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Category: Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law

2024 UT App 54 – Tilleman v. Tilleman – custody factors, income, fees

2024 UT App 54 – Tilleman v. Tilleman

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

MICHAEL ROBERT TILLEMAN, Appellant, v. MICHAL CHRISTINE TILLEMAN, Appellee.

Opinion No. 20210637-CA Filed April 11, 2024

Fourth District Court, Provo Department

The Honorable M. James Brady No. 164402522

Julie J. Nelson, Attorney for Appellant, Douglas B. Thayer, Andy V. Wright, and Jessica Griffin Anderson, Attorneys for Appellee

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

ORME, Judge:

¶1        Michael Robert Tilleman (Father) and Michal Christine Tilleman (Mother) were married and share one child (Child). Following rather contentious divorce proceedings, the trial court awarded sole legal custody of Child to Mother but awarded the parties joint physical custody. The court also imputed federal minimum wage income to Mother for child support purposes, and it awarded her attorney fees and costs.

¶2        On appeal, Father makes various arguments challenging the court’s legal custody award. He also contends that the court abused its discretion in imputing federal minimum wage income to Mother and in awarding her attorney fees and costs. Although we affirm several aspects of the court’s legal custody award, we nevertheless hold that the court abused its discretion in applying the wrong legal standard and accordingly reverse and remand for the court’s consideration of all the statutorily mandated custody factors. We also reverse the court’s imputation of Mother’s income and its attorney fee award and remand for further proceedings.

BACKGROUND[1]

¶3        Mother and Father married in 2013, and Child was born a little over a year later. In 2016, following a separation, Father filed a petition for divorce. This was soon followed by Mother’s counter-petition for divorce. The trial court characterized the ensuing litigation as “contentious” and the parties as “unusually accusatory, intransigent, and uncooperative.” We limit our recounting of the divorce proceedings to facts relevant to the issues raised on appeal.

¶4        In 2018, the court entered a stipulated, bifurcated decree of divorce reserving for trial, in relevant part, the issues of custody, parent-time, child support, and attorney fees. Although the parties each initially sought sole physical custody and joint legal custody of Child, by the time of trial they had each amended their pleadings to request sole physical and sole legal custody of Child.

¶5        In conjunction with her counter-petition for divorce, Mother also filed a motion asking that the court order Father to undergo a psychological examination under rule 35 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure “to properly address his ability to parent” Child.[2] The motion alleged that Father “has exhibited intense anger toward [Mother] and has engaged in mental and emotional abuse,” that “such anger has been exhibited toward” Child, and that he “may be suffering from mental health conditions.”

¶6        Father opposed Mother’s rule 35 motion and denied its allegations. In turn, he asked the court to order that Mother undergo a rule 35 evaluation, alleging that she “has been verbally and physically abusive towards” him, that she “is unable to control her anger and aggressions towards” him, and that “recent irrational and inappropriate actions, behaviors, and instability indicate that she may be suffering from some form of mental illness.”

¶7        In 2017, at a hearing on temporary orders, Mother’s counsel informed the trial court that the parties had stipulated, among other things, “that either party can request and . . . the other party will participate in a Rule 35 mental health exam as long as the requesting party pays the cost up front.” Accordingly, the court’s temporary order included a provision stating that “[e]ither party may request the other party to participate in [a] Rule 35 examination at the requesting party’s expense.”

¶8        Mother subsequently provided Father with a list of three potential rule 35 evaluators, of which Father selected one (First Expert) to conduct his exam. When First Expert requested that Father sign medical releases for his psychological health records, Father refused. In response, Mother filed a motion requesting that the court order Father “to sign and execute all necessary medical releases, upon presentation by [First Expert], so that [Father’s] Rule 35 mental examination can proceed as expeditiously as possible.” At a hearing before a commissioner on the matter, Father argued that he never agreed to sign medical releases and that his understanding of the stipulation was “that he was agreeing to an independent, objective, standardized psychological test.” He also argued that releasing his medical records “prejudices him down the road” because “it allows information that would not otherwise be admissible to become admissible.”

¶9        In ruling on the motion, the commissioner first stated that because the trial court—and not a jury—would be the finder of fact in this case, he did not consider prejudice “to be a significant issue.” Next, in addressing the scope of the rule 35 exam, the commissioner stated that based on his decades of experience interacting with mental health professionals, “the one thing that they all assure me is true [is that] the best predicter of future behavior is past behavior.” The commissioner also noted that the parties had not submitted affidavits from professionals indicating what their usual practice is for such evaluations. Thus, the commissioner recommended, “If it is the Rule 35 examiner’s professional opinion that certain information would assist him in completing his evaluation/report, then both parties shall cooperate in good faith and sign whatever releases for records or information the evaluator wants[.]” Father objected to the commissioner’s recommendation, but the trial court overruled his objection and ordered him to sign the requested medical releases.

¶10 Upon completion of the rule 35 evaluation, First Expert reached the following conclusions, as summarized by the trial court. First Expert noted that “Father was so guarded and defensive when he took the psychological testing that credible information from testing is not available.” First Expert did not observe Father with Child as part of the evaluation. Nevertheless, First Expert concluded, among other things, that Father exhibited “varying degrees” of several negative personality traits; that he “is a very persistent person,” which when “utilized to intimidate and control others” can cause substantial harm to himself and others; and that he “tends to place his own interests before those of others and is not invested in cooperative relationships.” See also infra note 5. First Expert also recommended against joint legal custody of Child.

¶11      In anticipation of trial, Father filed a motion in limine to exclude First Expert’s testimony, contending that his “report and his corresponding testimony have not been shown by [Mother] to be reliable, based on sufficient facts or data, and reliably applied to the facts as required by rule 702 of the Utah Rules of Evidence.” See Utah R. Evid. 702(b). In support of his motion, Father included a report from his own expert (Second Expert) who reviewed the rule 35 evaluation. Second Expert opined, among other things, that “the methodology employed” by First Expert “did not comport with generally accepted standards of practice.” He further stated that First Expert’s “recommendation against joint legal custody is concerning because there is no indication the purpose of the evaluation was to aid the Court in determining custody.”

¶12 Following a hearing, the court ruled that First Expert would be permitted to testify at trial because his “report and his . . . procedures, his methodology, and his data gathering and his qualifications meet that low threshold of showing an indicia of reliability.” But because First Expert’s “qualifications and methodology don’t meet the requirements for a custody evaluation,” the court limited his testimony by precluding him from offering his opinion on that subject at trial.

¶13 Toward the end of 2020, the court held a ten-day bench trial, after which it entered thirty-three pages of findings of fact and conclusions of law. In addressing custody, the court prefaced its findings by discussing Utah Code sections 30-3-10(2) and 30-3-10.2(2), which govern child custody determinations. Section 30-3-10(2) states, with our emphasis, that “[i]n determining any form of custody and parent-time . . . , the court shall consider the best interest of the child and may consider among other factors the court finds relevant, the following for each parent” and then lists various factors. The court interpreted that section to mean that it “is not required to make findings on all factors listed in” that section. Further, section 30-3-10.2(2) provides, again with our emphasis, that “[i]n determining whether the best interest of a child will be served by ordering joint legal custody or joint physical custody or both, the court shall consider the custody factors in Section 30-3-10 and” additional factors listed in section 30-3-10.2(2). The court stated that it understood the interplay between the two sections to mean that when considering joint legal or physical custody of a child, it is “obligated to address the enumerated factors in” section 30-3-10.2(2), but that its consideration of each factor listed in section 30-3-10(2) is not mandatory.

¶14      The trial court then proceeded to make extensive findings pertaining to custody and parent-time, as summarized below. The court found that “[a] primary condition that permeated the marriage was Father’s underlying hostility,” which also “affected the first few years of [Child’s] life and [Father’s] early relationship with, and care for” Child. Throughout Child’s life, Mother has been Child’s primary caregiver. Although “Father rarely, if ever, held, fed, changed, or played with” Child during the marriage, since the separation he has cared for Child during his parent-time. Father and Mother have “demonstrated a strong desire for parent-time since their separation,” and Father “has rearranged work schedules and career goals to accommodate as much time as possible with” Child. His interactions with Child have “significantly improved,” and he “has bonded more with her.” But his “anger towards Mother occasionally interferes with his ability to see, understand, and meet the needs of” Child. Child “has a strong bond with Father” and “enjoys spending time with” him.

¶15 The court found that Mother consistently demonstrated the ability to meet Child’s developmental needs and that Father had demonstrated an improvement in his ability to do so, although the court was unsure whether this was a long-term change. Each parent was able to meet Child’s physical needs and to function as an effective parent, although Father’s “apparent lack of insight of how his anger towards Mother, and his efforts to embroil Mother in allegations of abuse,” see infra ¶ 17, “have physically impacted” Child and have interfered with his parenting abilities. The court determined that both parents have negatively impacted Child’s emotional wellbeing—albeit Mother to a lesser extent—through their poor responses and behaviors when in each other’s presence.

¶16      The court found that although “each parent has shown that they have the capacity and willingness to function as a parent to” Child, “[t]he difficulty lies in their inability to co-parent and properly interact with the other parent,” particularly during drop-off and pick-up, as well as when communicating about Child. Regarding drop-off and pick-up, the court stated that “[t]he difficulty comes about by actions of both parents, although Father more consistently causes [Child’s] transitions to be difficult” by not encouraging her to transition to Mother’s care and by saying things that “weigh negatively on [Child’s] emotions in a manipulative and passive aggressive manner.” Mother also occasionally expressed displeasure about Father’s behavior in Child’s presence. Concerning the parents’ communication, the court stated that in 2017, “[d]ue to the high level o[f] conflict,” it ordered Mother and Father to communicate through a third-party service that reviewed and, if necessary, edited and revised the messages they sent each other. The third-party service had to make substantial edits to many of Father’s messages and advised him that it would “not send emails that are threatening.” Because Father also became adversarial with the third-party service, it withdrew, and the parties had to find another communication intermediary. But in the months leading up to trial, communication between the parties had “been relatively civil.”

¶17 The court next expressed concern regarding Father’s “emotional and sometimes indirect physical abuse of” Child through his repeated claims, “without sufficient justification,” that Mother was physically abusive toward Child. Specifically, between 2017 and 2020, Father made multiple reports of abuse to various police departments, the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS), and medical providers. This “exposed [Child] to unnecessary emotional trauma and invasive physical examinations” and never resulted in criminal charges being filed against Mother or in DCFS taking enforcement action against her. “When the agencies did not confirm his opinion, [F]ather became overly focused, argumentative, and belligerent” and “was unwilling to accept the many conclusions of DCFS.” The court found that “Father’s reports of abuse were vexatious and were calculated and designed to harm Mother,” and he either “was not aware of, or did not care about the emotional harm he was causing [Child] through the continuous filing of unsupported claims of abuse.”

¶18      The court then addressed Father’s rule 35 evaluation.[3] At trial, First Expert, Second Expert, and another expert (Third Expert) testified about the evaluation. The court noted that based on First Expert’s own testimony, it appeared that First Expert “primarily identified personality traits of [Father] from testing which [First Expert himself] considered invalid.” The court also agreed with many of Second Expert’s critiques of First Expert’s opinions, including that First Expert’s “opinions based on testing should not be considered” because First Expert “testified that the test results were unreliable due to Father’s high degree of defensiveness”; that First Expert “did not utilize many of the standard tests and methods for determining parenting capacity and therefore his opinions on parenting capacity are not helpful”; and that First Expert did not observe Father interact with Child. Accordingly, the court “found little value in much of [First Expert’s] diagnostic expert opinions,”[4] but it noted that, based on other trial testimony and on its own review of some of the records that First Expert examined that were also submitted into evidence, it agreed with his conclusions regarding Father’s negative characteristics and personality traits. Specifically, the court noted Father’s “historical demonstration of grandiosity, entitlement, interpersonal exploitativeness, lack of empathy, high levels of persistence, rigidity, lack of agreeableness, vexatious intimidation, along with a tendency to resort to arrogant and intimidating behaviors toward others, particularly when encountering others whom he believes stand in his way.” The court, however, rejected several of First Expert’s other opinions.[5]

¶19 The court also found Third Expert to be “qualified,” “credible,” and “an unbiased witness.” Third Expert testified that in counseling sessions, he “worked with Father to understand how to modify his behavior” and that Father had demonstrated improvement. Third Expert described Father’s current character traits as “[p]ersistent,” “[i]ntelligent,” “[e]ven keeled,” “[c]onstant in demeanor,” and “[a]ble to rise and process issues and disagreement more effectively.”

¶20      Turning to the question of legal custody, the court held that the presumption that joint legal custody is in the child’s best interest was rebutted in this case by the parties’ inability “to set aside their personal differences and focus on the needs of” Child, and it awarded sole legal custody to Mother. The court based this decision on several things: the difficulties the parties had in setting aside their personal differences to attend to Child’s needs, although it noted that Mother was better able to do so; Father’s emotional abuse of Child “by subjecting her to repeated interviews and physical examinations when he repeatedly raises allegations of abuse against Mother without sufficient cause”; “Father’s need to control and dominate Mother” and to disrespect her; Father’s “inability to recognize the value of input from others, including Mother”; Father’s history of being unable to effectively communicate with Mother; Father’s aggressive and passive-aggressive behavior during pick-up and drop-off and his failure to make it a less emotionally draining experience for Child; Father’s lack of encouragement that Child “equally share time, love and affection with Mother”; and Mother’s constant meaningful participation in raising Child, while Father did not do so for the first few years of Child’s life due to “his anger issues” and university studies.

¶21 Regarding physical custody, the court determined that it was in Child’s best interest “that Father be actively involved in her life” and that he “should have frequent and consistent time with” her so long as there were orders in place enforcing respectful communication between Mother and Father and reducing their interactions during pick-up and drop-off. Accordingly, the court awarded the parties joint physical custody, with Mother as the primary physical custodian and with Father having “frequent and expanded rights of parent time.”

¶22 The court then considered child support, the main issue of which was the income to be imputed to Mother. The court noted that Mother had left full-time employment when Child was born and that she was not employed at the time of trial, but she was attending university classes. The court found that Mother had the experience and skills to find employment in the fields of marketing and public relations with a likely starting income of between $2,500 and $2,800 per month. But the court also found that as a result, Mother would necessarily incur childcare costs and either have to terminate or significantly modify her studies. Ultimately, the court determined that Mother was voluntarily underemployed. But because there was insufficient evidence presented regarding childcare costs or whether current employment was “available in either of her experience categories, or what the current rate of pay would be,”[6] the court imputed to Mother “the federal minimum wage of $1,257 per month.” And based on Father’s actual income and Mother’s imputed income, the court ordered Father to make $666 monthly child support payments to Mother.

