges the court’s custody determination, asserting that the court failed to consider many of the relevant factors, including the fact that she had been the children’s primary caregiver. “We review the district court’s custody and parent-time determination for abuse of discretion.” Twitchell v. Twitchell, 2022 UT App 49, ¶ 17, 509 P.3d 806 (quotation simplified).
¶15 “Under Utah law, petitions to modify custody orders are governed by a two-part test: ‘A court order modifying . . . an existing joint legal custody or joint physical custody order shall contain written findings that: (i) a material and substantial change of circumstance has occurred; and (ii) a modification . . . would be an improvement for and in the best interest of the child.’” Peeples v. Peeples, 2019 UT App 207, ¶ 13, 456 P.3d 1159 (emphasis added) (quoting Utah Code § 30-3-10.4(2)(b)). Martinez raises a challenge with regard to each part of this two-part test.
¶16 First, she asserts that the district court did not make any findings—written or oral—regarding whether “changes in the circumstances upon which the previous award was based” have occurred that “are sufficiently substantial and material to justify reopening the question of custody.” Id. ¶ 15 (quotation simplified). Martinez’s assertion is correct: we have examined the court’s oral and written rulings, and we are unable to find any discussion of whether a change in circumstances had occurred. This was error; a finding of changed circumstances is a “threshold requirement for modifying a divorce decree,” Larson v. Larson, 888 P.2d 719, 722 n.1 (Utah Ct. App. 1994), and “only if a substantial change of circumstances is found should the district court consider whether a change of custody is appropriate,” Peeples, 2019 UT App 207, ¶ 13 (quotation simplified); see also Doyle v. Doyle, 2011 UT 42, ¶ 38, 258 P.3d 553 (“Even an overwhelming case for the best interest of the child could not compensate for a lack of proof of a change in circumstances.”).
¶17 Sanchez-Garcia acknowledges the lack of findings regarding changed circumstances, but nevertheless defends the court’s ruling on two bases, neither of which we find persuasive. First, he asserts that it is “clear and uncontroverted” in the record that a substantial and material change of circumstances occurred, and he points to Martinez’s “sudden relocation to Layton,” which necessitated a change in schools for the children as well as a distancing from their “extensive support network” in Cache County. We recognize that Martinez’s move to Layton changed the landscape, but it is not at all obvious to us that this move resulted in the sort of substantial and material change that would justify a second look at the custody arrangement. Martinez’s move was well inside the 150-mile threshold that triggers the relocation statute. See Utah Code § 30-3-37(1). Moves within that threshold, even if they involve the crossing of a county line, do not, by themselves, necessarily indicate that a substantial and material change has taken place. Martinez presented evidence— that the court did not discuss—that the children were doing well in Layton and that her move to Layton did not result in any loss of parent-time for Sanchez-Garcia; that is, Sanchez-Garcia was enjoying just as much parent-time after Martinez’s move to Layton as he had been before. Cf. Erickson v. Erickson, 2018 UT App 184, ¶ 18, 437 P.3d 370 (holding, on the facts of that case, that a “change in the pick-up times without a change in the number of overnights” does not amount to a material and substantial change in circumstances “that warrants a change in custody”). And the fact that the children changed schools is not necessarily something that constitutes a substantial change in circumstances; a hypothetical five-mile move across town within Cache County may also have necessitated a change in schools, yet it is unlikely that such a move would, in this context, have been considered a substantial and material change in circumstances. And evidence was presented indicating that the children, even after the move to Layton, continued to enjoy significant contact with extended family on both sides. We do not foreclose the possibility that a court, under circumstances similar to these, could make a supported finding that things had changed enough to justify a second look at the custody order. But such a conclusion is far from obvious, and we expect a district court to engage with this issue and explain why it believes that to be the case. On this record, we cannot excuse the lack of findings on the basis that a substantial and material change is clear from the facts.
¶18 Next, Sanchez-Garcia claims that Martinez invited any error in this regard, because she filed her own petition to modify and therein asserted that there had been a substantial and material change in circumstances. But her petition was filed with regard to a potential move to Colorado, and was in that regard effectively withdrawn prior to trial. A move to Colorado—far more than 150 miles from Cache County—would unquestionably be a substantial and material change in circumstances. But it does not follow, from her unremarkable assertion that a move to Colorado would be a substantial and material change, that she was also admitting that a move to Layton would likewise qualify as such. Indeed, in her answer to Sanchez-Garcia’s amended counter-petition to modify, Martinez expressly denied Sanchez-Garcia’s allegation that her move to Layton constituted a substantial and material change in circumstances. Martinez therefore did not invite the court’s error in failing to engage with the first part of the modification test.
¶19 Thus, we find merit in Martinez’s first challenge, and conclude that, on this issue alone, we must vacate the district court’s modified decree and remand for further proceedings so that the court can have an opportunity to engage with this issue and explain why Martinez’s move to Layton constituted the sort of substantial and material change that necessitates a reopening of the custody provisions of the decree.
¶20 We recognize that should the court on remand determine that a substantial change of circumstances has not occurred, no further analysis will be required. However, should the district court conclude that a substantial change in circumstances has occurred, the court’s analysis regarding custody will also require more thorough treatment; indeed, were the court’s analysis regarding custody the only matter at issue, we would vacate and remand that determination as well. Therefore, we offer the following guidance should the issue arise following remand. SeeState v. Garcia-Lorenzo, 2022 UT App 101, ¶ 58, 517 P.3d 424 (electing to consider additional raised and briefed issues, even though not necessary to the outcome of the appeal, “in an effort to offer guidance that might be useful on remand, where these issues are likely to arise again” (quotation simplified)), cert. granted, 525 P.3d 1263 (Utah 2022).
¶21 After a court has determined that a substantial and material change in circumstances has occurred, it must then proceed to analyze whether “a modification . . . would be an improvement for and in the best interest of the child.” See Utah Code § 30-3-10.4(2)(b). In so doing, the court “shall, in addition to other factors the court considers relevant, consider the factors outlined in Section 30-3-10 and Subsection 30-3-10.2(2).” Id. § 303-10.4(2)(a) (emphasis added). Section 30-3-10 lists seventeen factors for consideration, before authorizing courts to consider “any other factor the court finds relevant.” Id. § 30-3-10(2). And section 30-3-10.2(2)—applicable when the court is considering joint custody—sets forth another eight specific factors for consideration, before also authorizing consideration of “any other factor the court finds relevant.” Id. § 30-3-10.2(2). Thus, courts in this situation are statutorily required to “consider,” at least in some form, twenty-five enumerated factors, as well as “any other” relevant factor.
¶22 Of course, not all of these factors “are on equal footing,” and a district court “generally has discretion to determine, based on the facts before it and within the confines set by the appellate courts, where a particular factor falls within the spectrum of relative importance and to accord each factor its appropriate weight.” Twitchell v. Twitchell, 2022 UT App 49, ¶ 20, 509 P.3d 806 (quotation simplified). Some factors might not be relevant at all to the family’s situation, and others might be only tangentially relevant or will weigh equally in favor of both parents.
¶23 Other factors, however, are of particular importance when considering a change in custody. For instance, “[a]t the critically important end of the spectrum, when the child is thriving, happy, and well-adjusted, lies continuity of placement.” Hudema v. Carpenter, 1999 UT App 290, ¶ 26, 989 P.2d 491; see also Larson v. Larson, 888 P.2d 719, 722–23 (Utah Ct. App. 1994) (citing eight earlier Utah cases, and stating that “a factor of considerable importance in determining the best interest of children is the maintenance of continuity in their lives, and removing children from their existing custodial placement undercuts that policy”). Stated another way, when a court is “considering competing claims to custody between fit parents under the ‘best interests of the child’ standard, considerable weight should be given to which parent has been the child’s primary caregiver,” Davis v. Davis, 749 P.2d 647, 648 (Utah 1988), and “[e]xisting arrangements in which the child has thrived should be disturbed only if the court finds compelling circumstances,” Hudema, 1999 UT App 290, ¶ 26. The importance of this factor is further highlighted by the fact that applicable statutes mention it twice: not only does section 30-3-10 list it as one of the seventeen general custody factors, see Utah Code § 30-3-10(2)(m) (listing as a factor “who has been the primary caretaker of the child”), but the modification statute specifies that, in considering whether to modify a custody order, the court “shall give substantial weight to the existing . . . joint physical custody order when the child is thriving, happy, and well-adjusted,” id. § 30-3-10.4(2)(c).
¶24 In its custody analysis, the district court discussed only three of the twenty-five applicable statutory factors. The court began by finding that “both parents are well and able parents to provide for the children,” an apparent allusion to one of the general custody factors. See id. § 30-3-10(2)(c) (listing as a factor each “parent’s capacity and willingness to function as a parent”). It then discussed, at some length, the important relationships the children had with extended family members on both sides in Cache County. See id. § 30-3-10(2)(l) (listing as a factor a child’s “interaction and relationship with . . . extended family members”). The court also discussed Martinez’s failure to notify Sanchez-Garcia of her move to Layton, and viewed that as a failure of communication. See id. § 30-3-10.2(2)(c)(i) (listing as a factor each parent’s “co-parenting skills, including” the parent’s “ability to appropriately communicate with the other parent”). But that was the sum total of the court’s analysis; significantly, the court did not undertake any discussion of “who has been the primary caretaker of the child,” see id. § 30-3-10(2)(m), a factor that is “[a]t the critically important end of the spectrum,” Hudema, 1999 UT App 290, ¶ 26, and therefore entitled to “considerable weight,” Davis, 749 P.2d at 648; see also Utah Code § 30-3-10.4(2)(c) (requiring courts considering modification to give “substantial weight” to existing joint custody arrangements in which “the child is thriving, happy, and well-adjusted”).
¶25 At trial in this case, Martinez emphasized the “primary caregiver” factor, and put on evidence and made argument about that factor, asserting that she had always been the primary caregiver and that the children were doing well in her care, the move to Layton notwithstanding. Indeed, the custody evaluator testified that, in his view, “the children are very well established with both parents.” We acknowledge that “[d]etermining which
factors the court must address in a given case, and to what degree, presents a tricky task,” and that “courts are not required to render a global accounting of all evidence presented or to discuss all aspects of a case that might support a contrary ruling.” See Twitchell, 2022 UT App 49, ¶ 21 (quotation simplified). But “where significant evidence concerning a particular factor is presented to the district court,” especially where that factor is a critically important one, “findings that omit all discussion of that evidence” and of that factor “must be deemed inadequate.” Id.
¶26 Again, we do not foreclose the possibility that a change of custody could be warranted here after a more fulsome analysis of the relevant custody factors, and our opinion should not be read as placing a thumb on the scale in either direction. But a more complete analysis is required here, in which the court should—as required by statute, see Utah Code § 30-3-10.4(2)(a)—“consider” the relevant factors, at least in some form, especially the ones the parties emphasize. In particular, given the court’s heavy reliance on the importance of the children’s relationships with extended family in Cache County, the court should engage with our previous case law holding that, “[w]hile the close proximity of . . . extended family is an appropriate factor for the court to consider, this, by itself, is insufficient to disturb a previously determined custody arrangement in which the children are happy and well-adjusted.” Larson, 888 P.2d at 726.
¶27 We find merit in Martinez’s two arguments, and therefore vacate the court’s modification order and remand for further proceedings in which the court should analyze at least the first of these issues, and possibly the second, anew. In so doing, the court should expressly consider whether a substantial and material change of circumstances has occurred and, if it concludes that such a change has in fact occurred, the court should then consider, at least in some form, all the statutory factors relevant to custody modification, including the “primary caregiver” factor.
¶28 We also note that the court’s renewed analysis, on remand, should be conducted “in present-tense fashion, as of the date of the hearing or trial, and should not only take into account the items discussed in this opinion but, in addition, should take into account, in some form, any material developments with regard to [the children] that have occurred since the last trial,” see In re J.J.W., 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 38, 520 P.3d 38, including (if applicable) whether Martinez has since moved back to Cache County.
 At the time, the children’s school was asynchronous on Fridays, due to continuing COVID-19 restrictions.
 In connection with Martinez’s request to amend child support, the court also made findings regarding the parties’ respective incomes, and on that basis (as well as the modified custody orders) modified the parties’ child support obligations. The court’s findings regarding the parties’ respective incomes are not at issue in this appeal.
 It may not be sufficient for a court to make an oral—but not a written—ruling in this regard, because the governing statute requires courts to make “written findings” on both parts of the modification test. See Utah Code § 30-3-10.4(2)(b); see also Hutchison v. Hutchison, 649 P.2d 38, 42 (Utah 1982) (stating that a requirement of written findings allows an appellate court “to be in a position to review the propriety of the trial court’s order,” and this “requirement of written findings applies with even greater force to orders awarding or modifying the custody of a child” (quotation simplified)). But in this case, we need not consider whether an oral finding, standing alone, would be sufficient, because the court made neither an oral nor a written finding regarding changed circumstances.
 Her only affirmative issue remaining for trial was an assertion that the parties’ incomes had changed significantly enough to justify amendment to the amount of child support ordered.
 In connection with this inquiry, the court may need to concern itself with the question of whether the decree subject to modification was the product of litigation or stipulation or some combination of the two. In some cases, “a lesser showing of changed circumstances may support modifying a stipulated award than would be required to modify an adjudicated award.” See Peeples v. Peeples, 2019 UT App 207, ¶ 15, 456 P.3d 1159 (quotation simplified). But the “adjudicated/stipulated dichotomy” is not “entirely binary,” and “in assessing how much ‘lesser’ a showing might be required to satisfy the change-in-circumstances requirement, . . . courts should examine the origin of the order in question and analyze the extent to which the order—even if stipulated—reflects the result of robustly contested litigation aimed at ascertaining the best interest of the child.” See id. ¶ 17 (quotation simplified).
 Even with factors not relevant to the situation or factors that do not move the needle one way or the other, a court is well-served to at least mention those factors in its ruling and briefly indicate that it deems them irrelevant or of equal weight for each party. By mentioning them, even if only to say that they are irrelevant, a court ensures that the parties—and, significantly, a reviewing court—will be able to tell that the court at least “consider[ed]” them. See Utah Code § 30-3-10.4(2)(a).
What can I legally do if my child’s mother picks up our child in an Uber without a car seat? She is 5 years old, about 50 lbs. She is also the custodial parent with full custody rights, so she feels she can do anything she wants. Can I call the cops?
I’m old enough to remember when it was not illegal to wear a seatbelt. I’m old enough to remember when it was not illegal to permit a child to ride in a car without a seatbelt. I remember when there were no laws that children under a certain weight or height must ride in car seats when riding in cars. Most jurisdictions now have laws that require children of a certain age, weight, or height be strapped into a car seat when riding in a car.
So, the first thing you will need to do is find out whether it is illegal for your ex-wife to have your five-year-old, 50 pound child ride in a car without a car seat. You’ve mentioned that your ex-wife will often have your child picked up by Uber (a ridesharing service), and so you will want to ensure that even if there are laws that require a child to ride in a car seat when writing in a car, there are no exceptions for ridesharing services, taxicabs, buses, etc.
If, after conducting your research, you learn that it is illegal for your ex-wife to have your child ride in a car or when using a ridesharing service without having the child strapped into a car seat, then you would be well within your rights to report this to the police. just because you could do this, however, does not mean that you should, at least without first notifying your ex-wife that what she is doing is illegal and places your child in danger, and that if she refuses to comply with the law you will then report her to the police and perhaps even take the matter up with the court to get an order that requires her to secure the child in a car seat when traveling by car under circumstances when the law requires a car seat be utilized.
Do abusive parents get sole custody of their children, even when their children don’t want them to have it? If the children want to stay with a relative who can take care of them instead, can the court award the relative custody of the children and only allow the abusive parents visitation rights?
Do abusive parents get sole custody even when their children don’t want that? Yes, that can happen. Just because it can happen does not mean it will always happen, but there are many times when abusive parents still get custody of their children. The reasons can vary, but usually they are (in no particular order):
the parents deny being abusive, and if there isn’t enough evidence to refute their denials, the court gets fooled into believing the parents.
the parents may be abusive, but not considered abusive enough to justify stripping them of their parental rights to child custody; in those situations, even though the court may not deprive the parents of child custody, the court can and often will condition the keeping of their custodial rights upon the parents refraining from future abuse and completing courses on good and proper parenting.
If children want to stay with a relative who can take care of them, can the court award the relative custody of the children and only allow the abusive parents visitation? Yes, that can happen too, but only if the court finds sufficiently compelling reasons to infringe upon the parents rights of custody in favor of someone else exercising custody of the children. a child merely expressing a preference for someone other than his or her parents is never enough to justify a change of custody from the parents to someone else. Interfering with the parents’ rights to custody of their own children is very difficult because those parental rights are considered some of the most basic of human and fundamental rights.
STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF P.J.R., A PERSON UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.
STATE OF UTAH,
Filed March 23, 2023
Sixth District Juvenile Court, Manti Department
The Honorable Brody L. Keisel
Emily Adams, Freyja Johnson, and Caleb Proulx,
Attorneys for Appellant
Sean D. Reyes, Carol L.C. Verdoia, and John M.
Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee
Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem
JUDGE RYAN M. HARRIS authored this Opinion, in which
JUDGES MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER and DAVID N.
¶1 C.S. (Mother) appeals an order terminating her parental rights regarding P.J.R. (Child). But Mother does not contest the juvenile court’s findings that there were grounds for termination and that termination was in Child’s best interest. Instead, Mother limits her appellate challenge to the court’s determination that the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) made reasonable efforts, during the course of the case, toward reunification of Mother and Child. Specifically, she claims that the court applied an incorrect evidentiary standard in arriving at its reasonable efforts determination and—alternatively—challenges the merits of that ultimate determination. We find Mother’s arguments unpersuasive, and therefore affirm.
¶2 In 2019, DCFS filed a petition seeking protective supervision of Mother’s five children, including Child. In the petition, DCFS alleged that Mother had abused and neglected Child, and specifically alleged (among other things) that, during an incident in the waiting room of a family counseling center, Mother “grabbed [Child] by the back-collar area of his shirt in such a manner that it restricted his ability to breathe and caused him to choke,” and then “shoved his face into the corner with force.” Even after Child “told Mother he was having difficulty breathing and that Mother was hurting him,” Mother “did not let up on his shirt or the forcing of his face into the corner.” At an ensuing shelter hearing, the juvenile court placed all five children in the temporary custody of DCFS.
¶3 Mother responded to the petition by admitting some of the State’s allegations and, with respect to the rest, neither admitting nor denying them; this response resulted in the court deeming the State’s allegations true. See Utah R. Juv. P. 34(e) (“A respondent may answer by admitting or denying the specific allegations of the petition, or by declining to admit or deny the allegations. Allegations not specifically denied by a respondent shall be deemed true.”). On the basis of Mother’s responses, the court adjudicated Child as abused and neglected by Mother. Mother appealed that adjudication order, and this court affirmed it but remanded for additional proceedings on issues not material to this appeal. See In re C.M.R., 2020 UT App 114, ¶ 33, 473 P.3d 184.
¶4 Following adjudication, the court issued a disposition order in September 2019, setting the primary permanency goal as reunification and the concurrent permanency goal as adoption. In connection with setting reunification as the primary permanency goal, the court adopted a service plan—prepared with Mother’s input and cooperation—and found, “by clear and convincing evidence,” that fulfillment of the plan’s terms would “constitute reasonable efforts on the part of . . . DCFS to finalize the permanency goals,” including reunification. Among other things, the plan required DCFS to “follow up with [Child]’s therapist to monitor his progress in therapy,” to follow up with Mother’s therapist regarding her treatment, to promptly communicate with Mother, to “assess [Mother]’s increase in parenting skills during supervised parent-time,” and to ensure that Child’s living, academic, and health needs were being addressed.
¶5 As the case progressed, friction arose between Mother and the DCFS caseworker. As Mother showed at trial, the conflict became apparent at one supervised visit between Mother and her daughters; in a “heated interaction,” the caseworker cut the visit short after observing Mother say certain things to her daughters that the caseworker deemed inappropriate. On a later occasion, the caseworker sent a text message to the guardian ad litem lamenting the fact that Mother received visitation with one of her daughters at all, noting that “[t]hese kids have been the victims of severe physical and emotional abuse for years.” Eventually, Mother refused to communicate with the caseworker (other than by text message) without her attorney present. Even the State’s attorney noticed that the caseworker was having a hard time keeping her “emotions out of this case,” and admonished the caseworker to be more circumspect in her communication.
¶6 Mother also came to believe that the caseworker was interfering with family therapy during the course of the case. Under the service plan, family therapy involving Mother and Child was to begin when Mother’s and Child’s therapists both recommended it, and the caseworker was supposed to follow up with both therapists. In December 2019, the caseworker apparently told Mother that Child’s therapist did not recommend face-to-face visits when, in fact, the caseworker had not yet communicated with Child’s therapist. The first documented communication between the caseworker and Child’s therapist about family therapy was in June 2020, about nine months after the service plan was put in place. However, some evidence shows that the caseworker had “reached out to [Child]’s therapist regularly throughout the case,” and that as of May 2020, Child’s therapist did not “recommend family therapy with [Mother] at this time.” But when the caseworker was asked at trial whether she communicated with Child’s therapist prior to June 2020, she stated that she did not recall. When the caseworker did reach out to Child’s therapist inquiring about family therapy, the therapist responded that before family therapy would be recommended, Mother would need to take a parenting course, continue her own therapy, and “take accountability for her actions and . . . learn . . . to regulate her own emotions.”
¶7 Shortly thereafter, Mother complained that the caseworker might be attempting to influence the therapists away from holding family therapy, and the caseworker then told the therapists that the court had instructed her to tell them that they were to communicate with each other (rather than through the caseworker as an intermediary) about “whether family therapy with [Mother] and [Child] would be in [Child’s] best interest.” By this point, Child’s therapist had come to believe that family therapy was now appropriate, and expressed interest in beginning the process. The caseworker said she would follow up to see whether Mother and Child were making progress from the therapy, but—apparently in response to Mother’s request that DCFS “back off”—she stated that she would “not be a part of the scheduling process.”
¶8 In August 2020, the caseworker learned that criminal charges had been filed against Mother, and informed the therapists of this fact. Mother believes that the caseworker implied that the conduct in question had occurred recently, when it had actually occurred prior to removal of the children from Mother’s care. After the therapists learned of the charges, communication between them seemed to halt, and family therapy between Mother and Child never did take place.
¶9 During the reunification period, the court held periodic review hearings to assess Mother’s progress under the service plan; at some of these hearings, Mother voiced concerns about the fact that family therapy was not occurring, and on other occasions she expressed concerns about certain statements the caseworker was alleged to have made. But for the most part Mother was nonspecific about what else DCFS could have done to improve its efforts; indeed, on at least one occasion, the court expressly asked Mother’s attorney if “there’s anything else . . . as far as services go . . . that could be provided by [DCFS],” or if there was “anything else that you think [DCFS] should be providing to help [Mother] complete the service plan,” and counsel responded that he did not “have any specific request of [the court] right now.” The most specific complaint Mother raised was in August 2020 when she filed a “motion to take evidence and make findings regarding reasonable efforts” in which she accused DCFS of “hostility” and “actively work[ing] against the reunification goal.”
¶10 But by the time this motion was filed, the court had already made—on several different occasions during the reunification period—specific findings that DCFS was making reasonable efforts toward accomplishing the stated permanency goals, including reunification. For instance, in November 2019, the court after a hearing found that “DCFS has provided and is providing reasonable efforts to finalize the permanency goals.” Several months later, the court made a similar finding, noting along the way that Mother’s attorney “could not articulate other efforts that DCFS should be making to further the permanency goals.” In August 2020, the court found that “DCFS has and continues to provide reasonable efforts to finalize the child/children’s permanency goals and to comply with its court ordered responsibilities.” And a few weeks after that, the court did so again, noting that “[n]o party suggested efforts/services that could be provided by DCFS which are not already being provided.” There is no record of Mother making any objection to any of these interim findings regarding reasonable efforts.
¶11 In November 2020, after fourteen months of reunification services and with a permanency hearing looming, the parties engaged in settlement negotiations and entered into a stipulation that resolved many of the issues in the case. The parties and counsel then appeared before the court to put the terms of their stipulation on the record. Following the hearing, counsel for the State prepared an order memorializing the events of that hearing, and circulated it to Mother’s counsel for review. Mother’s counsel did not object or otherwise comment on the proposed form of the order, and therefore the State submitted it to the court “as being stipulated to,” and the court entered it as an order of the court. That order recites that the parties stipulated that “DCFS or other agency/ies continue to make reasonable efforts to assist the family finalize the service plan and its permanency goals.” The order recites that the parties also stipulated that the court would “terminate reunification services” as to Child, and that “termination of those services” was in Child’s best interest. Based on this stipulation, the court changed Child’s primary permanency goal from reunification to adoption. Mother did not object to the terms of this order, either before or after its entry, and did not object to the change in permanency goal.
¶12 Thereafter, the State filed a petition seeking the termination of Mother’s parental rights regarding Child. Some months later, the parties again entered into negotiations and agreed to resolve some of the issues surrounding the State’s termination petition. In particular, Mother stipulated “to the Court finding that it is in Child’s best interests and strictly necessary for the Court to terminate her parental rights should the Court also find legal grounds for terminating her parental rights.” After entry of this stipulation, the court scheduled a two-day termination trial to consider whether grounds for termination existed and whether DCFS had made reasonable efforts toward reunification.
