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Category: Court Orders

Rejecting Fact for Faith: the Inexplicable and Inexcusable Silencing of the PGAL’s Child Client

When a PGAL (private guardian ad litem) is appointed to represent children in a child custody dispute in a Utah divorce case, it would sure be good to know what the PGAL and the children actually said to each other (not merely believe, not trust any second-hand source’s claims as to what the children purportedly said, but know what the children said) by having a by having an audio and/or sound-and-video recording of the what the PGAL and the children actually said to each other. I am not aware of any evidence that proves or so much as suggests that having such a record is (is, not may be, but is) prejudicial or harmful to anyone.

The reasons why should be obvious.

I don’t have to believe you if you tell me that your fingerprints are not on the murder weapon. In contrast, I cannot deny your fingerprints aren’t on the murder weapon, when you show me the murder weapon has none of your fingerprints on it.

If you had an eye witness who could provide you with an alibi, you would need the witness himself to testify. You couldn’t say to the judge or jury, “Trust me, I have an eye witness, and if he were here, he’d tell you that Mickey shot Jerry, not me.” The only way to know if such a witness really exists and is not just a convenient figment of your imagination is to hear from the witness himself. Indeed, if you tried to speak for a phantom witness, that would be inadmissible hearsay. Objective fact is self-evidently more probative than unverified stories and claims. This is why we don’t rely on hearsay when we can hear first-hand from the witness.

You wouldn’t want people trying to put words in your mouth and misrepresenting what you do and do not say. It’s why the rule against hearsay exists, and for good reason. It’s why the public rose up and demanded bodycams for police (because the police were caught lying so much and chronically violating innocent people’s rights in the process). It’s why we need verifiable proof that medicine actually works and aircraft can safely takeoff, fly, and land before we use them.

Yet PGALs in Utah all but universally refuse to interview children on the record and oppose children being questioned by anyone else on the record. Instead, PGALs expect that everyone believe 1) what the PGAL claims to have asked the children in the PGAL’s interviews with them and 2) what the PGAL claims the children said in response 3) and to believe the PGALs without the children being subject to cross-examination. “Believe the PGAL on what basis?,” you may ask. Merely being appointed as a PGAL. That’s like expecting one to believe a witness in court merely because the witness swore an oath to tell the truth (which would be as unreasonable as it is irresponsible). Being a PGAL doesn’t render one incapable of lying or incapable of misperceiving or misremembering details. Being a PGAL free the PGAL from personal biases and prejudices that hamper impartiality and sound judgment.[1]

Even if someone subjectively believed a PGAL were infallible and could never lie and never misperceive reality, subjective belief would not make it so. It could not make it so. Subjective belief is inherently not, and inherently can never be, superior to objectively verifiable fact. 

Yet the courts indulge—and knowingly indulge—in this kind of thing all the time. “Trust that the PGAL is telling us the truth because he/she is a PGAL,” or “We don’t need to hear from the children directly, the PGAL speaks for them.” It would be one thing if a PGAL claimed to speak for a child client and the child client at least went on the record to verify, “Yes, what the PGAL just proffered is correct,” but we don’t even have that. Once a PGAL is appointed, the child is rarely—if ever—heard from himself/herself. Even when the child is willing to testify. I’m not kidding. I’m not exaggerating.

Sometimes we don’t have objective proof. Sometimes all we have to go on is believing (or not believing) someone’s word. But belief is plainly not the highest standard of proof (thank goodness). When we can rely on fact over faith, we are morally, intellectually, and legally obligated to do so. 

When accuracy and truth matter (and when do they not?) and if and when we can hear directly from that particular person himself/herself, no one should “trust” what anyone (not just you–anyone) says someone else allegedly said.

Any PGAL who would assert, “I have or could have objective verification for my claims, but I refuse to provide such verification; take my word for it,” is a PGAL no one can be obligated to believe. I ask sincerely: how can any PGAL or judge or commissioner who believes that the PGAL serves to silence a child client’s own voice be trusted?

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


[1] Indeed, if we took every word of the PGAL as gospel, we wouldn’t need a judge to do anything other than rubber stamp what the PGAL says. If the PGAL says the children claim Dad beat them, well then, that’s what the children said—after all, the PGAL says so. No need to inquire into whether the children were coached, coerced, brainwashed, or chose to lie. And because the law in Utah is construed to mean that children “represented” by PGALs are prohibited from speaking for themselves, no inquiry with the children on the record will ever take place. Does that look like “fact” finding, like due process, like a just and equitable process to you?

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You Can’t Tell What The Judge Is Thinking By Braxton Mounteer, Legal Assistant

I recently accompanied my boss to the trial of a divorce case. If I had had to place a bet on what the judge was thinking at given moment or what the rulings would have been during the trial or at the end, I would have left the courtroom much poorer. One of the things that struck me most about trial was my inability to determine the importance a judge gives to the evidence and to witness testimony. I could not consistently predict which way the judge was leaning at any given moment. But it’s not solely a matter of my inexperience with the legal system. My boss (who has considerable trial experience) told me he encounters the same thing.

We believe this is intentional on the judge’s part, that judges deliberately wear a poker face (some better than others). If a judge expressively reacted to a piece of evidence or to testimony, it might give a false (or true) indication that the judge is favoring one party over the other.

An actual trial is not like the movies and television shows would have you believe (at least at a divorce trial isn’t). There was no audible gasp from one side or the other when a piece of evidence was entered. The lawyers don’t (at least not typically) swagger around the court room cracking wise or orating so as to bring the room to tears. It really was just the evidence and argument from one party versus evidence and argument of the other.

Now a judge being inscrutable is not to say the judge sits stone-faced and silent until the trial ended. The judge can and usually will make clear and candid statements occasionally during the trial. Sometimes the judge will ask a witness questions of his or her own, but sparingly (judges are discouraged from doing too much of their own questioning). And the judge obviously must rule on objections raised during the questioning of witnesses too. During recesses, the judges and attorneys and sometimes even the parties and witnesses may chat about sports or local news to unwind a bit from the tension that builds up over the course of the trial. Some judges will essentially let the lawyers go until the time runs out. Other judges may inform the parties and their lawyers whether the direction they are taking the case in isn’t all that useful to the court in reaching its ultimate decision.

The notion of “reasonable minds can differ” stands out in stark relief at a trial. Sometimes what the lawyer tries to persuade the court to do and what the court decided are the same, but other times what the court did with the evidence can really surprise you. Keep that in mind when you’re convinced that the judge could not possibly rule any way but the way you favor. The better you understand all the possible arguments, the more accurately, reasonably, and persuasively you can make yours.

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2024 UT App 43 – domestic violence appeal

State v. Arce – 2024 UT App 43

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, Appellee, v. JOSE FELIPE ARCE, Appellant.

Opinion No. 20220006-CA Filed March 28, 2024

First District Court, Logan Department The Honorable Brandon J. MaynardNo. 191100762

Freyja Johnson, Emily Adams, and Hannah Leavitt-Howell, Attorneys for Appellant, assisted by law student Ryder Seamons[1]

Sean D. Reyes and Marian Decker, Attorneys for Appellee, assisted by law student Rebecca Barker

JUDGE DAVID N. MORTENSEN authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES RYAN D. TENNEY and AMY J. OLIVER concurred.

MORTENSEN, Judge:

¶1        A domestic dispute ensued on an emotional evening after Jose Felipe Arce had returned home from attending the birth of a child he believed he fathered as a result of an affair. Arce does not dispute that an argument occurred. He denies, however, that he hit or choked his spouse (Wife). This appeal centers on Wife’s statements near the time of the event and her complete recantation at trial. Arce claims numerous errors, including that the trial court should not have allowed the State to compel Wife to invoke her Fifth Amendment right 47 times in front of the jury, a deputy should not have been allowed to vouch for a particular version of Wife’s testimony, the State and a witness should not have used the word “victim” 29 times, and these errors cumulatively prejudiced him. Although we do not endorse the approach taken by the trial court or the parties, we affirm the convictions.

BACKGROUND

¶2           The State charged Arce with, and the jury convicted him on, one count of aggravated assault (domestic violence) and five counts of domestic violence in the presence of a child. At the center of this appeal are the different versions of events as related by Wife. We recite the facts in a light most favorable to the jury’s verdict. See State v. Holgate, 2000 UT 74, ¶ 2, 10 P.3d 346.

Alleged Assault and Wife’s Statements in the Subsequent Hours and

Days

¶3           In July 2019, Arce visited the hospital for the birth of a child whom both Arce and Wife believed he may have fathered with another woman. Wife described the day as an emotional one filled with tears. When Arce returned from the hospital, the couple decided to take their kids swimming at a hot springs resort. The couple talked about the difficult situation on the drive there, with more crying from Wife. On the drive home, their conversation escalated into an argument while the children slept in the back seat. After Arce asked for forgiveness, Wife said she had forgiven him for “many things” but “this was just too much.” Arce pulled the car over, and Wife said that the two “couldn’t be together anymore.” Wife later told police and neighbors that after pulling over, Arce hit and choked her.

¶4          Arce then drove the family home, and he told the children to go inside. Wife later told police and neighbors that, as they continued arguing, Arce hit her, threw her to the ground, kicked her, pulled her hair, tried to choke her, and threatened to hit her with a beer bottle.

¶5          At this point, Wife ran to her neighbor’s (Neighbor) home. Neighbor could hear Arce yelling as she opened the door to find Wife out of breath, shaking, and crying. Wife was in a t-shirt with no pants. Neighbor and her husband (Neighbor’s Husband) believed Wife was seeking safety. Wife told them Arce was trying to hurt her. She also told the couple she wanted Arce out of the house. She then recounted the earlier fight that had happened during the drive home, including that after arriving home Arce had hit and kicked her and tried to choke her. Neighbor did not see any injuries on Wife. Neighbor’s Husband said that he saw “a red mark kind of on her collarbone on her left side.”

¶6          Neighbor’s Husband, a deputy sheriff, called police, who arrived fewer than ten minutes later. The responding officer (Deputy) interviewed Wife at Neighbor’s home that evening. Deputy testified that Wife appeared “extremely distraught,” “frantic,” and “emotionally distressed” and that she continuously wiped her eyes and nose from crying. During the interview, Wife told Deputy that Arce both struck and choked her. She also recounted that after returning home, Arce dragged her out of the car by her hair, threatened to hit her with a beer bottle, choked her, and slapped her. Deputy observed that the area under Wife’s right eye was “somewhat swollen” and that she had “some sort of reddish mark” on her collarbone that looked like it was beginning to bruise.

¶7          By that time, Arce had left the scene. Wife signed a request for a no-contact order and, with her children, went to emergency housing that the Deputy arranged. Wife also completed a lethality assessment. In the assessment, Wife indicated that she thought Arce might try to kill her. In an additional comment section, Wife noted that “having [Arce] at the home was a concern of safety for her.”

¶8          The following day, a police officer (Detective) interviewed Wife at her work. Wife again recounted the events, including Arce choking her, slapping her, grabbing her hair, throwing her to the ground, and threatening to hit her with a bottle. Wife also filled out a written statement during the interview with Detective recounting these same allegations. The top of the statement gave the following warning, “You are notified that the statements you are about to make may be presented to a magistrate or a judge in lieu of your sworn testimony at a preliminary examination. Any false statements you make and that you do not believe to be true may subject you to criminal punishment as a Class A Misdemeanor.” Wife signed the statement.

¶9          That same night, Deputy interviewed Arce by phone. Arce explained that he and Wife had taken the children to the resort “to have a good day” but Wife kept bringing up the infidelity and birth of the baby, so the two argued. Arce said that during the argument, he went through Wife’s phone, saw messages from another man, and asked, “[W]ho the f*** is this person?” When asked if he hit or choked Wife, Arce responded that he did not recall. Arce did, however, say that there was a miscommunication between them and that there was “some pushing and shoving.”

Wife’s Recantation and Testimony at Trial

¶10 The same day that Detective interviewed Wife, Deputy listened to a voicemail from Wife asking that all charges be dropped. When Wife later spoke with Deputy on the phone, she again asked that the charges be dropped. Wife explained that Arce “had a good job and that she needed help with the five children.”

¶11 At trial, Wife testified consistently with the prior statements she had made to law enforcement and her neighbors, however, she insisted that she made up the allegations of domestic violence against Arce. From the stand, Wife said, “This is why I wanted to just come up here because I hear all the charges and it’s really very selfish of me, you know. So this is why I’m sitting up here and I’m saying what really happened.” Wife testified that all the events occurred as she explained to law enforcement and the neighbors but that Arce never hit or choked her. Wife testified that after telling Arce they could not be together anymore, she told him to take her home, and he did. Wife testified that she opened the car door and sat on the edge of her seat while they continued arguing and yelling at one another but no physical altercation occurred.

¶12 When the State began asking her questions about police arriving the night of the incident and what she told them, the court stopped the questioning and excused the jury. The court explained to Wife that she had a right not to incriminate herself and that doing so would open her up to prosecution. The State asserted several times, “We won’t charge her.” The State also served Wife with a written notice of use immunity for purposes of the trial.[2] And the court provided her with the opportunity to speak with an attorney. Subsequently, Wife was appointed counsel.

¶13 Following a recess, the State asked that Wife be declared a hostile witness, allowing it to ask her leading questions, which the court granted. After speaking with his client, Wife’s counsel advised the court that Wife would be exercising her Fifth Amendment right moving forward. The State argued that the immunity it had offered Wife would protect her and that it was not the State’s intent “to ask the Court to hold [Wife] in this case in contempt” for refusing to testify. Wife’s counsel argued that the notice of use immunity was inadequate to protect her because it expressly did not grant immunity against a future perjury prosecution. The State again asked the court to treat Wife as a hostile witness. Arce’s counsel objected, arguing that the State knew weeks in advance that Wife might invoke her Fifth Amendment right. The State argued that knowing what Wife would do for weeks in advance was “a little bit of a stretch” and that its grant of use immunity was sufficient.

¶14        During further argument over whether to allow the State to treat Wife as a hostile witness, the State again said it would not seek to have the court hold her in contempt. The court ultimately granted the State’s request and received affirmation again from the State that it would not ask the court to hold Wife in contempt if she refused to testify.

¶15        The next day, the State retracted its written immunity offer and explained that it planned to ask Wife questions to which she could “choose to invoke the Fifth or to respond.” Wife’s counsel objected, arguing, “[T]he State’s going to try to . . . present their case by asking those questions and hearing the Fifth . . . . [T]hat’s just them trying to testify to the jury by the questions they’re asking.” The court disagreed, explaining that anything the State said was not evidence and that Wife could not make a “blanket” invocation of her Fifth Amendment right.

¶16 When Wife took the stand again, she invoked the Fifth Amendment 47 times in response to the State’s questions.[3] The State’s questions included asking Wife about the same things she had addressed the day before, prior to invoking her constitutional right to silence. Arce’s counsel did not object to or seek to limit the State’s leading questions or Wife’s invocations; neither did he request a mistrial.

Other Testimony at Trial

¶17 During the trial, the State called Neighbor, Neighbor’s Husband, Deputy, and Detective to the stand; each recounted the events and gave consistent testimony of the statements Wife made to them concerning the events during the evening in question— including the physical abuse she allegedly experienced at the hands of Arce.

¶18 During Deputy’s examination, the State asked, “And so ultimately what did your investigation lead you to believe happened that night?” Defense counsel made no objection. Deputy responded, “Based off all my observations and interview, I believe that the victim had been struck and choked and that there was a domestic violence assault that occurred.” The State then asked, “And I just want to emphasize, why is it that you believed that this truly happened?” Defense counsel again made no objection. Deputy answered,

I believe it truly happened given a number of things. Mainly, when I spoke to [Wife], she appeared to be honest and genuine in the emotion that she was describing things with was clearly emotional distress, upset that I’ve seen. And not every case is the same. I’ve seen other people who have been victims of assault act similar, so that’s why I believed it. She appeared to be honest and genuine.

¶19 During Detective’s testimony, the State moved to admit into evidence Wife’s written statement that was given under penalty of perjury, which the court allowed.

¶20 The State also called two expert witnesses. A clinical psychologist testified about patterns of domestic violence and that individuals experiencing abuse frequently stay in the relationship and/or recant their previous stories. And a pediatric nurse practitioner testified about strangulation, including that in over 50% of strangulation cases there are no visible injuries.

¶21 Throughout the trial, the State, Deputy, and Detective referred to Wife as “the victim” 29 times. And the State and its witnesses—primarily the clinical psychologist—used the term “victim” or “victims” generally an additional 45 times. The State also referred to Wife as the “alleged victim,” primarily during jury selection but also sporadically throughout the trial.

Closing Arguments and Verdict

¶22        In closing arguments, the State argued that the jury should believe Wife’s original statements to her neighbors and police as those were made instinctually to keep her family safe from a threat rather than out of “selfish[ness] or insincer[ity].” The defense argued that Wife had every reason to hate Arce but she wanted to set the record straight about her lies concerning the events of that night and that the State’s case fell apart without her lies.

¶23        During deliberation, the jury asked for access to the State’s “questions on day 2 to [Wife] when she pled the fifth.” The court did not grant the request.

¶24        The jury convicted Arce on all charges. Arce now appeals.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶25 Arce raises three issues on appeal. First, Arce argues that the trial court incorrectly allowed the State to compel Wife to invoke her Fifth Amendment right 47 times in front of the jury. We give trial courts “broad discretion to admit or exclude evidence, including lay witness testimony, and will disturb [a trial court’s] ruling only for abuse of discretion.” State v. Perea, 2013 UT 68, ¶ 31, 322 P.3d 624 (cleaned up). But the trial court must correctly interpret and apply the law. Id. ¶ 30. We review “the legal questions underlying the admissibility of evidence” for correctness. Dierl v. Birkin, 2023 UT App 6, ¶ 15, 525 P.3d 127 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 527 P.3d 1107 (Utah 2023).

¶26 Second, Arce argues that he received constitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel when his counsel (1) did not seek to limit or remediate the continued questioning of Wife by objecting, moving to strike both the questions and invocations, or asking for a curative instruction; (2) failed to object to Deputy improperly opining on and vouching for the credibility of Wife’s report the night of the incident; and (3) failed to object to the State and witnesses referring to Wife as “the victim” 29 times during the trial. “When a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel is raised for the first time on appeal, there is no lower court ruling to review and we must decide whether the defendant was deprived of the effective assistance of counsel as a matter of law.” State v. Reid, 2018 UT App 146, ¶ 17, 427 P.3d 1261 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 432 P.3d 1225 (Utah 2018).

¶27 Finally, Arce argues that under the cumulative error doctrine, the evidentiary error and ineffective assistance of counsel Arce received should undermine our confidence in the outcome of the trial. “We will reverse a jury verdict or sentence only if the cumulative effect of the several errors undermines our confidence that a fair trial was had.” State v. Lopez, 2019 UT App 11, ¶ 22, 438 P.3d 950 (cleaned up).

ANALYSIS

  1. Evidentiary Ruling

¶28 Arce argues that the trial court improperly overruled Wife’s counsel’s objection to the State questioning Wife despite knowing that she would invoke her Fifth Amendment right. Here, the trial court did not expressly say why it allowed the State, knowing Wife would invoke her constitutional privilege, to continually examine Wife. After Wife met with counsel and determined that she would invoke her Fifth Amendment right moving forward, the State asked the court to declare Wife a hostile witness and allow the State to continue examining her with leading questions. Wife’s counsel objected to declaring her hostile, arguing that the State already knew she would invoke her right for each question, which would allow the State, in Wife’s counsel’s words, to “present their case by asking those questions and hearing the Fifth” and to offer testimony “to the jury by the questions they’re asking.” The court responded that “anything [the State] says isn’t evidence, so it doesn’t matter.” And Wife’s counsel responded that the court should not allow it precisely because the State’s questions would not be evidence. The court disagreed and determined that the State could ask questions and that Wife could invoke her right to every question if she wanted to but she had to testify “if it [had] nothing to do [with a topic] that would incriminate her.” The court further determined that Wife’s invocation of her Fifth Amendment right could not be invoked in a blanket fashion and that she would have to invoke it for each question, as there may be some she could answer.

¶29 The State argues that regardless of the court’s reasoning, the court did not err because Wife waived her privilege by testifying earlier and recanting her story.[4] We note that the State did not make this argument during trial. Alternatively, the State argues that Wife never had the privilege to begin with because the State provided her with immunity.[5]

¶30 Notwithstanding each parties’ arguments, our review of the record indicates that Arce did not preserve this issue. It is “well within our prerogative to raise a preservation issue on our own initiative when it provides an alternative basis for affirmance, even if the State failed to brief the preservation argument.” State v. Malo, 2020 UT 42, ¶ 20 n.7, 469 P.3d 982. In Cook Associates, Inc. v. Warnick, 664 P.2d 1161 (Utah 1983), our supreme court confronted “[w]hether an objection by one party properly preserves an objection on appeal as to another party.” Id. at 1164. The supreme court followed what “[v]irtually every other jurisdiction that has considered the question has concluded,” which is that “an objection . . . by one or more parties at trial does not inure to the benefit of other parties who do not join in the objection.” Id. at 1164–65. In State v. Calliham, 2002 UT 86, 55 P.3d 573, two brothers charged with murder were tried together. Id. ¶¶ 1–3. Following their convictions, one brother (Brother 1) appealed. Id. ¶¶ 18–19. As part of his appeal, Brother 1 argued that the trial court’s decision to admit specific evidence was an error that violated his constitutional rights. Id. ¶ 32. However, our supreme court held that this issue was not preserved for appeal, as it was the other brother (Brother 2) who had objected—an objection which Brother 1 did not join at trial. Id. ¶ 33. “[Brother 1] did not join in [Brother 2’s] objections on the record or make any objection of his own,” thus preventing him from claiming on appeal that it prejudiced him or undermined his constitutional rights. Id.

¶31 Similarly, in the case before us, Arce was not the one who objected to Wife taking the stand, knowing she would invoke her Fifth Amendment right for every question—it was Wife’s counsel who made the objection. Arce did not join that objection.[6]

Therefore, as in Calliham, Arce has not preserved the right to now claim on appeal that the court erred in its decision to allow Wife to testify, which in turn allowed the jury to hear her invocations 47 times.[7]

¶32        And the issue needed to be “preserved in order to give the trial court an opportunity to address the claimed error, and if appropriate, correct it.” Kell v. State, 2012 UT 25, ¶ 11, 285 P.3d 1133 (cleaned up). Here, the trial court had no such opportunity. It is readily evident from our review of the record that the trial court was not focused on the impact these Fifth Amendment issues would have on Arce. Instead, the trial court ruled on this issue through the lens of its impact on Wife. Had Arce objected, the trial court may have fully engaged in an analysis of whether Wife’s Fifth Amendment right was waived or abandoned as the State suggests. But Arce made no such objection, and therefore the court engaged in no such analysis.