¶23      Finally, the court awarded Mother $161,066.94 in attorney fees and costs pursuant to Utah Code section 30-3-3, holding that Mother had substantially prevailed and finding, among other things, that Father had a greater ability to pay.[7]

¶24      Father appeals.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶25      Father raises five primary issues on appeal. First, Father argues that the trial court erred in awarding sole legal custody of Child to Mother.[8] Specifically, he contends that the “court’s analysis of Utah Code sections 30-3-10 and 30-3-10.2 does not comply with Utah law.” Generally, we review a trial court’s custody award for an abuse of discretion. See T.W. v. S.A., 2021 UT App 132, ¶ 15, 504 P.3d 163. “This discretion is broad; indeed, as long as the court exercises it within the confines of the legal standards we have set, and the facts and reasons for the decision are set forth fully in appropriate findings and conclusions, we will not disturb the resulting award.” Id. (quotation simplified). But whether the court correctly interpreted the legal standards set forth in sections 30-3-10 and 30-3-10.2 is a question of law that we review for correctness. See Ross v. Ross, 2019 UT App 104, ¶ 8, 447 P.3d 104. See also State v. De La Rosa, 2019 UT App 110, ¶ 4, 445 P.3d 955 (stating that because “trial courts do not have discretion to misapply the law,” “the abuse-of-discretion standard of review will at times necessarily include review to ensure that no mistakes of law affected a lower court’s use of its discretion”) (quotation simplified).

¶26 Second, Father contends that the court abused its discretion when it found that he had emotionally abused Child. We review the trial court’s findings of fact for clear error. See T.W., 2021 UT App 132, ¶ 15. Under this standard, “the factual findings of the district court will not be disturbed unless they are clearly erroneous by being in conflict with the clear weight of the evidence. But the existence of conflicting evidence is not sufficient to set aside a district court’s finding.” Hinds v. Hinds-Holm, 2022 UT App 13, ¶ 28 n.4, 505 P.3d 1136 (quotation simplified).

¶27      Third, Father argues that the trial court erred in allowing First Expert to testify at trial.[9] In reviewing the admissibility of evidence, we review the underlying legal questions for correctness and the “court’s decision to admit or exclude evidence and [its] determinations regarding the admissibility of expert testimony” for an abuse of discretion. Smith v. Volkswagen SouthTowne, Inc., 2022 UT 29, ¶ 41, 513 P.3d 729 (quotation simplified). “However, error in the district court’s evidentiary rulings will result in reversal only if the error is harmful.” Anderson v. Larry H. Miller Commc’ns Corp., 2015 UT App 134, ¶ 17, 351 P.3d 832.

¶28      Fourth, Father challenges the court’s imputation of federal minimum wage income to Mother for child support purposes. “We review the district court’s interpretation of statutory requirements for correctness” and “the court’s ultimate imputation of income . . . for abuse of discretion.” Burggraaf v. Burggraaf, 2019 UT App 195, ¶ 23, 455 P.3d 1071 (quotation simplified).

¶29      Fifth, Father takes issue with the court’s award of attorney fees and costs to Mother under section 30-3-3 of the Utah Code. “We review a district court’s decision to award attorney fees pursuant to this statute for an abuse of discretion,” Gardner v. Gardner, 2019 UT 61, ¶ 16, 452 P.3d 1134, but review its underlying legal conclusions for correctness, see De La Rosa, 2019 UT App 110, ¶ 4.

ANALYSIS

I. Legal Custody Factors

¶30      Utah law establishes “a rebuttable presumption that joint legal custody . . . is in the best interest of the child.”[10] Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(3) (LexisNexis Supp. 2023). This presumption “may be rebutted by a showing by a preponderance of the evidence that [joint legal custody] is not in the best interest of the child.” Id. § 30-3-10(4)(b). The Utah Code also provides several factors to aid in the best interest analysis. See id. §§ 30-3-10(2), -10.2(2) (2019).

¶31      In challenging the trial court’s award of sole legal custody to Mother, Father argues that (A) the court wrongly interpreted Utah Code sections 30-3-10(2) and 30-3-10.2(2) to mean that its consideration of the factors listed in section 10(2) was discretionary; (B) the court’s application of the wrong legal standard resulted in its failure to consider certain relevant factors in its custody analysis; and (C) the court “analyzed certain factors only as they related to Father but not to Mother.”[11] We address each argument in turn.

A.        Statutory Interpretation

¶32 At issue is the interplay between Utah Code sections 30-3-10(2) and 30-3-10.2(2). Section 10(2) provides that “[i]n determining any form of custody and parent-time . . . , the court shall consider the best interest of the child and may consider among other factors the court finds relevant, the following for each parent[.]” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(2) (LexisNexis 2019) (emphasis added). There then follows a list of factors, (a) through (r), several of which have subparts. See id. Taken in isolation, section 10(2) suggests that while the trial court must consider the child’s best interest when determining custody, the court has discretion as to which specific factors are appropriate for consideration in making that key determination.

¶33      But when joint legal or physical custody is at issue, section 10.2(2) also comes into play. That section provides that “[i]n determining whether the best interest of a child will be served by ordering joint legal custody or joint physical custody or both, the court shall consider the custody factors in Section 30-3-10, and the following factors[.]” Id. § 30-3-10.2(2) (emphasis added). And here again, a number of factors are then listed, (a) through (i), several of which include subparts. See id.

¶34      The parties are at odds on whether, when joint custody is at issue, the court’s consideration of the section 10(2) factors is discretionary or mandatory. We agree with Father that, in undertaking any joint custody determination, courts are required to consider, in some fashion, all the section 10(2) factors and all the section 10.2(2) factors.

¶35 “Our primary goal when interpreting a statute is to ascertain the legislature’s intent,” the best evidence of which “is the plain language of the statute itself.” McKitrick v. Gibson, 2024 UT 1, ¶ 31, 541 P.3d 949 (quotation simplified). In this pursuit, “where the statute’s language marks its reach in clear and unambiguous terms, it is our role to enforce a legislative purpose that matches those terms, not to supplant it with a narrower or broader one.” Id. (quotation simplified). See Brindley v. Logan City, 2023 UT App 46, ¶ 22, 530 P.3d 557 (“When the meaning of a statute can be discerned from its language, no other interpretive tools are needed.”) (quotation simplified). Furthermore, to determine legislative intent “when two statutory provisions conflict in their operation, the provision more specific in application governs over the more general provision.” Taghipour v. Jerez, 2002 UT 74, ¶ 11, 52 P.3d 1252 (quotation simplified). With this charge, we look to the directives our Legislature mandated regarding determinations of joint custody.

¶36      Section 10(2) provides that when “determining any form of custody,” the court may consider, among other things, the factors listed in that section. Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(2) (emphasis added). Section 10.2(2), on the other hand, applies when the court is tasked with “determining whether the best interest of a child will be served by ordering joint legal custody or joint physical custody or both.” Id. § 30-3-10.2(2) (emphasis added). Thus, although both section 10(2) and section 10.2(2) purport to govern custody determinations, because section 10(2) applies more generally to “any form of custody,” id. § 30-3-10(2), and because section 10.2(2) “is tailored precisely” to address joint custody—the type of custody at issue here—section 10.2(2) is the more specific of the two provisions and thus governs, see Taghipour, 2002 UT 74, ¶ 14.

¶37 Therefore, based on the plain language of section 10.2(2) that “the court shall consider the custody factors in Section 30-3-10 and” additional factors listed in section 10.2(2), see Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10.2(2) (emphasis added), our Legislature has deemed it necessary to impose additional requirements and heightened sensitivities regarding a court’s decision to order joint custody. In simple terms, this means that in cases where joint custody is under consideration, trial courts lose much of their discretion about which factors to consider. In other words, when considering the best interest of the child under section 10.2(2), the court is required to consider all the custody factors identified by both section 10(2) and section 10.2(2). Cf. Martinez v. Sanchez-Garcia, 2023 UT App 60, ¶ 21, 532 P.3d 105 (stating that under Utah Code section 30-3-10.4(2), which similarly states that when considering whether modifying a custody order is in the child’s best interest, the trial court shall consider the factors listed in section 10(2) and section 10.2(2), courts “are statutorily required to consider, at least in some form, twenty-five enumerated factors, as well as any other relevant factor”) (quotation simplified).

¶38 We note, however, that “not all [the section 10(2) and section 10.2(2)] factors are on equal footing, and a district court generally has discretion to determine, based on the facts before it and within the confines set by the appellate courts, where a particular factor falls within the spectrum of relative importance and to accord each factor its appropriate weight.” Id. ¶ 22 (quotation simplified). “Some factors might not be relevant at all to the family’s situation, and others might be only tangentially relevant or will weigh equally in favor of both parents.” Id. For example, among the other custody factors, section 10(2) indicates that the court must consider “the relative benefit of keeping siblings together.” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(2)(o). But in some cases, such as the one currently before us, the child does not have any siblings. In such circumstances, it is obviously unnecessary to analyze this factor because it is inapplicable to the court’s ultimate decision, although best practice suggests that the court should at least make a note of the factors it considers inapplicable in a given case. See Martinez, 2023 UT App 60, ¶ 22 n.6 (“Even with factors not relevant to the situation or factors that do not move the needle one way or the other, a court is well-served to at least mention those factors in its ruling and briefly indicate that it deems them irrelevant or of equal weight for each party. By mentioning them, even if only to say that they are irrelevant, a court ensures that the parties—and, significantly, a reviewing court—will be able to tell that the court at least considered them.”) (quotation simplified).

¶39 In sum, the trial court erred when it interpreted the relevant statutes to mean that its consideration of the section 10.2(2) factors was mandatory, while its consideration of the section 10(2) factors was discretionary. The court was required to consider, at least to some degree, all factors listed under both sections, and its failure to do so constituted an abuse of discretion. But “unless an appellant demonstrates that an error is prejudicial, it will be deemed harmless and no appellate relief is available.” See Huish v. Munro, 2008 UT App 283, ¶ 8, 191 P.3d 1242 (quotation simplified). We consider this question in conjunction with Father’s argument addressed in the next section of this opinion.

B.        Consideration of All Relevant Factors

¶40      Father argues that the trial court’s misinterpretation of the governing statutes resulted in its failure to consider a number of relevant factors. Specifically, he asserts that the court abused its discretion when it did not consider the parent’s “ability to provide personal care rather than surrogate care”; “the past conduct and demonstrated moral character of the parent”; and “previous parenting arrangements in which the child has been happy and well-adjusted in the home, school, and community,” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(2)(c)(iii), (d), (n) (LexisNexis Supp. 2023), even though he presented evidence at trial relevant to each of these factors.

¶41 As an initial matter, we commend the trial court for providing thirty-three pages of detailed findings in this matter, in which it addressed the majority of the section 10(2) and section 10.2(2) factors. But even given these extensive findings, the court expressly stated that it did not consider certain statutorily mandated factors in making its legal custody determination. Instead, it stated that it would consider the 10(2) factors “if it elects to do so.” Furthermore, because at least one of the three factors Father identifies, i.e., each parent’s “past conduct and demonstrated moral character,” id. § 30-3-10(2)(d), carries some weight in the legal custody determination,[12] we cannot say that the court’s failure to consider all the section 10(2) factors was harmless.

¶42 We therefore vacate the trial court’s legal custody determination and remand the case for consideration of all section 10(2) factors, and for such adjustment in the court’s legal custody determination, if any, as may then become appropriate. See Twitchell v. Twitchell, 2022 UT App 49, ¶ 25, 509 P.3d 806.

C.        Comparative Findings

¶43 A best-interest determination is “based on a number of factors that compare the parenting skills, character, and abilities of both parents in light of a realistic and objective appraisal of the needs of a child.” Woodward v. LaFranca, 2013 UT App 147, ¶ 22, 305 P.3d 181 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 312 P.3d 619 (Utah 2013), abrogated on other grounds by Zavala v. Zavala, 2016 UT App 6, 366 P.3d 422. See Twitchell, 2022 UT App 49, ¶ 23 n.4 (noting that a trial court’s findings should compare both parents’ “relative character, skills, and abilities” and not just that of one parent in particular). In other words, the court is required to undertake a comparative analysis whereby the court must consider the evidence relating to each parent.[13]

¶44 Father argues that the court’s comparative analysis and subsequent findings on a number of factors addressed only him and did not adequately compare the evidence as it related to Mother. Specifically, Father asserts that the court failed to make findings relating to Mother’s emotional stability, Child’s bond with her, her maturity and willingness to protect Child from parental conflict, and her ability to cooperate with Father. See Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(2)(e), (q) (LexisNexis Supp. 2023); id. § 30-3-10.2(2)(g), (h) (2019). Although Father acknowledges that the court made certain findings relating to these factors, he contends that the findings did not account for specific pieces of evidence he identifies on appeal.[14] But the trial court is not required to recite all evidence presented at trial in its findings of fact; just the evidence that is key to its custody decision. See Twitchell, 2022 UT App 49, ¶ 21 (highlighting that “courts are not required to render a global accounting of all evidence presented or to discuss all aspects of a case that might support a contrary ruling” and instead must present sufficiently detailed findings and “include enough subsidiary facts to disclose the steps by which the ultimate conclusion on each factual issue was reached”) (quotation simplified).

¶45      We address each of the factors Father challenges on appeal and ultimately reject his suggestion that a court’s comparative analysis must proceed in a point-by-point, side-by-side comparison of each piece of evidence presented at trial in the context of each custody factor. Overall, the court’s comparative analysis in this case was sufficient.

¶46 Emotional Stability. Father contends that the court included specific findings regarding his emotional stability but did not include similar findings related to Mother despite evidence he presented at trial reflecting negatively on her in that respect. But Father misinterprets the trial court’s charge. The court is required to make only sufficient findings to support its decision. And the trial court is in the best position to weigh the evidence.

¶47      The court found that each parent had shown “the capacity and willingness to function as a parent” but that they both demonstrated an “inability to co-parent and properly interact with the other parent” and that they had “shown [a] limited ability to communicate effectively about [Child] over the years.” The court also found Third Expert to be credible and made findings consistent with his opinion that Father had improved his character traits since the parties’ separation. But despite Father’s improvement, the court also found that Father “says things to [Child] which weigh negatively on her emotions in a manipulative and passive aggressive manner.” Comparatively, the court found that “Mother occasionally expresses her displeasure of Father’s behavior openly in front of [Child] either by word or by her actions.” Based on its charge to make sufficient findings necessary to support its decision, the trial court’s findings are sufficiently comparative as concerns the parties’ emotional stability, particularly as concerns the issue of legal custody.

¶48 Child’s Bond with Parent. Father argues that the court specifically found that Child “has a strong bond with” and “enjoys spending time with” him but made no comparative findings regarding Mother’s bond with Child. He further asserts that the court did not consider evidence he presented that Mother and Child have a weak bond. But the court’s findings demonstrate that the court at least implicitly considered the strong bond between Child and Mother. The court found that “Mother has been the primary caregiver of [Child] from the time she was born, both during the marriage and after separation” and that although Father seemed uninterested in Child during the marriage, since the separation Father’s bond with Child had improved through his beginning to care for her during his parent-time. With the court’s recognition that Child’s bond with Father had improved and became “strong” as he began to show interest in and to care for Child, which Mother has done from the very beginning of Child’s life, the court sufficiently compared Child’s bonds with each parent.