¶13 The trial took place in November 2021. When the parties and their attorneys appeared for the first day of trial, the State informed the court that it did not intend to call any witnesses in its case-in-chief and, instead, asked the court to “take judicial notice of all the filings in the . . . case.” Mother objected to the court taking judicial notice of such a large quantity of material, arguing that she would never be able to respond to everything in the docket and the court would not have time to review so many documents. Eventually, the State narrowed its request to all the “findings and orders specific to [Child],” and Mother did not object. The court then agreed to take judicial notice of all its interim findings and orders regarding Child. The State then asked the court to take judicial notice of the court-ordered child and family plan pertaining to Child, psychological evaluations of Mother and Child, and court reports pertaining to Child; Mother did not object to the court taking judicial notice of the plan, but did object to the court taking judicial notice of the evaluations and court reports. The court initially took the matter under advisement, but later decided to take judicial notice of the service plan as well as the court reports, reasoning that they had been explicitly incorporated into the court’s previous orders and findings. The reports showed efforts the caseworker made, such as visiting all involved parties, providing transportation for Child, inspecting foster parents’ and Mother’s living situations, communicating with therapists, gauging Mother’s progress, promptly communicating with Mother, and ensuring Child had proper educational, medical, and mental health care.
¶14 The State then made its opening statement, pointing out that the only two issues for trial were grounds for termination and reasonable efforts, and arguing that grounds had already been established through the juvenile court’s previous adjudication that this court affirmed. Regarding reasonable efforts, the State argued that, throughout the entire proceeding, the juvenile court had periodically and continuously found that DCFS had made reasonable efforts toward reunification. The State also asserted that, at the end of the reunification period, Mother had stipulated—as part of the November 2020 stipulation prior to the permanency hearing—that DCFS had made reasonable efforts. The State asserted that it had sufficiently proven its case regarding grounds and reasonable efforts through the judicially noticed documents, and it rested its case without calling any witnesses.
¶15 After the State rested, Mother made a “motion for judgment as a matter of law,” arguing that the court’s previous orders “cannot as a matter of law be relied upon for a finding of reasonable efforts in the context . . . of a termination of parental rights trial” and that these orders were only “interim orders” and “can be revisited.” Mother also suggested that she never actually stipulated to a finding of reasonable efforts, even though the court’s order—to which she had not objected—stated otherwise. The court took Mother’s motion under advisement, and did not ever make an explicit ruling on it, but implicitly denied it by eventually making a ruling on the merits in the State’s favor.
¶16 Mother then proceeded with her case-in-chief, in which she called the caseworker and her therapist in addition to presenting her own sworn testimony. The caseworker testified about the events described above, outlining the actions she took to facilitate reunification and discussing her disagreements with Mother. Mother’s therapist testified about her sessions with Mother and the progress Mother made through therapy. Mother testified about the events, described above, that caused her to believe that DCFS was not making reasonable efforts toward reunification.
¶17 At the conclusion of trial, the court took the matter under advisement. About three months later, the court issued an oral ruling, concluding that there were grounds to terminate Mother’s parental rights, and that the State had demonstrated that DCFS had indeed made reasonable efforts to facilitate reunification. After announcing its ruling, the court instructed the State to prepare an order reflecting the court’s ruling. The State did so, and circulated the proposed order to Mother; within her time to object, Mother filed an objection taking issue with one small part of the order, but did not make any objection to the order’s treatment of the proper evidentiary standard.
¶18 Eventually, the court signed a version of the written order prepared by the State, finding “by clear and convincing evidence” that grounds for termination existed because “Child was previously adjudicated to be abused and neglected” in an order that had been affirmed on appeal.
¶19 The court also found—based on “the review hearings, court reports, and other evidence”—that DCFS had provided reasonable efforts toward reunification, although the court did not specify which standard of proof (e.g., clear and convincing evidence or preponderance of the evidence) it was applying with regard to this determination. Among other things, the court found that DCFS had taken action to (i) ensure that Child’s medical, dental, and mental health needs were met, (ii) visit Child at placements, (iii) supervise visits, (iv) review education records, (v) transport Child, (vi) communicate with Child’s therapist, (vii) “coordinate virtual parent-time,” (viii) communicate with Mother, and (ix) answer questions and arrange visits. The court also noted that it had, throughout the pendency of the case, “consistently found reasonable efforts on the part of DCFS” in its previous orders and findings. However, the court did not treat these orders and findings as dispositive, and went on to examine the rebuttal evidence offered by Mother, directly addressing her two main arguments: “personal friction between the Mother and [the caseworker], and the delay in starting family therapy with all of the children.” Regarding the friction, the court noted that “DCFS cases are almost always high stress situations and there are bound to be disagreements between DCFS and the parent whose rights are at risk.” And in this case, the court determined that “[t]he disagreements here were based on the DCFS caseworker’s frustration/stress at the lack of progress made by [Mother], which in some sense suggests the DCFS caseworker’s desire for [Mother] to progress and move forward toward reunification.” Regarding the delay in family therapy, the court noted that “DCFS regularly reported that they were following up with the therapist and that the strategy taken by the therapist was determined by the therapist, not DCFS,” and concluded that, “while there may not have been perfection in the case, . . . DCFS has acted reasonably in their efforts.”
¶20 Accordingly, the court entered an order terminating Mother’s rights as to Child.
ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW
¶21 Mother now appeals from the court’s termination order, but her appeal is narrowly targeted. As noted, Mother did not contest best interest at trial, after stipulating that termination of her parental rights to Child would be in Child’s best interest. And here on appeal, Mother does not contest the court’s determination that grounds for termination existed. She does, however, challenge—in three different ways—the court’s determination that DCFS made reasonable efforts toward reunification.
¶22 Her first challenge concerns the evidentiary standard the juvenile court applied in making its reasonable efforts determination. She contends that the court should have, but did not, apply a “clear and convincing evidence” standard in making its reasonable efforts determination. “The applicable burden of proof for termination proceedings is a question of law we review for correctness.” In re G.D., 2021 UT 19, ¶ 36, 491 P.3d 867.
¶23 Next, she challenges the merits of the court’s reasonable efforts determination, and this challenge has two parts. First, she contends that the court erred in denying her motion, made at the conclusion of the State’s case-in-chief, for “judgment as a matter of law.” In a bench trial, a motion for judgment as a matter of law’s “procedural counterpart,” Grossen v. DeWitt, 1999 UT App 167, ¶ 8, 982 P.2d 581, is a motion for involuntary dismissal, In re J.A., 2018 UT App 29, ¶ 26, 424 P.3d 913, cert. denied, 420 P.3d 704 (Utah 2018). Such a motion “should be granted when the trial judge finds that the claimant has failed to make out a prima facie case or when the trial judge is not persuaded by the evidence presented.” Accesslex Inst. v. Philpot, 2023 UT App 21, ¶ 33 (quotation simplified). “Whether a party has established a prima facie case is a question of law which we review for correctness.” In re M.L., 965 P.2d 551, 558 (Utah Ct. App. 1998).
¶24 Next, Mother challenges the court’s ultimate finding that DCFS made reasonable efforts toward reunification. “A court’s determination that DCFS made reasonable efforts to provide reunification services involves an application of statutory law to the facts that presents a mixed question of fact and law, requiring review of the juvenile court’s factual findings for clear error and its conclusions of law for correctness, affording the court some discretion in applying the law to the facts.” In re N.K., 2020 UT App 26, ¶ 15, 461 P.3d 1116 (quotation simplified). “Because reasonableness determinations are fact-intensive, we afford the juvenile court broad discretion in determining whether reasonable reunification efforts were made.” In re S.T., 2022 UT App 130, ¶ 17, 521 P.3d 887 (quotation simplified). “Absent a demonstration that the [reasonable efforts] determination was clearly in error, we will not disturb the determination.” In re K.F., 2009 UT 4, ¶ 52, 201 P.3d 985 (quotation simplified). “A finding of fact is clearly erroneous only when, in light of the evidence supporting the finding, it is against the clear weight of the evidence.” In re A.W., 2018 UT App 217, ¶ 23, 437 P.3d 640 (quotation simplified).
¶25 We first address Mother’s contention that the juvenile court applied an incorrect evidentiary standard in making its reasonable efforts determination. After that, we address Mother’s challenges to the merits of the court’s determination. For the reasons that follow, we are unpersuaded by Mother’s arguments.
I. Evidentiary Standard
¶26 Mother’s first assertion is that the juvenile court needed to make its reasonable efforts determination by clear and convincing evidence—rather than by the lower preponderance of the evidence standard—and that it did not do so. The first part of Mother’s assertion is correct, but the second part is unsupported by the record in this case.
¶27 With regard to what the proper legal standard is, Mother’s position is correct: the juvenile court needed to apply the clear and convincing evidence standard in making its reasonable efforts determination. Neither the State nor the guardian ad litem takes issue, in this case, with Mother’s position regarding the proper legal standard. And this position is clearly supported by statutory mandate. In all cases in which reunification services are offered, the reasonable efforts determination is a necessary part of the termination inquiry—it is mandated by the statutes governing termination proceedings, see Utah Code § 80-4-301(3)(a) (stating that, “in any case in which the juvenile court has directed the division to provide reunification services to a parent, the juvenile court must find that the division made reasonable efforts to provide those services before” terminating parental rights)—and all facts in termination cases must be established by clear and convincing evidence, see id. § 80-4-103(2)(a) (commanding juvenile courts, in all termination cases, to “require the petitioner to establish the facts by clear and convincing evidence”); see also In re Castillo, 632 P.2d 855, 857 (Utah 1981) (stating that the presumption of parental rights “should be overcome only by clear and convincing evidence”); Utah R. Juv. P. 41(b) (discussing “[t]he burden of proof in matters brought before the juvenile court,” and stating that “cases involving the permanent deprivation of parental rights must be proved by clear and convincing evidence unless otherwise provided by law”).
¶28 But the other half of Mother’s contention—that the juvenile court applied a different standard to its reasonable efforts inquiry—is simply not borne out by the record. As an initial matter, examination of the court’s order indicates that it was generally applying the clear and convincing evidence standard in this termination case. With regard to its determination about grounds for termination, the court specified that it was using the higher evidentiary standard, stating that it “finds that DCFS has proven, by clear and convincing evidence,” that grounds for termination are present. And later in its order, it specified that it was making its legal conclusions regarding termination “by clear and convincing evidence.” Significantly, nowhere in its order did the court reference, even obliquely, any other evidentiary standard. Moreover, earlier in the case, in the court’s September 2019 order approving the service plan, the court had indicated its awareness of the correct evidentiary standard, finding at that point, “by clear and convincing evidence,” that fulfillment of the service plan would “constitute reasonable efforts on the part of [DCFS] to finalize the permanency goals.”
¶29 Mother points out, however, that—while the court, in its final order, specified that its grounds determination and its legal conclusions were being made by clear and convincing evidence— the court did not specifically indicate that it was making its reasonable efforts determination by clear and convincing evidence. As noted, it did not indicate the application of a different evidentiary standard; rather, the reasonable efforts section of the court’s final order was simply silent regarding which evidentiary standard was being applied. As Mother sees it, any uncertainty about which standard the court was applying should be held against the court; in particular, she asks us to infer from this uncertainty that the court was applying an evidentiary standard to that section of its analysis that was different from what it specifically applied to the other sections.
¶30 But this is not the way such inferences work. Uncertainty in the record “is not a basis for reversal.” State v. Hummel, 2017 UT 19, ¶ 82, 393 P.3d 314. Indeed, “[u]ncertainty counts against the appellant, who bears the burden of proof on appeal, and must overcome a presumption of regularity as to the record and decision in the trial court.” Id. “Thus, a lack of certainty in the record does not lead to a reversal and new trial; it leads to an affirmance on the ground that the appellant cannot carry [the] burden of proof.” Id.
¶31 We encountered a similar situation in Gerwe v. Gerwe, 2018
UT App 75, 424 P.3d 1113. In that case, a district court determined, after an evidentiary hearing, that a man had fraudulently induced his ex-wife into signing a postnuptial agreement. Id. ¶ 3. But in so doing, the court was silent regarding which evidentiary standard it was applying; it “did not expressly state that [the ex-wife] presented clear and convincing evidence of fraudulent inducement,” but “it never suggested that a lower standard of proof applied.” Id. ¶ 13. On that record, we rejected the appellant’s assertion of error, stating that a “reviewing court will not presume from a silent record that the court applied an incorrect legal standard but must presume the regularity and validity of the district court’s proceedings, and that it applied the correct legal standard, in the absence of evidence to the contrary.” Id. (quotation simplified). We concluded our analysis by stating that “[b]ecause nothing in the record suggests that the court applied something less than the clear and convincing standard, [the appellant] cannot establish error.” Id. (quotation simplified).
¶32 So too here. Mother offers no evidence—aside from the uncertainty engendered by silence—that the juvenile court applied an evidentiary standard other than clear and convincing to its reasonable efforts determination. And as in Gerwe, this is not enough to satisfy Mother’s appellate burden, especially where the court—in two other places in the order—indicated that it was applying the clear and convincing standard. On this basis, we reject Mother’s contention that the juvenile court applied an incorrect evidentiary standard.
II. Reasonable Efforts
¶33 Next, Mother challenges the merits of the juvenile court’s reasonable efforts determination, and this challenge has two parts. First, Mother asserts that the court erred in failing to grant the motion she made at the conclusion of the State’s case-in-chief. Second, she asserts that the court’s ultimate reasonable efforts determination was against the clear weight of the evidence. We address, and reject, each of these arguments, in turn.
¶34 At the end of the State’s witness-less case-in-chief, Mother made an oral motion for “judgment as a matter of law.” The court took the motion under advisement, but never issued an express ruling on it; the court implicitly denied the motion when it ruled in the State’s favor on the merits of the reasonable efforts question. Mother challenges the court’s implicit denial of that motion.
¶35 Although Mother referred to her motion as either a motion for summary judgment or a motion for judgment as a matter of law, in bench trials the proper reference is a motion for involuntary dismissal. See In re Trujillo, 2001 UT 38, ¶ 21 n.13, 24 P.3d 972 (stating that “a motion for a directed verdict contemplates only jury trials,” and “[i]n the context of a bench trial, the directed verdict’s procedural counterpart is a motion for involuntary dismissal”); accord Accesslex Inst. v. Philpot, 2023 UT App 21, ¶ 33. As already noted, the relevant question raised by such a motion—at least where the nonmovant bears the burden of proof on the issue at hand—is whether the nonmovant has, during its case-in-chief, made at least a prima facie case in support of its claim. See Accesslex Inst., 2023 UT App 21, ¶ 33 (stating that, where “the party making [the motion] is the party that does not bear the burden of proof,” the motion “should be granted when the trial judge finds that the claimant has failed to make out a prima facie case” (quotation simplified)). “A prima facie case has been made when evidence has been received at trial that, in the absence of contrary evidence, would entitle the party having the burden of proof to judgment as a matter of law.” In re J.A., 2018 UT App 29, ¶ 27, 424 P.3d 913 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 420 P.3d 704 (Utah 2018). Thus, we must consider whether the State—the nonmovant who bore the burden of proof—made out at least a prima facie case in support of its reasonable efforts claim during its case-in-chief.
¶36 Our supreme court has defined “reasonable efforts” as a “fair and serious attempt to reunify a parent with a child prior to seeking to terminate parental rights.” In re K.F., 2009 UT 4, ¶ 51, 201 P.3d 985 (quotation simplified). Thus, in order to make a prima facie showing with regard to reasonable efforts, the State had to produce evidence that would—at least before consideration of any contrary evidence—show that DCFS had made a fair and serious effort to reunify Mother with Child during the reunification period. As noted, the State called no witnesses in its case-in-chief, choosing instead to rely entirely on documentary evidence that included the juvenile court’s previous interim orders and the court reports incorporated into those orders. But despite this unorthodox approach, in our view the State did enough—on the facts of this particular case—to make at least a prima facie showing in support of its reasonable efforts claim.
¶37 The State’s evidence, such as it was, included the juvenile court’s interim orders, and those orders indicated that the court, in its ongoing supervisory role over the proceedings during the reunification period, had made multiple and repeated findings that DCFS had engaged in reasonable efforts to further the permanency goals, the primary one of which was reunification. The court never made a contrary finding, despite Mother having registered some dissatisfaction on this point at various stages of the case. Moreover, those interim orders incorporated the court reports, which included detailed accounts of the measures DCFS took to fulfill the requirements of the service plan, including visiting Child, providing transportation for Child, inspecting foster parents’ and Mother’s living situations, communicating with the therapists, gauging Mother’s progress on the service plan, communicating with Mother, and ensuring Child had proper educational, medical, and mental health care. Finally, at the end of the reunification period in November 2020, with a permanency hearing looming, Mother apparently stipulated that “DCFS or other agency/ies continue to make reasonable efforts to assist the family finalize the service plan and its permanency goals.” The use of the word “continue” in the stipulation could reasonably be taken to mean that Mother was acknowledging that, throughout the entirety of the reunification period up until the date of the stipulation, DCFS had made reasonable efforts to accomplish the permanency goals, including reunification. Thus, in this particular case, the State’s evidentiary presentation, despite its truncated and unorthodox nature, was sufficient to indicate— at least in the absence of Mother’s contrary evidence, which had yet to be presented—that DCFS had made a fair and serious effort to reunify Mother with Child.
¶38 We recognize that Mother was eventually able to point to at least some contrary evidence. For instance, Mother put on evidence about the ongoing friction between herself and the DCFS caseworker, and about the issues that came up regarding initiation of family therapy. In addition, Mother had some colorable arguments to make about the November 2020 stipulation, asserting that the parties’ actual agreement had not in fact included any stipulation about reasonable efforts and that, if any such stipulation had been reached, its scope was limited. But at the time the court was considering Mother’s motion for involuntary dismissal—at the close of the State’s case-in-chief— none of that evidence had been presented. And in assessing whether the State had made out a prima facie case regarding reasonable efforts, the court was not supposed to consider whatever contrary evidence Mother might eventually produce. The prima facie case inquiry is simply whether the State produced sufficient evidence, standing on its own and without considering any rebuttal, to support its claim. And on the facts of this unique case, we conclude that it did.
¶39 For these reasons, we discern no error in the juvenile court’s implicit denial of Mother’s motion for involuntary dismissal made at the conclusion of the State’s case-in-chief.
¶40 Finally, Mother challenges the juvenile court’s ultimate determination, made as factfinder after trial, that DCFS had made reasonable efforts to facilitate reunification. As noted already, we review this determination deferentially, giving “broad discretion” to the juvenile court “in determining whether reasonable reunification efforts were made.” See In re K.F., 2009 UT 4, ¶ 52, 201 P.3d 985; see also In re A.C., 2004 UT App 255, ¶ 12, 97 P.3d 706 (stating that a juvenile court “is in the best position to evaluate the credibility and competence of those who testify regarding the services that were provided” and to assess the reasonable efforts question). See generally supra ¶ 24.
¶41 Here, the juvenile court listened to the testimony of Mother, the caseworker, and Mother’s therapist, and examined the dozens of exhibits submitted by the parties. This same court had previously been involved in all of the interim review hearings during the reunification period, during which the court assessed DCFS’s reasonable efforts throughout the case. In issuing its ultimate determination, the court took its previous orders into account, but correctly did not treat them as completely dispositive of the question; instead, it considered those orders as potentially persuasive evidence supporting the State’s position, but evaluated that evidence in the context of the rebuttal evidence Mother offered.
¶42 Indeed, the court directly addressed both of Mother’s specific arguments: that the “personal friction” between Mother and the caseworker indicated that the caseworker did not make reasonable efforts, and that the caseworker caused delay in the start of family therapy. With regard to the friction, the court rather astutely noted that child welfare cases “are almost always high stress situations and there are bound to be disagreements between DCFS and the parent whose rights are at risk.” But the court, after reviewing the friction in the context of the entire case, concluded that the disagreements between Mother and the caseworker, while regrettable, did not rise to the level of indicating that the caseworker had failed to provide reasonable efforts. On this record, we cannot say that such a determination is “against the clear weight of the evidence.” See In re A.W., 2018 UT App 217, ¶ 23, 437 P.3d 640.
¶43 With regard to the delay in family therapy, the court noted that, under the service plan, family therapy was not to begin until both Mother’s and Child’s therapists recommended it, and the court was aware that responsibility for scheduling the therapy sessions, once both therapists were on board, was to be up to the therapists themselves. The court, after reviewing this issue in context, concluded that most of the blame for any delay in family therapy should not be laid at the feet of the caseworker, observing that “DCFS cannot, nor should they be required to hold the hand of every party involved to ensure that those parties are also making some efforts,” and ultimately determined that, “while there may not have been perfection in the case, . . . DCFS has acted reasonably in their efforts.” On this record, we cannot say that this determination is against the clear weight of the evidence either.
¶44 Accordingly, we discern no abuse of the juvenile court’s discretion in its ultimate determination, made as factfinder after trial, that DCFS provided reasonable efforts toward reunification.
¶45 Mother has not carried her appellate burden of demonstrating that the juvenile court applied an incorrect evidentiary standard to its reasonable efforts determination. And we reject Mother’s challenges to the merits of the court’s ultimate determination that DCFS provided reasonable efforts toward reunifying Mother with Child during the reunification period.
 A transcript of the court’s oral ruling was not included in the record submitted to us.
 Moreover, Mother had an opportunity to bring this issue to the court’s attention prior to entry of the order. Recall that the court issued an oral ruling, which was then memorialized by the State into a written order and circulated to Mother for her input. Mother filed a limited, targeted objection to one point in the draft order, but—notably—did not raise any objection to the court’s discussion of the evidentiary standard it was applying to its determinations. Any lack of clarity about the standard being applied could easily have been remedied at that stage. See Jensen v. Skypark Landowners Ass’n, 2013 UT App 48, ¶ 6 n.4, 299 P.3d 609 (per curiam) (stating that a party who made “no objection to the form of the order” could not complain, for the first time on appeal, that the order was “vague and ambiguous”), cert. denied, 308 P.3d 536 (Utah 2013); cf. In re K.F., 2009 UT 4, ¶ 63, 201 P.3d 985 (stating that “[j]udicial economy would be disserved” by permitting an appellant to bring, “for the first time on appeal,” a challenge regarding the adequacy of the court’s findings, because such errors are “easy for a trial judge to correct” and are “best corrected when the judge’s findings are fresh in the judge’s mind,” and because “the only likely remedy is merely a remand to the trial court for more detailed findings”).
 It would not have been difficult for the State to call at least one critical live witness—the DCFS caseworker—in support of its reasonable efforts claim. The caseworker was available that day to testify, and indeed did testify when she was called to do so by Mother. We do not go very far out onto the proverbial limb by stating that, in most cases, it would be preferable (and, indeed, advisable) for the State, in reasonable efforts cases, to do more than simply rely on previous interim court orders, and we hope that our decision to affirm the juvenile court in this case does not encourage the State to present similarly truncated cases-in-chief in future reasonable efforts cases.
 Considering such orders, as well as Mother’s failure to formally object to them, as potentially persuasive but nondispositive evidence appears consistent with previous decisions by this court in reasonable efforts cases. See In re A.W., 2018 UT App 217, ¶ 31, 437 P.3d 640 (“Father also ignores the several times in the record in which the juvenile court made an unchallenged periodic finding—before its termination order—that DCFS had made reasonable efforts to provide him with reunification services.”); see also In re S.T., 2022 UT App 130, ¶ 21, 521 P.3d 887 (noting that, “[a]t no point did Mother object to the court’s findings or indicate that she needed additional or different services.”); In re A.C., 2004 UT App 255, ¶ 17, 97 P.3d 706 (“It is the parent’s responsibility to demand services if they are not offered prior to the termination hearing.” (quotation simplified)).
STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF K.K., S.K., AND S.K.,
PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.
STATE OF UTAH,
Filed February 9, 2023
Second District Juvenile Court, Farmington Department
The Honorable Sharon S. Sipes
Scott L. Wiggins, Attorney for Appellant
Sean D. Reyes, John M. Peterson, and Candace
Roach, Attorneys for Appellee
Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem
JUDGE MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER authored this Opinion,
in which JUDGE GREGORY K. ORME concurred. JUDGE RYAN M.
HARRIS concurred, with opinion.
CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, Judge:
¶1 This is a companion case to and arises out of the same facts involved in In re K.K., 2023 UT App 13, which also issues today. In short, B.K. (Mother) and D.K. (Father) are the parents of triplets K.K., S.K., and S.K. (collectively, the Children). When the Children were six years old, the State filed a petition for custody and guardianship on the grounds that the Children were neglected and abused by Mother and Father. The underlying facts giving rise to the petition were multiple acts of domestic violence, culminating in a physical and boisterous verbal altercation between the couple that occurred on June 22, 2021, and that took place in front of the Children and other witnesses.
¶2 Following an adjudication trial on the petition, during which the juvenile court heard testimony from Mother, Father, two neighbors who had witnessed the June 22 altercation, and two police officers who had responded to the neighbors’ 911 calls regarding the June 22 altercation, the court issued an order adjudicating the Children neglected and abused as to Mother.
¶3 In the adjudication order, the court found, among other things, that Mother and Father had engaged in numerous acts of domestic violence, some of which had occurred in the presence of the Children, including on June 22; that when Mother and Father fight they sometimes send the Children downstairs to wait with a roommate, which had occurred two or three times that year; that the Children are aware they are sent downstairs because Mother and Father fight; that “[a]ccording to the [C]hildren, [Father] and [Mother] fight and yell and hurt each other’s bodies”; and that “[t]he [C]hildren have experienced domestic violence with enough frequency that they appear calm during incidents between their parents . . . even though the parents ‘fight a lot and hurt’ each other.”