¶33        “As a general rule, claims not raised before the trial court may not be raised on appeal,” and it is “well-established” that this “preservation requirement applies to every claim, including constitutional questions.” Conner v. Department of Com., 2019 UT App 91, ¶ 48, 443 P.3d 1250 (cleaned up). Despite Arce’s arguments that he preserved this issue, the record does not support his assertions, as “a party must raise [the issue] before the [trial] court specifically, in a timely manner, and with support by evidence and relevant legal authority, such that the issue has been presented to the trial court in such a way that the trial court has an opportunity to rule on it.” Id. (cleaned up). As discussed, the record does not reflect an objection from Arce on the issue but instead from Wife, which did not allow the court to review the issue as it pertains to Arce. Therefore, the issue is not properly preserved, and we do not consider the merits of his claim.

  1. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

¶34        “To prevail on an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, a defendant must meet the two-prong Strickland test: (1) counsel’s performance was objectively deficient and (2) the deficient performance resulted in prejudice.” State v. Fleming, 2019 UT App 181, ¶ 9, 454 P.3d 862 (citing Strickland v. Washington, 466 US 668, 687–88 (1984)), cert. denied, 462 P.3d 803 (Utah 2020). “[D]eficient performance is not determined in a vacuum; rather, it involves asking whether the strategy [counsel] employed was that of a reasonable, competent lawyer in the real-time context” of a trial. State v. Wilkes, 2020 UT App 175, ¶ 24, 479 P.3d 1142, cert. denied, 485 P.3d 944 (Utah 2021). “However, even where a court cannot conceive of a sound strategic reason for counsel’s challenged conduct, it does not automatically follow that counsel was deficient. . . . [T]he ultimate question is always whether, considering all the circumstances, counsel’s acts or omissions were objectively unreasonable.” State v. Scott, 2020 UT 13, ¶ 36, 462 P.3d 350. And a defendant establishes prejudice by showing “that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” State v. Gonzalez, 2021 UT App 135, ¶ 8, 501 P.3d 1205 (cleaned up). “That is, the defendant’s showing must undermine our confidence in the outcome.” Id. (cleaned up). The impact of such alleged errors must “be a demonstrable reality.” Id. (cleaned up).

¶35        “Because both prongs of the Strickland test must be met to establish ineffective assistance of counsel, we need not always address both prongs.” Fleming, 2019 UT App 181, ¶ 9 (cleaned up). “And if it is easier to dispose of an ineffectiveness claim on the ground of lack of sufficient prejudice that course should be followed.” Gonzalez, 2021 UT App 135, ¶ 7 (cleaned up). Given the likelihood that similar events to those of this case can and will arise before the trial courts of this state, we address counsel’s alleged deficient performance, although we ultimately determine that Arce’s claims fail for lack of prejudice.

  1. Deficient Performance
  2. Invoking the Fifth Amendment

¶36 In addition to Arce’s arguments already discussed above regarding Wife’s invocation of her Fifth Amendment right, Arce argues that his counsel acted deficiently by not seeking to limit or remediate the State’s continued leading questions and Wife’s invocations by objecting, moving to strike both the questions and invocations, or asking for a curative instruction. Based on the reasoning in Mitchell v. United States, 526 U.S. 314 (1999), and In re Flint Water Cases, 53 F.4th 176 (6th Cir. 2022), competent counsel could reasonably choose not to take any of these actions, as Wife had waived her Fifth Amendment privilege by having voluntarily testified about the matter in question. A “witness . . . may not testify voluntarily about a subject and then invoke the privilege against self-incrimination when questioned about the details.” Mitchell, 526 U.S. at 321. “When the witness testifies, the privilege is waived for the matters to which the witness testifies.” In re Flint Water Cases, 53 F.4th at 193 (cleaned up). Thus, Arce’s counsel, and correspondingly the trial court, could have concluded that Wife did not have the right to invoke the privilege. Therefore, we determine that Arce fails to show deficient performance.[8]

¶37 Arce claims his counsel should have objected and pointed the court to rule 403 (excluding evidence which is substantially more prejudicial than probative), rule 510(c) (disallowing comment by a judge or counsel about, or a factfinder making an inference from, the invocation of a privilege), or rule 611(a) (allowing a court to control the examination of witnesses so as to avoid wasting time or the harassment or embarrassment of a witness) of the Utah Rules of Evidence. Arce makes no effort, however, to provide us with the context of Wife’s 47 invocations or the depth of her earlier testimony.[9] While Arce discusses Wife’s trial testimony prior to the court’s interruption to allow her to consult her counsel, he provides the court no comparison of that testimony with the subject matter of the questions asked on cross-examination when she began invoking the Fifth Amendment. As a result, the briefing leaves us with no understanding about whether all 47 invocations were directly addressing matters about which Wife had already testified—particularly her recantation. Assuming the questions were simply cross-examination of statements made earlier in trial, Arce’s counsel would have no basis for an objection because the privilege would be waived. Furthermore, without an understanding of the depth of Wife’s earlier testimony, we cannot gauge whether 47 invocations corresponded in an impermissible or potentially prejudicial way to Wife’s prior trial testimony. Within the confines of the briefing provided to us, we cannot fault Arce’s counsel for failing to object or make other efforts to limit the testimony.

¶38        Given that there is an obvious basis to believe that Wife no longer possessed a Fifth Amendment privilege and where the briefing does not delineate any context for the questions for which the privilege was invoked, Arce has not overcome the presumption that his counsel acted reasonably, and we cannot conclude that Arce’s counsel was objectively deficient in his representation. State v. Hart, 2020 UT App 25, ¶ 20, 460 P.3d 604 (stating that to prove deficient performance a defendant must overcome a “strong presumption that his trial counsel rendered adequate assistance” (cleaned up)), cert. denied, 462 P.3d 805 (Utah 2020). We acknowledge that there certainly could be circumstances where compelling a witness to invoke a privilege 47 times would be troubling, but we can reach no conclusion about counsel’s failure to object to these questions here.

  1. Witness Opining and Vouching

¶39        Arce further argues that his counsel performed deficiently by failing to object to Deputy opining on and vouching for the credibility of Wife’s statement the night of the incident. Rule 608(a) of the Utah Rules of Evidence “permits testimony concerning a witness’s general character or reputation for truthfulness or untruthfulness but prohibits any testimony as to a witness’s truthfulness on a particular occasion.” State v. King, 2010 UT App 396, ¶ 44, 248 P.3d 984 (cleaned up); see also State v. Adams, 2000 UT 42, ¶ 19, 5 P.3d 642 (detective testifying “he did not believe [the victim] was coached” was inadmissible vouching); State v. Jones, 2020 UT App 161, ¶ 14, 478 P.3d 1055 (per curiam) (“[A]dmission of testimony that bolsters the credibility of another witness’s testimony on a particular occasion is improper.”); id. ¶ 18 (officer testifying regarding interview techniques for domestic violence victims did not violate rule 608 because he did not opine on the victim’s truthfulness on a particular occasion); State v. Lewis, 2020 UT App 132, ¶ 26, 475 P.3d 956 (police sergeant describing variations he sees in victims’ statements when multiple accounts are given was not bolstering, as “he did not directly opine on [the victim’s] credibility”); State v. Cegars, 2019 UT App 54, ¶¶ 23–24, 440 P.3d 924 (school counselor testifying that she did not believe the victim would fabricate allegations was inadmissible bolstering); State v. Vail, 2002 UT App 176, ¶¶ 15, 17, 51 P.3d 1285 (detective testifying that two victims of child sexual abuse “exhibited the indicators that she equated with trustworthiness” was inadmissible bolstering); State v. Stefaniak, 900 P.2d 1094, 1095 (Utah Ct. App. 1995) (social worker testifying that a victim of abuse “seemed to be quite candid” in an interview was inadmissible vouching (cleaned up)). For example, an officer cannot comment on whether a witness appeared “to be genuine” during an interview, as it is a direct comment on the witness’s truthfulness and clearly violates rule 608. State v. Bragg, 2013 UT App 282, ¶ 31, 317 P.3d 452 (cleaned up). We emphasize again today that the State’s use of a law enforcement officer’s testimony for bolstering and vouching in this manner is inappropriate. We perceive no strategic reason that Arce’s counsel would reasonably fail to object to this testimony.

¶40 But even so, Arce can prevail only if he establishes both deficient performance and prejudice. And for the reasons set forth in Part II.B, we conclude that he was not prejudiced by this deficient performance.

  1. Referring to Wife as “the Victim”

¶41        Finally, Arce argues that his counsel performed deficiently by failing to object to the State and witnesses referring to Wife as “the victim” 29 times in front of the jury. Our supreme court “recognize[s] the gravity of referring to witnesses as victims during a trial.” State v. Vallejo, 2019 UT 38, ¶ 102, 449 P.3d 39. In cases, such as the one before us, “where a defendant claims that the charged crime did not actually occur, and the allegations against that defendant are based almost exclusively on the complaining witness’s testimony—the trial court, the State, and all witnesses should be prohibited from referring to the complaining witness as ‘the victim.’” State v. Devey, 2006 UT App 219, ¶ 17, 138 P.3d 90. Though in this case we do not exclusively rely on such testimony because there was a “sort of reddish mark” on Wife’s collarbone and Arce told Deputy there was “some pushing and shoving,” we still restate today that the action of referring to the complaining witness as “the victim” by anyone in front of the jury is inappropriate. Again, we perceive no strategic reason that Arce’s counsel would reasonably fail to object to this testimony.

  1. Prejudice

¶42        Ultimately, Arce has not shown that any of these alleged errors prejudiced him. There is not a reasonable probability that but for Arce’s counsel failing to object further to the State’s questioning of Wife, moving to strike, or asking for a curative instruction, the result of Arce’s trial would be different. As mentioned, the jury heard testimony from four witnesses, each of whom told the same story, namely, that Wife said Arce hit and choked her that night. The testimony of these four witnesses matched Wife’s own words in the statement she gave to Detective. Furthermore, the reason Wife provided to Deputy for dismissing the charges was not that she had lied but that she needed Arce to keep his job as well as his help with their children. As we point out above, even Arce in his statement to Deputy admitted there was “some pushing and shoving,” which is inconsistent with Wife’s recantation. And Arce did not explicitly deny that he hit, kicked, or choked Wife, instead stating only that he could not recall doing so. Most reasonable jurors would think that physical assault is something that one would remember having committed. Furthermore, and perhaps most convincingly, Wife’s own statement to Detective was entered into evidence for the jury to read. In short, finding that none of these alleged errors undermines our confidence in the outcome of this case, each of Arce’s claims of ineffective assistance of counsel fails for lack of prejudice. Moreover, because none of these alleged errors were sufficiently prejudicial alone, we, for the same reason, conclude that the errors do not cumulatively undermine our confidence in the outcome of the trial.[10]

CONCLUSION

¶43 Arce’s claim that the court erred by allowing the State to repeatedly compel Wife to invoke her Fifth Amendment privilege in front of the jury fails because the issue was not preserved. Furthermore, Arce’s claims of ineffective assistance of counsel fail because his counsel’s failure to object to Wife’s invocations, Deputy’s vouching for Wife’s credibility, and repeated references to Wife as “the victim” do not present a reasonable probability that but for Arce’s counsel’s failure the result of the proceeding would have been different. We therefore affirm Arce’s convictions.

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


[1] See Utah R. Jud. Admin. 14-807 (governing law student practice in the courts of Utah).

[2] A “grant of use immunity [prohibits] any prosecutorial use of [a witness’s] testimony or evidence gained from it” against the witness. State v. Morris, 2017 UT App 112, ¶ 17, 400 P.3d 1183, cert. denied, 409 P.3d 1049 (Utah 2017).

[3] The State argues that she invoked the Fifth Amendment 45 times, but the discrepancy of two invocations is not dispositive in this case, so we will use Arce’s number moving forward.

[4] Though we make our decision on preservation grounds, it appears the State is correct that a witness cannot testify about a subject and later invoke a Fifth Amendment privilege in order to avoid cross-examination on that same topic. See Mitchell v. United States, 526 U.S. 314, 321 (1999); In re Flint Water Cases, 53 F.4th 176, 193 (6th Cir. 2022). This issue is addressed further below. See infra ¶ 36.

[5] The State argues that a valid claim of privilege “turns in part on the likelihood of future prosecution.” A witness may not “employ the privilege to avoid giving testimony that he simply would prefer not to give,” Roberts v. United States, 445 U.S. 552, 560 n.7 (1980); instead, the witness must face real—not remote or speculative—dangers, Zicarelli v. New Jersey State Comm’n of Investigation, 406 U.S. 472, 478 (1972). Therefore, a grant of immunity nullifies the witness’s privilege as it forecloses the possibility of subsequent prosecution. State v. Morris, 2017 UT App 112, ¶ 18, 400 P.3d 1183, cert. denied, 409 P.3d 1049 (Utah 2017). Here, the State argues that while it did withdraw the written immunity offer, the offer was “irrelevant” as the State put on the record several times that it would not seek to have the court hold Wife in contempt for refusing to testify. We do not agree and fail to understand how a promise not to seek to have a trial court hold Wife in contempt is sufficient to rise to the level of granting her “effective blanket immunity,” as the State argues. Wife still faced the very real danger of prosecution for perjury, for which the State offered her no protection. Thus, the State did not provide Wife with immunity—either written or through promises not to charge her with contempt—and Wife’s Fifth Amendment privilege remained intact. However, the State is likely correct that the right had been waived for subjects about which she freely had already testified. And, as discussed, this issue was not preserved, so there is no need for further consideration of whether allowing the State to continue questioning Wife was an error and, if so, whether there was a reasonable likelihood of a more favorable outcome for Arce absent the questioning.

[6] Arce acknowledges that it was Wife’s counsel rather than his own who made the objection to Wife taking the stand knowing she would invoke her Fifth Amendment right. Despite this, Arce argues that the issue is preserved by primarily relying on Kell v. State, 2012 UT 25, 285 P.3d 1133. But Kell is distinguishable from the present case. In Kell, the question was whether an issue was preserved when the State opposed a criminal defendant’s rule 60(b) motion and the criminal defendant did not respond to the State’s arguments yet later sought to appeal the decision. Id. ¶¶ 9– 10. The State and a criminal defendant are not in an analogous adversarial position to the criminal defendant and nonparty witness, Wife, present here. Kell is simply inapposite.

[7] Arce does not claim the application of any exception to preservation.

[8] Arce points to State v. Bond, 2015 UT 88, 361 P.2d 104, for us to consider. But Bond is not particularly helpful here. The witness in Bond did not attempt to invoke his Fifth Amendment privilege to avoid answering a question regarding a subject about which he had testified previously. Id. ¶ 10Also, the analysis in Bond must be viewed in context. In Bond, the Utah Supreme Court was reviewing the denial of a motion for a mistrial—a trial court decision reviewed under an abuse of discretion standard—and an allegation of prosecutorial misconduct. Id. ¶¶ 13, 22. Thus, unlike the case before us, Bond does not address these issues as evidentiary rulings.

[9] We acknowledge that Arce has appended a transcript containing the invocations to his brief. But beyond the appendix, Arce’s brief makes no attempt to address the context of the invocations—referring to them only as a whole rather than providing any information as to the subject matter of the questioning that provoked them. Arce does not attempt to explain, for example, if one, two, or three questions might be permissible. Neither does he explain at which point the line would have been crossed to render his counsel’s inaction objectively unreasonable.

[10] “The cumulative-error doctrine requires us to reverse if (1) we determine, or assume without deciding, that two or more errors occurred and (2) we determine that the cumulative effect of those errors undermines our confidence that a fair trial was had.” ConocoPhillips Co. v. Utah Dep’t of Transp., 2017 UT App 68, ¶ 30, 397 P.3d 772.

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What Is the Benefit of a Legal Separation (Separate Maintenance) or a Temporary Separation Order in Utah?

Many people ask what the benefits of a legal separation are. Aside from the obvious “it gives us the option of staying together, if we want to,” are there other reasons the average person might want to separate but not divorce immediately?

I have the same conversation with potential clients who ask whether they “need” or “should get” a legal separation or temporary separation order instead of/before seeking a divorce. I tend to agree with you, i.e., that I see no benefits to legal separations for the majority of people. I’m sure that there is the occasional couple who might benefit from a legal separation or temporary separation order, but I have yet to encounter one. With two (maybe three) exceptions (and one of those ended in suicide), everyone I know who has separated ended up divorcing.

Sometimes separation makes sense if a spouse needs insurance coverage and can’t afford his/her own separate policy (note: some insurance policies require that spouses reside together, so in a situation like that, separation wouldn’t avail a spouse of insurance benefits).

Attorneys who sell separate maintenance or separation orders are, in my experience, doing so to make money, not to solve anyone’s or any couple’s problems.

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

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Can I Request to Have My Son’s Grandmother Removed From the Courtroom During My Custody Case Proceedings?

Are the court proceedings in your kind of case open to the public? If so, then the grandmother, being a member of the public, may have a right to be in the courtroom during the proceedings, as long as 1) there is no law that allows her to be excluded and 2) she is not disrupting the proceedings by being present during the proceedings.

Juvenile court proceedings are closed to the public in Utah.

District court proceedings are open to the public in Utah. That stated, it’s very easy for a Utah district court to exclude members of the public from the courtroom in certain kinds of cases because of Utah Code § 78A-2-208(4):

§ 78A-2-208.  Sittings of courts — To be public — Notice to public of recording — Right to exclude in certain cases.

(1) The sittings of every court of justice are public, except as provided in Subsections (3) and (4).

(2) The Judicial Council shall require that notice be given to the public that the proceedings are being recorded when an electronic or digital recording system is being used during court proceedings.

(3) The court may, in its discretion, during the examination of a witness exclude any and all other witnesses in the proceedings.

(4) In an action of divorce, criminal conversation, seduction, abortion, rape, or assault with intent to commit rape, the court may, in its discretion, exclude all persons who do not have a direct interest in the proceedings, except jurors, witnesses and officers of the court.

(emphasis added)

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Do Many Women Lie About DV in Divorce and Child Custody Court Cases?

Yes. Many women (not all, but many more than we’d like to believe unquestionably lie and make outright false or grossly exaggerated domestic violence claims. The temptation to tell such lies is just too great for many women when they see the leverage and advantage it gives them in divorce and child custody cases, the immediate “temporary” custody of the children and associated child and spousal support and possession of the marital home, and the money to be had by being awarded sole or primary child custody and/or alimony in part due to making claims that the husband/father is a spouse and/or child abuser.

Do men do the same? Of course some men do. But rarely are they believed. So, that keeps the liars in check to some extent, at the expense of actual male domestic violence victims.

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

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Why Condemn Children to Sole Custody Awards When They Have Two Fit Parents?

One of the arguments that some fathers make when they encounter the double standard applied to mothers and fathers in child custody disputes (resulting in a denial of equal legal and physical custody to perfectly fit fathers in situations in which there is no way it could be shown that sole custody subserves the best interest of the child better than joint equal custody), they sometimes argue in utter (and utterly understandable) frustration, “Single mothers prove to be the worst parents time and time again!”

That’s an overstatement, a misleading claim. There are plenty of bad single mothers, sure, but single mothers don’t have a corner on the bad parent market.

Single parents (man or woman) have a hard time being the best parents (and being their best selves as a result) because parenthood was never meant to be a solo act. Single parents who try to marginalize and cut the other parent out of childrearing are doing not only the children a disservice, but themselves a disservice as well.

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Mother Made False Accusations Against a Father to Win Custody and Had a Restraining Order Put in Place With No Evidence to Back Her Reason, Can This Be Overturned?

Can it be overturned? It is possible.

Will it be overturned? The odds don’t favor Dad. While some fathers who are falsely accused do obtain vindication, the odds are against them. Why?

There is an undeniable bias in favor of mothers who claim to be victims of abuse or who claim that their husbands/children’s father is abusive. Courts err on the side of caution, take a “better safe than sorry” approach. There are many reasons for this, including but not necessarily limited to: beliefs that women don’t lie about abuse, belief that children are generally better off in the sole or primary custody of their mothers, and cynically calculating that it’s better for the judge’s career to issue protective orders against men who are either innocent or there is a question of their innocence than it is to “take the chance” on innocent until proven guilty. When court’s engage in such behavior, it’s lazy, it’s cowardly, it’s judicial malfeasance.

How can/does a falsely accused parent (father or mother, for that matter) clear his/her good name? Short of the kinds of things one cannot control (i.e., suddenly getting a new, sympathetic judge because the old judge retired or got sick, etc.), the most effective way is: presenting the court with evidence so overwhelming that the court cannot deny it, cannot disregard it without looking biased and/or incompetent. Easier said than done, and not always possible, but it’s really the only moral option.

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

https://www.quora.com/Mother-made-false-accusations-against-a-father-to-win-custody-and-had-a-restraining-order-put-in-place-with-no-evidence-to-back-her-reason-can-this-be-overturned/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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Have You Heard That Fathers Defeat Mothers’ Claims of DV and Child Abuse by Claiming Parental Alienation?

We all know the aphorism, “If it looks/sounds to good to be true, it probably is [not true].” This also means, however, that if it looks/sounds too 𝙗𝙖𝙙 to be true, it probably is [not true] too.

Can we all agree that the following claim looks, on its face, too bad to be true?:

A George Washington University Law School article shows that mothers are statistically up to 90% more likely to lose custody of their children when they go on record about abuse. Abusive fathers, who claim parental alienation are almost always granted custody.

So, is the claim true?

I found the article: Child Custody Outcomes in Cases Involving Parental Alienation and Abuse Allegations, by Joan S. Meier George Washington University Law School.

Here is what that article actually claims (this is not the entire article, of course, and I have my doubts about the methodology and the resulting accuracy of the claims themselves, but I digress):

Spoiler alert: the article does not make any “women lose custody 90% of the time when they report abuse” claim.

Quotations directly from the article itself:

“Focusing on cases where it was determined that mothers started with possession of the children, and alleged some type of abuse by the father, the data show mothers losing custody in 26% (284/1111) of cases.”

*****

It is also notable that when mothers report mixed types of child abuse (sexual and physical) their custody losses skyrocket (from under 30% (39/135) up to 50%)(11/22).

*****

• When Fathers cross-claim alienation, courts are more than twice as likely to disbelieve Mothers’ claims of (any) abuse than if fathers made no alienation claim; and

• When Fathers cross-claim alienation, courts are almost 4 (3.9) times more likely to disbelieve Mothers’ claims of child abuse than if fathers made no alienation claim.

*****

As the chart indicates, when fathers claim alienation, the rate at which mothers lose custody shoots up from over 25% to over 50%. That is, fathers’ alienation claims roughly double mothers’ rates of losing custody. When courts credit the alienation claim, rates of maternal losses of custody increase more drastically:

Mothers’ Custody Losses When Courts Credit Fathers’ Alienation Claims

Type of Abuse Alleged Mother Lost Custody:

DV (domestic violence): 60% (15/25)
CPA (child physical abuse): 59% (10/17)
CSA (child sexual abuse): 68% (13/19)
DVCh (domestic violence and child physical abuse): 79% (19/24)
CACSA (child physical abuse and child sexual abuse): 100% (6/6)
Any abuse: 73% (60/82)

*****

“AKA” cases: those in which a court viewed a mother as alienating in her behavior but did not use the term “alienation.”

Mothers’ Custody Losses when Found to have Committed AKA

 

Custody Losses by Type of Abuse Alleged

Custody Losses When Abuse was Proven

   
DV  62% (24/39) DV  60% (3/5)
CPA  61% (17/28) CPA  50% (1/2)
CSA  58% (25/43) CSA  –
DVCh  55% (16/29) DVCh  –
CACSA  78% (7/9) CACSA  100% (1/1)
Any  60% (89/148) Any  63% (5/8)

—————————–

The article is definitely food for thought, but clearly does not find that mothers who allege abuse are 90% more likely to lose/not win custody.