¶49 Maturity and Willingness to Protect Child. Father next contends that the court made findings relating to his maturity and willingness to protect Child from parental conflict but did not make such findings relating to Mother. We disagree. The court specifically found that each parent showed an “inability to co-parent and properly interact with the other parent,” resulting in difficulty surrounding parenting decisions and custody handoffs. The court also found that Mother “occasionally expresses her displeasure of Father’s behavior openly in front of [Child] either by word or by her actions.” Similarly, the court found that Father displayed “inappropriate interactions with [Child] and Mother during pickup and drop off,” demonstrated an “insistence on addressing speculative and false allegations of abuse at the expense of [Child’s] emotional well-being,” did not encourage Child to look forward to being with Mother, and “is either unaware of the emotional upset his behavior causes [Child] or he is aware but prefers to upset her.” Thus, because the court addressed both parents’ interactions on custody handoffs and the like, the court’s findings are sufficiently comparative as to the parties’ maturity and willingness to protect Child from parental conflict.

¶50      Ability to Cooperate. Lastly, Father challenges the court’s findings regarding his inability to cooperate with Mother. He does not assert that the court did not make comparative findings regarding Mother’s ability to cooperate with him. Instead, Father’s argument is limited to asserting that the court’s findings on this point did not reflect evidence he presented at trial regarding his cooperation with Mother and her lack of cooperation with him. But, as discussed above, the trial court is not required or expected to make a finding on every bit of evidence presented. The litigation in this matter comprised numerous motion hearings and a ten-day trial with multiple witnesses, resulting in an appellate record in excess of 6,000 pages. The court made thirty-three pages of specific findings and those findings sufficiently show how the court arrived at its decision.

¶51 For these reasons, while the court did not undertake granular comparisons of each piece of evidence deemed problematic by Father, the court did adequately consider Child’s best interest by making appropriate comparisons. From the court’s extensive findings, it appears that the court made the difficult decision concerning the best interest of Child, who obviously has two very loving parents. See Tucker v. Tucker, 910 P.2d 1209, 1215 (Utah 1996) (“A trial court need not find one parent inadequate before awarding custody to the other.”).

¶52      In conclusion, because the court abused its discretion in not considering every factor it was statutorily required to, we remand this matter with instructions that the court reconsider its joint legal custody award in light of all the factors listed in section 10(2) and section 10.2(2), and in particular each parent’s “past conduct and demonstrated moral character,” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(2)(d), as explained in Part I.B.

II. Emotional Abuse

¶53      Father argues that the court’s finding of his “substantial emotional abuse of [Child] through false allegations” was against the clear weight of the evidence. He primarily asserts that the court did not address the evidence of Child’s repeated injuries (cuts, bruises, and welts) that prompted him to alert authorities, and that “Mother presented little to no evidence that Child was [harmed], or even affected by the reports.”

¶54      As discussed above, under section 30-3-10.2(2) of the Utah Code, the court must address all the factors included in section 30-3-10(2) and make comparative findings for those factors. This includes consideration of “evidence of domestic violence, neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, or emotional abuse, involving the child, the parent, or a household member of the parent.” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(2)(a) (LexisNexis Supp. 2023). Here, the trial court expressed concern about “Father’s use of emotional and sometimes indirect physical abuse of [Child] by claiming [Mother] has harmed [Child] without sufficient justification” that “exposed [Child] to unnecessary emotional trauma and invasive physical examinations.” The court then provided three pages of findings concerning this factor, including a list of some, but not all, of the reports of physical abuse Father made to the authorities about Mother and their outcomes.[15] But because neither party presented expert testimony at trial to establish or rebut whether Father’s many reports amounted to emotional abuse in a diagnostic sense, the court’s reference to emotional abuse is properly understood as usage in a more colloquial sense with a rather limited purpose.

¶55 The court limited its findings relating to emotional abuse to its legal custody award. Although emotional abuse resulting in harm to Child would absolutely play a significant role in a physical custody determination, the court made no mention of it when it awarded the parties joint physical custody of Child. Instead, the court concluded that it was in Child’s best interest that “Father be actively involved in her life” and “have frequent and consistent time with” her.

¶56 And in addressing legal custody, the court discussed its emotional abuse findings in the limited context of discussing the issue of Mother and Father being unable “to set aside their personal differences and focus on the needs of” Child, which formed the basis for the court’s determination that the presumption in favor of joint legal custody had been rebutted. The court awarded Mother sole legal custody because she was better able to set aside her differences, while “Father is not able to set aside his differences with Mother to give first priority to the welfare of [Child] and reach shared decisions in [Child’s] best interests.” Father’s “subjecting [Child] to repeated interviews and physical examinations when he repeatedly raises allegations of abuse against Mother without sufficient cause” was one such example of this.

¶57 Also notable is that the trial court applied the statutory presumption in favor of joint custody in its analysis (holding that it had been rebutted) when such a presumption does not apply in cases involving emotional abuse. See id. § 30-3-10(3)(a) (stating that the presumption in favor of joint legal custody does not apply in cases involving, among other things, “emotional abuse”). This further illustrates the very limited purpose for which the court applied its findings on “emotional abuse,” focusing on how it reflected that Father’s hostility toward Mother was paramount even if it entailed exposing Child to repeated interviews and physical exams—and not on any harm Child actually suffered as a result.

¶58 With this limited view in mind, we conclude that the court’s findings were sufficiently supported by the evidence. Even in light of all the evidence Father presented at trial supporting the various cuts, bumps, and bruises that prompted him to alert authorities, the court’s finding that his “reports of abuse were vexatious and were calculated and designed to harm Mother” is supported by the sheer number of reports Father made that never resulted in criminal charges being filed against Mother or in DCFS taking enforcement action against her. Several different agencies all investigated Mother and each investigation produced the same result. Although, as Father points out, they could not conclusively rule out the possibility that Mother abused Child, the many investigations did not produce sufficient evidence of abuse to cause intervention by the authorities. After multiple reports of such injuries to various authorities and medical professionals did not produce the desired intervention, it was not unreasonable for the court to find that Father’s primary motivation in continuing to file such reports was his desire to harm Mother.[16]

¶59 For these reasons, and given the limited role the court’s findings related to “emotional abuse” served in the legal custody analysis, we do not disturb those findings.

III. First Expert’s Testimony

¶60      Father argues that the trial court abused its discretion in not excluding First Expert’s testimony as unreliable under rule 702 of the Utah Rules of Evidence. In support of this argument, he points to the court’s ultimate agreement with Second Expert’s testimony that, among other things, First Expert’s “opinions based on testing should not be considered” and that First Expert “did not utilize many of the standard tests and methods for determining parenting capacity and therefore his opinions on parenting capacity are not helpful.” But even assuming, without deciding, that the court’s decision to allow First Expert to testify amounted to an abuse of discretion, such error was harmless here.

¶61      “Not every trial error requires reversal.” State v. Leech, 2020 UT App 116, ¶ 42, 473 P.3d 218 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 481 P.3d 1039 (Utah 2021). “Unless an appellant demonstrates that an error is prejudicial, it will be deemed harmless and no appellate relief is available.” Huish v. Munro, 2008 UT App 283, ¶ 8, 191 P.3d 1242 (quotation simplified). “An error is harmless and does not require reversal if it is sufficiently inconsequential that we conclude there is no reasonable likelihood that the error affected the outcome of the proceedings.” State v. Reece, 2015 UT 45, ¶ 33, 349 P.3d 712 (quotation simplified).

¶62 Here, after agreeing with several of Second Expert’s concerns and critiques of First Expert’s rule 35 evaluation of Father, the court stated that it ultimately “found little value in much of his diagnostic expert opinion” and that it agreed with only some of his “conclusions regarding characteristics and personality traits” of Father. But even here, the court stated that First Expert’s opinions with which it agreed “are consistent with other evidence presented to the Court regarding Father’s historical demonstration of” certain negative personality traits, specifically records submitted into evidence and other trial testimony. Thus, First Expert’s testimony did not serve as the sole basis for the court’s findings regarding some of Father’s characteristics and personality traits. Indeed, the court seemed to emphasize that its agreement with First Expert in that regard was based on the corroboration furnished by the court’s own review of some of the records First Expert examined and on other trial testimony.

¶63 For these reasons, Father has not demonstrated a reasonable likelihood that First Expert’s testimony affected the outcome of the trial, and this argument therefore fails.

IV. Mother’s Imputed Income

¶64 Father contends that the court abused its discretion by imputing Mother’s income at only the federal minimum wage, when a higher income was in order given the evidence before the court. Because the trial court misapplied the controlling legal standard, we agree.

¶65      “Because income imputation itself is primarily focused on a spouse’s ability to produce income, it is not unusual for courts to impute income to a spouse who has not worked during the marriage (or who has not worked for a number of years preceding the divorce) but who is nevertheless capable of producing income.” Petrzelka v. Goodwin, 2020 UT App 34, ¶ 26, 461 P.3d 1134 (quotation simplified). “The purpose of such imputation is to prevent parents from reducing their child support or alimony by purposeful unemployment or underemployment.” Connell v. Connell, 2010 UT App 139, ¶ 16, 233 P.3d 836 (quotation simplified).

¶66 Section 78B-12-203 of the Utah Code establishes the guidelines by which income may be imputed. It provides that in contested cases, a trial court may not impute income to a party without first holding a hearing on the matter and entering “findings of fact as to the evidentiary basis for the imputation.” Utah Code Ann. § 78B-12-203(8)(a) (LexisNexis 2022). The statute further provides that the court’s imputation of income “shall” be based on the following ten factors, “to the extent known”: “(i) employment opportunities; (ii) work history; (iii) occupation qualifications; (iv) educational attainment; (v) literacy; (vi) age; (vii) health; (viii) criminal record; (ix) other employment barriers and background factors; and (x) prevailing earnings and job availability for persons of similar backgrounds in the community.”[17] Id. § 78B-12-203(8)(b).

¶67 Here, the trial court deemed Mother voluntarily underemployed and found that she “has experience and skills in the workforce that would enable her to find employment in marketing and public relations work.” The court further found that “[i]f Mother were able to find employment as either a PR Specialist or in Advertising Sales her likely income would start around $2,500 to $2,800” per month. But the court opined that to become employed full-time, “Mother would necessarily incur childcare costs for a six (6) year old with transportation to and from school and would need to terminate or significantly modify her current study program” and that the evidence presented at trial “does not provide a calculation of the costs of day care expense necessary for Mother to become full time employed.” The court further stated that “the evidence provided is insufficient for the Court to determine that there is current employment available in either of her experience categories, or what the current rate of pay would be,” presumably given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Based on those considerations, the court imputed to Mother “the federal minimum wage of $1,257 per month.”

¶68      The court’s reasons for reducing Mother’s imputed income from between $2,500 and $2,800 per month to the federal minimum wage go against the legal standard set forth in section 78B-12-203. As an initial matter, the reasoning that Mother would need to make adjustments to her schooling in order to pursue full-time employment has no legal basis. “[T]he pursuit of a higher education simply does not preclude employment.” Mancil v. Smith, 2000 UT App 378, ¶ 17, 18 P.3d 509. Although section 78B-12-203 provides that a trial court may not impute an income to a parent who “is engaged in career or occupational training to establish basic job skills” when such training “is not of a temporary nature,” Utah Code Ann. § 78B-12-203(8)(d)(iii), this is not the case here. Mother already had a bachelor’s degree and was pursuing a graduate program. Moreover, the court already found that she possessed skills and experience in the field of marketing and public relations. See Fish v. Fish, 2010 UT App 292, ¶ 18, 242 P.3d 787 (“The basic job skills training envisioned by the statute is training which can aid a person in achieving an income beyond the minimum wage job which can be had with no training at all, i.e., training for the starting point on a consecutive progressive career track.”) (quotation simplified). Thus, the court incorrectly based its reduction in Mother’s imputed income on her pursuit of higher education.

¶69 As for daycare expenses, at age six, Child would begin school soon, thus drastically reducing childcare costs as well. In any event, Utah law provides that “[t]he child support order shall require that each parent share equally the reasonable work-related child care expenses of the parents.” See Utah Code Ann. § 78B-12-214(1) (LexisNexis 2022). Accordingly, the child support order—and not Mother’s imputed income—was the appropriate means by which to address childcare costs.

¶70      Lastly, section 78B-12-203(8) mandates that the trial court base its imputation of income on “employment potential and probable earnings” by evaluating the ten enumerated factors, “to the extent known.” Id. § 78B-12-203(8)(b) (emphasis added). The statute thus expressly provides for possible uncertainty regarding the factors. Here, the vocational expert, whom the trial court found to be “qualified and credible,” provided a projection of future job openings in the field and stated that the unemployment rate in the area had doubled from the previous year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Insofar as the court felt that additional information regarding current employment opportunities in the area was necessary, the uncertainty regarding this factor did not support a reduction of the already determined likely beginning wage of between $2,500 and $2,800 per month to the federal minimum wage. To be sure, the trial court has discretion when weighing the statutory factors, but because the statute expressly allows for uncertainty regarding the factors, that uncertainty cannot rationalize the court’s somewhat speculative decision.

¶71      For these reasons, the trial court abused its discretion by applying the wrong legal standard when imputing Mother’s income. See T.W. v. S.A., 2021 UT App 132, ¶ 15, 504 P.3d 163. We therefore reverse the trial court’s imputation of federal minimum wage income to Mother and remand for recalculation of her imputed income consistent with this opinion.

V. Attorney Fees and Costs

¶72      Finally, Father contends that in awarding attorney fees and costs to Mother, the trial court misapplied Utah law by incorrectly applying the “substantially prevailed” standard and by basing its decision, in part, on Father’s greater ability to pay. We agree.

¶73      A trial court may award attorney fees in a divorce action pursuant to section 30-3-3 of the Utah Code. “Both the decision to award attorney fees and the amount of such fees are within the district court’s sound discretion.” Lobenduhn v. Lobenduhn, 2023 UT App 137, ¶ 44, 540 P.3d 727 (quotation simplified). But the court must still “make detailed findings of fact supporting its determination.” Connell v. Connell, 2010 UT App 139, ¶ 27, 233 P.3d 836.

¶74      Section 30-3-3 “creates two classes of attorney fees—those incurred in establishing court orders and those incurred in enforcing court orders.” Id. ¶ 28 (emphasis in original). Subsection (1) provides,

In any action . . . to establish an order of custody, parent-time, child support, alimony, or division of property in a domestic case, the court may order a party to pay the costs, attorney fees, and witness fees, including expert witness fees, of the other party to enable the other party to prosecute or defend the action. The order may include provision for costs of the action.

Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-3(1) (LexisNexis Supp. 2023) (emphasis added). “[T]he party to be awarded attorney fees under this [subsection] has the burden to prove (1) that the payee spouse has a financial need, (2) that the payor spouse has the ability to pay, and (3) that the fees requested are reasonable.” Lobendahn, 2023 UT App 137, ¶ 44.