¶4 As to Mother, the court found she was not yelling back at Father during the June 22 altercation but that she did yell at him on another occasion during which officers were dispatched to the house on a “domestic” call. In addition, the court found that Mother “is not concerned” that the Children witness her and Father fight and that her “demeanor and testimony”—including her inability to recall much of what happened on June 22—“is in tune with her desire to protect [Father] rather than address the domestic violence that exists in her home.” Based on these findings, the court concluded that Mother “has failed to protect the [C]hildren from exposure to domestic violence in the home” and that “[Father] and [Mother’s] domestic violence in their home has harmed the [C]hildren.”
ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW
¶5 Mother now appeals the juvenile court’s neglect and abuse adjudications, asserting the court erred in determining that she neglected and abused the Children. We review the juvenile court’s factual findings deferentially, reversing the court’s findings only if they are clearly erroneous. In re E.R., 2021 UT 36, ¶ 15, 496 P.3d 58. A finding is clearly erroneous when the court either “failed to consider all of the facts or reached a decision against the clear weight of the evidence.” Id. ¶ 32 (quotation simplified). And we review the juvenile court’s underlying legal determinations nondeferentially for correctness. See In re A.B., 2022 UT 39, ¶¶ 27–28.
¶6 Mother argues the juvenile court erred in determining that the State had proved by clear and convincing evidence that she neglected and abused the Children “by exposing them to domestic violence.” Clear and convincing evidence is an “intermediate standard of proof” that “implies something more than the usual requirement of a preponderance . . . of the evidence; and something less than proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” Essential Botanical Farms, LC v. Kay, 2011 UT 71, ¶¶ 21, 24, 270 P.3d 430 (quotation simplified). “For a matter to be clear and convincing to a particular mind it must at least have reached the point where there remains no serious or substantial doubt as to the correctness of the conclusion.” In re S.Y.T., 2011 UT App 407, ¶ 42, 267 P.3d 930 (quotation simplified).
¶7 Because neglect and abuse are distinct, with different statutory definitions, we address Mother’s challenge to the juvenile court’s adjudications separately. With regard to Mother’s neglect adjudication, we conclude the court did not err in determining that she neglected the Children. As to the court’s abuse adjudication, we conclude that Mother, like Father, cannot show prejudice resulting from the abuse adjudication where the underlying facts giving rise to both adjudications are the same. Accordingly, we decline to address the merits of Mother’s challenge to the abuse adjudication.
¶8 To prove that Mother neglected the Children, the State needed to present clear and convincing evidence that Mother’s “action[s] or inaction[s]” caused the Children to experience a “lack of proper parental care . . . by reason of the fault or habits of” Mother or that Mother “fail[ed] or refus[ed] . . . to provide proper . . . care necessary for [the Children’s] health, safety, morals, or well-being.” See Utah Code § 80-1-102(58)(a)(ii)–(iii). Mother argues the juvenile court’s conclusion that she neglected the Children by “‘allowing’ them to be exposed to her abuse at Father’s hands” does not satisfy the statutory definition of neglect. She further contends that the court “engaged in unwarranted assumptions that are contrary to the well-settled notions underlying the Battered Woman Syndrome” by concluding that Mother’s “behavior constituted ‘nonaccidental’ conduct or that her behavior was due to her ‘faults or habits.’” We disagree.
¶9 The evidence presented at trial included testimony from six witnesses who detailed Father and Mother’s history of engaging in domestic disputes with each other and specifically described the altercation that occurred on June 22. The testimony indicated that two of the children were present during the June 22 altercation and were observed “clinging” to Mother outside in the front yard while Father argued with her, punched her, and threw objects at her. One of the officers who responded to the June 22 altercation testified that the two children who had witnessed the altercation “seemed calm” and were not “distraught or flustered at all.” The officers acknowledged they had been called to Mother and Father’s house prior to the June 22 altercation on a “domestic” call after neighbors reported Mother and Father were screaming at each other.
¶10 Mother also testified that on many occasions she tried to prevent the Children from observing her and Father fight. To accomplish this, “as soon as any argument started” she would send the Children downstairs with her roommate, where they would wait until the fight was over. Despite making this effort, Mother testified that she believed the Children were aware they were sent downstairs to avoid hearing any fighting. Moreover, the evidence also showed that Mother repeatedly allowed Father to return home after the court issued a criminal no contact/protective order and that she minimized the severity of the domestic violence. Mother was also largely unwilling to testify at trial about the June 22 altercation, claiming that she had “trouble remembering” much of what happened. Based on this evidence, the juvenile court found, “[Mother] is not concerned that the [C]hildren are subjected to the argument[s] between [Mother] and [Father]. [Mother’s] demeanor and testimony is in tune with her desire to protect [Father] rather than address the domestic violence that exists in her home.”
¶11 As described above, in its adjudication order, the juvenile court made several findings in support of its determination of neglect as to Mother. Those findings address Mother’s ongoing relationship with Father and the violent dynamic of their relationship, Mother’s knowledge that the Children were aware of her fights with Father despite her attempts to shield them from the violence, and Mother’s apparent lack of concern or desire to extricate herself from future interactions with Father. Under Utah law, a parent “ha[s] a statutory duty not to knowingly place [their] child in harm’s way.” In re C.B., 1999 UT App 293, ¶ 9, 989 P.2d 76. By voluntarily returning to the abusive relationship with Father, Mother ignored this duty by “potentially subjecting the [Children] to witness, or be the victim of, further abuse.” See id. Moreover, as discussed in In re C.C.W., 2019 UT App 34, 440 P.3d 749, a parent’s act of domestic violence can have adverse impacts on a child, even if there is no evidence of violence toward the child and even if the child does not directly witness the violence. Relying on “both common sense and expert opinion,” this court recognized that children who are exposed to domestic violence may suffer “direct physical and psychological injuries,” regardless of whether they are physically harmed. Id. ¶¶ 20–21 (quotation simplified). Among other things, children who observe domestic violence “may be taught that violence is an acceptable way to handle issues with loved ones,” which “breeds a culture of violence in future generations. . . . Abused children are at great risk of becoming abusive parents.” Id. ¶ 20 (quotation simplified). Although it is unfortunate that Mother is a victim of domestic violence, her decision to knowingly return to Father and to protect him rather than to protect the Children despite her knowledge that the Children are aware of the abuse in the home satisfies the statutory definition of neglect.
¶12 We recognize that most, if not all, of the domestic violence at issue in this case was committed by Father against Mother and that Mother was therefore often the victim rather than the perpetrator. But under Utah’s statutory definition of neglect, under certain circumstances, even victims of domestic violence can “neglect” their children if they fail to take sufficient steps to protect them from the domestic violence present in the home or if they choose to prioritize their relationship with the perpetrator of the violence over the need to protect their children. After all, neglect can stem from either “action or inaction” on the part of a parent, see Utah Code § 80-1-102(58)(a), as long as the “inaction” in question causes either “lack of proper parental care of a child by reason of the fault or habits of the parent” or “failure or refusal of a parent . . . to provide . . . care necessary for the child’s health, safety, morals, or well-being,” see id. § 80-1-102(58)(a)(ii)–(iii). Here, the juvenile court found that Mother was “not concerned” about protecting the Children from domestic violence and that Mother had a “desire to protect [Father] rather than address the domestic violence that exists in her home.” These findings were supported by substantial evidence presented at trial. And these facts, as found by the court, constitute “neglect” as our legislature has defined that term. In short, Mother’s “inaction” in failing to protect the Children from exposure to domestic violence and prioritizing her toxic relationship with Father resulted in a failure to provide the “care necessary for [the Children’s] health, safety, morals, or well-being” and caused the Children to experience a “lack of proper parental care.” See id.
¶13 Mother resists this conclusion by contending the juvenile court improperly relied on In re C.C.W. for “the proposition that children are harmed by domestic violence in the home.” She asserts the court’s reliance on In re C.C.W. was unwarranted because that case concerned a proceeding to terminate parental rights whereas this case concerns abuse and neglect adjudications. While Mother is correct that the two proceedings are different, those differences do not bear on whether the court could properly rely on the research and studies cited in In re C.C.W. supporting the general proposition that domestic violence is harmful to children. See 2019 UT App 34, ¶ 20. Termination proceedings and abuse and neglect adjudications are both governed by the Utah Juvenile Code, see Utah Code § 80-4-301 (termination of parental rights); id. § 80-3-201 (abuse or neglect proceedings), and the statutory definitions of “neglect,” “abuse,” “harm,” and “threatened harm” are the same in both proceedings, see id. § 801-102(1), (37), (58)(a), (92) (providing definitions applicable to provisions of Title 80, Utah Juvenile Code). Accordingly, it does not follow that the court may properly consider the effect of domestic violence in finding neglect in one proceeding but not the other.
¶14 In addition, Mother asserts that the juvenile court “rel[ied] on the unfounded presumption that Mother’s decision to maintain a relationship with Father constituted a conscious failure to protect the Children from exposure to domestic violence.” In so doing, Mother posits that the juvenile court ignored the directive offered in In re C.C.W. cautioning courts “to avoid unnecessarily drawing negative inferences from a battered spouse’s decision to maintain a relationship with the batterer, or from a battered spouse’s decision to decline to immediately seek help.” See 2019 UT App 34, ¶ 19 n.4. But that is not what happened here.
¶15 In this case, the juvenile court analyzed the evidence before it in adjudicating Mother for neglect. Thus, the court’s conclusion was not based on an unfounded presumption. As previously discussed, the evidence the court considered included testimony that Father had engaged in multiple acts of domestic violence in the presence of the Children. And based on Father’s multi-year track record of assaulting Mother, even after services were provided to him, the court could reasonably conclude that Father is likely to continue perpetrating acts of domestic violence against Mother in the future and that the Children will continue to be exposed to the violence if Mother fails to take action. In short, the court’s determination that Mother failed to provide the proper care for the Children’s health, safety, morals, or well-being by failing to protect them and prioritizing her relationship with Father was based on the evidence presented at trial and not on an unwarranted presumption.
¶16 Finally, Mother misconstrues the directive offered in In re C.C.W. cautioning courts to “avoid unnecessarily drawing negative inferences from a battered spouse’s decision to maintain a relationship with the batterer.” See id. Mother contends that by adjudicating her for neglect, the juvenile court made an “automatic determination that both the batterer and victim are responsible as a unit,” which in turn results in the victim being blamed for the domestic violence. While we are sympathetic to Mother and acknowledge that extricating oneself from an abusive relationship can often prove difficult, see In re L.M., 2019 UT App 174, ¶ 9, 453 P.3d 651 (per curiam); In re C.C., 2017 UT App 134, ¶¶ 46–48, 402 P.3d 17 (Christiansen, J., concurring), we cannot say that a parent’s status as a domestic violence victim excuses the parent’s duty to protect the children or provides the parent with license to elevate the relationship with the abuser over the safety of the children. Indeed, the directive offered in In re C.C.W. merely cautions courts to “avoid unnecessarily drawing negative inferences” about a victim’s decision to stay in an abusive relationship. 2019 UT App 34, ¶ 19 n.4. It does not prevent the court from considering domestic violence issues in their entirety, nor does it provide absolution for a parent who continues to expose a child to domestic violence. To find otherwise would be contrary to precedent. See, e.g., In re L.M., 2019 UT App 174, ¶ 8 (“A parent who maintains a relationship with an abusive partner jeopardizes a child’s safety.”); In re T.M., 2006 UT App 435, ¶ 20, 147 P.3d 529 (collecting cases and observing that “Utah case law indicates that courts have minimal empathy for parents whose strong emotional ties to their spouses or significant others jeopardize their children’s safety”).
¶17 Accordingly, we affirm the court’s neglect adjudication.
¶18 The juvenile court determined that Mother both neglected and abused the Children by failing to protect them from exposure to domestic violence and that Father and Mother’s “domestic violence in their home has harmed the [C]hildren.” Mother argues the court’s abuse adjudication was in error because the State failed to produce clear and convincing evidence of abuse as it is statutorily defined. See Utah Code § 80-1-102(1)(a)(i)(A)–(B), (37)(a)–(b) (defining abuse as including “nonaccidental harm of a child” and “threatened harm of a child” and defining harm as “physical or developmental injury or damage” and “emotional damage that results in a serious impairment in the child’s growth, development, behavior, or psychological functioning”). Mother raises a fair point that other than applying the general principles set forth in In re C.C.W. to infer harm, the State did not present specific evidence that the Children had sustained harm, and the court made no specific findings—other than that the Children appeared calm during incidents of domestic violence between their parents—that the Children were developmentally harmed or suffered the sort of emotional damage that constituted serious impairment to their growth, development, behavior, or psychological functioning.
¶19 But even if we were to agree with Mother that the juvenile court erred in adjudicating the Children as abused as to Mother, Mother cannot show she was prejudiced by any such error. See In re N.M., 2018 UT App 141, ¶ 27, 427 P.3d 1239 (“An error is prejudicial only if a review of the record persuades the appellate court that without the error there was a reasonable likelihood of a more favorable result for the appellant.” (quotation simplified)); In re. J.B., 2002 UT App 268, ¶¶ 8–12, 53 P.3d 968 (affirming the termination of a father’s parental rights despite the juvenile court’s reliance on improper findings because such reliance did not result in “prejudicial error”). Mother claims that being labeled an abuser “negatively affect[s] her ability—going forward—to perform the primary caretaking responsibilities to [the] Children.” But Mother does not demonstrate how the court’s abuse adjudication will affect her more severely or more negatively as this case proceeds than the neglect adjudication will. See In re G.B., 2022 UT App 98, ¶ 34, 516 P.3d 781 (declining to reach the merits of a challenge to an abuse adjudication where the parent did not challenge a neglect adjudication based on the same facts because the parent did not demonstrate that the abuse adjudication carried “some collateral consequences . . . that [did] not follow from a neglect determination”). Indeed, post-adjudication dispositions turn on the factual circumstances that bring a family into court rather than on the category of adjudication and are implemented based on concern for the child’s health and safety and remedying the underlying issues resulting in the adjudication. See Utah Code § 80-3-405. Here, as found by the juvenile court, whether her inaction is labeled as abuse or neglect, Mother failed to protect the Children from exposure to domestic violence and prioritized her relationship with Father over the well-being of the Children. The services that will be offered to Mother and the Children to remedy these circumstances are not likely to differ based on whether the adjudication is for neglect or abuse. We agree with the guardian ad litem’s assertion that “any or all three categories of adjudication (abuse, neglect, dependency) trigger the same dispositional provisions.” Accordingly, because Mother has not demonstrated how the court’s abuse adjudication will affect her any differently than the neglect adjudication, she cannot show prejudice. See In re K.K., 2023 UT App 13, ¶ 28 (concluding, based on the same facts as the current case, that Father could not show prejudice stemming from the court’s abuse adjudication because the abuse adjudication was based on the same underlying facts supporting the neglect adjudication).
¶20 We are cognizant that Mother is a victim of domestic violence, not a perpetrator. Nevertheless, the primary purpose of the State’s petition alleging neglect was to protect the Children, not to punish Mother. Based on the foregoing, we conclude the evidence presented by the State was sufficient to support the juvenile court’s neglect adjudication as to Mother. And even if the juvenile court erred in its abuse adjudication, Mother has not persuaded us that she was prejudiced by any such error because she has not shown how she will be negatively affected by the abuse adjudication over and above the effect of her neglect adjudication. Accordingly, we affirm.
HARRIS, Judge (concurring):
¶21 I concur fully in the majority opinion. I write separately to offer a word of caution to juvenile courts when it comes to finding that a parent who is a victim of domestic violence has “abused” or “neglected” his or her children by allowing them to be exposed to domestic violence in the home. In my view, Utah’s statutory definitions of the terms “abuse” and “neglect” are broad enough to make it possible, in certain situations, for courts to determine that a domestic violence victim has committed abuse or neglect. But courts should exercise caution in doing so, and should make these rather striking findings only in appropriate cases.
¶22 With regard to neglect, we hold today that the juvenile court’s determination was appropriate in this case, because Mother’s “inaction” in failing to protect the Children from the domestic violence occurring in the home constituted a lack of proper parental care, as well as a failure to provide care necessary for the Children’s health, safety, or well-being. See supra ¶¶ 8–16; see also Utah Code Ann. § 80-1-102(58)(a)(ii)–(iii) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022). In my view, the key to affirming this determination, in this case, was the court’s finding that Mother had prioritized her relationship with her abuser over the safety and well-being of the Children. Evidence presented at trial indicated that Mother repeatedly allowed Father to return to the home despite the existence of protective orders making it unlawful for him to be there, and that she was less than fully cooperative with DCFS and law enforcement officials who were investigating the situation. This sort of evidence, to my way of thinking, is critical to any determination that a domestic violence victim has neglected his or her children. Absent evidence like this, domestic violence victims will likely not have committed actions or inactions significant enough to constitute “neglect” of their children.
¶23 And given the differing statutory definitions, it is even more difficult for domestic violence victims to be considered to have “abused” their children than it is for them to be considered to have “neglected” their children. The statutory definition of “abuse” is (justifiably) narrower than the statutory definition of “neglect.” In order to find that abuse has occurred, a court in most cases (that is, in cases not involving sexual exploitation, sexual abuse, human trafficking, or the child’s death) must find either (a) “nonaccidental harm of a child” or (b) “threatened harm of a child.” See id. § 80-1-102(1)(a)(i)(A), (B); see also In re K.T., 2017 UT 44, ¶ 9, 424 P.3d 91 (“To find abuse under Utah law, a court must find harm.”).
¶24 A finding that a child has sustained nonaccidental harm involves a backward-looking determination, one that must be supported by evidence that the child has already been harmed. And the kind of harm at issue—according to strict statutory definition—must be either “physical or developmental injury or damage” or the sort of “emotional damage that results in a serious impairment in the child’s growth, development, behavior, or psychological functioning.” See id. § 80-1-102(37)(a), (b). I can envision a court, in many cases, being able to make a finding of physical harm without the necessity of expert testimony, but in my view a finding of already-sustained “developmental injury or damage” or emotional damage severe enough to cause “a serious impairment in the child’s growth, development, behavior, or psychological functioning” will often require expert testimony. I think this will nearly always be the case where the question presented is whether a child has already sustained non-physical “harm” as a result of a victim parent failing to protect the child from violence in the home.
¶25 A finding that a child has sustained “threatened harm” is— by contrast—more of a forward-looking inquiry, under the applicable statutory definition. As our legislature has defined it in this context, “threatened harm means actions, inactions, or credible verbal threats, indicating that the child is at an unreasonable risk of harm or neglect.” See Utah Code Ann. § 80-1102(92) (emphasis added). A child can sustain “threatened harm” even if the child has not yet sustained actual “harm.” Pursuant to statutory definition, a child sustains “threatened harm” when, through the “actions” or “inactions” of a parent, the child is placed at “unreasonable risk” of future “developmental injury or damage” or “emotional damage” severe enough to seriously impair the “child’s growth, development, behavior, or psychological functioning.” See id. § 80-1-102(37)(a)–(b), 102(92). In cases involving parents who are victims of domestic violence, a juvenile court could perhaps more easily make a finding of “threatened harm” than already-sustained past harm. Indeed, we have already recognized that “domestic violence can have adverse impacts on a child, even if that child is not the direct object of such violence, and even if the child does not directly witness the violence.” See In re C.C.W., 2019 UT App 34, ¶ 20, 440 P.3d 749. A parent victim’s failure to adequately protect a child from violence in the home could—if the violence was frequent and severe enough, and likely to continue in the future—lead to a supported finding that the parent, through inaction, has placed the child at an unreasonable risk of future developmental damage. It may even be possible, in appropriate cases, for such a finding to be made without expert testimony.
¶26 But in order to reach “abuse” through “threatened harm” in cases involving victims of domestic violence, a court must make specific and supported findings regarding each of the elements of the statutory definition. First, a court must specify that it is finding “abuse” by way of “threatened harm” (as opposed to through a finding of already-sustained “nonaccidental harm”). Second, the court must make a detailed finding of threatened harm on the facts of the case at hand, including specific identification of the “action or inaction” taken by the parent that leads to the “unreasonable risk” of future harm, as well as a satisfactory explanation of why the risk of future harm is “unreasonable.” Third, the court must specify the type of future harm it believes the child is at risk of sustaining, whether it be developmental injury or severe emotional damage, and should explain—with reference to specific evidence in the record—why the court believes the child is likely to sustain that particular type of harm.
¶27 In short, Utah’s statutory definitions of “neglect” and “abuse” are broad enough to allow courts, in appropriate cases, to find that a parent who is the victim of domestic violence has committed neglect or abuse by failing to protect his or her child from domestic violence in the home. But courts should exercise caution in so doing, and should reserve such findings for those cases in which the domestic violence is severe and sustained and in which the victim parent has taken specific actions or inactions aimed at prioritizing his or her relationship with the abuser over care and protection of the children.
¶28 In this case, I concur in the majority’s view that the court made appropriate findings of neglect with regard to Mother. I also concur in the majority’s decision not to reach the merits of the propriety of the court’s findings regarding abuse as to Mother, but I register serious reservations about the adequacy and sufficiency of those findings, and urge courts to exercise caution in making neglect and abuse determinations in situations like this one.
 A more fulsome description of the relevant facts and procedural history can be found in In re K.K., 2023 UT App 13, the case in which we adjudicated Father’s appeal. In this case, we adjudicate Mother’s appeal.
 The juvenile court did not take this evidence to mean that the Children had not been adversely affected by their parents’ inappropriate behavior. Rather, the inference drawn by the court was that the parental conflict had been so pervasive that the Children had become somewhat numb to it.
 We do not intend to suggest the State could never demonstrate that a parent who is the victim of domestic violence has “abused” his or her children, as that term is statutorily defined. We agree with the general sentiments expressed in the concurring opinion that such a path is possible but is more difficult than demonstrating “neglect” and would require specific evidence and findings. See infra ¶¶ 22–27.
 In fact, a review of the underlying docket in Mother’s case reveals that Mother and the Children have done so well in their treatment and services that the juvenile court released the Children from DCFS’s protective supervision and terminated the court’s jurisdiction last fall.
STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF K.K., S.K., AND S.K.,
PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.
STATE OF UTAH,
Filed February 9, 2023
Second District Juvenile Court, Farmington Department
The Honorable Sharon S. Sipes
Freyja Johnson, Emily Adams, and Hannah K.
Leavitt-Howell, Attorneys for Appellant
Sean D. Reyes, John M. Peterson, and Candace
Roach, Attorneys for Appellee
Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem
JUDGE MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and RYAN M. HARRIS
CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, Judge:
¶1 D.K. (Father) and B.K. (Mother) are the parents of triplets K.K., S.K., and S.K. (collectively, the Children). When the Children were six years old, the State filed a child welfare petition for custody and guardianship on the grounds that the Children were neglected and abused by Father and Mother. Following an adjudication hearing on the petition, the juvenile court issued an order adjudicating the Children as neglected and abused.
¶2 Father now appeals the juvenile court’s abuse adjudication, arguing that the State failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that he abused the Children. We affirm.
¶3 In 2019, when the Children were four years old, the State filed a petition seeking protective supervision services based on allegations that Father and Mother had engaged in repeated acts of domestic violence in front of the Children. Thereafter, Father and Mother agreed to engage in services voluntarily, and the State eventually dismissed its petition.
¶4 Two years later, however, Father and Mother again engaged in a series of domestic violence incidents that involved law enforcement. In May 2021, Father called the police and told them that Mother had “beat him up.” When officers arrived on scene and talked to Father, he told them he and Mother were “fighting about money” and that Mother “swung to hit him but never touched him.” On June 10, officers were again dispatched to the family home on a “domestic” call because Father and Mother were “screaming at each other with the [C]hildren in the home.” When officers arrived, they could hear the screaming. Father was uncooperative with the officers, but he eventually left the home. However, Father returned to the home later that same night.
¶5 On June 22, Father and Mother were involved in an altercation that led the State to seek custody and guardianship of the Children. During this altercation, Father and Mother were arguing inside the home. Mother was sitting on the couch, and Father sat on top of her demanding that she give him the keys to the car. Father then “head butted” Mother and told her to get out of the home, which she did. Once Mother was outside, Father followed her and began punching her “with a closed fist on the side of her stomach.” Father proceeded to grab a large rock and chase Mother around the car, “acting like he was going to throw the rock at her.” The Children were outside of the home for the duration of the altercation and witnessed Father chasing Mother and hitting her. Several neighbors also witnessed the altercation and called the police. When officers arrived, Father was arrested and taken to jail.
¶6 After Father’s arrest, Mother completed a lethality assessment, an evaluation given to assess the level of danger an abused person faces, which resulted in a score of high risk. Mother did not seek a protective order for herself or for the Children during the eight days Father was in jail. However, due to the severity of the prior altercation, the district court entered a criminal no contact/protective order on July 1. The order prohibited Father from residing with Mother and the Children.
¶7 On July 8, a caseworker from the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) went to the home for an unannounced visit. During the visit, the caseworker found Father outside; Father reported that Mother was inside sleeping. Father allowed the caseworker to interview the Children. During the interview, the Children reported that Father and Mother “fight and yell” and “hurt each other’s bodies.” Father was subsequently arrested for violation of the criminal no contact/protective order. Thereafter, the caseworker attempted to talk to Mother, who had been inside sleeping, but Mother refused to speak with the caseworker.
¶8 Based on the foregoing, the State filed a petition for custody and guardianship of the Children on the grounds that they were neglected and abused based on Father and Mother engaging in domestic violence in the home. Following a shelter hearing, the juvenile court determined the Children should remain in Mother’s custody for the time being but ordered Mother and the Children to have “absolutely no contact” with Father and that Mother “immediately notify law enforcement” if Father appeared at the home.