Additionally, one of my critiques of the article is this: it does not reveal whether the abuse-alleging mothers who lost/did not win custody was due purely to their alleging abuse or purely because they were found to have engaged in parental alienation or something like it. For example, if these mothers were themselves child abusers or were found to be unfit parents for other reasons (i.e., child neglect, substance abuse, lacking sufficient housing, ability to provide financially, practicing poor hygiene, insufficient bonding, etc.), how many of them would have lost/not won custody anyway? The article does not address this.

But even if the only reason these mothers lost/did not win custody was due to the court finding them to have engaged in parental alienation, would that not be reason enough? Now, I’m not asserting that all cases of actual parental alienation should cause a mother (or father committing alienation) to lose/not win custody (level of severity must be considered), but parental alienation would be, in my professional opinion, sufficient grounds for awarding custody of children to the other parent, assuming the other parent were found, on balance to be 1) sufficiently fit as a parent; and 2) the more fit of the two parents.

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

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Why Get it Straight From the Horse’s Mouth When You Can Get a Truncated Version, Second-Hand?

When a custody evaluator and/or private guardian ad litem is/are appointed in a divorce case in which custody and parent-time of the children is disputed, they usually interview the children who are the subject of the custody and parent-time dispute and then make observations and recommendations regarding what the custody and parent-time awards should be based in part on those interviews.

But they never record their interviews with the children.

Instead, every custody evaluator (except one) that I know and every PGAL that I know wants us to believe (as opposed to knowing, based upon an objectively verifiable recording) that 1) they did in fact speak with the children; 2) what the custody evaluators and PGALs report second-hand and in summary fashion accurately reflects what was (and was not) asked of the children and what the children said (and did not say) in response; and 3) that the custody evaluator’s and PGAL’s assessment of the children’s credibility (assuming–not knowing–that the child were interviewed in the first place and that what the children allegedly said is in fact what the children said) is correct.

Such a policy is incongruous with the way any other witness account is presented to a court.

Courts claim they need to know the child’s “intent [whatever that means in the context of a child custody dispute] and desires.”

Yet the court goes out of its way to ensure that what we get from custody evaluators and/or PGALs not just second-hand accounts of the child’s purported statements, but summary second-hand accounts of the child’s purported statements.

Then, on the basis of the purported, second-hand summary accounts, the non-witness PGAL “makes a recommendation regarding the best interest of the minor” by ostensibly “disclos[ing] the factors that form the basis of the recommendation” when the purported factors have–not necessarily, but by design, no less–no objectively verifiable basis in the child’s testimony (because there is no testimony). Such a “take my un-recorded, unverifiable, second-hand word for it” process elevates faith over fact, and needlessly.

Yet by way of the court interviewing the child directly and on the record (or by having the child deposed in a fitting, appropriate setting, of course), the court could easily obtain objectively verifiable knowledge of not only the child’s “intent and desires” stated in the child’s own words but in the same way also obtain knowledge of the child’s relevant experiences, observations, feelings, opinions, and anything else the court may want to learn that bears on the child custody and parent-time award decisions.

Everyone who tries to justify the policy against child testimony does so by claiming that there is no equal or superior alternative. Such claims are without merit.

I would be cruel and unreasonable if I did not concede that a child should not be questioned on and for the record if it were proved (as reflected in particularized findings, not generalized views or preferences) that that particular child likely will (not merely could) be harmed by testifying to the extent that the value of the testimony does not outweigh the harm. In such a situation barring that child from testifying would be warranted.

But when avoiding the subject altogether is worse for the child than confronting it, question the child on the record–for the child’s sake. For the sake of the truth- and fact-finding processes. It is cruel and unreasonable to silence the child that way.

Many children are not only willing to testify to the facts bearing upon the child custody and parent-time awards, they want to testify to them. Even when it may be unpleasant to address the topics. Regardless of how eager children may be to testify, they have the greatest stake in the child custody and parent-time awards. They deserve to be heard from, and in their own words. Who would (who could, credibly) gainsay that?

And the notion that a judge or commissioner interviewing a child, or a child being questioned in a deposition (and the child could be deposed by the PGAL, if there were sufficient facts to support a conclusion that the child is in danger of suffering verifiable serious, irreparable harm were the child questioned by the parents’ respective attorneys) would inherently cause a child unjustifiable harm is self-evidently false.

First, I have personal experience with children testifying for the record in child custody and parent-time proceedings without incident. I (and others who have the same experience actually deposing a child) know that it is not inherently harmful to every child who is old enough to testify competently.

Second, children regularly testify in proceedings substantively indistinguishable from divorce/parentage child custody and parent-time proceedings (e.g., contested child abuse, neglect, or dependency cases, contested petitions for termination of parental rights cases, contested adoption and guardianship cases). This is proof that child testimony–though it may be frightening or saddening for some children–is not universally catastrophic for all (even most) children who are old enough to testify competently.

Thus, the assertion that judges, domestic relations commissioners, and lawyers cannot competently question a child in a divorce-based child-custody and parent-time dispute unless they are “specially trained as PGALs (especially when the ‘special training’ can be obtained in a matter of a few days’ time)” is invalid on its face. If one need not be “specially trained” to question a child in contested child abuse, neglect, or dependency cases, contested petitions for termination of parental rights cases, contested adoption and guardianship cases, one need not be “specially trained” as a PGAL to question a child competently and with due sensitivity.

My biggest worry (among many) about the way custody evaluations and PGAL appointments work in Utah is when custody evaluators and PGALs–who can by recording child interviews easily provide the parents and the court with an objective way of verifying whether the children were interviewed, how well or poorly they were interviewed, what they were asked (and not asked) and what they said (or did not say) in response–refuse to do so.

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

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2024 UT App 28 – Smith v. Smith

2024 UT App 28 – Smith v. Smith

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

JACQUELINE P. SMITH, Appellee,  v. DANIEL H. SMITH, Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20220697-CA  Filed March 7, 2024  Third District Court, Salt Lake Department  The Honorable Robert P. Faust  No. 194902295

David Pedrazas, Attorney for Appellant

Deborah L. Bulkeley, Attorney for Appellee

JUDGE AMY J. OLIVER authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES DAVID N. MORTENSEN and RYAN M. HARRIS concurred.

OLIVER, Judge:

¶1        This divorce case illustrates why the sequence of determining alimony matters. We recently clarified the three-step procedure for alimony in Fox v. Fox, 2022 UT App 88, 515 P.3d 481, cert. denied, 525 P.3d 1263 (Utah 2022). Here, the district court ordered an alimony award of more than double the receiving spouse’s demonstrated need because it accounted for the marital standard of living at the end of the analysis instead of at the beginning. Because the district court employed a backward version of the three-step procedure for alimony, we vacate and remand.

BACKGROUND

¶2        Daniel H. and Jacqueline P. Smith separated after more than thirty years of marriage. Their divorce case proceeded to a one-day bench trial that mostly addressed alimony. Daniel[1] represented himself at trial. At the trial’s conclusion, the district court took several issues, including the alimony award, under advisement and issued a memorandum decision four days later.

¶3        On her financial declaration used at trial, Jacqueline indicated her monthly net income was $3,274.55 and her monthly expenses were $5,193.79. Jacqueline listed all her line-item expenses in the “current amount” column and left the “marital expenses” column blank. Jacqueline presented no evidence at trial of the parties’ marital standard of living and no evidence that any of her listed expenses were different during the marriage than they were at the time of trial. She testified only to the reasons she sought a divorce. The district court examined the expenses and adjusted some of the amounts, finding that Jacqueline had reasonable monthly expenses of $4,184.61. This left her with an unmet need of $910.06 per month.

¶4        Daniel’s financial declaration admitted at trial indicated his monthly net income was $7,757 and his monthly expenses—all listed in the “current amount” column and none in the “marital expenses” column—were $8,280. The district court similarly examined Daniel’s expenses and made adjustments, finding that Daniel had reasonable monthly expenses of $4,013.90 plus his child support obligation of $703 for a total monthly expense of $4,716.90, leaving him with a “positive income of $3,040.10 a month.”

¶5      The district court stated that it adjusted the parties’ expenses in “an effort to put them on relatively equal footing, recognizing that the parties’ level of expenses at the time of trial are not representative of their marital standard of living.” Rather than award Jacqueline alimony in the amount of her unmet need, the district court calculated alimony by equalizing the difference between Jacqueline’s monthly negative income and Daniel’s monthly positive income. The court reasoned that “it is fair and equitable to equalize the combined disparity of $3,950.16 per month” and awarded Jacqueline $1,975 per month in alimony. The alimony award exceeded Jacqueline’s demonstrated monthly need by $1,064.94.

¶6        The district court instructed Jacqueline’s counsel to draft proposed findings and a proposed decree based on the court’s ruling. Daniel, having obtained counsel since trial, objected to the proposed findings on multiple issues, including the alimony calculation. The district court entered the findings and decree without making any changes to the alimony award.

¶7        Daniel then filed a motion to amend the findings, arguing that the district court did not make sufficient findings to support an alimony award that exceeded Jacqueline’s demonstrated need. The district court held a hearing on the motion, and Daniel asked the court to “recalculate and redetermine the alimony” because a “spouse’s demonstrated need must constitute the maximum permissible alimony award.” The court explained the $1,975 alimony award “equalizes the net income of the parties for both of them. That keeps them akin as we can to the lifestyle to which they were accustomed during the time of the marriage.” Daniel asserted that equalization should occur only “when somebody has an excess need that the other party can’t meet.” And Jacqueline suggested the court make “some additional findings” to support what she viewed as its “appropriate” effort to consider the parties’ needs and “augment those needs with excess income.” The district court denied Daniel’s motion, leaving the alimony award at $1,975 per month.

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶8        Daniel challenges the district court’s alimony award.[2] “We review a court’s alimony determination for an abuse of discretion.” Fox v. Fox, 2022 UT App 88, ¶ 11, 515 P.3d 481 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 525 P.3d 1263 (Utah 2022). Although “we will not lightly disturb a trial court’s alimony ruling, we will reverse if the court has not exercised its discretion within the bounds and under the standards we have set.” Knight v. Knight, 2023 UT App 86, ¶ 17, 538 P.3d 601 (cleaned up).

ANALYSIS

¶9        “Under Utah law, the primary purposes of alimony are: (1) to get the parties as close as possible to the same standard of living that existed during the marriage; (2) to equalize the standards of living of each party; and (3) to prevent the recipient spouse from becoming a public charge.” Fox v. Fox, 2022 UT App 88, ¶ 15, 515 P.3d 481 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 525 P.3d 1263 (Utah 2022). An alimony award need not provide “for only basic needs but should be fashioned” in such a way “to approximate the parties’ standard of living during the marriage as closely as possible.” Id. (cleaned up). “The appropriate amount of any alimony award is governed by a multi-factor inquiry” now found in Utah Code section 30-3-5(10)(a). Miner v. Miner, 2021 UT App 77, ¶ 16, 496 P.3d 242. “[C]ourts must consider the statutory factors,” including “the financial condition and needs of the recipient spouse,” “the recipient’s earning capacity,” and “the ability of the payor spouse to provide support.” Rule v. Rule, 2017 UT App 137, ¶ 13, 402 P.3d 153; see also Dahl v. Dahl, 2015 UT 79, ¶ 94, 459 P.3d 276.

¶10      Thus, there are three steps to “the established process to be followed by courts considering an award of alimony.” Fox, 2022 UT App 88, ¶ 20 (cleaned up); see also Rule, 2017 UT App 137, ¶ 19. First, a court must “assess the needs of the parties, in light of their marital standard of living.”[3] Fox, 2022 UT App 88, ¶ 20 (cleaned up). Second, a court “must determine the extent to which the receiving spouse is able to meet his or her own needs with his or her own income.” Id. (cleaned up). Third, a court must “assess whether the payor spouse’s income, after meeting his or her needs, is sufficient to make up some or all of the shortfall between the receiving spouse’s needs and income.” Id. (cleaned up).

¶11      Here, the district court abused its discretion when it failed to properly follow this three-step process. Instead of considering the marital standard of living at step one when calculating each spouse’s need, the district court did so at step three, when it equalized the parties’ income. While we do not fault the court for wanting to “equalize the standards of living of each party,” as it is one of the purposes of alimony, see id. ¶ 15 (cleaned up), the court did not do so in accordance with the standards Utah appellate courts have established for an alimony determination.

¶12      In step one, the district court assessed both parties’ needs “at the time of trial” rather than in light of the marital standard of living. See id. ¶ 20. But it was not an abuse of discretion to have done so because neither Jacqueline nor Daniel provided any evidence of the marital standard of living. Indeed, both of their financial declarations listed their monthly expenses in the “current amount” column with nothing listed in the “marital expenses” column, despite the instructions on the form to complete both columns if one of the parties has requested alimony. It is incumbent upon the parties to present evidence of the marital standard of living if they want the district court to consider the expenses during the marriage that differ from the expenses at the time of trial. See Clarke v. Clarke, 2023 UT App 160, ¶ 62 (“If a party offers into evidence only time-of-trial expense amounts, and does not provide the court with any evidence of pre-separation expenses (to the extent they are different), that party has no right to complain when the court awards the time-of-trial amounts.”). And it is important that they provide such evidence, because step one—where the district court determines the parties’ reasonable expenses—is the place for taking the marital standard of living into account in the alimony calculation.

¶13      In step three, the district court then combined Jacqueline’s demonstrated need of $910.06 and David’s excess income of $3,040.10, “equalize[d] the combined disparity of $3,950.16,” and gave Jacqueline an alimony award of half that amount, $1,975. Daniel contends the district court should have capped the alimony award at the $910.06 monthly shortfall the district court calculated as the difference between Jacqueline’s income and her expenses. We agree with Daniel. “Regardless of the payor spouse’s ability to pay more, the recipient spouse’s demonstrated need must constitute the maximum permissible alimony award.” Roberts v. Roberts, 2014 UT App 211, ¶ 14, 335 P.3d 378 (cleaned up); Rule, 2017 UT App 137, ¶ 17 (“The receiving spouse’s needs ultimately set the bounds for the maximum permissible alimony award.”); Barrani v. Barrani, 2014 UT App 204, ¶ 30, 334 P.3d 994 (“An alimony award in excess of the recipient’s need is a basis for remand even when the payor spouse has the ability to pay.”); Bingham v. Bingham, 872 P.2d 1065, 1068 (Utah Ct. App. 1994) (“[T]he spouse’s demonstrated need must . . . constitute the maximum permissible alimony award.”). Thus, the district court abused its discretion when it awarded Jacqueline alimony in an amount greater than her demonstrated need.

¶14 We also caution district courts that they “should not calculate alimony by simply dividing the couple’s pre-separation expenses in half,” Clarke, 2023 UT App 160, ¶ 57, or by “presumptively award[ing]” half of the “total money the parties spent each month during the marriage,” Fox, 2022 UT App 88, ¶ 25. In other words, the proper way to take the marital standard of living into account is at step one “by assessing a party’s claimed line-item expenses in light of that standard.” Clarke, 2023 UT App 160, ¶ 59.

¶15      Here, the district court abused its discretion at step three when it took the parties’ “combined disparity of $3,950.16” per month and awarded half of that amount to Jacqueline. Regardless of how much income the payor spouse may have, the purpose of alimony is to meet the demonstrated need of the recipient spouse, not to redistribute all the income between the spouses. See Roberts, 2014 UT App 211, ¶ 14 (“[T]he core function of alimony is therefore economic—it should not operate as a penalty against the payor nor a reward to the recipient.”). And although “we accord trial courts broad discretion in dividing the shortfall and apportioning that burden” in the third step, such discretion is premised on the assumption the court “has properly determined that a shortfall exists between the parties’ resources and needs.” Rule, 2017 UT App 137, ¶ 21.

¶16 Sequence matters. See id. ¶ 22 (“Once the court has determined that there are insufficient resources to meet the baseline needs established by the marital living standard, the court should then equitably allocate the burden of the shortfall between the parties.” (emphases added)); see also Bakanowski v. Bakanowski, 2003 UT App 357, ¶ 12, 80 P.3d 153 (holding that “attempting to equalize the parties’ income rather than going through the traditional needs analysis” constitutes an abuse of discretion). Just as it is an abuse of discretion to “skip[] over the traditional needs analysis and move[] directly to address what it perceives to be insufficient resources,” see Rule, 2017 UT App 137, ¶ 23, it was an abuse of discretion here when the district court used the marital standard of living at step three to increase the amount of the alimony award beyond the demonstrated need.

¶17      As a final note, we reiterate that it is proper for a district court to consider the marital standard of living during step one of the alimony analysis, so long as the parties have presented such evidence. We would normally vacate the alimony award and remand the matter to the district court “for the court to reassess its alimony determinations in light of the marital standard of living.” Id. ¶ 32. But here, neither party presented evidence of their expenses during the marriage. Indeed, they both left the “marital expenses” column on their financial declarations blank. As a result, there is no evidence in the record from which the district court can make findings that Jacqueline’s expenses were different from what she listed. Thus, the district court’s finding that her demonstrated need was $910.06 limits “the maximum permissible alimony award” to that amount. See Wellman v. Kawasaki, 2023 UT App 11, ¶ 12, 525 P.3d 139.

CONCLUSION

¶18      The district court abused its discretion when it employed the incorrect analysis in computing Jacqueline’s alimony award. The court did not follow the three-step process required by Utah law. Accordingly, we vacate and remand the case to the district court for entry of an alimony award of $910.06 per month.

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


[1] Because the parties share the same last name, we refer to them by their first names for clarity, with no disrespect intended.

[2] Daniel also challenges the district court’s denial of his motion to amend the findings. But we need not reach this issue because we conclude the district court did not follow “the standards we have set” in its alimony calculation, see Knight v. Knight, 2023 UT App 86, ¶ 17, 538 P.3d 601 (cleaned up), and we remand the case on that basis.

[3] “The marital standard of living is that which the parties shared, and courts consider the parties as a single unit when evaluating that standard.” Knight, 2023 UT App 86, ¶ 32. In terms of alimony, “the marital standard of living analysis is about whether the parties’ proposed points of calculation are consistent with the parties’ manner of living and financial decisions.” Id. (cleaned up).

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Can Child Support (Whether Prospectively or Retrospectively) Be Waived by the Child Support Payee?

The easiest of these two questions to answer is the second one, i.e., “Can child support be waiver retrospectively by the child support payee? The answer is yes, if the parties comply with

Utah Code § 78B-12-109. Waiver and estoppel

(1) Waiver and estoppel shall apply only to the custodial parent when there is no order already established by a tribunal if the custodial parent freely and voluntarily waives support specifically and in writing.

(2) Waiver and estoppel may not be applied against any third party or public entity that may provide support for the child.

(3) A noncustodial parent, or alleged biological father in a paternity action, may not rely on statements made by the custodial parent of the child concerning child support unless the statements are reduced to writing and signed by both parties.

See Cahoon v. Evans (2011, 257 P.3d 454, 682 Utah Adv. Rep. 58, 2011 UT App 148) at headnotes 3 and 4 and West’s Child Support Key Number 452:

[3] Statute, providing that waiver and estoppel shall apply only to the custodial parent when there is no child support order already established by a tribunal, expressly limits application of waiver and estoppel to those situations where there is no prior child support order.

[4] Mother was not precluded by waiver or estoppel from seeking reimbursement for unpaid child support, given that child support order had previously been entered and statute expressly limited application of waiver and estoppel to those situations where there was no prior child support order.

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

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If I’m asked to take a urine test in the courthouse, will someone watch me?

Probably. The schemes and technology for providing fake urine samples have advanced so much and are available so easily to everyone that most urine collection that courts order is observed during the collection process to ensure that it “naturally” comes out of the body of the person who is subject to the urinalysis.

And it’s not just at the courthouse where urine samples are observed coming out of the body. That can be ordered to happen at a drug testing facility or hospital, at home, anywhere, really.

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

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In re H.H. – 2024 UT App 25 – termination of parental rights

In re H.H. – 2024 UT App 25

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF H.H. AND N.H.,

PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

T.H. AND D.H., Appellants, v.  STATE OF UTAH,  Appellee.

Opinion

Nos. 20220803-CA and

20220820-CA

Filed February 29, 2024

Second District Juvenile Court, Farmington Department

The Honorable Jeffrey J. Noland

Nos. 1163279 and 1163280

Scott L. Wiggins, Attorney for Appellant T.H.

Emily Adams, Sara Pfrommer,

Hannah Leavitt-Howell, Marjorie Christensen, and

Melissa Jo Townsend, Attorneys for Appellant D.H.

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

John M. Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

JUDGE RYAN M. HARRIS authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER and JOHN D. LUTHY

concurred.

HARRIS, Judge:

¶1        After a lengthy bench trial, the juvenile court found grounds to terminate the parental rights of D.H. (Father) and T.H. (Mother) (collectively, Parents) regarding their two youngest children, H.H. (Hannah) and N.H. (Noah).[1] The court found that Father was an unfit parent because he had subjected four of his children, including Hannah and Noah, to “serious emotional abuse,” inflicted through a strict and intimidating parenting style, that “resulted in two of the children considering suicide as an option to end the maltreatment.” As to Mother, the court found that her continued support of Father rendered her incapable of “exercising proper parental care.”

¶2        In its initial post-trial ruling, the court determined that it was in Hannah’s and Noah’s best interest for Father’s parental rights to be terminated, but that it was not in their best interest for Mother’s rights to be terminated. Instead, the court imposed a permanent guardianship arrangement in favor of an adult sibling (Oldest Sister). Later, however, after the guardian ad litem (the GAL) filed a motion for reconsideration, the court amended its initial ruling and ordered Mother’s rights terminated as well.

¶3        In separate appeals that we consider together in this opinion, Parents challenge the termination of their parental rights on several grounds, asserting chiefly that the “juvenile court process” that led to termination violated their constitutional rights and that the court erred in concluding that termination of their parental rights was strictly necessary. For the reasons that follow, we reject all of Parents’ arguments and affirm the court’s termination order.

BACKGROUND[2]

The Family Situation and the Initial Removal

¶4        Parents are the natural parents of six children: four daughters and two sons. By the time this case was initiated in 2018, the two oldest children (Oldest Sister and Older Brother) had reached adulthood and were living on their own. Some years earlier, when she turned eighteen but while she was still in high school, Oldest Sister moved out of Parents’ home because, in her view, Parents had created “a very horrible living situation” that left her “scared to go home.” In 2013, when Older Brother was seventeen and a junior in high school, he also elected, for apparently similar reasons, to move out of the family home; at that point, he moved in with Oldest Sister—who is some nine years older than Older Brother—and her husband (Brother-in-Law). The four younger children—Chloe, Felicity,[3] Hannah, and Noah—all still lived with Parents.