¶75      Subsection (2) provides,

In any action to enforce an order of custody, parent-time, child support, alimony, or division of property in a domestic case, the court may award costs and attorney fees upon determining that the party substantially prevailed upon the claim or defense. The court, in its discretion, may award no fees or limited fees against a party if the court finds the party is impecunious or enters in the record the reason for not awarding fees.

Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-3(2) (emphasis added). In contrast to subsection (1), when “awarding fees under subsection (2), the court may disregard the financial need of the moving party” using the “substantially prevailed” standard as “the guiding factor.” Connell, 2010 UT App 139, ¶ 28 (quotation simplified).

¶76 The differing standards of the two subsections are attributed to the different purposes each subsection serves. See id. ¶ 29. “Attorney fees are granted under subsection (1) to enable a party to prosecute or defend the action.” Id. (quotation simplified). Otherwise, “a spouse lacking a separate income would be unable to meaningfully participate in divorce proceedings.” Id. “Consequently, the moving spouse’s need is a sine qua non of a subsection (1) award.” Id. Conversely, “fee awards under subsection (2) serve no equalizing function but allow the moving party to collect fees unnecessarily incurred due to the other party’s recalcitrance.” Id. ¶ 30.

¶77      Here, in addressing the question of attorney fees and costs, the trial court prefaced its findings with the observation that the litigation in this matter “was contentious and relied on a significant amount of documents, which caused a significant amount of fees to be incurred by the parties.” The court first denied Father’s request for attorney fees “as a sanction for [Mother’s] unreasonableness in requiring these proceedings to go to trial,” ruling that “[a]ttorney’s fees as sanctions are not applied because a party has been unreasonable in requiring disputes to go to trial.” The court then turned to Mother’s competing request premised on her “having ‘substantially prevailed.’” The court stated that Mother “did substantially prevail, not only at trial, but at interim hearings on motions prior to trial.”

¶78 Following this preface, the court entered findings regarding the parties’ need and ability to pay. The court found that Mother “has limited income, if any, at this time,” and it noted Father’s annual salary. The court then proceeded to make findings on the parties’ expenses and disposable income, prefacing its findings by stating that it “has limited information regarding each party’s monthly expenses.” The court found that Father has “approximately $44,500 in disposable funds annually.” Turning to Mother next, the court first noted that neither party provided any evidence of her expenses, leaving the court “with no basis to find Mother has any expenses beyond those which are covered by her need for child support.”[18] The court thus found that Mother “has no income and no evidence of expenses.” The court also noted that “it received no evidence that Mother can pay for her costs and attorney fees.” Based on this, the court found that “[a]s between Father and Mother, Father has the greater ability to pay attorney’s fees” and held that “Mother should be awarded her reasonable costs and attorney fees.”

¶79      The court then addressed the reasonableness of Mother’s attorney fees. It again prefaced its findings by stating that “[a]lthough the issues of custody, parent time, and child support are routinely dealt with in our courts, this case is not a ‘usual’ case” because “[t]he parties have been unusually accusatory, intransigent, and uncooperative which has significantly raised the costs of this litigation to both parties.” The court noted that “Father’s decisions caused Mother to successfully bring multiple orders to show cause, motions to compel, and statements of discovery issues,” and have “forced Mother to incur otherwise unnecessary legal costs.” Against this backdrop, the court found that not all Mother’s requested costs and fees, totaling almost $410,000, were “reasonable and necessary,” and it ultimately awarded her $161,066.94 in attorney fees and costs. The court largely based this reduction on Mother’s “duplication of legal services, unnecessary review and consultation between multiple attorneys, and inefficiencies in presenting evidence at trial,” which the court deemed to be unreasonable.

¶80      There are two problems with the trial court’s award. First, the court conflated the two distinct bases for awarding fees under section 30-3-3, resulting in an undifferentiated attorney fees award. See Connell, 2010 UT App 139, ¶ 31. The court began its analysis by stating that Mother “substantially prevail[ed], not only at trial, but at interim hearings on motions prior to trial.”[19] This statement in and of itself is concerning as the purpose of the ten-day bench trial was largely “to establish an order of custody, parent-time, [and] child support,” thereby implicating subsection (1). See Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-3(1). But subsection (1) does not apply a “substantially prevailed” standard. See Lobendahn, 2023 UT App 137, ¶ 44; Connell, 2010 UT App 139, ¶ 29.

¶81      Although some pre-trial motions dealt with enforcing the court’s temporary orders regarding “custody, parent-time, child support, alimony, or division of property,” thereby falling under the ambit of subsection (2), see Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-3(2), the court did not distinguish between the two distinct statutory bases for awarding attorney fees. Rather, the court took the total amount of attorney fees Mother sought and reduced the amount to the sum it considered reasonable based on multiple inefficiencies on Mother’s part.

¶82 The second problem is that in awarding attorney fees under subsection (1), the court did not expressly find that Father “has the ability to pay” the requested attorney fees. Lobendahn, 2023 UT App 137, ¶ 44. Instead, the court found that between the two, “Father has the greater ability to pay attorney’s fees.” Whether Father is in a better position than Mother to pay attorney fees and whether Father has an actual ability to pay both his and Mother’s attorney fees are two different inquiries. Although the answer to both questions may, on remand, end up being the same, the court nonetheless did not make the required finding when awarding Mother attorney fees. See Connell, 2010 UT App 139, ¶ 27 (stating that as part of its attorney fees award, the court “must make detailed findings of fact supporting its determination”).

¶83      In sum, we reverse the trial court’s award of attorney fees and costs and remand with instructions that the court distinguish the fees that fall under subsection (1) and subsection (2) of section 30-3-3, and that it apply the corresponding legal standard to each group of fees. In the course of this effort, the court also needs to make a specific finding regarding Father’s ability to pay Mother’s attorney fees as to any fees awarded under subsection (1).

CONCLUSION

¶84      There remain issues that require additional attention and must be revisited on remand. Although we affirm certain of the trial court’s findings of fact and evidentiary rulings relating to its award of sole legal custody of Child to Mother, we reverse and remand with instructions that the court reevaluate its legal custody award by considering all the statutorily mandated custody factors, in particular the one focused on past conduct and moral character. We likewise reverse and remand for further consideration of Mother’s imputed income and the award of attorney fees and costs in Mother’s favor.[20]

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


[1] “On appeal from a bench trial, we view the evidence in a light most favorable to the trial court’s findings, and therefore recite the facts consistent with that standard.” Chesley v. Chesley, 2017 UT App 127, ¶ 2 n.2, 402 P.3d 65 (quotation simplified).

[2] As relevant here, rule 35(a) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure states, When the mental or physical condition or attribute of a party or of a person in the custody or control of a party is in controversy, the court may order the party to submit to a physical or mental examination by a suitably licensed or certified examiner or to produce for examination the person in the party’s custody or control. The order may be made only on motion for good cause shown.

[3] Mother also underwent a rule 35 examination, but it does not appear that those results were admitted into evidence at trial.

[4] The trial court initially found First Expert “to be credible although not entirely unbiased.” But following Father’s post-trial motion, the court did not include that statement in the amended findings of fact and conclusions of law that it later issued.

[5] Specifically, the court rejected First Expert’s opinion that Father “is prone to bouts of depression”; that he “appears to have a disconnect between his emotions and his cognitive abilities, which impedes his ability to utilize constructive feedback and an inability to learn from his experience and mistakes”; and that “[i]t is likely that Father has not emotionally separated, or moved on from his relationship with Mother.”

[6] A vocational expert, whom the court found to be “qualified and credible,” opined at trial that Mother could earn “approximately $2,800 to $3,750 gross per month” as a public relations specialist. But the court stated that the expert’s calculations did not take the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the job market into consideration, and although the expert provided a projection of future job openings in the field, he did not identify any current job openings or pay rates.

[7] We recount the relevant details of the trial court’s attorney fees award in Part V.

[8] Father does not challenge the trial court’s physical custody award on appeal.

[9] Father also contends that the trial court erred in ordering him to sign medical releases for his mental health records without first undertaking the analysis set forth in Debry v. Goates, 2000 UT App 58, 999 P.2d 582, cert. denied, 9 P.3d 170 (Utah 2000). See id. ¶ 26. But because Father did not raise this issue below, and instead opposed the release of the records only on prejudice and scope-of-the-stipulation grounds, this argument is not preserved, and we do not address it further.

[10] The presumption in favor of joint legal custody does not apply in cases that include, among other things, “emotional abuse.” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(3)(a) (LexisNexis Supp. 2023). Although the trial court in this case did make several findings regarding emotional abuse, the court nonetheless applied the presumption but found that it was rebutted by the parties’ inability “to set aside their personal differences and focus on the needs of” Child.

[11] Father also argues that the trial court made unsupported findings concerning Mother’s financial stability, Father’s involvement in Child’s life, and the parties’ communications. But because Father has not marshaled the evidence in support of these findings, he has not carried his burden of persuasion. See Pankhurst v. Pankhurst, 2022 UT App 36, ¶ 15, 508 P.3d 612 (“A party will almost certainly fail to carry its burden of persuasion on appeal if it fails to marshal the evidence sufficient to overcome the healthy dose of deference owed to factual findings.”) (quotation simplified).

[12] The other two factors, the “ability to provide personal care rather than surrogate care” and the “previous parenting arrangements in which the child has been happy and well-adjusted in the home, school, and community,” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(2)(c)(iii), (n) (LexisNexis Supp. 2023), are more germane to a physical custody rather than to a legal custody determination, and Father conceded as much during oral argument before this court.

[13] The case of Allen v. Allen, 2014 UT App 27, 319 P.3d 770, provides a good example of how appropriate comparison between the parents works in practice. After considering the applicable factors and concluding that “both parents appeared nearly equally capable of caring for” their child, the district court in that case determined that, with respect to two factors where the parents were not equally strong, “the stability offered by [the father] outweighed the apparent empathy of [the mother].” Id. ¶ 5 (quotation simplified). See id. ¶ 12 (holding that given the district court’s observation that the parties were “nearly equally capable of caring for” the child and its findings of fact supporting that determination, the court had adequately considered the “character and quality of [the child’s] bonds with both parents”). The deciding factors in the district court’s view were the father’s stability and the mother’s immaturity, “with a tendency to put her needs above those of others, including” the child. Id. ¶ 10. On appeal, this court concluded that the district court’s “discussion of the parties’ relative maturity, stability, and ability to care for [the child] constitutes adequate consideration of both parties’ ‘past conduct and demonstrated moral standards.’” Id. ¶ 11 (quoting Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(2)(d) (LexisNexis 2013)).

[14] On this point, Father contends that our decision in Twitchell v. Twitchell, 2022 UT App 49, 509 P.3d 806, requires a trial court to make a finding on all evidence presented by either party. Father misinterprets that decision. In Twitchell, we determined that “to ensure that the trial court’s custody determination, discretionary as it is, is rationally based, it is essential that the court set forth in its findings of fact not only that it finds one parent to be the better person to care for the child, but also the basic facts which show why that ultimate conclusion is justified.” Id. ¶ 24 (quotation simplified). The premise of Twitchell is not that a court must make a specific finding regarding each piece of evidence, but simply that a court must make findings on the “basic facts” that support its ultimate conclusion.

[15] The trial court acknowledged that its list was not a comprehensive one. Mother asserts that she presented evidence at trial that Father instigated a total of 28 investigations against her.

[16] In any event, although Father argues that the trial court’s findings are against the clear weight of the evidence given the evidence of Child’s various injuries presented at trial, he has not marshaled the evidence supporting the court’s findings. To successfully challenge a finding, it is not enough to focus only on “evidence that points to an alternate finding or a finding contrary to the trial court’s finding of fact.” Taft v. Taft, 2016 UT App 135, ¶ 19, 379 P.3d 890 (quotation simplified). Accordingly, Father has also not carried his burden of persuasion on appeal. See Pankhurst v. Pankhurst, 2022 UT App 36, ¶ 15, 508 P.3d 612 (“A party will almost certainly fail to carry its burden of persuasion on appeal if it fails to marshal the evidence sufficient to overcome the healthy dose of deference owed to factual findings.”) (quotation simplified).

[17] The statute further provides that in cases where “a parent has no recent work history,” a court may impute “an income at the federal minimum wage for a 40-hour work week,” and that “[t]o impute a greater or lesser income, the judge in a judicial proceeding . . . shall enter specific findings of fact as to the evidentiary basis for the imputation.” Utah Code Ann. § 78B-12-203(8)(c) (LexisNexis 2022). Although Mother was not working at the time of trial, this did not form the basis for the trial court’s decision to impute the federal minimum wage to her. Rather, it found that she had the potential of earning between $2,500 and $2,800 per month but reduced this amount based on other factors as explained in paragraph 67.

[18] Father argues that Mother bore the burden of establishing her expenses and that the court incorrectly faulted him for not providing evidence of her expenses. But the inability to establish Mother’s expenses only benefitted Father—admittedly to a very limited degree—as the court ultimately did not attribute any expenses to Mother apart from those that are covered by her need for child support in its calculation of disposable funds available to her.

[19] The court awarded some attorney fees to Mother for her success in pre-trial motions along the way. The court also reserved for later determination the issue of attorney fees on certain other pre-trial motions.

[20] Father recently asked that we take judicial notice of developments in legal proceedings involving other parties that he believes are germane to this case. Mother opposes Father’s motion. We are not persuaded that the matters we are asked to take notice of bear on the issues presented in this appeal and so deny the motion. If relevant to the issues the trial court will address on remand, Father may renew his request in that forum.

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2024 UT App 47 – In re K.J. – removal, shelter hearing

2024 UT App 47 – In re K.J.

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF K.J., M.J., AND K.J.,

PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

D.F. AND K.J., Appellants, v. STATE OF UTAH, Appellee.

Opinion Nos. 20230102-CA and 20230103-CA Filed April 4, 2024

First District Juvenile Court, Logan Department The Honorable Bryan P. Galloway No. 1218130

Alexandra Mareschal, Kirstin Norman, and Jason B. Richards, Attorneys for Appellant D.F. Emily Adams, Attorney for Appellant K.J. 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 GREGORY K. ORME and JOHN D. LUTHY concurred.

HARRIS, Judge:

¶1 In separate appeals that we consider together in this opinion, K.J. (Father) and D.F. (Mother) (collectively, Parents) challenge the juvenile court’s orders removing their three children (Children) from their home and, later, adjudicating the Children abused and neglected. Parents’ main challenge concerns the court’s adjudication that they abused and neglected the Children.          Parents also assert that, in one respect, they received ineffective assistance of counsel. For the reasons discussed, we find Parents’    arguments on these two topics unpersuasive.

¶2     But Parents also assert that, during the shelter hearing held at the beginning of the case, the juvenile court did not undertake a proper and complete analysis of the factors the governing statute required the court to consider. In this respect, Parents’ arguments have merit, and we remand the case so that the juvenile court can conduct the proper statutory analysis.