¶9 Following a series of pretrial hearings, the matter proceeded to an adjudication trial in December 2021. At trial, the State presented the testimony of six witnesses: Mother, Father, two neighbors who had witnessed the June 22 altercation, and two police officers who had responded to the neighbors’ 911 calls regarding the June 22 altercation.
¶10 According to the neighbors, Father and Mother were arguing about car keys. As Father approached Mother, “she put her arms out to stop him . . . and he slapped her hands aside.” Father then began punching Mother “haymaker style” to her side and stomach. The punching continued “for a minute or two,” and Father connected “five to ten” times. After the punching stopped, Father chased Mother around the front yard, “throwing rocks” and “bikes and other toys” in the direction of Mother, although the neighbors did not see any of the objects hit Mother.
¶11 The neighbors testified that during the altercation, two of the Children were in the front yard “standing behind [Mother]” and “clinging” to her. Mother was positioned between Father and the two children, acting as a “buffer” between them. One neighbor opined that he did not “believe any [of Father’s] aggression was towards the children,” and that “at no point did [he] think [the two children] were in any sort of danger.” However, the two children were outside the entire time, “seeing everything.”
¶12 In addition, one neighbor testified that she had witnessed Father and Mother “screaming” at each other multiple times in the presence of the Children prior to the June 22 altercation. Moreover, the neighbor had witnessed Father yelling at the Children twice and had observed that the Children “are terrified and trying to do whatever [Father] says to not be in trouble.”
¶13 The responding officers testified next. One officer testified that after arriving at the scene on June 22, he interviewed Mother, who told him that she had been arguing with Father over car keys. During the argument, Father “sat down on her” to keep her from leaving, headbutted her in the forehead, and “punched her in the back of the leg.” After Mother jumped out the window to the front yard, Father followed her and the two continued arguing. Father chased Mother around a vehicle parked in the front yard; once he caught her, he began “punching her in the side underneath her arms with a closed fist.” Mother was able to break away, but Father chased her with a rock in his hands. Mother told the officer the Children were outside with her during the altercation.
¶14 The officer also interviewed Father about the altercation. Father said he was “upset” because Mother hid the car keys from him but that “nothing got physical.” Father told the officer he and Mother had argued and run around the vehicle in the front yard. Father indicated that he had picked up a rock and held it over his head, but he did not throw it, nor did he intend to.
¶15 Lastly, the officer testified regarding his observations of the Children. When the officer arrived at the scene, the Children were inside the house. The officer interviewed Mother while she was standing at the front door. During the interview, the officer saw “at least two” of the Children standing by the front door behind Mother and “one of the kids popped his head outside” and asked for stickers. Officer opined that the Children’s demeanor “seemed calm.” The Children seemed “a little upset that some toys were . . . strewn about the front yard,” but otherwise they did not seem “distraught or flustered” by the altercation.
¶16 Mother testified that the June 22 incident started when she refused to give Father the keys to the car. Mother explained that she could not remember all the details about the altercation because she has “trouble remembering things.” However, she did remember that the altercation began when Father headbutted her in the house. After the headbutt, Father and Mother went outside to the front yard. Although Mother did not remember whether Father hit her in the yard, she recalled that he “didn’t follow [her] around the yard,” that he picked up a basket and “threw it up in the air” but not “at” her, and that he “picked up a rock” but did not chase her while holding it. Mother maintained that the Children had not observed the altercation because they were downstairs inside the house with a roommate where they stayed until the officers arrived.
¶17 Mother also testified that the Children “were never present for full on arguments or yelling.” She explained that “as soon as any argument started,” her roommate would take the Children downstairs so they would not be able to hear the fighting. Although Mother did not believe the Children had been impacted by the fighting, she did believe the Children were aware that they were sent downstairs to avoid hearing any fighting.
¶18 Father testified last. When asked about the June 22 altercation he invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to testify because criminal charges were pending against him regarding that incident. But Father explained that “before” he and Mother would engage in any verbal arguments, the Children would go downstairs.
¶19 After considering all the evidence, the juvenile court issued an adjudication order. In the order the court found, among other things, that Father and Mother had engaged in numerous acts of domestic violence, some of which had occurred in the presence of the Children, including the one on June 22; that when Father and Mother fight they sometimes send the Children downstairs to wait with a roommate, which had occurred two or three times that year; that the Children are aware that they are sent downstairs because Father and Mother fight; that “[a]ccording to the [C]hildren, [Father] and [Mother] fight and yell and hurt each other’s bodies”; and that “[t]he [C]hildren have experienced domestic violence with enough frequency that they appear calm during incidents between their parents . . . even though the parents ‘fight a lot and hurt’ each other.”
¶20 As to Father, the court drew a number of adverse inferences based on his decision to invoke his constitutional right to silence when asked specific questions about the June 22 altercation. And as to Mother, the court found that she “is not concerned” about the Children witnessing her and Father fighting and that her “demeanor and testimony”—including her inability to recall much of what happened on June 22—“is in tune with her desire to protect [Father] rather than address the domestic violence that exists in her home.” Based on these findings, the court concluded that Father “failed to provide proper care necessary for the health, safety, morals and well-being of the children in that he has engaged in domestic violence with [Mother], and [both Father and Mother] failed to protect the [C]hildren from exposure to domestic violence in the home.” The court also concluded that “[Father] and [Mother’s] domestic violence in their home has harmed [the Children]” and, accordingly, adjudicated the Children as neglected and abused as to Father.
ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW
¶21 Father now appeals only the juvenile court’s abuse adjudication, arguing that the court’s ruling was in error because the State failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that he had harmed or threatened harm to the Children. “We apply differing standards of review to findings of fact, conclusions of law, and determinations of mixed questions of law and fact.” In re E.R., 2021 UT 36, ¶ 14, 496 P.3d 58. We review the juvenile court’s factual findings deferentially, reversing the court’s findings only if they are clearly erroneous. Id. ¶ 15. A finding is clearly erroneous when the court either “failed to consider all of the facts or reached a decision against the clear weight of the evidence.” Id. ¶ 32 (quotation simplified). However, the question of whether the juvenile court properly applied the governing law to the facts of the case presents “a law-like mixed question subject to nondeferential review.” In re A.B., 2022 UT 39, ¶ 27.
¶22 At an adjudication trial, the juvenile court must determine whether “the allegations contained in the abuse, neglect, or dependency petition are true” by “clear and convincing evidence.” Utah Code § 80-3-402(1). Clear and convincing evidence is an “intermediate standard of proof” that “implies something more than the usual requirement of a preponderance . . . of the evidence; and something less than proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” Essential Botanical Farms, LC v. Kay, 2011 UT 71, ¶¶ 21, 24, 270 P.3d 430 (quotation simplified). Put differently, this standard requires “the existence of facts that make a conclusion very highly probable.” Id. ¶ 24 (quotation simplified).
¶23 As relevant here, “abuse” is defined as the “nonaccidental harm of a child” or the “threatened harm of a child.” Utah Code § 80-1-102(1)(a)(i)(A), (B). Thus, “[t]o find abuse under Utah law, a court must find harm.” In re K.T., 2017 UT 44, ¶ 9, 424 P.3d 91. “Harm” includes “physical or developmental injury or damage” and “emotional damage that results in a serious impairment in the child’s growth, development, behavior, or psychological functioning.” Utah Code § 80-1-102(37)(a), (b). And “[t]hreatened harm” is defined as “actions, inactions, or credible verbal threats, indicating that the child is at an unreasonable risk of harm or neglect.” Id. § 80-1-102(92).
¶24 As applied to this case, to satisfy the clear and convincing standard, the State “needed to present evidence that would allow the [juvenile] court to conclude that it was very highly probable that the [C]hildren had been harmed.” See In re K.T., 2017 UT 44, ¶ 9 n.3 (quotation simplified). In reaching this conclusion the court may properly “infer harm” based on the evidence presented. Id. ¶ 14. However, the court may not “speculate” about the existence of harm absent clear and convincing evidence demonstrating the actions actually resulted in harm. Id. ¶¶ 14–17.
¶25 After considering the evidence presented during the adjudication trial, the juvenile court concluded the Children were abused because “[Father] and [Mother’s] domestic violence in their home has harmed [the Children].” Father argues the court’s conclusion was in error because the State failed to produce clear and convincing evidence that he physically harmed the Children or that the Children were developmentally harmed or emotionally damaged by observing Father assault Mother and Father and Mother argue. But even if we were to agree with Father that the State failed to present sufficient evidence that Father harmed the Children and were to agree that the juvenile court erred in adjudicating Father as abusing the Children, Father has not demonstrated that he was prejudiced by the alleged error. See In re N.M., 2018 UT App 141, ¶ 27, 427 P.3d 1239 (“An error is prejudicial only if a review of the record persuades the appellate court that without the error there was a reasonable likelihood of a more favorable result for the appellant.” (quotation simplified)); In re. J.B., 2002 UT App 268, ¶¶ 8–12, 53 P.3d 968 (affirming the termination of a father’s parental rights despite the juvenile court’s reliance on improper findings because such reliance did not result in “prejudicial error”). As noted above, the court adjudicated the Children as both neglected and abused, and Father appeals only the court’s abuse adjudication. Although Father is correct that “[a]buse and neglect are statutorily defined and given ‘distinct statuses’” and that “[u]nder the statutory definitions . . . abuse requires a higher level of improper conduct from a parent than neglect,” that distinction has no bearing in this case—and Father has not shown that it is likely to have any bearing in the future—because the court’s adjudications of neglect and abuse were based on the same underlying incidents of domestic violence.
¶26 When a juvenile court adjudicates a child as either neglected or abused, that determination brings the child within the jurisdiction of the court and allows the court to enter dispositional orders. See Utah Code § 80-3-402. The dispositions available to the court do not hinge on whether the child was adjudicated as neglected or abused. Instead, dispositions are tied to the factual findings about what is going on in the case and are implemented based on concern for the child’s health and safety and remedying the underlying issues resulting in the adjudication. See id. § 80-3-405.
¶27 Here, the juvenile court’s disposition is governed by the need to address Father’s commission of domestic violence in the presence of the Children and the risk such behavior will continue. Services to address this behavior will not differ whether the underlying adjudication is labeled as neglect or abuse because the court’s neglect determination was based on the same underlying facts as the abuse determination: here, Father’s failure to protect and to provide proper care for the Children as a result of his engaging in acts of domestic violence.
¶28 Father cites this court’s decision in In re C.M.R., 2020 UT App 114, 473 P.3d 184, for the proposition that Father was harmed by the court’s abuse adjudication, asserting that the findings of abuse in the adjudication order “will form the basis for whether [Father] is able to comply with the requirements of [any service plan] going forward and whether [Father] can be reunited with the Children.” See id. ¶ 28. But unlike the mother in In re C.M.R., who was potentially prejudiced by entering admissions to allegations regarding a specific additional incident of abuse at the adjudication hearing, Father’s abuse adjudication was based on the exact same underlying set of facts as his neglect adjudication. In this case, Father has not challenged the juvenile court’s neglect adjudication, nor has he challenged the court’s underlying factual findings—which support both the neglect and the abuse adjudications—that he assaulted Mother in the presence of the Children and repeatedly engaged in heated verbal arguments with her. Those underlying actions, which form the foundation for both adjudications, are the reason why he “can only have supervised visitation with [the] Children” and why “[h]e is not allowed in the home,” and not because the court adjudicated the Children as abused in addition to neglected. Because Father has not challenged the neglect adjudication or demonstrated how the ramifications flowing from this unchallenged adjudication would be less severe than those resulting from an abuse adjudication, he has not demonstrated that he has sustained any prejudice as a result of the court’s abuse adjudication. See In re G.B., 2022 UT App 98, ¶ 34, 516 P.3d 781 (declining to reach the merits of a challenge to an abuse adjudication where the parent did not challenge a neglect adjudication based on the same facts because the parent did not demonstrate that the abuse adjudication carried “some collateral consequences . . . that [did] not follow from a neglect determination”).
¶29 On appeal, Father does not challenge the juvenile court’s findings that he committed domestic violence in the presence of the Children or that those actions resulted in him neglecting the Children by failing to provide them proper care and to protect them from exposure to domestic violence. Under these circumstances, even if the juvenile court erred in its separate abuse adjudication—a conclusion we stop short of reaching—Father has not demonstrated he was prejudiced by any such error because he has not challenged the court’s neglect adjudication or the facts underlying it, which are the same facts underlying the court’s abuse adjudication, and any court-ordered disposition will be based upon Father’s own acts and not the adjudication of abuse.
 In his reply brief Father argues he was harmed by the juvenile court’s abuse adjudication because “an abuse adjudication goes into a central abuse registry system managed by DCFS” and “the information in that registry is used for licensing purposes and prevents individuals who have been adjudicated of abuse from holding licenses in certain professions.” But this argument misses the mark. While Father correctly notes that the abuse registry system—called the Management Information System (the MIS)— can be accessed by the State for all future cases involving Father, see Utah Code § 80-2-1001, he conflates the MIS with a “sub-part” of the MIS called the Licensing Information System (the LIS), see id. § 80-2-1002(1)(a)(i). Information on the MIS includes facts relevant to each child welfare case, whereas the LIS is maintained for “licensing purposes.” See id. § 80-2-1002(1)(a)(i). Although an individual on the LIS may be prohibited from, among other things, holding licenses in certain professions, see id. § 80-2-708(2)(a)(v), inclusion on the LIS is not automatic in every child welfare case. Rather, the LIS identifies only individuals found to have committed a “severe type of child abuse or neglect.” See id. § 80-2-708(1). Because the court did not adjudicate Father as severely abusing the Children, inclusion on the LIS does not automatically follow, and Father has not asserted that he has been—or is likely to be—included therein. Accordingly, Father has not demonstrated that, in this case, he has sustained any prejudice as a result of the juvenile court’s abuse determination.
 Indeed, in the juvenile court’s dispositional order, entered approximately two months after the adjudication order, Father’s primary responsibility is to “complete a domestic violence/mental health assessment . . . and follow any and all of the recommendations made.”
A.H., J.H., J.H., L.H., N.H., S.H., AND E.H., PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.
N.J.H. AND S.H., Appellants, v. STATE OF UTAH, Appellee.
Nos. 20210353-CA and
Filed October 6, 2022
Fourth District Juvenile Court, Provo Department
The Honorable Suchada P. Bazzelle No. 1145453
Alexandra Mareschal, Attorney for Appellant N.J.H.
Kirstin H. Norman, Attorney for Appellant S.H.
Sean D. Reyes, Carol L.C. Verdoia, and John M.
Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee
Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem
JUDGE RYA N M. HARRIS authored this Opinion, in which
JUDGE DAVID N. MORTENSEN and SENIOR JUDGE KATE APPLEBY concurred.
¶1 After a bench trial, the juvenile court terminated S.H.’s (Mother) and N.J.H.’s (Father) (collectively, Parents) parental rights regarding the two youngest of their seven children: A.H. and L.H. (the Subject Children). The court did not terminate Parents’ rights regarding their other five children; it accepted the parties’ stipulation that the best interest of those children would be served by placing them in a guardianship with relatives. But despite those same relatives being willing to take and care for (by either adoption or guardianship) the Subject Children as well, the court determined that the Subject Children’s best interest would be served by termination of Parents’ rights and adoption by their foster parents. In separate appeals that we consider together in this opinion, Parents challenge that decision, asserting that termination of their rights was neither strictly necessary nor in the best interest of the Subject Children. We agree and reverse.
¶2 Mother and Father are the parents of seven children (the Children), each born approximately two years apart. The eldest (E.H.) was born in 2005, and the two youngest (A.H. and L.H.) were born in February 2015 and December 2016, respectively. Mother is the biological parent of all seven of the Children. Father is the biological parent of the six youngest Children and the legal parent of all of them; he adopted E.H. when E.H. was an infant. Mother and Father met in New Mexico, which is where the parents of E.H.’s biological father (Grandparents) live. Parents moved to Utah, with the Children then born, in 2007.
¶3 Over the years, Grandparents developed a close relationship not only with E.H.—their biological grandson—but with the other Children as well. They made trips to Utah on at least an annual basis during which they spent time with the Children, and they engaged in regular telephonic contact as well. After L.H. was born in 2016, he required a lengthy stay in the newborn intensive care unit, and Grandmother took three weeks off from her job as a nurse to come to Utah and help.
¶4 In June 2017, the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) filed a petition for protective supervision, asserting that Father had physically abused N.H., one of the older sons, and that L.H.—who was then just a few months old—was malnourished and failing to thrive. DCFS’s plan, at that point, was to leave the Children in the home and provide supportive services. After adjudicating N.H. abused as to Father and the other Children neglected as to Father, the juvenile court granted DCFS’s requested relief and ordered that Father have only supervised contact with the Children. For the time being, the Children remained in the home under Mother’s care.
¶5 In August 2017, however, DCFS filed a petition seeking custody of the Children, citing not only the issues raised in its previous petition but also a more recent incident involving Mother and L.H. In response to a report of reckless driving, police found Mother slumped over the steering wheel of her parked car with L.H. in the backseat, and a search of the vehicle turned up several prescription medications in a container not intended for prescriptions, as well as a red straw with “white powder” inside it. Police arrested Mother on suspicion of, among other things, impaired driving; she was later able to provide prescriptions for all the medications found in the car.
¶6 After a hearing, the court granted DCFS’s requested relief and placed the Children in the temporary custody of DCFS. The Children were removed from Mother’s care later that same day and, when caseworkers went to the home to effectuate the court’s order, they observed Mother “wobbling back and forth” and having “a hard time keeping her eyes open.” Initially, DCFS caseworkers—with Mother’s agreement—arranged a safety plan in which Mother would leave the home and the Children would stay there, in their familiar environment, cared for by Mother’s brother. But Mother knowingly failed to follow that plan, and returned to the home without permission two days later. As a result of Mother’s actions, DCFS removed the Children from the home and placed them in a group home for children.
¶7 But that placement was temporary, and DCFS eventually needed to move the Children to foster care placements. But because no available foster care placement could accommodate all seven Children, DCFS found it necessary to split the Children up into three different placements. The oldest two were placed in one foster home, the next three in a second, and the Subject Children in a third. Three months later, the oldest two were placed with a paternal aunt. For almost a year, the seven Children were separated into these three groups, and the different groups saw each other only during Parents’ supervised parent-time; they were sometimes permitted to call each other, but DCFS did not facilitate any in-person sibling visitation during this period.
¶8 At later hearings, the juvenile court adjudicated the children neglected as to Mother. The court noted L.H.’s “failure to thrive” and the incident involving the parked car, as well as Mother’s criminal history—which involved both drug crimes and retail theft—and her “history of mental health issues that [could] place the [C]hildren at risk of harm.” Despite these concerns, however, the goal remained reunification and, over the ensuing months, Parents complied with the court’s direction well enough that, by July 2018, the family was able to reunify in the home. For the next nine months, the family was together—for the most part—and doing reasonably well, and DCFS anticipated that it might be able to close the case in the spring of 2019. But three events occurred in early 2019 that prompted DCFS to reconsider.
¶9 First, in March 2019, Father injured two of the older Children, and DCFS made a supported finding of physical abuse by Father. In the wake of this incident, and in an effort to avoid a second removal of the Children from the home, Father agreed to move out and to have only supervised visits with the Children. When caseworkers visited the home following Father’s departure, they became concerned about Mother’s ability to care for the Children on her own; in particular, caseworkers observed several incidents in which Mother left the younger Children unattended.
¶10 Second, in late April 2019, police were called to the home at 1:54 a.m. and found L.H., then just two years old, alone in the family car, which was parked in front of the house. Mother explained that she had been out shopping, gotten home late, and then taken a phone call while L.H. was still out in the car asleep.
¶11 Third, in early May 2019, Mother had an encounter with police while in her car at a fast-food restaurant. Officers observed Mother responding quietly and slowly to questions, and they discovered in the car a plastic bag and an unlabeled prescription bottle containing pills later identified as controlled substances. In addition, officers found a razor blade with white residue and a rolled-up dollar bill in the vehicle, evidence that suggested Mother had been misusing the drugs. Mother passed a field sobriety test, and officers later determined that she had valid prescriptions for the pills.
¶12 Following these incidents, DCFS filed a new petition, again seeking to remove the Children from the home and place them in state custody. The juvenile court again adjudicated the Children abused and neglected as to each Parent, and again placed them into the custody of DCFS. The Children were extremely emotional when they learned of the court’s order removing them from the home for a second time; in fact, officials even had to use physical force to restrain two of the older sons when the time came to take them into custody. This time, the seven Children were sent to four placements: one of the older sons was placed in a short-term behavioral health facility because of his aggressive behavior during the removal; two of the older sons were placed together; and the two next-oldest sons and the Subject Children were returned to their respective previous foster placements. Just a few weeks later, six of the Children—all but the oldest—were placed together with a single foster family in a different county, but this short reunion lasted only about two months.
¶13 In August 2019, with the school year approaching, Parents requested that the Children be returned to Utah County, a request that again required the Children to be split up. This time, the two oldest were placed together; the next three were placed together in a new placement; and the Subject Children were—for the first time—placed with the family (the Foster Family) who now wishes to adopt them. The Subject Children bonded very quickly with Foster Family, calling the parents “mom and dad” within just a few weeks of being placed with them. Still, the primary goal remained reunification, and the court ordered additional reunification services. However, DCFS still did not facilitate any sibling visitation, but “left that mostly up to [the] foster parents.” Although the foster families initially managed “a few meet-ups on their own,” these efforts diminished over time, despite the absence of any indication that the Children—including the Subject Children—did not want to see each other.
¶14 At a court hearing in July 2019, shortly after the second removal, Mother’s attorney requested that Grandparents—who were and remain willing to take all seven of the Children—be considered as a possible placement. The court was open to this suggestion but, because Grandparents reside in New Mexico, the court ordered DCFS to “initiate an ICPC as to” Grandparents. But DCFS delayed acting upon the court’s order for nearly four months, until late October 2019. DCFS attributed the delay, in part, to inadvertence related to a caseworker switch that was occurring right then, but the new caseworker later testified that her “understanding” of the situation was that DCFS “made a decision not to proceed” with the ICPC process “because reunification services were still being offered.” Owing at least in part to the four-month delay in getting it started, the ICPC report was still not completed by the beginning of the eventual termination trial in October 2020. On the third day of trial, a DCFS witness explained that New Mexico had just finished its end of the process and had given its “approval” the day before, and that DCFS had filled out its final form the night before.
¶15 The ICPC report, when it was finally completed, raised no concerns with regard to Grandparents, and concluded that their home would be an appropriate placement for the Children. Indeed, one of the DCFS caseworkers testified at trial that she had “no concerns directly about [Grandparents] and their ability to be a safe home.” But none of the Children were actually placed with Grandparents until October 2020, due in large part to the delays associated with completion of the ICPC report.
¶16 For several months following the second removal of the Children from the home, the primary permanency goal remained reunification, and DCFS continued to provide reunification services to the family. But in the fall of 2019, after yet another substance use incident involving Mother, DCFS became dissatisfied with Parents’ progress and asked the court to change the primary permanency goal. At a hearing held at the end of October 2019, the court agreed, terminated reunification services, and changed the primary permanency goal to adoption with a concurrent goal of permanent custody and guardianship. A few weeks later, the State filed a petition seeking the termination of Parents’ rights with regard to all seven Children.
¶17 The court originally scheduled the termination trial to occur at the end of February 2020, but the State requested a continuance because it was working on placing the Children with Grandparents, was waiting for the ICPC report, and wanted “to ensure [that] the Grandparents kn[ew] what they [were] getting into.” The court granted the State’s requested continuance and rescheduled the trial for the end of March 2020. On March 12— the day before all “non-essential” court hearings in Utah were postponed by administrative order due to the emerging COVID19 pandemic—all parties filed a stipulated motion asking that the trial be postponed yet again because there was “an ICPC request pending approval” and it was “highly anticipated by all parties that the results of the ICPC [would] resolve all issues pending before the Court.” The court granted the stipulated motion and continued the trial, but did so without date because the termination trial was deemed “to be a non-essential hearing.” Eventually, after the COVID-related administrative order was amended to allow some non-essential hearings to go forward, the court rescheduled the trial for October 2020, to take place via videoconference.
¶18 In the meantime, despite the fact that the ICPC report was not yet completed, the five oldest Children visited Grandparents in New Mexico for several weeks during the summer of 2020. DCFS did not allow the Subject Children to participate in that visit, not based on any concern about Grandparents’ ability to provide appropriate care for them, but because caseworkers believed that such a lengthy visit away from Foster Family would be “scary and upsetting” to the Subject Children.
¶19 During this time, the parties and their attorneys were preparing for trial. From the beginning of the case, Parents had each been provided with a court-appointed lawyer (collectively, Appointed Counsel) to represent them. But toward the end of July 2020, Parents asked a private lawyer (Private Counsel) to represent them at trial. Private Counsel agreed, and Parents paid him a retainer. Parents informed Private Counsel of upcoming pretrial disclosure deadlines, and even gave him a list of fifteen witnesses Parents wanted to call at trial; Private Counsel told them that he would file the appropriate documents and that they did not need to contact their Appointed Counsel. Eventually, Parents discovered that no pretrial disclosures had been made and no motions for extensions of the deadlines had been filed.
¶20 The trial was finally held in October 2020. The first day was spent solely trying to clear up confusion about who was representing Parents. Appointed Counsel appeared for trial, but they indicated that they were unprepared to proceed given the lack of communication from Parents over the weeks leading up to trial. Private Counsel appeared as well, even though he had not filed a notice of appearance, and requested that the trial be continued. The court—not knowing the full picture of what had happened behind the scenes with Parents’ attempts to change counsel—chastised Private Counsel for the “very, very late notice and request” and denied the continuance, expressing concern that eleven months had already passed since the trial had originally been set. The court then recessed for the day to allow the parties to confer and negotiate about possible permanency options short of termination of Parents’ rights.
