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Category: Child Protective Services

2024 UT App 52 – In re A.S. – child neglect, photographing genitals

2024 UT App 52 – In re A.S.

 

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF A.S. AND J.S.,

PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE. V.S., Appellant, v. STATE OF UTAH, Appellee.

Opinion No. 20230338-CA Filed April 11, 2024 Third District Juvenile Court, Summit Department

The Honorable Elizabeth M. Knight No. 1214949

Julie J. Nelson and Alexandra Mareschal, Attorneys 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 JUDGES DAVID N. MORTENSEN and JOHN D. LUTHY concurred.

TENNEY, Judge:

¶1        On the basis of a set of stipulated facts, the juvenile court adjudicated A.S. and J.S. as being neglected as to V.S. (Mother). Mother now challenges that adjudication on appeal, arguing that the stipulated facts did not support the neglect adjudication. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm.

BACKGROUND
Initial Proceedings

¶2        This is a child welfare case concerning two children: A.S., who was 16 years old at the time of this appeal, and J.S., who was 9 years old. A.S. and J.S. (collectively, the Children) are the biological children of Mother and J.S. (Father).[1] Mother and Father divorced in March 2018, and they’ve had an “ongoing” and “contentious” custody dispute in district court ever since.

¶3        In August 2022, the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) filed a petition for protective supervision services, alleging that the Children were “abused, neglected, or dependent children” pursuant to Utah Code section 80-1-102. The petition alleged a range of conduct to support this—most of it by Mother, though with one allegation relating to Father. This appeal is brought by Mother, so we’ll focus on the allegations, proceedings, and rulings relating to her.[2]

¶4        On March 10, 2023, DCFS filed an amended petition relating to Mother, and the amended petition realleged some (but not all) of the allegations from the original petition. Based on the amended set of allegations, DCFS again alleged that the Children were abused, neglected, or dependent. That same day, the juvenile court held a “merged pretrial and adjudication hearing” relating to Mother, and Mother was represented by counsel at that hearing. Mother acknowledged under oath that she understood that she had a right to a trial, that DCFS bore the burden of proving the allegations against her by clear and convincing evidence, and that she had the right to present evidence in her defense. Mother then waived her right to a trial, affirmatively admitted to a specified list of the allegations from the amended petition, and, pursuant to rule 34(e) of the Utah Rules of Juvenile Procedure, “neither admitted nor denied” certain other specified allegations from the amended petition.

¶5        On the basis of Mother’s affirmative admissions and the allegations deemed to be true by virtue of her rule 34(e) response, the juvenile court later issued a ruling that found a list of facts to be “true by clear and convincing evidence.” We now recount those facts here, with any quotations being drawn directly from the court’s precise verbiage.[3]

The Stipulated Facts

¶6        Since filing for divorce, Mother has sought four protective orders against Father: one in 2016, one in 2020, and two in 2022. Also, Child Protective Services (CPS) has received twelve reports accusing Father of neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence-related child abuse, and other miscellaneous complaints which were not child welfare related. “All but one of these reports were either unaccepted because they did not meet CPS minimum requirements for investigation or unsupported because there was inadequate evidence to support the allegation after the matter was investigated.” Only two of the twelve reports affirmatively identified Mother as the person who made the report, and though a touch unclear, a third suggested that she was likely the reporter.

¶7        Sometime in 2020, certain pictures were taken of J.S. at Wasatch Pediatrics. These pictures showed “mild inflammation” of J.S.’s “inner labia,” “mild peri-anal erythema,” and a “superficial linear abrasion in the crease of [her] right thigh and perineum.” In August 2020 and again in April 2022, Mother shared medical records with DCFS that included those photographs, and she did so in both instances “as part of an abuse investigation.” In April 2022, Mother “forwarded all communications with DCFS to the Ombudsmen’s office at [its] request,” again including these photographs.

¶8        In June 2022, Mother also “began documenting pictures of [J.S.’s] stool under the medical advice of” a gastroenterology specialist (Specialist) who was treating J.S. “for a chronic gastrointestinal issue.”

¶9        On June 28, 2022, Mother took photographs of “bruises on [J.S.’s] knee, leg, and abdomen.” One of these photographs was “taken in the bathtub when [J.S.] was naked,” but J.S.’s “genitalia were not visible in the picture,” and the other photographs taken on this occasion “were taken when [J.S.] was clothed.”

¶10      Based on Mother’s concerns about these bruises and about “additional vaginal redness,” Mother took J.S. to the Redstone Clinic on June 30, 2022. A medical professional at the clinic “took pictures of the bruises and vaginal and anal redness” and then instructed Mother to take J.S. to the Emergency Department at Primary Children’s Hospital. In an effort to avoid a further genital exam, a doctor at the hospital accessed and viewed the photographs that had been taken at the Redstone Clinic. While at the hospital, Mother also spoke to the Safe and Healthy Families Clinic over the phone. Mother was advised to call the clinic back during normal clinic hours.

¶11 The next day, a doctor (Doctor) at the Safe and Healthy Families Clinic “indicated that the pattern of bruising [was] unusual and that in the absence of a history of accidental injury, inflicted injury, or physical abuse, the bruises would be a reasonable concern,” but Doctor further opined “that sexual abuse of a child is most often recognized when a child makes a disclosure.” Doctor also said that “constipation . . . is a common manifestation of childhood stress and only rarely associated with sexual abuse.” As to the vaginal redness in question, Doctor said that it was “not an indicator of sexual contact,” “particularly with swimming and warm weather.” Doctor saw “no reason to have specific concern for sexual abuse in this case,” and Doctor did not believe that J.S.’s symptoms met “the threshold for suspected abuse or neglect.” Doctor therefore “did not make a report to either DCFS or law enforcement,” and she saw “no need for follow up in the Safe and Healthy Families Clinic based on” the information that had been provided to her.

¶12 That same day, Mother spoke with an officer from the Summit County Sheriff’s Office, again “reporting the bruises and vaginal and anal redness.” When the officer offered to come to the home and take “pictures of the bruising,” Mother declined. Instead, she sent him the pictures that she had taken of the bruising on J.S.’s knee, leg, and abdomen.

¶13 Sometime later that day, Mother called the Safe and Healthy Families Clinic. A nurse (Nurse) received a page regarding the call. Before calling Mother back, Nurse contacted DCFS and was informed “that there had been several calls over the last few years, but all of them were closed unsupported.” DCFS also informed Nurse that Mother had texted photos to DCFS and a detective. After receiving this information, Nurse called Mother. During that conversation, Mother “requested that Safe and Healthy Families conduct a forensic examination and take photographs of [J.S.’s] genitals due to a request from law enforcement.” The juvenile court’s subsequent finding recounts the following about what happened next:

According to [Nurse], the mother told her that she had taken photographs of [J.S.’s] genitals before and after she went to see her father on the advice of a pelvic floor physical therapist. [Nurse] asked the mother three times for the name of the physician that advised her to take photographs and the mother refused to provide it. [Nurse] states that the mother eventually reported that she was documenting what [J.S.’s] genitals looked like before and after parent-time with her father. The mother indicates that she felt pressured and interrogated and was unable to provide the name of [Specialist] to [Nurse]. Mother states that she had trouble communicating with [Nurse] and was unable to explain everything.

The court’s findings also note that “[n]o one has received” the “before and after” photographs described in the conversation Mother had with Nurse.

¶14      Doctor later shared her professional opinion that “she would have substantial concerns about repeated photography” of a child’s genitals. In Doctor’s view, children are “told repeatedly that these are private parts of our body,” but because children would understand that photographs are “usually show[n] to all sorts of people,” repeated photographing of genitals would undermine this messaging. Doctor also expressed her view that subjecting a child to “multiple forensic exams” would improperly “normalize[] certain amounts of touching and manipulation of the genital region.”

¶15 With respect to Mother, “[m]ultiple police reports and DCFS records indicate that [Mother] may be difficult to understand.” It is “documented” that Mother has “POTS (post orthostatic tachycardia syndrome) which causes forgetfulness and trouble focusing (brain fog) making it difficult for [Mother] to think and speak clearly under stress.”[4]

The Neglect Adjudication

¶16      Based on the stipulated facts, the juvenile court found that the Children “are neglected as to [Mother], as it is lack of proper parental care to subject a child to having her genitals photographed before and after visits with [Father], as well as sending other photographs to various agencies.” The juvenile court then ordered that “[c]ustody and guardianship shall continue with the parents with protective supervision services with DCFS,” and Mother was also ordered to “comply with the requirements of the DCFS service plan.” Mother now appeals that ruling.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶17 The juvenile court ruled that Mother neglected the Children by (i) taking “before and after” photographs of J.S.’s genitals, as well as (ii) “sending other photographs” to various agencies. As explained below, we need consider only the court’s conclusions relating to the “before and after” photographs. With respect to those, Mother raises two challenges: first, Mother challenges the finding that she actually took the photographs; and second, Mother argues that even if she did, this did not constitute neglect. Although Mother’s first challenge is to a factual finding, that finding was based on stipulated facts. When “the facts are stipulated, we review the conclusions drawn by the juvenile court for correctness.” In re K.T., 2023 UT App 5, ¶ 7, 524 P.3d 1003 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 528 P.3d 327 (Utah 2023). We also review the court’s interpretation of the neglect statute for correctness. See In re M.S., 2023 UT App 74, ¶ 23, 533 P.3d 859 (holding that the determination of “whether the statutory criteria for neglect have been met” is “primarily a law-like endeavor” that is accordingly reviewed for correctness) (quotation simplified).

ANALYSIS

¶18      The juvenile court concluded the Children are neglected as to Mother because “it is a lack of proper parental care to subject a child to having her genitals photographed before and after visits with [Father], as well as sending other photographs to various agencies.” Because we determine that the “before and after” photographs alone are enough to support the neglect adjudication, we need not consider whether Mother also neglected the Children by sending the photographs to “various agencies.”[5]

¶19      Mother makes two arguments relating to the “before and after” photographs: first, she argues that there was not clear and convincing evidence that she actually took them; and second, she argues that even if she did take the photographs, this did not constitute neglect.

I. There Was Sufficient Evidence to Support the Court’s
Conclusion that Mother Took These Photographs.

¶20 Mother first argues that there was not “clear and convincing evidence that Mother took photos of [J.S.’s] genitals before and after visits with Father.” We disagree.[6]

¶21 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.” In re K.K., 2023 UT App 13, ¶ 22, 525 P.3d 519 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 531 P.3d 731 (Utah 2023). As noted, because the juvenile court made this finding on the basis of stipulated facts, we afford no deference to its conclusion that DCFS had satisfied the clear and convincing evidence standard. But even so, we conclude that this standard was satisfied.

¶22      The clearest indication that Mother took these photographs is the stipulated finding that Mother told Nurse that she took these photographs. The law has of course long recognized that admissions from a party can carry substantial evidentiary weight. As a result, once Mother told Nurse that she took these photographs, the court had a solid evidentiary basis for concluding that she had indeed taken them.

¶23      In a footnote of her brief, Mother nevertheless argues that the court should not have credited this admission. As an initial matter, Mother points out that “[n]o one has received” these particular photographs. And this seems to be true. But again, Mother told Nurse that she had taken them. From this, even without the actual photographs, the juvenile court could take Mother at her word and find that she had taken them.

¶24 More significantly, Mother suggests that her seeming admission was actually the product of a misunderstanding. As noted, the stipulated facts include that “Mother state[d] that she had trouble communicating with [Nurse] and was unable to explain everything.” They also include that “[m]ultiple police reports and DCFS records indicate that [Mother] may be difficult to understand,” and that it is “documented” that Mother has “POTS (post orthostatic tachycardia syndrome),” a condition that “causes forgetfulness and trouble focusing (brain fog) making it difficult for [Mother] to think and speak clearly under stress.” But even accounting for these facts, the juvenile court could still take Mother’s admissions to Nurse at face value. This is so for several reasons.

¶25      The first is the specificity of Nurse’s account. Nurse didn’t say that Mother had made a passing or unclear comment to this effect. Rather, Nurse recalled Mother telling her that “she had taken photographs of [J.S.’s] genitals before and after she went to see [Father] on the advice of a pelvic floor physical therapist.” On its own, the specificity of Nurse’s account belies the suggestion that Nurse had simply misunderstood Mother.

¶26 Second, Mother seems to have reiterated her initial admission as the conversation with Nurse continued. According to Nurse, after Mother made her initial comment about taking these photographs, Nurse “asked [Mother] three times for the name of the physician” who had recommended taking them, but Mother “refused to provide it.” If Mother had not meant to say that she was taking “before and after” photographs of J.S.’s genitals (or, instead, if she hadn’t said it at all and Nurse had misheard her), Nurse’s repeated questioning about which doctor had asked for the photographs would have given Mother the opportunity to clarify that she had misspoken (or that she had been misunderstood) and that she hadn’t actually taken these photographs. But this wasn’t Mother’s response.

¶27      Instead, Nurse claimed that as the conversation continued, Mother “eventually reported that she was documenting what [J.S.’s] genitals looked like before and after parent-time with [Father].” Nurse’s statement that Mother “eventually” told Nurse that she was “documenting” the condition of her daughter’s genitals indicates that Mother reiterated that she had indeed taken them. And the fact that Mother then added the detail that she was “documenting” the “before and after” look of her daughter’s genitals functioned as her explanation for why she thought this was appropriate to do.

¶28      Finally, there’s no place in either the court’s ruling or even in the record as a whole where Mother has ever denied taking these photographs. Even when confronted with a specific allegation from DCFS about an instance in which a witness said that Mother admitted to taking them, Mother chose to respond with a non-admission/non-denial pursuant to rule 34(e).

¶29 Thus, the evidence before the juvenile court was that Mother had told Nurse that she had taken these photographs, that even with the benefits of further conversation and even subsequent litigation, Mother never retracted that admission, and that Mother had instead chosen to justify taking them. In light of all this, we see no basis for overturning the court’s implicit finding that Mother personally took these photographs.

II. The “Before and After” Photographs Were Enough to Establish Neglect.

¶30      “Neglect is statutorily defined,” and it “can be proved in any one of several ways.” In re G.H., 2023 UT App 132, ¶ 28, 540 P.3d 631; see also Utah Code § 80-1-102(58)(a). The juvenile court here concluded that Mother’s actions constituted neglect because “it is a lack of proper parental care to subject a child to having her genitals photographed before and after visits with [Father].” This was an apparent reference to Utah Code section 80-1-102(58)(a)(ii), which defines neglect as “action or inaction causing . . . lack of proper parental care of a child by reason of the fault or habits of the parent.”

¶31      In her brief, Mother points out that the legislature has not further defined the phrase “lack of proper parental care.” Drawing on various textual, structural, and even constitutional sources, Mother now asks us to take the opportunity to fill in the gap and provide further definition of what this phrase means. While we need not create a definitive one-size-fits all definition, we do agree with Mother on a few broad points that inform our analysis below.

¶32      First, the word “proper” is commonly understood to refer to something that is “marked by suitability, rightness, or appropriateness.”[7] Second and similarly, we think the phrase “proper parental care” would naturally incorporate notions of reasonableness. (After all, conduct that’s appropriate would likely be reasonable, and the converse would also be true.) In this vein, we note that Black’s Law Dictionary links the term “proper care” to notions of “reasonable care” that are commonly used in negligence cases, and Black’s defines “reasonable care” as “the degree of care that a prudent and competent person engaged in the same line of business or endeavor would exercise under similar circumstances.” Care, Black’s Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019). Third, because the statutory phrase at issue turns on notions of “proper parental care,” the relevant inquiry is appropriately focused on what would be proper (with all that the word entails) “under similar circumstances”—meaning, in the particular parenting circumstance at issue. And finally, we agree with Mother that, in light of the fundamental and constitutional rights that are associated with parenting, the neglect standard should not be applied to conduct that falls within an ordinary range of permissible parenting.

¶33      With those principles in mind, we think the contours of this phrase can then capably be fleshed out in the same way that most other phrases from constitutions or statutes are fleshed out— through the ordinary process of common law development. And while there doesn’t appear to be a Utah case that has comprehensively defined this phrase, the parameters of what constitutes neglect have been explored and applied in a number of cases. Among others, we note the following:

·         In In re G.H., we held that the neglect standard was satisfied where the mother “did not attend to the children’s basic health and welfare needs, such as feeding and bathing them, changing their diapers regularly, and obtaining medical care for them when they were sick,” where the mother “did not behave in a manner consistent with parenting a child,” and where the mother “would refuse to care for them when asked by the family members with whom she was living.” 2023 UT App 132, ¶¶ 29–31, 540 P.3d 631 (quotation simplified).

·         In In re K.K., we held that the neglect standard was satisfied based on the mother’s “inaction in failing to protect the children from exposure to domestic violence and prioritizing her toxic relationship” with the father. 2023 UT App 14, ¶ 12, 525 P.3d 526 (quotation simplified).

·         In In re K.D.N., we upheld a neglect determination that was based on “the lack of food,” the “profound lack of parenting skills,” and the presence of “violence” and “chaos” within the home. 2013 UT App 298, ¶ 11, 318 P.3d 768 (quotation simplified).

·         In In re D.T., we held that the neglect standard was satisfied based on the mother’s “admitted relapse” on illegal drugs, “her frequent absences, inconsistent housing, lack of stability, and other behaviors.” 2013 UT App 169, ¶ 5, 309 P.3d 248 (quotation simplified).

·         And in In re N.M., we held that “sufficient evidence support[ed] the juvenile court’s determination that the father “neglected [his child] by engaging in domestic violence.” 2013 UT App 151, ¶ 3, 305 P.3d 194.

In these and other cases, we held that the neglect standard was satisfied, not because of a failure of best-practices parenting, but instead because the behavior in question fell outside acceptable norms of proper parenting. To again use the phrase that we recently used in In re G.H., such cases involve a parent who simply “did not behave in a manner consistent with parenting a child.” 2023 UT App 132, ¶ 30.

¶34      So viewed, we agree with the juvenile court’s conclusion here that Mother’s behavior likewise reflected a “lack of proper parental care.” Utah Code § 80-1-102(58)(a)(ii). Again, while DCFS alleged that Mother had neglected the Children based on a number of things (including her excessive reporting of abuse, as well as her decision to submit the photographs taken by doctors to law enforcement and medical professionals), the conduct at issue in the court’s ruling was Mother taking photographs of a minor’s genitals “before and after parent-time” with Father, as well as Mother’s explanation that she was doing so to “document[] what” J.S.’s “genitals looked like before and after parent-time with” him.

¶35      The juvenile court had before it a statement from Doctor that she had “substantial concerns” about the “repeated photography” of a child’s genitals. Doctor opined that such behavior can be damaging to a child, in part, because it can undermine the messaging that children receive about the privacy relating to their genitals. Doctor’s concerns seem well-founded.

¶36 Moreover, we also note that the photographs in question here were taken by a parent who was in the midst of an “ongoing” and “contentious” custody dispute. By taking photographs of her young child’s genitals “before and after” that child’s visits with her father, Mother wasn’t just potentially desensitizing her daughter to photography of her genitals, but Mother was also communicating to her daughter that she should be concerned that Father was sexually abusing her or at least was likely to do so. This, too, carries obvious potential for harm, both to the child and to her relationship with Father.

¶37      We recognize, of course, that contextual questions such as the ones presented here can and often do turn on even small factual differences. And to be very clear, we don’t mean to suggest that a parent (even one who is involved in a contentious custody dispute) must sit idly by if the parent has a good-faith basis for suspecting that a child is being abused. As illustrated by our survey of the relevant cases above, children should always be protected, and on that front, their parents are indeed the first line of defense.

¶38 If a parent has suspicions that a child is being sexually abused, the parent should of course do something to protect the child, and as indicated, a failure to do anything may well constitute neglect in its own right. Among other things, a parent might respond by reaching out to medical, law enforcement, or other trained professionals, and such professionals may well be involved in documenting any observed abuse. But unlike some of the other photographs at issue in this case, the particular photographs in question here weren’t taken by professionals or in response to their recommendation, nor were they taken by Mother to document visible genital trauma.[8] Rather, according to the explanation that Mother “eventually” gave to Nurse during their conversation, Mother was trying to “document[] what [J.S.’s] genitals looked like before and after parent-time with her father.” It was on this basis that the juvenile court concluded that the neglect standard had been satisfied.

¶39      We have no need to determine whether it would ever be within the bounds of “proper parental care” for a parent to take photographs of a young child’s genitals without first involving trained professionals. And we note here too that, in addition to the suspected abuse scenario, there may be situations where such photography is in response to something more benign (such as diaper rash on an infant), and such contextual differences would likely place such photographs on different analytical footing. For purposes of this appeal, however, we simply conclude that it falls outside the realm of “proper parental care” for a parent to take photographs of a child’s genitals “before and after” visits with the other parent for “documentation” purposes. On this basis, we affirm the juvenile court’s conclusion that Mother neglected the Children.[9]

CONCLUSION

¶40      We agree with the juvenile court’s conclusion that, without something more, it constitutes a “lack of proper parental care,” Utah Code § 80-1-102(58)(a)(ii), for a parent to take photographs of a child’s genitals “before and after” visits with the other parent for “documentation” purposes. We affirm the adjudication of the juvenile court on that basis.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277


[1] Mother and Father also have another child who was not a minor during the proceedings in question.

[2] For background purposes only, we note that the juvenile court held a “merged pretrial, adjudication, and partial disposition hearing” relating to the one allegation made against Father. At the close of that hearing, the court concluded that the Children were “dependent children . . . in that they were without proper care through no fault of [Father].” Father was ordered to comply with protective supervision services through DCFS as a result. Father has not appealed that ruling.

[3] The parties in this case have all referred to these facts as “stipulated facts.” As indicated, however, Mother affirmatively admitted to certain facts, but for others, she invoked rule 34(e) of the Utah Rules of Juvenile Procedure and neither admitted nor denied them. Under that rule, when a party “declin[es] to admit or deny the allegations,” the “[a]llegations not specifically denied . . . shall be deemed true.” Id. Thus, in a technical sense, the facts the court relied on pursuant to rule 34(e) might not actually be “stipulated” (because Mother didn’t affirmatively agree to all of them), but by force of law, they might as well be. For ease of reference, we’ll follow the lead of the parties and refer to the court’s findings collectively as “stipulated facts.”

[4] Though the findings at issue don’t specifically draw the link, DCFS’s original petition in this case alleged that Mother has a “traumatic brain injury because a car hit her in December 2020,” and the juvenile court also included this finding in an order that it entered with respect to Father elsewhere in this litigation.

[5] The court found that Mother took photographs of J.S.’s genitals, but there’s no finding that she took similar photographs of A.S.’s genitals. Even so, the court found that both the Children are neglected. On appeal, Mother has not argued that this potential distinction provides a basis for reversing the adjudication as to A.S., and we therefore do not consider whether this is so.

[6] The juvenile court did not explicitly find that Mother personally took these photographs. Rather, in this portion of the ruling, the court stated that it is a “lack of proper parental care to subject a child to having her genitals photographed before and after visits with [Father].” “Unstated findings can be implied,” however, “if it is reasonable to assume that the trial court actually considered the controverted evidence and necessarily made a finding to resolve the controversy, but simply failed to record the factual determination it made.” Fish v. Fish, 2016 UT App 125, ¶ 22, 379 P.3d 882 (quotation simplified). Here, we conclude that the juvenile court did make an unstated finding that Mother took these photographs. As discussed in more detail below, Nurse claimed that Mother admitted to taking them. And of note, no one has claimed that anyone else took these particular photographs. Thus, when the court ruled that Mother had “subject[ed] a child to having her genitals photographed before and after visits with [Father],” the clear (and, indeed, only) implication that can be reasonably drawn from this record and the court’s ruling is that the court implicitly found that Mother took these photographs.