BACKGROUND

¶3 Parents are the legal and biological parents of three “medically complex” children: Kevin, Mia, and Kaleb.[1] The family moved to Utah in 2022, after having lived in Nevada and Arizona; at that time, Kevin was five years old, Mia was four, and Kaleb was not quite two. Parents believed that the Children suffered from a long list of various medical maladies; when the family arrived in Utah, all three Children—despite having largely different medical diagnoses—had surgically placed gastric feeding tubes (G-tubes), were developmentally delayed, and used wheelchairs for mobility.

¶4 In July 2022, Kevin was rushed to a local hospital by ambulance after Mother reported that he had suffered a seizure. Mia was hospitalized at the same time due to concerns about weight and dehydration. Kevin and Mia were transferred to Primary Children’s Medical Center (PCMC) in Salt Lake City; Kevin was treated with IV fluids to address “severe hypernatremia” due to dehydration. Kevin and Mia ended up staying at PCMC for nearly two weeks, and Kevin was even admitted to the pediatric intensive care unit. While Kevin and Mia were at PCMC, medical professionals there became concerned that they were being medically neglected. In particular, hospital personnel observed that Kevin and Mia were “severely underweight,” despite the presence of G-tubes, and “were considered a failure to thrive.”

¶5   After Kevin and Mia were discharged from PCMC, all three Children were referred to a pediatric nurse practitioner (Nurse Practitioner) for follow-up primary care. When the Children arrived at her medical clinic, Nurse Practitioner discovered that the Children—partly due to only recently having arrived in Utah—were not yet set up for medical insurance. But after examining the Children, Nurse Practitioner agreed to treat them anyway, despite their lack of insurance, because in her view “it was medically necessary to see them regardless of the insurance difficulties.” As she saw it, “these kids needed medical care whether [she] got paid” or not, because they were facing “significant medical issues” that she considered potentially “life and death” matters. The Children arrived at her clinic in wheelchairs and were developmentally delayed and nonverbal. None were toilet trained. Over the course of her treatment— which lasted several weeks—Nurse Practitioner also observed that the Children had not been “gaining [weight] as they [had been] in the hospital,” which made her wonder whether the Children might at some point need “to be rehospitalized.”

¶6 A few weeks later, a pediatrician (Pediatrician) was assigned to the Children. When he first saw the Children, he observed that they were all “nonverbal,” and while Kevin had some ability to walk on his own, Mia and Kaleb were “nonambulatory.” During the course of his treatment of the Children, he worked with them to improve their motor skills and their ability to walk, and he monitored their weight, which he indicated was the thing he was “following most closely.” Soon after Pediatrician took over primary care of the Children, Kaleb came in for his “two-year well[ness] visit.” During that visit, Mother indicated that Kaleb had spina bifida, which is “a neural defect at the base of the spine” that can often be fixed with surgery. Mother insisted that Kaleb had already had the surgery to correct the spina bifida, and she even pointed to Kaleb’s back where she indicated there was a scar from the surgery. But Pediatrician saw no scar.

¶7 At some point after Kevin and Mia were released from PCMC, a physician at Nurse Practitioner’s clinic contacted the Utah Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) to notify them about potential issues with the Children. Thereafter, DCFS assigned caseworkers to investigate the matter, and those caseworkers made some ten visits to Parents’ home, prior to removal, to check on the Children and to assess the situation. These visits occurred at different times of day, yet in every visit except for one, the Children were all confined in “Pack ‘n Play” playpens. Parents stated that the Children needed to be in the playpens so that their G-tubes could function properly, but caseworkers observed that Parents had—but were not using— portable devices that would have maintained a “continuous feed” from the feeding tubes without restricting the Children’s movement. On one visit, one of the caseworkers asked Mother to show her the Children’s medications, and in response Mother brought out a large “two feet by three feet” sized tote bag “full of prescription bottles and different ointments.” During this time, Kevin—who was five years old and eligible to begin kindergarten—was not enrolled in school and therefore was not receiving any of the services a school could potentially provide to a medically complex child.

¶8 In addition to receiving primary care from Nurse Practitioner and Pediatrician , the Children were also referred to and treated by the Pediatric Complex Care Clinic at PCMC. They missed their first scheduled appointment with the clinic, which caused the lead physician there (Physician) a great deal of concern, because she knew that “it was critical that [PCMC] follow up with” the Children. Physician notified DCFS of the missed appointment, which was eventually rescheduled for about three weeks later.

¶9       At that rescheduled visit, Mother reported to Physician that the Children were all suffering from “dysphagia,” which is the “inability to swallow food properly.” Physician observed that Kevin and Mia had “continued to lose weight” since their discharge from the hospital. This was troubling, because the Children all had G-tubes, which exist primarily to make sure the Children are receiving enough nutrition; as one member of the PCMC team testified, “a child with a G-tube whose caregiver is fully responsible for that nutrition intake should not be experiencing failure to thrive in the absence of a disease or pathology that could cause failure to thrive.”

¶10 PCMC doctors investigated whether there could be any medical reason for the Children’s continued malnutrition and failure to gain weight, and eventually concluded that “none of the [C]hildren [had] a pathology consistent with a disease process that could cause failure to thrive.” Indeed, the PCMC team eventually determined that the Children’s “malnourishment and poor growth [were] directly related to insufficient caloric intake,” despite their G-tubes, and that the Children’s “failure to thrive was not due to their medical conditions but due to [Parents’] neglect . . . in feeding them appropriately.”

¶11 In addition, after her examination of the Children, Physician was concerned “that the [medical] history being provided by” Parents was “not consistent with what” she was “seeing on physical exam.” Given these concerns, the PCMC team then set out to review the Children’s various medical diagnoses, as reported by Parents, with the goal of verifying or eliminating each of them. As reported by Parents, the Children suffered from the following medical maladies, among others:

·         Kevin had suffered a stroke either in utero or shortly after birth, and had Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, Erb’s palsy, a seizure disorder, hearing loss, premature birth, sleep apnea, and an “allerg[y] to the sun.”

·         Mia had DiGeorge syndrome, blindness, hearing loss, premature birth, cerebral palsy, and prediabetes.

·         Kaleb had spina bifida, gastroparesis, premature birth, clubfoot affecting both feet, urinary retention issues that required catheterization, and hydrocephalus.

In an effort to confirm these diagnoses, the PCMC team requested, obtained, and reviewed over 7,000 pages of medical records regarding the Children, including records from Nevada and Arizona. After completing their review, and after examining the Children both before and after removal, the PCMC team was able to confirm some of the diagnoses. For instance, Kaleb does suffer from clubfoot in both feet, and Mia does have a genetic disorder similar to DiGeorge syndrome. But with regard to most of the diagnoses, the PCMC team concluded that Parents’ assertions were simply unsupported by any medical evidence. In particular, they eventually determined that Kevin does not suffer from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome or any seizure disorder, and that he did not have a stroke either in utero or shortly after birth; that Mia was not legally blind; and that Kaleb did not have spina bifida or hydrocephalus and did not need catheterization.

¶12     Based on these conclusions, and on their examination of the Children, the PCMC team determined that Kevin and Kaleb “had been the victim[s] of” “medical child abuse,”[2] and that the team had “serious concerns” in that regard about Mia. They called for “hospital admission” for the Children to “de-escalate elements of [their] care that are unfounded” and to “restart crucial interventions that have been ignored,” with a focus on “nutrition and aiding age-appropriate development.” And they recommended “development of a long-term plan for trauma- informed counseling and adherence to broad therapies, including speech therapy, occupational therapy, and physical therapy.”

¶13 The PCMC team then met with DCFS caseworkers to explain their findings. Based in part on the information its agents learned at that meeting, the State determined to seek removal of the Children from Parents’ home, and the very next day the State sought and obtained a removal warrant.

¶14 After obtaining the warrant, DCFS caseworkers traveled to Parents’ home to remove the Children. When they arrived, the caseworkers again found the Children in their playpens. Parents were cooperative, however, and Mother changed the Children’s clothes in preparation for the drive to PCMC. One caseworker observed that the Children were “a little stinky” and “had an odor to them like they hadn’t bathed in a few days.” The drive to the hospital was uneventful; Kaleb “babbled . . . baby talk,” while Kevin and Mia were “lethargic” and had a “very flat affect.”

¶15 When the Children arrived at PCMC, hospital staff immediately noticed that the Children exhibited “very poor hygiene” and observed that the Children were each double or triple diapered and that the diapers were “sopping through.” After the wet diapers were removed, hospital staff discovered that the Children had “fairly extensive [skin] breakdown in the diaper area” that was severe enough to require the assistance of the hospital’s “wound clinic.” Hospital staff noted that these sorts of wounds do not occur “overnight” and were the result of “there being wetness on the skin without appropriate response for some period of time.” The Children also had “irritability and breakdown” around their G-tube sites; as with the diaper-area wounds, these wounds also required the assistance of the hospital’s wound clinic.

¶16 Medical personnel also observed that the Children were “malnourished and under expected weight for [their] ages.” Kevin was determined to be “severely malnourished,” while Mia and Kaleb were determined to be “moderately malnourished.” And blood tests on Kaleb “revealed abnormalities very concerning for chronic malnutrition.”

¶17 The doctors considered the Children’s malnutrition to be concerning, and they set about to discover why the Children were unable to regularly eat solid food. All three Children were administered “swallow studies” to determine their “ability to eat and drink by mouth.” Kevin had such a severe “oral aversion to food and drink” that hospital personnel were unable to complete the test, and he was referred to a “speech/language pathologist” to help him overcome the aversion. Mia was “found to have a significant oral aversion to liquids,” and was also referred to a “speech/language pathologist.” Kaleb, on the other hand, was determined to have no oral aversion and was “eager to eat and engaged with all thicknesses of feeds.” Doctors concluded that Kevin and Mia’s oral aversion was “likely the result of not being provided with solid food” at home, and that Kaleb’s test results indicated a “serious concern” that he “did not need a feeding tube” at all.

¶18 Following removal, the Children stayed in the hospital for six days “to medically stabilize them and properly diagnose their conditions” through further examination and testing. During this time, the PCMC team was (as noted above) able to confirm the conclusions it had reached based on the earlier records review.

¶19     Upon discharge from PCMC, the Children were placed into foster care. Kevin and Mia were placed in the same homes, a temporary one at first for a few weeks before being moved to a more permanent placement. Kaleb was placed with a different foster family. Once in foster care, the Children showed rapid and measurable improvement. After having Kevin and Mia for only about a month, their foster mother reported that, while Kevin could only “scootch around the house on his hiney” when he arrived, he eventually learned not only to walk but to run, and he could often be seen doing “laps” around the kitchen island. He also began to allow his teeth to be brushed (something he had refused to allow at first), had become “a lot more personable” and affectionate, and began attending kindergarten and “loves school.” Mia had some ability to walk when she arrived but was “[v]ery unstable”; over time, however, she had learned to “run really fast.” The foster mother obtained glasses for Mia, which helped her navigate the world better. In the beginning, Mia refused to bathe, and would start “screaming and rocking and shaking” when asked to do so, but over time had become accustomed to it and “now she loves bath time.” And Kaleb’s foster mother reported that Kaleb could not crawl, walk, or talk when he arrived, but within a few weeks he learned how to not only crawl but walk with the help of furniture, and he was able to say several words.

¶20 The foster parents also reported that they had enrolled the Children in appropriate schooling. Kevin was enrolled in kindergarten, where he began to receive speech and occupational therapy through the school. Mia was enrolled in preschool, where she was given an individualized education plan that included speech therapy. And Kaleb was enrolled in a state-run program known as “Up to Three,” where he was able to obtain physical and speech therapy.

¶21 With regard to nutrition and weight gain, all three Children demonstrated swift and marked improvement in foster care. It wasn’t long before the Children no longer required 24- hour G-tube feeding; soon, the Children were receiving feedings through the tube only at night and just two or three times during the day. All of them were soon eating solid foods; Kevin’s foster mother reported that he had “tried 20 new foods” and he liked “spaghetti and pasta and yogurt and ice cream.” Following an appointment about a month after foster placement, Physician noted that Kevin “looks to be doing great” and stated that, from “a weight perspective, he is gaining weight appropriately.” And she noted that Mia “looked to be in excellent physical health.”

¶22 Soon after the Children were removed from Parents’ care, Pediatrician set up a meeting to inform Parents of the Children’s condition and accurate diagnoses. Parents refused to accept the PCMC team’s conclusion that many of the previous diagnoses were inaccurate; indeed, Pediatrician described Parents’ reaction as one of “scoffing and disbelie[f] and unacceptance.” Pediatrician later stated that, because of Parents’ “blatant disregard of facts from medical tests and expert opinions from specialists,” he “would be very worried” about the Children if they were to be placed back in Parents’ care.

¶23 In the meantime, legal proceedings began in the juvenile court. One week after removal, the court held a shelter hearing, at which it heard testimony from Mother, Father, and one member of the PCMC medical team. At the conclusion of the hearing, the court stated that it was “convinced by a preponderance [of the evidence] that the [C]hildren were being neglected” by Parents. The court noted that daily oversight of the Children had been Parents’ responsibility, and that this “oversight was done in a way that was neglectful.” It specifically mentioned that, upon arrival at the hospital after removal, the Children all had “soiled” diapers and “open sores” in the diaper area as well as around the G-tube sites. The court noted that the Children “needed a great deal more medical oversight” than they had been getting, and that “at the very least” the case presented “medical neglect” with a “strong indication” that there was also “medical abuse.” The court stated that it had been “up to [Parents] to identify [the issues] and care for these [C]hildren,” who “were not thriving.”

¶24 After making its findings of neglect, the court finished its shelter analysis with the following remarks:

The [c]ourt does find that given the current state of the [C]hildren, exigent circumstances existed with regards to the removal. The removal was proper. At this particular time until there is a plan in place, the continued removal is necessary. Okay? At some point in time if a plan is in place and the parents have shown the ability to take into consideration the current medical condition of the [C]hildren and have shown the ability to work with the professionals that are providing that care for the [C]hildren, I don’t see why it cannot at least be considered that the ongoing continued removal would not be necessary. Okay?

At this point, I just don’t have enough with regards to that. The only thing I have is that there was testimony that if placed back in the care of [Parents], this is going to get worse and worse and worse. I don’t think that has to be the case really.

So I do find removal proper, . . . [a]nd I do find that exigent circumstances, emergency circumstances did exist with relation to the removal at the time the [C]hildren were removed which absolved [DCFS] of the need to provide reasonable efforts to keep the [C]hildren in the home.

¶25 Later, the court issued an order memorializing its oral ruling. It found that “[t]he lack of physical care that the [C]hildren received by [Parents] constitutes neglect,” and that the Children were “clearly not thriving.” The court found that “[r]emoval of the [C]hildren from the home was proper and in [their] best interest,” and that it was “contrary to [their] well-being . . . to remain in the home.” And it found that, “because an emergency situation . . . existed at the time of removal, . . . any lack of pre- placement preventative efforts was appropriate and justified.”