¶21 Those negotiations bore fruit, at least in part. With Private Counsel assisting Parents, the parties were able to reach a stipulation that it was in the best interest of the oldest five Children to be placed with Grandparents under an order of permanent custody and guardianship. But the parties were unable to reach a similar stipulation with regard to the Subject Children, and therefore the trial went forward as to them. At that point, Private Counsel withdrew from representing Parents, leaving Appointed Counsel to handle the trial even though they had not—given the lack of communication with Parents—made many of the usual preparations for a trial.
¶22 In support of its case, the State presented testimony from four DCFS caseworkers, two therapists, Mother’s former and current probation officers, and the mother from the Foster Family (Foster Mother). Foster Mother testified that the Subject Children had developed a strong bond with Foster Family and “love[d] spending time with [them].” She also stated that the Subject Children refer to her three children as “their brother and sisters,” that “[n]obody is ever left out amongst the kids,” and that L.H. “believes he is part of [their] family” and “has said, on multiple occasions, that he’s already adopted.” The two therapists testified that the Subject Children did indeed have a strong bond with Foster Family; one of them stated that it was “the most secure attachment [she had] ever witnessed . . . between a foster parent and a foster child,” and offered her view that it would be “hugely devastating” for them if they were removed from Foster Family.
¶23 Several of the caseworkers testified about the strength of the bond between the Subject Children and their older siblings, and they painted a picture in which those bonds were originally very strong but had begun to weaken over time as the Subject Children spent less time with their siblings and became more attached to Foster Family. One of the first caseworkers to work with the family testified that the bonds had been strong among all the Children, including the Subject Children. Another testified about how emotional the older children were upon learning that they were to be removed from the home a second time and again separated from most of their siblings. But another caseworker— who had been assigned to the family in 2019—testified that the Subject Children’s bond to their older siblings was weakening as they became more attached to Foster Family. In general, the caseworkers voiced concerns about separating siblings, offering their view that ordinarily “children should stay together” and that placing siblings together “is understood under most circumstances . . . to be beneficial to the kids.”
¶24 Parents were prohibited from introducing many of their witnesses because they had failed to make their required pretrial disclosures. In particular, Parents were prepared to call one of the Subject Children’s former foster parents as well as some of the older Children, who would each have apparently testified that the bonds between the Subject Children and their siblings had been, and still remained, very strong. But the court refused to allow Parents to call these witnesses because they had not been timely disclosed. The court did, however, allow Parents to offer testimony of their own, and to call Grandparents to testify.
¶25 For their part, Parents testified about how closely bonded the Children had been before DCFS became involved. Father testified that the older siblings had expressed a desire to all be together and noted that, if they were placed with Grandparents, the Subject Children would not only be with siblings, but also with cousins, and would have a large network of familial support. Mother testified that she, too, wanted the Children to be kept together and stated that she knew she was “not what [the Children] deserve” “right now,” but offered her view that, at some point in the future, after she has “[gotten] [her]self together,” she “willbe what’s best for them.”
¶26 Grandfather testified that he and Grandmother told DCFS, right from the start, that they were willing to take all seven children. He explained that they were accustomed to large families, having raised eight children of their own; he noted that two of those children lived nearby, meaning that the Children, if they lived with him, would have aunts, uncles, and cousins in the vicinity. Grandfather testified that he and Grandmother had renovated their house to accommodate all seven children and that they were able, financially and otherwise, to take on the responsibility. He acknowledged that raising seven children was not how he had originally envisioned spending his retirement years, but he offered his view that “no matter what else I could be doing in the next ten or twenty years,” what mattered most to him was “that [he] could be doing something to make a difference in the lives of these kids.” Grandmother testified that she had bonded with A.H. during her three-week stay with the family after L.H. was born, and she offered her view that it had been difficult to get Foster Mother to facilitate telephonic or virtual visits between the older siblings and the Subject Children during the older siblings’ summer 2020 visit to New Mexico.
¶27 After trial, the court took the matter under advisement for six months, issuing a written decision in May 2021. In that ruling, the court terminated Parents’ rights as to A.H. and L.H. It found sufficient statutory grounds for termination of Parents’ parental rights, including Father’s physical abuse of some of the older sons, Parents’ neglect of L.H. when he was malnourished and failing to thrive as an infant, and neglect of the Children for failing to protect them from Mother’s substance use. Similarly, the court found that Mother had neglected the Children by failing to properly feed L.H., insufficiently supervising the Subject Children, and improperly using drugs. Moreover, the court found that Mother’s “substance abuse and criminal behavior” rendered her unfit as a parent.
¶28 The court next found that DCFS had made “reasonable efforts towards the permanency goal of reunification.” It noted that DCFS has been involved with the family since April 2017 and, “during the arc of the case, circumstances changed frequently and there were many setbacks in the attempts to reunify the children with the parents.” The court concluded that “reunification efforts were not successful through no fault of DCFS.”
¶29 Finally, as to best interest, the court determined—in keeping with the parties’ stipulation—that, with regard to the oldest five siblings, “a permanent custody and guardianship arrangement” with Grandparents “would serve their best interests as well as, or better than, an adoption would.” But the court saw it differently when it came to the Subject Children, concluding that their best interest would be best served by the facilitation of an adoption by Foster Family, and that termination of Parents’ rights was strictly necessary to advance that interest. The court reached that decision even though it meant permanently separating the Children, and even though the court acknowledged that Grandparents were “certainly appropriate caregivers.” The court offered several reasons for its decision. First, it noted that the Subject Children were very young—A.H. was two-and-a-half years old, and L.H. was eight months old, when they were first removed from the family home—and that, as a result, they “had a very short time to be with their older siblings.” Second, the court concluded that the strength of the bond between the Subject Children and their siblings was not particularly strong, opining that the Subject Children “have little beyond a biological connection” to their siblings. In this vein, the court downplayed any positive effects that might come from keeping the Children together, describing the older siblings as “a large and unruly group” that “cannot be depended upon to protect” the Subject Children. Third, the court discussed the unquestionably strong bond that the Subject Children had formed with Foster Family. Fourth, the court concluded that disruption of the Subject Children’s “placement at this time would be very detrimental” and would “put them at unnecessary risk for future emotional and mental health issues.” Fifth, the court expressed concern that, absent termination, Parents would retain some level of parental rights and might attempt “to regain custody of the [C]hildren in the future,” an eventuality the court believed would “pose a risk to” the Subject Children. And finally, the court emphasized the importance of stability, stating that “the [Subject Children] and [Foster Family] deserve, and indeed need, the highest level of legal protection available, which would be achieved through adoption.” For these reasons, the juvenile court terminated Parents’ rights with regard to the Subject Children.
ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW
¶30 Parents now appeal the juvenile court’s order terminating their parental rights, but their appeal is narrowly focused. Parents do not challenge the juvenile court’s determination that statutory grounds exist for terminating their parental rights. However, Parents do challenge the court’s determination that termination of their parental rights was strictly necessary and in the best interest of the Subject Children. We review a lower court’s “best interest” determination deferentially, and we will overturn it “only if it either failed to consider all of the facts or considered all of the facts and its decision was nonetheless against the clear weight of the evidence.” In re E.R., 2021 UT 36, ¶¶ 22, 31, 496 P.3d 58 (quotation simplified). But “such deference is not absolute.” Id. ¶ 32. We do not afford “a high degree of deference” to such determinations; rather, we simply apply “the same level of deference given to all lower court findings of fact and ‘fact-like’ determinations of mixed questions.” Id. ¶¶ 29–30. In addition, our deference must be guided by the relevant evidentiary standard applicable in termination of parental rights cases: the “clear and convincing” evidence standard. SeeIn re G.D., 2021 UT 19, ¶ 73, 491 P.3d 867. “Although we defer to juvenile courts’ [best-interest] determinations, in reviewing their conclusions we do so with an exacting focus on the proper evidentiary standard,” and “we will not only consider whether any relevant facts have been left out but assess whether the juvenile court’s determination that the ‘clear and convincing’ standard had been met goes against the clear weight of the evidence.” Id.
¶31 The right of parents to raise their children is one of the most important rights any person enjoys, and that right is among the fundamental rights clearly protected by our federal and state constitutions. SeeTroxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57, 65–66 (2000) (stating that “the interest of parents in the care, custody, and control of their children” is “perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests” the court recognizes); see alsoIn re J.P., 648 P.2d 1364, 1372 (Utah 1982) (“A parent has a fundamental right, protected by the Constitution, to sustain his relationship with his child.” (quotation simplified)). Our legislature has expressed similar sentiments, declaring that “[u]nder both the United States Constitution and the constitution of this state, a parent possesses a fundamental liberty interest in the care, custody, and management of the parent’s child,” see Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-104(1) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022), and that this interest “does not cease to exist simply because . . . a parent may fail to be a model parent,” id. § 80-4-104(4)(a)(i).
¶32 The “termination” of these fundamental “family ties . . . may only be done for compelling reasons.” Seeid. § 80-4-104(1). Under our law, a parent’s rights are subject to termination only if both parts of a two-part test are satisfied. First, a court must find that one or more statutory grounds for termination are present; these include such things as abandonment, abuse, or neglect. See id. § 80-4-301(1). Second, a court must find that termination of the parent’s rights is in the best interest of the children. See In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶¶ 19–20, 472 P.3d 827. The party seeking termination of a parent’s rights bears the burden of proof on both parts of this test. SeeIn re G.D., 2021 UT 19, ¶ 43, 491 P.3d 867 (stating that “petitioners in termination proceedings must prove termination is warranted”). And that party must make this required showing “by clear and convincing evidence.” Id.; see alsoSantosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745, 769–70 (1982) (concluding that the U.S. Constitution requires application of a “clear and convincing evidence” standard in parental termination proceedings).
¶33 As noted, Parents do not challenge the juvenile court’s determination that statutory grounds for termination exist in this case. Their challenge is limited to the second part of the test: whether termination of their rights is, under the circumstances presented here, in the best interest of the Subject Children.
¶34 “The best interest of the child has always been a paramount or ‘polar star’ principle in cases involving termination of parental rights,” although it is not “the sole criterion.” In re J.P., 648 P.2d at 1368. The assessment of what is in a child’s best interest is, by definition, “a wide-ranging inquiry that asks a court to weigh the entirety of the circumstances” surrounding a child’s situation, including “the physical, intellectual, social, moral, and educational training and general welfare and happiness of the child.” SeeIn re J.M., 2020 UT App 52, ¶¶ 35, 37, 463 P.3d 66 (quotation simplified). Because children inhabit dynamic environments in which their “needs and circumstances” are “constantly evolving,” “the best-interest inquiry is to be undertaken in a present-tense fashion,” as of the date of the trial or hearing held to decide the question. SeeIn re Z.C.W., 2021 UT App 98, ¶¶ 12–13, 500 P.3d 94 (quotation simplified).
¶35 Our legislature has provided two related pieces of important guidance on the best-interest question. First, it has expressed a strong preference for families to remain together, establishing something akin to a presumption that a child’s best interest will “usually” be served by remaining with the child’s parents:
It is in the best interest and welfare of a child to be raised under the care and supervision of the child’s natural parents. A child’s need for a normal family life in a permanent home, and for positive, nurturing family relationships is usually best met by the child’s natural parents.
Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-104(8). In that same statutory section, our legislature also emphasized that, “[w]herever possible, family life should be strengthened and preserved.” Seeid. § 80-4-104(12). And the “family” includes the child’s parents as well as the child’s siblings; indeed, in the related child custody context, our legislature has specifically identified “the relative benefit of keeping siblings together” as a factor that the court “may consider” when evaluating “the best interest of the child.” Seeid. § 30-3-10(2)(o) (LexisNexis 2019).
¶36 Second, our legislature has mandated that termination of parental rights is permissible only when such termination is “strictly necessary.” Seeid. § 80-4-301(1). Our supreme court has interpreted this statutory requirement to mean that “termination must be strictly necessary to promote the child’s best interest.” SeeIn re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 60. Indeed, a court’s inquiry into the strict necessity of termination should take place as part of the bestinterest inquiry that comprises the second part of the termination test. Seeid. ¶ 76 (stating that, “as part of [the best-interest inquiry], a court must specifically address whether termination is strictly necessary to promote the child’s welfare and best interest”).
¶37 In assessing whether termination is strictly necessary to promote a child’s best interest, courts “shall consider” whether “sufficient efforts were dedicated to reunification” of the family, and whether “the efforts to place the child with kin who have, or are willing to come forward to care for the child, were given due weight.” See Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-104(12)(b). Indeed,
this part of the inquiry also requires courts to explore whether other feasible options exist that could address the specific problems or issues facing the family, short of imposing the ultimate remedy of terminating the parent’s rights. In some cases, alternatives will be few and unsatisfactory, and termination of the parent’s rights will be the option that is in the child’s best interest. But in other cases, courts should consider whether other less permanent arrangements might serve the child’s needs just as well.
In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 67 (quotation simplified). Courts that order termination of parental rights without appropriately exploring “feasible alternatives to termination” have not properly applied the second part of the two-part termination test. See, e.g., In re H.F., 2019 UT App 204, ¶ 17, 455 P.3d 1098 (reversing and remanding a juvenile court’s termination order because, among other things, “the court’s determination that termination was strictly necessary was not supported by an appropriate exploration of feasible alternatives to termination”).
¶38 In this case, Parents challenge the juvenile court’s best interest determination, including its subsidiary conclusion that termination of their rights was strictly necessary to promote the best interest of the Subject Children. As discussed herein, we find merit in Parents’ challenge. We recognize that we are reviewing the juvenile court’s determinations deferentially, and we do not lightly reverse a court’s best-interest determination. But the facts of this case simply do not amount to strict necessity, and therefore the best-interest requirement is not met. Stated another way, the evidence presented at trial did not constitute clear and convincing evidence that termination of Parents’ rights to the Subject Children would be in the best interest of those children. Under the specific circumstances of this case, the juvenile court’s determination was against the clear weight of the evidence, and on that basis we reverse.
¶39 In its written decision, the juvenile court set forth several reasons for its conclusion that termination of Parents’ rights was strictly necessary to promote the Subject Children’s best interest. We discuss those reasons, in turn. Although the topics that the juvenile court focused on are certainly appropriate topics to consider when examining best interest, we conclude that the facts underlying those topics—in this case—do not support a determination that termination was strictly necessary to promote the best interest of the Subject Children.
¶40 The court began its best-interest examination by discussing the ages of the Subject Children and, relatedly, the fact that the bonds between the Subject Children and their siblings had deteriorated. The Subject Children are, as noted, the youngest of the seven Children and were very young—A.H. was two-and-ahalf years old, and L.H. was eight months old—when they were first removed from the family home. The juvenile court noted that, as a result, they “did not have the opportunity to live with their parents for as long as their older siblings” and “had a very short time to be with their older siblings.” These facts are unquestionably true, and one of the consequences of these facts is that the Subject Children had less-developed bonds with Parents and with their siblings than the other Children did. But this will almost always be true when children are removed from their homes as newborns or toddlers, and courts must be careful not to overemphasize the significance of the deterioration of familial bonds—particularly sibling bonds—when that deterioration is the result of court-ordered removal from the home at an early age. See, e.g., In re N.M., 186 A.3d 998, 1014 n.30 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2018) (vacating an order terminating parental rights in part because the lower court’s decisions during the case had been “designed to affect the bond between” the parents and the child “so that termination would be the natural outcome of the proceedings”).
¶41 The facts of this case present an interesting case study. The next-oldest of the Children was born in April 2013, and is less than two years older than A.H. He was only four years old at the time of the first removal, and yet the juvenile court determined that it would not be in his best interest for Parents’ rights to be terminated. Many of the differences—especially in terms of the strength of the sibling bonds—between the Subject Children’s situation and that of their barely-older brother are largely the result of decisions made by DCFS and the court during the pendency of these proceedings. In a situation like this, a court must be careful not to ascribe too much weight to circumstances that are of the court’s own making.
¶42 We do not doubt the juvenile court’s finding that, by the time of trial, the bonds between the Subject Children and the other Children were not as strong as the bonds between the five oldest Children. We take at face value the court’s statement that the Subject Children, at the time of trial, had “little beyond a biological connection” to their older siblings. But even the biological connection between siblings matters. The connection between siblings is, for many people, the longest-lasting connection they will have in life. Indeed, “the importance of sibling relationships is well recognized by . . . courts and social science scholars,” because “a sibling relationship can be an independent emotionally supporting factor for children in ways quite distinctive from other relationships, and there are benefits and experiences that a child reaps from a relationship with his or her brother(s) or sister(s) which truly cannot be derived from any other.” In re D.C., 4 A.3d 1004, 1012 (N.J. 2010) (quotation simplified); see also Aaron Edward Brown, He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother: The Need for a Statutory Enabling of Sibling Visitation, 27 B.U. Pub. Int. L.J. 1, 5 (2018) (noting that “[t]oday’s children are more likely to grow up with a sibling than a father,” and that “[t]he sibling relationship is generally regarded to be the longest relationship a person will have because the relationship will typically last longer than a relationship with a parent or spouse”). Such bonds are often especially important “to children who experience chaotic circumstances” like abuse or neglect, because “in such circumstances, they learn very early to depend on and cooperate with each other to cope with their common problems.” In re D.C., 4 A.3d at 1013 (quotation simplified); see alsoIn re Welfare of Child of G.R., No. A17-0995, 2017 WL 5661606, at *5 (Minn. Ct. App. Nov. 27, 2017) (“The sibling relationship is especially important for a young child with an unstable family structure as these siblings can provide secure emotional attachment, nurturing, and solace.”). Indeed, trial testimony from the DCFS caseworkers mirrored these sentiments, with the caseworkers stating that “children should stay together” and that placing siblings together “is understood under most circumstances . . . to be beneficial to the kids.”
¶43 And there is nothing in the record before us that indicates significant trouble among the sibling ranks. To the contrary, by all accounts the Children are quite loyal to one another, as best exemplified by their collective reaction—outrage—to being removed from the family home, and from each other, a second time in 2019. The juvenile court referred to them as a “large and unruly group,” but that description would seem to fit almost any group of seven siblings. The court also appeared concerned about “significant sibling rivalr[ies]” among some of the older Children but, again, we would be surprised to find a seven-member sibling group that didn’t have significant sibling rivalries. The court also offered its view that “[t]he older boys cannot be depended upon to protect” the Subject Children, but we think that’s an unfair expectation, as the court itself noted. And there are no allegations (for example, of intra-sibling abuse) about or among this sibling group that would counsel against keeping the group together.
¶44 We are also troubled, under the unusual circumstances of this case, by the fact that the deterioration of the Subject Children’s bonds with their siblings was due, in not-insignificant part, to the way this case was litigated, even apart from the removal and placement decisions. Notably, DCFS did not take any systematic steps to facilitate visitation between the three (and sometimes four) sibling groups that were placed in different homes, but instead “left that mostly up to [the] foster parents.” In particular, DCFS did not allow the Subject Children to visit Grandparents with the rest of the Children during the summer of 2020. And Grandmother offered her perception that it had been difficult to get Foster Mother to facilitate telephonic or virtual visits between the older siblings and the Subject Children during the older siblings’ summer 2020 visit. Under these circumstances, it is no wonder that the Subject Children’s bond with their siblings began to wane. It is intuitive that relationships can become more distant without meaningful contact. To at least some degree, the deterioration of the sibling bonds is attributable to DCFS’s (and the various foster parents’) actions in failing to facilitate regular sibling visitation.
¶45 In addition, DCFS’s delay in starting the ICPC process appears to have also played a role in the way this case turned out. In July 2019, the juvenile court ordered that “an ICPC” be conducted to explore the possibility of placing the Children with Grandparents in New Mexico. But DCFS—perhaps intentionally, according to one of the caseworkers—delayed acting upon the court’s ICPC order for nearly four months, until late October 2019. Delays in obtaining ICPC reports are not necessarily uncommon, and can be just an unfortunate part of the process of communicating between agencies of different states. But such delays are troubling when they are attributable to a state agency’s refusal to even get the process started, despite a court order requiring it to do so. Although DCFS could not have known it at the time, its failure to timely initiate the ICPC process may have mattered more in this case than in others, because of the eventual emergence, in early 2020, of the COVID-19 pandemic.
¶46 Recall that, in the fall of 2019 and early 2020, after DCFS filed its termination petition, all parties were on the same page: they were working toward placing the Children—all of them— with Grandparents in New Mexico. Indeed, it was “highly anticipated by all parties that the results of the ICPC [would] resolve all issues pending before the Court.” But before a placement with Grandparents could happen, the ICPC report needed to be completed, and the parties twice stipulated to continuances of the termination trial specifically so that the ICPC report could be finished, and so that they could “ensure [that] the Grandparents kn[ew] what they [were] getting into.” These continuances resulted in the trial being rescheduled for late March 2020, which in turn resulted in the trial being postponed again because of the emergence of the pandemic. The ICPC report was not completed until October 2020, and by then, the Subject Children had been with Foster Family for more than a year and had begun to develop meaningful bonds there. Under these circumstances, it is hard not to wonder what might have happened if DCFS had begun the ICPC process in July 2019, as it had been ordered to do.
¶47 Next, the court—appropriately—discussed at some length the Subject Children’s bond with Foster Family. There is no doubt that Foster Family is an appropriate adoptive placement, and that Foster Parents are doing a wonderful job caring for the Subject Children. The court made unchallenged findings in this regard, noting that Foster Parents are the ones “who care for them on a daily basis, feed them, hug them, and put them to bed,” and that, from the Subject Children’s point of view, Foster Parents “are their parents.” We do not minimize the significance of these findings. They are important, and are a necessary condition to any adoption-related termination of parental rights. After all, if an adoptive placement is not working out, an adoption into that placement is very unlikely to be finalized.
¶48 But while the existence of an acceptable adoptive placement is a necessary condition to any adoption-related termination, it is not a sufficient one. At some level, we certainly understand the impulse to want to leave children in—and perhaps make permanent—a putative adoptive placement in which the children are thriving. And we recognize—as the juvenile court observed here—that taking a child out of a loving adoptive placement in order to reunite the child with family can be detrimental to the child, at least in the short term. But in order to terminate parental rights to facilitate an adoption, a court must have before it more than just a loving and functional adoptive placement from which it would be emotionally difficult to remove the child. Termination of parental rights must be “strictly necessary to promote the . . . welfare and best interest” of the children in question. SeeIn re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 76, 472 P.3d 827. And in order to reach that conclusion, a court must do more than make a finding about the acceptability of the adoptive placement—it must examine potential options, short of termination, that might also further the best interest of the children in question. Id. ¶¶ 66–67. In particular, and especially in light of our legislature’s guidance that families should be kept together whenever possible, see Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-104(8), (12), courts must investigate kinship placement possibilities, including options for permanent guardianship. And if one of those placements turns out to be an option that can promote the child’s best interest “just as well,” then it is by definition not “strictly necessary” to terminate the parent’s rights. SeeIn re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶¶ 66–67.
¶49 Moreover, in this context courts must keep in mind the “clear and convincing” evidentiary standard. SeeIn re G.D., 2021 UT 19, ¶ 44, 491 P.3d 867. If there exists a completely appropriate kinship placement through which the family can remain intact, the “strictly necessary” showing becomes significantly more difficult to make. We stop well short of holding that, where an acceptable kinship placement exists, it can never be strictly necessary to terminate a parent’s rights. But in such cases, the proponent of termination must show, by clear and convincing evidence, that the adoptive placement is materially better for the children than the kinship placement is. After all, if the two placements can each “equally protect and benefit” the child’s best interest, then by definition there does not exist clear and convincing evidence in favor of terminating a parent’s rights. SeeIn re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 66. And in this case, the necessary showing was not made.
¶50 Perhaps most significantly, there is not a hint of any evidence in the record before us that placement with Grandparents is flawed. The ICPC report (finally) came back clean; that report raised no concerns with regard to Grandparents, and concluded that their home would be an appropriate placement for the Children. The five older siblings had a lengthy visit with Grandparents in the summer of 2020, and all went well. And just before trial, the parties stipulated that the five oldest
Children should be placed with Grandparents on a long-term basis, subject to a permanent custody and guardianship arrangement. The court approved this stipulation, agreeing with the parties “that a permanent custody and guardianship arrangement” would serve the best interest of the five oldest Children. It even found that Grandparents are “certainly appropriate caregivers.” And on appeal, all parties agree that Grandparents are acceptable and loving caregivers; no party has even attempted to take issue with Grandparents’ ability to provide a loving and stable home for the Children. There is no dispute that Grandparents have the capacity and ability, from a financial standpoint as well as otherwise, to care for all seven Children, and stand ready and willing to do so, regardless of whether that takes the form of an adoption or a permanent guardianship arrangement.
¶51 The juvenile court opted to go in a different direction, primarily for three related reasons. First, it emphasized how “detrimental” and “destabilizing” it would be for the Subject Children to be removed from Foster Family. Second, the court emphasized that the Subject Children need stability and permanency, and determined that adoption—as opposed to guardianship—could best provide that stability. Third, the court expressed concern that, absent an adoption, Parents might attempt—at some later point in time—to get back into the lives of the Subject Children, and perhaps even “regain custody,” an eventuality the court believed would “pose a risk to” the Subject Children. In our view, these stated reasons do not constitute clear and convincing reasons to terminate Parents’ rights.