[7] Proper, Merriam-Webster Dictionary, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/proper [https://perma.cc/YGY2-MJXP].

[8] In contrast, the juvenile court noted that the photographs taken in 2020 showed “inflammation” of the labia and a small “abrasion” near the groin, while the 2022 photographs showed “vaginal and anal redness.”

[9] Mother also makes some allusion to the stipulated facts relating to certain photographs that she was taking on the advice of Specialist. It’s unclear from the briefing whether Mother means to assert this as something of an “advice of doctor” defense to this neglect allegation. See Utah Code § 80-1-102(58)(b)(ii) (stating that neglect “does not include . . . a health care decision made for a child by the child’s parent or guardian, unless the state or other party to a proceeding shows, by clear and convincing evidence, that the health care decision is not reasonable and informed”). In any event, those stipulated findings reflect that Specialist worked at a gastroenterology clinic, that Specialist was treating J.S. for “a chronic gastrointestinal issue,” and that Mother had been “documenting pictures of [J.S.’s] stool” in conjunction with that treatment. Mother has not specifically asserted that, in conjunction with this gastroenterology treatment, Specialist also told her to take photographs of her daughter’s genitals, much less that Specialist instructed her to “document[] what [J.S.’s] genitals looked like before and after parent-time with [Father].” We accordingly see no basis from this record to overturn the neglect finding on this potential ground.

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CPS Has Encouraged Parental Alienation Before My Parental Rights Have Been Taken, My Public Defender Has Not Been Representing Me the Way He Was Supposed to Be, but I Didn’t Know Until Now. What Can I Do?

There are plenty of things you can do (plenty of activity in which you can engage), but whether any of it will do any good is the question. The answer is usually: not likely. When child protective services (CPS) is working against you, then usually law enforcement and the courts follow suit, whether you’re “guilty” or not. If you have a public defender, then you’re poor, and while there is no shame simply in being poor, it limits your options in a fight like this.

All that stated, you need to fight with all you have for what’s right, or the regret and wondering “what might have been?” will surely torment you the rest of your life. You already know the outcome if you give up.

Now, pick your battles. Don’t run faster than you have strength, and don’t engage in “ends justify the means” tactics, but fight the good fight, so that if, some day, you confront your child who asks, “Did you try your best for me, Mom/Dad?,” you can answer in the affirmative.

Sometimes doing your best means kicking the bad habits, addictions, and mental health afflictions. The work on ourselves if often the hardest—not impossible (thankfully), but the hardest

I wish I had more for you, but this is the best I can offer.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

https://www.quora.com/In-California-CPS-has-encouraged-parental-alienation-before-my-parental-rights-have-been-taken-my-public-defender-has-not-been-representing-me-the-way-he-was-supposed-to-be-but-I-didnt-know-until-now-What-can-I-do

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House Bill 193 (HB0198 (utah.gov))

Another bill under consideration during the 2024 Utah legislative session is House Bill 193 (HB0198 (utah.gov)).

This bill would, if passed into law, 1) make clear that a “totality of circumstances” analysis applies when  a juvenile court determines whether to terminate parental rights; 2) provide that the existence of a placement option that does not require the termination of parental rights does not preclude a finding, based on the totality of the circumstances, that termination of parental rights is strictly necessary to promote the child’s best interest; and 3) as applicable, require the juvenile court to include the considerations described in Utah Code Sections 80-4-303 and 80-4-304 when determining the best interest of the child.

While Utah caselaw already made clear that a “totality of circumstances” analysis applies when a juvenile court determines whether to terminate parental rights. And the Utah Code already requires a juvenile court to include in its determinations in Sections 80-4-303 and 80-4-304 when determining the best interest of the child, it does not appear to me that making this clear in the statute itself is a bad thing.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

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H.B. 20 “Parental Rights Amendments”

Today’s blog post treats House Bill 20, one of several proposed family law-related pieces of legislation for the 2024 Utah legislative session.

H.B. 20 is entitled “Parental Rights Amendments”

According the bill’s own “General Description,” this bill:

  • addresses the voluntary relinquishment of parental rights.
  • clarifies the requirements and procedure for an individual to consent to the termination of parental rights or voluntarily relinquish parental rights.

Utah Code Sections Affected (if passed): It would amend Utah Code § 80-4-307

Here is the proposed text:

24          80-4-307. Voluntary relinquishment — Irrevocable.
25          (1) The individual consenting to termination of parental rights or voluntarily

26     relinquishing parental rights shall sign [or confirm] the consent or relinquishment, or confirm a
27     consent or relinquishment previously signed by the individual, under oath before:
28          (a) a judge of any court that has jurisdiction over proceedings for termination of
29     parental rights in this state or any other state, or a public officer appointed by that court for the
30     purpose of taking consents or relinquishments; or
31          (b) except as provided in Subsection (2), any person authorized to take consents or
32     relinquishments under Subsections 78B-6-124(1) and (2).
33          (2) Only the juvenile court is authorized to take consents or relinquishments from a
34     parent who has any child who is in the custody of a state agency or who has a child who is
35     otherwise under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court.
36          (3) (a) The court, appointed officer, or other authorized person shall certify to the best
37     of that person’s information and belief that the individual executing the consent or
38     relinquishment, or confirming a consent or relinquishment previously signed by the individual,
39     has read and understands the consent or relinquishment and has signed the consent or
40     relinquishment freely and voluntarily.
41          (b) A consent or relinquishment is not effective until the consent or relinquishment is
42     certified pursuant to Subsection (3)(a).
43          (4) [A voluntary relinquishment or consent for termination of parental rights is
44     effective when the voluntary relinquishment or consent is signed and may not be revoked.A
45     consent or relinquishment that has been certified pursuant to Subsection (3)(a) is effective
46     against the consenting or relinquishing individual and may not be revoked.
47          (5) (a) The requirements and processes described in Section 80-4-104, Sections
48     80-4-301 through 80-4-304, and Part 2, Petition for Termination of Parental Rights, do not
49     apply to a voluntary relinquishment or consent for termination of parental rights.
50          (b) When determining voluntary relinquishment or consent for termination of parental
51     rights, the juvenile court need only find that the relinquishment or termination is in the child’s
52     best interest.
53          (6) (a) There is a presumption that voluntary relinquishment or consent for termination
54     of parental rights is not in the child’s best interest where it appears to the juvenile court that the
55     primary purpose for relinquishment or consent for termination is to avoid a financial support
56     obligation.

57          (b) The presumption described in Subsection (6)(a) may be rebutted if the juvenile
58     court finds the relinquishment or consent to termination of parental rights will facilitate the
59     establishment of stability and permanency for the child.
60          (7) Upon granting a voluntary relinquishment the juvenile court may make orders
61     relating to the child’s care and welfare that the juvenile court considers to be in the child’s best
62     interest.

The main reason for H.B. 20 is the questions that the recent Utah Court of Appeals case of State in Interest of A.G. (2022 UT App 126) raised about it. In that case,

4

Infants

Statute outlining steps for voluntary relinquishment of parental rights requires relinquishing parent to sign a document effectuating the relinquishment and if no such document is signed by the parent, the relinquishment is incomplete and ineffective. Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-307.

The Utah Court of Appeals described the issue this way:

¶1 This case requires us to determine whether, under the language of the governing statute [§ 80-4-307], parents who intend to relinquish their parental rights in connection with a child welfare proceeding may effectuate that relinquishment under oath orally in court, without ever signing anything, or whether they must at some point sign a document effectuating that relinquishment.

¶2 In this case, S.A. (Mother)—while under oath—told the juvenile court that she wanted to relinquish her parental rights to A.G., J.K., and D.K. (collectively, the Children), and that she was doing so knowingly and voluntarily. Relying on those sworn representations, the court accepted Mother’s relinquishment, and later entered an order terminating Mother’s parental rights. But Mother did not sign any document indicating that she was relinquishing her rights, and on that basis she challenged her relinquishment as incomplete and invalid. The juvenile court rejected that challenge, interpreting the governing statute as allowing relinquishment, under certain circumstances, without a signed document from the parent.

¶3 Mother now appeals that determination, asserting that the juvenile court’s interpretation of the governing statute was incorrect. We agree with Mother that the statute requires the relinquishing parent to—at some point—sign a document effectuating the relinquishment. Accordingly, we reverse the termination order and remand this case for further proceedings.

In describing the requirements of § 80-4-307, the court stated:

[T]to summarize, all relinquishments regarding children “in the custody of a state agency” or “under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court” must involve a juvenile court judge. See id. § 80-4-307(2). A parent who is relinquishing rights to any such children must “sign or confirm the consent or relinquishment under oath before” that judge. Id. § 80-4-307(1). The judge, in turn, must “certify to the best of [his or her] information and belief” that the parent who is “executing the consent or relinquishment” understands it and has “signed [it] freely and voluntarily.” Id. § 80-4-307(3). And the relinquishment “is effective when the voluntary relinquishment or consent is signed.” Id. § 80-4-307(4).

In its concluding paragraph, the Utah Court of Appeals stated:

CONCLUSION

¶25 The statute at issue here requires a person relinquishing parental rights to—at some point—sign a document effectuating the relinquishment. Even though Mother appeared in court and, under oath, indicated her willingness to relinquish her parental rights, she never signed a document to that effect. Accordingly, her relinquishment did not become effective, and the juvenile court erred by declining to set aside that nascent relinquishment and by proceeding to terminate her parental rights. We therefore reverse the juvenile court’s termination order and remand the case for further proceedings, which may include a rescheduled termination trial.

H.B. 20 was proposed to prevent future confusion by parents, attorneys, and judges in the future when confronting questions of whether a parent does in fact voluntarily relinquishment of parental rights.

Is H.B.20 a good idea, then? Yes, yes it is.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277.

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In re A.S.G.-R. – 2023 UT App 126 – permanent custody and guardianship

In re A.S.G.-R. – 2023 UT App 126

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF A.S.G.-R.,

A PERSON UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

G.R.,

Appellant,

v.

STATE OF UTAH AND E.G.,

Appellees.

Opinion No. 20220645-CA

Filed October 19, 2023

Fourth District Juvenile Court, Provo Department

The Honorable D. Scott Davis

No. 1196726

Alexandra Mareschal and Julie J. Nelson,

Attorneys for Appellant

Sean D. Reyes, Carol L.C. Verdoia, and John M.

Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee State of Utah

Neil D. Skousen, Attorney for Appellee E.G.

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

JUDGE RYAN M. HARRIS authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER and RYAN D. TENNEY

concurred.

HARRIS, Judge:

¶1        G.R. (Mother) became convinced that E.G. (Father) was sexually abusing their daughter, A.S.G.-R. (Child). Over a nearly two-year period, Mother made or sparked some thirty reports of sexual abuse to Utah’s Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS). After investigation, however, DCFS was unable to discover any credible evidence supporting Mother’s allegations, and therefore did not substantiate any of them. And given the number and repeated nature of the reports, DCFS became concerned that Child was being harmed by the allegations and ensuing investigations, some of which had included invasive physical examinations of Child.

¶2        Eventually, the State filed a petition for protective supervision and obtained an order removing Child from Mother’s custody and placing her with Father. After affording Mother fifteen months of reunification services, including a psychological evaluation and therapy, the juvenile court determined that the services had not resulted in sufficient change to the situation and that Child would be placed at substantial risk if she were returned to Mother, and therefore terminated reunification services. And after a four-day permanency hearing, the court entered a permanent custody and guardianship order in favor of Father.

¶3        Mother now appeals, arguing that the court erred in its decisions to not extend reunification services and to award permanent custody and guardianship to Father. We discern no reversible error in those decisions, and therefore affirm.

BACKGROUND[1]

¶4        Child was born in January 2017. Mother and Father separated shortly before Child’s birth, and about two years later they finalized their divorce. In the decree of divorce, Mother and Father were awarded joint legal custody of Child, but Mother was awarded primary physical custody with Father having statutory parent-time.

¶5        Child welfare officials first became involved with this family in November 2018, when DCFS made a supported finding of domestic violence with Father as the perpetrator and Child as the victim. At some point during this same time frame, Mother obtained a protective order against Father, based on allegations that he committed domestic violence against her also.

¶6        Beginning in May 2019, Mother began to make accusations that Father was sexually abusing Child. Over the course of the next two years, Mother made at least eight direct reports to DCFS of alleged sexual abuse. In addition, Mother reported her allegations to various medical and mental health professionals, some of whom also made reports to DCFS based on Mother’s representations. In total, between May 2019 and February 2021, some thirty separate reports were made to DCFS that Father was sexually abusing Child. DCFS investigated these reports and could not substantiate any of them. In connection with some of these reports, Mother took Child to the hospital. During two of these visits, Child—approximately three years old at the time— was subjected to invasive physical examinations, including one “code-R” rape examination.[2] The examinations yielded no evidence of abuse, and in January 2020 DCFS representatives spoke with Mother about the potential harm that could result to Child from repeated unfounded allegations and needless forensic medical examinations. In addition, in April 2020 the “medical director of Utah’s [Center for] Safe and Healthy Families” program advised Mother that subjecting Child to “any further sexual assault examinations could result in an allegation of abuse for [Mother] due to the harm that unnecessary examinations can cause a child.”

¶7        During this time frame, and in an effort to expand Mother’s understanding of the relevant issues, DCFS opened a “voluntary services case” to provide Mother the opportunity to take advantage of certain services, and Mother agreed to work with DCFS to try to improve the situation.

¶8        During the pendency of the voluntary services case, however, Mother hired a private investigator to investigate the possibility of sexual abuse by Father, and she did not tell DCFS that she had done so. This investigator interviewed Child, using techniques the juvenile court later found to “violate[] nearly every guideline for child forensic interviewing,” including “ask[ing] leading questions, [making] promises to [Child] that could not be kept, and offer[ing Child] ice cream if she would tell the interviewer what ‘daddy’s secret’ is.”

¶9        Despite DCFS’s efforts to assist Mother, the voluntary services case did not have its desired effect. Mother proved unable or unwilling to follow the plan DCFS outlined, and she stopped communicating with the DCFS caseworker.[3] Eventually, DCFS closed the voluntary services case.

¶10 Sometime after that case was closed, Mother—in a continuing effort to present evidence that Father was sexually abusing Child—took a video recording of Child in an incident the juvenile court described as follows: Mother “videotaped [Child], naked on a bed, having her point to where [Father] touches her. On the video, [Mother] touches [Child’s] genitals and has her spread her legs and moves the camera angle close-up to [Child’s] genitals.” Mother provided a copy of this recording to DCFS, but caseworkers declined to view it “based on concerns that it may potentially contain child pornography.” Mother then provided the video recording to law enforcement.

¶11      In January 2021, Mother again brought Child to a hospital, alleging that Child “disclosed that [Father] had put his mouth on [Child’s] vagina just hours prior.” Another invasive physical examination was performed on Child, yet “no male DNA was found on [Child’s] genitals.” DCFS was informed about this incident, presumably from hospital personnel, and investigated it; the investigation included interviewing Child at the Children’s Justice Center. After completing its investigation, DCFS found “no corroborating evidence” and concluded that Child’s “disclosure was coached” and “not credible.”

¶12      The present case was initiated in March 2021 when Mother sought a protective order barring Father from having contact with Child, and the State responded by not only intervening in the protective order case but also by filing this action: a petition for protective supervision services in which the State asked the court to “discontinue” the protective order, conclude that Child was “abused, dependent, and/or neglected,” award DCFS protective supervision of Child, and allow DCFS to place Child in Father’s custody during the pendency of the case.

¶13      At a shelter hearing held about a week later, the juvenile court ordered Child removed from Mother’s custody and placed in the temporary custody of DCFS, which then placed Child, on a preliminary basis, with Father. Child has remained in Father’s care ever since.

¶14      Later, at a subsequent hearing, the court found, based on stipulation, that Child was dependent as to Father. With regard to Father, the court indicated that the primary permanency goal was “Reunification/REMAIN HOME,” and that the concurrent goal was “Remain Home with non-custodial parent.”

¶15      The court held an adjudication hearing as to Mother; at that hearing, Father and the guardian ad litem (the GAL) asserted that Mother’s conduct—making repeated false claims of sexual abuse, thereby subjecting Child to interviews, investigations, and physical examinations—constituted abuse, but the State argued only for a finding of neglect. After the hearing, the court found “no specific evidence” of harm to Child that could support a finding of abuse, but instead determined that Child “is neglected” as to Mother because Child “lacks proper care by reason of the fault or habits of [Mother].” For Mother, the court set a primary permanency goal of “RETURN HOME” and a concurrent permanency goal of “Permanent Custody and Guardianship with a Relative.” The court explained that it was setting “different permanency goals for each parent,” and that for Father, “the primary goal will be” for Child to “remain[] home with him,” with “the concurrent goal of reunification if she is removed from his care.” For Mother, the primary goal was “reunification, with the concurrent goal of guardianship with [a] relative.”

¶16 In connection with setting these permanency goals, the court adopted a Child and Family Plan (the Plan). Under the terms of the Plan, Mother was required to, among other things, “complete a psychological evaluation and follow through with all recommendations”; “participate in individual therapy”; participate in a “parenting class”; and “maintain stable and appropriate housing” for herself and Child. The Plan also required Mother to be “open and honest” in connection with the psychological evaluation, as well as with therapists and other mental health professionals. The Plan provided that its objectives would “be achieved when [Child] is living at [Mother’s] home” and when Mother “is providing a healthy, stable, and age-appropriate environment . . . that supports a strong co-parenting relationship with” Father. No party lodged any objection to the terms of the Plan or to the permanency goals the court set.[4]

¶17 Thereafter, Mother completed a parenting class as well as—after some delay that may or may not have been attributable to her—the required psychological evaluation. The psychologist who conducted the evaluation (Evaluator) diagnosed Mother with “unspecified personality disorder” characterized by “symptoms indicative of borderline, histrionic, and narcissistic personality disorders as well as paranoid-like features.” In particular, Evaluator noted that Mother has “a belief that she can only be understood by a few people,” a “sense of entitlement,” a “lack of empathy,” and a “pervasive distrust and suspiciousness of others” that leads her to sometimes “suspect[], without sufficient basis, that others are harming and deceiving her.” Evaluator offered his view that, “unless [Mother] overcomes her psychopathological features,” she “cannot act in [Child’s] best interest.” He noted that the “obvious recommendation” for Mother would be for her to “pursue an effective treatment program,” but he was doubtful that such a program would succeed in Mother’s case, because Mother “is convinced that she is not the problem” and because, “given her personality disorder features, . . . it would be hard for [Mother] to develop an effective psychotherapeutic alliance with her psychotherapist.”

¶18 Thereafter, DCFS sent Mother a list of recommended therapists, and Mother attended therapy sessions with at least three different mental health professionals. DCFS expressed concern that Mother “was seeking out multiple providers,” some of whom reported that Mother was attempting to “get a second opinion on the psychological evaluation,” and DCFS was worried that Mother was “continu[ing] to report” to these therapists “that [Child] was being sexually abused.” Because of this, DCFS harbored a “concern that there is no clear progress in therapy, due to minimal communication from providers, multiple providers involved and regular changes in therapy.” Mother maintains, however, that she “engaged in all recommended therapy,” an assertion no party apparently contests, although the record is far from clear about what the specific recommendations were and exactly how Mother complied with them.

¶19 After the psychological evaluation was completed, the parties appeared for a review hearing before the court. At that hearing, the results of the evaluation were discussed, and the court commented that, “if the case were closed today and things returned to how they were before the case, [Child] would be at risk of harm by” Mother. The court ordered that Child remain in DCFS custody and placed with Father, with whom the court stated it had “no safety concerns.”

¶20 As the twelve-month permanency hearing approached, Mother moved for an extension of reunification services for “at least 90 days.” Mother argued that she had complied with the Plan, in that she had completed the parenting class and the psychological evaluation and had engaged in therapy. In this motion, Mother also argued that the juvenile court could not enter an order of permanent custody and guardianship with Father, because the district court had already entered a custody order, in connection with the parties’ divorce case, and in Mother’s view the district court should be the court to enter and modify custody orders between the parents. Father opposed Mother’s motion for extended services, but the State did not register opposition. The court scheduled an evidentiary hearing to consider the matter. But due to problems with witness subpoenas, the evidentiary hearing needed to be postponed, which resulted in Mother’s motion for an extension of services being de facto granted: services were then extended for another ninety days, and the postponed evidentiary hearing was turned into a permanency hearing.

¶21      After these delays, the permanency hearing was held, over four nonconsecutive trial days, in April and June 2022. Child’s DCFS caseworker testified that she believed that Mother had been “coaching [Child] into telling people certain things.” And Child’s psychologist testified that she “did not observe significant behaviors or concerns, [or] emotions concerning expressions that would signal to [her] that [Child] has experienced sexual abuse.”

¶22      Evaluator testified at length during the trial, and discussed the specifics of his evaluation of Mother. He discussed his diagnosis that Mother had an “unspecified personality disorder.” He testified that the evaluation took longer than anticipated because Mother “did not involve herself in the evaluation in a forthright manner,” “withheld relevant information that was requested of her,” and “intentionally distorted information.” In his view, Mother did not think that she was the problem or that she had done anything wrong. Evaluator reiterated his view that unless Mother “overcomes her psychopathological features, [she] cannot act in [Child’s] best interest.”

¶23 During her own testimony, Mother continued to cling to her viewpoint that Father had been sexually abusing Child. She testified that “she does not agree with a doctor’s opinion that there was no evidence of sexual abuse.” When asked whether she “still believe[d]” that Father had sexually abused Child, she answered that she did not know, but that some “part of [her]” still believed that abuse took place, and that she still had “a suspicion” in that regard. She did not recognize any impropriety in her multiple reports of sexual abuse to DCFS and other authorities, testifying that she did not “think [she] was doing anything incorrectly” regarding the parenting of Child. And she did not agree that her behavior constituted neglect of Child.

¶24      In this same vein, Mother also called her ongoing therapist to testify at the trial. The therapist testified that he had spent some thirty hours of therapy with Mother and that she had been cooperative. The therapist opined, to the extent he was able to as a fact witness, that Evaluator’s diagnosis of an “unspecified personality disorder” was incorrect, that Mother had not neglected Child by reporting sexual abuse to the authorities, and that Father had indeed sexually abused Child.

¶25      At the conclusion of the trial, the juvenile court took the matter under advisement. A few weeks later, the court issued a written decision containing several different rulings. First, the court declined Mother’s invitation to further extend reunification services, and it terminated those services. Important to the court’s decision in this regard were its findings that—although Mother had taken certain steps, including completing parenting classes, engaging in therapy, and completing the psychological evaluation—Mother had not fully complied with the terms of the Plan, because even after all of these services, Mother “accepted virtually no responsibility for [Child] being in DCFS custody for more than one year,” “demonstrated virtually no insight regarding the harm she has caused” to Child, and offered “varied and conflicted” testimony “regarding whether she still believed” that Father had sexually abused Child, “despite there being no credible evidence that he has.” The court also determined that reunification between Mother and Child was not “probable or likely within the next 90 days” and that the extension of services was not in Child’s best interest.

¶26 Second, the court awarded “permanent custody and guardianship” of Child to Father. Important to the court’s decision in this regard were its findings that “return of [Child] to [Mother’s] care would create a substantial risk of detriment to [Child’s] physical or emotional well-being,” that there is “no credible evidence” that Father has ever sexually abused Child, and that Child “seems to be thriving and well-adjusted [and] well cared for” in Father’s care.