¶26 About six weeks later, the juvenile court held an adjudication trial. Over three trial days, the court heard from thirteen witnesses, including the involved DCFS caseworkers, Nurse Practitioner, Pediatrician, the foster parents, and various members of the PCMC medical team. They all testified about the events described above. At one point during the trial, the Children visited the courtroom, an event the court noted for the record, stating that it “was able to” see the Children and “watch them interact with” Parents. At the conclusion of the trial, the court took the matter under advisement.

¶27 Some ten days later, the court issued a lengthy written ruling in which it summarized the evidence presented at trial and then determined that the Children had been abused and neglected by both Parents. With regard to abuse, the court found that the Children had “suffered or been threatened with nonaccidental harm in that unnecessary medical interventions have been performed that have caused physical harm” to the Children. In support of this finding, the court pointed to six different “unnecessary medical interventions”: (1) a CT scan performed on Kaleb in 2022 that was against medical advice; (2) Mother’s “[i]ntermittent catheterization” of Kaleb; (3) various medical tests performed on Kevin that “expos[ed him] to radiation unnecessarily”; (4) various unnecessary blood draws on Mia;

“bronchoscopies and modified Barium swallow studies” performed on all three Children that “may not have been necessary”; and (6) Parents’ actions in “maintaining the [C]hildren on G-tubes” and “constant[ly] plac[ing]” them in playpens, actions the court found had “harmed the [C]hildren to the point that they became unable to eat food orally or develop the ability to walk.”

¶28     With regard to neglect, the court’s conclusion rested on two separate grounds. First, the court pointed to the Children’s condition upon arriving at the hospital, finding that they were “malnourished” without any “medical reason” and “[d]espite placement of feeding tubes and 24/7 feeding,” and that they were “nonverbal and unable to walk” because of parental neglect and not because of “their medical complexity.” Based on their condition at the time of removal, the court concluded that the Children were neglected because Parents had failed “to provide for their basic physical needs on a day-to-day basis.”

¶29 Second, the court pointed to Parents’ belief that the Children had various medical maladies, many of which did not appear to be borne out by medical evidence, noting by way of example that there is no evidence that Kaleb has spina bifida or hydrocephalus. In that same vein, the court found that the Children “have not received appropriate interventions for their developmental needs,” noting specifically that Mia had not received appropriate medical treatment for certain neurological conditions and that none of the Children had been “enrolled in any physical therapy, occupational therapy, feeding therapy, or speech therapy since the family arrived in Utah.” Accordingly, the court concluded that the Children were neglected because Parents had “failed or refused to provide proper and necessary subsistence [and] medical care when required.”

¶30 After finding both abuse and neglect, the court concluded that “continued removal” was “in the best interest” of the Children, and that DCFS had “made reasonable efforts to prevent the removal,” but that those efforts had been “unsuccessful.” The court ordered that the Children “be placed in [DCFS’s] custody and guardianship for appropriate placement.”

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶31 Parents now appeal, and they raise three issues for our review. First, Parents challenge the juvenile court’s determination, made after the adjudication trial, that they had abused and neglected the Children. In this context, “we apply differing standards of review to findings of fact, conclusions of law, and determinations of mixed questions of law and fact.” In re M.S., 2023 UT App 74, ¶ 23, 533 P.3d 859 (quotation simplified). The factual findings underlying an abuse or neglect adjudication are reviewed deferentially and are reversed only if clearly erroneous. See In re K.K., 2023 UT App 13, ¶ 21, 525 P.3d 519. But the court’s ultimate determination regarding abuse or neglect is reviewed for correctness, because making that determination, which involves applying a given set of facts to statutory criteria, “is primarily a law-like endeavor.” See In re M.S., 2023 UT App 74, ¶ 23 (quotation simplified).

¶32 Second, Parents assert that, in one respect, their attorneys rendered constitutionally ineffective assistance. “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 [party] was deprived of the effective assistance of counsel as a matter of law.” State v. Kitzmiller, 2021 UT App 87, ¶ 14, 493 P.3d 1159 (quotation simplified).

¶33 Finally, Parents challenge the juvenile court’s earlier order following the shelter hearing, asserting that the court failed to engage in the proper statutory analysis before issuing its order finding that removal was necessary. In particular, Parents assert that the court did not properly analyze whether DCFS had made reasonable efforts to prevent removal, and that the court did not properly analyze whether there were services available, going forward, that might have prevented removal. At root, Parents’ assertion is that the juvenile court misapplied the shelter statute. “We review [a lower] court’s application of a statute for correctness.” Estate of Higley v. Utah Dep’t of Transp., 2010 UT App 227, ¶ 6, 238 P.3d 1089 (quotation simplified).

ANALYSIS

Adjudication Order

¶34 Parents’ main challenge is to the merits of the juvenile court’s adjudication order, in which the court determined that the  Children were abused and neglected as to both Parents. For the reasons discussed, we affirm the juvenile court’s determination that Parents neglected the Children. In light of that ruling, and given the posture of Parents’ arguments on appeal, we need not consider the merits of the court’s abuse adjudication.

Neglect

¶35 We first consider Parents’ challenge to the juvenile court’s neglect adjudication. In this context, “[n]eglect” includes parental “action or inaction causing” any one of six different results. See Utah Code § 80-1-102(58)(a). Yet not all six results are necessary for a neglect determination; when “the juvenile court [finds] neglect under several subsections, to affirm we need conclude only that neglect was established under one of the bases.” In re G.H., 2023 UT App 132, ¶ 28, 540 P.3d 631.

¶36 In this case, the juvenile court determined that Parents had neglected the Children under two of the six statutory subsections. First, based on the condition of the Children at removal, the court determined that Parents’ action or inaction caused a “lack of proper parental care of a child by reason of the fault or habits of the parent.” See Utah Code § 80-1-102(58)(a)(ii). Second, and alternatively, the court determined, based on the Children’s medical conditions, that Parents had failed or refused “to provide proper or necessary subsistence or medical care, or any other care necessary for the child’s health, safety, morals, or well-being.” Id.

§ 80-1-102(58)(a)(iii). For the reasons discussed, we conclude that the juvenile court’s first ground is supported by the evidence in this case, and we therefore need not reach the second.

¶37 In our view, the Children’s condition at removal alone was sufficient for the juvenile court to determine that the Children were neglected. The Children were all malnourished, one of them “severely” so. They were all underweight and failing to thrive. Moreover, they all had mobility problems; none of them could walk in an age-appropriate manner. And none were toilet-trained. In addition, they arrived at PCMC with open sores in their diaper areas and around their G-tube sites that were severe enough to require consultation with the hospital’s wound clinic.

¶38 Even though the Children are medically complex, the juvenile court found that there was no medical reason for their malnourishment, failure to thrive, or open wounds. That finding was not clearly erroneous. It should go without saying that allowing open wounds to develop or remain untreated is not medically necessary; certainly, Parents make no assertion to the contrary. And with regard to malnourishment and failure to thrive, PCMC doctors investigated whether there could be any medical reason for the Children’s continued malnutrition and failure to gain weight, and eventually concluded that no such medical cause existed here. Absent a medical cause, children with G-tubes should not be malnourished. Following examination and testing, the PCMC team eventually determined that the Children’s “malnourishment and poor growth [were] directly related to insufficient caloric intake,” despite G-tubes, and that their “failure to thrive was not due to their medical conditions but due to [Parents’] neglect . . . in feeding them appropriately.”

¶39   Parents resist the court’s neglect determination by pointing to the neglect statute’s exception for “reasonable and informed” health care decisions. See id. § 80-1-102(58)(b)(ii) (“Neglect does not include . . . a health care decision made for a child by the child’s parent or guardian, unless the state . . . shows . . . that the health care decision is not reasonable and informed.”). They assert, in essence, that their care of the Children has consisted of a series of health care decisions that the State has not shown to be unreasonable or uninformed. And on that basis they argue that the court’s neglect determination was incomplete and improper.

¶40 Parents’ arguments might have more force if the reason the State was asserting neglect had to do with a specific medical decision Parents made for the Children—say, for instance, their decision to place G-tubes in all three Children. But in this case, the juvenile court’s neglect determination was—at least in relevant part—not based on any specific health care decision but, instead, on the Children’s condition at the time of removal. On that score, Parents—unlike the parents in In re M.S., 2023 UT App 74, ¶¶ 41– 48, 533 P.3d 859, who asserted that their baby’s low weight was due to their decision to exclusively use breast milk rather than formula—make no effort to defend the Children’s malnutrition and failure to thrive by pointing to any particular health care decision, whether reasonable and informed or not. Indeed, as noted, PCMC doctors concluded, after examination and testing, that there was no medical justification for the Children’s malnutrition and failure to thrive. Under these circumstances, the statutory exception to “neglect” for “reasonable and informed” health care decisions simply has no application.

¶41 We therefore affirm the juvenile court’s determination that, based on the Children’s condition at removal, Parents—through their own “fault or habits”—had failed to provide “proper parental care” to the Children. See Utah Code § 80-1-102(58)(a)(ii). Because we affirm under subsection (a)(ii), we need not further discuss the court’s alternative neglect determination, made under subsection (a)(iii). See In re G.H., 2023 UT App 132, ¶ 28.

Abuse

¶42 Moreover, because we affirm the juvenile court’s neglect determination, we need not—in this case—consider the merits of the court’s abuse determination. Juvenile court jurisdiction over a child can be based on, among other things, either abuse or neglect. See In re G.B., 2022 UT App 98, ¶ 32, 516 P.3d 781 (“Importantly, jurisdiction could properly be based on either the abuse determination or the neglect determination.”). Our decision affirming the juvenile court’s neglect adjudication means that the court has continuing jurisdiction over the Children, regardless of the merits of Parents’ challenge to the court’s abuse adjudication.

¶43 In situations like this one, the propriety of the court’s abuse adjudication ends up being an inconsequential point, unless the affected parent can demonstrate that there will be “collateral consequences associated with an abuse determination that do not follow from a neglect determination.” Id. ¶ 34. In this case, Parents make no effort to articulate any collateral consequences that might follow from an abuse adjudication that are not already present from a neglect adjudication. And when asked during oral argument if we would need to address abuse if we were to affirm on neglect, Parents agreed that, in that situation, we would not need to address abuse. We therefore have no occasion to consider the merits of Parents’ challenge to the court’s abuse adjudication.

Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

¶44 Next, Parents assert that their attorneys provided ineffective assistance during the adjudication proceedings by failing to consult with or call an expert who could have testified about “medical child abuse” and about Parents’ state of mind and intentions regarding their care of the Children. Under the circumstances of this case, we reject Parents’ claim of ineffective assistance of counsel.

¶45 In child welfare cases, we employ the “Strickland test to determine a claim for ineffective assistance of counsel.” See In re E.H., 880 P.2d 11, 13 (Utah Ct. App. 1994) (citing Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984)), cert. denied, 890 P.2d 1034 (Utah 1994). Under that test, Parents “must show that (1) counsel’s performance was deficient and (2) this deficient performance prejudiced the defense.” In re C.M.R., 2020 UT App 114, ¶ 19, 473 P.3d 184 (quotation simplified). “To demonstrate deficient performance,” Parents “must persuade this court that, considering the record as a whole, [c]ounsel’s performance was objectively unreasonable.” In re R.G., 2023 UT App 114, ¶ 16, 537 P.3d 627. And to show prejudice, Parents “must demonstrate a reasonable probability that the outcome of [their] case would have  been different absent counsel’s error.” In re C.M.R., 2020 UT App 114, ¶ 21 (quotation simplified). “A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome of the proceeding.” Id. (quotation simplified). In this case, Parents cannot meet either element of the Strickland test.

¶46 In support of their ineffective assistance claim, Parents have submitted a declaration from a forensic pathologist (Expert) who indicates that he has experience in cases of medical child abuse. Expert offers his view that, in most cases of medical child abuse, the “responsible parent . . . receives some form of secondary benefit, either financial or psychologic, from the inappropriate and unwanted medical care the child receives.” But he states that, in other cases, the unnecessary medical care is the result of “miscommunication between medical providers and patients” and of “the unsophistication and/or limited cognitive resources” of the parents. Expert states that, in order to offer a useful opinion in this case, he would need to undertake “an adequate psychologic and cognitive assessment” of Parents. He has not yet undertaken any such assessment, although he notes that he has reviewed the reports of another examiner who assessed Parents, and he offers his view that these reports “appear to endorse mental functioning deficits” on Parents’ part “that could lead to inaccurate conceptualizations of [the Children’s] medical conditions and treatment needs,” and that nothing he sees in those reports “implies [that Parents] are putting [the Children] at risk for selfish or self-aggrandizing motives.”

¶47 Under the circumstances presented here, a reasonable attorney could have decided not to consult Expert. The opinions Expert offers speak only to medical child abuse, and not to whether Parents neglected the Children by not feeding them enough and not enabling them to grow and thrive despite their medical maladies. As noted above, we affirm the juvenile court’s neglect determination without reaching the merits of any questions about the propriety of the Children’s various medical diagnoses. Because Expert has nothing useful to say about Parents’ manifest neglect of the Children notwithstanding their diagnoses, a reasonable attorney could have determined that consultation with Expert was not necessary or helpful. Accordingly, we conclude that Parents have not demonstrated that their attorneys performed deficiently.

¶48 For much the same reason, Parents have also not shown prejudice. Even if their attorneys had consulted with and retained Expert, his testimony—given that it goes only to abuse and not to Parents’ neglect of the Children as evidenced by the Children’s condition at removal—would not have made a difference to the outcome of this case.

¶49 Thus, we conclude that Parents have not borne their burden of demonstrating that their attorneys rendered constitutionally ineffective assistance.

The Shelter Order

¶50 Finally, we consider Parents’ challenge to the juvenile court’s earlier shelter order. Before considering the merits of that challenge, we address one preliminary issue: whether Parents have properly appealed the shelter order. After concluding that Parents have properly mounted an appeal from the shelter order, we proceed to address the merits of Parents’ arguments.

Appealability

¶51 We do not see very many appeals from shelter orders. We suspect that this is because shelter hearings occur at the very beginning of any child welfare case, and because orders coming out of those hearings are not considered final orders that are immediately appealable as of right. We therefore take this opportunity to discuss the appealability of shelter orders, and we

conclude that Parents have properly appealed from the shelter order here.

¶52 “As a general rule, an appellate court does not have jurisdiction to consider an appeal unless the appeal is taken from a final order or judgment that ends the controversy between the litigants.” In re J.E., 2023 UT App 3, ¶ 17, 524 P.3d 1009 (quotation simplified). And, at least conceptually, “the finality of an order in juvenile proceedings is determined the same way as the finality of an order in other courts.” Id. ¶ 18 (quotation simplified). “But it is fair to say that, in appeals from juvenile court, finality is viewed somewhat more flexibly than in the district court context.” Id. ¶ 19. In juvenile court cases, “the determining factor” as to finality “is whether [the order in question] effects a change in the permanent status of the child.” Id. (quotation simplified). Using this “pragmatic analysis of the order itself,” Utah appellate courts have concluded that, in juvenile court cases, “appeals may be heard from more than one final judgment.” Id. (quotation simplified). In particular, adjudication orders and termination orders are considered final orders that are appealable as of right, while “shelter orders” are “not considered final.” Id. ¶ 20; see also In re S.A.K., 2003 UT App 87, ¶ 13, 67 P.3d 1037 (“An adjudication order is one such judgment that we have found to be final for purposes of appeal.”); In re M.V., 937 P.2d 1049, 1051 (Utah Ct. App. 1997) (per curiam) (holding that, because a shelter hearing only creates temporary orders, “a shelter hearing order . . . is not final and appealable as a matter of right”).