¶5        In May 2018, Utah’s Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) received a report that Chloe—who was fifteen at the time—had confided to a teacher that her home life was so unbearable that she was considering suicide, on a “constant basis,” as a means of escape. As Chloe described it, Parents were constantly screaming and fighting and taking their anger out on the children. Physical violence, both real and threatened, and verbal abuse were tools that Parents—especially Father— frequently used against the children. Father also forced the children to do seemingly endless chores, and he required them to pay him for basic amenities like fresh food (as opposed to “expired” food storage), computer usage, and rides to school. Chloe told a DCFS caseworker that she was suicidal because “she couldn’t handle being home alone with [Father] all summer.”

¶6        Spurred by the report it received about Chloe’s suicidal ideations, DCFS conducted an investigation during the summer of 2018. Among other things, it administered a “suicide severity” test to Chloe and concluded that Chloe scored “very high.” When DCFS reported this score to Parents, they “both scoffed” and responded that Chloe was a “drama queen” who was “just trying to get attention.” At the end of the investigation, DCFS made a supported finding of “emotional maltreatment” against Parents and offered them “voluntary services” to assist them in improving the situation. DCFS also spoke with Oldest Sister, who was familiar with the family dynamics and the living situation at Parents’ home. Oldest Sister committed to keeping an eye on her siblings and promised to notify DCFS “if the situation escalated.”

¶7        DCFS then notified Parents, by letter, of its “emotional maltreatment” finding. When Parents received this letter, they became “enraged” and responded by “blam[ing] the children” and acting “very vindictive” toward them. In particular, Parents warned the children that, “if they were to speak with authority figures,” including “church leaders” or anyone at DCFS, about events occurring in the home, they would be “severely punished.”

¶8        Notwithstanding this warning, in August 2018 the three younger daughters—Chloe, Felicity (then fourteen), and Hannah (then twelve)—sought guidance from one of their church “young women” leaders (YW Leader). The family—including Parents as well as all six of their children—are practicing members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a church that has relatively structured youth programs with local lay leaders

assigned to provide supervision and guidance. Both YW Leader and the president of the family’s local church unit (Branch President) had counseled the girls—without Parents’ knowledge—to “contact one of [them] if things got too bad at home and they needed an escape or someone to talk to.” When the girls sought YW Leader’s advice, she brought them in to meet with Branch President in his office at the local church.

¶9        As the meeting between the girls and Branch President was nearing its end, Father—having gotten wind of the meeting— appeared at the church; Branch President observed that Father was very upset and “quite agitated,” and Father demanded “to know what [the girls] were doing at the church.” Father “backed [the] girls into a corner” of Branch President’s office and “started angrily interrogating them” and “berating them in a loud, almost yelling tone” before then “turn[ing] on” YW Leader when she tried to intervene. The girls began “sobbing and begging him to stop.” Branch President, perceiving that the girls “were terrified,” also asked Father to stop, telling him that his behavior was “inappropriate.” Father then “angrily” “turned on” Branch President, put a “finger in [his] face,” and accused Branch President of “trying to divide his family.” He also “unloaded on” Chloe, “telling her that she was nothing but a drama queen and that if she hadn’t been threatening suicide just to get attention” the family “wouldn’t be in this mess.” His verbal assault was so fierce that Chloe “threw up her arms in front of her face” in an effort to protect herself. YW Leader was “shocked and quite upset” and “couldn’t believe what she was seeing.” Eventually, Father left the building, and after the incident, Branch President decided to take a step he’d never before taken in his years as a religious leader: he wrote a four-page single-spaced letter to DCFS describing the situation generally, and the incident at the church specifically, offering his view that the “terror and anguish the girls are experiencing” are “real” and that the situation requires attention. He requested that DCFS reopen the family’s case and that, “at a minimum,” the girls “be given a chance to be evaluated by professional counselors.”

¶10      Over the next few days, the situation in the family home continued to deteriorate. During this time, Chloe continued to talk about suicide, and she did so even more seriously; Brother-in-Law reported that Chloe was now saying that she had “a plan” for committing suicide. And Brother-in-Law reported that Felicity, for the first time, was also talking about suicide, even going so far as saying “it was the only way to escape this life as she could no longer deal with it.” On at least one occasion during this time frame, Felicity contacted DCFS to provide additional information.

¶11      Also during this time period, Parents often “cornered” the girls at home, separated them into “different rooms,” and “interrogat[ed]” them for “several hours” about whether they were “sharing information with” DCFS and, if so, what they had shared. During these interrogations, Parents would scream and yell, would threaten to send the children “to juvey,” and would tell them that they would be responsible if the “family was destroyed” and that, in that event, the children would end up in “foster care” where they would likely “be beat[en] and raped.”

¶12 On August 29, 2018, the day after an especially long evening interrogation, Felicity and Hannah went to school— which had just begun for the year—but were so distraught when classes ended that they were afraid to return home, so they contacted Brother-in-Law and asked him to pick them up. When Brother-in-Law arrived at the school, he found the girls “cowering” in the front office and “shaking uncontrollably,” behavior Brother-in-Law considered uncharacteristic; they also would not “let go of each other’s hands.” Brother-in-Law later reported that Felicity was “panicked out of her mind to have to return home to the situation” there. Brother-in-Law took the girls to his house, and he contacted DCFS; he told the caseworker that he “didn’t feel comfortable letting them go home because” he was concerned they might “hurt themselves.”

¶13 The DCFS caseworker assigned to the case traveled to Oldest Sister’s house and spoke with the girls, and she determined that “the family situation had risen to a dangerous level.” At that point, DCFS “sought and received a warrant for the removal” of all four minor children “from the custody and guardianship” of Parents. Later that evening, Parents arrived at Oldest Sister’s house and were served with the removal warrant. DCFS officials, accompanied by law enforcement, informed Parents that the children had been removed from their home. The children were eventually officially placed with Oldest Sister and Brother-in-Law; Hannah and Noah have remained in that placement ever since, and Chloe and Felicity remained in that placement until they reached adulthood.

The State’s Petition and the Shelter Hearing

¶14      The next day, the State filed a petition asking the court to award custody and guardianship of the children to DCFS. In its petition, the State discussed the situation in the home and asserted that both Chloe and Felicity had been having “suicidal thoughts and ideations” as a result. The petition included allegations of the constant chores Father required the children to perform, as well as Father’s requirement that the children pay him for basic necessities. It also included detailed allegations of verbal abuse by Parents, asserting that they were “swearing and spitting” in the children’s faces, calling them “little shits” and “worthless,” and telling the girls in particular that they were “ugly” and that Parents “wishe[d]” they hadn’t been born. The State alleged that Father used physical force as part of his dominion over the children, often “push[ing]” them and “pull[ing] the back of their hair.” Mother would sometimes “threaten[] to kill herself” and then disappear, causing the children distress and creating “panic”as they wondered whether Mother might have followed through with her threats. The State requested that the children be placed “in the custody and guardianship” of DCFS and that any visitation between Parents and the children be at the direction of DCFS and in consultation with a guardian ad litem.

¶15 At a shelter hearing held a few days later, the court considered evidence by proffer from several witnesses, including Parents, the four minor children, Oldest Sister, Brother-in-Law, the DCFS caseworkers, and Branch President.[4] At the conclusion of the hearing, the court found that the children were “suffering emotional harm” and there was “nothing and no services” that could be “placed into the home to ameliorate the harm.” Accordingly, the court concluded that the children could “not be safely returned” to Parents and awarded temporary custody of the children to DCFS, with Parents to have supervised visitation. The court also appointed the GAL to represent the interests of the children, and it later appointed attorneys to represent Mother and Father, separately.

The Failure of Group Therapy

¶16 During the fall of 2018, the court held hearings in the case on nearly a weekly basis, as disputes arose over even rather basic things. For instance, the State wanted all four children to have a mental health assessment, but Parents objected; the court held a hearing and ordered that the evaluations take place and that Parents were not allowed to attend them. The evaluations eventually occurred, and the children began therapy—both individual and group therapy—with a counselor in October 2018. Some of the group therapy was designed to include Parents; indeed, the court ordered that, for Chloe and Felicity, all visitation “shall be therapeutic until further order of the court.”

¶17 At first, the children were reticent to even see Parents, much less participate in group therapy with them. The therapist facilitating the group therapy (Therapist) asked the children— prior to the appointments with Parents—if there were “things that [Therapist] could put into place” that would help them “feel comfortable” with the arrangement, and the children—“together as a collaborative process”—came up with a set of guidelines they thought would help. Among other things, the children asked that there be “no hugs” between them and Parents, “no talking about money,” and “no talking about religion” or “church stuff.” Therapist communicated these child-created guidelines to Parents on October 24, 2018, just prior to the first group therapy session.

¶18      Parents objected to these guidelines, especially the “no talking about religion” rule, and at a hearing held just over a month later, the court removed the “no talking about religion” rule but overruled Parents’ objections to the other rules. During the short time the “no talking about religion” rule was in place, however, Parents—and Father in particular—pointedly refused to abide by it; indeed, Therapist later testified that Father brought up religion in “nearly every visit.”

¶19 For instance, during one session between Father, Felicity, and Chloe, Therapist had to ask Father “seven times” to stop talking about religion. In previous sessions, Therapist had asked Father to focus on “listening” to the girls, because he “spoke so much” during the sessions that the girls typically did not “have the opportunity to share” their feelings. But in this session, and despite Therapist’s attempts to intervene, Father continued his behavior of dominating the discussion and refusing to listen to the girls’ concerns, explaining that “he had the power from God, that he had the power of the priesthood” and they did not, which gave him the right to direct all decisions for the family generally and for the girls specifically. At times physically standing up and towering over the girls, he told them that Brother-in-Law had no right to take decision-making power away from Father and that “God gave [Father] the right” to make decisions for the children as he saw fit. The girls reacted by “hiding” and “cover[ing]” themselves with pillows, and “scoot[ing] closer together” in solidarity. They appeared “very defeated” and “stopped talking”; Therapist observed that they “completely withdrew and shut down and were done having any interaction at that point.”

¶20      As time went on, and recognizing that no progress could be made as long as Father dominated the discussion during therapy, Therapist attempted to make future sessions more “child-focused.” During one session, Chloe and Felicity “started to express” how they often felt bullied by Father, and he responded by stating “that people who get bullied . . . are victims because they allow themselves to be.” He told the girls that it was “their fault” that they were being bullied and that he had done “nothing” wrong. In an effort to get through to Father, Therapist then attempted a “role reversal” technique whereby Felicity would portray Father and Father would portray Felicity; the purpose of this exercise was to give Father an “understanding of how his children felt when he lectured them.” Once Felicity (pretending to be Father) began her lecture, Father “started fighting back instantly.” Therapist informed Father that he was not “doing the role reversal the right way” because, as Father had already explained, “he expects complete compliance” from the children when he lectures. To fully engage with the role-reversal exercise, Therapist instructed Father “to sit there” and “listen” just as he expected his children to do for him. This instruction angered Father, who turned on Therapist, declaring that she should not be “allowing his children to bully him” and that she was “undermin[ing] his parenting skills.” He also accused Therapist of “taking away his religious rights” by engaging in this role reversal, offering his view that Therapist was attempting to indoctrinate the children with her “secular views.”

¶21      In another session, Therapist instructed the children to write down the details of some of the different traumas they had experienced. The plan was to then have each child share their thoughts and have Father “meet the child[ren] emotionally” and “validate” their feelings, and then have an opportunity to explain the intention behind his actions. As the children began to explain what they had written, Father interrupted and began to argue and “discredit” what the children were saying. Father, who was now on his feet, tried to take control of the session, reaching out to grab the papers from the children so he could read them and address them in the manner he saw fit. At this point, Felicity asked “for a two-minute break,” which Therapist agreed would be a good idea. Watching the children defer to Therapist for permission to leave the room further agitated Father. He began telling Therapist that he was the one “who gets to decide what his children do” and that Therapist does not “get to undermine him and his parental authority.” Therapist tried to explain that it was okay to take a brief break, given that things were “getting rough,” and she stated that if Felicity needed a break, she should be allowed to have one. Father disagreed, situating himself in the doorway and blocking the exit. Therapist tried to maneuver Felicity around Father while gathering the children’s papers, at which point Father began “lunging” at Therapist and trying to snatch the papers out of her hands. Therapist was forced to hold the papers behind her back, telling Father the documents belonged to the children and he was not permitted to take them. Father started yelling that these were “his kids” and he was therefore “entitled” to see whatever they wrote on the papers. He then turned his anger on the children, telling them “it was time for them to be punished and that they need[ed] to have their consequence.” At this point, Therapist determined that the session was over, and she began escorting the children to the reception area. Father was following close behind, continuing his tirade and informing Therapist “what [he was] going to do to [Therapist], what [he was] going to do to the caseworkers, [and] what he’s going to do to the kids.”[5]

¶22 After that point, the therapists who had been working with the family came to the collective conclusion that group therapy sessions were doing more harm than good. For one thing, the sessions were “unproductive”; Father had “made it very clear, from the beginning, that he didn’t think [therapy] was necessary” and that he did not need to be there because “nothing needed to change” and he “wasn’t going to make changes.” In addition, and perhaps more significantly, the therapists “no longer felt that it was safe to continue having family therapy sessions that included [Father].” In particular, Therapist wrote in a report that, “[t]herapeutically speaking,” it would “be detrimental to the children to continue family therapy” because it would only further “damag[e] their relationship[s].” She believed, however, that it was critical that individual therapy still continue.

¶23 Given the tenor of the group therapy sessions, the GAL filed a motion to suspend all visitation—even in a therapeutic setting—between Father and the children. Father objected to this request, and he took the opportunity to advance his own view of the group therapy sessions. In a filing he made with the court, Father opined that the children were “being coached and groomed in an attempt to avoid reunification with” Parents. Father believed he—as religious leader of the family—had a right to review all recordings of the children’s individual therapy sessions, and he took issue with Therapist’s refusal to provide him any such recordings. Father concluded his filing with a request that a new therapist be appointed, one that would not engage in the “foisting of secular values” upon his family.[6] At a hearing in January 2019, the court ordered that therapeutic visitation with Chloe and Felicity be “discontinued until the issues are adjudicated.” But the court also indicated that the children “may visit” with Parents “if approved” by the DCFS caseworker and the GAL and “with input from the children’s therapists.” The court did not order that any change of therapists take place.

Mother’s Adjudication

¶24 Mother did not contest the allegations in the State’s petition, admitting to some of them and, with regard to the rest, electing to proceed pursuant to rule 34(e) of the Utah Rules of Juvenile Procedure.[7] Based on the uncontested allegations in the petition, the juvenile court found that all four children were neglected as to Mother. The court determined that Chloe, Felicity, and Hannah were neglected because Mother subjected them “to mistreatment or abuse and/or” because they “lack[ed] proper parental care by reason of the fault or habits of [Mother], and/or” because Mother had “failed to provide proper and necessary subsistence, education or medical care when required or any other care necessary for [the] health, safety, morals or well being of the children.” The court determined that Noah was neglected because he was “at risk of being neglected or abused because another child in the same home [was] neglected or abused.”

¶25      At a dispositional hearing that took place a few weeks later, the juvenile court set reunification as the primary permanency goal, and it ordered that Mother receive reunification services and comply with a child and family plan (Mother’s Plan). In particular, the court ordered Mother to “complete a domestic violence assessment,” complete an “in home peer parenting” program, undergo a “neuro-psychological evaluation,” and “complete individual therapy.”

Father’s Adjudication

¶26      Father, on the other hand, elected to contest the allegations in the State’s petition, and the matter proceeded toward an adjudication trial, which was held over five trial days in March and April 2019. During the first day of trial, Father was represented by counsel, but he then requested that the court “replace his second appointed attorney”—Father had already switched appointed counsel once—which request the court denied. Father then elected to represent himself for the remainder of the trial, although the court determined that Father’s second appointed attorney should “continue as standby counsel.” During the trial, the court heard testimony from the four minor children, Branch President, several DCFS caseworkers, Oldest Sister, Brother-in-Law, and Father.

¶27 Following the trial, the court took the matter under advisement, and it issued a written decision in June 2019. In its conclusion, the court determined that all four minor children had “been emotionally abused” in a “continuing pattern of emotional maltreatment” by Father and that this “ongoing abusive environment has emotionally damaged the children.” The court’s findings, made in support of this determination, are remarkable and are worth describing in some detail.

¶28      The court found, by clear and convincing evidence, that the allegations contained in the State’s petition were generally correct. It found that, in May 2018, Chloe wrote an “alarming letter” to her teacher describing “her home environment” and expressing “her desire to kill herself on a constant basis.” The home environment in question was one dominated and directed by Father, who—in an ostensible attempt to “promot[e] the necessity and value of work and chores”—was “unhealthily” using these principles “to control and subjugate the children.” He assigned “continuous chores” to the children and demanded that each task be performed timely—often using the mantra “housework before homework”—and perfectly, assigning additional chores and requiring the children to stay home from school if chores were not performed to his satisfaction. And he required the children to pay him for even basic household privileges, like eating “fresh food” (as opposed to “expired food stores”), using the computer, and getting rides to school.

¶29      The court found that Father often used physical force—or the threat of it—to control Mother and the children. On one occasion, Father roughly “grabbed the car keys” from Mother’s hand, “which resulted in a cut on [Mother’s] hand.” On another occasion, Father “threw the family dog out the back door because the children would not kneel down for family prayer.” Once when Noah apparently did not kneel down fast enough for family prayer, Father threw “a headlamp” at him. Other times, Father “grabbed” the children “by the wrists to make them do something.” Father once “brought [Noah] to his feet by . . . grabbing the back of his hair,” and another time he “slapped [Hannah] on the mouth.”

¶30 The court found that Chloe was not the only one of the children experiencing suicidal ideations: it found that, “as a result of the continuing emotional trauma, [Felicity] felt trapped and became suicidal; she thought about dying as a way to escape the home.” Parents were not receptive or attentive to Chloe and Felicity in this regard; although Mother did take Chloe to one appointment for a mental health assessment, there was no follow-up or any actual treatment rendered and her “suicidal thoughts were not properly addressed.” Indeed, the children were told not to speak to anyone—including church leaders and DCFS officials—about the conditions in the home, and they were threatened with punishment if they did. Felicity was even told, by one of the Parents, that “if [Chloe] were to commit suicide, it would be her fault.”

¶31 The court also found credible Branch President’s account of his meeting with the girls in August 2018, and found that the meeting occurred as set forth in Branch President’s letter to DCFS (as described above). And it found that DCFS had acted appropriately by seeking a warrant for removal in August 2018.

¶32 The court then examined the statutory definition of “emotional abuse,” as well as Utah case law interpreting that definition. The court specifically noted that a finding of “abuse” requires a finding of “harm,” which—as applied to emotional abuse—requires a finding that a child has suffered “a serious impairment in the child’s growth, development, behavior, or psychological functioning.” With this standard in mind, the court concluded that all four children had been “emotionally abused by” Father and that, in addition, Chloe was also “a neglected child due to the lack of proper parental care” from Father. The court found that the threats Father constantly made to the children had “caused emotional upheaval” in their lives “and negatively impacted [their] development.” And the court found “a continuing pattern of emotional maltreatment of the children which [had] resulted in two of the children considering suicide as an option to end the maltreatment,” and it found that “these suicidal ideations and thoughts demonstrate a serious impairment to” the affected children’s “psychological functioning.” In particular, the court found that Father,

[t]hrough the use of chores, yelling, physical control, the use of access to food, the harm to a family pet, insulting comments, blaming and payment for basic things, and the daily arguing and sometime[s] physically aggressive behavior between . . . [P]arents that the children witness, . . . has created a hostile environment, which is manifested in the children feeling unsafe and being terrified of being at home with [P]arents.

The court concluded by noting that “this ongoing abusive environment has emotionally damaged the children.” While the court did not find “physical abuse as defined” by Utah law, it did conclude that “the children’s testimony was credible about the use of physical force to submit to the requests of [Father].” The court concluded that these “physical actions” on Father’s part “were part of” the “emotionally abusive parenting style” that he “used to intimidate and control the children.”

¶33 Father appealed the court’s adjudication order, but he raised only one argument—a procedural one—in his appellate petition. Specifically, he asserted that “the juvenile court lacked jurisdiction to enter the [adjudication] order because the adjudication trial was not held within sixty days after the shelter hearing,” which Father asserted was required by Utah law. Father mounted no appellate challenge to the substance of the court’s adjudication order. In an unpublished order, we rejected Father’s procedural argument and affirmed the adjudication order, concluding that Father had not preserved his procedural argument in the juvenile court and that Father could not demonstrate plain error.

¶34      Soon after the juvenile court issued its adjudication ruling, it held a dispositional hearing regarding Father. At the conclusion of that hearing, the court set a primary permanency goal of reunification and ordered that Father receive reunification services. The court also ordered that Father “comply with all of the provisions of” a child and family plan (Father’s Plan). Among other things, Father’s Plan required Father to obtain a mental health evaluation, follow any and all recommendations made by the evaluator, and participate in therapy.

The Permanency Hearing

¶35 A few months after entering its adjudication order regarding Father, the court held a permanency hearing, which took place over three trial days in September and October 2019. Again, the court heard testimony from members of the family as well as from therapists, DCFS caseworkers, and others. At the conclusion of the hearing, the court found, as to both Parents, that DCFS had made “reasonable efforts” to facilitate Parents’ compliance with their plans and to facilitate reunification.

¶36      With regard to Mother, the court found that she had made some positive efforts to comply with Mother’s Plan. In particular, Mother had “participated in visits with the children,” “obtained a psychological evaluation and engaged in therapy,” and completed an “assessment for domestic violence.” But the court also noted that Mother “continues to not give any credence to the children’s testimony about the conditions and treatment within the home” and, because of this belief, “no progress has been accomplished in family therapy.” As part of Mother’s Plan, Mother had also been instructed “to provide a safe and stable home.” The court found that Mother was not “capable or willing to do this given the continued denial of any concerns of emotional abuse of the children with her or [Father].” Thus, even though Mother had made some progress “on a number of the services ordered,” the court concluded that she had made insufficient progress “in the most essential areas of family therapy and personal insight to have the children safely returned home at this time or in the next 90 days.” For those reasons, the court terminated reunification services for Mother.

¶37      With regard to Father, the juvenile court found that he had “not substantially complied with” Father’s Plan. First of all, Father had refused “to obtain a mental health evaluation,” despite the fact that DCFS caseworkers had set up appointments for Father to receive the evaluation and had “encourage[d] him to complete” it “prior to the permanency hearing as it would show his efforts in the reunification process.” In addition, the court found that Father had failed to “participate in meaningful family therapy.” And most significantly, it found that Father had failed in his overarching task of providing “an emotionally safe or stable home to which the children may be returned.” The court specifically noted that Father, through his testimony at the hearing, had shown that there had “been no change in his perception of the facts which facilitated the [S]tate’s involvement.” Accordingly, the court terminated reunification services for Father and set adoption as the new “primary permanency goal” for the children, with a secondary goal of permanent custody and guardianship with Oldest Sister.