¶27 Finally, after denying Mother’s request for additional reunification services and granting permanent custody and guardianship in favor of Father, the court terminated its jurisdiction in the case.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶28 Mother now appeals, and she raises two issues for our consideration. First, she challenges the juvenile court’s decision to terminate reunification services. The juvenile court is “in the best position to evaluate the credibility of witnesses, the parent’s level of participation in reunification services, and whether services were appropriately tailored to remedy the problems that led to the child’s removal.” In re D.R., 2022 UT App 124, ¶ 9, 521 P.3d 545 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 525 P.3d 1264 (Utah 2023). Accordingly, “absent a demonstration that the determination was clearly in error, we will not disturb the determination” to terminate reunification services. See id. (quotation simplified).

¶29      Second, Mother challenges the juvenile court’s decision to award permanent custody and guardianship to Father, her fellow parent. As part of this challenge, she takes issue with the court setting slightly different permanency goals for each parent, and with the court accomplishing two separate objectives—namely, choosing among those goals and awarding permanent custody to Father—all in connection with the same hearing. In the main, Mother’s challenges in this regard involve questions of statutory interpretation, which “are questions of law that we review for correctness.” In re S.Y.T., 2011 UT App 407, ¶ 9, 267 P.3d 930 (quotation simplified). But to the extent that Mother here challenges the court’s underlying factual findings, we adopt a more deferential standard of review. See In re L.M., 2013 UT App 191, ¶ 6, 308 P.3d 553 (“We review the juvenile court’s factual findings for clear error . . . .” (quotation simplified)), cert. denied, 320 P.3d 676 (Utah 2014).[5]

ANALYSIS

I

¶30      Mother first challenges the juvenile court’s decision to terminate reunification services. For the reasons discussed, we discern no clear error in the court’s decision.

¶31 When a juvenile court removes a child from a parent’s custody, it may afford the parent the opportunity to take advantage of certain services—e.g., mental health counseling or parenting classes—designed to address the problems that led to removal and aimed at facilitating reunification between parent and child. See Utah Code § 80-3-406. However, due to the need for swift permanence in child welfare cases, the duration of reunification services may not ordinarily “exceed 12 months” from the date of removal. See id. § 80-3-406(13)(a); see also id. § 80­3-409(6). A juvenile court may, however, extend reunification services by an additional “90 days”—for a total of fifteen months—if the court finds, by a preponderance of the evidence, “that (i) there has been substantial compliance with the child and family plan; (ii) reunification is probable within that 90-day period; and (iii) the extension is in the best interest of the minor.” Id. § 80-3­409(7)(a). And in exceptional cases, the court may extend services for a second ninety-day period—for a total of eighteen months— but only if the court can make those same three findings by clear and convincing evidenceId. § 80-3-409(7)(c).

¶32      In this case, Child was removed from Mother’s custody at a shelter hearing in March 2021. Thus, reunification services were to presumptively end in March 2022, unless the court made findings sufficient to support an extension. In early April 2022, the court commenced an evidentiary hearing for the purpose of determining whether reunification services should be terminated or extended but, due to problems with witness subpoenas, the evidentiary hearing needed to be postponed, which resulted in a de facto extension of reunification services for another three months, into June 2022. Finally, at the conclusion of the four-day hearing that same month, the court ordered that reunification services be terminated. In its order, the court—presumably out of an abundance of caution given the timing of the hearing—stated that it was “not able to find by a preponderance of the evidence, and certainly not by clear and convincing evidence, that [Mother] is in substantial compliance with [the Plan], that reunification . . . is probable or likely within the next 90 days, or that extension of services for [Mother] is in [Child’s] best interest.”

¶33 Mother challenges this decision, asserting that it goes against the clear weight of the evidence because, she asserts, she at least substantially complied with the Plan. We acknowledge that Mother did take certain actions that the Plan required, such as completing the psychological evaluation and participating in parenting classes and individual therapy, and we therefore agree with Mother’s assertion that she complied with many—if not necessarily all[6]—of the Plan’s individual requirements.

¶34      But even taking Mother’s assertion—that she completed all of the Plan’s individual subsidiary tasks—at face value, that does not necessarily compel the conclusion that Mother substantially complied with the Plan, because in this case Mother’s efforts did not bear fruit. That is, at the end of fifteen months of reunification services, Mother had not rectified the problem that led to the removal of Child from her custody. The Plan explicitly stated that its goals would be “achieved when [Child] is living at [Mother’s] home [and] where Mother is providing a healthy, stable, and age-appropriate environment . . . that supports a strong co-parenting relationship with [Father].” Child was removed from Mother’s custody because Child lacked “proper care by reason of the fault or habits of [Mother]” due to Mother’s continued unsupported reports to authorities that Father was sexually abusing Child. After fifteen months of services, the court—based at least in part on Mother’s own testimony at the evidentiary hearing— determined that the original problem still existed, and that Child could not therefore safely be returned to Mother’s custody. It is far from clear error for a juvenile court to determine that a parent who has completed many of a child and family plan’s individual requirements, but who has still not meaningfully addressed the underlying problem the plan was designed to solve, has not substantially complied with the plan.

¶35      Moreover, even if we were to assume, for the purposes of the discussion, that Mother’s actions constituted substantial compliance with the Plan, Mother must also grapple with the juvenile court’s findings that reunification was not probable within the next ninety days, and that another extension of reunification services was not in Child’s best interest. See Utah Code § 80-3-409(7)(a)(ii), (iii); see also In re H.C., 2022 UT App 146, ¶ 54, 523 P.3d 736 (“Although [the mother] subsequently complied with the child and family plan, the court nonetheless determined that [the child] could not safely be returned to her care because it found that the return posed a substantial risk of detriment to [the child’s] physical or emotional well-being.”), cert. denied, 527 P.3d 1106 (Utah 2023). While Mother spends many pages in her brief contesting the court’s “substantial compliance” finding, she does not directly engage with the court’s findings that, given her lack of progress on solving the underlying problem, she had not shown—by either evidentiary standard— that reunification was probable in the next ninety days or that reunification was in Child’s best interest. And based on our review of the record, we discern no clear error in these findings.

¶36      Accordingly, we discern no error, let alone reversible error, in the juvenile court’s decision to terminate reunification services.

II

¶37 Next, Mother challenges the juvenile court’s decision to award permanent custody and guardianship to Father. Her challenge in this regard is multi-faceted. First, she challenges the substance of the court’s decision, and asserts that the court—by considering its options limited to those set forth in section 80-3­409(4)(b) of the Utah Code—erred in its interpretation of the governing statute. And in connection with this argument, Mother asks us to overrule one of our recent opinions. Second, Mother challenges the procedure the court used in reaching its decision. For the reasons discussed, we reject Mother’s arguments.

A

¶38      Under our law, in any case in which reunification services are ordered, “the juvenile court shall, at the permanency hearing, determine . . . whether the minor may safely be returned to the custody of the minor’s parent.” See Utah Code § 80-3-409(2)(a). And “[i]f the juvenile court finds, by a preponderance of the evidence, that return of the minor to the minor’s parent would create a substantial risk of detriment to the minor’s physical or emotional well-being, the minor may not be returned to the custody of the minor’s parent.” Id. § 80-3-409(2)(b).

¶39      In this case, as already discussed, the juvenile court ordered reunification services for Mother, and therefore needed to confront, at the permanency hearing, the question of whether Child faced “substantial risk of detriment to her physical and emotional well-being if returned to [Mother’s] care.” In its findings and conclusions entered following that hearing, the court specifically found, by “both a preponderance of the evidence” and by “clear and convincing evidence, that return of [Child] to [Mother’s] care would create a substantial risk of detriment to [Child’s] physical or emotional well-being.” Mother does not directly challenge that finding on appeal.[7]

¶40      In situations where a juvenile court makes a finding of risk and therefore determines that a child cannot be returned to the parent’s custody, our law then requires the court to do certain things: “(a) order termination of reunification services to the parent; (b) make a final determination regarding whether termination of parental rights, adoption, or permanent custody and guardianship is the most appropriate final plan for the minor . . . ; and (c) . . . establish a concurrent permanency plan that identifies the second most appropriate final plan for the minor, if appropriate.” Id. § 80-3-409(4). As discussed above, the court terminated reunification services, and did not err by so doing.

¶41      The court then considered the three options presented by the second part of the governing statute: termination of parental rights, adoption, or permanent custody and guardianship.[8] See id. § 80-3-409(4)(b). The court determined that permanent custody and guardianship with Father was the most appropriate of those three options.

¶42      Mother challenges the substance of this determination, and she makes two specific arguments. First, she asserts that the statutory subsection the court believed governed the situation— section 80-3-409(4) of the Utah Code—doesn’t actually govern, because in Mother’s view Child was “returned to” a parent (Father) after the permanency hearing. Second, and relatedly, Mother acknowledges that one of our recent decisions—In re H.C., 2022 UT App 146, 523 P.3d 736, cert. denied, 527 P.3d 1106 (Utah 2023)—interpreted the governing statute in a manner unfavorable to her, and she asks us to overrule that recent case. We find neither of Mother’s arguments persuasive.

1

¶43 Mother’s first argument challenges the juvenile court’s interpretation of statutory text. In particular, she notes that a threshold requirement of the governing statute is that the minor not be “returned to the minor’s parent or guardian at the permanency hearing.” See Utah Code § 80-3-409(4). Only if a child is not “returned to the minor’s parent” at the permanency hearing does a court need to choose from one of the three options set forth in subsection (4)(b): termination, adoption, or permanent custody and guardianship. See id. If a child is “returned to the minor’s parent,” then a court presumably could select some other option not listed in subsection (4)(b). As Mother sees it, the statutory reference to “the minor’s parent” includes not only the parent from whom the child was removed and with regard to whom the “substantial risk” determination is being made, but also the child’s other parent. And she asserts that, because Child was placed in the custody of Father—Child’s other parent—after the permanency hearing, the court erred by considering itself limited to the three options set out in subsection (4)(b).

¶44      Our “overarching goal” in interpreting a statute is “to implement the intent of the legislature.” See State v. Rushton, 2017 UT 21, ¶ 11, 395 P.3d 92. In attempting to ascertain that intent, we start with “the language and structure of the statute.” Id. “Often, statutory text may not be plain when read in isolation, but may become so in light of its linguistic, structural, and statutory context.” Id. (quotation simplified). “The reverse is equally true: words or phrases may appear unambiguous when read in isolation, but become ambiguous when read in context.” Id. For this reason, “we read the plain language of the statute as a whole, and interpret its provisions in harmony with other statutes in the same chapter and related chapters, avoiding any interpretation which renders parts or words in a statute inoperative or superfluous in order to give effect to every word in the statute.” Id. (quotation simplified).

¶45 In our view, the phrase “the minor’s parent,” as used in section 80-3-409(4), refers only to the parent from whom the child was removed, who was offered reunification services, and to whom return of the child “would create a substantial risk of detriment” to the child. It does not refer to another parent with whom the child is currently placed, who has not been ordered to complete any reunification services, and with regard to whom the court has not made any “substantial risk” determination. Indeed, the thrust of this entire statutory section has to do with whether a child will be reunited with a parent from whom the child has been removed and who has received reunification services. See Utah Code § 80-3-409. As already noted, subsection (2) requires a court to make a threshold determination about whether the “minor may safely be returned to the custody of the minor’s parent,” something that may not occur if “return of the minor to the minor’s parent would create a substantial risk of detriment” to the minor. Id. § 80-3-409(2)(a), (b). The verb “returned” is meaningful here: one does not “return” to a situation in which one has never been in the first place. See Return,    Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/return            [https://perma.cc/Y4YF-3ENP]
(defining “return” as “to go back or come back again”). In the subsection (2) context, the phrase “the minor’s parent” clearly refers to the parent from whom the minor was removed, who received reunification services, and with regard to whom the “substantial risk” determination is being made; indeed, the statute instructs juvenile courts that are making the subsection (2) threshold determination to consider, among other things, whether the parent in question has demonstrated “progress” and whether the parent has “cooperated and used the services provided.” See Utah Code § 80-3-409(3)(a)(iv), (v). In our view, it would be nonsensical to apply this phrase to the minor’s other parent in a situation where the child was already in the custody of that parent at the time of the permanency hearing, where that parent did not receive reunification services, and where the court made no “substantial risk” determination concerning that parent at that hearing. Indeed, at oral argument before this court, Mother conceded that the phrase “the minor’s parent,” as used in subsection (2), must refer solely to the parent who received reunification services and with regard to whom the “substantial risk” determination is being made.

¶46 That same phrase—“the minor’s parent”—used two subsections later means the same thing. As noted, we read statutes as a whole, including all of their subsections, and “interpret [their] provisions in harmony with other statutes in the same chapter and related chapters.” See Rushton, 2017 UT 21, ¶ 11 (quotation simplified). Under “the canon of consistent meaning,” there is a “presumption that the established meaning of a word in a given body of law carries over to other uses of the same term used elsewhere within that same law.” In re Childers-Gray, 2021 UT 13, ¶ 142, 487 P.3d 96 (Lee, J., dissenting). And the “canon of consistent meaning is at its strongest when it is applied to a term used in neighboring subparts of the same statutory provision.” Irving Place Assocs. v. 628 Park Ave, LLC, 2015 UT 91, ¶ 21, 362 P.3d 1241; see also Barneck v. Utah Dep’t of Transp., 2015 UT 50, ¶ 31, 353 P.3d 140 (determining that a term “cannot properly mean one thing as applied to two of the objects in a series . . . but something else as applied to the other object in the same series”). Thus, when assessing the meaning of the phrase “the minor’s parent” in subsection (4), it is highly relevant how that phrase is used in subsection (2). And we conclude that, interpreted in its proper context, the phrase—as used in subsection (4) as well as subsection (2)—refers only to the parent from whom the child was removed, who received reunification services, and with regard to whom the court is making the “substantial risk” determination, and not to another parent who does not fit those criteria.

¶47      Accordingly, we reject Mother’s argument that subsection 409(4) has no application to her situation. By the plain terms of that statutory section, the juvenile court—as soon as it determined that Child could not safely be returned to Mother—was obligated to apply that statutory subsection according to its text.

2

¶48      Under the text of that statutory subsection, a court that has made a “substantial risk” determination must terminate reunification services. See Utah Code § 80-3-409(4)(a). At that point, the statute requires the court to “make a final determination regarding whether termination of parental rights, adoption, or permanent custody and guardianship is the most appropriate final plan for the minor.” Id. § 80-3-409(4)(b). The language of this statutory subsection therefore speaks of only three options, and requires the court in this situation to choose one of them. And we have recently interpreted this language according to its text, even as applied to disputes between parents. See In re H.C., 2022 UT App 146, 523 P.3d 736, cert. denied, 527 P.3d 1106 (Utah 2023).

¶49      Yet here, Mother nevertheless asserts that, at least in cases involving disputes between two parents, juvenile courts ought to be allowed to choose a different option: entry of a simple custody order that is controlled by the usual standards governing entry and modification of custody orders in divorce court. Mother asserts that awarding a parent the status of “guardian” makes no sense, given that a parent already has all the rights that a guardian has. And she asserts that entering orders of permanent guardianship as between parents has the effect—one she posits was unintended—of preventing one parent from being able to seek modification of the custody order.

¶50      To her credit, Mother recognizes that our recent holding in In re H.C. forecloses her argument for a fourth option. In that case, the parents of a child were divorced, with a parenting plan that gave primary custody to the mother. Id. ¶ 2. But later, the juvenile court determined that the child had been neglected by the mother, and the child was placed in the care of the father. Id. ¶¶ 4, 8. After the permanency hearing, the juvenile court determined that the child would be at substantial risk if returned to the mother’s custody, and the court placed the child with the father under an order of permanent custody and guardianship. Id. ¶¶ 28, 38. On appeal, we affirmed the juvenile court’s decision, and we interpreted subsection 409(4)(b) as limiting the juvenile court to the three options set forth therein. Id. ¶ 58. We held that subsection 409(4)(b) “leaves a juvenile court judge with no discretion” to do anything else, and we specifically stated that the statute “does not vest the juvenile court with the authority to defer to the district court” with regard to custody of the adjudicated child. Id. (quotation simplified).

¶51      In an effort to get around this roadblock, Mother asks us to overrule In re H.C. We do possess the authority to overrule our own precedent in appropriate cases. See State v. Legg, 2018 UT 12, ¶ 11, 417 P.3d 592 (stating that one panel of this court “retains the right to overrule another panel’s decision if the appropriate standard is met”). “But we do not do so lightly,” given our respect for the principle of stare decisis, which ordinarily requires us to defer to “the first decision by a court on a particular question.” See State v. Garcia-Lorenzo, 2022 UT App 101, ¶¶ 42, 44, 517 P.3d 424 (quotation simplified), cert. granted, 525 P.3d 1263 (Utah 2022).

¶52      “Before we may overrule one of our precedents, we must engage in the two-part exercise required by our supreme court in such situations.” Id. ¶ 45. “First, we must assess the correctness of the precedent, and specifically examine the persuasiveness of the authority and reasoning on which the precedent was originally based.” Id. (quotation simplified). “Second, we must assess the practical effect of the precedent, including considerations such as the age of the precedent, how well it has worked in practice, its consistency with other legal principles, and the extent to which people’s reliance on the precedent would create injustice or hardship if it were overturned.” Id. (quotation simplified). Both parts of the test must be satisfied before we may overrule a precedent. See id. In this case, we need not discuss the second part because, in our view, the first one is not satisfied.

¶53 With regard to the first part—the correctness of the precedent—Mother asserts that our decision in In re H.C. “upends the district court’s jurisdiction over custody matters and imposes an unnecessarily restrictive scheme on custody between two parents.” She points out that, when a child is placed with the other parent after a permanency hearing, “the child isn’t in ‘legal limbo’” and “all that is left to determine is what [the] custody [arrangement] between the parents will look like.” And she maintains that, if subsection 409(4)(b) is interpreted to require courts to order permanent custody and guardianship in favor of one of the parents, that result would serve to “override[] district court custody orders” and would create a “super sole custody” arrangement in which “the non-guardian parent can never modify the terms of the guardianship.” She asserts that this is an “absurd result” that “cannot be what the legislature intended.”

¶54 But in our view, the panel’s reasoning in In re H.C. was sound. There, the court analyzed the text of subsection 409(4)(b) and concluded that the language used by the legislature limited juvenile courts in this situation to the three options set forth in the text of the statute. See In re H.C., 2022 UT App 146, ¶¶ 58–59. Our analysis of that same text leads us to the same conclusion.

¶55      Moreover, Mother overlooks the fact that the panel in In re H.C. considered many of the same arguments that Mother is advancing here. In that case, the appellant asserted that “juvenile courts should not be deciding custody between two fit parents.” Id. ¶ 52 (quotation simplified). And the appellant complained that an order of permanent custody and guardianship in favor of the other parent may prevent her “from petitioning for custodial change in the future.” Id. ¶ 53. We rejected these arguments, in part, by noting that, given the court’s adjudication rulings, “this was not merely a custody proceeding ‘between two fit parents.’” Id. ¶ 54. And we acknowledged the remainder of these arguments in a footnote, editorializing that “it seems odd that, in a situation such as this with two parents vying for custody of a minor child, the statute authorizes the award of permanent guardianship to one parent over the other, where both enjoy parental rights in the minor child.” Id. ¶ 59 n.13. But we found these arguments nevertheless unpersuasive in light of the text of the “statutory regimen that we [were] called upon to interpret and apply.” Id.

¶56      We share the sentiment of the panel in In re H.C. that the text of the governing statute compels the interpretation described there. The text selected and enacted by our legislature limits juvenile courts to just three options in this situation. See id. ¶¶ 58– 59 & n.13 (stating that “permanent custody and guardianship is one of only three options available by the terms of the controlling statute when parental neglect has triggered the juvenile court’s jurisdiction and the case progresses to a permanency hearing at which parental neglect is found and reunification services are terminated”). If our legislature intended a different result, it can always amend the statute to provide for additional options—for instance, entry of a simple custody order awarding primary physical custody to the other parent, and allowing the district court to manage things from there—that a juvenile court might be able to apply in cases involving disputes between two parents. But for now, the text of the governing statute speaks of only three options, applicable in all cases, and we must apply the statute as written, Mother’s policy arguments notwithstanding.[9]

¶57 For all of these reasons, we decline Mother’s invitation to overrule In re H.C. That case—and the statutory text interpreted therein—compels the conclusion that the juvenile court, in this case, had only three options after concluding that it could not return Child to Mother’s custody: it had to either (a) terminate Mother’s parental rights, (b) work toward adoption, or (c) enter an order of permanent custody and guardianship with someone other than the parent at issue. See Utah Code § 80-3-409(4)(b); see also In re H.C., 2022 UT App 146, ¶¶ 58–59. The juvenile court, by selecting permanent custody and guardianship in favor of Father, chose one of the available options.[10] In so doing, the court properly followed the governing statute, and did not misinterpret it. We therefore reject Mother’s second substantive argument.

B

¶58      Finally, Mother makes two challenges to the procedure the juvenile court employed in arriving at its conclusion to award permanent custody and guardianship to Father. We reject both challenges.

¶59 First, Mother claims that the court acted inappropriately when it took the following two actions in the same ruling and after the same hearing: (a) it changed Child’s final permanency goal to permanent custody and guardianship and (b) it entered an order effectuating the permanent custody and guardianship. As Mother sees it, the court was required “to first change the permanency goals . . . and then hold a review hearing (possibly another evidentiary hearing) to determine whether the final permanency goal is established.” Mother notes that “nothing in section 409 permits a juvenile court to” accomplish both things in the same ruling and after the same hearing. But Mother cites no statute or appellate opinion forbidding the court from doing so and, in this situation, we see no reason why the court could not have proceeded as it did.

¶60 Had the court chosen “adoption” as the primary permanency goal following the permanency hearing, then perhaps Mother would have a point: as a practical matter, setting adoption as the goal entails a fair bit of extra work. To facilitate an adoption, the parent’s rights would need to be terminated, and to make that happen, the State (or another petitioner) would need to file a petition for termination of parental rights, which would need to be litigated. And the juvenile court would also need to concern itself, in the event the parent’s rights were terminated, with finding an appropriate adoptive placement for the child.

¶61 But where the court selects permanent custody and guardianship as the primary permanency goal, and the child is already placed with the person to whom custody and guardianship is to be given, there are not necessarily any additional steps that the court needs to take before making that goal a reality. Certainly, in this case Mother doesn’t identify any additional work that needed to be done in the interim. And as noted, Mother points to no statute or governing case forbidding the juvenile court, in cases like this one, from proceeding efficiently and entering the order of guardianship in the same order as it selects the primary permanency goal. Mother has therefore not carried her burden of demonstrating error.

¶62 Second, Mother takes issue with the juvenile court’s decision, earlier in the case, to set different permanency goals for each parent. As noted above, after adjudicating Child dependent as to Father, the court initially set the primary permanency goal, as to Father, as “Reunification/REMAIN HOME,” and the concurrent permanency goal as “Remain Home with non­custodial parent.” Later, after adjudicating Child neglected as to Mother, the court set a primary permanency goal, as to Mother, of “RETURN HOME” and a concurrent permanency goal of “Permanent Custody and Guardianship with a Relative.” The court explained that it was setting “different permanency goals for each parent,” and that for Father, “the primary goal will be” for Child to “remain[] home with him,” with “the concurrent goal of reunification if she is removed from his care.” For Mother, the primary permanency goal was “reunification, with the concurrent goal of guardianship with [a] relative.” Mother challenges this procedure as improper, asserting that this choice made “it additionally difficult for any parent to determine what the effect of abandoning one of the primary plans would be.” But Mother cites no statute or governing case forbidding the court from engaging in this procedure, and she overlooks the fact that she did not object to these goals when they were set. In addition, Mother does not articulate how the court’s decision to set slightly different permanency goals vis-à-vis each parent resulted in any harm to her at the end of the case. Accordingly, Mother has not carried her burden of demonstrating reversible error.[11]

CONCLUSION

¶63 We discern no clear error in the juvenile court’s decision to terminate reunification services. And we reject Mother’s challenges—both substantive and procedural—to the court’s award of permanent custody and guardianship to Father.