¶52 With regard to permanency and stability, our supreme court has recently clarified that the mere fact that adoptions—as a category—provide more permanency and stability than guardianships do is not enough to satisfy the statutory “strictly necessary” standard. SeeIn re J.A.L., 2022 UT 12, ¶ 24, 506 P.3d 606. In that case, the court held that the lower court fell into legal error in concluding that [a guardianship option] would not provide the “same degree of permanency as an adoption.” That is not the question under our law. A permanent guardianship by definition does not offer the same degree of permanency as an adoption. And there is always some risk that the permanent guardianship could come to an end, or be affected by visitation by the parent. If these categorical concerns were enough, termination and adoption would be strictly necessary across the board. But such categorical analysis is not in line with the statutory standard.
Id. The court then noted that, as part of the “strictly necessary” analysis, a court “must assess whether a permanent guardianship can equally protect and benefit the children in the case before it.” Id. ¶ 25 (quotation simplified). The court made clear that the statutory requirements were “not met by the categorical concern that a permanent guardianship is not as stable or permanent as an adoption,” and instead “require analysis of the particularized circumstances of the case before the court.” Id.
¶53 As applied here, this recent guidance renders insufficient—and more or less beside the point—the juvenile court’s apparent belief that an adoption was better than a guardianship simply because it was more permanent and more stable. All adoptions are at least somewhat more permanent than guardianships, and therefore that conclusion, standing alone, is not enough to constitute clear and convincing evidence supporting termination. It is certainly appropriate for courts in termination cases to discuss the potential need for permanency and stability. But in doing so, and when selecting an adoptive option over a guardianship option, a court in a termination case must articulate case-specific reasons why the added layer of permanency that adoptions offer is important and why adoption would better serve the best interest of the children in question than the guardianship option would.
¶54 The court’s concern about the possibility of Parents reentering the Children’s lives is, on this record, not an adequate case-specific reason. As an initial matter, it—like the lack of permanency—is a feature of the entire category of guardianships. It will always be true that, in a guardianship, a parent retains what the juvenile court here referred to as “residual rights,” while in an adoption the parent’s rights are terminated forever. This kind of categorical concern is not enough to constitute clear and convincing evidence in support of termination.
¶55 Moreover, we question whether—in many cases, including this one—a parent’s desire to re-engage in their child’s life should be viewed as negatively as the juvenile court appeared to view it. Here, we return to the statutory guidance offered by our legislature: that “family life should be strengthened and preserved” “[w]herever possible,” and that it is usually “in the best interest and welfare of a child to be raised under the care and supervision of the child’s natural parents.” See Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-104(8), (12). We note our own observation that, “[i]n many cases, children will benefit from having more people—rather than fewer—in their lives who love them and care about them.” SeeIn re B.T.B., 2018 UT App 157, ¶ 55, 436 P.3d 206, aff’d, 2020 UT 60, 472 P.3d 827. And we acknowledge Parents’ point that a parent whose child has been placed in a permanent guardianship arrangement in a child welfare proceeding has no independent right to petition to change or dissolve the guardianship. See Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-357(3)(d) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022). Only the guardian has that right. See id. And there is no evidence, in this record, that Grandparents will be particularly susceptible to inappropriate pressure from Parents to seek a change in the terms of any guardianship arrangement. In addition, there is no evidence that, if the Subject Children were placed into a guardianship with Grandparents, it would be harmful to them for Parents to retain the possibility of maintaining some form of contact with them (as they have with regard to the other Children), as supervised by court order and by Grandparents acting as guardians. In other words, the juvenile court did not emphasize any case-specific issues that make us especially concerned about the possibility of Parents attempting to re-enter the Children’s lives at some point in the future.
¶56 We are thus left with the court’s concern—shared by the Subject Children’s therapists—about the disruption in the Subject Children’s lives that would be caused by removing them from Foster Family and placing them with Grandparents, alongside their siblings. This is of course a legitimate concern, and one that courts should take into account in situations like this. If and when the Subject Children are ever placed into a guardianship with Grandparents, and taken from Foster Family, that will no doubt be traumatic for them, at least in the short term. We acknowledge the validity of such concerns, and do not intend to minimize them. But in this case, focusing too much on this more-present possibility of emotional trauma risks minimizing the longer-term emotional trauma that permanent severance of the sibling bonds will likely someday trigger. In this specific and unique situation, the juvenile court’s discussion of potential emotional trauma associated with removal from Foster Family does not constitute clear and convincing evidence supporting termination.
¶57 For all of these reasons, we conclude that the juvenile court’s best-interest determination was against the clear weight of the evidence presented at trial. The State failed to prove, by clear and convincing evidence, that termination of Parents’ rights to Subject Children was strictly necessary, especially given the presence of another available and acceptable option—permanent guardianship with Grandparents, alongside their five siblings— that would not require permanent severance of familial bonds and that would serve the Subject Children’s best interest at least as well as adoption. SeeIn re G.D., 2021 UT 19, ¶ 75 (“[W]hen two placement options would equally benefit a child, the strictlynecessary requirement operates as a preference for a placement option that does not necessitate termination over an option that does.”). Under the unique circumstances of this case, termination of Parents’ rights is not strictly necessary to promote the Subject Children’s best interest.
¶58 Accordingly, we reverse the juvenile court’s order of termination, and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. We offer a reminder that best-interest determinations are to be conducted in present-tense fashion, as of the date of the trial or hearing convened to consider the matter. SeeIn re Z.C.W., 2021 UT App 98, ¶ 14, 500 P.3d 94. Our holding today is that, based on the evidence presented at trial in October
2020, termination of Parents’ rights was not strictly necessary to promote the Subject Children’s best interest. On remand, the juvenile court should re-assess best interest. If nothing has materially changed since October 2020, then we expect the court to enter orders designed to work (perhaps quite gradually, in the court’s discretion) toward integration of the Subject Children into a placement with Grandparents, alongside their siblings. But if there is evidence that matters have materially changed since October 2020, the court may need to consider that evidence in some fashion, seeid. ¶ 15, and re-assess best interest based on the situation at the time of the hearing.
Senior Judge Kate Appleby sat by special assignment as authorized by law. See generally Utah R. Jud. Admin. 11-201(7).
 In this opinion, for ease of reference, we refer to E.H.’s paternal grandparents as “Grandparents,” and we refer to them individually as “Grandmother” and “Grandfather,” even though any biological relationship exists only with E.H. and not with the other six Children.
 L.H. was removed from the home for a one-month period during this time, again because of concerns that he was malnourished and “failing to thrive.”
 These arrangements were a bit fluid during this period—at one point, the oldest four Children were combined into one placement, and the fifth-oldest was placed with Foster Family along with the Subject Children. However, the mother of the Foster Family testified at trial that, after a while, the fifth child often got upset at how his younger siblings were becoming so attached to Foster Family, and so she eventually asked that he be placed elsewhere.
 The abbreviation “ICPC” refers to the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children, an interstate agreement that has been adopted by all fifty states. See Utah Code Ann. § 62A-4a-701 (LexisNexis 2018). The ICPC allows child welfare agencies from different states to more easily cooperate regarding placement of children across state lines.
 The facts recited in this paragraph regarding Parents’ communications with their various attorneys are not in the record, but are included in the materials submitted on appeal in support of Parents’ claim of ineffective assistance of counsel.
 Parents also raise other issues, including an assertion that Private Counsel rendered deficient performance that prejudiced them at the termination trial. Although we acknowledge the strength of Parents’ assertion that Private Counsel rendered ineffective assistance, and discuss in passing the problems they had with him, we need not reach the merits of that claim or any of their other claims because we reverse on the merits of their main claim.
 A court’s consideration of the importance of sibling relationships is arguably even more important in the termination/adoption context than it is in the child custody context, simply because of the permanency of termination and adoption. When split custody is ordered in a domestic case, the children will not live together all the time, but their overarching family relationship remains intact; they will remain siblings and, depending on visitation schedules, they will likely see each other several times each month. But when—as in this case—siblings are separated for purposes of adoption, the familial bonds, including the sibling bonds, are more permanently affected.
 Parents assert that the juvenile court erred by limiting its best interest inquiry to the Subject Children, rather than considering whether termination of Parents’ rights to the Subject Children was in the best interest of all the Children. Although we are far from persuaded by Parents’ assertion, we need not further concern ourselves with it, because for purposes of our analysis we assume, without deciding, that the juvenile court properly focused on the Subject Children when conducting the best-interest inquiry. Even assuming the propriety of that more limited focus, we nevertheless find the court’s ultimate best-interest determination unsupported by clear and convincing evidence.
 DCFS’s actions in this regard were arguably contrary to statute. See Utah Code Ann.§ 62A-4a-205(12)(a) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022) (stating that DCFS must “incorporate reasonable efforts to . . . provide sibling visitation when siblings are separated due to foster care or adoptive placement”); see alsoid. § 80-3307(12)(a) (requiring DCFS to “incorporate into the child and family plan reasonable efforts to provide sibling visitation if . . . siblings are separated due to foster care or adoptive placement”).
 The juvenile court addressed this issue in its written ruling, and downplayed the significance of the delayed ICPC report. It expressed its view that, even if DCFS had timely requested the ICPC report, the case would not have come out differently. First, it assumed that the ICPC process would have taken a year to complete even if the report had been requested in July 2019. We wonder about that, and in particular wonder whether any of the delays in completing the ICPC report were due to the emergence of the pandemic. But more to the point, the court indicated that it would have made the same termination decision in July 2020 as it made in October 2020. However, the court does not account for the fact that all parties to the case, including DCFS, were on the same page at least as late as March 12, 2020, and anticipated placing all the Children with Grandparents as soon as the ICPC report came back. Had the ICPC report come back significantly earlier, while the parties were still in agreement, things almost certainly would have been different. We doubt that the juvenile court would have rejected the parties’ stipulation on that point, just as it did not reject the parties’ October 2020 stipulation regarding the five oldest Children.
 Indeed, concerns about Parents potentially getting back into the lives of the Subject Children appear especially overblown under the facts of this case, given the fact that the juvenile court approved the stipulation for a permanent guardianship arrangement for the other five Children. The court does not convincingly explain why it is concerned for the Subject Children and not the others, stating only that the potential for the Parents to “regain custody . . . might not be devastating for the older children, but it will certainly be devastating to” the Subject Children. Presumably, this is a reference to the fact that the Subject Children are younger and have less of a pre-existing relationship with Parents and the other Children, an aspect of this case that we have already discussed.
there is a statute or court order that permits it; or
this kind of statute or court order could be the kind that permits the temporary denial of contact with the child on the grounds that it is necessary to protect a child from abuse or neglect;
this kind of statute or court order could be the kind that permits the temporary denial of contact with the child on the grounds that the other parent is suspected of engaging is engaging in activity that places the child at risk of harm (such as substance abuse, criminal behavior, severe mental illness, etc.);
the other parent was never (often referred to as the “noncustodial parent”) was never awarded any visitation (also know as “parent-time”) rights in the first place,
then no, the parent awarded sole (sometimes referred to colloquially as “full”) custody of the child cannot legally and lawfully prevent the other parent from contact with their minor child.
The fact that the noncustodial parent is paying child support likely makes it even harder to justify interfering with that parent’s visitation/parent-time, rights, if he/she has them.
Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277
Thank you for your question, and forgive me for approaching this question in a way that may not answer your question as directly as it could be; I hope you will find my answer enlightening just the same.
If my purely selfish desires regarding particular controversies that I’d like to handle as a lawyer wouldn’t affect real people’s lives, then I’d love, as a divorce and family law attorney, to represent one of the parents in a case where 1) neither parent wants sole custody of the children and 2) each parent wants to foist custody of the children on the other.
Because it would shine a light on the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the belief that it is somehow wrong to award joint equal physical custody of children to two equally fit and loving parents who both desire to be as involved in their children’s lives as possible.
Because the court would find itself in the unusual position of dealing with parents fighting to get as little time with the children as possible and thus find itself having to formulate and make arguments forboth parents exercising custody of their children as much as possible (instead of trying to justify an unequal custody award where equal custody could clearly work or at least merit a try).
The cognitive dissonance would be glorious—absolutely glorious—to behold. The infirmity of the “arguments” for denying two fit, loving parents equal custody would be laid bare for all to see.
Not every parent is fit to exercise joint or sole physical custody of his/her child, but parents who are 1) fit and loving; 2) desirous of ensuring their children are reared as much as possible by both of their parents; and 3) live in close enough proximity to each other to make joint equal physical custody not merely feasible but beneficial to the minor children: A) should have their parental rights upheld to the fullest extent possible by awarding joint equal physical custody because B) the “best parent” for the children is both parents.
The idea that we presumptively divide marital assets equally in divorce because that is presumptively fair is the same reason we should presumptively award joint equal physical child custody. If the presumption of dividing marital assets equally is rebutted by showing, for example, that a spouse materially dissipated marital assets or wrongfully diminished their value, then clearly an equal division of the assets would not be fair. Likewise, if the presumption of awarding equal custody is rebutted by showing that it would be deleterious to the children in some material way, then an equal custody award would not be fair to the children.
Yet the laws of most states in the U.S.A. do not adopt a presumption of joint equal physical custody (but I should note that currently the legislative trend is toward adopting presumption of equal custody), and even among those states that do, many judges in those states disfavor equal physical custody awards.
For all the good sense equal physical custody makes, it is surprisingly (scandalously) difficult to obtain an equal physical custody award.
Shared parenting protects children’s best interests and the loving bonds children share with both parents after separation or divorce;
Equality between genders has been extended to every corner of American society, with one huge exception: Family Courts and the related agencies; and
The Supreme Court of the United States has found that “the interest of parents in the care, custody, and control of their children… is perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests recognized by this Court.”
Sean D. Reyes, Carol L.C. Verdoia, and John M. Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee
JUDGE MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and RYAN D. TENNEY concurred.
CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, Judge:
¶1 Appellant J.K. (Mother) appeals the juvenile court’s order substantiating several database findings of abuse entered by the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS). We affirm.
¶2 In August 2020, the State filed with the juvenile court a Verified Petition for Protective Supervision requesting the court to find Mother’s son, K.T., “abused, neglected and/or dependent and to grant protective supervision of [K.T.] to DCFS.” The petition alleged that DCFS had on three separate occasions previously supported findings of abuse of K.T. against Mother. In addition to the request for protective supervision of K.T., the petition requested that the juvenile court enter an order “[s]ubstantiating the DCFS supported finding(s) pursuant to Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-323,” now recodified at Utah Code section 80-3-404.
¶3 In March 2021, following discussions with Mother, the State filed with the juvenile court an Amended Verified Petition for Protective Supervision. The amended petition again asked the court to find K.T. “neglected and/or dependent and to grant protective supervision of [K.T.] to DCFS,” but it eliminated the prior request that the court find K.T. to be “abused.” The amended petition repeated the original petition’s request that the court enter a finding “[s]ubstantiating the DCFS supported finding(s) pursuant to Utah Code” section 80-3-404.
¶4 The parties thereafter appeared before the juvenile court to adjudicate the amended petition. At the outset of the hearing, the State indicated it had reached an agreement with Mother to submit the amended petition “for [a] finding of neglect” and requested, without objection, that “the issue of substantiating the DCFS supported findings” be “set over.” Thereafter, Mother admitted many of the allegations of the amended petition. But pursuant to rule 34(e) of the Utah Rules of Juvenile Procedure, she declined to either admit or deny the allegations that DCFS had previously supported findings of abuse by Mother against K.T. The parties then presented argument. The State argued for a finding of neglect, while Mother argued for a finding of dependency. After the hearing, the court entered a finding of neglect and granted “[p]rotective supervision of [K.T.] . . . to DCFS.” The court “reserve[d] the issue of substantiating the DCFS supported findings for the next hearing.”
¶5 In June 2021, the case came before the juvenile court for a disposition hearing, during which the State requested that the court address the substantiation issue. The court entertained argument and took the matter under advisement. It thereafter entered a written order substantiating the three DCFS supported findings of abuse by Mother contained in both the original and amended petitions. Specifically, it substantiated the supported findings that K.T. had suffered emotional abuse, physical abuse, and chronic emotional abuse.
ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW
¶6 Mother now appeals the juvenile court’s order substantiating the DCFS supported findings of abuse and raises three issues for our review. The first two issues present questions as to the statutory authority of the juvenile court. Mother first argues the juvenile court exceeded its statutory authority to substantiate the DCFS findings of abuse because the amended petition alleged only neglect or dependency and the court had adjudicated only a finding of neglect. “Questions of jurisdiction and statutory interpretation are questions of law that we review for correctness, giving no particular deference to lower court decisions.” In re B.B.G., 2007 UT App 149, ¶ 4, 160 P.3d 9.
¶7 In a similar vein, Mother next argues the State and the juvenile court were bound by the stipulation of the parties to submit the amended petition only for “a finding of neglect.” When “the facts [are] stipulated, we review the conclusions drawn by the juvenile court for correctness.” In re B.T., 2009 UT App 182, ¶ 5, 214 P.3d 881 (quotation simplified).
¶8 Lastly, Mother alternatively argues her trial counsel was ineffective for not advising her that the juvenile court could deviate from its legal adjudication of neglect and later substantiate for abuse. “An ineffective assistance of counsel claim raised for the first time on appeal presents a question of law.” State v. Clark, 2004 UT 25, ¶ 6, 89 P.3d 162.
¶9 We turn first to Mother’s argument that the juvenile court exceeded its statutory authority in substantiating the DCFS findings for abuse because the amended petition alleged only neglect or dependency and the court had adjudicated K.T. as neglected. We are unpersuaded by this argument because it conflates the State’s request that the court adjudicate K.T. as neglected with its independent request that the court substantiate the DCFS supported findings of abuse. The State’s request to adjudicate K.T. as neglected so as to bring the child within the jurisdiction of the court and under the protective supervision of DCFS was separate from its request that the court substantiate DCFS’s finding that K.T. had suffered a severe type of child abuse. As explained below, the juvenile court had independent statutory authority to adjudicate both issues.
¶10 In Utah, proceedings concerning abuse, neglect, and dependency are governed by Chapter 3 of the Utah Juvenile Code (the UJC). Pursuant to Chapter 3, “any interested person may file an abuse, neglect, or dependency petition” in the juvenile court. Utah Code Ann. § 80-3-201(1) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022). Among other things, the petition must include “a concise statement of facts, separately stated, to support the conclusion that the child upon whose behalf the abuse, neglect, or dependency petition is brought is abused, neglected, or dependent.” Id. § 80-3-201(4)(a). After the petition is filed, the court may, upon making specific findings, “order that the child be removed from the child’s home or otherwise taken into protective custody.” Id. § 80-3-204(2). If the court so orders, a shelter hearing must then be held to determine whether continued removal and placement of the child in DCFS’s temporary custody are necessary. See id. § 80-3-301.
¶11 After the shelter hearing, the juvenile court conducts an adjudication hearing. See id. § 80-3-401. An adjudication is a determination of the merits of the State’s petition of abuse, neglect, or dependency. “If, at the adjudication hearing, the juvenile court finds, by clear and convincing evidence, that the allegations contained in the abuse, neglect, or dependency petition are true, the juvenile court shall conduct a dispositional hearing.” Id. § 80-3-402(1); see also In re S.A.K., 2003 UT App 87, ¶ 14, 67 P.3d 1037 (“In child welfare proceedings, if the petition’s allegations of neglect, abuse, or dependency are found to be true in the adjudication hearing, those findings provide the basis for determining the consequences in the disposition hearing.”). “The dispositional hearing may be held on the same date as the adjudication hearing . . . .” Utah Code Ann. § 80-3-402(2). Dispositions available after adjudication include, among other things, vesting custody of an abused, neglected, or dependent minor in DCFS or any other appropriate person. Id. § 80-3405(2)(a)(i). Thus, an adjudication of abuse, neglect, or dependency brings the child and family within the juvenile court’s jurisdiction.
¶12 A separate chapter of the UJC addresses child welfare services. Chapter 2 creates DCFS and establishes its statutory authority and responsibilities. Among these is its responsibility to investigate reports that a child is abused, neglected, or dependent and to enter findings at the conclusion of its investigations. See id. § 80-2-701. A “supported” finding by DCFS is based on evidence available at the completion of an investigation indicating that “there is a reasonable basis to conclude that abuse, neglect, or dependency occurred.” Id. § 80-1-102(89). Chapter 2 requires that DCFS notify alleged perpetrators of supported findings and establishes a procedure for challenging such findings. Id. §§ 80-2707, -708. In cases involving a supported finding of a severe type of child abuse, the statute also gives DCFS authority to file a petition in the juvenile court seeking substantiation of a supported finding. Id. § 80-2-708(1)(c).
¶13 Part 10 of Chapter 2 governs DCFS’s record-keeping responsibilities. DCFS uses a database known as the Management Information System to track child welfare and protective services cases. See id. § 80-2-1001(3), (4). DCFS uses a subset of that system known as the Licensing Information System (the LIS) to track cases for licensing purposes. See id. § 80-2-1002(1)(a)(i). In cases involving a severe type of child abuse or neglect, DCFS enters supported findings into the LIS and the alleged perpetrator thereafter “may be disqualified from adopting a child, receiving state funds as a child care provider, or being licensed by DCFS, a human services program, a child care provider or program, or a covered health care facility.” State v. A.C., 2022 UT App 121, ¶ 3, 521 P.3d 186 (quotation simplified).
¶14 All these statutes were in play in these proceedings. On three separate occasions prior to the State’s filing of the petition, DCFS had investigated Mother for abuse of K.T. Following each of its three investigations, DCFS had supported a finding of abuse of K.T. against Mother. One of those supported findings was of “chronic emotional abuse” of K.T., which falls within the statutory definition of a “severe type of child abuse” under Utah Code section 80-1-102(78)(a)(i)(A) that then must be entered into the LIS.
¶15 The amended petition removed the request that the juvenile court adjudicate K.T. as abused. Instead, it requested that the court adjudicate K.T. as neglected. But the amended petition also recited DCFS’s history with K.T., stating that DCFS had previously supported findings of abuse against Mother, and requested that the court substantiate these supported findings of abuse. Adjudicating both requests for relief fell squarely within the juvenile court’s express statutory authority. Indeed, Mother identifies no statutory provision limiting the court’s authority to substantiate DCFS findings of abuse based on the outcome of the State’s independent request to adjudicate the status of an allegedly abused, neglected, or dependent child.
¶16 Mother’s argument that the juvenile court’s substantiation decision must be consistent with its adjudication decision in a related petition for abuse, neglect, or dependency is also inconsistent with the burdens of proof dictated by the UJC. While the juvenile court may adjudicate a minor as abused, neglected, or dependent based only on clear and convincing evidence, it can substantiate a DCFS finding based on a mere preponderance of the evidence. Compare Utah Code Ann. § 80-1-102(87), withid. § 80-3-402(1). These different standards give rise to the distinct possibility that a juvenile court could decline to adjudicate a minor as abused, while still substantiating a DCFS finding of abuse based on the lower burden of proof.
¶17 Despite the absence of a statutory provision linking the outcome of the amended petition to the outcome of a request for substantiation, Mother argues the juvenile court’s ruling on the neglect petition ended the court proceedings, “leaving no question open for further judicial action.” (Quoting In re M.W., 2000 UT 79, ¶ 25, 12 P.3d 80.) But this argument is directly contrary to the statutory language. Utah Code section 80-3-404 addresses the responsibility of the juvenile court to adjudicate DCFS supported findings of severe child abuse or neglect and their inclusion in or removal from the LIS. Upon the filing of “an abuse, neglect or dependency petition . . . that informs the juvenile court that [DCFS] has made a supported finding that an individual committed a severe type of child abuse or neglect, the juvenile court shall . . . make a finding of substantiated, unsubstantiated, or without merit” and include the finding in a written order. Utah Code Ann. § 80-3-404(1) (emphasis added). This provision also allows joinder of proceedings for adjudication of supported findings of severe abuse or neglect with those that do not constitute severe abuse. Id. § 80-3-404(3). And it does not limit the juvenile court’s ability to substantiate findings of severe abuse to those cases in which the court has granted a petition to adjudicate a child as abused. In short, the juvenile court was required to rule on the State’s substantiation request.
¶18 Next, Mother argues the State and juvenile court were bound by the facts and legal conclusions contained in the amended petition to which the parties had stipulated. Mother reasons that because the parties had stipulated to a finding of neglect, the juvenile court could not substantiate DCFS’s supported findings of abuse.
¶19 Mother’s argument is inconsistent with both the language of the amended petition and the course of the proceedings before the juvenile court. At the hearing on the amended petition, the State informed the court that the State and Mother had agreed to submit the matter to the court for a “finding of neglect” and that they “would ask also the Court to reserve the issue of substantiating the DCFS supporting findings at this point in time and set that over for disposition.” In connection therewith, Mother agreed to admit the allegations of the amended petition except those in paragraphs 5 and 6. Paragraph 5 alleged DCFS’s history with the family, including DCFS’s supported findings of abuse. Paragraph 6 alleged additional facts supporting the conclusion that K.T. was neglected or dependent.
¶20 Although Mother declined to admit the allegations of paragraphs 5 and 6, she did not deny them. Instead, she proceeded pursuant to rule 34(e) of the Utah Rules of Juvenile Procedure by neither admitting nor denying them. But as the juvenile court expressly informed Mother at the hearing, Mother’s decision not to deny those allegations had legal significance since “[a]llegations not specifically denied by a respondent shall be deemed true.” See Utah R. Juv. P. 34(e). The court was therefore free to base its decision on all the allegations of the amended petition, including those in paragraph 6 regarding DCFS’s supported findings of abuse. Because the parties’ stipulation was not inconsistent with the court’s ruling, it did not err.