The Termination Trial

¶38 In October 2019, soon after the permanency hearing, the State filed a petition to terminate Parents’ parental rights regarding all four minor children. But due to a series of delays— caused by numerous factors, including motions to disqualify the judge, attempts to appeal certain orders, requests by both Parents for new counsel, disputes over discovery and subpoenas, and (most significantly) the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic— the termination trial did not begin until July 2021. And the trial, once it began, was quite lengthy, spanning parts of nineteen trial days and involving the testimony of more than twenty different witnesses. Due to scheduling and pandemic-related concerns, the juvenile court was unable to hold the trial in one large block of time; instead, the trial occurred on scattered dates over the course of eleven months. In the meantime, both Chloe and Felicity turned eighteen and became adults, and they each chose to be adopted— as adults and in separate district court proceedings—by Oldest Sister and Brother-in-Law. By the time the termination trial ended, only Hannah and Noah were still minors and still within the jurisdiction of the juvenile court.

¶39      First to testify at trial were three DCFS caseworkers, who told the court that it had been difficult working with Parents, especially Father. One testified that whenever difficult subjects arose, Father would become “visibly upset,” raise his voice, and stand very close to her and wave his finger. Mother was less confrontational, but the caseworkers reported that the children felt that they could not be entirely honest with Mother “because they felt that she was just collecting information to use against them” and “that she was taking notes to provide to [Father].” At one point, one of the caseworkers had advised Mother that it would be “unlikely” that her reunification with the children would be successful “if [Mother] and [Father] were still together” and if Father continued to refuse to engage in services.

¶40 The court also heard about an incident in October 2019 when Father and a caseworker had gone with Chloe to visit a child psychiatrist (Psychiatrist) to discuss Chloe’s suicidal ideations. Psychiatrist testified that Father made it clear from the beginning that he was against the appointment because he believed there was “nothing wrong” with Chloe and that she “did not need medication.” Father became “confrontational” with Psychiatrist, in terms of both his “voice tone” and his “physical posturing,” and demanded to see a copy of Psychiatrist’s credentials. Father acted similarly toward Psychiatrist’s office staff. Psychiatrist found Father’s behavior so remarkably inappropriate that he wrote a letter to the court—the first time Psychiatrist had done so in decades of practice—asking that Father be kept away from his office and prohibited from contacting his employees regarding Chloe’s medical care.

¶41      Mother’s therapist testified that Mother felt that DCFS became involved only because the children had made up “a bunch of lies” just so they could have “an easier life.” Mother also had a habit, similar to Father’s, of raising her voice and shaking her finger at the therapist and would accuse her “of being involved” in “the efforts” to keep the children “away from [Mother].” The therapist met with Mother seventeen times, but she indicated that, “at the point of discharge,” Mother had made “little progress.”

¶42      The court also heard testimony—from DCFS caseworkers as well as from the psychologist tasked to perform the assessment—that Father refused to undergo a mental health evaluation, as ordered by the court pursuant to Father’s Plan. Father’s stated concern was that he did not want DCFS to have a copy of the psychologist’s eventual report, apparently because he believed that DCFS was “kind of out to get him”; the psychologist explained to Father that he had been retained by DCFS and therefore DCFS was going to get a copy of the report. The psychologist testified that he had completed more than 4,000 assessments for DCFS over several decades and that this was the first time anyone had refused to participate on the ground that they did not want DCFS to receive a copy of the report.

¶43 Mother, on the other hand, did participate in a mental health evaluation; the psychologist who performed her evaluation testified that Mother had dependent personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, and dementia. The psychologist went on to note that she could not rule out aphasia as another possible diagnosis but, to be certain, Mother would need to undergo an evaluation with someone more qualified in speech and language. According to this psychologist, someone in Mother’s position would likely struggle with daily life and would need “a lot of assistance and accommodations.”

¶44      Oldest Sister testified, and she offered her perspective on what it had been like to live with Parents; in addition, she told the court about one incident that took place after she had moved out. She recounted how she would sometimes return to Parents’ house to visit her siblings, and on one such occasion, Father struck Oldest Sister. The incident began with Father demanding that, while Oldest Sister was visiting, she “clean the house” for Parents. Oldest Sister decided to stand up to Father and tell him that she was happy to help around the house while she was visiting but that she was not there to be Father’s “maid.” At this, Father “backhanded” Oldest Sister, knocking her to the floor. While on the floor, Oldest Sister threatened to call the police, at which point Mother “jumped on top” of her, warning her not to call law enforcement and that if she did, it would “ruin” the family.

¶45      Oldest Sister also offered her account of the circumstances that caused DCFS to become involved in this case, and she described that she has a strong bond of love and affection for her siblings and that they are thriving in her care. She noted that she and Brother-in-Law have three children of their own, and she stated that her four siblings have integrated well with her three children. She also testified that her siblings “know that we love them no matter what” and that they are no longer “afraid.” She told the court that she was ready and willing to adopt all four of her siblings—she had not yet adopted Chloe and Felicity—even if it meant that her own relationship with Parents would suffer.

¶46 The court also heard testimony from all four minor children, which testimony we describe here in some detail.

¶47 Chloe’s Testimony: Chloe testified over two trial days in July and August 2021, just before she turned nineteen and was about to leave on a religious mission. Chloe described herself as a religious person, and she noted her appreciation to Parents for teaching her religious principles. But she expressed disagreement with the manner in which Father often exercised his authority within the family, offering her view that Father would “force” religion “down [the children’s] throats” and “use it against” them, which Chloe believed “was tearing [the family] apart.” She stated that it had been the children’s idea to prohibit Father from talking about religion during group therapy sessions. At home, Chloe had never felt like she could express herself or “say anything,” because Father always had to be “in control” and it was always “his way or the highway.” She described how the children were “scared” of Father and would sometimes hide in a closet, “all huddled up together,” because they were “terrified.” Chloe described instances where she had witnessed Father physically hurting members of the family. On one occasion, shortly before Older Brother had moved out, she saw Older Brother arguing with Father when Father “grabbed” Older Brother and “put him in a choke hold.” When Older Brother broke free of Father’s grasp, Chloe witnessed Father “push[ing] him down the stairs.” She confirmed that she had been “suicidal when [she] was in [Parents’] house.” When she told Father about it, his response was, “If you commit suicide, you’re going to go to hell.” She also confirmed that Father had interfered with a medical appointment in which she was attempting to see Psychiatrist to discuss medication and treatment. And she described how Father would make the children eat expired food, even sometimes when it had “mold on it” or when “the expiration date [was] . . . more than two or three or sometimes even five years past.”

¶48 In addition, Chloe offered her view that Father had not “done the things the [c]ourt asked him to do” in order to reunify with his children, and she stated that she did not think she could have meaningful contact with Father going forward. She viewed Father’s unwillingness to engage with reunification services as a sign that he “didn’t want us,” because if Father had wanted them, he “would have gone through the process” that the court set out instead of “fighting so hard to be like ‘I’m right and you’re not going to tell me what I can and cannot do’” regarding the children.

¶49      Chloe was more equivocal about Mother, stating that she believed she could potentially have a good relationship with Mother if Mother were no longer with Father, and that she and Felicity had expressed that sentiment to Mother at one point. In Chloe’s view, Mother acted merely as Father’s “puppet” and did not feel free to offer “her true feelings.” Mother reacted negatively to the girls’ suggestion that she should leave Father, telling Chloe, “[D]on’t you dare ever make me choose.”

¶50      Chloe acknowledged that, as an adult, she had chosen to be adopted by Oldest Sister and Brother-in-Law, and she stated that she had wanted that outcome all along, even when she had been a minor, and that she had chosen adoption because she wanted “a loving and supportive” place “to call home” and didn’t feel like she ever had that with Parents. She noted that there had been challenges, initially, transitioning from “sister to daughter overnight” in relation to Oldest Sister, but she described her life with Oldest Sister and Brother-in-Law as, on balance, “pretty freaking amazing.”

¶51      Felicity’s Testimony: Felicity testified in November 2021, about a month before she turned eighteen. She stated that her home with Parents was “really scary” and not “safe.” Parents “yelled all the time,” fed the children “expired” food unless they paid Father for fresh food, and made the children do endless chores that somehow could never be “done good enough.” She recalled one occasion in which Father kept her up until 2:00 a.m. on a school night because he thought she hadn’t cleaned the kitchen counters well enough; Felicity finally went to bed, but Father came into her room “and poured water over [her] head” to wake her up and made her “go finish” cleaning the counters. And she recalled another occasion in which Father threw her dog outside because she “didn’t kneel down for prayers fast enough.”

¶52 Felicity confirmed that, while she lived with Parents, she struggled with “anxiety and depression” and “thought about killing [her]self.” She perceived Parents as being unsupportive of her during this time; Mother in particular was resistant to helping Felicity obtain medication for her depression, telling her instead to just “read the scriptures.”

¶53      Since being placed with Oldest Sister and Brother-in-Law, Felicity has had visits with Parents, but she testified that she doesn’t like the visits. During the visits, Parents would “act like . . . everything’s fine” and would refuse to engage with the problems in the home. She stated that the visits with Father, in particular, didn’t go well. On one occasion, she asked to take a break while Father was talking to her, and Father became angry, telling her she was not allowed to leave the room while he was addressing her. After that visit, she and the caseworkers came up with a kind of “safe word” for her to use if she needed a break during a visit: she was to say that she needed to use the restroom.

¶54 She confirmed that group therapy with Parents had not been productive because Parents “would just deny” everything and would “refuse to say that they did something wrong.” She offered her perception that Parents, during the reunification period, “haven’t done anything to change.”

¶55      Finally, Felicity testified that she liked living with Oldest Sister and Brother-in-Law because “they’re kind and they care about” her and she feels like she is “actually loved.” She testified that she does not “want to have a relationship with” either one of her Parents and that she wanted to be adopted by Oldest Sister and Brother-in-Law. Indeed, in March 2022—before the trial ended but after she testified and after she turned eighteen—she elected to be adopted by Oldest Sister and Brother-in-Law.

¶56      Hannah’s Testimony: Hannah testified in September 2021, when she was fifteen. She confirmed that she and her siblings had been removed from Parents’ home because “it wasn’t really safe” there. She testified that there was “a lot of contention” in the home and that there was “so much screaming and yelling” that she and Noah would sometimes “go hide in a closet” because they were “really scared.” She discussed several incidents in which Father used physical force, once on Mother—when he forcibly “grabbed the keys” out of her hand—and sometimes on the children: she described Father throwing a “headlamp” at Noah and once “slapp[ing] her across the face.” Often, the yelling was about the children’s chores and involved Parents indicating that they were dissatisfied with the manner in which the children had performed their tasks. She said that “every time” Parents started yelling, she “was afraid they were going to hit” her, which caused her “anxiety” and was “really scary.” She testified that, in those situations, she “couldn’t talk back” because, if she did, she would “get in more trouble.”

¶57      She testified that the post-removal visits were “pretty scary at first” because she worried that Parents “were going to take all of their anger” about the removal “out on” the children. Hannah did not believe that the visits were productive, and she testified that she felt “released” and “happy” when visits with Father were “canceled.” She believed that the group therapy sessions, in particular, were unhelpful, largely because Parents refused to ever acknowledge that they might have done anything wrong.

¶58      And she testified that living with Oldest Sister and Brother-in-Law was “pretty awesome” because she feels “loved there” and feels “like someone cares for” her and that she wasn’t “scared anymore.” She told the court that she wanted to be adopted by Oldest Sister and Brother-in-Law, and that she would “run away” if she were forced to return to Parents’ home.

¶59 Noah’s Testimony: Noah testified in September 2021, a few weeks before his thirteenth birthday. He also testified that Parents’ home “wasn’t a safe environment” due to the constant “yelling and contention,” offering his view that “there was almost never . . . peace and happiness.” He recalled Parents waking him up by spraying him “with a water bottle,” and he recalled the headlamp incident.

¶60 His view of the post-removal visits was that he “didn’t really want to have them” because he didn’t “want to have a relationship with [Parents] anymore.” He found the visits “odd at first” but then, after a while, he just found them “boring” and “a waste of time” because Parents would just ask “the same questions.” He also believed that Parents “wouldn’t try and improve” themselves through the visits and group therapy.

¶61      And Noah testified that he “really like[s]” living with Oldest Sister and Brother-in-Law and that he wants to “live permanently” with them. He testified that Oldest Sister’s home is “a loving environment” where they “help each other . . . try to get better and improve.” He stated that he doesn’t “want [Parents] to be [his] parents,” and that he would not “feel safe” if he was returned to Parents’ custody. He expressed a desire “to have [Oldest Sister and Brother-in-Law] be [his] parents.”

¶62      Finally, the court heard extensive testimony from Parents. Father testified over three trial days and was the only witness to testify on two of those days. Mother also testified over three trial days. For the most part, in the interest of brevity, we present their testimony through our description of the juvenile court’s ruling, set forth immediately below. But in general, Parents refused to acknowledge that they had acted in any way inappropriately, and they defended their behavior as a means of instilling discipline and religious-based values in their children.

The Court’s Post-Trial Ruling

¶63 Following the presentation of evidence, the attorneys presented their closing arguments over parts of two days. After that, the juvenile court took the matter under advisement and, a few weeks later, issued a fifty-three-page written decision. In that decision, the court summarized the testimony that had been presented; in particular, the court spent some twelve pages summarizing Parents’ lengthy testimony.

¶64 The court noted that Father described Oldest Sister as “spoiled” and described Chloe’s expression of suicidal ideations as “play[ing] the suicide card.” Father acknowledged that he had awakened the children with water, thrown a headlamp at Noah, and “raised his voice” during the meeting with Branch President. But he justified these behaviors as merely strict religious-based parenting. The court noted Father’s stated belief that “the [State] had invaded his family” and was “taking over his stewardship,” as well as Father’s contention that the assigned therapists “had replaced his religious beliefs” by instituting rules for the therapy sessions with which he disagreed. And the court noted Father’s testimony that Branch President was “highly judgmental and lacking in integrity,” as well as Father’s stated belief that DCFS, Branch President, and Oldest Sister “got together with malice to engage in child kidnapping and child trafficking” so that Oldest Sister could “enslave[]” the children to “serve [her] family.”

¶65      With regard to Mother, the court noted that she had been married to Father for thirty-five years and “intends to stay married to him.” Mother testified that, at one point, the GAL and DCFS caseworkers told her that “she had to choose between [Father] and the children,” and that she “told them no, that they are not going to break up the family.” The court noted Mother’s belief that she had attempted to comply with Mother’s Plan, and that Mother “wants to have a special relationship with all of her children and would like the family to be together.”

¶66 After summarizing the voluminous testimony presented at trial, the court made certain findings and conclusions. It found that Father “uses religious, familial, and authoritative vocabulary to intimidate the children,” and that he “has used his physical presence” in that manner as well “by standing up, making his body larger, [and] power posing [to] the children.” The court found that Father “has not engaged in purposeful family therapy with the children to address the issues” in the case and that Father “has never acknowledged that he” might bear some responsibility for the situation. The court noted that the “family never moved from square one in talking about the real issues that led [Chloe] to be suicidal and had [Noah] and [Hannah] hiding in the closet.” The court declared that, “[w]ithout addressing and correcting the problems in the home as to parenting style and the environment, the children and [Father] will never have a healthy relationship.” The court found that “there does not exist a bond of love and affection between the children and [Father].” And it observed that Father certainly “has the constitutional right to parent his children” but that the “children also have the right to be free from emotional abuse.” In summary, the court found that Father “is an unfit parent” and that Hannah and Noah could not “safely be returned to [Parents’] home to reside with [Father] since he has made no efforts,” or “only token efforts,” to address and eliminate “the issues of emotional abuse which exist in the home.”

¶67    As to Mother, the court found that she “supported [Father] in his harmful treatment of the children as he tried to control their lives,” and that she “minimized the emotional maltreatment that was occurring in the home and the extent of the emotional trauma” the children experienced. It found that Mother “continues to deny . . . any emotional . . . maltreatment of the children,” that she “laughs when questioned about these things and continues to blame the children and [Oldest Sister] for [DCFS’s] intervention,” and that she “has never considered for a moment that she or [Father] have done anything untoward or harmful to the children.” The court found that Mother’s “continued association with [Father] puts the children at risk should they be returned to her custody and care.” The court found grounds sufficient to justify termination of her parental rights, concluding that Mother was “unable or unwilling to remedy the circumstances that caused the children to be in an out-of-home placement” and that she had made only “token efforts to eliminate the risk of serious harm to the children.”

¶68      Having found grounds sufficient to justify termination of Parents’ rights, the court then turned to the best-interest question. The court determined “that it is in the children’s best interest and strictly necessary to terminate” Father’s parental rights. The court considered whether to impose a permanent custody and guardianship arrangement with Oldest Sister and Brother-in-Law, but it did “not find this alternative to be in the children’s best interest.” The court noted that both Branch President and Psychiatrist had considered Father so aberrant that—in an effort to keep Father away from the children—they had each taken action they had never taken before. And the court noted that, “if permanent custody and guardianship were granted” to Oldest Sister, Father “would still be in the orbit of the two remaining [minor] children” and would be able to “assert[] his will as to basic medical and otherwise personal decisions in the care of the children.” For these reasons, the court concluded that the State had demonstrated, by clear and convincing evidence, that termination of Father’s rights was strictly necessary to advance the children’s best interest. The court therefore ordered that Father’s rights be terminated.

¶69 As to Mother, however, the court reached a different conclusion. The court first noted “the legislatively mandated position that wherever possible family life should be strengthened and preserved,” and it observed that the children were in the custody of a relative—Oldest Sister—and were not “in a home unrelated to” Parents. The court noted that the children’s visits with Mother had gone better than their visits with Father, and that their relationship with Mother—unlike their relationship with Father—does not cause “the children emotional or mental harm.” Accordingly, the court concluded that, with regard to Mother, “the children can be equally protected and benefited by an option other than termination.” The court therefore declined to terminate Mother’s rights, and it placed the children in a permanent custody and guardianship arrangement with Oldest Sister and Brother-in-Law.

The GAL’s Rule 59 Motion

¶70      Shortly after the issuance of the court’s initial post-trial ruling, the GAL filed a motion—grounded in rule 59 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure—requesting that the court reconsider its decision not to terminate Mother’s parental rights. The GAL asserted that, in making its decision not to terminate Mother’s rights, the court had viewed matters too much from Mother’s point of view and not enough from the children’s point of view. Mother opposed the motion.

¶71      During a hearing on the motion, the GAL began to discuss events that had occurred since the conclusion of the termination trial, and Mother’s counsel objected. The court determined that it would permit counsel to “put in a memorandum or affidavit” the “additional information supporting” its argument, and it would then allow all other parties “to file an affidavit or other response.” Following the hearing, the GAL filed with the court an affidavit from Brother-in-Law in which he described, among other things, the effects that post-trial visits with Mother had been having on Hannah and Noah.

¶72 A few weeks later, the juvenile court issued a written ruling granting the GAL’s motion. In the introductory paragraph of that ruling, the court noted that, in preparing to make its decision, it had reviewed “the filings and arguments of the parties, the oral argument on the [m]otion and the prior testimony from the termination trial and the original findings and order.” But the court made no specific mention, anywhere in its ruling, of the post-trial events described in Brother-in-Law’s latest affidavit. Instead, the court stated that it was reconsidering its prior ruling and, this time, it was ordering termination of Mother’s parental rights; it explained that, in its initial ruling, it had “failed to give the proper weight to the children’s expressed wishes to be adopted” by Oldest Sister and Brother-in-Law. The court noted that the “children have been direct in seeking to be adopted.” And it noted that it was statutorily commanded to “give the minor’s wishes added weight” if the minor in question was fourteen years old or older, a stipulation that, in the court’s view, applied to all of the children (Noah having recently turned fourteen). After reconsidering its prior decision in light of the added weight given to the children’s stated wishes, the court determined that termination of Mother’s rights was in the children’s best interest, and it therefore ordered that her rights be terminated.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶73      Parents now appeal, and they raise several issues for our review. First, they contend that the juvenile court violated their constitutional rights. “Constitutional issues, including questions regarding due process, are questions of law,” and the conclusions of the juvenile court on such issues are reviewed “for correctness.” In re adoption of K.T.B., 2020 UT 51, ¶ 15, 472 P.3d 843 (quotation simplified). Along with this argument, Parents also assert that the constitutional issues they raise indicate that the court erred in concluding that DCFS made reasonable efforts to facilitate reunification. To the extent that Parents’ constitutional arguments raise “reasonable efforts” questions, we review the court’s ruling more deferentially. See In re P.J.R., 2023 UT App 27, ¶ 24, 527 P.3d 1114 (“A court’s determination that DCFS made reasonable efforts to provide reunification services involves an application of statutory law to the facts that presents a mixed question of fact and law, requiring review of the juvenile court’s factual findings for clear error and its conclusions of law for correctness, affording the court some discretion in applying the law to the facts.” (quotation simplified)), cert. denied, 534 P.3d 750 (Utah 2023).

¶74      Second, Parents assert that their respective attorneys provided ineffective assistance of counsel at various points throughout the litigation. “An ineffective assistance of counsel claim raised for the first time on appeal presents a question of law.” In re D.G., 2022 UT App 128, ¶ 6, 522 P.3d 39 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 527 P.3d 1106 (Utah 2023).

¶75 Third, Father argues that some of the juvenile court’s factual findings were against the clear weight of the evidence. “In order to overturn the juvenile court’s decision the result must be against the clear weight of the evidence or leave [this] court with a firm and definite conviction that a mistake has been made.” In re G.D., 2021 UT 19, ¶ 70, 491 P.3d 867 (quotation simplified).

¶76      Finally, while Parents do not take issue with the juvenile court’s ruling that statutory grounds for termination existed, Parents do challenge the court’s ruling that termination was strictly necessary to promote the children’s best interest. We review a trial court’s “best interest determination deferentially, and we will overturn it only if [the court] either failed to consider all of the facts or considered all of the facts and its decision was nonetheless against the clear weight of the evidence.” In re D.S., 2023 UT App 98, ¶ 15, 535 P.3d 843 (quotation simplified), cert. granted, Jan. 25, 2024 (No. 20230877). But “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).

¶77 Along with her best-interest argument, Mother raises an additional issue: she asserts that the juvenile court erred by allowing the GAL to submit new evidence of post-trial matters in support of the rule 59 motion. “We generally disturb a trial court’s grant or denial of a rule 59 motion only if it constitutes an abuse of discretion.” Bergmann v. Bergmann, 2018 UT App 130, ¶ 12, 428 P.3d 89 (quotation simplified). And we will not reverse that decision if the only errors in it were harmless. See State v. Loose, 2000 UT 11, ¶ 10 n.1, 994 P.2d 1237 (“We do not reverse a trial court for committing harmless error.”); Proctor v. Costco Wholesale Corp., 2013 UT App 226, ¶ 9, 311 P.3d 564 (“[A] harmless error does not require reversal.”), cert. denied, 320 P.3d 676 (Utah 2014).

ANALYSIS

  1. Constitutional Claims

¶78      We first address Parents’ assertion that the “juvenile court process” that resulted in the termination of their parental rights violated their constitutional rights. We describe Parents’ specific claims in more detail below, but before we discuss the particulars of those claims, we pause to emphasize two critical background points, one legal and one factual, that help frame our analysis.

¶79      The legal background point is straightforward and should go without saying: a parent has no general right, whether statutory or constitutional, to abuse or neglect a child for religious reasons.