¶64 Affirmed.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

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In re H.M. – 2023 UT App 122 – termination of parental rights

In re H.M. – 2023 UT App 122

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF H.M. AND D.M.,

PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

G.B.,

Appellant,

v.

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20220774-CA

Filed October 13, 2023

First District Juvenile Court, Logan Department

The Honorable Kirk M. Morgan

No. 1187751

Julie J. Nelson and Alexandra Mareschal,

Attorneys for Appellant

Sean D. Reyes, Carol L.C. Verdoia, and John M.

Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee State of Utah

Jonathan P. Thomas, Attorney for Father

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

JUDGE RYAN D. TENNEY authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and DAVID N. MORTENSEN concurred.

TENNEY, Judge:

¶1 Mother and Father separated in 2015 and were divorced in 2018. They had two children during their marriage—D.M. and H.M. (collectively, the Children). From 2015 until 2020, Mother repeatedly told state authorities that Father had physically and sexually abused the Children. In several instances, Mother prompted the Children to make allegations against Father too.

Although authorities investigated the reports, none of the investigations resulted in a finding that Father had abused the Children. Also, on two occasions in 2020, Mother absconded with the Children during times in which she did not have custody. Both times, law enforcement was involved in locating and returning the Children to Father’s custody.

¶2        After Mother encouraged one of the Children to file a new report of abuse against Father in January 2022, the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) filed a petition to terminate Mother’s parental rights. At the close of a several-day trial, the juvenile court issued an order finding that Mother “cannot stop her destructive behavior” of making “false allegations” against Father. The court then terminated Mother’s parental rights.

¶3        Mother now appeals the termination decision. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm.

BACKGROUND

¶4        Mother and Father had two children during their marriage: D.M., who was born in 2012, and H.M., who was born in late 2014. Mother and Father separated in 2015 when H.M. was approximately three months old, and their divorce was finalized in 2018. Mother subsequently married another man (Stepfather).

Allegations of Abuse from 2015 Through 2020[1]

¶5        The reports of abuse began in February 2015, when DCFS received a referral alleging that during the marriage between Mother and Father, Father would “throw things, but not at [Mother], and punch holes in the doors.” DCFS chose not to accept this referral as a basis for action. In June 2015, DCFS received a referral alleging that Father views pornography “including teenaged girls.” This referral was unaccepted because there were no allegations that the Children were being abused or neglected.

¶6 In May 2016, DCFS received a referral alleging that after D.M. came back from parent-time with Father, he would not sit down because “his bottom hurt” and his anus was “red and inflamed.” The referral was not accepted because D.M. did not make any disclosure that any abuse had occurred. In September 2016, DCFS received a referral alleging that the Children had returned from parent-time with Father with black eyes and that Father commonly yelled at the Children, which allegedly made D.M. fearful to get out of bed to use the bathroom at night. The referral was unaccepted because the Children did not report any injuries from Father or provide specific details about what Father was saying to the Children.

¶7        In early October 2016, DCFS received a referral alleging that the Children were being physically abused by Father and that H.M. had been sexually abused by Father. The referral was accompanied by photographs of a bruise on H.M.’s leg. When a DCFS worker interviewed D.M. about these allegations, D.M. reported that Father had pushed him into a “monkey bag,” but D.M. couldn’t explain what a “monkey bag” was. D.M. made no disclosures of sexual abuse.

¶8        In late October 2016, Mother contacted law enforcement and reported that H.M. had complained of his “bum hurting” after returning from parent-time with Father. Mother also said that she changed H.M.’s diaper and that there was blood present and that she had also observed tearing on his anus. Mother told law enforcement that H.M. had said that Father put his finger “in there.” DCFS interviewed H.M. the following day. During that interview, H.M. said that he had been “hurt” at “daddy’s house,” but he made no other disclosures. Shortly thereafter, H.M. underwent a physical examination at the Children’s Justice Center (the CJC), but no evidence of sexual or physical abuse was discovered during this examination.

¶9      In September 2017, DCFS received a referral alleging that D.M. had been physically abused by his paternal grandfather. When DCFS interviewed D.M., D.M. said that “grandpa pushed him backwards and he fell on the rocks, because he didn’t hear grandpa.” When the grandfather was then interviewed, he acknowledged that he had accidentally knocked D.M. over during a recent visit when moving him away from something.

¶10      In June 2018, DCFS received a referral alleging that during a parent-time exchange, Mother had pulled Father’s beard and kicked him and that Father had ripped out one of Mother’s hair extensions. This case was not accepted.

¶11      In November 2018, DCFS received a referral alleging that Father attempted to hit Mother with his car and that Father had threatened to kill Mother by loosening the screws on her car. While investigating this referral, DCFS interviewed both of the Children. H.M. reported that he gets “hurt” at “all of my parents’ houses,” that his parents get frustrated with each other, and that Father punches Mother. D.M. reported that his parents are “always fighting.”

¶12 In December 2018, March 2019, and April 2019, Father made reports against Mother suggesting that she was using illegal drugs and wasn’t taking proper care of the Children. None of the referrals were accepted.

¶13 In April 2019, DCFS received a referral alleging that the Children had been “sodomized” by both Father and the paternal grandfather during visits with Father and that the paternal grandmother was aware of the abuse but not intervening. The referral also alleged that Father had punched D.M. in the stomach and testicles. As part of an investigation into these allegations, both of the Children were interviewed at the CJC. Though somewhat unclear, the record suggests that D.M. said nothing about abuse in his interview. H.M., however, said that his “old dad” is “going to be in the car when it explodes” “because he was mean to me.” H.M. also said that Father “put his penis in my bum” and “spanks [my] bum.” H.M. said that Father did the same thing to his cousins and that Mother told him this. When the interviewer spoke to Mother about what the Children had said, Mother asked the interviewer to talk to D.M. again, which the interviewer declined to do. During this investigation, Mother was “jittery and unable to finish sentences.”

¶14      In May 2019, Mother sought a protective order against Father. The protective order request was later denied. Around this same time, Mother informed DCFS that H.M. had bloody stools and that H.M. had reported that Father had “punched and kicked him.” Later that month, DCFS received information that H.M. had allegedly said Father “peed in his butt.” Father denied all allegations when interviewed by a detective from the Smithfield City Police Department.

¶15      In June 2019, DCFS received another referral alleging that the Children were being physically, sexually, and emotionally abused by Father. DCFS visited with the Children and observed no suspicious bruises. DCFS also found the accusations of physical abuse to be without merit. As part of this investigation, a DCFS caseworker and a Smithfield City Police Department detective interviewed Mother. During this interview, Mother alleged that the Children had told her that they “are being raped” and “punched in the crotch” by Father.

¶16      On July 1, 2019, Mother brought the Children to the CJC for an interview. At the outset of H.M.’s interview, and before the DCFS interviewer had even finished explaining the nature of the interview to him, H.M. said, “Well, my dad puts his penis in my bum.” H.M. said that Mother was present when this occurred, and that Father, paternal grandfather, and paternal grandmother “did it.” H.M. further reported that Father punches him with a “real hammer that is metal and black.” H.M. also reported that Father punches him in the penis and “punches me with his butt.” When asked what he saw when Father put his penis in his bottom, H.M. said, “That’s all I needed to tell you. I didn’t see anything.” When asked again what he saw, H.M. responded, “That’s all I have to tell you.” D.M. was also interviewed at the CJC that day. D.M. responded “nothing” and “I don’t know” to the majority of the interviewer’s questions. He also said that “nothing happened” at Father’s house and that “nothing happened to his brother that hurt him.” In addition, D.M. told the interviewer that Mother would talk to H.M. about events that happened at Father’s house. After finishing the interviews with the Children, the interviewer and a Smithfield City Police Department detective interviewed Mother. They encouraged Mother “not to press” the Children “for information and not to question them.”

¶17 Later that month, Mother contacted law enforcement during a parent-time exchange with Father. Mother told law enforcement that the Children wanted to share “their concerns” regarding Father. The Children spoke to law enforcement, and nothing further was reported to DCFS.

¶18      On February 21, 2020, DCFS received another referral alleging that the Children were being physically, sexually, and emotionally abused by Father. This referral alleged that Father had threatened to kill the Children and Mother if the Children reported the abuse. The referral further alleged that, within the past few days, Father had touched the Children’s genitals and “‘go[ne] inside’ their bums.” The referral also alleged that Father would give D.M. medicine to induce vomiting when D.M. would make a mistake on his homework and that Father would not allow the Children to use the bathroom in the middle of the night.

¶19      While investigating this latest referral, a DCFS investigator met with Father and the Children at Father’s home. Father denied each allegation. The DCFS investigator also observed that the Children interacted with her appropriately, appeared happy and healthy, and had no marks or bruises. During this investigation, DCFS came to believe that the Children were being emotionally abused by Mother.

¶20      On February 25, 2020, DCFS received a report that Father takes the Children to “drinking parties,” that Father stalks Mother and Stepfather, and that Father “rapes” the Children. The Smithfield City Police Department conducted a welfare check but failed to find any support for the allegations or anything out of the ordinary with the Children. At this point, the Smithfield City Police Department informed DCFS that it would no longer conduct welfare checks on the Children “because of the number of reports made and lack of findings of concern.”

¶21      DCFS interviewed the Children again at the CJC on March 2, 2020. H.M. reported that Father and neighbors put cameras outside his house and that the “cameras are made from poisonous stuff that make[s] people go crazy and rip kids’ heads off.” H.M. said that the cameras have speakers to “do bad stuff to [Mother].” H.M. denied having ever been hurt and denied that anyone told him what to say at the interview. In his interview, D.M. reported that he didn’t “remember if anything has happened to him” and that there was “nothing he needs to talk about” happening at either parent’s house. D.M. also stated that no one told him what to say at the interview.

¶22      On March 20, 2020, Mother obtained an ex parte protective order against Father. A few days later, DCFS received a report alleging that Father had been sexually inappropriate in front of the Children, that Father had raped Mother in the presence of the Children, and that Father had been telling the Children that there are cameras at Mother’s house watching them. Father denied these allegations.

¶23      On March 26, 2020, the court held a hearing on the ex parte protective order. Less than an hour before it began, Mother texted a DCFS employee and alleged that the Children wanted to tell her about abuse from Father. Mother then brought a recording of the Children alleging sexual abuse by Father to the court hearing, so the hearing was continued. At a hearing that was held on April 30, the court ordered that despite Mother’s allegations, Father could resume his previously ordered parent-time.

¶24      A few days later, Mother refused to bring the Children to the exchange point, telling law enforcement that she believed the Children were in danger. That same day, the Children were interviewed at a DCFS office. Without prompting, and without waiting for the interviewer to explain what the interview would be about, H.M. said that Father had “choked him, peed in his mouth, and put his penis in his bum and it bled, and that [H.M.’s] neck was broken.” H.M. said that these things all occurred in the middle of church and that “they” were wearing church clothes when it all happened. When asked for more detail, H.M. said, “that’s all I said, that’s all I needed to tell you about,” and he continued to reply “that’s all” and “that’s all he did” to further questions. H.M. then became emotional and visibly upset, and when asked why, H.M. responded, “[B]ecause that’s what I needed to say to you!” When asked if someone had told him what to say, H.M. said that he and Mother had “talked on the iPad about it.”

¶25      When Mother was asked about H.M.’s statements later that day, Mother claimed that H.M. must have been referring to the recorded disclosure he had previously made and which Mother had previously brought to court. Following the interview, Mother asked DCFS if she still needed to send the Children to Father for parent-time the following day. DCFS informed Mother that there was not enough information to support the allegations and that it was not recommending any adjustment to parent-time.

¶26      On May 3, 2020, law enforcement was called to conduct a welfare check at Mother’s home after she reported that she was afraid Father was going to come shoot her and the Children. A week later, DCFS received a report that Father had been unable to retrieve the Children for his parent-time. Law enforcement soon learned from the maternal grandfather that Mother and the Children were staying at a local hotel, but he would not disclose its location. On May 9, 2020, Mother brought the Children to the Bountiful City Police Department to demonstrate to law enforcement that the Children were physically safe.

¶27      On May 11, 2020, Mother called law enforcement in Tooele to report that the Children’s paternal aunt and uncle were sexually and physically abusing the Children. The next day, DCFS received an additional report that Mother had told law enforcement in Layton that the Children had been sexually abused by Father and were being victimized by a sex trafficking ring. Law enforcement stated that Mother was speaking rapidly and that the conversation “went in circles.” Law enforcement was concerned that Mother was under the influence of a substance or was suffering from a mental illness. H.M. also called law enforcement that day and reported that he had been abused.

¶28 On May 14, 2020, Father obtained a writ of assistance, authorizing the help of law enforcement to retrieve the Children from Mother. Mother refused to cooperate with this order, so Father received a second writ of assistance on May 21, 2020, authorizing law enforcement to locate Mother through cell phone tracking. The Children were eventually recovered from a hotel by law enforcement.

Protective Supervision Services Case

¶29      On May 26, 2020, the State filed an expedited verified petition for protective supervision with the juvenile court. The State requested that the Children remain in Father’s custody, with DCFS providing protective supervision services. In June 2020, the juvenile court ordered DCFS to supervise the Children’s visits with Mother moving forward.

¶30      During a supervised visit at a DCFS office on July 2, 2020, Mother, Stepfather, and a step-grandfather took the Children and left the building. H.M. cried, yelled, and became upset when the step-grandfather picked him up and carried him out. Mother and the others left with the Children despite DCFS employees telling Mother that law enforcement would be called. Law enforcement soon located Mother, Stepfather, the step-grandfather, and the Children in a nearby canyon and, pursuant to a warrant, returned the Children to Father.

¶31      On July 13, 2020, the juvenile court found that Mother had neglected the Children by attempting to alienate them from Father and by making repeated reports that Father had abused the Children. The court ordered the Children to remain in Father’s custody, and it further ordered that Mother’s visits must be supervised by a professional visit supervisor and a security guard. The court also ordered Mother and Stepfather to participate in psychological evaluations and receive treatment. Mother and Stepfather subsequently participated in the ordered psychological evaluations and participated in follow-up treatment with a psychologist specializing in high-conflict custody cases. The evaluating psychologist concluded that Mother “is stuck in her narrative about what has transpired with the Children” and that she “lacks insight into her own behaviors.”

¶32      The Children began receiving therapy from a trauma therapist (Therapist). Therapist initially diagnosed both of the Children with an acute stress disorder, though she later modified the diagnoses to post-traumatic stress disorder. Therapist opined that the Children had suffered cumulative and complex trauma because of Mother’s actions, and Therapist noted that their symptoms included intrusive thoughts, negative moods, sleep disturbances, irritable behavior, angry outbursts, and physical aggression. In an August 2020 letter to the court, Therapist said that both Children, and more particularly H.M., had expressed fear of being “stole[n]” by Mother again and of having the police “chase [them] down.” Therapist also described D.M.’s stress related to the May 2020 hotel stay.

¶33      As noted, Mother began having supervised visits with Children in July 2020. DCFS’s progress notes indicate that Mother asked “some inappropriate questions during the visits,” e.g., that she had asked the Children “multiple times if they are ok or if there is anything wrong” and that Mother also questioned the Children about “where they live, who lives with them, and if anyone is telling them not to tell her things.” Although Mother had been told several times not to talk to the Children about the case, Mother asked the Children in September 2020 “if they could tell someone about the things they told her and the things she said were not crazy,” and that if they did, “they could go home with her because ‘they think that I’m lying.’” When the supervising DCFS caseworker (Lead Caseworker) told Mother not to talk about these things with the Children, Mother became defensive and told Lead Caseworker to “back off.”

¶34      Mother’s supervised visits began proceeding without serious incident, though, and in March 2021, the juvenile court removed the requirement that a security guard be present. The court also ruled that the Children could have visits in Mother’s home if Mother provided a minimum of three negative drug tests and was in compliance with all other provisions from a Child and Family Plan. In April 2021, Therapist noted that D.M. had said that he had “mixed up feelings” about the possibility of staying at Mother’s home. D.M. said that he wanted to “stay overnight at [his] mom’s house,” but he was “scared” that she would “ask questions about [him] getting hurt” and felt like he had “to answer those things she asks.” Therapist also noted that D.M. felt pressured by Mother to say that “bad things” had happened at Father’s house. Therapist noted that D.M. feels like he “disappoint[ed]” Mother if he told her that he was safe at Father’s house.

¶35 In May 2021 and again in July 2021, the juvenile court increased the length of Mother’s visits with the Children. In September 2021, the court began allowing unsupervised visits at Mother’s home. In October 2021, however, the Children told DCFS that Mother “was starting to ask questions” about Father’s “house like before and they [didn’t] like it when” she did that. In November 2021, the Children reported to DCFS that “the visits have been going well” and that Mother “hasn’t asked them questions about [Father’s] house anymore.”

¶36      At a December 8, 2021, review hearing, the Guardian Ad Litem (the GAL) recommended closing the protective supervision services case due to the substantial completion of services provided to Mother and Stepfather. At the close of the hearing, Father was awarded primary custody of the Children, and the juvenile court ordered the Children to be released from the protective supervision of DCFS. The case was then closed.

Mother’s Allegations Against Father Resume

¶37      Less than a month after the protective supervision case was closed, a series of events occurred in rapid succession that again involved Mother implicating Father in alleged abuse.

¶38 On January 3, 2022, D.M. reported to a school counselor that Father was hitting him. D.M. was unable to provide any further context or detail about the alleged abuse. On January 4, DCFS received a referral that Mother was acting erratically and had perhaps used methamphetamine. That same day, Mother refused to return the Children to Father following a mid-week visit. On January 5, DCFS received a referral alleging that Father “may have” physically abused D.M. On January 6, Mother attempted to take the Children from their school, even though that day was not hers under the parent-time schedule. Law enforcement was called, and in the presence of both the Children and other school children, Mother accused Father of attempting to kidnap the Children. The Children went home with Father.

¶39      On January 10, D.M. was interviewed at the CJC. During the interview, DCFS received an additional report that Father was physically abusing D.M. and sexually abusing him by putting “his private parts in [D.M.’s] private parts.” When the interviewer asked D.M. about this information, D.M. stated that Father “hits [him], spanks [him], chokes [him], and hurts [him],” but he denied that Father had done anything else to his body. When D.M. was asked why he decided to talk about these things that day, D.M. stated he “wanted to get it out” and was “too scared to talk about it before.” H.M. was also interviewed at the CJC that day, but he said nothing about any abuse.

¶40      That same day, DCFS learned that the Cache County Sheriff’s Office had just received a letter that was written by D.M. in which D.M. alleged that Father had physically and sexually abused D.M. and H.M. When a detective spoke with Mother that day, Mother told him that she had “no idea” that D.M. had written the letter. On January 11, D.M. was interviewed at his school regarding the letter by a detective (Detective). D.M. said that “nobody knows about the letter” and that he had ridden his bike to drop it off in a mailbox. When asked for further details, D.M. responded, “I don’t know” and “I don’t remember.” D.M. also said that he “knew” the address for the sheriff’s office and that he had run a Google search and used YouTube on his tablet to learn how to send a letter.

¶41      Detective obtained a search warrant allowing him to examine the tablets used in Mother and Stepfather’s home. Pursuant to this search, Detective found no evidence of any searches like those described by D.M. But Detective did learn that Mother had searched “when does Sheriff read the mail” on January 10, 2022.

¶42      After obtaining this evidence, Detective interviewed Mother again at the sheriff’s office. Mother now acknowledged that she had taught D.M. how to “write this letter.” She also admitted to having looked up the address of the sheriff’s office and having taken D.M. to the post office to mail the letter. Mother then said that D.M. had told her that Father has “hit, choked, and sodomized” him and that H.M. had said that the first time Father “sodomized him” was when he was three years old. Mother said that H.M. couldn’t sit down because it hurt and that “something came out of his butt when he went to the bathroom.” Mother said she was having his underwear “tested for DNA” “in Florida,” but she refused to give Detective any more information about the alleged DNA testing. Mother said that she “knows this stuff is true” and that the Children were being “put back with” a “pedophile.”

¶43      On January 12, D.M. was again interviewed at school, this time by Lead Caseworker. D.M. began crying and stated that Mother “made me write that letter.” D.M. said that the “choking, the spanking and the hitting” “didn’t really happen” and that Mother had instructed him to write a letter about “something bad about” Father and “all the mean stuff she thinks has happened” to D.M. He said that he did not ride his bike to the post office but that Mother had helped him address the envelope and had then driven him there. Lead Caseworker also interviewed H.M. at school that day. H.M. reported that Mother “forced” D.M. to write a letter to the police because Mother “is trying to get dad arrested” “so they can live with her forever.” At trial, Therapist testified that both Children told her the same things about the events surrounding this letter and that both Children had also told her that as they were mailing the letter, Mother exclaimed, “This is a day we will celebrate every year.”

Termination Proceedings

¶44      DCFS sought protective supervision services for the Children on January 19, 2022. In February 2022, DCFS filed a petition for the termination of Mother’s parental rights.

¶45      The Children soon resumed regular therapy with Therapist. Therapist later testified that “D.M. came in very tearful, very confused. He had been through four to five interviews” in one week and was “wrestling with himself because he had lied during some of them because he felt like that was the right thing to do for” Mother. Therapist testified that D.M. was “having a lot of shame towards himself” and that D.M. told her that he felt like he had “to say that these things have happened in order to make [Mother] happy.” Therapist said that H.M. told her that he was “tired of all the asking stuff with [Mother].”

¶46      From January 2022 through the termination trial in July 2022, Mother was only allowed to have supervised visits with the Children. Therapist later testified that H.M. was initially “very, very vocal about not wanting to do the visits.” H.M. told Therapist that Mother “just—she comes at me and comes at me. I don’t want to go. I don’t want to deal with it.” After a March 2022 visit, H.M. reported to Therapist that he “didn’t like it and it didn’t feel safe.” H.M. said that “it sort of made [his] stomach hurt and like maybe she was going to take [him] again.”

¶47      Lead Caseworker later affirmed Therapist’s view that H.M. was initially hesitant to have visits with Mother after the January 2022 incidents. She subsequently testified that H.M. refused to attend one visit with Mother and that when he had visits with Mother early on, he was “emotionally dysregulated.” But Lead Caseworker also testified that H.M. eventually warmed up to the visits and that by the time of trial, he would sit in Mother’s lap and hug her. Lead Caseworker testified that D.M. was “very good” with Mother and that they “like to play together.”

¶48      The GAL was still concerned, though, and requested that Mother’s supervised visits be suspended. The court held a hearing in May 2022 to consider this request. At the close of the hearing, the juvenile court found that there was “no evidence whatsoever of any harm or trauma being caused to D.M. from the visits with [Mother] that have occurred subsequent” to January 2022 and that “[s]upervised visitation is in the best interest of the Children.” The court emphasized that it intended “for the visits between the Children and [Mother] to occur, regardless of whether the Children want to go or not.” Shortly before trial, D.M. indicated that he wanted visits with Mother to “last longer,” and H.M. indicated that he wanted the visits to be at Mother’s house.

Trial

¶49 In July 2022, the juvenile court held a four-day trial on DCFS’s petition to terminate Mother’s parental rights. The court heard testimony from 17 witnesses, including numerous professionals.

¶50      The State called Mother as a witness on the first day of trial. During her testimony, Mother claimed that she hadn’t personally seen the letter that D.M. wrote to the sheriff in January 2022 and that she was now seeing it in court for “the first time”; Mother also claimed that she didn’t know what its contents were. But the State introduced evidence showing that Mother’s assertions about the letter were not true. For example, the State introduced a video of Mother’s interview at the sheriff’s office, and this video showed Mother reading the letter. The State also introduced an email that Mother had written to her father (the Children’s maternal grandfather) after the incident that showed that she was aware of the letter’s contents.