¶53 Because shelter orders are not considered to be final orders, they are not immediately appealable as of right.[3] To properly appeal such orders as a matter of right, the party wishing to challenge the shelter order must wait until the court has entered a final appealable order. At that point, the party may take an appeal from the final order, which appeal “may include challenges to interlocutory orders” issued by the court prior to entry of the final order. Jensen v. Jensen, 2013 UT App 143, ¶ 2 n.1, 304 P.3d 878 (per curiam); accord U.P.C., Inc. v. R.O.A. Gen., Inc., 1999 UT App 303, ¶ 13, 990 P.2d 945.

¶54 In this situation, the adjudication order was the first final and appealable order issued by the juvenile court following entry of the shelter order. Thus, Parents’ opportunity to appeal the shelter order as of right presented itself upon entry of the court’s adjudication order. And Parents seized that opportunity by filing their notices of appeal. In each notice, Parents specified that they were appealing from the court’s adjudication order; they did not specify that they also wanted to appeal from the court’s interim shelter order, but parties are not required to include such specification in the notice of appeal. See Wilson v. Sanders, 2019 UT App 126, ¶ 28, 447 P.3d 1240 (“The language of rule 3(d) [of the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure] does not require a party appealing from an entire final judgment to specify each interlocutory order of which the appellant seeks review.” (quotation simplified)), cert. denied, 456 P.3d 388 (Utah 2019). Parents then indicated in their appellate petition, filed a few months later, that they were challenging not only the adjudication order but also the interlocutory shelter order.

¶55 Thus, Parents took all the right steps to appeal the juvenile court’s shelter order. Such orders are not immediately appealable as of right, but a challenge to such orders may be included in any appeal from the next subsequently entered final order. Parents properly included their challenge to the shelter order in their appeal from the next final order entered by the juvenile court: the adjudication order.

B. Parents’ Challenge to the Shelter Order

¶56 Having concluded that Parents have properly mounted an appeal from the juvenile court’s shelter order, we proceed to consider the merits of Parents’ appellate challenge. In this case, Parents raise a very specific objection to the shelter order. They assert that the court did not properly address two of the required components of the statutorily mandated removal analysis:

“whether reasonable efforts were made to prevent or eliminate the need for removal,” and (2) “whether there are available services that would prevent the need for continued removal.” See Utah Code § 80-3-301(10)(a)(i). In considering the merits of Parents’ challenge, we first conclude that the juvenile court did indeed err in its application of the shelter statute. In a separate section, we then discuss the appropriate remedy in this situation.

1

¶57 Utah law requires juvenile courts, before removing a child from a parent’s home, to make several specific findings. At issue here are the requirements of subsection 10(a) of the shelter statute. That subsection states, in relevant part, as follows:

(i) The juvenile court shall make a determination on the record as to whether reasonable efforts were made to prevent or eliminate the need for removal of the child from the child’s home and whether there are available services that would prevent the need for continued removal.

(ii) If the juvenile court finds that the child can be safely returned to the custody of the child’s parent or guardian through the provision of the services described in Subsection 10(a)(i), the juvenile court shall place the child with the child’s parent or guardian and order that the services be provided by [DCFS].

Id. § 80-3-301(10)(a).

¶58 Thus, this statutory provision requires juvenile courts to make, “on the record,” two separate but related determinations. See id. § 80-3-301(10)(a)(i). The first one is a backward-looking inquiry that asks whether, prior to removal, DCFS has made “reasonable efforts” to “prevent or eliminate the need for removal.” Id. However, if DCFS’s “first contact with the family occurred during an emergency situation in which the child could not safely remain at home,” the juvenile court need not engage in a traditional reasonable-efforts analysis but, instead, “shall make a finding that any lack of preplacement preventive efforts . . . was appropriate.” Id. § 80-3-301(11).

¶59 The second—and related—determination requires analysis of “whether there are available services that would prevent the need for continued removal.” Id. § 80-3-301(10)(a)(i). As we understand it, this inquiry is different from the reasonable-efforts analysis, in that it looks forward rather than backward. As relevant here, the question is not whether reasonable efforts have been made in the past, but whether services are available, going forward, that could “prevent the need for continued removal.” Id.

¶60 With regard to the first part of this inquiry, the court in its oral ruling offered its view that “emergency circumstances did exist” at the time of removal “which absolved [DCFS] of the need to provide reasonable efforts.” And in its later written order, it found that, “because an emergency situation and aggravated circumstances existed at the time of removal, and the [C]hildren could not safely remain in [Parents’] home, any lack of pre- placement preventative efforts was appropriate and justified.”[4]

¶61 Parents assert that this analysis was erroneous because the “emergency” exception that absolves DCFS from making reasonable pre-removal efforts to prevent removal applies only in cases in which DCFS’s “first contact with the family occurred during an emergency situation,” see id. § 80-3-301(11) (emphasis added), a situation not applicable here. The State advances a broader interpretation of this statutory exception, but in our view Parents’ interpretation is the correct one.

¶62 The State agrees with Parents that, in situations in which DCFS’s first contact with the family is in an emergency situation, the statute requires the court to make a finding that any lack of reasonable efforts was appropriate. See id. But it asserts that this provision does not prevent a court from “mak[ing] a finding of exigency in any case where [DCFS] has already been working with the parents,” and it posits that a juvenile court has the authority to dispense with the pre-removal reasonable-efforts inquiry anytime it believes the situation is emergent. We disagree.

¶63 The previous subsection requires that a pre-removal reasonable-efforts finding be made. See id. § 80-3-301(10)(a)(i). There are no exceptions built into this subsection. To be sure, there is an exception built into the next statutory subsection, but that provision, on its face, applies only to situations in which DCFS’s first encounter with the family occurred in an emergency situation. We decline the State’s invitation to read a broader emergency exception into the statute. See St. Jeor v. Kerr Corp., 2015 UT 49, ¶ 13, 353 P.3d 137 (“[W]e will not read additional limitations into [a rule] that the language cannot bear.”); Greene v. Utah Transit Auth., 2001 UT 109, ¶ 15, 37 P.3d 1156 (“[W]e will not disturb explicit legislative requirements and read into the statute an actual notice exception.”). We conclude that subsections (10) and (11) of the shelter statute, when read together, contemplate an exception to the reasonable-efforts requirement that is applicable only when DCFS’s first encounter with the family occurs during an emergency situation.[5]

¶64   That narrow exception is not applicable here. DCFS was first notified of potential problems with the Children in August 2022, some three months before removal. Between DCFS’s first notification (in August) and removal (in November), DCFS assigned caseworkers to the family, and those caseworkers made at least ten visits to Parents’ home. This is simply not a situation in which DCFS’s “first contact with the family” occurred in an emergency situation, and therefore the “emergency” exception to the reasonable-efforts inquiry does not apply here. The juvenile court therefore erred in applying that exception in this case, and it should have proceeded, at the shelter hearing, to consider whether DCFS had made reasonable pre-removal efforts to avoid taking the Children out of Parents’ home.

¶65   The juvenile court’s error in this regard, however, appears to have been rendered moot by the court’s later finding, made after the adjudication trial, that DCFS had “made reasonable efforts to prevent the removal of the [C]hildren, but those efforts were unsuccessful.” While Parents complain that the court did not undertake this analysis after the shelter hearing, they do not make any effort to challenge the finding that the court eventually made just two months later after the adjudication trial. Under these circumstances, any error the court made by relying on the emergency exception at the shelter hearing, and by failing to make a “reasonable efforts” finding at that time, has been rendered inconsequential by the court’s later unchallenged finding that DCFS had indeed made reasonable efforts to prevent removal.

¶66 We turn now to the second part of the inquiry, the part that requires the court to determine, on a going-forward basis, “whether there are available services that would prevent the need for continued removal.” See Utah Code § 80-3-301(10)(a)(i). In this vein, the court stated, in its written order, as follows:

If, at some point, there is a plan in place and [Parents] have shown the ability to take into consideration the current medical condition of the [C]hildren, and have shown the ability to work with the professionals providing that care for the [C]hildren, the [c]ourt would re-consider whether ongoing and continued removal would be necessary.

This comment indicates that the court was of course aware that services do exist—such as physical, speech, and occupational therapy for the Children and medical education and in-home health care assistance for Parents—that are designed to improve situations like the one presented here. And it indicates that the court was making an effort to apply the second part of the statutory analysis.[6] But the court, in its analysis, did not take the next analytical step and assess whether specific services could be provided to the family, in that moment and going forward, that might obviate the need for removal. See id. Simply stating that, at some point in the future, the court might reconsider its removal order is not sufficient; indeed, in most child welfare cases, the initial permanency goal is reunification, and juvenile courts nearly always stand ready to reconsider removal orders in appropriate cases. The shelter statute requires a more exacting analysis prior to removal, and the court’s failure here to ask and answer the correct statutory question was error.

¶67 And unlike the court’s error regarding the backward- looking reasonable-efforts determination, this error was not later remedied by later findings made after the adjudication trial. The State points to no similar finding made after the trial, and we are aware of none.

¶68 We therefore conclude that the juvenile court made two errors in its attempt to comply with the shelter hearing statute. First, it misapplied the “emergency” exception to its obligation to make a backward-looking reasonable-efforts determination at the shelter hearing. Second, it failed to make a specific forward- looking determination about whether services could be provided to the family that would serve to obviate the need for removal. The first error was rendered inconsequential by later findings. But the second one wasn’t, and we must therefore consider what the proper remedy is, in this situation, to address the court’s error.

¶69 Before doing so, we take the opportunity to emphasize the importance of completing the proper statutory analysis at the shelter hearing. While such hearings take place early in the case and are generally not comprehensive trials, they can assume a position of great importance in the arc of a child welfare case. To be sure, removal orders are temporary nonfinal orders that can be—and in many cases are, see, e.g.In re M.S., 2023 UT App 74,

¶¶ 2–21, 533 P.3d 859 (considering a situation where a child was placed back into the parent’s home at a later hearing, after initial removal)—amended or modified, but removal orders nevertheless memorialize a seminal moment in a child welfare case. Such cases often proceed much differently after the shelter hearing depending on whether the child was (or was not) removed. It is therefore vital that courts undertake the analysis required by the shelter statute, and that, before removal, they engage with both the backward-looking reasonable-efforts analysis as well as the forward-looking services analysis.

¶70 The importance of getting shelter hearings right the first time is highlighted by the difficulty of putting the removal genie back in the proverbial bottle. As this case illustrates, by the time appellate review of a shelter order can take place, the family’s situation will often look much different than it did at the shelter hearing. While post-adjudication events are not part of the record submitted to us on appeal, we are nevertheless aware that, while    this appeal has been pending, significant events have taken place that might affect the way the juvenile court analyzes the question of whether services are available that could obviate the need for continued removal. For instance, we are aware that criminal child abuse charges have been filed against Parents. In addition, we are aware that, since the adjudication hearing, Parents have received certain services, and the court has had the opportunity—at a permanency hearing held in January 2024—to assess the efficacy of those services. And there have doubtless been other developments that have occurred in the previous sixteen months of which we are appropriately unaware.

¶71 In this case, by way of remedy, Parents ask us to vacate the initial removal order and remand the case so that the juvenile court can conduct an entirely new shelter hearing. We do not view this as an unreasonable request; indeed, when an error is made at a hearing, a common remedy is to remand the case for the court to conduct a new hearing. But even though we do not view Parents’ request as unreasonable, in this situation the request is not entirely practical. After all, the situation is much different now from what it was in November 2022, and in cases involving children, our usual remand instructions include an admonition to the court to conduct any new hearing, on remand, in present-tense fashion, as of the date of the renewed hearing, taking into account all that has happened in the child’s situation since. See In re   Z.C.W., 2021 UT App 98, ¶ 12, 500 P.3d 94.

¶72 Under the circumstances, we agree with Parents that the juvenile court’s error cannot go entirely unremedied, and that the case should therefore be remanded so that the juvenile court can complete the analysis required by the shelter statute and, in particular, consider “whether there are available services that would prevent the need for continued removal.” See Utah Code § 80-3-301(10)(a)(i). But this inquiry should not be undertaken as of the date of the initial shelter hearing; instead, this inquiry should, on remand, be conducted in present-tense fashion, taking into account all relevant existing developments. See In re Z.C.W., 2021 UT App 98, ¶ 12.[7] Moreover, we offer no specific instruction to the juvenile court as to whether, and to what extent, it must hold an evidentiary hearing on remand; we conclude only that the court must properly complete the required statutory analysis and that it “must—in some manner—consider and appropriately deal with proffered new evidence.” See id. ¶ 15. And we do not, in this opinion, order that the removal order be vacated; the juvenile court may order that relief, if it deems such relief appropriate, only after completing its analysis on remand.

¶73     Finally, we wish to make clear that we harbor no opinion as to how the juvenile court’s renewed analysis should come out; given the realities of chronology, the juvenile court (conducting a present-tense analysis) will have a lot more information than we do now, on this record, about how the Children are doing and how Parents have responded to the situation during the period between the shelter hearing and the permanency hearing. It may well be that the court reaches the same result, after conducting a more complete shelter analysis, that it reached at the permanency hearing in January 2024. On the other hand, it may be that the court, after conducting the proper shelter analysis, finds it appropriate to vacate or amend one or more of its previous orders. But either way, it is important that courts conducting shelter hearings, before they take the rather drastic step of removing children from a parent’s home, follow the requirements of the shelter statute. We remand the matter so that these requirements may be satisfied in this case, albeit belatedly.

CONCLUSION

¶74 We discern no error in the juvenile court’s determination that, based on the condition of the Children upon removal, the Children were neglected by both Parents. And we reject Parents’ assertion that their attorneys rendered ineffective assistance during the adjudication process.

¶75 However, we conclude that the juvenile court did not conduct the proper statutory analysis at the initial shelter hearing. We therefore remand this case to the juvenile court so that it can complete the required analysis and assess, in present-tense fashion, whether there are services available that can prevent the need for continued removal.

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


[1] For readability, we use pseudonyms (rather than initials) to      refer to the Children.

[2] In its reports regarding the Children, the PCMC team stated that “medical child abuse” is “a form of child maltreatment characterized by the fabrication or exaggeration of medical history, symptoms, and even exam findings and/or the induction of symptoms by a caregiver.” Medical child abuse “occurs when a child receives unnecessary and harmful or potentially harmful medical care at the instigation of the caregiver,” and it “results in manipulation of the medical system leading to child maltreatment in the form of unnecessary medical examinations, diagnostic [2]testing . . . , imaging, and invasive procedures.” Medical child abuse, in the past, was called “Münchausen syndrome by proxy.”