¶80 Utah’s child welfare statutes regarding abuse of a child have no exceptions allowing abuse to occur on religious grounds. In the child welfare context, “[a]buse” means (among other things) “nonaccidental harm of a child” or “threatened harm of a child.” Utah Code § 80-1-102(1)(a). The governing statute specifies that “reasonable discipline” of a child does not constitute “[a]buse,” nor does “reasonable and necessary physical restraint or force” applied in defense from or protection of the child or others. Id. § 80-1-102(1)(b). But there is no statutory exception excusing abuse simply because it might be religiously motivated.

¶81      Similarly, in the child welfare context, “[n]eglect” includes “action or inaction causing . . . lack of proper parental care of a child by reason of the fault or habits of the parent,” and includes “action or inaction causing . . . failure or refusal of a parent . . . to provide proper or necessary subsistence or medical care, or any other care necessary for the child’s health, safety, morals, or well­being.” Id. § 80-1-102(58)(a)(ii), (iii). The statutory definition of neglect does include one religious-based exception: a parent who is “legitimately practicing religious beliefs and who, for that reason, does not provide specified medical treatment for a child” has not neglected that child. Id. § 80-1-102(58)(b)(i).[8] But other than this narrow exception, Utah’s statutes offer no room for a parent, on religious grounds, to take actions that would otherwise constitute neglect of a child.

¶82      Nor is there any constitutional right to abuse or neglect a child in the name of religion. To be sure, parents have a right to teach their children religious principles and to encourage them to comply with the tenets of a chosen religion. Kingston v. Kingston, 2022 UT 43, ¶ 24, 532 P.3d 958 (stating that “parents have a fundamental right” under the United States Constitution “to encourage their children in the practice of religion”). But such rights peter out where a parent’s religious practices result in mistreatment of a child. See Zummo v. Zummo, 574 A.2d 1130, 1154–55 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1990) (noting that parents are “free to provide religious exposure and instruction” to their child as they see fit, “unless the challenged beliefs or conduct of the parent are demonstrated to present a substantial threat of present or future, physical or emotional harm to the child” (quoted in Kingston, 2022 UT 43, ¶ 67)); see also Prince v. Massachusetts321 U.S. 158, 166–67 (1944) (stating that “the state has a wide range of power for limiting parental freedom and authority in things affecting the child’s welfare,” including in “matters of conscience and religious conviction,” and noting that the state’s “authority” in this regard “is not nullified merely because the parent grounds his claim to control the child’s course of conduct on religion or conscience”); Koch v. Koch, 207 So. 3d 914, 915 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2016) (noting courts’ ability to restrict a parent’s rights where there is “a clear, affirmative showing that the [parent’s] religious activities . . . will be harmful to the child” (quotation simplified)); In re Edward C., 178 Cal. Rptr. 694, 699 (Cal. Ct. App. 1981) (“Mistreatment of a child . . . is not privileged because it is imposed in the guise of freedom of religious expression.”); Amos N. Guiora, Protecting the Unprotected: Religious Extremism and Child Endangerment, 12 J.L. & Fam. Stud. 391, 405 (2010) (“Religious belief and conduct cannot be used as justification for placing children at risk; government, law enforcement and the general public cannot allow religion to hide behind a cloak of ‘religious immunity.’”).

¶83 Next, the factual background point is simply this: as discussed above, Parents have already been adjudicated to have abused or neglected the children, and those adjudications were not substantively challenged on appeal.

¶84 With regard to Father, the juvenile court found—after a five-day adjudication hearing—that Father had “emotionally abused” all four children. The court specifically discussed the rather stringent statutory definition of “emotional abuse” and recognized that it required a finding that a child has suffered “a serious impairment in the child’s growth, development, behavior, or psychological functioning.” See Utah Code § 80-1-102(37)(b). But the court comfortably made such findings with regard to Father, concluding that Father had engaged in “a continuing pattern of emotional maltreatment of the children which has resulted in two of the children considering suicide as an option to end the maltreatment.” The court also found that Father had “created a hostile environment” for the children that caused them to suffer “emotional damage[],” and it found that Father’s “use of physical force” was part of the “abusive parenting style” that he “used to intimidate and control the children.”

¶85 With regard to Mother, the court determined—based on Mother’s own rule 34(e) admissions—that all four children were neglected. In particular, the court concluded that Chloe, Felicity, and Hannah were neglected because Mother subjected them “to mistreatment or abuse and/or” because they “lack[ed] proper parental care by reason of the fault or habits of [Mother], and/or” because Mother had “failed to provide proper and necessary subsistence, education or medical care when required or any other care necessary for health, safety, morals or well being of the children.” And the court found that Noah was neglected as to Mother since he was “at risk of being neglected or abused because another child in the same home is neglected or abused.”

¶86 Mother did not appeal the court’s adjudication order. Father did, but he raised only one argument—a procedural one— in his appellate petition; he mounted no appellate challenge to the substance of the court’s adjudication order. In an unpublished decision, we rejected Father’s procedural argument and affirmed his adjudication order.

¶87 Thus, Parents have been adjudicated to have abused or neglected the children, and those adjudications were either not appealed or were affirmed on appeal. In light of these facts, Father’s attorney agreed, at oral argument before this court, that the adjudication order is now part of the case and that we, for purposes of this appeal, must therefore take it “as it is.” As we understand it, this concession is in keeping with Utah law. An adjudication order is “final for purposes of appeal,” see In re S.A.K., 2003 UT App 87, ¶ 13, 67 P.3d 1037, and “where a final ruling or order of the trial court goes unchallenged by appeal, such becomes the law of the case, and is not thereafter subject to later challenge,” see SRB Inv. Co. v. Spencer, 2023 UT App 120, ¶ 29, 538 P.3d 231 (quotation simplified). We have, on several occasions, refused to allow parents to re-litigate adjudication orders in the context of appeals from later orders. See In re D.G., 2014 UT App 22, ¶ 5, 319 P.3d 768 (stating that “matters relating to the adjudication hearing are barred” from consideration on appeal from a termination order where the parent “did not appeal the adjudication order”); see also In re E.T., 2014 UT App 206, ¶ 2, 335 P.3d 394 (per curiam) (stating that where a parent “failed to timely appeal [an] adjudication order, we lack jurisdiction to consider an appeal of that order” in an appeal from a later order).

¶88 Given these background principles and facts, Parents cannot—and here make no serious attempt to[9]—argue that the adjudication findings should be reversed, or that their underlying abuse and neglect should be excused on religious grounds. Instead, they make narrower constitutional arguments.

¶89      They begin by asserting, in general terms, that the “juvenile court process” that led to the termination of their parental rights violated their constitutional rights to parent their children and, in particular, their right to encourage their children in the practice of religion. They then point out—citing Kingston, 2022 UT 43, ¶ 29— that “any state interference with parents’ right to encourage their children in the practice of religion . . . is subject to strict scrutiny.” And they conclude by arguing that their right to encourage their children regarding religion was infringed during the case, specifically asserting that DCFS “cannot have made reasonable efforts to provide reunification services if it does not employ the least restrictive means available.”

¶90 As examples of what they claim to have been “state interference” with their right to encourage the children in the practice of religion, Parents point to two things: (1) the rule Therapist put in place, at the behest of the children, that Parents not discuss religion with the children during family therapy sessions; and (2) the court’s refusal to grant Father’s request that Therapist be removed from the case and replaced with “a therapist more understanding of his religious beliefs.”[10] We find Parents’ arguments unpersuasive.

¶91 We first discuss Parents’ arguments regarding the rule forbidding them from discussing religion during family therapy. In this case, we need not decide whether Parents’ constitutional right to encourage their children in the practice of religion requires the State to allow Parents to offer such encouragement during therapy sessions provided by the State as part of reunification services. Nor do we need to decide—even assuming there is such a requirement—whether the rule imposed here satisfied strict scrutiny review by being “narrowly tailored to protect a compelling government interest.” Id. ¶ 61 (quotation simplified). Given the record before us, we may avoid these questions because even assuming, for purposes of the discussion only, that there was a constitutional violation in this regard, any such violation was clearly harmless here. See In re A.R., 2017 UT App 153, ¶¶ 11−13, 402 P.3d 206 (affirming the termination of a parent’s rights in the face of an asserted constitutional violation because, even if the court committed constitutional error, the error was harmless); see also In re I.M.L., 2002 UT 110, ¶ 9 n.3, 61 P.3d 1038 (“Generally, we avoid reaching constitutional issues if a case can be decided on other grounds.”). The evidence presented at the termination trial showed that Father paid no heed to the rule in any event and simply went ahead—against the children’s request, communicated through Therapist—and discussed religion with the children during the family therapy sessions.[11] Given Father’s refusal to follow it, Parents do not explain how the rule’s short-lived existence made any difference here; in particular, they make no effort to demonstrate how the therapy sessions would have been different or more productive had the rule not been in place. Moreover, and perhaps most significantly, the rule was only in effect for about five weeks, because the juvenile court ordered it removed at the first opportunity. As soon as Parents asked that the rule be removed, the court granted that request; Parents do not explain what the juvenile court could have done better or more speedily with regard to this rule. In short, we see no reasonable likelihood that the temporary imposition of a rule disallowing Parents to discuss religion during therapy sessions affected the outcome of the proceedings.[12]

¶92 Next, with regard to Parents’ second example of asserted “state interference”—their claim that they had a constitutional right to a therapist whose religious beliefs matched their own— we likewise reject Parents’ argument without entirely reaching its merits. Even if we assume—without deciding, and for purposes of the argument only—that Parents had a constitutional right to a therapist whose religious beliefs matched their own, Parents’ argument on this point nevertheless fails because Parents have not explained exactly how—or even whether—Therapist’s religious beliefs or practices differed from their own. The record is silent as to what Therapist’s religion was—we therefore do not know whether she was a member of Parents’ religion or not. And Father conceded, during his testimony, that his objection to Therapist was not based on whether she shared his religion or not, explaining that he doesn’t “just look at a person on an LDS basis.” He explained, instead, that he wanted the children to have a therapist who agreed with him on the “eternal values or principles” that he “believe[d] govern the universe.” But in his briefing, Father makes no effort to identify what those “values or principles” are, whether they derive from his religion or from some other source, or how they might have differed from Therapist’s religious beliefs and practices.

¶93 Indeed, the GAL argues, with some force, that Father’s objectionable behavior was not grounded in the tenets of any religion but, instead, simply amounted to Father’s personal belief that, as head of the household, he had the right to bully and intimidate his children and to say whatever he wanted whenever he wanted during family therapy sessions. After all, even Father’s own religious leader considered Father’s similar behavior during the meeting at the church to be inappropriate and by no means compelled by tenets of their shared religion. And it is noteworthy that all four children—even after removal and despite the abuse and neglect they experienced—have remained steadfast adherents of the religion they share with Parents. Thus, one might reasonably conclude that Father’s conflict with Therapist had nothing whatsoever to do with specific religious tenets and everything to do with Father’s personality. At a minimum, Parents have not carried their appellate burden of persuading us that the situation is otherwise. And we note that courts have rejected similar claims in analogous cases on the basis that the parent had not “establish[ed] a clear relationship between” his or her “religious faith” and the specific “discipline” imposed on the children. See, e.g.Jakab v. Jakab, 664 A.2d 261, 265 (Vt. 1995); see also In re H.M., 144 N.E.3d 1124, 1148 (Ohio Ct. App. 2019) (noting that the “record is scant on defining the parents’ actual religious beliefs” and whether they motivated the behavior in question).

¶94      For these reasons, we see no constitutional infirmity in the juvenile court’s refusal to grant Father’s request for a different family therapist in this case.

¶95      We note again that Parents’ overarching argument is that

“the State could not have made reasonable efforts if its actions do not pass strict scrutiny.”[13] Yet as to the two ways Parents allege that the State’s actions do not pass muster, Parents have in one instance failed to show any actual infringement of a constitutional right, and in the other they have failed to persuade us that reunification services would have been more successful in the absence of the alleged constitutional violation. Thus, we perceive no error in the juvenile court’s reasonable efforts determination, and we reject Parents’ claims that, during the “juvenile court process,” their constitutional rights were violated.

  1. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

¶96 Next, Parents assert that they received ineffective assistance of counsel during the termination proceedings. “To establish [an] ineffective assistance of counsel claim, [a party] must show that counsel’s performance was objectively deficient and that counsel’s deficient performance prejudiced the case.” In re D.G., 2022 UT App 128, ¶ 9, 522 P.3d 39 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 527 P.3d 1106 (Utah 2023). “Failure to establish either prong of the test is fatal to an ineffective assistance of counsel claim,” and therefore we are “free to address [Parents’] claims under either prong.” In re C.M.R., 2020 UT App 114, ¶ 19, 473 P.3d 184 (quotation simplified).

¶97 Parents each make one argument in this regard. We first address Father’s contention that his attorney was ineffective for not objecting to “improper bolstering evidence” presented during the termination trial. Second, we address Mother’s argument that her attorney rendered ineffective assistance “by failing to object to” the terms of Mother’s Plan. For the reasons set forth below, we conclude that neither Father nor Mother has borne their burden of establishing that their attorneys rendered ineffective assistance.

  1. Father’s Claim

¶98      Father asserts that his attorney rendered constitutionally ineffective assistance by failing to object to certain testimony, offered by the State’s witnesses during the termination trial, that Father characterizes as “improper bolstering evidence.” Father points to three statements that he believes amounted to improper bolstering of the children’s accounts of things that happened in the family home. First, he points to Therapist’s statements that Chloe was “not exaggerating her symptoms or faking how she was feeling” when reporting suicidal ideations and seeking medication and that she was being “pretty honest” in her descriptions, as well as to Therapist’s similar statement that the threats of suicide that Chloe and Felicity had made were not “fabricated” and were not “attention getters.” Second, he complains about a different therapist’s testimony that “there was never anything that [Noah] or [Hannah] told [her] relating to their experiences” at home “that would lead [her] to believe they were being dishonest.” Finally, Father identifies Branch President’s testimony that, during his communication with Chloe, Felicity, and Hannah in the August 2018 meeting, he had no concerns that “the girls were making these things up.”

¶99      Father asserts that these statements were inadmissible and that a reasonable attorney would have objected to these statements in an effort to keep them out. He further asserts that, given the importance of the children’s credibility to the issues before the court, the admission of these statements was ultimately prejudicial to him and led the court to believe the children’s accounts over his own.

¶100 We have our doubts about whether a reasonable attorney would have objected to these statements, given the importance of many of them to therapeutic diagnosis and treatment. But even assuming, for the purposes of argument, that Father’s attorney performed deficiently by not objecting to these statements, the admission of these statements did not prejudice Father on the specific facts of this case. To establish prejudice, Father must do more than “show that the errors had some conceivable effect on the outcome of the proceeding.” State v. Samora, 2023 UT 5, ¶ 22, 529 P.3d 330 (quotation simplified). He bears the burden of demonstrating “that the decision reached would reasonably likely have been different absent trial counsel’s alleged errors.” Id. (quotation simplified). Father cannot meet that burden here.

¶101 By the time the termination trial rolled around, the court had already conducted numerous hearings in this case; most notably, it had held a five-day adjudication trial in which it had heard from the children and from various therapists and caseworkers, and it had already entered extensive findings and conclusions. In particular, as noted above, the court had already engaged in the process of determining whether Chloe and Felicity had felt genuine suicidal ideations, and concluded that they had; likewise, the court had already engaged in the process of determining whether Father had emotionally abused the children and concluded that he had. Given that the court had already made these findings, which were not substantively appealed, we cannot conclude that there is any reasonable likelihood that—absent the challenged statements—the court would, at the termination trial, have changed its entire outlook on the events in the home and made antipodally different findings than the ones it had already made at the adjudication trial.

¶102 Under these circumstances, Father cannot demonstrate that he was prejudiced by any deficient performance on the part of his attorney. Accordingly, his ineffective assistance of counsel claim necessarily fails.

  1. Mother’s Claim

¶103 Mother asserts that her attorney rendered constitutionally ineffective assistance by failing to object to the terms of Mother’s Plan and to “the State’s failure to provide the recommended services,” and by not requesting a “modified service plan” better tailored to Mother’s needs. According to Mother, “[r]easonable counsel would have understood the importance of the service plan and the services recommended by it,” and she maintains that, if she had received the benefit of a modified plan, there is a “reasonable likelihood that the court would not have determined that Mother had failed to complete the services.”

¶104 During the termination trial, the psychologist who evaluated Mother testified that Mother has dependent personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, and dementia, and that Mother might also suffer from aphasia but would need additional testing for that diagnosis to be confirmed. The psychologist opined that someone with Mother’s conditions would likely experience some struggles in daily life and may need “assistance and accommodations.” At the time, Mother’s attorney did not object to Mother’s Plan or assert that it should include any additional services to accommodate these diagnoses.

¶105 Now, however, Mother asserts that her attorney should have objected and should have requested that Mother’s Plan include additional services intended to assist Mother with these diagnoses and conditions. But here on appeal, Mother does not identify—let alone meaningfully discuss—any specific services she now wishes counsel would have requested, and she has therefore failed to demonstrate that she was prejudiced by counsel’s failure to make a request. Without identifying any specific services she would have liked to have received, it is impossible for her to show that such services would have been reasonably likely to have made a difference here, especially in the face of the established facts: that Mother was steadfast in her loyalty to Father, that she at all times refused to acknowledge any responsibility for the situation, and that she failed to undertake efforts to remedy the circumstances that caused the children to be in an out-of-home placement.

¶106 Like Father, Mother has not borne her burden of demonstrating that she was prejudiced by any deficient performance on the part of her attorney. Accordingly, her ineffective assistance of counsel claim likewise fails.

III. Challenges to the Juvenile Court’s Factual Findings

¶107 Next, we address Father’s assertion that a handful of the juvenile court’s factual findings were clearly erroneous and unsupported by the evidence presented at the termination trial. Father identifies four such findings; we discuss each of them, in turn, and conclude that none of them are problematic.

¶108 First, Father challenges the court’s finding that Chloe “spoke about suicidal thoughts while she lived at home.” This finding is amply supported by the evidence presented at the termination trial. Chloe testified, on direct, that she had told Father that she was “suicidal,” and that he responded by telling her that if she killed herself she would “go to hell.” On cross-examination, she explained that she had told Father that, when he treats her “like crap,” it makes her “feel like [she] just want[s] to commit suicide.” She did acknowledge that she made the comment in a kind of in-passing way, and that “it wasn’t like [she] sat [Father] down and said, ‘Dad this is a serious thing. I’m seriously considering [suicide].’” But this testimony is more than enough to support a finding that Chloe “spoke about suicidal thoughts while she lived at home.”

¶109 Moreover, the court had already found, in the adjudication trial, that Chloe’s suicidal ideations were genuine. In these earlier proceedings, the court had already learned that Parents had been informed of Chloe’s feelings well before the children were removed from the home and that they had downplayed any concerns, calling Chloe a “drama queen” and indicating that they did not believe her. Under these circumstances, ample evidence supported the court’s finding that Chloe spoke about her suicidal ideations while still living in Parents’ home.

¶110 Second, Father challenges the court’s characterization that Brother-in-Law testified that the children attended post-removal visits with Father “because it [was] what they [were] supposed to do and [they] [didn’t] engage very well.” Father asserts that the court’s characterization of Brother-in-Law’s testimony is inaccurate, and he points to a different statement Brother-in-Law made indicating that the children did not like the visits because “it interrupt[ed] their schedule.” While it’s true that Brother-in-Law said that the visits interrupted the children’s schedule, the record also shows that he testified that the children were “not very engaged” during visits but “[t]hey underst[ood] that’s what they [were] supposed to do, and so they [attended], begrudgingly sometimes, but they [were] there.” We fail to see how the juvenile court’s omission of Brother-in-Law’s additional statement that the visits interrupted the children’s schedule somehow renders the court’s finding erroneous.

¶111 Third, Father challenges the court’s statement that Noah testified that he would not feel “safe” at home. Father argues that this statement is erroneous because, as he sees it, Noah later “retracted that statement” and testified that he “didn’t mean to say safe.” Father then directs us to the portion of Noah’s testimony he believes supports his position. At this point in his testimony, Noah was being asked about the circumstances surrounding Oldest Sister’s departure from Parents’ home. He was specifically asked what he meant by his statement that she left because it “wasn’t safe.” Noah then clarified that he “probably didn’t mean to say safe” and that what he meant to convey was that Oldest Sister had gone through similar experiences to his own in living with Parents and that was the reason she left. But Noah’s statement that he did not mean to say that Oldest Sister left because it was not safe is not a retraction of his earlier statement that it was his personal belief that Parents’ house “wasn’t a safe environment.” Father mischaracterizes the record on this point and has fallen far short of persuading us that the court’s finding on this issue was clearly erroneous.

¶112 Finally, Father challenges the court’s finding that Brother-in-Law testified that the children “stopped hoarding food in their bedrooms.” Father argues that the actual testimony was about “hiding” food—not “hoarding” food—and asserts that there was no evidence that the children were malnourished or underfed while in Father’s care. We do not see a significant difference, in this context, between “hiding” food and “hoarding” food—however characterized, there is no question that the children secreted food in their bedrooms; Brother-in-Law explained that the children were “afraid to ask for more food” so they would take extra snacks to their bedrooms and “store” the food for later. Under these circumstances, we do not consider the court’s characterization of the evidence to have been clearly erroneous.

¶113 Accordingly, we reject each of Father’s challenges to the juvenile court’s factual findings.

  1. Best Interest/Strictly Necessary

¶114 Finally, we address Parents’ various challenges to the court’s conclusions that termination of their rights was strictly necessary to promote the best interest of Hannah and Noah. Both Parents raise a direct challenge to the substance of the court’s decision. In addition, Mother raises additional issues regarding the court’s handling of the GAL’s rule 59 motion. We first discuss Father’s substantive challenge, and then separately discuss Mother’s two arguments.

  1. Father’s Claim

¶115 Before the rights of any parent are terminated, the party seeking termination must establish (1) that “at least one of the enumerated statutory grounds for termination [is] present” and (2) that the “termination of parental rights [is] in the best interest of the affected children.” In re D.S., 2023 UT App 98, ¶ 16, 535 P.3d 843 (quotation simplified), cert. granted, Jan. 25, 2024 (No. 20230877). Parents do not challenge the juvenile court’s determination that sufficient statutory grounds for termination are present, but they do challenge the court’s conclusion that termination of their rights is in the children’s best interest.

¶116 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.” See In re J.M., 2020 UT App 52, ¶¶ 35, 37, 463 P.3d 66 (quotation simplified); see also In re H.F., 2019 UT App 204, ¶ 14, 455 P.3d 1098 (“The best-interest test is broad, and is intended as a holistic examination of all the relevant circumstances that might affect a child’s situation.” (quotation simplified)).

¶117 Our legislature has mandated that termination of parental rights is permissible only when such termination is “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.” See In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 60, 472 P.3d 827. Indeed, a court’s inquiry into the strict necessity of termination should take place as part of the best-interest inquiry that comprises the second part of the termination test. See id. ¶ 76 (“[A]s 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.”). And our supreme court has noted that

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.

Id. ¶ 67 (quotation simplified). “If the child can be equally protected and benefited by an option other than termination, termination is not strictly necessary.” Id. ¶ 66.