¶51      As for the long-term allegations of abuse that had been made against Father, Mother testified twice that she didn’t know if Father had actually abused the Children. And with respect to the allegations she’d made against Father, Mother testified that she had “followed the rules” and that she had “made sure” she didn’t talk to the Children about their disclosures to authorities.

¶52      Lead Caseworker testified at trial. She testified that the Children had been traumatized by “the fear of them being taken,” noting that H.M. has “dreams about a commander coming into a hotel room,” which Lead Caseworker linked to the incident in 2020 in which law enforcement retrieved the Children from the hotel. Lead Caseworker also testified that DCFS sought termination of parental rights instead of another round of protective supervised services because DCFS had “exhausted all options.” She said that while Mother “in her own testimony has said that she learned a lot [from the protective supervision services case] and that she . . . knew at the time what to do in that situation,” Lead Caseworker didn’t “know what more we could provide.”

¶53      Therapist testified at trial too. According to Therapist, when she began seeing the Children in January 2022, the Children “expressed a fear” about “what possibly may happen again,” wondered if Mother “would take [them] again,” and asked whether they would “have to go to the hotel again.” When Therapist was asked whether she thought there was “anything less significant than the complete termination of [Mother’s] rights that can adequately protect these Children,” she responded, “if we look at adequate protection coupled with normalcy, the answer to that is no.” Therapist further testified that her recommendation for terminating Mother’s parental rights “was based on the cumulative therapy [she] had done with the [Children] in the last few years” and that she thought that termination was in “their emotional best interest.” Therapist testified that H.M.’s “exact words” to her were, “How would you feel if this were always happening to you? I just want a normal life.” When she was asked how Mother could be stopped from continuing to traumatize the Children, Therapist testified, “We stop the interaction.” She also testified that although DCFS “may have talked about the possibility of supervised visitation,” “that’s not really along the normal, natural developmental means, and so I didn’t feel like that was the best option.”

¶54      In the GAL’s closing argument, she emphasized that “[c]ontact that isn’t highly structured and supervised, holding [Mother] accountable, results in trauma to these Children. They’ve expressed discomfort about the idea of being in [Mother’s] presence without a protective third party present.” The GAL further asserted that Mother “cannot be trusted to follow a court order. She cannot be trusted to act in the best interest of her children. Supervising visits for the rest of these Children’s childhood is not feasible, it’s not in their best interest, it’s not appropriate. Nothing less than termination of this relationship can adequately protect these Children now and into the long term.”

¶55      After the GAL’s closing argument concluded, Mother’s counsel asserted in her own closing argument that “[t]o presume that—first of all, that there’s no other choice but termination in this case, I don’t think it’s a reasonable position.” Mother’s counsel argued that

there were no specific reasons given during trial as to why these other options were not possible. Some of these less—you know, short of termination options would be to reopen the [protective supervision services] case and to implement . . . a reliable source for the kids to contact directly as to eliminate . . . the possibility of them making reports to either parent, to implementing a high-conflict therapist/family counselor . . . . Or start a new [protective supervision services] case . . . . Or permanent legal custody and guardianship with the dad, but which would allow the mom to remain in the kids’ lives and continue playing an active role in that. There are other options that would—that are short of termination that would preserve—that would enable the kids to continue having a relationship with their mother.

Mother’s counsel asserted that Mother had “worked hard and earnestly” to “be a better mom” and “did everything she was asked to do.” Mother’s counsel admitted that after the close of the protected supervision services case, “not all of the recommendations made by the therapist were followed,” but counsel suggested that if there had been “an assigned family therapist in place . . . we wouldn’t be here today.” Counsel concluded her argument by requesting that the court reopen the prior protective supervised services case and “require the parties to comply with the recommendations as given by the service providers.”

Termination Decision

¶56      The juvenile court subsequently issued a written decision terminating Mother’s parental rights to the Children.

¶57      Early in this ruling, the court found the testimony of Therapist to be “both credible and helpful in provid[ing] understanding of the harm done to the Children due to the actions of [Mother].” By contrast, the court found that Mother’s testimony at trial “was not credible and at times was simply untruthful.” Specifically, the court contrasted Mother’s testimony that she had never seen D.M.’s January 2022 letter and that she was unaware of its contents with the video showing her reading the letter at the sheriff’s office. The court also found that Mother had given “different versions of her story of how [D.M.] wrote the letter and how the letter was then mailed to the sheriff’s office.”

¶58      Addressing the January 2022 letter, the court found that D.M. “first lied to the sheriff deputy and stated that he wrote the letter without the help of his mother and rode himself to the post office to mail the letter,” and the court opined that it “cannot find any other reason for [D.M.] to lie about how the letter was written and delivered to the post office other than [Mother] telling him to do so.” The court found that “the allegations stated in the letter were false and were contrived by [Mother] to cause harm to and further alienate [Father] with his Children.”

¶59      The court then found that six grounds for termination had been established: abuse, neglect, unfitness, failure to provide care, token efforts, and “other.” As part of its unfitness analysis, the court found that “[a]fter years of unsubstantiated allegations of abuse against Father,” Mother “still fails to show any real remorse for her actions and their consequences on the Children. She simply testified that she ‘doesn’t know’ whether or not the Children have been or are being abused by” Father. The court found that “[a]fter years of therapy and services by DCFS, [Mother] refuses to take any responsibility for her behavior.” The court concluded that Mother “has shown that she cannot stop her destructive behavior regarding false allegations and refuses to take any responsibility regarding the Children’s statements to DCFS and law enforcement.”

¶60      The court then determined it was in the Children’s best interest to terminate Mother’s rights and that it was also strictly necessary to do so. In its best interest determination, the court found that Mother “is unable to accept any court order that does not grant her primary care and custody of the children and will distort facts and perceptions until it makes sense to her that she should have custody.” The court found that Mother

has not demonstrated the ability to sustain progress in treatment that shows that the Children would be safe in her care. Her actions taken less than a month after the protective supervision services case closed demonstrates that she has not responded to the extensive services provided to her. [Mother] has shown that when she is not subject to the strict oversight of DCFS and this Court, she reverts to allegations of abuse against [Father].

¶61      Under a separate subheading devoted to the strictly necessary determination, the court found it had “considered less-restrictive alternatives than termination of [Mother’s] parental rights” and that a “permanent custody and guardianship arrangement is unworkable and not in the best interest of the Children.” The court found that Mother “has made or caused to be made a multitude of false allegations of physical and sexual abuse against [Father] throughout a period [of] seven years, causing the Children to be interviewed repeatedly and examined and having their lives investigated.” The court further found that “[a]ny contact” that Mother has with the Children “is likely to result in an additional false allegation, necessitating additional investigation, interviews, etc., all to the serious detriment of the Children.” Finally, the court found that even when it “ordered [Mother] to be restricted to supervised visits by DCFS with the children, [Mother] absconded with the children. The Court cannot perceive a less-restrictive alternative which would protect the Children from further trauma without terminating [Mother’s] parental rights.”

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶62    Mother challenges the termination order on two primary grounds. First, she argues that in its best interest analysis, the juvenile court “failed to consider all the facts” and improperly relied on past events rather than engaging in a present-tense inquiry. Second, she argues that the court “did not make findings as to why supervised visitation was not feasible.”

¶63      This court applies “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. “A best interest determination involves neither a pure finding of fact nor an abstract conclusion of law. This is a mixed determination of law and fact—in which the abstract law is applied to a given set of facts.” Id. ¶ 17. “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.” Id. ¶ 31 (quotation simplified).[2]

ANALYSIS

¶64      The Utah legislature has determined that “[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 § 80-4-104(8). In light of this, a “juvenile court should only transfer custody of a child from the child’s natural parent for compelling reasons and when there is a jurisdictional basis to do so.” Id. “When the [juvenile] court considers a child’s welfare and best interest, the court’s focus should be firmly fixed on finding the outcome that best secures the child’s well-being.” In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 64, 472 P.3d 827.

¶65      To terminate a parent’s rights, a court must find that (1) a statutory ground for termination exists and (2) termination is in the child’s best interest. See id. ¶¶ 19–20. With one minor exception that we address below in Part III, Mother’s appeal does not challenge the court’s determination that there were grounds to terminate her parental rights. Rather, Mother’s appeal is focused on the best interest portion of the court’s ruling.

¶66      “The best-interest inquiry is wide-ranging and asks a court to weigh the entirety of the circumstances of a child’s situation, including the physical, intellectual, social, moral, and educational training and general welfare and happiness of the child.” In re J.J.W., 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 26, 520 P.3d 38 (quotation simplified). By statute, a court can only find that termination is in the best interest of a child if it also finds that “termination of parental rights, from the child’s point of view, is strictly necessary.” Utah Code § 80-4-301(1); accord In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 66. The “statutory language uses the verb ‘is,’ indicating that the best-interest inquiry is to be undertaken in a present-tense fashion.” In re Z.C.W., 2021 UT App 98, ¶ 13, 500 P.3d 94. Moreover, Utah law presumes that “Lilt is in the best interest and welfare of a child to be raised under the care and supervision of the child’s natural parents.” Utah Code § 80-4-104(8). In light of this, a juvenile court “must determine whether a feasible option short of imposing the ultimate remedy of terminating the parent’s rights exists, and if it does, the court must choose it.” In re K.Y., 2022 UT App 149, ¶ 34, 523 P.3d 1159 (quotation simplified).

¶67      As noted, Mother advances two main challenges to the court’s ruling. First, Mother argues that the court did not properly account for the present-tense best interest of the Children, but that it instead improperly relied “on outdated information.” And second, Mother argues that the court erred by not determining on the record whether an order of ongoing supervised visitation was a feasible non-termination option. We reject both challenges.

  1. Present-Tense Best Interest of the Children

¶68      Mother argues that the court’s conclusion that it was in the best interest of the Children to terminate her parental rights was “based on outdated information.” In Mother’s view, the court failed to properly account for the fact “that between January 2022 and July 2022, Mother had supervised visits without incident.” We disagree.

¶69    Again, it’s settled that “the best-interest inquiry is to be undertaken in a present-tense fashion.” In re Z.C.W., 2021 UT App 98, ¶ 13. “Because children inhabit dynamic environments in which their needs and circumstances are constantly evolving,” the best interest inquiry must “be undertaken in a present-tense fashion, as of the date of the trial or hearing held to decide the question.” In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 34, 518 P.3d 993 (quotation simplified), cert. granted, 525 P.3d 1279 (Utah 2023). “In a best-interest inquiry, the relevant question is almost always this one: what outcome is in the child’s best interest now?” In re Z.C.W., 2021 UT App 98, ¶ 12 (emphasis in original).

¶70      The juvenile court’s order in this case was properly couched in present-tense terms. In its findings on unfitness, for example, the court found that Mother “still fails to show any real remorse for her actions and their consequences on the children.” (Emphasis added.) The court also found that Mother “has shown that she cannot stop her destructive behavior regarding false allegations and refuses to take any responsibility regarding the children’s statements to DCFS and law enforcement.” (Emphases added.) Then, in a subsection that was specifically directed at the best interest determination, the court found that Mother’s “intent and the effect of her actions is to disrupt any semblance of stability the children might enjoy regarding [Father] while in his care,” and it further found that Mother “is unable to accept any court order that does not grant her primary care and custody of the children and will distort facts and perceptions until it makes sense to her that she should have custody.” (Emphases added.) And in another subsection that was specifically devoted to the strictly necessary determination, the court found that “any contact [Mother] has with the children is likely to result in an additional false allegation, necessitating additional investigation, interviews, etc., all to the serious detriment of the children,” that “Mother has not shown that she can stop the false allegations” against Father, and that Mother “fails to even acknowledge that the allegations are false or that she is in any way responsible for them.” (Emphases added.) In these and other instances in the ruling, the court made it clear that it was making a determination about the present-tense best interest of the Children.

¶71      Given this, Mother’s argument is ultimately focused on the alleged lack of evidentiary support for that conclusion. Mother asserts that although the court’s ruling may have been written in the present tense, the information that it relied on was so old or stale that the court had no valid basis for concluding that termination was in the Children’s present-tense best interest. We disagree.

¶72      In virtually any decision that’s made in law or life, questions about the present must in some measure be answered through consideration of relevant events from the past. As famously put by Faulkner, the “past is never dead. It’s not even past.” William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun 92 (1951).

¶73      Our cases have recognized as much in this very particular legal context. Although it’s true that the best interest determination is made in the present-tense, it’s also true that “considering what a child’s best interest is at the time of trial does not require ignoring historical patterns.” In re A.K., 2022 UT App 148, ¶ 8 n.3, 523 P.3d 1156 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 527 P.3d 1106 (Utah 2023). Rather, “a juvenile court judge conducting a best interests analysis must weigh evidence forecasting future events in order to predict what course of action will best protect and nurture the child.” In re C.L., 2007 UT 51, ¶ 22, 166 P.3d 608 (quotation simplified). Since neither judges nor expert witnesses are soothsayers, the evidence that a court would rely on to “forecast[] future events” would naturally include evidence of things that had happened in the past between the parent and the children. In this sense, a court is tasked with “weigh[ing] a parent’s past conduct with her present abilities” in order to make the statutorily required determination. In re B.R., 2007 UT 82, ¶ 13, 171 P.3d 435.

¶74    Mother recognizes this, but she nevertheless argues that there must be some point at which the evidence is too distant to support a determination about a child’s present-tense best interest. In concept, we agree. But in application, we disagree with Mother’s suggestion that the evidence in this case was so remote that it could not be relied on.

¶75 Mother first points out that much of the court’s ruling was based on events that had occurred years before trial. And she’s right—the court did make repeated reference to events that had occurred years earlier. But even so, we think it significant that the court was not focused on an isolated event or two that had occurred in the far distant past. Rather, the court was focused on a pattern of events that had unfolded over the course of several years. As recounted at some length above, Mother began making allegations of sexual and physical abuse against Father in 2015, and she kept making such allegations over the course of the next five years. Mother kept doing so despite the apparent lack of any corroborating evidence. And she repeatedly encouraged her young children to make allegations against Father as well, even though this resulted in the Children being subject to repeated interviews and even physical examinations, and she also did so despite the transparently imaginative nature of some of the allegations.[3] Given that the juvenile court’s inquiry in this case was in some measure predictive, its focus on a pattern of behavior that had extended over several years would of course have probative value.

¶76    Even so, Mother points out that her behavior had improved enough by the later months of 2021 to prompt the juvenile court to close the protective supervision services case in December 2021. But as the juvenile court stressed in its termination order, within just a few weeks of that case being closed, Mother encouraged D.M. to write a letter to law enforcement with yet another allegation of abuse, Mother lied to authorities when questioned about her involvement in that letter, and Mother publicly accused Father of attempting to kidnap the Children during a confrontation at a school (and she did so in front of other children, no less). These events certainly gave the court some basis for reassessing its conclusion from December 2021 that Mother’s pattern of troubling behavior had come to an end.

¶77      This leads to Mother’s final assertion, which is that the January 2022 events could not support the termination order that was entered in July 2022 because no further incidents occurred during the January-to-July interim. As an initial matter, we have some skepticism about Mother’s suggestion that events that occurred five months before trial are indeed so remote that they could not inform the court’s present-tense best interest determination. And our skepticism of this argument is particularly warranted here, where the events that occurred in January 2022 are consistent with a prior pattern of events that had stretched out over the course of several years. After all, even during the 2015 through 2020 period, there were several stretches of several months in which Mother didn’t make any allegations. Yet each time, the period of dormancy was later interrupted by new allegations of abuse.

¶78      But more importantly, we disagree with Mother’s suggestion that nothing of note had occurred in the January-to-July interim. In reviewing the juvenile court’s termination decision, two things stand out.

¶79      First, at the time of the July trial, the court now had access to new information (primarily from Therapist) about the harm that Mother’s long-term behavior had inflicted on the Children. On January 24, 2022, Therapist wrote that D.M. reported “feeling very confused because [Father] never did that stuff” but that D.M. did not want to disappoint Mother. Therapist said D.M. felt “sort of unsafe” because of the events surrounding the January 2022 letter and “all the question asking.” And Therapist also said that H.M. reported feeling “tired of all the asking stuff” with Mother and that H.M. thought that life felt “sad and mad and scary” as a result. In a June 2022 letter, Therapist then informed the court that after a March 2022 visit with Mother, H.M. told her that he “didn’t like it and it didn’t feel safe.” She said that H.M. told her that “it sort of made [his] stomach hurt and like maybe she was going to take [him] again.”

¶80      Therapist’s testimony at trial gave the court even more insight into these harms. Therapist testified that D.M. was tearful in his January 2022 session and that he was “wrestling with himself because he had lied during some of [the interviews] because he felt like that was the right thing to do for [Mother].” Therapist testified that D.M. was “having a lot of shame towards himself” and that D.M. had told her he felt like he had “to say that these things have happened in order to make [Mother] happy.” Therapist also testified that after the January 2022 incidents, H.M. was “very, very vocal about not wanting to do the visits” with Mother. She testified that H.M. told her that “[m]y mom just—she comes at me and comes at me. I don’t want to go. I don’t want to deal with it.” She further testified that H.M.’s “exact words” to her were, “How would you feel if this were always happening to you? I just want a normal life.”

¶81      The court didn’t have this information when it closed the case in December 2021, but it did have this information at trial. And this information could properly inform any decision about what was in the best interest of the Children moving forward.

¶82      Second, the court also had new information about Mother’s mindset. In its order, the court found that Mother’s trial testimony “was not credible and at times was simply untruthful.” For example, the court noted that Mother testified twice that she was seeing D.M.’s January 2022 letter for the first time in the courtroom, even though a video of an earlier interview with law enforcement showed Mother reading that letter then. The court also highlighted Mother’s contrasting stories about how D.M. had written the letter. And the court further determined that Mother’s “statements that she has no opinion on whether she believes” that Father abused the Children were “not credible[,] taking into account the history of her actions in this matter.”

¶83      Based in part on Mother’s July 2022 trial testimony, the court found that Mother “still fails to show any real remorse for her actions and their consequences on the Children.” And the court found that although Mother “believes it improves her standing to now say that she ‘doesn’t know’ or has no opinion on whether or not the Children have been abused,” she “continues to deny responsibility for the continuous harm of false allegations.” Mother’s testimony and the court’s observations of her mindset were, of course, new information. And this new information would have some proper bearing on the court’s assessment of whether it was presently in the Children’s best interest to terminate Mother’s parental rights.

¶84      Pushing back, Mother points to some contrary evidence showing that there had been some improvement in her relationship with the Children. For example, Lead Caseworker testified that while H.M. initially showed some hesitancy at the visits, by the time of trial he would “sit in mom’s lap now where he wouldn’t do that before. You know, he’ll hug her. Things like that.” Lead Caseworker also testified that “D.M. is very good with his mom. I mean, it seems like they like to play together. And they just have fun when he’s there.” And at trial, Lead Caseworker said that she could not remember any time since January 2022 that the Children expressed to her “any concerns or anxiety about contact with their mom.” Also, minutes from a March 2022 hearing indicate that Mother had “been appropriate on her visits.” And in a DCFS Progress Report written a month before trial, D.M. “report[ed] that he wants the visits to last longer and [H.M.] asked to have the visits in [Mother’s] house.”

¶85      But again, a “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). Here:

  • The events that occurred from 2015 through 2020 gave the court ample reason to find that Mother had a long-term and persistent desire to make allegations of abuse against Father, that she was willing to directly involve the Children in those efforts, and that she was willing to ignore court orders (such as those she ignored when absconding with the Children on two occasions in 2020).
  • The events of January 2022 and Mother’s non-remorseful testimony at trial gave the court reason to believe that Mother’s good behavior in late 2021 had been temporary, rather than permanent, and that Mother still persisted in her beliefs about Father and her willingness to manipulate the Children or court processes to support her views.
  • And the new evidence that the court received leading up to trial and then at trial gave it additional information about the harm that was being done to the Children by Mother’s behavior.

¶86      In short, the court was tasked with making a present-tense determination, and its decision reflects that it did. In making that determination, the court could properly consider past and present events together. Although the court had concluded in December 2021 that the protective supervision case should be closed, more recent events had given the court reason to reassess its conclusions about Mother’s ongoing danger to the Children. Given the evidence that was before the court at trial, we see no basis for concluding that the court’s decision was improperly based on stale evidence. We therefore reject this argument.

  1. Supervised Visitation

¶87      A court may only terminate a parent’s rights if it finds that termination is in the child’s best interest and that “termination of parental rights, from the child’s point of view, is strictly necessary.” Utah Code § 80-4-301(1). “The strictly necessary language 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. “If the child can be equally protected and benefited by an option other than termination, termination is not strictly necessary” and “the court cannot order the parent’s rights terminated.” Id. ¶ 66. Moreover, when a juvenile court is presented with a readily apparent non-termination option, the court must “state, on the record, its reasons for rejecting feasible alternatives.” In re K.Y., 2022 UT App 149, ¶ 43 (quotation simplified). This “leaves no room for implicit rejection.” Id. (quotation simplified).

¶88      As noted, the court heard both evidence and argument suggesting that supervised visitation was not a viable solution moving forward. Therapist testified that although DCFS “may have talked about the possibility of supervised visitation,” “that’s not really along the normal, natural developmental means, and so I didn’t feel like that was the best option.” And in closing argument, the GAL argued that “[s]upervising visits for the rest of these children’s childhood is not feasible, it’s not in their best interest, it’s not appropriate.” As also noted, the juvenile court then made a series of findings about why it was strictly necessary to terminate Mother’s parental rights. Despite these findings, Mother argues that the juvenile court “erred as a matter of law when it did not make findings as to why supervised visitation” was not a feasible alternative to termination. We disagree with Mother’s claim that the ruling was lacking in this respect.

¶89      The cases in which we’ve found that a court erred by not addressing a feasible alternative have involved termination orders that were far less clear than the one at issue here. In In re K.Y., for example, the court’s best interest analysis was just two paragraphs long. See 2022 UT App 149, ¶ 28. After the State asserted on appeal that the juvenile court had at least “implicitly” rejected a potential guardianship within those two paragraphs, id. ¶ 42, we rejected that assertion, explaining that it was unclear to us “which conclusion” the court would have even reached about a potential guardianship, id. ¶ 44. The order at issue in In re J.J.W. had similar infirmities. There, “the court’s best-interest analysis consisted of a single paragraph.” 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 16. And while we agreed that the court had “by necessity” implicitly rejected guardianship as an option, id. ¶ 32, we still reversed because we still saw no explanation for why the court thought that guardianship was not a viable option, id. ¶ 35.

¶90      The ruling at issue in this case is decidedly different. The court devoted nearly three pages of analysis to the best interest inquiry alone, and it then devoted an additional page and a half to the strictly necessary determination. In addition, the ruling as a whole spans over 40 pages, and many of the court’s findings and conclusions from the other sections were interconnected and had obvious bearing on the best interest and strictly necessary determinations. Thus, unlike the orders at issue in prior cases where we’ve found this kind of error, the court here issued a detailed order that gave clear insight into its thinking about the relevant questions.