¶21 Lastly, we turn to Mother’s argument that her trial counsel was ineffective for not advising her that the juvenile court could deviate from its adjudication of neglect and substantiate DCFS’s findings of abuse for entry into the LIS. To prevail on an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, Mother must show that counsel’s performance was deficient and that this deficient performance prejudiced her defense. See In re C.M.R., 2020 UT App 114,¶ 19, 473 P.3d 184. A reviewing court must “indulge in a strong presumption that counsel’s conduct fell within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance, and that under the circumstances, the challenged action might be considered sound trial strategy.” State v. J.A.L.,2011 UT 27, ¶ 25, 262 P.3d 1 (quotation simplified).
¶22 After indulging these presumptions, we are unable to conclude that counsel’s performance was deficient because there are many sound reasons why Mother’s decision to settle the petition with a finding of neglect, while allowing the juvenile court to resolve the substantiation issue, was sound strategy. The petition sought a finding that K.T. had been abused, and it was possible, if not likely, that proceeding to trial on the original petition could have resulted in both an adjudication of abuse and a substantiation of the abuse claims against Mother. The fact that Mother now regrets her decision to settle does not lead to the conclusion that counsel performed deficiently. Mother appeared before the juvenile court, and the court explained her rights and questioned her about the voluntariness of her decision. Nothing in the record suggests that Mother’s decision to settle was the result of ineffective assistance of counsel.
¶23 The juvenile court acted well within its statutory authority in substantiating DCFS’s findings of child abuse, and the court was entitled to consider all the allegations of the amended petition when determining whether to substantiate that finding. Mother has not demonstrated how her decision to settle was the result of ineffective assistance of counsel. Accordingly, we affirm.
 As relevant here, “abuse” is defined as “nonaccidental harm of a child” or “threatened harm of a child.” Utah Code Ann. § 80-1102(1)(a)(i) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022). “‘Supported’ means a finding by [DCFS] based on the evidence available at the completion of an investigation, and separate consideration of each allegation made or identified during the investigation, that there is a reasonable basis to conclude that abuse, neglect, or dependency occurred.” Id. § 80-1-102(89).
 “‘Substantiated’ or ‘substantiation’ means a judicial finding based on a preponderance of the evidence, and separate consideration of each allegation made or identified in the case, that abuse, neglect, or dependency occurred.” Id. § 80-1-102(87).
 The statutory provisions of Title 78A of the Utah Code that were in effect at the time of the juvenile court proceedings have since been renumbered and recodified as part of the Utah Juvenile Code, which is now found in Title 80 of the Utah Code. Because the provisions relevant to our analysis have not been substantively amended, we cite the recodified version for convenience.
 Under rule 34(e) of the Utah Rules of Juvenile Procedure, “[a] respondent may answer by admitting or denying the specific allegations of the petition, or by declining to admit or deny the allegations. Allegations not specifically denied by a respondent shall be deemed true.” Utah R. Juv. P. 34(e).
Here, the juvenile court took great care to ensure that Mother understood the consequences of not denying these allegations. The court informed Mother that it was “going to find [the allegations] to be true, even though [she was] not admitting nor denying [them].” When Mother indicated she did not understand, the court took a break to allow Mother to confer with her counsel. Following the break, the court confirmed that Mother had ample opportunity to discuss the issue with counsel and understood what was happening with respect to the allegations at issue.
 Although the juvenile court entered a finding of neglect pursuant to the stipulation of the parties, it indicated the evidence was also sufficient to support a finding of abuse.
 Even though the court placed K.T. under the protective supervision of DCFS, K.T. remained in his father’s custody.
 Mother also argues the juvenile court erred by not ruling on the State’s substantiation request at the time it adjudicated the petition for neglect. But Mother did not preserve this argument below. When the State raised the substantiation request at the adjudication hearing and asked that it be continued to a later hearing, Mother did not object.
My guess is that this question applies in two distinct contexts: 1) what does the court do in a child custody case where both parents try to alienate the child from the other parent and the rest of their family?; and 2) what happens to a child in a custody case where both parents try to alienate the child from the other parent and the rest of their family?
1) What does the court do in a child custody case where both parents try to alienate the child from the other parent and the rest of their family?;
It’s hard when a court has two lousy parents fighting over custody. Neither is bad enough to have his/her parental rights terminated and custody of the child awarded to the other parent, so the court finds itself having to make all kinds of compromises that the court knows are not likely to work.
Rarely can a court do much to help the child effectively. That’s not the court’s fault. Even the most conscientious court cannot compel bad actors to do good (or at least to do good consistently). . .
. . . but that doesn’t mean some courts think themselves an exception. Some judges believe the black robe and gavel magically imbues them with supernatural wisdom and power to make the horse drink. Such orders issued by such judges are rarely obeyed and rarely benefit the child. Indeed, they tend to generate a lot of litigation between the parents over “enforcement” of largely unenforceable orders, and the child often suffers collateral damage.
Other judges don’t want to live with the guilt of wondering, “Did I fail to do everything I could to protect the child from its lousy parents?,” and so they assuage their fears by issuing orders that appear to make the judges look good without those orders doing the child (or his lousy parents) much, if any good, i.e., ordering the parents to read books and watch videos, take “parenting” courses, and/or ordering the parents and children to engage in therapy and counseling.* In fairness, some judges issue such orders not because they believe they will work, not because they want to look compassionate and wise, but because they conclude that it can’t hurt and that such orders may cause the occasional parent to see the light. Fair enough.
2) What happens to a child in a custody case where both parents try to alienate the child from the other parent and the rest of their family?
First, remember that it’s not “parental alienation” if one parent acts shield a child from the harm that a dysfunctional and/or abusive parent would, in the absence of the protection, inflict on a child. Unfit, unrepentant parents forfeit (either legally or practicably) their hopes of and rights to a “relationship” with the children they neglect and/or abuse. Don’t misunderstand me: the ends do not necessarily justify any means, and one cannot be a law unto oneself, but fulfilling parental responsibility is not parental alienation.
So the question really is: what happens in a custody case where both parents who know better try to alienate the child from the other parent and the rest of their family? And the answer to that question is: the child is emotionally and psychologically abused grossly. All but the most exceptional children suffer the consequences of this heinous emotional and psychological abuse throughout the rest of their lives. Many (frankly most) who reach adulthood and have children of their own will end up being dysfunctional, neglectful, abusive spouses (if they ever marry) and parents themselves. Even the children who seemingly “overcome” or adjust for this abuse and who manage to live a normal life will, by and large, still suffer from and bear the burdens of the damage and pain.
*Counseling and therapy can do some people some, even a lot, of good, but forcing counseling and therapy on parents is not nearly as effective as the courts seem to believe.
Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277
Who do you pick, your father who has been there your whole life or your mother who was never there until now and wants custody of you?
Assuming that 1) custody of you must be awarded to one parent or the other; and 2) your father didn’t obtain/exercise custody over you by withholding shared custody from your mother (because your mother was an absentee parent by choice), the answer is obvious: your father.
Why? At the very least, he’s proven to be the consistent, dependable parent.
As much as you may ache for your mother’s love, her track record shows that odds are she’s a bad bet as a custodial parent. Odds are she’ll break your heart again, if you let her.
But this does not appear to be a zero-sum kind of problem. Why not have the court award custody to your father and then award your mother visitation with you on as liberal a basis as is safe and beneficial for you?
Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277
Your question presumes that the judge heard from the child. In many cases (frankly most), even though the child has the greatest stake in the child custody award dispute, the child is “protected” from being heard on the subject (don’t get me started on why this is all kinds of foolishness).
But if the court has heard from the child as to his experiences and desires and the reasons for those desires, the next question is whether the court believes the child’s testimony. If the court does not believe the child, then the judge will not do anything in response to what the child desires.
But if the court believes the child’s testimony, that the child’s desires are sensible and worthwhile, and that the child needs the court’s help to achieve the child’s desires, then the court can issue orders designed to achieve those ends.
The degree of parental alienation caused by one or both of the child’s parents would, however, have to be hellish for a court to find that it is preferable to subject a child to all the risks of physical and psychological harm associated with the general hell of foster care, rather than to keep the child in the custody of one or both of the child’s own parents.
Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277
Teenager Child (16) refuses to see me after spending a month with my ex. I have 50% custody. What can I do about it? I’m a stricter parent unlike my ex who lets him play computer games all day and night.
Each jurisdiction may have different laws and rules governing a situation like yours, but I will answer your question as it applies to the state of Utah in my experience as a divorce and family lawyer.
Many people believe that at a certain age a minor child has the “right” in Utah to choose with which parent he/she will reside. Not true. Unless a court orders that a minor child has such a right, no such legal right independently exists.
But then there’s life in the real world, which shows us just how far a court’s power to enforce a child custody award order reaches. As a practical matter, if a child is big and strong and strong-willed enough to refuse to comply with the child custody order, there is little a court can do or will do to compel a child to comply.
Thus, trying to enforce a child custody and parent-time award by enlisting the help of the court is usually fruitless.
It’s maddening when a child is too young and immature to understand that living with the irresponsible, excessively permissive, and/or absentee parent is doing that child more harm than good. Unfortunately, unless the child does something or some things bad enough to land him/her in juvenile detention, a court can’t really force the child to live anywhere.
As I stated in answer to a question similar to yours: some courts try to get creative and impose sanctions on a noncompliant child by essentially ordering them “grounded”, but again, if the child chooses not to comply, there is little the court can do or feels is wise to do to the child. I’ve seen a court try to get a child to comply by ordering her barred from participating in her beloved dance classes and driver education courses (so that she can’t get her driver license unless she lives with the court ordered custodial parent) as long as the child refused to live with the court-ordered custodial parent. In that case, however, the child outlasted the court, i.e., she kept living with the noncustodial parent and stopped attending dance and driver’s ed. classes. Then the court found itself in the awkward position of preventing the child from getting exercise and driving to and from her job and other worthwhile, even necessary activities, so the court relented (both in the best interest of the child and to save face). This is a lesson that most courts learn when they try to use the coercive powers of the court against children to enforce child custody orders.
Besides, even if you could force a child to live with you or spend time with you as court-ordered, a child who is forced to do much of anything is only going to resent it and resent you for making him/her do it.
The only viable option you have is to be the most effective parent you can. That doesn’t mean abandoning good parental practices, but it may mean adjusting your approach from a “good” and “reasonable” one to an approach that entails necessary parental care and supervision that fosters love and affection, an approach that still holds children accountable, without estranging them.
Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277\
STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF G.B. AND A.C.,
PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.
STATE OF UTAH,
Filed August 4, 2022
Fifth District Juvenile Court, Cedar City Department
The Honorable Troy A. Little
Colleen K. Coebergh, Attorney for Appellant
Sean D. Reyes, Carol L. C. Verdoia, and John M.
Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee
Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem
JUDGE RYAN D. TENNEY authored this Opinion, in which
JUDGE MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER and JUSTICE DIANA
¶1 The Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) removed G.B. and his maternal half-brother, A.C., from their home in connection with their mother’s arrest on drug-related charges and reports of domestic violence at the home. The juvenile court later adjudicated the two children as “abused and neglected,” and as part of this determination, it made a subsidiary finding that G.B.’s father, T.R.B. (Father), “has issues related to the use of illegal substances.” Based on this finding, the court ordered Father to complete a substance abuse evaluation and submit to random drug testing.
¶2 Father now challenges the juvenile court’s abuse determination as well as its disposition order. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm.
Petition for Protective Custody
¶3 In February 2021, two-year-old G.B. and six-year-old A.C. were living with Father and their biological mother (Mother). Father is G.B.’s biological father, but he’s not A.C.’s. That month, DCFS filed a verified petition seeking protective custody of the children on the basis that they were “abused, neglected, or dependent.” The petition set forth several sets of facts in support of the “abuse, neglect, or dependency” allegations.
¶4 First, the petition alleged that Mother and Father “had recently engaged in Domestic Violence” and that the children had been “exposed” to that domestic violence. It alleged that when police responded to a recent domestic disturbance at the home, Mother told officers that Father had “pushed [her] into the tub [and] rammed her head into the wall, before throwing her into the wall.” It also noted that A.C. reported that Mother and Father “say mean words to each other,” that A.C. “has had to go upstairs so that he would not have to hear the fighting,” and that Father “broke his door when upset on one occasion.”
¶5 Second, the petition alleged that DCFS had recently received “information” indicating that Father “had hit a child on the back hard enough to leave bruising.”
¶6 Third, the petition made a number of allegations about the living conditions at the family home. Of note, it alleged that the home was “observed to have broken pieces of glass outside” and “a nail . . . in close proximity to the children’s toys.” It also alleged that the “children were observed between February 8, 2021 and February 12, 2021 to be dirty, [with] hair so messy that knots had to be cut out” and “feet which were black.”
¶7 Finally (and most significantly for purposes of this appeal), the petition included several allegations about illegal drug use by both Mother and Father.
¶8 With respect to Mother, the petition asserted that she had recently been arrested for driving while intoxicated and that the arresting officer had discovered illegal drugs and drug paraphernalia in her backpack. The petition also detailed other instances in which illegal drugs or drug paraphernalia had been found near Mother, including an instance in which drugs and paraphernalia were found in a place that “would have been accessible by the children.”
¶9 The petition further alleged that Father “has issues related to the use of illegal substances.” According to the petition, “Mother has stated that she uses heroin with [Father] daily and that he uses approximately a gram a day.” The petition also alleged that when police responded to the domestic disturbance described above, Mother told them “that she and [Father] got into an argument after she discovered [Father] and another individual getting ready to use substances.” According to the petition, responding officers had searched a “camp trailer” on the property and found “several pipes, tinfoil with heroin residue, a burned spoon, and syringes.”
¶10 The petition did note, however, that Father “denied any use of illegal substances or that he was aware the Mother used illegal substances.” And it further noted that Father had “claimed [that] any paraphernalia” found in the trailer “belonged [to his friend].” But the petition also alleged that about two months after the paraphernalia was found in the trailer, Father refused to let a DCFS caseworker inside that trailer and declined to take a drug test. And it alleged that Father then “admitted” to the caseworker that he and Mother smoked cigarettes in the trailer where the drug paraphernalia was found.
Pretrial Proceedings and Adjudication Hearing
¶11 The juvenile court held a shelter hearing after the petition was filed. At the close of the hearing, the court approved the removal of the children and placed them in DCFS’s temporary custody.
¶12 On March 23, 2021, the court held a pretrial hearing. At that hearing, Mother responded to the allegations in the petition pursuant to rule 34(e) of the Utah Rules of Juvenile Procedure, meaning that while she neither admitted nor denied the allegations, she agreed that the court would treat the allegations as true. See Utah R. Juv. P. 34(e) (“A respondent may answer by admitting or denying the specific allegations of the petition, or by declining to admit or deny the allegations. Allegations not specifically denied by a respondent shall be deemed true.”). Father continued to deny the allegations pertaining to his substance abuse, however, so the court scheduled an adjudication hearing to address the allegations against him. The court also found the children to be neglected and abused by Mother and ordered DCFS to develop a child and family service plan for the family and each child, to set a primary permanency goal of reunification, and to provide reunification services to Mother. That plan required Mother to, among other things, “participate and engage in a parenting program to increase parenting knowledge and behavior.” See Utah Code Ann. § 62A-4a-205(8)(d) (LexisNexis Supp. 2021) (“[C]hild and family plans shall address problems that . . . keep a child in placement . . . .”).
¶13 At his adjudication hearing, Father entered a rule 34(e) plea of his own regarding most of the allegations in the petition, but he still denied the allegation that he “has issues related to the use of illegal substances.” The hearing was accordingly limited to determining whether Father had “issues related to the use of illegal substances.” As a further point of specificity, Father did not dispute that drug paraphernalia was “found on the property”; instead, Father only disputed that the paraphernalia “pertain[ed] to him.”
¶14 The State presented three witnesses: an officer (Officer) who was present when police found the drug paraphernalia in the camp trailer, Mother, and the DCFS investigator (Investigator) assigned to the case.
¶15 Officer testified that when he responded to the domestic disturbance, Mother told him that she and Father started fighting because Father “was out with his girlfriend in the camp trailer using drugs.” According to Officer, Mother told him she “had seen [Father] using out [in the trailer] many times.” Officer also testified that another officer found drug paraphernalia in the trailer that day, including “several used syringes,” “used tinfoil with burn marks on it consistent with smoking illegal substances,” “a pipe or two,” and “a spoon with burnt residue in it.” Officer further testified that he spoke with Father on the phone a week later and that Father admitted during that conversation that his friend “used drugs . . . out in the trailer.” Finally, Officer testified that Father offered to “submit to a drug test” but that Officer never actually had him complete one.
¶16 In her testimony, Mother confirmed that she had told police that Father “had been using illegal substances in the trailer on the property.” She also confirmed that she had reported that Father “was using one gram of heroin daily.” But Mother also claimed that she had only “made an assumption that he was using heroin” because she “had picked it up for him” and that she “had never actually seen him doing it.” Mother also testified that she and Father “smoke[d] cigarettes” in the trailer. On cross-examination, Mother stated that she was “satisfied that [Father] was not using drugs” after seeing the results of a drug test that he had taken for work in March 2021.
¶17 Finally, Investigator testified that he spoke with Father in February 2021 and that Father’s “pupils were very pinpoint” at that time. Investigator said that when he asked Father about Mother’s drug use, Father “claimed that he didn’t know anything that was going on with her.” Investigator further testified that when he asked to see the trailer where police had found drug paraphernalia, Father “den[ied him] access.” Investigator said that Father also initially “claimed it wasn’t his trailer . . . and that just no one goes in it.” But when Investigator pressed, Father “admitted that he goes inside to smoke cigarettes.” Investigator said that he asked Father to take a drug test but that Father “declined.” Finally, Investigator testified that he spoke with Mother in February 2021 and that Mother told him that she and Father “had used together, that she was using more than him, specifically heroin, but that they were using together daily.”
¶18 After the State rested, Father testified. He claimed that he had not “used any illegal substances” “in the last five years” and that he takes “random drug tests and at least one drug test a year” for his work as a truck driver. Father also claimed that he had passed drug tests administered by DCFS somewhere between 18 and 24 months earlier.
¶19 When asked about the trailer, Father said that it belonged to his friend and that he was “just allowing her to put her trailer on [his] property.” Father testified that he was “aware [his friend] ha[d] used illegal substances in the past,” but he denied that the drug paraphernalia was his. On cross-examination, Father admitted that he sometimes used the trailer “as a storage unit.” He also admitted that during the winter of 2020, he went into it to smoke cigarettes.
¶20 After closing arguments, the court found “by clear and convincing evidence” that:
· “On or about December 28, 2020, Law Enforcement discovered drug paraphernalia including several pipes, tinfoil with heroin residue, a burned spoon, and syringes in a camper on the property where the family lived.”
· “On or about February 5, 2021, [DCFS] contacted [Father]. [Father] refused to allow the caseworker to see inside the trailer but admitted that they (the Mother and [Father]) do smoke (cigarettes) inside of it. [Father] was asked to drug test for [DCFS], and he has declined to do so.”
· “Mother has stated that she uses heroin with [Father] daily and that he uses approximately a gram a day.”
· Mother testified “that she gets heroin for [Father], and she gives it to him.”
· “Father has denied any drug use or any knowledge of drug use by the Mother.”
¶21 Drawing on these findings, the court found by “clear and convincing evidence” that Father “has issues related to the use of illegal substances.” Elaborating on this, the court referenced the fact that there was “paraphernalia and some residue found in a location where both [Mother] and [Father] say they’ve been and they frequent often,” meaning the trailer. And referring again to Father’s admitted habit of smoking cigarettes in that trailer, the court opined that Father was just “way too close” to illegal drugs and that this was “concerning to the Court.”
¶22 The court accordingly adjudicated the children as “abused and neglected” as to Father. The court determined that this was “true by clear and convincing evidence,” and it based this determination on both Father’s partial rule 34(e) response and its finding that Father “has issues related to the use of illegal substances.”
¶23 The court later held a disposition hearing. There, the State directed the court’s attention to the child and family plan that DCFS had submitted. That plan listed several proposed responsibilities for Father, including the requirement that he complete a substance abuse evaluation and submit to random drug testing. The State asked the court to impose those requirements on Father.
¶24 After hearing from Father’s counsel, the court entered its disposition order. In that ruling, the court determined that “all” the parental responsibilities proposed in the child and family plan were warranted, including the requirement that Father complete a substance abuse evaluation and submit to random drug testing. The court also ordered Father to “remain drug and alcohol free” until the court “hear[d] otherwise from [Father’s] substance abuse evaluation.”
¶25 Father timely appealed.
ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW
¶26 Father first challenges the juvenile court’s determination that the children were abused. It’s somewhat unclear from his brief whether Father’s challenge rests on factual or legal grounds. As explained below, however, we need not decide which challenge Father is making (or, by extension, which standard of review would apply) because, even without the abuse determination, the juvenile court still had jurisdiction to enter disposition orders based on its unchallenged neglect determination.
¶27 Father also challenges the juvenile court’s disposition order, and he does so on two fronts. First, he argues that the disposition order was improper because it was based on an unsupported finding that he “has issues related to the use of illegal substances.” This court “review[s] the juvenile court’s findings of fact for clear error.” In re G.D., 2021 UT 19, ¶ 37, 491 P.3d 867 (quotation simplified). And a “finding of fact is clearly erroneous only when, in light of the evidence supporting the finding, it is against the clear weight of the evidence.” In re B.C., 2018 UT App 125, ¶ 2, 428 P.3d 18 (per curiam). Second, Father argues that the court “erred in making a disposition order [that] includ[ed] drug testing, evaluation, and treatment.” “The juvenile court’s decision can be overturned only if it either failed to consider all of the facts or considered all of the facts and its decision was nonetheless against the clear weight of the evidence.” In re E.R., 2021 UT 36, ¶ 31, 496 P.3d 58 (quotation simplified).
I. Abuse Determination
¶28 Father first challenges the juvenile court’s determination that the children were abused.
¶29 As an initial matter we note that although DCFS’s petition alleged that the children were abused—including an allegation that Father “had hit a child on the back hard enough to leave bruising”—Father’s partial rule 34(e) response only denied the allegation that he “has issues related to the use of illegal substances.” From this alone, we could conclude that Father’s challenge is meritless. But in any event, we need not decide this challenge on its merits because Father has not challenged the court’s separate and independent determination that the children were neglected.
¶30 “Utah’s juvenile courts are creatures of statute, and thus are courts of limited jurisdiction.” In re B.B., 2002 UT App 82, ¶ 12, 45 P.3d 527. “Because they are courts of limited jurisdiction, juvenile courts are allowed to do only what the legislature has expressly authorized.” Id.
¶31 Utah Code section 78A-6-103 defines the juvenile court’s jurisdiction. Relevant to this appeal, that section states that a juvenile court “has original jurisdiction over any proceeding concerning . . . a child who is an abused child, neglected child, or dependent child.” Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-103(2)(a) (LexisNexis Supp. 2021). Once jurisdiction is established under that section, “the court may order reasonable conditions to be complied with by a minor’s parents or guardian, a minor’s custodian, or any other person who has been made a party to the proceedings.” Id. § 78A-6-117(2)(q)(i).
¶32 As noted, the juvenile court adjudicated the children as “abused and neglected,” thereby conferring jurisdiction under section 78A-6-103(2)(a). Importantly, jurisdiction could properly be based on either the abuse determination or the neglect determination. See id. § 78A-6-103(2); see also In re S.F., 2012 UT App 10, ¶ 33, 268 P.3d 831 (“Importantly, once a child has been adjudicated as neglected, the juvenile court has continuing jurisdiction over the child . . . .”); cf. In re B.T., 2009 UT App 182, ¶ 10, 214 P.3d 881 (holding that the facts were inadequate “to support a determination of neglect” but remanding “for a finding of dependency”).
¶33 While Father has challenged the abuse determination on appeal, he has not challenged the separate determination that the children were neglected. Because of this, we have no need to decide his challenge to the abuse determination. After all, even if we accepted Father’s arguments about the abuse determination, the unchallenged neglect determination would still provide the juvenile court with jurisdiction, thereby giving the juvenile court authority to “order” Father to comply with “reasonable conditions” following a disposition hearing. Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-117(2)(q)(i). Indeed, Father appears to agree. In his brief, he specifically “clarifie[d] that he is not arguing that he should not be adjudicated and found to be within the jurisdiction of the Court.”
¶34 In light of this concession, it is not clear what Father hopes to gain by challenging the abuse determination. There are perhaps some collateral consequences associated with an abuse determination that do not follow from a neglect determination. But other than a vague (and unsupported) reference to “presumptions that reunification services should not be offered” in cases of abuse, Father has not briefed any such difference. Moreover, Father is not challenging the imposition of any such collateral consequences in this case. Instead, the only relief that Father seeks in this appeal is a reversal of the conditions that were imposed on him in the disposition hearing. Because the unchallenged neglect determination provided the court with jurisdiction to order those conditions, we decline to address Father’s challenge to the court’s abuse determination. See M.F. v. J.F., 2013 UT App 247, ¶ 11, 312 P.3d 946 (recognizing that “[o]nce the juvenile court has adjudicated the child as falling under its jurisdiction, it has ongoing jurisdiction over that child and may make dispositions by court order” (quotation simplified)).
II. Disposition Order
¶35 As noted, the juvenile court’s neglect determination provided it with jurisdiction to “order reasonable conditions to be complied with by [the children’s] parents or guardian, [the children’s] custodian, or any other person who has been made a party to the proceedings.” Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-117(2)(q)(i). Here, after a disposition hearing, the juvenile court ordered Father to complete a substance abuse evaluation and submit to random drug testing.
¶36 Father now challenges that order on two fronts. First, he notes that these requirements were predicated on the court’s finding that he “has issues related to the use of illegal substances.” According to Father, that finding was an “abuse of discretion.” And second, Father argues that the order itself was unwarranted because it was not supported by the court’s findings.