¶118 In this case, the court seriously considered one non-termination option: imposing a permanent custody and guardianship arrangement in favor of Oldest Sister and Brother-in-Law. However, for various reasons, the court concluded that this option was not in the children’s best interest, and therefore it ordered termination of Parents’ rights. Parents each challenge the court’s conclusion in this regard.

¶119 With regard to Father, the court stated that it did “not find this alternative [of permanent custody and guardianship] to be in the children’s best interest,” and it offered “[a] couple of examples” to “illustrate the basis for this decision.” First, the court pointed to both Psychiatrist and Branch President, and noted that they had each found Father’s behavior to be so aberrant that they had taken action they’d never before taken: they sent letters to DCFS or to the court indicating their belief that Father was a danger to the children. Second, the court raised a concern about Father retaining residual parental rights, noting that, under a permanent custody and guardianship arrangement, Father “would still be in the orbit of” Hannah and Noah and could “assert[] his will as to basic medical and otherwise personal decisions in the care of the children.”

¶120 Father challenges the court’s best-interest determination, and he makes two arguments, one categorical and one fact-specific. First, Father asserts that parental rights can never be terminated where children are in a kinship placement, as these children are here with Oldest Sister. We reject this position. No Utah statute mandates this position, and we have never so held. See In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 49, 518 P.3d 993 (“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.”), cert. granted, 525 P.3d 1279 (Utah 2023). To be sure, “[i]f there exists a completely appropriate kinship placement through which the family can remain intact, the ‘strictly necessary’ showing becomes significantly harder to make.” Id. But such a showing is not impossible; indeed, staking out the categorical position Father advocates makes no sense in this context. It does not take much imagination to think of situations in which a parent’s relationship with a child is so harmful and abusive that it is strictly necessary, if the child’s best interest is to be promoted, to permanently sever that relationship, regardless of whether the child is placed with a relative. We therefore reject Father’s assertion that a parent’s rights can never be terminated if the children are placed with a relative.

¶121 Second, Father takes issue with the court’s residual rights concern. Here, Father points out that, in a permanent custody and guardianship situation, he would retain only four residual rights and duties: “(i) the responsibility for support; (ii) the right to consent to adoption; (iii) the right to determine the child’s religious affiliation; and (iv) the right to reasonable parent-time unless restricted by the court.” See Utah Code § 80-1-102(70)(a). Because the first of these is a duty and the last of these can be restricted by the court, Father asserts that we need be concerned only with the second and the third: Father’s right to consent to adoption and his right to determine the children’s religious affiliation. Father asserts that his residual rights would therefore not allow him to “assert his will” with regard to “basic medical and otherwise personal decisions,” as the juvenile court stated.

¶122 We acknowledge Father’s point, and we note our own recently expressed concern that juvenile courts may, in many cases, be overly concerned about parents retaining residual rights where permanent custody and guardianship arrangements are imposed. See, e.g.In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 55 (questioning “whether—in many cases . . . —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”); In re D.S., 2023 UT App 98, ¶¶ 23–24 (explaining why that case was “not one of those cases” in which “fear of a parent’s residual rights might reasonably counsel in favor of terminating” a parent’s rights).

¶123 But we also note, again, that we review best-interest determinations “deferentially,” and we overturn them only if the court “either failed to consider all of the facts or considered all of the facts and its decision was nonetheless against the clear weight of the evidence.” In re D.S., 2023 UT App 98, ¶ 15 (quotation simplified). On a couple of recent occasions, we have reversed juvenile courts’ best-interest/strictly-necessary decisions, even applying this deferential standard, because in our view “the evidence presented at trial did not constitute clear and convincing evidence that termination of [the parents’ rights] would be in the best interest” of the affected children. See In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 38; see also In re D.S., 2023 UT App 98, ¶ 31 (stating that, “[i]n the end, the facts of this case simply don’t add up to strict necessity”). But in other situations—like this one, for the reasons we discuss—the facts as presented at trial lend themselves to more than one possible conclusion. In such cases, our somewhat deferential standard of review will lead us to affirm, because either result will be supported by the facts of the case and will be within the discretion of the court.

¶124 In this vein, we draw an illustrative contrast between the facts of this case and the facts of In re D.S. In that case, the father was incarcerated, and he conceded that he was unable to care for his children and that therefore statutory grounds existed for termination of his parental rights. See 2023 UT App 98, ¶ 13. But he nevertheless resisted termination, asserting that it was not in the children’s best interest for that to occur. Id. ¶ 15. He had maintained regular virtual visits with the children throughout his incarceration—visits that had gone fairly well, although the children sometimes were bored during the visits— and he expressed a desire to “have a stronger relationship with” his children upon his release. Id. ¶ 11. The children were placed with the father’s own mother, who wanted to adopt them. Id. ¶¶ 9, 14. The juvenile court ordered the father’s rights terminated because it viewed adoption by the paternal grandmother as offering “stability,” and because it believed that adoption was necessary to “protect” the children “from [the father’s] desire to have ongoing and frequent visitation” after his release. Id. ¶¶ 13– 14.

¶125 We reversed the termination order. We noted that “there is no indication that [the father’s] continuing relationship with [the children] is harmful to them, rather than merely perhaps inconvenient.” Id. ¶ 24. In particular, we noted that there were no allegations of abuse or neglect regarding the father, and that the children had been “found only dependent—not abused or neglected—as to him.” Id. And we observed that, given “the absence of a ‘harmfulness’ component” to the father’s relationship with the children, there was “no basis for the juvenile court’s view that [the children] need ‘protections against [the father’s] commitment for increased and continued visitation.’” Id. ¶ 27. Relatedly, we noted the absence of any evidence that the father and the grandmother had “the sort of relationship where [the father] would be likely to exercise undue control over custody and care decisions in a guardianship arrangement.” Id. ¶ 32.

¶126 Finally, we placed “almost no stock in” the juvenile court’s reference to the desires of the children, for two reasons. Id. ¶ 29. First, the children were quite young—eleven and six—and the court had made no determination that they were old enough to offer a meaningful opinion as to the differences between adoption and guardianship. Id. Second, and more substantively, “the trial testimony did not support any finding on this issue more specific than that [the children]—quite understandably— wanted to remain in [their grandmother’s] care.” Id. ¶ 30. In particular, “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.” Id.

¶127 In this case, by contrast, the operative facts are quite different. First, and most importantly, there is a significant “harm” component to this case that was entirely absent in In re D.S. Here, the juvenile court found—after a lengthy adjudication trial—that all four minor children had “been emotionally abused” in a “continuing pattern of emotional maltreatment” by Father and that this “ongoing abusive environment [had] emotionally damaged the children.” Father mounted no substantive appeal from these adjudicated facts, and he agrees that we must take those facts as they are. Moreover, Father failed to take advantage of any of the services provided to him to address his abusive behavior; indeed, the court found—in findings not appealed here—that Father had “made no efforts,” or “only token efforts,” to address and eliminate “the issues of emotional abuse which exist in the home.” At the conclusion of the termination trial, the juvenile court therefore had every reason to believe that Father— if allowed a continuing relationship with the children—would continue his abusive behavior just as he had in the past. Under the particular circumstances of this case, the juvenile court’s concern about residual rights was entirely justified.

¶128 Second, given the emotional abuse issues present here, there is also good reason to believe that Father—if allowed to retain residual rights—would leverage the fact that he still had parental rights to attempt to exercise undue control over custody and care decisions, and would not just limit his role to consenting to adoption and any change in religious affiliation. In the past, Father had attempted to exercise his domineering ways over Oldest Sister, even once “backhand[ing]” her when, as an adult, she declined his demand to clean his house during a visit. And the incident involving Father’s attempt to interfere with Chloe’s medical appointment—even after removal—is well-documented and has already been discussed. We therefore view the court’s finding regarding Father’s propensity to interfere in custody and care decisions as entirely supported by the record here.

¶129 Finally, the court in this case had strong evidence of what the children’s individual desires were. Unlike in In re D.S., all four of the children here, by the conclusion of the trial, were at least fourteen years old, and all of them were able to articulate clear opinions about what their desired outcome was. And all of them told the court, in no uncertain terms, that they wanted to be adopted by Oldest Sister and that they did not want to have any relationship with Father.[14] As noted below, the juvenile court was to give the children’s desires in this regard “added weight.” See Utah Code § 80-3-409(15).

¶130 For all of these reasons, then, we see no reversible error in the juvenile court’s conclusion that, in this case, it was in the children’s best interest for Father’s parental rights to be terminated. Such a decision was within the discretion of the juvenile court and was supported by the record.

  1. Mother’s Arguments

¶131 With regard to Mother, the court initially declined to terminate her rights, instead imposing a permanent custody and guardianship arrangement in favor of Oldest Sister. After consideration of the GAL’s rule 59 motion, however, the court changed course and terminated Mother’s rights along with Father’s, concluding that it had failed to give the proper weight to the children’s stated wishes for adoption.

¶132 Mother challenges the court’s termination order on two grounds. First, she asserts that the court erred by allowing the GAL to submit evidence, in connection with the rule 59 motion, of certain post-trial events. Second, she mounts a substantive challenge, similar to Father’s, to the court’s conclusion that termination of her parental rights was strictly necessary to promote the children’s best interest. We discuss these two arguments in turn.

1

¶133 After oral argument on the GAL’s rule 59 motion, the court allowed the GAL to submit a “Report and Recommendation” that included an affidavit from Brother-in-Law describing events that had occurred after the termination trial. Mother believes that the court erred by considering this “new evidence” in reaching its decision to terminate Mother’s parental rights. We take Mother’s point that evidence of post-trial proceedings should ordinarily play no role in considering whether to grant a new trial. See In re C.L., 2007 UT 51, ¶ 14, 166 P.3d 608 (“A motion for a new trial or amended judgment cannot be based on facts occurring subsequent to trial . . . .” (quotation simplified)). But even assuming, for the purposes of the argument, that the court erred by allowing the GAL to submit this evidence, any such error was harmless here because there is no indication that Brother-in-Law’s affidavit played any role in the court’s decision.

¶134 In its ruling granting the GAL’s motion, the court included an introductory paragraph informing the parties that, before making its decision, it had “review[e]d” rule 59, “the filings and arguments of the parties,” the “prior testimony from the termination trial,” and its “original findings and order.” The court made no specific mention of Brother-in-Law’s post-argument affidavit. And later in its order, when setting forth the actual basis for its decision, it explained that it was amending its initial order because “the children’s wishes or voice were not given proper weight” as mandated by governing statute. It noted again that it had reviewed its own “previous findings and conclusions” as well as “the trial testimony and exhibits,” especially the children’s testimony in which they were “direct in seeking to be adopted” by Oldest Sister. In explaining the substance of its decision, the court made no mention at all of any post-trial events or of Brother-in-Law’s affidavit, and it explained that the basis for its decision rested on entirely different grounds.

¶135 Under these circumstances, any error on the part of the court in allowing the submission of evidence of post-trial events did not affect the court’s grant of the GAL’s rule 59 motion. We therefore see no basis for reversal of the court’s rule 59 decision in the arguably improper submission of Brother-in-Law’s affidavit. See State v. Loose, 2000 UT 11, ¶ 10 n.1, 994 P.2d 1237 (“We do not reverse a trial court for committing harmless error.”).

2

¶136 Next, Mother challenges the substance of the court’s decision to terminate her parental rights. Here, we reach the same conclusion we reached in considering Father’s similar challenge: while the juvenile court could potentially have imposed a permanent custody and guardianship arrangement on these facts, we perceive no reversible error in its conclusion that termination of Mother’s rights was strictly necessary to promote the children’s best interest.

¶137 As an initial matter, the court correctly interpreted the statutes governing a child’s stated desires. Under Utah law, “if the minor desires an opportunity to address the juvenile court or testify,” the court “shall . . . allow the minor” to do so. Utah Code § 80-3-108(4)(a)(ii). Moreover, when “determining whether termination is in the best interest of the child,” the court should consider the relevant factors “from the child’s point of view.” Id. § 80-4-104(12)(b). The juvenile court heard from Hannah and Noah, and thereafter correctly noted that they “were straightforward in stating that they wished to be adopted by” Oldest Sister and Brother-in-Law. The court also noted that, when a minor is fourteen years old or older, “the juvenile court shall give the minor’s wishes added weight” and, if the court’s decision “differs from a minor’s express wishes,” then the court must “make findings explaining” its decision. Id. § 80-3-409(15). At the time the court issued its ruling, Hannah was seventeen and Noah was fourteen; the statute thus required the court to give their wishes “added weight.” And that is exactly what the court did. After further analyzing “the testimony and evidence from the trial on the termination petition, with emphasis on the children’s testimony, and with further review” of the relevant statutes, the court was persuaded that its previous order should be amended and that Mother’s parental rights should be terminated. We perceive no error in the court’s procedure in this regard.

¶138 Mother further challenges the court’s substantive decision, and we acknowledge that, with regard to her, certain factors weigh perhaps more in her favor—or, at least, not as strongly against her—than they do with regard to Father. Her relationship with the children was less actively harmful than Father’s, and there is little if any evidence that she tended to attempt to manipulate her relationship with Oldest Sister. We therefore understand, at some level, the juvenile court’s initial inclination to keep her relationship with the children intact, even while terminating Father’s.

¶139 But ultimately, we agree with the State and the GAL that sufficient evidence exists in this record to support the juvenile court’s reconsidered determination to terminate Mother’s rights as well. There was evidence supporting the conclusion that Mother’s relationship with the children was harmful, even if to a lesser extent than Father’s. And Mother adamantly elected to remain in a relationship with Father, an adjudicated emotional abuser who refused to take steps to remedy the situation. We have previously noted that juvenile courts “have minimal empathy for parents whose strong emotional ties to their spouses or significant others jeopardize their children’s safety.” See In re T.M., 2006 UT App 435, ¶ 20, 147 P.3d 529; see also In re G.B., 2002 UT App 270, ¶ 17, 53 P.3d 963 (upholding a juvenile court’s finding that termination of a mother’s parental rights was in the children’s best interest where the mother continued to foster a relationship with the children’s abusive father, “had no intention of separating from” him, and “continue[d] to deny that any abuse occurred”), cert. denied, 63 P.3d 104 (Utah 2002).

¶140 And the children were adamant that they wanted to be adopted and that they wanted no continuing relationship with Parents, a consideration to which the court was statutorily obligated to give “added weight.” See Utah Code § 80-3-409(15). Mother appears to recognize that the juvenile court’s decision came down to a “weighing of factors,” asserting in her appellate brief that the court “performed an inappropriate weighing of factors.” While a different judge might have weighed the factors differently and opted to keep Mother’s relationship with the children intact, we cannot say that the juvenile court, on this record, committed reversible error by exercising its discretion in the opposite direction.

CONCLUSION

¶141 In sum, Parents have not carried their burden of demonstrating any violation of their constitutional rights. Parents have also not established that either of their trial attorneys provided ineffective assistance. Additionally, we perceive no clear error in any of the challenged factual findings. The juvenile court’s determination that termination of Parents’ parental rights was strictly necessary to advance the children’s best interest was supported by the record, and we perceive no reversible error in the court’s grant of the GAL’s rule 59 motion.

¶142 Affirmed.

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


[1] Hannah and Noah are pseudonyms, which we elect to employ here to avoid continued and potentially confusing repetition of similar-sounding initials.

[2] In cases like this one, where parties are appealing the determination made following a termination trial, “we recite the facts in the light most favorable to the juvenile court findings.” In re S.T., 2022 UT App 130, n.2, 521 P.3d 887 (quotation simplified).

[3] Chloe and Felicity are also pseudonyms.

[4] All four children waived the clergy testimonial privilege to allow Branch President to testify at this and other proceedings throughout this matter.

[5] A second therapist also recalled this incident, later testifying that Father became “aggressive” and was yelling at Therapist about DCFS “framing his family” and how there was a “large conspiracy . . . brought on through DCFS” and “the State of Utah.”

[6] During later testimony, Father testified about the group therapy sessions and, specifically, about the issues he had with Therapist, and he attempted to explain his perception that Therapist did not have “the same values” as Father. When specifically asked whether he wanted a therapist who was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), Father stated that he doesn’t “just look at a person on an LDS basis.” He explained, instead, that he wanted the children to have a therapist who agreed with him on the “eternal values or principles” that he “believe[d] govern the universe.”

[7] Mother later asked the court to “set aside” her rule 34(e) plea and requested “that a new trial be ordered to address the allegations” in the State’s petition. See Utah R. Juv. P. 34(e). The basis for this request was that Mother claimed “she was not certain of what a [r]ule 34(e) proceeding involved and the resulting consequences.” The court denied Mother’s request, stating that Mother had “affirmatively waived her right to a trial” and that the court had “confirmed that she understood she was waiving her right to trial.” The court had even gone a step further and “had a colloquy specifically with [Mother] and her counsel wherein she indicated she understood” the implications of proceeding under rule 34(e) “and the resulting findings that would be made as a result of that course of action.”

[8] At the adjudication stage, Mother—the parent who was found to have neglected (as opposed to abused) the children—did not attempt to invoke this religious-based statutory exception. Nor does she invoke it here on appeal. Accordingly, as far as we are aware, this exception is not at issue in this case.

[9] 9. As noted, Parents do not challenge the determination that statutory grounds for termination of their parental rights were present in this case. But Parents do assert, in their briefs, that the State interfered with their “right to make value-based decisions regarding the upbringing” of the children. This argument is not independently developed, and—especially in light of Father’s attorney’s concession at oral argument—we do not interpret it as a frontal attack on the juvenile court’s adjudication findings. However, to the extent it is intended as such, we reject that challenge not only because it is inadequately briefed but also because any challenge to the adjudication findings needed to have been made in an appeal from the adjudication order. See In re D.G., 2014 UT App 22, ¶ 5, 319 P.3d 768.

[10] In addition to these two arguments, Mother complains—in passing, during the “constitutional” section of her brief—that the court improperly “utiliz[ed]” her “continued association with Father as evidence that she had failed to make adequate effort to adjust her conduct to substantially correct the circumstances that led to” the children’s removal. But Mother does not develop this argument; in particular, she makes no attempt to explain how this argument might have constitutional dimension. As noted, infra ¶ 139, it is not improper for a juvenile court to take into account, in making a termination decision, the fact that a parent insists on continuing a relationship with an abusive person.

[11] The rule also seemingly had little to no impact on Mother’s therapy sessions with the children. Mother testified that she only remembered being told about the children’s rules during the first two therapy sessions and, from her recollection, the children “brought all those things up” anyway.

[12] We also wonder whether there was any state action involved here at all, given that the rule in question was envisioned and requested by the children themselves. See In re adoption of B.Y., 2015 UT 67, ¶ 16, 356 P.3d 1215 (stating that the constitution protects “against state action,” not against “the actions of private parties”). But this issue was not briefed by the parties, and we therefore offer no opinion on the subject.

[13] While Parents couch their claim, at times, in the language of “reasonable efforts,” we note that their claim is not a traditional challenge to a juvenile court’s reasonable efforts determination. In particular, Parents do not directly argue that either of the two things they challenge—the requirement that they participate in family therapy with Therapist or the no-talking-about-religion rule—were not part of a “fair and serious attempt to reunify a parent with a child prior to seeking to terminate parental rights.” In re K.F., 2009 UT 4, ¶ 51, 201 P.3d 985 (quotation simplified).

[14] In this case, Parents make no argument that any of the children were too young, or were for any other reason incompetent, to offer trial testimony about their desires regarding placement, adoption, and their ongoing relationship with Parents.

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Is there a difference between hearings and trials in Utah divorce cases?

Yes. A hearing is not the same as a trial. While there may be some similarities, they are not the same thing and do not accomplish the same objectives.

The primary difference between a trial and a hearing is that a trial disposes of the law suit after the parties present evidence to the judge for a final ruling on the case. The trial is the end of the case (unless there is an appeal after trial, but that’s a different subject for another blog).

Hearings take place before trial, are usually shorter than a trial, and are used to resolve issues that arise during the pendency of the case before trial. You can and likely will have multiple hearings in your case, while there is just one trial.

Hearings usually take minutes or hours. Trials take longer, usually several days or weeks.

Hearings take place before trial.

Your first experience with the courtroom (whether in the courtroom or whether you participate via remote video conference) will almost surely be in a hearing, not trial.

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

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Doing What’s Best for Children by Refusing to Hear From Them on the Subject (And Other Nonsense).

Recently an attorney posed a question on a forum for fellow Utah family law attorneys. The question involved how to find out what the children’s experiences have been with one of their parents (this parent was dealing with some personal demons) and what kind of contact they should have with that parent.

I responded on the forum that if this isn’t a scenario in which both the commissioner and the judge should be interviewing the children themselves, so that those who hold the fates of these children in their hands have the best possible idea what is going through these children’s minds at this time, what they have experienced, how they feel, what they desire, and whether those desires are in line with their best interests, then there is never an appropriate time for the court to interview children.

Who could gainsay that?

Many tried (and failed).

One attorney who responded to my suggestion commented that this would be the worst time for a judge or commissioner to interview the children but did not explain why. This attorney claimed that a private guardian ad litem (PGAL) should be appointed for, and to interview the children, instead. I asked for an explanation, and further commented by asking what ostensibly makes judges and commissioners so innately bad at interviewing children, and what makes PGALs innately so good at it? I don’t know where the myth of the angelic, “child whisperer” PGAL and the demonic, “couldn’t interview a child effectively if his/her life depended on it” judge dichotomy came from, but it’s nonsense.

Another attorney (like many who comment on this subject) commented that children should never be interviewed or even “exposed to the legal system unless absolutely necessary” without identifying a scenario in which it would be “absolutely necessary”. This attorney claimed that because minor children’s brains are developing that being interviewed by a judge or commissioner  “is incredibly damaging to the child.” In response to that comment I asked, “Where’s the evidence?”

The response I got was similar to what everyone says to me in response to that same question:

  • “every single child development book ever created, academic case studies, nonprofits that specialize in it, etc.” advises against judges or lawyers interviewing children.

o   This is false (which should come as no surprise when any speaks in those kinds of absolute terms), but it’s widely believed (or asserted as believed) in the family law profession.

  • “Commissioners and judges are not specifically educated in this area of law as those who practice it day are.”

o   But that argument erroneously presumes

  • that unless a judge, commissioner, or lawyer is “specifically educated” in how to talk to children about what they have experienced, how they feel, what they desire, and whether those desires are in line with their best interests, that judge, commissioner, or lawyer will inexorably make a mess of interviewing the child; and
  • that those who are (or are “certified” as) “specifically educated” in how to talk to children are incapable of being incompetent child interviewers.
  • When I responded with, “Well, if it’s so obvious and the research so voluminous and overwhelming, please cite it,” I got this in response: “You can do the research yourself.”

The legal system needs to stop believing that which is untested in the name of “protecting children.” It was widely accepted as fact in America that tomatoes were poisonous to humans. It was not until Robert Gibbon Johnson (no relation to me) ate a tomato on the courthouse steps of Salem, New Jersey in 1820 that he proved otherwise. Dispelling that myth has been a culinary and economical boon to the entire world.

I recently deposed a 14-year-old child in a parent time dispute case. She was not only willing to testify but was grateful for the opportunity to have her voice heard and her viewpoint considered. She was a particularly compelling and credible witness. The evidence she provided could not have come from any other source. After her deposition the case was resolved in a week.