¶91      This leads to the question of whether the court’s ruling left any room for ongoing supervised visits as a non-termination option. Here, the subsection on the strictly necessary determination began with the court’s declaration that it “ha[d] considered less-restrictive alternatives than termination of [Mother’s] parental rights” and its conclusion that a “permanent custody and guardianship arrangement is unworkable and not in the best interest of the Children.” Under the same subheading, the court recounted the incidents in which Mother had previously absconded with the Children. The court specifically highlighted the fact that the second absconding incident had occurred when Mother “abducted the children from a division-supervised visit at the Division’s offices in July 2020.” The court then stressed that “[e]ven when the Court ordered the mother to be restricted to supervised visits by DCFS with the children, mother absconded with the children.” With this as something of a springboard, the very next sentence read, “The Court cannot perceive a less-restrictive alternative which would protect the children from further trauma without terminating mother’s parental rights.” The court’s focus was thus explicit and clear: the court had concluded that the only way to protect the Children from Mother inflicting “further trauma” on them by absconding with them again was to terminate her parental rights.

¶92      Mother nevertheless stresses that she had not absconded with the Children recently, and in light of this, she suggests that it’s unclear why, or perhaps even whether, the court was ruling out supervised visits as a viable option moving forward. But in cases such as In re K.Y. or In re J.J.W., we were left guessing at the court’s ruling or rationale. Here, however, it requires no guesswork to see that the court had indeed rejected ongoing visitation as an option, nor is there any question about why the court had done so. Again, in the subsection of its ruling that addressed the best interest determination, the court found that Mother “is unable to accept any court order that does not grant her primary care and custody of the children and will distort facts and perceptions until it makes sense to her that she should have custody.” And in the subsection that more particularly addressed the strictly necessary inquiry, the court found that “Mother has not shown that she can stop the false allegations against” Father and that “[a]ny contact the mother has with the children is likely to result in an additional false allegation, necessitating additional investigation, interviews, etc., all to the serious detriment to the children.”

¶93      This ruling thus foreclosed the possibility of ongoing supervised visits as a viable alternative to termination. Taking the court at its word, the court’s express finding that “any contact” carried the risk of causing potential harm to the Children by definition ruled out ongoing supervised visits. And the court’s focus on the prior absconding events, coupled with its findings about Mother’s current lack of remorse, collectively explained why the court thought that even supervised visits would still present an unacceptable risk—whether it be of Mother absconding with the Children again or of using any visits (even supervised ones) to raise new allegations of abuse against Father. All of this is drawn directly from the court’s ruling.

¶94      In short, the juvenile court was sufficiently clear about its finding that termination was in the best interest of the Children and that termination was also strictly necessary, and the rationales given by the court directly foreclosed ongoing supervision as a feasible option. We see no basis for reversing the decision.

III. Mother’s Additional Arguments

¶95      Mother briefly raises three additional issues on appeal. But none of them warrant reversal.

  1. Adoption

¶96      At the back end of the best interest section of its ruling, the juvenile court found, “It is in the children’s best interests to terminate the parental rights of [Mother] so they may be free from abuse and neglect, so they may receive the proper safety, parenting, bonding, love, affection and stability they need, and so they may be adopted where they are safe, secure and stable.” Mother now argues that the court should not have relied on adoption in its best interest analysis because “adoption by a stepparent is wholly unnecessary” since “Father has sole custody.”

¶97      Our best interest cases have suggested that a court should not terminate a parent’s rights based on the “categorical concern” that adoption provides more stability to children than some other non-termination option. See, e.g.In re J.A.L.2022 UT 12, ¶ 25, 506 P.3d 606. But we disagree with Mother’s suggestion that the ruling here was categorical in nature. The court’s ruling was not only extensive, but it was focused on particular findings of the harm inflicted on the Children by Mother. We see no basis for overturning the decision based on the court’s stray reference to adoption in a single portion of the ruling.

  1. “Piling On”

¶98 Mother also argues that the court “piled on its grounds rulings by basing all six of its grounds-related findings on the same ‘emotional abuse.’” Mother argues that this practice violated “the spirit of the ‘grounds’ statutes, if not the letter,” because “[p]iling on multiple grounds based on the same subset of facts simply renders the additional ‘grounds’ superfluous.”

¶99      But Mother concedes that this practice “do[es] not provide independent grounds for relief on appeal.” And while Mother points to some caselaw from the attorney discipline context that might suggest that it’s problematic to “pile on” multiple overlapping charges, Mother provides no authority that supports her view that a juvenile court cannot base a termination decision on multiple grounds if the statutorily defined elements of those multiple grounds have some or even substantial overlap. We’re aware of no such authority either, and we therefore see no basis for overturning this ruling as a result of this alleged problem.

  1. Mandatory Reporting

¶100    Finally, Mother argues that “the court’s findings of emotional abuse are not supported by Utah law, where parents have both a right and a responsibility to report perceived abuse to authorities.” In Mother’s view, the “court’s decision sets up a scenario that fails to protect” children from “physical abuse and instead deems them ‘emotionally abused’ if one parent reports repeated, suspected abuse by the other.” Mother thus argues that the “court’s decision faults” her “for protecting [the] Children as she thought best.”

¶101    But the juvenile court’s extensive findings in this case leave no room for the conclusion that Mother’s rights have been terminated for anything like a good faith effort to protect the Children. The juvenile court found, with ample support, that Mother has engaged in a years-long campaign of filing unsupported or false reports of abuse against Father, that Mother has co-opted her children into being participants in this campaign (despite the fact that doing so caused them to be subjected to multiple police interviews and even physical examinations), that Mother has defied court orders and absconded with her children on two occasions, and that Mother lied to law enforcement and the court during the course of official interviews and proceedings.

¶102    We thus emphasize that a parent’s rights should not be terminated for making a good faith report of suspected abuse. But we likewise emphasize that nothing like that happened here. Rather, under the terms of the court’s order, Mother’s rights were terminated because of her years-long pattern of abusive behavior toward her children, not because of a good faith attempt to protect them.

CONCLUSION

¶103 The juvenile court did not err in relying on past events to support its present-tense best interest analysis, nor did it fail to account for the possibility of ordering ongoing supervised visits in its strictly necessary determination. Its decision to terminate Mother’s parental rights is accordingly affirmed.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277


[1] It’s appropriate at the outset to explain some of the word choices and information gaps in our recitation of the history of this case. As indicated in the introductory paragraphs of this opinion, this case centers on a years-long history of reports of abuse that were made against Father. The reports themselves are not in the record, so the record is limited to descriptions of those reports that came from others (most commonly the juvenile court in its various rulings).

In many instances, the passive voice was used when describing who had made an individual report—i.e., the record would say something like, “a referral was made.” To be faithful to the record, we’ve proceeded similarly. Also, the record sometimes says that a report was made but doesn’t then say what DCFS or law enforcement did with that report. And in some instances, the record makes passing reference to a reason a report was unaccepted without then providing much (or even any) explanatory detail. Our silence reflects those omissions too.

While acknowledging these caveats upfront, we note that the clear implications of the record generally and of the juvenile court’s termination decision more particularly are that (1) with the exception of the reports that were made by the Children themselves, it was Mother who was making most (if not all) of the reports of abuse against Father and (2) none of the reports of physical or sexual abuse that were made against Father were corroborated or accepted by DCFS or law enforcement.

[2] Mother also advances a few additional arguments relating to the grounds for termination and the broader scope of the allegations against her. These arguments are subject to this same standard of review, and we address them together in Part III.

[3] 3. As noted, the allegations included such things as an exploding car, Father allegedly punching a child in the bottom with a hammer, and Father somehow assaulting and even breaking a child’s neck in the middle of a church service.

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In re D.S. – 2023 UT App 98 – reversal of termination of parental rights

In re D.S. – 2023 UT App 98

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF D.S. AND K.S.,

PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

S.S.,

Appellant,

v.

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20220956-CA

Filed August 31, 2023

Third District Juvenile Court, Salt Lake Department

The Honorable Annette Jan

No. 1198250

Sheleigh A. Harding, Attorney 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 DAVID N. MORTENSEN and AMY J. OLIVER concurred.

HARRIS, Judge:

¶1 After a trial, the juvenile court terminated S.S.’s (Father) parental rights regarding his two children, D.S. and K.S. (collectively, the Children), concluding that it was in the best interest of the Children for them to be adopted by their paternal grandmother (Grandmother). Father appeals the court’s termination order, asserting that—under the precise circumstances presented here, where the Children are being placed with Father’s own mother and where permanent guardianship remains a viable option—termination of his rights was not strictly necessary to promote the best interest of the Children. We agree with Father, and reverse the juvenile court’s termination order.

BACKGROUND

¶2        Father is the biological father of K.S., a boy born in 2010, and D.S., a girl born in 2016. Father resided with the Children and their mother (Mother) from the time the Children were born until approximately 2018. In 2014, the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) received a report that Father had committed “Domestic Violence related child abuse” against K.S. and some of the Children’s other siblings; most notably, the report alleged that Father had “cut [a sibling’s] hand with a knife.” DCFS found the allegations “supported,” but it did not take action to remove K.S. at that time, and no criminal charges were ever filed.

¶3        Around 2017, after D.S. was born, a protective order was entered against Father, for reasons unclear from this record, that restricted his ability to contact Mother. Even after entry of the protective order, though, Father continued to reside with Mother for about another year, in apparent violation of that order. Eventually, in 2018, Father and Mother went through “a messy break up” and separated; the Children remained in Mother’s custody. In the year following the separation, Father spent time with the Children on a regular basis through “weekend visits” that Grandmother initiated and staged at her house.

¶4        During this time period, Father was arrested for “possession of a dangerous weapon”—“a pocketknife in [his] pocket”—in connection with various “protective order violations.” In late 2019, he was sentenced to prison, and ordered to serve a term of zero to five years. When Father first got to prison, he was unable to visit with the Children—even virtually— due to the continued existence of the protective order, but in March 2020, after obtaining a modification to that order, he began visiting with the Children through weekly “video visits” or “phone visits.” In the beginning, it was Grandmother who “was really insistent” that these virtual visits take place between Father and the Children. And since 2020, such visits have occurred on more or less a weekly basis.

¶5        In early 2021, while Father was still incarcerated, the Children were removed from Mother’s custody after an incident in which Mother abandoned them. The Children were later adjudicated neglected as to Mother and dependent as to Father, and the juvenile court placed them with Grandmother. In later proceedings, Mother’s parental rights were terminated, a determination Mother has not appealed. And due to Father’s ongoing incarceration, reunification services were never offered to him; the juvenile court set a permanency goal of adoption.

¶6        In January 2022, the State filed a petition seeking to terminate Father’s parental rights regarding the Children. Prior to trial on that petition, Father stipulated that—largely due to his incarceration—the State could show at least one statutory ground for termination of his parental rights. But the case proceeded to trial on the other element of the termination test: whether termination was strictly necessary to promote the best interest of the Children. On that point, Father took the position that termination of his rights was not strictly necessary, given that—at least in his view—he had a good relationship with the Children, they were in the care of his own mother (Grandmother), and he would undoubtedly be a part of their lives going forward, at least in some sense, simply due to that reality. He asserted that a permanent custody and guardianship arrangement would suit this situation better than adoption would.

¶7        In August 2022, the juvenile court held a relatively brief trial to consider that issue; during that trial, the court heard argument from counsel and testimony from three witnesses: the DCFS caseworker (Caseworker), Grandmother, and Father.[1] Caseworker testified that the Children were doing well in Grandmother’s care. She was aware that the Children have regular virtual visits with Father, but she noted that the Children “don’t talk [with her] much about” those visits and, when they do, they often just say “they don’t remember what they talked [with Father] about.” Caseworker stated that she knows that the Children “love [Father],” and did not recall either of them ever saying that they found Father “scary.” But she offered her view that adoption by Grandmother was in the Children’s best interest, opining that “adoption is necessary to allow them permanency and . . . a long-lasting, stable environment.” She also stated that she had talked to the Children “about adoption” and that the Children “would like to be adopted by [Grandmother],” but did not elaborate or offer any context for this conversation.

¶8                      Grandmother testified that the Children were doing well

in school and thriving in her care. She acknowledged that, as a general matter, “fathers are important” in the lives of children, and she stated that she had been “a big advocate for” Father throughout the entire saga, even pushing to set up virtual visits from the prison after Father was first incarcerated. But she testified that, over time, she had become more of “an advocate for the [Children],” and offered her view that, due to some of the “choice[s]” Father had made, the relationship between Father and the Children had not “functioned properly for a very long time.” She discussed, at some length, the regular virtual visits that the Children have with Father, and she acknowledged that Father is a good listener during the visits. But she stated that the Children have lost interest in the visits over time, and that the visits are “hard for” the Children and make them “uncomfortable” because “they don’t know what to do” during the visits. To cope with the discomfort, Grandmother has added some “structure[]” to the visits “so that [the Children] would have things to talk about”; for instance, K.S. often plays the piano for Father during the visits, while D.S. often “plays kitchen” and pretends to cook things for Father. Grandmother offered her perception that the Children do not wish to have regular virtual visits anymore, and that Father does not understand that the visits are hard for the Children. She noted that sometimes the Children need to “spend some time kind of snuggling” with her after the visits. Grandmother also testified that, on at least one occasion, K.S. said that Father is “scary.”

¶9        Grandmother testified that she is ready, willing, and able to continue caring for the Children. But she voiced a strong preference for adopting them rather than acting as their permanent guardian. When asked why, she offered her view that adoption would be “less confusing” for the Children and that she could be “a consistent parent” for them given her “resources.” She opined that a guardianship arrangement “may suit [Father],” but she didn’t think it was “in the [C]hildren’s best interests.” She also stated that she was worried about what would happen to the Children—and, specifically, whether they would return to Father’s custody—if something were to happen to her. She acknowledged, however, that she would be willing to care for the Children in either form of custody (adoption or guardianship). And she also acknowledged that, even if Father’s parental rights were terminated and she were allowed to adopt the Children, she would nevertheless be open to the possibility that Father could still have a role in the Children’s lives, and in that situation she would “ask for some guidance from people that know more than [she does] about that,” such as the Children’s therapist. She testified that she had discussed the possibility of adoption with the Children, and that D.S. had compared it to those “commercials on TV about adopting a dog.” Referring to that comment, Grandmother acknowledged that the Children “have some misconceptions about” what adoption would mean and stated that she had “tried to fix” those misconceptions, but she offered no specifics about how she had attempted to do that.

¶10      Father was the trial’s final witness. In his testimony, he first described the involvement he has had in the Children’s lives since their birth, stating that when the family was living together he saw the Children every day, “took them to school, [and] everything.” Father acknowledged that the situation had changed due to his incarceration, and he recognized that the virtual visits from prison are “not ideal” because there are often other inmates in the background on video calls and because the technology sometimes has issues, but overall, he offered his view that the visits had been going well and that he did not think the visits were uncomfortable for the Children. As he perceived it, the Children “seem[ed] excited to see” him and “always tell [him] they love” him. He credited the virtual visits for allowing him to “maintain a relationship with” the Children despite his incarceration. He stated that he had “a really good bond” with K.S., with whom he shares a connection to music. He also spoke positively of his visits with D.S., although he acknowledged that D.S. sometimes “gets upset because [Father] can’t be there with her” in person.

¶11      Father testified that he was scheduled to be released from prison in December 2022, and he articulated a desire to “have a stronger relationship with” the Children than he was able to enjoy during incarceration. Father acknowledged that, immediately upon his release from prison, he would be in no position to assume custody of the Children, because he would “have a lot of stuff to deal with,” like “getting a job,” addressing his housing situation, and sorting out outstanding “immigration” issues.[2] But he was vocal about wanting to continue and improve his relationship with the Children after his release from prison.

¶12 After the presentation of evidence, the attorneys made closing arguments. The juvenile court did not make any ruling on the record at the close of the trial; instead, it asked the parties to submit additional briefing on “the issue of strictly necessary.” A few weeks later, the parties submitted those supplemental briefs, and thereafter the court issued a written ruling terminating Father’s parental rights.

¶13 Because Father had conceded the existence of statutory grounds for termination, the only issue the court needed to address was whether termination of Father’s rights was in the best interest of the Children and, as part of that inquiry, whether termination was strictly necessary to promote the Children’s best interest. And on that score, the court concluded that termination was indeed strictly necessary. The court acknowledged that both Father and Grandmother love the Children. The court also acknowledged that “there were no allegations of abuse and neglect regarding [Father] at the time the [C]hildren were ordered into” the custody of DCFS.[3] But the court found that Father’s “ability to offer love, affection, [and] guidance, and to continue with the [C]hildren’s education is very limited both due to his incarceration and [the Children’s] resistance to engaging with” Father. The court noted that the Children “have had stability” with Grandmother and were doing well in her care. The court also referenced its belief that the Children “desire to remain with and be adopted” by Grandmother, but it made no determination that the Children were of sufficient capacity to be able to meaningfully express their desires in this context.

¶14      In addition, the court opined that adoption was “necessary and essential to [the Children’s] well-being as it will protect them from [Father’s] desire to have ongoing and frequent visitation.” The court chided Father for failing “to recognize that the [C]hildren . . . do not want to visit with him,” and concluded that this failure “raises questions as to whether [Father] could act in the [C]hildren’s best interest.” In the court’s view, the fact that Father “believes [the Children] enjoy the visits” and that he “would, ideally, exercise more visitation [after release from prison] is exactly why a permanent custody and guardianship neither protects nor benefits the [C]hildren.” The court stated that a guardianship arrangement would “fail to ensure adequate protections against [Father’s] commitment for increased and continued visitation,” and would leave the Children “vulnerable to [Father’s] residual parental rights.” Indeed, the court observed that, “under a permanent custody and guardianship order,” the Children’s “emotional and physical needs” would be “subsumed by [Father’s] residual rights.” The court offered its view that adoption would serve the Children’s needs better than guardianship would, because it “affords them the protection of ensuring that any future assessment of contact with [Father] will [be] considered solely from their respective points of view.” The court stated that, “[i]f the legal assessment for best interest and strictly necessary was from the parental perspective, permanent custody and guardianship with [Grandmother] would likely [be] the best solution.” But it observed that “the legal assessment of best interest and strictly necessary is focused solely upon the [C]hildren and their needs” and, viewing the situation from that perspective, the court concluded that termination of Father’s rights was strictly necessary to promote their best interest.

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶15      Father appeals the juvenile court’s termination order, and challenges the court’s conclusion that termination of his parental rights was strictly necessary to further the Children’s best interest. “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 A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 30, 518 P.3d 993 (quotation simplified), cert. granted, 525 P.3d 1279 (Utah 2023). But “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. (quotation simplified). Moreover, because the “evidentiary standard applicable in termination of parental rights cases” is “the clear and convincing evidence standard,” we will “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. (quotation simplified); see also In re G.D., 2021 UT 19, ¶ 37, 491 P.3d 867 (“Whether the juvenile court correctly concluded there was no feasible alternative to terminating . . . [the father’s] parental rights is a mixed question of fact and law,” and “we review the juvenile court’s findings of fact for clear error and its conclusions of law for correctness, affording the court some discretion in applying the law to the facts.” (quotation simplified)).

ANALYSIS

¶16      “The right of parents to raise their children is one of the most important rights any person enjoys.” In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 31. Perhaps for this reason, our legislature has provided specific requirements that must be met before a parent’s rights may be terminated. First, at least one of the enumerated statutory grounds for termination must be present. See Utah Code § 80-4­301. Second, termination of parental rights must be in the best interest of the affected children. In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 32. “The party seeking termination of a parent’s rights bears the

burden of proof on both parts of this test,” and “that party must make this required showing by clear and convincing evidence.” Id. (quotation simplified).

¶17      At trial, Father did not contest the State’s assertion that at least one of the statutory grounds for termination of his parental rights was present. He did, however, contest the State’s assertion that termination was in the Children’s best interest. And his appellate challenge to the juvenile court’s termination order is similarly limited to the best-interest portion of the two-part test.

¶18      “The best-interest inquiry is wide-ranging and asks a court to weigh the entirety of the circumstances of a child’s situation, including the physical, intellectual, social, moral, and educational training and general welfare and happiness of the child.” In re J.J.W., 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 26, 520 P.3d 38 (quotation simplified). Our legislature has provided important guidance regarding the best-interest question. First, statutes emphasize the importance of maintaining familial relationships where possible. As a general rule, 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.” Utah Code § 80-4-104(8). This is because “[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.” Id. Therefore, “the juvenile court should only transfer custody of a child from the child’s natural parent for compelling reasons and when there is a jurisdictional basis to do so.” Id.see also In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 31 (stating that a parent’s “fundamental liberty interest in the care, custody, and management of the parent’s child . . . does not cease to exist simply because . . . a parent may fail to be a model parent” (quoting Utah Code § 80-4-104(1), (4)(a)(i))).

¶19      Next, our legislature requires that termination of parental rights be “strictly necessary.” Utah Code § 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.’” In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 36 (quoting In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 60, 472 P.3d 827). And as the juvenile court here correctly noted, this inquiry is to be conducted “from the child’s point of view,” and not from either the parent’s or the prospective adoptive family’s. See Utah Code §§ 80-4­104(12)(b), -301(1); see also In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶¶ 25 n.5, 64 (stating that the “best interest analysis should be undertaken from the child’s point of view”). “[W]hen two placement options would equally benefit a child, the strictly-necessary requirement operates as a preference for a placement option that does not necessitate termination over an option that does.” In re G.D., 2021 UT 19, ¶ 75, 491 P.3d 867; see also In re J.J.W., 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 29 (“Courts must start the best interest analysis from the legislatively mandated position that wherever possible, family life should be strengthened and preserved, and if the child can be equally protected and benefited by an option other than termination, termination is not strictly necessary.” (quotation simplified)). Thus, the best-interest inquiry—informed by the “strictly necessary” requirement—“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 re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 67 (quotation simplified). In particular, “courts should consider whether other less-permanent arrangements might serve the child’s needs just as well” as termination of the parent’s rights would. Id. (quotation simplified).

¶20    With these considerations in mind, we turn to the issue at hand: whether the State presented clear and convincing evidence that termination of Father’s rights was strictly necessary to promote the Children’s best interest. The juvenile court determined that the State had cleared this hurdle, and it based its best-interest determination largely on two subsidiary conclusions: (1) that the Children needed stability, which the court believed could be better provided through adoption than through a permanent guardianship arrangement, and (2) that the Children needed to be “protect[ed] against [Father’s] commitment for increased and continued visitation,” including protection against Father’s “residual rights,” which protection the court believed could be better provided through adoption than through a permanent guardianship arrangement. Father asserts that, on this record, these reasons constitute an insufficient basis to terminate his parental rights, and he maintains that the juvenile court’s determination was therefore against the weight of the evidence. We agree with Father.

¶21 The court’s first conclusion—that adoption affords a somewhat higher degree of stability than permanent guardianship does—is not, at a general level, a sufficient reason for terminating a parent’s rights. As our supreme court recently clarified, “categorical concerns” about stability are insufficient to warrant termination of parental rights so that an adoption may occur. See In re J.A.L., 2022 UT 12, ¶ 24, 506 P.3d 606. “If these categorical concerns were enough, termination and adoption would be strictly necessary across the board” because 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.” Id.see also In re L.L.B., 2023 UT App 66, ¶ 23, 532 P.3d 592 (“Categorical concerns about the lack of permanence of an option other than adoption are not enough, otherwise termination and adoption would be strictly necessary across the board.” (quotation simplified)).

¶22 In this vein, we note again that permanent guardianship arrangements are themselves quite stable. See In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 55; see also In re J.J.W., 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 31 (noting that permanent guardianships “have certain hallmarks of permanency”). “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.” In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 55; see also Utah Code § 78A-6-357(3)(d). “Only the guardian has that right.” In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 55; see also Utah Code § 78A­6-357(3)(d). And a parent, in this situation, is entitled only to “reasonable parent-time” with the child. See Utah Code § 80-1-102(70)(a)(iv). A guardian who does not think that a parent’s parent-time request is “reasonable” may resist that request, and any disputes between the guardian and the parent about the scope of “reasonable” visitation will be resolved “by the court,” with the best interest of the child in mind. See id. It is simply not the case—as the State implies—that a parent in this situation may demand, and obtain, as much parent-time as the parent desires. There are, of course, meaningful marginal differences in permanence and control between adoption and guardianship, and in some cases, these differences might matter. But after In re J.A.L., courts focused on the virtues of stability and permanence may no longer rely on the categorical differences between the two arrangements, but must instead discuss case-specific reasons why the “added layer of permanency that adoptions offer” matters in the case at hand. See In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 53.