A. Finding Related to Illegal Substances
¶37 Father first challenges the court’s finding “related to drugs and paraphernalia.” Though Father’s brief is somewhat unclear on this point, we understand him to be challenging the court’s finding that he “has issues related to the use of illegal substances.”
¶38 As an initial matter, Father suggests that we should review this for an abuse of discretion. This suggestion is misplaced, however, because the ruling in question was a factual determination. See generally In re K.D.N., 2013 UT App 298, ¶ 8, 318 P.3d 768 (“Juvenile courts are required to make comprehensive and detailed factual findings in support of their ultimate conclusions.”). Because it was a factual determination, Father must show that the finding was clearly erroneous. See In re G.D., 2021 UT 19, ¶ 37, 491 P.3d 867. And under our accepted standards, a “finding of fact is clearly erroneous only when, in light of the evidence supporting the finding, it is against the clear weight of the evidence.” In re B.C., 2018 UT App 125, ¶ 2, 428 P.3d 18 (per curiam).
¶39 Properly framed, Father’s argument is that this finding was clearly erroneous because there were “no indications or medical assessments of drug ingestion” by Father. But as noted, the juvenile court didn’t directly find that Father used drugs. Rather, it found that Father “has issues related to the use of illegal substances.” And in support of that finding, the court entered a series of subsidiary findings, all of which Father has either conceded or at least failed to successfully challenge on appeal. For example:
· The court found that police “discovered drug paraphernalia including several pipes, tinfoil with heroin residue, a burned spoon, and syringes in a camper on the property where the family lived.” And relatedly, the court also found that Father frequented that trailer to smoke cigarettes. In his brief, Father admits that drug “[p]araphernalia was found in a trailer he had been in and used for smoking.”
· The court found that in February 2021, Father “refused to allow [a DCFS] caseworker to see inside the trailer.” Father does not challenge this finding on appeal.
· The court found that in February 2021, a DCFS investigator asked Father to take a drug test, but that Father declined to take the test. Father has not challenged this finding on appeal, instead simply arguing that this refusal shouldn’t matter because he had previously offered to take a drug test and had allegedly “tested clean” when he took a “test for his employer” on a different occasion.
· The court found that “Mother has stated that she uses heroin with [Father] daily and that he uses approximately a gram a day.” Father does not challenge the court’s finding that Mother said this. Instead, he simply notes that Mother later retracted this claim. But the court acknowledged that Mother had retracted the claim. And even so, the court still found (and thought it significant) that Mother had said that Father used drugs.
· Relatedly, the court found it “concerning” and “disturbing” that Mother had testified “that she gets heroin for [Father], and she gives it to him.” While Father emphasizes Mother’s “lack of credibility,” “we do not disturb [the juvenile court’s] determinations of the witnesses’ credibility because it “is in an advantaged position with respect to the parties and the witnesses.” In re G.D.B., 2019 UT App 29, ¶ 20, 440 P.3d 706 (quotation simplified).
· Finally, the court found that Mother had drug problems of her own. In his brief, Father admits that “there is overwhelming evidence of the mother’s drug use,” including admissions by Mother “that she has a significant drug problem.”
¶40 Again, the finding at issue was that Father “has issues related to the use of illegal substances.” And as the court later explained, this finding was essentially that Father was “way too close” to illegal drugs. The subsidiary findings described above both individually and collectively support this because they show that Father voluntarily placed himself in close proximity to both people who used drugs and to illegal drugs themselves. Father therefore has not shown that this finding was “against the clear weight of the evidence.” In re B.C., 2018 UT App 125, ¶ 2.
B. Drug Testing Requirement
¶41 At the disposition hearing, the court ordered Father to submit to “drug testing, evaluation, and treatment.” Father argues that this order was unwarranted.
¶42 As explained, when a juvenile court has adjudicated a minor child as abused, neglected, or dependent, “the court may order reasonable conditions to be complied with by a minor’s parents or guardian, a minor’s custodian, or any other person who has been made a party to the proceedings.” Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-117(2)(q)(i). Whether a condition is “reasonable” depends on the circumstances of each case. See In re S.A., 2016 UT App 191, ¶ 7, 382 P.3d 642 (per curiam). Helpful considerations include whether the condition is “reasonably related to the juvenile court’s factual finding[s],” “proportionate to the concern raised by” those findings, and “reasonably calculated to serve the best interest of the child.” Id. ¶ 7. Furthermore, we can overturn the juvenile court’s decision only “if it either failed to consider all of the facts or considered all of the facts and its decision was nonetheless against the clear weight of the evidence.” In re E.R., 2021 UT 36, ¶ 31, 496 P.3d 58 (quotation simplified).
¶43 Our decision in In re S.A. is illustrative. There, the “juvenile court found that the facts did not establish abuse or neglect but entered an adjudication order stating that the child was dependent as to [the father].” In re S.A., 2016 UT App 191, ¶ 2. In a subsequent disposition order, the court then ordered that the father “complete a domestic violence assessment.” Id. ¶ 5. The father challenged that order on appeal, claiming that he could not be required to complete the assessment “because there was no neglect adjudication” and because “the juvenile court found no fault by” him. Id. We upheld the order on appeal, however,
concluding that it was “reasonably related to the juvenile court’s factual finding that the parents have hit each other on occasion in the presence of the child.” Id. ¶ 7 (quotation simplified). We also concluded that the condition was “proportionate to the concern raised by that finding” and was “reasonably calculated to serve the best interest of the child.” Id.
¶44 Here, Father claims that the court could not require him to submit to drug testing and treatment without first finding that he actually “used drugs” himself. Father argues that such a finding was required by Utah Code section 62A-4a-205, under which “a child and family plan may only include requirements that . . . address findings made by the court.” Utah Code Ann. § 62A-4a-205(8)(h).
¶45 But while the court didn’t find that there was clear and convincing evidence that Father uses drugs, it did find that “Father is connected to too many people and locations which raises concerns for the Court that he may be abusing substances.” (Emphases added.) And there was ample support for this concern. In addition to its proximity-based findings, the court found that Mother had told both Officer and Investigator that Father used drugs, and it further found that Father had been resistant on at least one occasion to DCFS’s request that he take a drug test.
¶46 As also discussed, the court’s findings showed that Father frequently chose to be around illegal drugs and people who use them. Again, Father commonly associated with both Mother and his friend, both of whom had drug problems; he frequented a trailer on his property in which drug paraphernalia was found; and he was resistant to DCFS’s efforts to look inside that trailer. As noted, this trailer was located on the property where Father lived with the children. And finally, the children’s other caretaker (Mother) has admitted that she has drug problems of her own, and all of this arises against the backdrop of the court’s unchallenged determination that the children were neglected.
¶47 There are obvious dangers associated with advertently or
even inadvertently exposing children to illegal drugs. There are also obvious dangers associated with leaving children in the care of a parent or custodian who is under the influence of illegal drugs. Here, given the reports of Father’s illegal drug use, his ongoing proximity to people who use illegal drugs, his habit of frequenting a place in which drug paraphernalia was later found, and the fact that the children’s other parent had an ongoing drug problem, we have no trouble concluding that the court’s decision to require Father to submit to drug evaluation and testing was “proportionate to the concern raised by” the findings and was “reasonably calculated to serve the best interest” of the neglected and thus vulnerable minor children who were sometimes in Father’s care. In re S.A., 2016 UT App 191, ¶ 7.
¶48 Again, we cannot overturn the juvenile court’s decision unless “it either failed to consider all of the facts or considered all of the facts and its decision was nonetheless against the clear weight of the evidence.” In re E.R., 2021 UT 36, ¶ 31 (quotation simplified). Because the juvenile court considered all the facts and its decision was not “against the clear weight of the evidence,” id. (quotation simplified), we affirm the court’s disposition order.
¶49 We have no need to address Father’s challenge to the juvenile court’s abuse determination because, even if Father is correct, the neglect determination independently provided the juvenile court with jurisdiction and the ability to enter disposition orders in the best interest of the children. Moreover, we conclude that the juvenile court’s finding that Father “has issues related to the use of illegal substances” was not clearly erroneous. We further conclude that the juvenile court’s requirement that Father submit to “drug testing, evaluation, and treatment” was reasonable.
Why would a father whose attorney had outed his children’s mother as a schizophrenogenic narc monster give her full custody?
If the father had it within his power to prevent custody of the children from being awarded to a schizophrenic monster of a mother (as you describe her), but did not do so, then clearly the father acted (or failed to act) morally and responsibly.
It could be that the father was an even bigger monster than the mother (so self absorbed and/or apathetic that the children’s welfare didn’t concern him).
It is more likely, however, that the father did not “give” the mother custody of the children, but encountered a legal system that was biased and that discriminated against fathers, leading the father to conclude that an award of custody to the mother was a fait accompli. under such circumstances, the father did not so much “give” custody of the children to the mother, but surrendered it to her.
Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277
More child abductions have been prevented with the Amber Alert system in place than without it, yet it’s impossible to say how many abducted children would have been found in the absence of an Amber Alert message being broadcasted. According to the website Protection1, “In nearly 7 in every 10 AMBER Alert cases, children are successfully reunited with their parents. And in just over 17 percent of cases, the recovery is a direct result of the AMBER Alert. Just under 6 percent of cases end up being unfounded, while just over 5 percent are hoaxes.” (emphasis added)
A 17% success rate isn’t great (and we don’t know if that 17% figure is inflated).
Compared to how effective it was designed to be, as opposed to how effective it is in practice, it could be deemed ineffective. Amber Alerts were intended to help find missing children within three hours of abduction because approximately 70% of kidnapped children who are murdered are killed within 3 hours of abduction. Research into how often an Amber Alert was issued within 3 hours showed that occurred less than 37% of the time.
STATE OF UTAH, in the Interest of J.A.L. and J.O.L., Persons Under Eighteen Years of Age
J.L. and J.A., Appellants,
STATE OF UTAH, Appellee.
Heard September 16, 2021 Filed February 24, 2022
On Certification from the Court of Appeals
Fifth District Juvenile, Iron County The Honorable Troy A. Little No. 1161641, 1161642
Alexandra Mareschal, J. Frederic Voros, Jr., Julie J. Nelson, Salt Lake City, Christa G. Nelson, Cedar City, for appellant J.L.
Colleen K. Coebergh, Salt Lake City, Candice N. Reid, Cedar City, for appellant J.A.
Sean D. Reyes, Att’y Gen., Carol L. C. Verdoia, John M. Peterson, Asst. Att’ys Gen., Salt Lake City, for appellee
Martha Pierce, Salt Lake City, Guardian ad Litem for J.A.L. and J.O.L.
ASSOCIATE CHIEF JUSTICE LEE authored the opinion of the Court in which CHIEF JUSTICE DURRANT, JUSTICE HIMONAS, JUSTICE PEARCE, and JUSTICE PETERSEN joined.
ASSOCIATE CHIEF JUSTICE LEE, opinion of the Court:
¶1 This is an appeal from a juvenile court order terminating the parental rights of the mother and father of two children. The Division of Child and Family Services has been engaged with this family since at least July 2018. A range of support services has been provided over time. The children were removed from the mother’s custody in December 2018 and placed in foster care. And at various times both the father and mother have been subject to a court order prohibiting contact between them and to orders requiring treatment for domestic violence, substance abuse, and mental health issues.
¶2 The Division initially pursued a permanency goal of reunification with the parents. When reunification failed, the Division petitioned to change the goal to adoption. After a hearing and an order granting the new permanency goal, the children were moved to a kinship placement with the father’s brother in Arkansas. The uncle had agreed to adopt the children. And after a subsequent hearing on the termination of parental rights, the juvenile court entered an order terminating the parental rights of both the mother and father.
¶3 In the termination proceeding, the juvenile court found that both parents were “unfit” and had “neglected” the children. The court based its determination on factors listed in Utah Code section 78A-6-508(2)—concluding that the children were “abused and neglected” by “[t]he domestic violence perpetrated by the Father and the Mother’s failure to protect the children,” and that the parents’ substance abuse “render[ed] [them] unable to care for the children.”
¶4 After finding statutory grounds to terminate, the court determined that termination was “strictly necessary” in the “best interest” of the children. It concluded that the children could not be returned home “today”—or “at this point”—because the mother and father had failed to sufficiently rehabilitate themselves. And it held that the children’s “tremendous need for permanency and stability” could not be met while preserving the parents’ rights within a permanent custody and guardianship arrangement.
¶5 Six weeks after the termination order was entered, the adoptive placement with the uncle failed. The children returned to state custody in Utah.
¶6 After the kinship placement failed, the father and mother filed motions for post-judgment relief. The mother sought 60(b)(6) relief in light of the “extraordinary circumstances” of the failure of the kinship placement. The father filed a 60(b)(6) motion on the same grounds. He also sought relief under 60(b)(5), asserting that the failed kinship placement meant that the judgment was “no longer equitable.” The juvenile court denied the motions.
¶7 The mother and father appealed. The court of appeals certified the matter to this court based on a perceived need for our review of “a challenge to the current appellate standard of review in child welfare proceedings” and to consider “an issue regarding the effect of statutory changes on supreme court case law.”
¶8 The mother and father raise different claims of error on appeal. The mother challenges only the juvenile court’s findings, made at an evidentiary permanency hearing and allegedly at a subsequent review hearing, that she appeared “under the influence” at various hearings. She asserts that a judge is not qualified to make such findings without expert testimony. And she contends that the court denied her due process of law by making the findings without giving her notice and an opportunity to be heard.
¶9 The father challenges the juvenile court’s best interest determination2 and the court’s denial of his motions for post-judgment relief. As an initial matter, the father asks us to conduct de novoreview of termination proceedings—and overturn the deferential standard of review established in State ex rel. B.R., 2007 UT 82, 171 P.3d 435. He also asks us to require specific factual findings and legal conclusions in parental rights termination orders. Regardless of our decision on the appropriate standard of review, the father contends that the juvenile court erred in concluding that termination of the father’s rights was “strictly necessary” to promote the “best interest” of the children.
¶10 We affirm in part and reverse and vacate in part. First, we note that the mother’s claims are unpreserved and hold that she has failed to carry the burden of establishing plain error. Second, we reject the father’s request that we abandon a deferential standard of review of a best interest determination but find threshold legal errors in the juvenile court’s best interest analysis—in the assessment of whether the father had made sufficient progress in his rehabilitation under Utah Code section 78A-6-509(1)(b), and in the assessment of whether termination of parental rights is “strictly necessary” under Utah Code section 78A-6-507. Third, we vacate and remand for a new best interest determination under the law as clarified in this opinion. In so doing, we note that the mother failed to highlight the legal errors identified by the father in her briefs on appeal but conclude that the mother’s rights should be on the table on remand in the unique circumstances of this case.
¶11 The mother challenges the juvenile court’s findings that she appeared “under the influence” at court hearings. She asserts that the judge is not qualified to make such findings without expert testimony. And she claims that the court infringed her right to due process by making these findings without notice that the observations were being made and without affording her an opportunity to respond.
¶12 None of these points was preserved in the juvenile court, however. To succeed on appeal, the mother would therefore need to make a showing of plain error—that “(1) an error exists; (2) the error should have been obvious to the trial court; and (3) the error is harmful, i.e., absent the error, there is a reasonable likelihood of a more favorable outcome.” State v. Low, 2008 UT 58, ¶ 20, 192 P.3d 867 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).3 And the mother has failed to carry that burden.
¶13 We have previously upheld a juvenile court’s legal conclusions based on observations of “outbursts” made in open court. In re T.E., 2011 UT 51, ¶¶ 44–45, 266 P.3d 739. And the juvenile court in this case did not even go so far as to make a legal conclusion. It relied on its observation of the mother in court to require her to be subjected to testing for substance use—a follow-up under a standing order requiring ongoing substance abuse testing.4So we do not see how it could have been error—and certainly not an obvious error—for the court to use its observations as a basis for such testing where the mother’s sobriety was already at issue.
¶14 Nor do we see a basis for concluding that any alleged error was prejudicial. In the termination order, the court refers to its “personal observations” of the mother only once—as a single consideration in a set of reasons supporting one of the five grounds for termination found by the court. And earlier in the proceedings, the court continued reunification services for the mother despite making a concurrent finding that “[t]hree quarters of the times the Mother is in court it appears she [is] under the influence of drugs”— and despite terminating reunification services as to the father in the same evidentiary permanency hearing. The mother has not established that there is any likelihood that her parental rights would not have been terminated if the juvenile court had not ordered testing on the basis of its observations, or if it had afforded the mother the right to respond that she asserts as a matter of due process.
¶15 The father challenges the termination of his parental rights on two grounds. He contends that the juvenile court erred in (a) concluding that termination of his rights was “strictly necessary” in the “best interest” of the children; and (b) denying his motions for post-judgment relief. We reverse on the first ground and decline to reach the second because it is mooted by our threshold decision.
¶16 The father prefaces his challenge to the juvenile court’s best interest analysis with a request that we overrule our longstanding case law on the standard of review of parental rights termination orders—requesting that we replace the established deferential standard of review with a de novo review for correctness. But we rejected parallel requests in two recent decisions. See In re G.D., 2021 UT 19, ¶¶ 1, 3, 491 P.3d 867; State ex rel. E.R., 2021 UT 36, ¶ 13, 496 P.3d 58. And the father has not identified a persuasive ground for reconsidering these decisions.
¶17 In E.R. we clarified that the best interest inquiry is a fact-like “mixed determination of law and fact” that is subject to deferential review. 2021 UT 36, ¶¶ 17, 22. Appellate deference, of course, is not absolute. The juvenile court’s best interest analysis may be set aside if it is “against the ‘clear weight of the evidence.’” Id. ¶ 6. It is also subject to reversal where it is premised on a threshold legal error. See id. ¶ 16 (noting that we “afford [n]o deference” to the juvenile court’s “analysis of abstract legal questions” (alteration in original) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted)).
¶18 We reverse the juvenile court’s termination of the father’s parental rights on this basis. The juvenile court’s order was infected by two legal errors. And those errors foreclose the usual basis for deference to the conclusion that termination of the father’s rights was “strictly necessary” in the “best interest” of the children under Utah Code section 78A-6-507(1) (2020).5 See Rocky Ford Irrigation Co. v. Kents Lake Reservoir Co., 2020 UT 47, ¶ 78, 469 P.3d 1003 (citationomitted) (holding that a district court’s findings were not owed deference where they were “infected by legal error”).
¶19 In terminating the father’s parental rights, the juvenile court concluded that it would be “neglectful” to “[r]eturn the children to the Father today.” (Emphasis added.) It also found that a reunification of the children with the father would introduce a significant “safety risk” “at this time.” (Emphasis added.) And it raised the concern that the father might not “be successful outside of treatment” given the lack of “any indication of future success” based on “the Father’s past.”
¶20 These statements are premised on legal error. In a case where the child is not in the parent’s physical custody, the court must consider a set of “specific considerations” in assessing whether termination is strictly necessary in the best interest of children. UTAH CODE § 78A-6-509. And the listed considerations include “the effort the parent or parents have made to adjust their circumstances, conduct, or conditions to make it in the child’s best interest to return [the child to the] home after a reasonable length of time.” Id. § 78A-6509(1)(b) (emphasis added).
¶21 The statute does not establish a specific timeframe for parents to “adjust their circumstances, conduct, or conditions.” But it does afford a parent a “reasonable length of time” to make any necessary adjustments. And that requires the court to consider whether any needed adjustments were made within a reasonable time.
¶22 The court retains a measure of discretion in deciding on the length of the “reasonable” time.6 But by statute it must exercise that discretion. And the juvenile court failed to do so here. It held that the father “ha[d] failed to appropriately adjust” his “circumstances, conduct, or conditions to make return in the children’s best interest.” In so doing, it failed to consider whether he had had a “reasonable length of time” to do so.7 And it exacerbated the problem by focusing on static assessments that it would be “neglectful” to “[r]eturn the children to the Father today” and would introduce a significant “safety risk” if they returned to him “at this time.”
¶23 The juvenile court also premised its termination decision on concerns about the “tremendous need for permanency and stability” of the children. It considered the possibility of preserving the father’s legal rights while awarding permanent custody to a guardian. But it rejected that move on the ground that it “would not . . . offer the same degree of permanency as an adoption,” given that a permanent guardianship could be terminated at the request of the guardian or at least subject to visitation by the father. And it held that this “lack of stability would be harmful for the children.”
¶24 This too was error. The court was right to consider the feasibility of a permanent guardianship. See In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶¶ 66–67, 472 P.3d 827 (explaining that the “strictly necessary” analysis requires consideration of the possibility of “feasible options” like awarding custody to a permanent guardian (citation and internal quotation marks omitted)). But it fell into legal error in concluding that this option would not provide the “same degree of permanency as an adoption.” That is not the question under our law. A permanent guardianship by definition does not offer the same degree of permanency as an adoption. And there is always some risk that the permanent guardianship could come to an end, or be affected by visitation by the parent. If these categorical concerns were enough, termination and adoption would be strictly necessary across the board. But such categorical analysis is not in line with the statutory standard.
¶25 By statute, the juvenile court must assess whether a permanent guardianship can “equally protect and benefit” the children in the case before it. G.D., 2021 UT 19, ¶ 75 (citation omitted). That standard is not met by the categorical concern that a permanent guardianship is not as stable or permanent as an adoption. It requires analysis of the particularized circumstances of the case before the court. No such analysis is presented here. And the court’s categorical dismissal of the possibility of a permanent guardianship is a further ground for reversal of the juvenile court’s decision.
¶26 The above legal errors undermine our confidence in the juvenile court’s basis for terminating the father’s parental rights. They also foreclose the need for us to consider the father’s challenge to the denial of his motions for post-judgment relief. The correctness of the denial of those motions is mooted by our decision to reverse in light of the legal errors in the parental termination order.
¶27 The father has established that the juvenile court’s termination order was infected by the above-noted legal errors. That leaves the question of the effect of those errors on our disposition on appeal. We conclude that a remand to the juvenile court is appropriate. And we hold that both parents’ legal rights should be on the table on remand.
¶28 The juvenile court’s threshold legal errors foreclose the usual basis for deference to its factual findings and mixed determinations. In the face of such errors, an appellate court has at least two options. It may reverse and remand to the lower court for rehearing under a correct legal standard.8 Or it may review the lower court’s findings under a non-deferential standard of review.9 We take the former course of action here in light of the important role that our juvenile courts play in applying a complex body of law to a matter encompassing an extensive factual and procedural record.
¶29 In the parties’ briefing on appeal, only the father identified the above-noted legal errors as a basis for reversal. The mother’s appeal was limited to her challenge to the juvenile court’s findings that she appeared “under the influence” in court.
¶30 The father urges this as a basis for concluding that the mother is foreclosed from participating in the proceedings on remand, or from having her rights on the table in a new “best interest” analysis in line with the refinements in our law set forth above. See supra ¶¶ 21–22, 24–25. He notes that a claim is generally waived if not raised on appeal. See State v. Johnson, 2017 UT 76, ¶¶ 15–16, 416 P.3d 443. And he asks us to hold that the mother forfeited her stake in a remand under claims of legal error that she failed to advance on appeal.
¶31 The father’s position finds some threshold footing in our law. As a general rule, our courts respect the prerogatives of the parties in deciding which claims to pursue (or forgo) in litigation. See Utah Stream Access Coalition v. VR Acquisitions, LLC, 2019 UT 7, ¶¶ 36–37, 439 P.3d 593. In deference to those prerogatives, and in the interest of judicial economy and repose, the parties are generally stuck with the moves they make in litigation. Patterson v. Patterson, 2011 UT 68, ¶¶ 15–17, 266 P.3d 828. Our courts do not lightly second-guess the parties by reviving a claim they have forfeited by their pleading or briefing decisions.10
¶32 The mother presumably would be foreclosed from participating in the proceedings on remand if she had failed to file an appeal.11 But the mother did file an appeal. And the father has cited no case law that controls in the unusual circumstances presented here—where two appellants filed briefs on appeal and one of them has identified a legal error that affected not just both of the appellants but also the interests of other parties to this proceeding (the children).
¶33 In these circumstances, we are reluctant to give conclusive, controlling effect to the briefing decisions of the parties. The juvenile court’s legal missteps infected its decision to terminate both the father’s and the mother’s legal rights.12 And those missteps may bear significant consequences not just for the parents but for their children. The rights and interests of the parents and the children are not only substantial but intertwined. On remand, the decision whether to terminate one parent’s rights could be affected by the decision whether to terminate the other’s rights. And the decision whether one or both parents should retain their rights may havesubstantial bearing on the analysis of the best interest of the children.13
¶34 With these concerns in mind, we conclude that the mother’s briefing decisions should not foreclose her from participating in the case on remand. Both parents’ legal rights should be on the table.
¶35 In remanding, we are not foreclosing the possibility that concerns expressed in the juvenile court’s order—such as the risk and effects of domestic violence—may be a sufficient basis for termination of the parents’ legal rights. Nor are we suggesting that the parents have not yet had a “reasonable length of time” to adjust their “circumstances, conduct, or conditions.” On these and other points, we are simply holding that the juvenile court’s opinion is too affected by legal error to merit deference on appeal. And we are sending the matter back to the juvenile court to exercise its discretion under a correct formulation of the law.
¶36 We vacate the juvenile court’s order terminating the parental rights of the parents. In so doing, we leave in place any threshold orders not challenged on appeal—such as the court’s order establishing the parents’ unfitness. But we remand the case for rehearing on the question whether termination of their parental rights is strictly necessary in the best interest of the children, under the governing legal standard as clarified in this opinion.