The notion that any child testifying in any child custody or parent-time dispute case does terrible damage to any and every child is simply not true. I know this because I have deposed children to the benefit of child and truth seeking alike.

Blanket prohibitions on child testimony (on the grounds that they are nothing but harmful to all children) are not only false, they are also contrary to fundamental concepts of fact finding and subserving the best interest of the child.

I know that eliciting child testimony is not harmful to all children because I have real world data to the contrary. And not just someone else’s claims, but my own experience.

It has, unfortunately, become an article of faith in Utah family law practice that child testimony does more harm than good. That has not been my experience. I am one of the few attorneys in Utah who has that experience. It is therefore hard for me to give unverified claims the same weight as my own experience. I would be lying if I asserted that child testimony inexorably and/or irreparably harms most (let alone all) children. Blanket prohibitions on child testimony are antithetical to fundamental principles of our legal system, i.e., diligent investigation, careful, impartial analysis, real respect for children’s rights and best interests, and honest judgment.

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

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Is Court-Ordered Therapy Over-Used? By Braxton Mounteer, legal assistant.

Whether you believe that everyone needs (or could benefit from) therapy or that it is only for the most dysfunctional families, you, like most people, likely agree some therapy has a place in family law matters. For all the benefits of court-ordered therapy, however, therapy can be misused and abused.

For therapy to be effective in these kinds of settings, if you don’t have willing and earnest participation, it’s not going to work. It is hard work to confront your own faults and the faults of those who may have hurt you. It’s hard to better yourself. It’s hard to reconcile with past abuse, betrayals, and other kinds of mistreatment. One who is forced into therapy will, in most cases, refuse to participate or even actively oppose it. Is it any wonder why?

Courts often order too much therapy, with “too much” meaning either ordering therapy too often, or ordering therapy for too long. There are many reasons for this, but two of the worst are virtue signaling courts and greedy therapists.

Many judges and commissioners order therapy so that they can’t be accused of not being thorough, of not being sufficiently sensitive and caring and protective. This results in therapy being ordered even when it’s not needed or even warranted. It’s easy for courts to order therapy. It feels good. It’s a cheap, easy way for courts to look good. It doesn’t cost the commissioners and judges a penny to order therapy.

The point of ordering family members into therapy is rarely “eh, see if it helps.” Not everyone needs therapy. Some problems aren’t problems (or big enough problems) to warrant therapy. It’s likely a safe bet that most people might benefit from a little therapy. We’re all flawed. “Better safe than sorry” is tempting, but forcing people into therapy who aren’t dysfunctional can itself cause dysfunction.

I am referring to the emotional equivalent to scraping your knee. Those situations wouldn’t require the emergency room or physical therapy. However, when a court orders therapy left, right, and center, is making something that can help a lot of people into a hammer and every potential problem a nail.

You may say, “Well, even if the only benefit that therapy provides is a place to voice your problems, it is still better than nothing.” and you would be wrong. What if a child is handling the divorce well and putting him or her in therapy makes the child falsely feel he or she is being treated for a non-existent problem? Money wasted on needless therapy could leave one unable to pay for other needs in other aspects of one’s life and the life of one’s children.

If you are an aggressive and abusive husband or an emotionally abusive and cheating wife and your children take issue with that, it’s your fault. Therapy isn’t glue to keep your family together. You can’t expect someone to keep a ship afloat if you are constantly drilling holes in the hull. Sometimes you really are the problem and could benefit from facing and fixing your issues. When courts default to ordering therapy as a catch-all cure-all, they’re phoning it in. No one benefits from that. If you’re afraid to oppose therapy because you’re afraid you’ll be labeled anti-child or anti-caring, don’t be. If the court can’t make a cogent case that therapy is truly necessary or clearly warranted, have the gumption and courage to object. If you don’t, then you have no one to blame but yourself, if needless knee-jerk therapy is ordered in your case

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

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Should You Ask for a Psychological Evaluation in Your Divorce Case? By Braxton Mounteer

The point of a psychological evaluation isn’t to establish if someone merely suffers from any mental or emotional disorder or disorders, but to help determine whether such disorders, if they exist, render your spouse a danger to himself/herself or to your children, and/or whether your spouse is a pathological liar. In other words, if your spouse suffers from a mental or emotional disorder or disorders, are the disorders relevant to any issues to be decided in the divorce action?

If you’re contemplating a psychological evaluation, ask yourself why.
Is it because your spouse is genuinely unstable or deluded and not credible, or are you trying to embarrass, humiliate, or defame your spouse?

And FYI, if your attorney recommended a psychological evaluation, don’t let that be your own basis for seeking one. If your attorney cannot honestly explain to you the justification for a psychological evaluation, your attorney is likely just trying to get you to spend money.

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

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Is There A Better Way To Conduct Court Proceedings?

A better way to conduct court proceedings came along (a long time ago): remote appearances.  You read that correctly: the courts in Utah can accommodate appearances by remote video conference. If you are disabled, don’t have access to transportation, have little kids at home you cannot leave behind, etc., you have an alternative to appearing personally in court. That stated, you often have to make a case for appearing remotely.

Some commissioners and judges act as though appearing remotely for court proceedings is unnatural, some kind of sin against jurisprudence. We clearly don’t need to appear personally in court anymore. And remote appearance technology is only getting better and more accessible. Luddites have lost this battle.

So what’s with the policy of requiring those who wish to appear remotely to file a motion for leave to do so (that means preparing, filing, and serving a motion requesting leave/permission to appear remotely, preparing, filing, and serving a request to submit the motion to the court for decision, and preparing, filing, and serving a proposed order on that motion for the court to sign)? Why create all that plainly pointless work for lawyers and for court personnel? Why not adopt a policy of permitting remote appearance upon filing a simple request with the court that will be automatically granted unless the court makes cogent findings that appearing physically in the courtroom is necessary and explaining why?

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

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In re Adoption of M.A. – 2024 UT 6 – petition to unseal adoption records – good cause

In re Adoption of M.A. – 2024 UT 6

This opinion is subject to revision before final publication in the Pacific Reporter

2024 UT 6 IN THE SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF UTAH

In the matter of the adoption of M.A.

MARIANNE TYSON,  Appellant.

No. 20221097

Heard November 8, 2023

Filed February 22, 2024

On Certification from the Court of Appeals

Third District, Salt Lake County

The Honorable Laura S. Scott No. 223902369

Attorney: David Pedrazas, Millcreek, for appellant

ASSOCIATE CHIEF JUSTICE PEARCE authored the opinion of the

Court, in which CHIEF JUSTICE DURRANT, JUSTICE PETERSEN,

JUSTICE HAGEN, and JUSTICE POHLMAN joined.

ASSOCIATE CHIEF JUSTICE PEARCE, opinion of the Court:

INTRODUCTION

¶1 Marianne Tyson wants to see the court records that memorialized her 1978 adoption.[1] Tyson does not know who her birth parents are but hopes to learn “health, genetic, or social information” about them to inform her doctors about any medical predispositions she may have.

¶2 The Utah Legislature has made a number of policy choices concerning adoption records. “An adoption document and any other documents filed in connection with a petition for adoption are sealed” and closed from public view for a century following the adoption. UTAH CODE § 78B-6-141(2), (3)(e). The Legislature has also decided that those sealed adoption records can be inspected or copied when a petitioner has shown “good cause.” See id. § 78B-6-­141(3)(c). The Legislature has not, however, defined good cause. This court has implemented the Legislature’s “good cause” directive through Utah Rule of Civil Procedure 107(d). That rule instructs a court to determine “whether the petitioner has shown good cause and whether the reasons for disclosure outweigh the reasons for non-disclosure.” UTAH R. CIV. P. 107(d).

¶3 The district court denied Tyson’s petition to examine her adoption records. The court reasoned that good cause “require[d] something more than a desire to obtain health or genetic or social information unrelated to a specific medical condition of [Tyson]” and that to require less would “severely undermine[]” the “Legislature’s policy determination that adoption records should be sealed for 100 years.”

¶4 Tyson appeals, arguing in part that the district court misinterpreted the statute. We agree and remand to permit the district court to reassess Tyson’s petition under the correct standard.

BACKGROUND

¶5 Tyson was less than a year old when she was adopted in 1978. Some four decades later, she petitioned the district court to unseal her adoption file to discover “health, genetic, or social information” about her birth parents. Before her petition, Tyson had requested records from Utah’s voluntary adoption registry, which could not find a parental match.[2] In her petition, Tyson claimed that her doctors had requested family medical history regarding “menopause, high blood pressure and/or stroke” and that she could not provide the history because of her lack of access to her birth parents’ records. Tyson argued that her lack of family medical history was sufficient good cause to unseal her record under section 78B-6-141(3)(c). With respect to rule 107’s balancing requirement, she contended that her desire to understand her family medical history forty-four years after her adoption outweighed any interest in keeping the record sealed from her view.

¶6 Before the district court, Tyson admitted she was not aware that she suffered from any genetic condition for which it would be beneficial to have a better understanding of her family’s medical history. The court asked for additional briefing on the question of how it should interpret good cause. The court noted that “as I interpret the statute correctly or incorrectly, good cause is something more than simply the adult adoptee’s desire to have a general understanding of health or background or ethnicity or who the parents are.”

¶7 At the next hearing, Tyson continued to argue that her right to know her birth parents and their respective medical histories outweighed the birth parents’ privacy interests. The district court denied Tyson’s petition. It recognized that “good cause” is not defined in the statute nor in rule 107. The court also noted that there was no controlling precedent to provide a definition. The court nonetheless concluded that good cause “require[d] something more than a desire to obtain health or genetic or social information unrelated to a specific medical condition of [a] [p]etitioner.” The court reasoned that to require less would “severely undermine[]” the “Legislature’s policy determination that adoption records should be sealed for 100 years. ”

¶8 The district court acknowledged that Tyson correctly asserted that “[i]t is the intent and desire of the Legislature that in every adoption the best [interest] of the child should govern and be of foremost concern in the court’s determination.” (First referencing UTAH CODE § 78B-6-102; and then citing In re Adoption of B.B., 2017 UT 59, ¶ 35, 417 P.3d 1.) But the court also noted that the Legislature has decided that an unmarried mother is entitled to privacy regarding her pregnancy and adoption plan and that it protected this right through the one-hundred-year seal and the good cause requirement for unsealing. (Citing UTAH CODE § 78B-6­-102(5)(b), (7).) The court refused to use the best interest of the child standard for its inquiry, instead adhering to the good cause standard it had outlined.

¶9 The district court next conducted the balancing that rule 107 contemplates and determined that Tyson’s proffered reasons for unsealing her adoption records did not outweigh her birth mother’s privacy interests. The court found this was especially true “given the confidentiality that the statute afforded [the birth mother] when she made the decision to place [Tyson] for adoption over 40 years ago.” The court also noted that “in the absence of good cause, the court is required to guard the confidentiality of adoption records consistent with the Utah Legislature’s policy that such records be sealed.” In accordance with this analysis, the court determined that Tyson was not entitled to obtain the requested records and denied her petition.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶10 The Legislature has given district courts discretion to decide if good cause exists to unseal adoption records. We review that decision for an abuse of that discretion. But “[w]hen district courts have discretion to weigh factors[] [or] balance competing interests, . . . those discretionary determinations must rest upon sound legal principles.” State v. Boyden, 2019 UT 11, ¶ 21, 441 P.3d 737. A “[m]isapplication of the law constitutes an abuse of discretion.” Id. ¶ 19. Thus, “when a legal conclusion is embedded in a district court’s discretionary determination, we peel back the abuse of discretion standard and look to make sure that the court applied the correct law.” Id. ¶ 21. We review a lower court’s statutory interpretation for correctness. Scott v. Benson, 2023 UT 4, ¶ 25, 529 P.3d 319.

ANALYSIS

¶11 Tyson raises three arguments on appeal. She first claims that the best interest of the child is the overriding consideration in all adoption cases. And therefore, Tyson contends, the district court abused its discretion when it failed to consider whether the unsealing of her adoption records was in her best interest. Tyson next argues that the district court abused its discretion when it concluded that she was not entitled to obtain the records under Utah Code section 78B-6-141(3)(c). Finally, she contends that the district court abused its discretion when it held that the interest in non-disclosure outweighed Tyson’s justifications to unseal the records under Utah Rule of Civil Procedure 107.[3]

I. THE GOOD CAUSE STANDARD, NOT THE BEST INTEREST OF THE CHILD STANDARD, APPLIES TO PETITIONS TO UNSEAL ADOPTION RECORDS

¶12 Tyson first asserts that the district court erred because it failed to afford primacy to the “child’s best interest” in its analysis. Before the district court, Tyson argued that the Legislature has recognized that “in every adoption the best interest of the child should govern” and that standard should apply to her petition. (Quoting UTAH CODE § 78B-6-102(1).) The court refused to apply that standard and instead analyzed Tyson’s petition using what it understood to be the good cause standard found in Utah Code section 78B-6-141(3)(c).

¶13 Tyson argues that as an adult who was adopted as a minor, she maintains the protections that the law affords to adopted children.[4] Tyson advocates that the Legislature’s mandate—that “in every adoption the best interest of the child should govern”— applies to all proceedings related to a child’s adoption, regardless of when the proceedings occur. Tyson further argues that because “the best interests of the child are paramount[,] . . . [w]hen the interests of a child and an adult are in conflict, the conflict must be resolved in favor of the child.” (Citing In re Adoption of B.B., 2017 UT 59, ¶ 35 n.14, 417 P.3d 1.) Tyson contends we should categorically consider her interest, “as the adult adoptee, over the interest of her birth parents.”

¶14 Even assuming, without deciding, that the child’s best interest standard would otherwise apply to this proceeding, a basic canon of statutory interpretation defeats Tyson’s argument. “When we interpret a statute, we start with the plain language of the provision, reading it in harmony with other statutes in the same chapter and related chapters.” Buck v. Utah State Tax Comm’n, 2022 UT 11, ¶ 27, 506 P.3d 584 (cleaned up). “And where there is an inconsistency between related statutory provisions, the specific provision controls over the general.” Latham v. Off. of Recovery Servs., 2019 UT 51, ¶ 35, 448 P.3d 1241.

¶15 Here, Tyson wants us to promote the general over the specific. Section 78B-6-102(1) speaks about the “intent and desire of the Legislature” generally regarding adoptions, in that “in every adoption the best interest of the child should govern.” Section 78B­6-141(3)(c) speaks directly to the issue presented here—what a petitioner must show to unseal adoption records. We presume that the Legislature intended the more specific provision to control over the general statement. Therefore, the district court did not err when it applied the good cause standard instead of examining what was in Tyson’s best interest.

II. THE DISTRICT COURT ERRED WHEN IT RELIED ON THE LEGISLATURE’S DECISION TO SEAL ADOPTION RECORDS FOR ONE HUNDRED YEARS TO DERIVE THE MEANING OF “GOOD CAUSE”

¶16 The district court concluded that a desire to obtain health information “unrelated to a specific medical condition” was categorically insufficient to make a good cause showing under section 78B-6-141(3)(c). The court relied on what it perceived as the Legislature’s strong emphasis on privacy in adoption statutes to reach that conclusion. Tyson’s desire to provide family medical history to her doctors regarding “menopause, high blood pressure and/or stroke” did not, in the court’s eyes, constitute good cause to unseal her adoption records.

¶17 Tyson challenges the district court’s definition of good cause. She argues that the privacy concerns the Legislature addresses lose their potency over time. Tyson claims her birth mother has enjoyed over forty years of privacy and that affording her further confidentiality cannot outweigh Tyson’s desire to know her family medical history. Specifically, Tyson states that the only reason the Legislature protects a birth mother’s privacy is to assure “the permanence of an adoptive placement.” (Quoting UTAH CODE § 78B-6-102(5)(b).) Tyson argues that “once the Adoptee is an adult, there is no other interest in protecting the privacy of the mother and/or adoptee” because permanence has been achieved. In other words, “once the adoptee has become an adult, the legislative intent has been met and satisfied.” So, according to Tyson, “[t]he interest of Adult Adoptee[s] [like Tyson] should outweigh whatever interest the [S]tate has in protecting . . . [the] privacy of the mother from an Adult Adoptee.”

¶18 Utah Code section 78B-6-141(3)(c) states that an adoption petition and all other documents filed in connection with a petition for adoption “may only be open to inspection and copying . . . upon order of the court expressly permitting inspection or copying, after good cause has been shown.” When it applied this provision to Tyson’s petition, the district court stated that good cause required Tyson to show “something more than a desire to obtain health or genetic or social information unrelated to a specific medical condition.” The court further reasoned that “if this was all that was required to show good cause, the Utah Legislature’s policy determination that adoption records should be sealed for 100 years would be severely undermined.” In essence, the court concluded that a desire to see one’s medical record unrelated to a specific medical condition could not constitute good cause as a matter of law because it would weaken the privacy protections the statute affords to birth parents.

¶19 The Legislature did not define good cause in the context of section 78B-6-141(3)(c). This stands in contrast to other statutory provisions where the Legislature makes clear what it intends good cause to mean. For example, in Utah Code section 32B-14-102(3), the Legislature tells us that good cause equates to “the material failure by a supplier or a wholesaler to comply with an essential, reasonable, and lawful requirement imposed by a distributorship agreement if the failure occurs after the supplier or wholesaler acting in good faith provides notice of deficiency and an opportunity to correct.”

¶20 At times, the Legislature has granted courts broad discretion by not defining good cause, only to add a definition after it sees how the courts have applied the standard. We noted in State v. Ruiz that, under a prior version of the plea withdrawal statute, judges “had broad discretion to determine the scope of circumstances that constituted ‘good cause’ and warranted withdrawal of a plea.” 2012 UT 29, ¶ 31, 282 P.3d 998. But we also noted that the Legislature had amended the statute so that “judges may now grant a motion to withdraw only when they determine that a defendant’s plea was not knowingly and voluntarily entered.” Id. ¶ 32.

¶21 When a court deals with an undefined good cause standard, it has discretion to look to the facts and arguments presented to decide the question. Although it deals with a rule and not a statute, Reisbeck v. HCA Health Services of Utah, Inc. is instructive. See 2000 UT 48, ¶¶ 5–15, 2 P.3d 447. The appellant in Reisbeck failed to file her notice of appeal within the thirty days that Utah Rule of Appellate Procedure 4(a) requires and sought a discretionary extension from the trial court for “good cause” under Utah Rule of Appellate Procedure 4(e). Id. ¶¶ 5, 7. We refused to “establish any specific criteria for determining good cause” because “the assessment of the justifications offered by a moving party will remain highly fact-intensive, and because any given justification may entail aspects both within and beyond the moving party’s control.” Id. ¶¶ 14–15 (cleaned up). That is, an undefined good cause standard provides courts with discretion to consider the merits of individual cases.

¶22 Here, the district court attempted to breathe a more specific meaning into the phrase “good cause.” Although it is understandable that the court would want more guidance than the statute provides, it interpreted the statute in a fashion that rewrote the law. The district court opined that good cause must mean “something more than a desire to obtain health or genetic or social information unrelated to a specific medical condition of [Tyson].” The court reasoned that to require less would “severely undermine[]” the “Legislature’s policy determination that adoption records should be sealed for 100 years.”

¶23 But the statute already balances the policy determination that records be sealed for one hundred years against a petitioner’s desire to see those records. The Legislature resolved the question of when a petitioner can have access to those records by stating that a petitioner can unseal those records whenever she can show a court that good cause exists to do so. To impose additional requirements—such as more than a general desire to know one’s medical history—is inconsistent with the statute’s language. Stated differently, if the Legislature had wanted to impose a requirement that a petitioner point to something more than wanting to know her medical history, it could have put that in the statute. It did not, and it was error for the court to do so.

III. THE DISTRICT COURT DID NOT CONSIDER THE REASONS FOR DISCLOSURE IN ITS RULE 107 DETERMINATION

¶24 The district court not only concluded that Tyson had failed to establish good cause under section 78B-6-141(3)(c), it also determined that she could not meet the showing Utah Rule of Civil Procedure 107(d) requires.

¶25 Rule 107 provides, in relevant part, that: (i) a petition to open adoption records “shall identify the type of information sought and shall state good cause for access”; (ii) if seeking “health, genetic or social information, the petition shall state why the health history, genetic history or social history of the Bureau of Vital Statistics is insufficient for the purpose“; and (iii) in its resolution of the petition, “[t]he court shall determine whether the petitioner has shown good cause and whether the reasons for disclosure outweigh the reasons for non-disclosure.”[5] UTAH R. CIV. P. 107(b), (d).

¶26 Here, the district court ruled that Tyson’s “reasons for wanting access to the adoption records” did not “outweigh her birth mother’s interest in privacy.” But instead of balancing both interests under rule 107, the court focused solely on the birth mother’s privacy interests. The court did not consider the reasons for disclosure. This is likely because the court had already discounted Tyson’s desire to see her adoption records when it interpreted “good cause.” In other words, once the court determined that Tyson could not show good cause under section 78B-6-141(3)(c), it may have concluded that it had nothing to put on the disclosure side of the scale when the court balanced disclosure against non-disclosure.

¶27 We remand to permit the district court to evaluate Tyson’s petition under a correct interpretation of section 78B-6-141(3)(c) and to conduct a rule 107 balancing that gives weight to both the birth mother’s privacy interests and Tyson’s reasons for wanting to see her adoption records.

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


[1] In juvenile matters, we typically refer to the subject of the case by their initials. Tyson used her name in the district court briefing and in the briefing before this court. We acknowledge the importance of maintaining confidentiality in juvenile cases, but because Tyson is an adult who uses her full name in court documents, we do so as well.

[2] The Utah Adoption Registry is a voluntary, mutual-consent registry that helps adult adoptees born in Utah and their birth parents and blood-related siblings reunite with one another. See UTAH CODE § 78B-6-144.

[3] On appeal, Tyson asserts that “[e]very person has the constitutional and natural right to know their health, genetic or social information” and that by denying her that right and refusing to unseal her adoption records, we are denying her equal protection under the law as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. But Tyson has failed to offer any authority or legal basis to support that argument. Advancing a successful argument requires more than dangling an interesting soundbite. “A party may not simply point toward a pile of sand and expect the court to build a castle.” Salt Lake City v. Kidd, 2019 UT 4, ¶ 35, 435 P.3d 248. Tyson has inadequately briefed her constitutional argument, and we will leave the question for a case in which it has been fully briefed.

[4] Tyson cites the District of Columbia high court to support her proposition that the legal protections afforded to children should extend to minor adoptees who have become adults. (Citing In re G.D.L., 223 A.3d 100 (D.C. 2020).) That case is not helpful because the District of Columbia’s unsealing statute is significantly different from Utah’s. The D.C. statute provides that adoption records may only be unsealed “when the court is satisfied that the welfare of the child will . . . be promoted or protected.” D.C. CODE § 16-311.

[5] At first blush, Utah Rule of Civil Procedure 107 appears to smear some extra-textual gloss on the statute when it requires a petitioner to state why she cannot get medical information from the Bureau of Vital Statistics, and when it instructs a court to assess whether the “reasons for disclosure outweigh the reasons for non­disclosure.” Tyson does not challenge rule 107 and we will leave that question for another case.

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