¶23      In this case, the juvenile court offered a case-specific reason for its focus on stability: it was concerned about Father’s “residual rights,” and specifically about Father’s “commitment for increased and continued visitation,” and it worried that, after Father’s release from prison, he might continue to have some “involvement in [the Children’s] lives.” We acknowledge that, in some cases, fear of a parent’s residual rights might reasonably counsel in favor of terminating that parent’s rights so that an adoption can take place. But this case is not one of those cases.

¶24      For starters, there is no indication that Father’s continuing relationship with the Children is harmful to them, rather than merely perhaps inconvenient. See In re L.L.B., 2023 UT App 66, ¶ 24 (reversing a court’s termination of parental rights in part because “there was no finding . . . that [the] [f]ather’s presence in [the child’s] life has affirmatively harmed” the child, and “there was no finding detailing how [the child’s] life was negatively affected or disrupted by [the] [f]ather’s attempts to exercise his parental rights”).[4] Indeed, the juvenile court accurately noted that “there were no allegations of abuse or neglect regarding [Father] at the time the [C]hildren were ordered into [DCFS] custody,” and the Children were found only “dependent”—not abused or neglected—as to him. And the court found that Father “was involved in” K.S.’s life “until he was about eight years old” and in D.S.’s life until she “was three”; that he “love[s] these [C]hildren”; and that he “expresses genuine love and affection for” them.

¶25                To be sure, Father’s incarceration has placed a great degree

of stress on the parent-child relationship. Because of his incarceration, Father was unable to care for the Children in their time of need when Mother abandoned them, and he was—as of the time of trial—still unable to assume custody of them. Father has, however, made a credible and determined effort to remain involved in the Children’s lives despite his incarceration. With Grandmother’s initial encouragement and assistance, virtual visits were arranged on a regular basis, and the juvenile court found that, “[a]t first, the [C]hildren were eager” to participate in those visits. Over time, however, the Children have lost their enthusiasm for the visits. But no party pins this loss of enthusiasm on Father’s behavior regarding those visits; he remains excited about the visits, and there is no evidence that Father has ever turned down (or not shown up for) an opportunity for visits, or that he has ever acted inappropriately during any visit. Indeed, the juvenile court specifically found that Father was “a good listener” during the visits, and Grandmother testified that Father was “very good at playing kitchen” with D.S.

¶26      The most anyone can say regarding any downside to these visits is that the Children find them boring or “uncomfortable” because they sometimes see other inmates in the background and because they do “not know what to do” during the visits. Grandmother has had to add some structure to the visits so that the Children have some things to talk about with Father; K.S. has turned to music, and D.S. to “playing kitchen.” On some occasions, the Children find the visits “difficult” and need comfort from Grandmother after the visits conclude, but there is no indication from the record that this difficulty arises from anything Father does or says during the visits; indeed, it seems that the difficulty arises simply from the fact that Father is in prison, a fact that makes communicating and bonding comparatively difficult and often awkward.

¶27 Given Father’s genuine efforts to maintain a meaningful relationship with the Children, as well as the absence of a “harmfulness” component to that relationship, we see no basis for the juvenile court’s view that the Children need “protections against [Father’s] commitment for increased and continued visitation.” As a general matter, we want parents to exhibit a commitment toward a positive and continued relationship with their children. See In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 55 (“Family life should be strengthened and preserved wherever possible, and . . . 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.” (quotation simplified)); see also In re B.T.B., 2018 UT App 157, ¶ 55, 436 P.3d 206 (“In many cases, children will benefit from having more people—rather than fewer—in their lives who love them and care about them . . . .”), aff’d, 2020 UT 60, 472 P.3d 827. All else being equal, there is inherent value and benefit—not only to the parent but to the children—in maintaining familial relationships, a fact that the juvenile court failed to discuss or account for. See In re J.J.W., 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 31 (noting the “benefit of preserving the familial relationships, as our legislature has commanded courts to do ‘wherever possible’” (quoting Utah Code § 80-4­104(12))). And a parent’s desire to build and maintain—coupled with efforts to actually maintain—a meaningful relationship with a child is a factor that will often weigh in favor of, and not against, a determination that it is in the child’s best interest to keep the relationship intact. See In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 55. As we read this record, Father should be commended—rather than chided—for maintaining love and affection for, and a desire to continue a meaningful relationship with, the Children despite his incarceration. And Father’s wish to have “visitation” with the Children after his release from prison should likewise have been viewed positively—or at least neutrally—rather than negatively in the context of the best-interest inquiry. See id. (“[W]e 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.”).

¶28      All of this is especially true in this case, where the prospective adoptive parent is Father’s own mother. As Grandmother herself acknowledged, no matter the outcome of the case—whether adoption or guardianship—there will very likely be some sort of ongoing relationship between Father and the Children. That is, not even Grandmother believes that Father will (or necessarily should) be completely cut out of the Children’s lives; instead, she testified that, in the event she is allowed to adopt the Children, she would consult with “therapist[s]” and other “people that know more than” she does about appropriate visitation, and come to a decision about the level of Father’s involvement that she believes would be best for the Children. In another similar case, we defined the relevant question as follows: “[B]efore it may terminate [a parent’s] rights, the [juvenile] court must adequately explain why it is better for [the Children] to have [the parent] cut out of [their lives] forever than to have [the parent] remain involved in [their lives], perhaps with limited parent-time, pursuant to a guardianship arrangement.” In re J.J.W., 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 36. In cases like this one, where—given the identity of the prospective adoptive parent—nobody thinks Father really is going to be completely cut out of the Children’s lives as a practical matter, it becomes more difficult to establish that it is best for the Children for Father’s rights to be terminated.

¶29 Finally, we put almost no stock in the juvenile court’s finding that the Children “expressed a desire to be adopted by” Grandmother. In this context—termination cases in which the children are not in the physical custody of the parent in question—our law allows the court to consider “the child’s desires regarding the termination,” but only if the court “determines [that] the child is of sufficient capacity to express the child’s desires.” Utah Code § 80-4-303(1)(a). The issue of the capacity of the Children to express their desires was never discussed at trial, and the juvenile court made no determination that either one of the Children had sufficient capacity. At the time of trial, K.S. was eleven years old and D.S. was six years old. While the governing statute puts no absolute age threshold on when a child’s desires may be considered,[5] it is far from obvious that either of the Children—especially the six-year-old—were “of sufficient capacity” to express a meaningful opinion about the ultimate question in this case: whether Father’s rights ought to be terminated to facilitate an adoption or whether Father should retain certain rights through a guardianship arrangement. In parental termination cases, a court wishing to take a child’s desires into account should make a determination regarding the child’s capacity to express those desires; absent such a determination, the requirements of the statute are not met.

¶30 Moreover, even if the Children could be considered capable of offering meaningful testimony about their desires, there are evidentiary problems with the juvenile court’s finding on the subject: the trial testimony did not support any finding on this issue more specific than that the Children—quite understandably—wanted to remain in Grandmother’s care. Caseworker testified that the Children “would like to be adopted by” Grandmother, but she offered no additional details about her conversation with the Children. And Grandmother stated that she had discussed adoption with the Children, but she testified that D.S. responded, “That’s like the commercials on TV about adopting a dog.” And she acknowledged that the Children “have some misconceptions about” what adoption would mean, and that she had “tried to fix” those misconceptions. But no witness offered any testimony that could support a finding that either of the Children actually understood and appreciated the distinction between adoption and guardianship, and that, based on that understanding, they preferred adoption. In particular, no witness offered any testimony that either of the Children understood that, if an adoption were to occur, Father would lose all of his parental rights, and—relatedly—no witness offered any testimony that the Children actually wanted Father to lose all of his parental rights.[6]

¶31      In the end, the facts of this case simply don’t add up to strict necessity. Even though we review the juvenile court’s decision deferentially, we still must reverse when “the evidence presented at trial [does] not constitute clear and convincing evidence that termination of [the parent’s] rights . . . would be in the best interest of those children.” In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 38; see also In re L.L.B., 2023 UT App 66, ¶ 34 (reversing the district court’s decision where the “court’s conclusion that termination of [a father’s] parental rights was in [a child’s] best interest goes against the clear weight of the evidence”). With the appropriate “clear and convincing” evidentiary standard in mind, we conclude that the juvenile court’s decision in this case was against the clear weight of the evidence, and that the reasons upon which the court’s analysis relied were insufficient to support termination of Father’s rights.

¶32 We emphasize, however, that our decision is dependent upon the particular circumstances of this case. Those notable circumstances include the following: the juvenile court made no finding that Father’s relationship with the Children was abusive or harmful; the prospective adoptive parent is Father’s own mother; and Father will—in any event—likely have a relationship of some kind with the Children in the future. Moreover, there is no evidence that Father and Grandmother have the sort of relationship where he would be likely to exercise undue control over custody and care decisions in a guardianship arrangement. See In re J.J.W., 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 31 (noting that guardianship might be a viable option because, among other things, there was “no evidence in the record that would lead us to believe that [the guardians] would be particularly susceptible to undue influence from [the parent] as concerns seeking a change or dissolution of the guardianship”); see also In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 55. If the facts of the case were different, termination of Father’s parental rights might well have been justified. For instance, if Father’s relationship with the Children were abusive or detrimental, the situation would certainly be different. And we have previously noted that, where the prospective adoptive placement consists of non-relatives with no pre-existing relationship with the parent whose rights are at issue, a guardianship arrangement may be a poor fit. See In re J.P., 2021 UT App 134, ¶ 11, 502 P.3d 1247 (discussing with approval a lower court’s reasoning that permanent guardianship arrangements work best in situations where the parent and the guardian know each other and are “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,” and that such arrangements may not work as well in non-relative, foster-family placement situations). But on the facts presented at the termination trial in this case, a permanent guardianship arrangement serves the Children’s interest at least as well as adoption does, and therefore termination of Father’s parental rights is not strictly necessary to promote the Children’s best interest. See In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 49 (“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.” (quotation simplified)).

CONCLUSION

¶33      We reverse the juvenile court’s order terminating Father’s parental rights and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. We note, as we have in similar cases, 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.” Id. ¶ 58. Our holding today is that, based on the evidence presented at trial in August 2022, termination of Father’s rights was not strictly necessary to promote the Children’s best interest. But the situation may well have changed since August 2022. In particular, we are aware that Father was scheduled to be released from prison in December 2022; the record submitted to us contains no information about whether that occurred as scheduled or, if so, what has happened since his release. If nothing has materially changed since the August 2022 trial, then we expect the court to enter an order establishing a permanent custody and guardianship arrangement, with the Children in Grandmother’s care, and to make appropriate rulings, as necessary, regarding the scope of Father’s reasonable visitation. But if there is evidence that matters have materially changed since the trial, the court may need to consider that evidence in some fashion, see In re Z.C.W., 2021 UT App 98, ¶ 15, 500 P.3d 94, and re-assess best interest, with its strictly necessary component, based on the situation at the time of the remand proceedings.


[1] The trial transcript is composed of just fifty-two pages. And the three witnesses’ testimony, in total, took just over an hour.

[2] The record submitted to us does not indicate whether Father was in fact released from prison on the anticipated date or, if so, whether Father has taken any steps to resolve his employment, housing, or immigration issues.

[3] At no point in its written ruling, or at any other time during the trial, did the court reference the 2014 “supported” allegations of abuse regarding the Children’s sibling. No witness testified about those allegations at trial. And while the protective order violations were mentioned in passing, no witness offered any testimony about the basis upon which the protective order was granted.

[4] As noted already, see supra note 3, no witness at trial mentioned the 2014 “supported” incident of abuse, and the protective order violations were discussed only in passing. Most importantly for present purposes, the juvenile court did not base any of its findings or conclusions on either of these incidents; in particular, it made no finding that either one was of such a nature as to render Father’s relationship with the Children harmful to them.

[5] Utah’s adoption statutes, by contrast, establish a specific age limit regarding when a child’s consent to adoption must be procured. See Utah Code § 78B-6-120(1)(a) (“[C]onsent to adoption of a child . . . is required from . . . the adoptee, if the adoptee is more than 12 years of age, unless the adoptee does not have the mental capacity to consent.”).

[6] In this vein, we note a general concern with evidence about a child’s desires regarding termination coming in through the testimony of a prospective adoptive parent. A much better practice is for such evidence to come in through either a proffer from a guardian ad litem—the attorney specifically hired to represent the interests of the child—or through the testimony of professional witnesses (e.g., mental health counselors) who presumably have training in discussing such topics with minors in a neutral way. By noting the absence of specific foundational evidence about the Children’s desires, we are in no way faulting Grandmother for apparently not asking additional follow-up questions of the Children regarding termination; indeed, this opinion should not be viewed as encouraging prospective adoptive parents to engage in conversations with children about termination of their natural parents’ rights.

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Can the Mom End up Paying Child Support to the Father if He Was Abusive?

There are so many things wrong with this question. But thank you for asking it because it can be the start of a beneficial conversation and lead to a better understanding of divorce and family law, child custody, and support.

First, the question implies that only women receive child support from men, and thus only men pay child support to women. Wrong. Child support is paid to a parent (man or woman) who can demonstrate that he/she needs payment from the other parent to help the child maintain the lifestyle that his/her parents’ respective lifestyles can and ought to support. Many times, the child support payee (recipient) is the mother. This could be because the mother has the child in her care and custody for a greater portion of the year than does the father. It could also be because the mother earns less money than the father.

But if the father were awarded physical custody of a child for more time during the year than the mother and/or made less money than the mother, then the father could be awarded child support. Many fathers (not as many fathers as mothers, but some fathers) find themselves in this exact situation, which is why many fathers receive child support from mothers.

Just being a mother will not guarantee that a woman will receive child support. Whether a parent committed abuse rarely has anything to do with whether that parent will pay child support (see above), although it may have an indirect effect on child support if, due to a parent’s abuse, the other parent is awarded more custodial time with the child.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

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In Re A.H. – 2022 UT App 114 – Termination of Parental Rights

2022 UT App 114

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF

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.

Opinion

Nos. 20210353-CA and

20210354-CA

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]

HARRIS, Judge:

¶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.

BACKGROUND

¶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.[2] 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[3]—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.[4] 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[5] 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[6] 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.[7] 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 “will be 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. See In 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.[8]

ANALYSIS

¶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. See Troxel 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 also In 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.” See id. § 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. See In 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 also Santosky 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.” See In 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. See In 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.” See id. § 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.” See id. § 30-3-10(2)(o) (LexisNexis 2019).[9]

¶36 Second, our legislature has mandated that termination of parental rights is permissible only when such termination is “strictly necessary.” See id. § 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.” See In 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. See id. ¶ 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.[10] 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 also In 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.”[11] 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.[12]

¶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. See In 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. See In 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. See In 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. See In 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. See In 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.” See In 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.[13] 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. See In 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.

CONCLUSION

¶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. See In 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, see id. ¶ 15, and re-assess best interest based on the situation at the time of the hearing.

 

[1]Senior Judge Kate Appleby sat by special assignment as authorized by law. See generally Utah R. Jud. Admin. 11-201(7).

[2] 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.

 

[3] 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.”

[4] 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.

 

[5] 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.

 

[6] See Administrative Order for Court Operations During Pandemic, Utah Supreme Court (Mar. 13, 2020), https://www.utcourts.gov/alerts/docs/20200311%20-%20Pandem ic%20Administrative%20Order.pdf [https://perma.cc/3EGH-3V3Z].

[7] 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.

[8] 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.

[9] 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.

[10] 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.

[11] 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 also id. § 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”).

[12] 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.

[13] 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.

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I signed a CPS safety plan but the court orders protective supervision.

What happens if I signed a CPS safety plan but the court orders protective supervision? 

The court’s order supersedes the agreement. 

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277  

https://www.quora.com/What-happens-if-I-signed-a-CPS-safety-plan-but-the-court-orders-protective-supervision/answer/Eric-Johnson-311  

 

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I’m 14 and my mom is making me live with my dad. How do I stop this?

I’m 14 and my mom is making me live with my dad and is giving him custody. What can I do to prevent this from happening? 

I’m a divorce and family lawyer, and I see this question arise frequently. 

If you don’t want to live with your father for the wrong reasons, give both your dad and yourself a break, and live with Dad. You know what I mean; if you don’t want to live with Dad because he has reasonable, sensible rules and expectations for your protection and benefit, you’re only hurting yourself if you try to avoid being held to high standards. 

If Mom is too permissive, too hands-off, lets you get away with murder, doesn’t hold you accountable, then living with her is likely going to ruin you. 

What Randy Pausch said has stuck with me ever since I heard it: “Your critics are the ones telling you they still love you and care. Worry when you do something badly and nobody bothers to tell you.” 

If you don’t want to live with your mom because she’s abusive and neglectful, I wouldn’t go tell Dad first. Instead, I would try to find a lawyer who would help me. Be prepared to spend a very long time trying to find such a lawyer. They exist, but they are few and are thus hard to find. 

Why not tell Dad about the abuse and/or neglect first? It’s a little complicated, but I’ll try to make it clear. 

First, with few exceptions, courts are biased against fathers when it comes to deciding which parent with whom a child will live. Fathers who try to get custody are often believed by many courts as motivated only by self-interest, not by the best interest of their child or children. 

Fathers who seek sole or even joint custody of their children are often portrayed as being motivated by anything but honest, virtuous objectives. Instead, they are often accused of/presumed as being motivated by a desire to avoid paying child support or a desire to hurt the mother emotionally by cutting the children off from her. 

It is hard for some judges to believe fathers seek custody to protect the child from an abusive or neglectful mother because it’s hard for the court to believe the mother is abusive or neglectful in the first place. It is hard for some judges to believe that awarding to fit parents the joint equal physical custody of their children is best for the children. Far too many judges perceive the “safe bet” when making the child custody award as being: award custody of the children to Mom. 

And so if your dad were to be the one to break the news to the court that you told Dad mom is abusive and/or neglectful, your dad’s claims would immediately be met with skepticism, if not scorn. Both your mother and the court would likely accuse your dad of lying for self-serving purposes, not for the purpose of protecting you and fostering your welfare. 

So you may ask why you should not simply call child protective services and the police by yourself. Why not make these reports directly to child protective services and the police by yourself? Why get a lawyer to help you with this? These are good questions. 

If you make abuse and/or neglect reports against your mother directly to child protective services and/or to the police, the risk is too great that child protective services and/or the police will 1) believe that Dad put you up to it anyway; and 2) write you off as not credible, regardless of whether they believe your dad put you up to making the abuse and/or neglect reports to them (after all, you’re “just a kid”). 

And so it is my opinion that if you can find an attorney to help you, it is better to get an attorney—someone who knows how child protective services, the police, and the courts function and “dysfunction”—to help you navigate the system successfully by helping you avoid making costly, even irreparable, mistakes in your interactions with the system. 

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277  

https://www.quora.com/Im-14-and-my-mom-is-making-me-live-with-my-dad-and-is-giving-him-custody-What-can-I-do-to-prevent-this-from-happening/answer/Eric-Johnson-311  

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How effective are AMBER Alerts in child custody cases?

It depends upon what criteria define “effective”. 

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. 

A 2004 article in FCW (Federal Computer Week) (Amber Alerts crossing state lines), stated that federal DOT officials allocated $400,000 to each state for Amber Alert programs. The February 12, 2003 Federal Register (https://amberalert.ojp.gov/sites/g/files/xyckuh201/files/media/document/05_amber_report.pdf) reported that the DOT would provide up to seven million dollars to facilitate the inclusion of the Intelligent Transportation Systems into the Amber Plan program. I cannot find how much the Amber Alert system costs currently. 

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277  

https://www.quora.com/How-effective-are-AMBER-Alerts-in-child-custody-cases/answer/Eric-Johnson-311  

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T.W. v. S.A. – 2021 UT App 132 – child custody

2021 UT App 132 

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS 

T.W.,
Appellant,
v.
S.A.,
Appellee. 

Opinion 

No. 20200397-CA 

Filed November 26, 2021 

Third District Court, West Jordan Department 

The Honorable Dianna Gibson 

No. 134401457 

David Pedrazas, Attorney for Appellant
Laja K. M. Thompson, Attorney for Appellee 

JUDGE DIANA HAGEN authored this Opinion, in which
JUDGE DAVID N. MORTENSEN and SENIOR JUDGE KATE APPLEBY concurred. [22]  

HAGEN, Judge: 

¶1 T. W. (Father) appeals the district court’s custody order awarding S. A. (Mother) primary physical custody of their son (Child). In so doing, the court rejected the custody evaluator’s recommendation that Father be awarded primary physical custody. The court also scheduled parent-time in accordance with the minimum parent-time schedule in Utah Code section 30-3-35, as opposed to the optional increased parent-time schedule in section 30-3-35.1. Father argues each of these rulings was made in error. Because the court sufficiently supported the parent-time schedule it ordered as well as its rejection of the custody evaluator’s recommendation, we affirm. 

BACKGROUND [23]  

¶2 Father and Mother ended their relationship before Child’s birth. The following year, Father petitioned for custody. Father later moved to Grantsville, Utah to live with his now-wife and her children, along with Father’s other child from a prior relationship. Grantsville is approximately fifty miles from Sandy, Utah where Mother resides. 

¶3 Shortly after his move, Father requested a custody evaluation. The court-appointed custody evaluator initially recommended Mother be awarded primary physical custody, but at a trial on that issue, the parties stipulated to joint legal and physical custody, with each parent enjoying alternating weeks of equal parent-time. The stipulated terms were then set forth by the court in its parentage decree. At the time, the logistics of complying with an alternating week schedule were relatively easy because Child was not yet attending school. 

¶4 Around the time Child was to begin kindergarten, a dispute arose over whether Child would attend school near Mother’s home in Sandy or near Father’s home in Grantsville. Father moved for a temporary restraining order that would specify where Child would attend school. After a telephonic hearing, the court commissioner recommended that, for the time being, Child would attend school in Sandy pending an evidentiary hearing. 

¶5 Child had been attending school for several months when the evidentiary hearing was held in December. After conferring with counsel off the record, the court expressed “some concerns about the workability of [Child] residing in Grantsville and going to school in Sandy or residing in Sandy and going to . . . school in Grantsville.” The court reasoned that the alternating week schedule was unworkable, and the parties agreed that now that Child was in school “continuing the commute [was] not in [his] best interest.” The court ultimately found that “the commute from Sandy to Grantsville is approximately 50 miles and can take approximately 50 minutes, and sometimes more, in the morning” and, “[f]or various reasons, including road/weather conditions, [Child had] been late to or missed school.” Because the long commute was unworkable, the court recognized that the issue before it was “a much larger issue than just determining where [Child] goes to school”—it would require “a change in the parent-time arrangement” as well. To resolve both the parent-time arrangement and where Child would attend school in the future, the court set the matter for trial. 

¶6 Before trial, the custody evaluator submitted an updated report. The evaluator recommended that Father and Mother be awarded joint legal custody but that Child’s primary physical residence be with Father. The evaluator made this recommendation based on two considerations. First, he opined that Father was “in a more stable physical situation” than Mother because he owned his house and was “not likely to move,” whereas Mother “rent[ed] an apartment and ha[d] a history that raise[d] concern about her ability to maintain a consistent residence.” Second, he noted that Child had developed “positive and reciprocal relationship[s] with his [half-sibling and step-]siblings,” who resided with Father, and Child would “attend school with them as well as receive guidance and support from them academically, socially and emotionally.” 

¶7 During trial, Father introduced a letter from Child’s therapist explaining that Child had been diagnosed with an adjustment disorder caused by “a stressor in [his] life.” That letter further stated that Child was experiencing “significant impairment in social, occupational or other areas of functioning.” 

¶8 Mother testified about Child’s emotional and social challenges as well. She explained that Child’s school counselor had been helping him to make and keep friends and to learn “what’s acceptable social behavior” and “how to control [his] emotions in school.” Mother testified that although Child was “struggling with focus and attention in school” as well as “emotional outbursts,” he had “improved.” She recounted that Child “struggled with making friends in the beginning,” but was “finally making more” and by that time had friends at the school. Because Child “knows the school now” and “knows the people,” Mother did not “feel that [it would be] right” to “rip [him] away from [the progress he had made] and have him start all over in a new school.” Given that Child was “in therapy for adjustment disorder,” she believed that “[h]aving him switch schools would just exacerbate that [condition]. He again would have to adjust to a huge change in his life.” 

¶9 Mother also testified about her work schedule. She described how she had started her own business so her schedule would be “flexible” for Child, that she “make[s her] own schedule,” and that the reason she did this was “to be available to [Child] and his school needs and his extracurricular needs . . . so that [she could] revolve [her] work around [her] son.” Mother testified that she and Child have a regular daily routine with a set schedule for school, homework, extracurricular activities, playtime, and sleep when Child is residing at her home in Sandy. Mother asserted that requiring Child to commute to school from Grantsville “probably has at least something to do with [Child’s] activity in school,” that “he hates [the commute],” and that he is sometimes late to school because of “the weather” or “accidents on the freeways.” 

¶10 After considering the original evaluation, the updated evaluation, and the other evidence presented at trial, the court issued its custody order. It found that because of Child’s “current emotional and behavioral issues which [had] been diagnosed as an Adjustment Disorder with disturbance of conduct,” his “psychological and emotional” needs were the deciding factor and those needs would benefit from residing primarily with one parent. In support, the court found that Child “struggles in social settings” and has “behavioral issues,” “emotional outbursts,” and “difficulty making friends.” Moreover, “the commute is hard on [Child]” as he was “tired in school,” had “been late on several occasions,” and had even “missed school” because of the long commute. 

¶11 Having decided that it was in Child’s best interest to reside primarily with one parent, the court ruled that it was in Child’s best interest for Mother to be the primary custodial parent because Mother’s testimony was “credible and persuasive” regarding the negative impact a change in school would have on Child. The court found changing schools would require Child to “start all over—start at a new school, make new friends and re-adjust,” negatively affecting the progress he had made establishing friends. Moreover, Mother had the ability to provide the “maximum amount of parent-time with the maximum amount of flexibility,” and Mother had “established routines in the morning, evening, and with regard to homework and playtime.” 

¶12 In keeping with its custody determination, the court also ruled that, “solely” because of “the 100-mile round-trip commute,” the parent-time schedule of “every other week for five days in a row, was not in [Child’s] best interest,” and that the parent-time schedule would be altered in accordance with Utah Code section 30-3-35—Utah’s minimum parent-time schedule. The court ruled that “on alternating weekends, [Father] shall have parent-time from the time [Child’s] school is regularly dismissed on Friday until Sunday at 7 p.m.” Additionally, Father was awarded a mid-week overnight during which Father “pick[s] up [Child] after school, and [Mother] pick[s] up [Child] the next morning.” The court explained, “The new parent-time schedule is in the best interest of [Child]” because “it allows [him] to maximize his time with [Father] while eliminating the constant, back-to-back days of commuting.” 

¶13 After the court filed its custody order, Father filed a motion for new trial as well as a motion to amend the court’s findings. The court denied both motions. Father now appeals. 

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW 

¶14 Father challenges the district court’s custody order on two grounds. First, he alleges the court failed to articulate sufficient reasons for rejecting the custody evaluator’s recommendation to award him primary physical custody and that the court based its custody determination on an erroneous fact. Second, he alleges the court failed to make sufficient findings about why it did not award increased parent-time pursuant to Utah Code section 303-35.1. 

¶15 On appeal, we review the district court’s custody and parent-time determination for abuse of discretion. LeFevre v. Mackelprang, 2019 UT App 42, ¶ 17, 440 P.3d 874. This discretion is broad; indeed, as long as the court exercises it “within the confines of the legal standards we have set, and the facts and reasons for the decision are set forth fully in appropriate findings and conclusions, we will not disturb the resulting award.” Davis v. Davis, 749 P.2d 647, 648 (Utah 1988) (cleaned up). We review the court’s “underlying factual findings for clear error.” LeFevre, 2019 UT App 42, ¶ 17. “A finding is clearly erroneous only if the finding is without adequate evidentiary support or induced by an erroneous view of the law.” Id. (cleaned up). 

ANALYSIS 

  1. The Rejection of the Evaluator’s Recommendation

¶16 Father first challenges the district court’s decision to award primary physical custody to Mother. When determining custody, the court considers many statutorily defined factors, including “the parent’s demonstrated understanding of, responsiveness to, and ability to meet the developmental needs of the child, including the child’s . . . physical needs; . . . emotional needs; . . . [and] any other factor the court finds relevant.” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(2) (LexisNexis 2019).24 But the factors the court considers are “not on equal footing.” See Hudema v. Carpenter, 1999 UT App 290, ¶ 26, 989 P.2d 491. “Generally, it is within the trial court’s 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.” Id. 

¶17 Although the district court has broad discretion to make custody determinations, it “must set forth written findings of fact and conclusions of law which specify the reasons for its custody decision.” Tucker v. Tucker, 910 P.2d 1209, 1215 (Utah 1996). The findings “must be sufficiently detailed and include enough subsidiary facts to disclose the steps by which the ultimate conclusion on each factual issue was reached.” K.P.S. v. E.J.P., 2018 UT App 5, ¶ 27, 414 P.3d 933 (cleaned up). The district court’s conclusions must demonstrate how the decree “follows logically from, and is supported by, the evidence,” Andrus v. Andrus, 2007 UT App 291, ¶ 17, 169 P.3d 754 (cleaned up), “link[ing] the evidence presented at trial to the child’s best interest and the ability of each parent to meet the child’s needs” whenever “custody is contested,” K.P.S., 2018 UT App 5, ¶ 27. 

¶18 Father contends that the court failed to “articulate sufficient reasons as to why it rejected [the custody evaluator’s] recommendation[]” that Child should primarily reside with Father. “[A] district court is not bound to accept a custody evaluator’s recommendation,” but if it rejects such a “recommendation, the court is expected to articulate some reason for” doing so. R.B. v. L.B., 2014 UT App 270, ¶ 18, 339 P.3d 137. 

¶19 Here, the court sufficiently supported its rejection of the custody evaluator’s recommendation. The custody evaluator recommended that the court award primary physical custody of Child to Father for two reasons: (1) Father was in “a more stable physical situation” and “not likely to move,” and (2) Child had a “positive and reciprocal relationship with his siblings and [would] be able to attend school with them as well as receive guidance and support from them academically, socially and emotionally.” The court found the evaluation “very helpful” but did “not agree with the ultimate recommendation.” 

¶20 The court based its rejection of the custody evaluator’s recommendation on several factors. First, the court disagreed that Mother’s rental apartment was less stable than Father’s living situation because both Mother and Father had relocated multiple times in the last few years and both testified that they intended to stay in their current homes. Second, although the court agreed that keeping the siblings together “would be beneficial” to Child, the court did not “give this factor quite the weight” that the custody evaluator did, because Child had never “lived exclusively with his siblings” and their relationship was not the same as a relationship “between siblings who have been reared together prior to the separation between the parents.” 

¶21 The court also detailed how physical custody with Mother would better serve Child’s “psychological and emotional needs.” It found that Mother had “established routines” with Child “in the morning, evening, and with regard to homework and playtime.” She “lived a one[-]child-centered life” and indeed had “built her life around her son”; whereas, Father’s attention was divided among several children. Mother also enjoyed “flexible” self-employment that allowed her to personally provide care for Child, whereas Father’s work schedule was “less flexible” and would require surrogate care. 

¶22 The court further determined that it was not in Child’s best interest to change schools, which would be required if Father were awarded primary physical custody. The court emphasized the need for “consistency” and “routine” for Child, as he was exhibiting signs of being “under stress,” “struggle[d] in social settings,” and had “behavioral issues,” “emotional outbursts,” and “difficulty making friends.” In light of these factors, the court determined that “making too many changes all at once” would not be in Child’s best interest. Most notably, the court found Mother’s “testimony credible and persuasive regarding the impact a change of school would have on [Child], given his current condition and the Adjustment Disorder diagnosis.” Because Child had made significant progress “adjusting” to his current school and establishing friendships, the court found that requiring Child to “start all over—start at a new school, make new friends and re-adjust”—would “impact the progress” he had made and would not be in his best interest. Consequently, granting Father primary physical custody, which in turn would require Child to transfer to a school in Grantsville, was not in Child’s best interest. 

¶23 Father contends that the court erred because it rejected the custody evaluator’s “recommendation solely based on [an] ‘Adjustment Disorder with disturbance of conduct’ diagnosis” even though “at no[] time was there any testimony as to how [the diagnosis] affected the Child, and/or how it related to the Child’s relationship with each parent.” But the court did not rest its decision solely on the fact that Child had been diagnosed with adjustment disorder. Instead, it considered evidence that the disorder was caused by stress, that it manifested as behavioral and social impairments, and that introducing a change such as transferring schools would exacerbate these problems. Specifically, Father introduced a letter from Child’s therapist explaining that Child had been diagnosed with adjustment disorder caused by “a stressor in [his] life” and that he experienced “significant impairment in social, occupational or other areas of functioning.” Mother also gave extensive testimony regarding Child’s struggles with “focus,” “emotional outbursts,” and “making friends,” and she detailed the improvements he had made in those areas. She further testified that, in light of Child’s adjustment disorder diagnosis, “having him switch schools would just exacerbate that” condition and undo the progress he had made because it would require him to “start all over.” 

¶24 In sum, the evidence presented at trial sufficiently supports the court’s ruling that Child’s best interests, i.e., his “psychological, physical, and emotional” needs, were best met by Mother being awarded primary physical custody, “outweigh[ing] the factors favoring” a custody award in favor of Father. And the court’s careful evaluation of that evidence certainly “articulate[s] some reason” for rejecting the custody evaluator’s recommendation. See R.B. v. L.B., 2014 UT App 270, ¶ 18, 339 P.3d 137. Thus, the court acted within its discretion in rejecting the custody evaluator’s recommendation and awarding Mother primary physical custody. 

  1. The Parent-Time Schedule under Utah Code Section 30-3-35

¶25 Father also contends that the district court erred because it did not adopt the optional increased parent time schedule set forth under Utah Code section 30-3-35.1 without making sufficient findings. We disagree. 

¶26 “[D]istrict courts are generally afforded broad discretion to establish parent-time.” Lay v. Lay, 2018 UT App 137, ¶ 16, 427 P.3d 1221 (cleaned up). When parents do not agree to a parent-time schedule, Utah Code section 30-3-35 prescribes a “default minimum amount” of “parent-time for the noncustodial parent,” unless “‘the court determines that Section 30-3-35.1 should apply’ or a parent can establish ‘that more or less parent-time should be awarded.’” Id. ¶¶ 5–6 (quoting Utah Code Ann. § 303-34(2) (LexisNexis Supp. 2017)); see also Utah Code Ann. § 30-335(2) (LexisNexis Supp. 2021)). Under that default minimum parent-time schedule, the noncustodial parent is entitled to time with the child on “one weekday evening and on alternating weekends, which include Friday and Saturday overnights.” Lay, 2018 UT App 137, ¶ 6. Thus, the noncustodial parent, at minimum, enjoys “two overnights in a typical two-week period.” LeFevre v. Mackelprang, 2019 UT App 42, ¶ 20, 440 P.3d 874. 

¶27 The court “may consider” an “optional parent-time schedule” set forth in Utah Code section 30-3-35.1(1)–(2), (6), which increases parent-time from two overnights to five overnights in every two-week period “by extending weekend overnights by one night, and affording one weeknight overnight each week.” See Id. ¶ 21; see also Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-35.1(6) (LexisNexis 2019). The court may adopt the optional parent-time schedule when either (a) “the parties agree” or (b) “the noncustodial parent can demonstrate the presence of at least four factual circumstances.” LeFevre, 2019 UT App 42, ¶ 22 (cleaned up); see also Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-35.1(2). 

¶28 But even if either of these two prerequisites is satisfied, the district court is not obligated to adopt the increased parent-time schedule.25 Under Utah Code section 30-3-35.1, the court “is authorized, but not required, to consider the optional increased parent-time schedule as described in the statute.” Lay, 2018 UT App 137, ¶ 13. The statute “provides legislatively established standards for the district court to apply in evaluating whether increased parent-time is warranted, and it eliminates the need for a district court to independently fashion an increased parent-time schedule by providing a detailed schedule for the court to modify or adopt.” Id. ¶ 16. But by providing “the district court with some guidance and tools for adopting increased parent-time schedules,” the legislature did not eliminate “the court’s discretion to apply those tools in the best interest of the child.” Id. To the contrary, the statutory language plainly indicates that the adoption of the increased schedule is permissive rather than mandatory. See id. 

29 Nonetheless, Father argues that once the court “considered” section 30-3-35.1, it was obligated to make findings articulating why it rejected the increased parent-time schedule suggested by the statute. In setting the parent-time schedule, the court largely adopted the minimum schedule set forth in section 30-3-35, except that it increased the weekday evening parent-time to a mid-week overnight. As a result, the only difference between the increased parent-time schedule under section 30-3-35.1 and the schedule actually ordered is an additional weekly Sunday overnight. Father contends that “the trial court should have addressed how it was in the best interest for [Child] to be returned home on Sunday as opposed to Monday morning for school.” 

¶30 But Father misunderstands the statutory scheme. When parents cannot agree to a parent-time schedule, section 30-3-35 provides a presumptive minimum, but the district court still retains discretion to award more time than the statute provides. See Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-34(1)–(2) (“[T]he court may . . . establish a parent-time schedule” but “the parent-time schedule as provided in Section[] 30-3-35 . . . shall be considered the minimum parent-time to which the noncustodial parent and the child shall be entitled.”). If the court orders more parent-time than the presumptive minimum, it may “independently fashion an increased parent-time schedule” under section 30-3-35, or it may adopt the “detailed schedule” set forth in section 30-3-35.1. See Lay, 2018 UT App 137, ¶ 16. In any event, in awarding parent-time, the court is simply required to “enter the reasons underlying [its] order.” See Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-34(3). The statute does not require the court to articulate specific reasons for rejecting all other alternatives, such as an additional Sunday overnight that would necessitate another long commute to school every other Monday. 

¶31 In keeping with the statutory requirements, the court entered sufficient findings to support its parent-time award under section 30-3-35. The court ordered that “[Father] shall have parent-time pursuant to the guidelines established in Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-35” and articulated its reasons for customizing that schedule to allow Father an additional mid-week overnight. The court explained that it was 

interested in maximizing [Father’s] time (along with his family) with [Child]. Section 30-3-35 permits a mid-week visit. It is in [Child’s] best interest to have a mid-week visit at [Father’s] home. [Child] will benefit from doing homework with [Father], [his stepmother,] and his siblings. And, because it is only one day a week, the impact of the commute will be minimized. The parties can determine which day works best for them and [Child]. 

The court concluded that “[t]he new parent-time schedule is in the best interest of [Child]—it allows [him] to maximize his time with [Father] while eliminating the constant, back-to-back days of commuting.” These findings adequately support the ordered parent-time schedule. 

CONCLUSION 

¶32 Custody and parent-time determinations “may frequently and of necessity require a choice between good and better.” Hogge v. Hogge, 649 P.2d 51, 55 (Utah 1982). The broad discretion we accord the district court “stems from the reality that in some cases the court must choose one custodian from two excellent parents.” Tucker v. Tucker, 910 P.2d 1209, 1214 (Utah 1996). That is precisely the situation the district court faced here. And “where analysis reveals that the best interests of the child would be served equally well with either parent,” we cannot say the “court has abused its discretion in awarding custody to one parent over another.” See id. at 1216. Because the district court sufficiently supported its rejection of the custody evaluator’s recommendation for primary custody and articulated the reasons for the parent-time schedule it adopted, we defer to the court’s sound judgment. Affirmed. 

Click to access T.W.%20v.%20S.A.20211126_20200397_132.pdf

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How do I fight a DUI without a lawyer?

How do I fight a DUI without a lawyer?

You don’t. Too much at stake. Too hard to do on your own. I’m a lawyer (a divorce and family law attorney), and although I don’t drink, if I were charged with DUI (even if I knew I was innocent), I wouldn’t try to defend myself without the help of a skilled and experienced criminal defense attorney who knows DUI law and defense backward and forward.

It’s a shame that lawyers are so expensive. I get it. But a DUI can cripple you for years, even for life, sometimes. You have to defend yourself hard because no one else in the system will go to bat for you. The prosecutors and judge aren’t interested in your story (they’ve heard them all and they’re jaded beyond belief).

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

https://www.quora.com/How-do-I-fight-a-DUI-without-a-lawyer/answer/Eric-Johnson-311?prompt_topic_bio=1

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When dealing with CPS, will court-appointed attorneys do as well as private attorneys?

When dealing with CPS, will a court appointed attorney do as good of a job in the handling of your case as a private attorney would?

Odds are that a court-appointed attorney will not be as good as a privately-retained attorney. It’s not because court-appointed attorneys are all inherently bad. They aren’t all bad. But one of the reasons many attorneys take jobs as court-appointed attorneys is because they can’t compete in the free market, so a “low-paying, dreary government job” is to them better than no job at all. Some court-appointed attorneys are excellent, but they are rare and it’s usually not possible for you to pick the attorney appointed to represent you, so getting one of the excellent court-appointed attorney’s is a matter of chance. Court-appointed attorneys also do worse generally because they know that expectations of them are low to begin with, and so they rise (or sink, as the case may be) to the low level of competence expected of them.

Just because an attorney is in private practice doesn’t guarantee a higher quality of representation, but the odds of the attorney being more competent are better. Attorneys in private practice are generally scrappier. Many want to build up their practices and make good money. If they don’t please the client, they don’t get clients; court-appointed attorneys don’t have this problem as much (beggars can’t be choosers).Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

https://www.quora.com/When-dealing-with-CPS-will-a-court-appointed-attorney-do-as-good-of-a-job-in-the-handling-of-your-case-as-a-private-attorney-would/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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Can CPS take your kids for missing two dental appointments?

Can child protective services take your kids for missing two dental appointments?

Yes (and well they should), if the dental appointments are necessary to protect the child from disfigurement, from death or serious risk of death or harm, from superfluous damage to the child’s health, or from chronic pain. You get the idea.

But a failure to go to the dentist for an optional bi-annual cleaning or the like? No way, unless (maybe) somehow that was ordered by a juvenile court judge and the parents just blew it off.

Just remember: often what CPS claims is crucial to a child’s protection is just CPS throwing its weight around and using the power of the state to bully parents who have the nerve to hold opinions different from the caseworkers’. Pick your battles, but don’t let CPS push you around for exercising your parental judgment responsibly.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

https://www.quora.com/Can-child-protective-services-take-your-kids-for-missing-two-dental-appointments/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

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How would you respond to your teen if he/she threatened to call Child Protective Services because you punished them?

This is almost always a no-win situation.

There’s little room for error. If you live in a place where the police and social services are decent people with horse sense, you’re lucky, but if you don’t, take care.

It can happen to anyone.

Doctor, lawyer, accountant. Not just the trailer trash crowd.

The younger the child making the allegations, the more seriously they are taken, BUT DON’T LET THAT lull you . . .

. . . into believing you can’t be a 5′2″ mom who weighs 98 pounds soaking wet and not be credibly accused of physically abusing your 6-foot, 17-year-old son.

Take the threats seriously, no matter how ludicrous they are in fact.

Why? Two main reasons. 1) Because our culture is currently programmed to “#startwithbelieving” and “believe survivors” and other similar nonsense, such that the presumption of innocence effectively does not apply to accusations of child abuse. More often than not, it’s guilty until proven innocent. Proving innocence is much harder than you believe. Much, much, much harder. The system actually works against efforts to prove innocence. Ignore this truth at your peril. 2) You’ve been taught since grade school that our legal system is “the best in the world,” but that doesn’t mean it’s not going to victimize you. “Best in the world” in this case simply means there are legal systems that are worse than ours.

Preempting false abuse allegations and/or defending oneself against false abuse allegations is tricky.

It’s tricky because there is no single way to do it “right”. How to respond to a child in my family falsely accusing me and/or my spouse of abuse depends in some part on how old the child is. If the child were a teenager who threatened to report abuse as a way of getting his/her way, I would do this:

Lawyer up now.

Right now. Getting a lawyer DOES NOT make you look guilty. And even if you fear that hiring a lawyer might make you look guilty, just try successfully defending your innocence without hiring one. Only a fool—a damn fool—would try to defend himself or herself against child abuse claims without a good lawyer.

Literally start researching good lawyers and start calling now (you have no time to waste).

And not just for the reasons you think I’m going to give.

Yes, of course you want to lawyer up for your protection. But how does a lawyer—a good lawyer, not just any lawyer—protect you? Not merely by defending you in court.

Defending you in court is crucial, but lawyering up early on may keep you out of court and out of jail too. Lawyering up early may prevent this mess from ruining your reputation in the community. How? A good lawyer gives you the advice you need, so that you don’t make stupid mistakes early on. So often its the stupid mistakes made early on that bury you.

And what kind of stupid mistakes might those be? If you believe 1) you can figure out how to navigate the system successfully on your own; 2) that “because I am innocent, all I have to do is tell the truth, and so the more truth I tell the better off I’ll be”; and 3) the system gets to the truth well, that is proof positive that you need to lawyer up now because all three beliefs are dead wrong.

The system works against you.

Years ago I made an informal study of my own (not a rigorous scientific study) of how often child protective services “supported” or “substantiated” reports of child abuse. It was an alarmingly high percentage of the time. I conclude that there is a bias for finding abuse. This makes sense when you analyze the situation. Think of it this way: what’s easier to do and what’s easier to defend? A) a thorough investigation that finds no solid proof or evidence of abuse, followed by a report that no solid proof or evidence of abuse was found?; or B) claiming a thorough investigation was conducted that found “credible evidence” or “reason for concern,” followed by a “better safe than sorry” kind of recommendation? It’s no contest. The mob will approve of finding abuse. “Another pervert taken off the streets, so he/she cannot hurt my kids!” So abuse is far too often found as a means of everyone in the child welfare field a) avoiding criticism; b) being lauded as heroes; c) doing less work and/or easier work; and d) keeping their jobs.

So you need inside expertise to protect you. In addition to finding a good lawyer, find experts in the fields of child abuse law enforcement, social work, and psychology to advise and support you.

Do not talk to the police or social services—do not talk to ANYONE—about the allegations or about your children or about yourself or your family without first consulting your (good) lawyer and without your (good) lawyer’s approval.

Here is why (ignore this at your peril):

If the police tell you they “just have a few questions” and that “you’re not a suspect,” DON’T YOU BELIEVE IT! Police can lie to you. It’s perfectly legal for them to do so. Anything you discuss with the police or your friends or family can be subpoenaed and used against you in the course of the investigation and/or trial. Keep your mouth shut, unless your good attorney advises you to speak.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

https://www.quora.com/How-would-you-respond-to-your-teen-if-he-she-threatened-to-call-Child-Protective-Services-because-you-punished-them/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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