[3] Parties can, of course, request permission to appeal any interlocutory order (including shelter orders) under rule 5 of the [3]Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure. But parties are not required to seek review under rule 5, and such review is in any event completely discretionary with the appellate court. See Utah R. App. P. 5(a), (g). In this case, Parents did not seek permission to appeal the shelter order under rule 5, but this fact does not affect their ability to later appeal the shelter order following the eventual entry of a final order. See State v. Troyer, 866 P.2d 528, 530 (Utah 1993) (stating that “the scope of appellate review from a final judgment” is not “in any way affected or limited by the possibility that any one or more of the trial court’s rulings might have formed the basis of a petition for an interlocutory appeal”); see also In re S.F., 2012 UT App 10, ¶ 28, 268 P.3d 831 (stating that the fact that a parent “could have elected to petition for interlocutory appeal” from an earlier nonfinal order “does not eliminate our authority to review” the earlier order “once the neglect and termination proceedings were completed and an appeal timely filed”), cert. denied, 280 P.3d 421 (Utah 2012).

[4] There are other statutory provisions that, in specific cases, may operate to excuse or render irrelevant any lack of pre-removal reasonable efforts. See, e.g., Utah Code § 80-2a-201(6) (stating that, “in cases where sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, abandonment, severe abuse, or severe neglect are involved, the state has no duty to make reasonable efforts or to . . . maintain a child in the child’s home”); id. § 80-2a-302(4) (same); id. § 80-3-301(12) (same). No party asserts that any of these other Utah statutes are applicable here. In a supplemental authority letter submitted to us after oral argument, however, the guardian ad litem (GAL) asserts—for the first time—that the juvenile court’s allusion to “aggravated circumstances” was an implicit effort to resort to a provision of federal law, which provides that “reasonable efforts . . . shall not be required . . . if a court of competent jurisdiction has determined that the parent has subjected the child to aggravated circumstances.” 42 U.S.C. § 671(a)(15)(D)(i). As an initial matter, we note that parties may not raise new legal theories in post- argument supplemental authority letters. Cf. State v. Seat, 2022 UT App 143, ¶ 39 n.4, 523 P.3d 724 (stating that parties are “not permitted to raise a new question for the first time at oral argument” before this court). But more substantively, the GAL’s argument fails on its face; even if we assume, for purposes of the discussion, that the juvenile court’s comment was actually a reference to a federal statutory exception to the reasonable-efforts requirements, resort to the federal statute is unhelpful here because, at the time of the shelter hearing, no “court of competent [4]jurisdiction” had made any determination that Parents had done anything wrong.

[5] We can certainly envision policy concerns that might support a broader exception to the reasonable-efforts requirement that could apply in any emergency situation, regardless of whether DCFS had already been working with the affected family. We note here, as we sometimes do, that our legislature is free to amend the statute if it believes we have misinterpreted legislative intent.

[6] On this basis, we reject the State’s assertion, also advanced by the GAL, that Parents failed to preserve any objection to the court’s application of the shelter statute. Our supreme court has made clear that there is no preservation problem where the trial court “not only had an opportunity to rule on the issue . . . but in [6]fact did rule on it.” See Fort Pierce Indus. Park Phases II, III & IV Owners Ass’n v. Shakespeare, 2016 UT 28, ¶ 13, 379 P.3d 1218 (quotation simplified).

[7] In In re Z.C.W., 2021 UT App 98, 500 P.3d 94, our instruction that the renewed hearing be conducted, on remand, in present- tense fashion was a function of the applicable statute using a present-tense locution. See id. ¶ 13 (interpreting a statute requiring juvenile courts to assess “whether termination is in the best interest of the child” (quotation simplified)). The statute at issue here also uses a present-tense locution. See Utah Code § 80-3- [7]301(10)(a)(i) (requiring assessment of “whether there are available services that would prevent the need for continued removal” (emphasis added)). We therefore conclude that, in this situation, a present-tense perspective is required on remand.

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In re Adoption of J.E. – 2024 UT App 34 – termination of parental rights – adoption

In re Adoption of J.E. – 2024 UT App 34

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

IN THE MATTER OF THE ADOPTION OF J.E., E.E., AND L.E.,

PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE. K.E., Appellant, v. K.M.L. AND L.L.L., Appellees.

Opinion No. 20230162-CA, Filed March 14, 2024 Third District Court, West Jordan Department

The Honorable Matthew Bates No. 222900154

Julie J. Nelson and Alexandra Mareschal, Attorneys for Appellant

Bradley A. Schmidt, Attorney for Appellees

JUDGE DAVID N. MORTENSEN authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES RYAN D. TENNEY and JOHN D. LUTHY concurred. MORTENSEN, Judge:

¶1        In connection with an adoption proceeding brought in district court, the rights of a biological father were terminated. The father now claims on appeal that the district court relied impermissibly on generalized concerns of his minor children’s need for permanence and that our recent decision in In re L.L.B., 2023 UT App 66, 532 P.3d 592, compels reversal here. We agree with the father and reverse.

BACKGROUND

¶2        KML[1] (Mother) and KE (Father) have two minor children,[2] who are the subject of this appeal—EE, age sixteen, and LE, age thirteen. For much of the children’s lives, Father has been incarcerated. As relevant here, from 2013 to 2018, Father was incarcerated. During that period, his time with EE and LE “consisted of, at most, a weekly visit” with them at the prison.

¶3        In 2018, Father was released from prison on parole. Sometime during this same period, Mother and Father divorced and Mother married LLL (Stepfather). According to Father, after the divorce, the parent-time arrangement allowed him visits every other weekend. But Father saw EE and LE only once in the summer of 2018. Beyond that visit, Father says he “tried to” exercise his parent-time four times, but that each time he went to Mother’s home for the exchange as required by the divorce decree, Stepfather told him the decree required Father to text Mother. Father disputes the texting requirement. The final time Father attempted to visit the children, he found that they had moved and the “house was empty.” Mother had not given him an updated address or contact information. Father notified the law enforcement officers whom Mother and Father used to communicate with one another.

¶4        In January 2020, Father returned to prison because of a parole violation, and he remained there until December of that same year. Following his release, he tried contacting Mother, but when he called the “last phone number [he] had with her[,] . . . there was nothing.” He asked his family to help him contact Mother, but they had no way to reach her either. Father returned to prison in November 2021 because of another parole violation. While incarcerated, he tried to call the children but still did not have updated contact information. Father says he also wrote letters for the children but did not send them because he did not have a current address for Mother.

¶5        In April 2022, Mother and Stepfather petitioned the district court for termination of Father’s parental rights and Stepfather’s adoption of the children. The court bifurcated the proceedings and, following a hearing in November 2022, determined that Father met the statutory ground of abandonment for termination of parental rights.

¶6        In January 2023, during a second evidentiary hearing, the district court determined that it was in the best interest of EE and LE to terminate Father’s parental rights. The court determined that the children presently had “no relationship” with Father. Both children testified that they had “no memory of him, and they would not recognize him if they saw him.” The court also determined that for the last four years, Stepfather had “assumed the role of natural father” to the children, including socializing with them, playing with them, attending their school and extracurricular activities, assisting with their schoolwork, and caring for them, such as by driving them places and making them meals. Both EE and LE “testified to the strong emotional bond” they had with Stepfather and their desire to be adopted by him, which the court gave some weight in consideration of their ages. The court also determined that the “destruction of the relationship between the children and [Father’s] extended family . . . [was] due to [Mother’s] failure to respond to efforts” made by the family to see the children. The court determined that Mother was “not supportive of the relationship between the children and [Father’s] family.” During the hearing, Father requested reconsideration of the court’s abandonment finding. The court took new evidence on the issue but ultimately did not alter its finding and terminated Father’s parental rights.

¶7          In February 2023, the district court held a hearing concerning Stepfather’s adoption of EE and LE, during which Father asked the court to stay the adoption pending appeal. Following arguments from each party, the district court proceeded with the adoption, determining that it was “in the best interests of the [children] that [the] adoption go forward.”

¶8          Father appeals.

ISSUE AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶9          On appeal, Father argues that the district court erred by deciding that termination of Father’s parental rights was in the best interest of EE and LE. “Whether a parent’s rights should be terminated presents a mixed question of law and fact.” In re B.R., 2007 UT 82, ¶ 12, 171 P.3d 435. “A lower court’s best-interest ruling is reviewed deferentially,” but we do not limit our review to considering whether any relevant facts have been left out; we also “assess whether the court’s determination that the clear and convincing standard had been met goes against the clear weight of the evidence.” In re L.L.B., 2023 UT App 66, ¶ 16, 532 P.3d 592 (cleaned up).

ANALYSIS

¶10        “The right of parents to raise their children is one of the most important rights any person enjoys.” In re D.S., 2023 UT App 98, ¶ 16, 535 P.3d 843 (cleaned up), cert. granted, Jan. 25, 2024 (No. 20230877). Before terminating parental rights, a district court must find that (1) “one or more of the statutory grounds for termination are present” and (2) “termination of the parent’s rights is in the best interests of the child.” In re L.L.B., 2023 UT App 66, ¶ 17, 532 P.3d 592 (cleaned up). A district court “must make both of these findings . . . by clear and convincing evidence and the burden of proof rests with the petitioner.” Id. (cleaned up). Father has not challenged the district court’s ruling that statutory grounds for termination existed, so we turn to the best-interest analysis.

¶11      Our supreme court recently determined that a “court must start the best interest analysis from the legislatively mandated position that wherever possible, family life should be strengthened and preserved.” In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 66, 472 P.3d 827 (cleaned up).[3] Relying nearly entirely on In re L.L.B., 2023

UT App 66, 532 P.3d 592, a recent decision from our court in which we reversed the termination of a father’s parental rights, Father argues that the court erred when it determined that termination and adoption was in the best interest of EE and LE. Father does not claim that the court’s findings were erroneous; instead, he asserts that the facts taken together do not support the court’s ruling. “The best-interest inquiry is intended as a holistic examination of all of the relevant circumstances that might affect a child’s situation.” Id. ¶ 21 (cleaned up); see also In re D.S., 2023 UT App 98, ¶ 18 (“The best-interest inquiry is wide-ranging and asks a court to weigh the entirety of the circumstances of a child’s situation . . . .” (cleaned up)). A district court undertakes this analysis from the child’s perspective and must consider the child’s “physical, intellectual, social, moral, and educational training and general welfare and happiness.” In re L.L.B., 2023 UT App 66, ¶ 21 (cleaned up). To support his argument that the district court erred, Father argues that the “facts and legal analysis are almost identical” between his case and In re L.L.B. This is an overstatement of the cases’ factual parallels, and we are quick to point out where the two cases diverge; however, we still conclude that In re L.L.B. is factually similar enough to be helpful in reaching our ultimate conclusion that the district court did err.

¶12      In In re L.L.B., like the situation in the case before us, the district court terminated the father’s rights in order to allow a stepfather to adopt a child. Id. ¶ 15. Our court reversed. Id. ¶ 35.

¶13      In that case, less than a week after the birth of his child, the father left due to a drug relapse. Id. ¶ 2. Over the course of the next year, the father saw the child only twice. Id. A paternity agreement then granted the mother sole custody and awarded parent-time to the father. Id. ¶ 3. Three years later, the mother married the stepfather, with whom she and the child lived from that point on. Id. ¶ 4. For approximately five years, the father used his parent-time, but then the parents got into an argument. Id. Around that same time, the father and child were in a four-wheeling accident, which the mother suspected had been caused by the father’s alcohol use. Id. In the months that followed, the father’s parent-time was supervised because the mother was concerned that he was using drugs and alcohol around the child. Id.

¶14 About two years later, the mother and stepfather filed a petition in district court for termination of the father’s parental rights and the stepfather’s adoption of the child. Id. ¶ 5. At trial, the mother testified that in the nearly two-year period leading up to the proceedings, the father had attempted to contact the child only twice. Id. ¶ 7. She also testified that he was severely behind on child support payments, and he had never been involved in the child’s education. IdThe guardian ad litem testified that the child did not have a relationship with the father due to his absence and that, in contrast, the stepfather was “an excellent father” who had a “great bond” with the child. Id. ¶ 13 (cleaned up). Over the course of the case, the father relapsed, went to jail, and got sober. Id. ¶ 12. At the time of trial, he had a job and was again paying child support. Id.

¶15 The mother admitted that since filing the termination petition, she had not responded to the father’s requests to see the child. Id. ¶ 7. The father’s mother testified that she had tried “to stay in contact” with the child but had “difficulty getting responses” from the mother. Id. ¶ 9. After the termination petition had been filed, the father had seen the child once and had written letters to the mother, sent a gift, and emailed the child. Id. ¶ 11.

¶16 The district court concluded that the child deserved a “healthy, stable family relationship” with the stepfather, who was the child’s father figure, and that it was in the child’s best interest for the adoption to go forward. Id. ¶ 15 (cleaned up). Because the adoption could not occur without termination of the father’s parental rights, the district court determined “by clear and convincing evidence that it [was] ‘strictly necessary’” to terminate the father’s rights. Id. Our court reversed because the district court’s conclusion that termination was in the child’s best interest went “against the clear weight of the evidence.” Id. ¶ 34. We will discuss some of the applicable reasoning from In re L.L.B. in our ensuing analysis.

¶17      Here, the district court based its decision that termination was in the best interest of EE and LE primarily on two categorical concerns. First, the court stated that the children needed permanency by reasoning that it was “in the best interest of the children to have a normal family life and a permanent home and to have a positive nurturing family relationship with a mother and father.” Second, the court reasoned that Father’s absence while incarcerated required termination of his rights because “weekly visits at the prison . . . are not an adequate substitute to a father in the home and do little to maintain the bond between parent and child.” But categorical concerns such as these are not enough to overcome the legislative presumption that it is in the best interest of children to be raised by their natural parents. We now address why these concerns are insufficient grounds to terminate Father’s rights.

  1. Permanency

¶18 “As our supreme court has explained, categorical concerns about the lack of permanence of an option other than adoption are not enough, otherwise termination and adoption would be strictly necessary across the board.” In re L.L.B., 2023 UT App 66, ¶ 23, 532 P.3d 592 (cleaned up). Just as in In re L.L.B., while we understand the concern about what Stepfather’s legal rights may be regarding the children if Mother dies or Mother and Stepfather divorce,[4] this concern is present in many termination cases, and it does not lead us to the conclusion here “that termination of a parent’s rights is in the [children’s] best interest.” Id.

¶19      Relatedly, Father argues that the district court erred because it did not find that “the present quality of the [c]hildren’s relationship with Stepfather would be changed by adoption.” We agree and see no evidence on the record that—excluding a tragedy like Mother’s death—the adoption will change the living situation or custody of the children. The absence of such a change “is a factor that may weigh against termination in some cases.” In re B.T.B., 2018 UT App 157, ¶ 56, 436 P.3d 206 (cleaned up), aff’d, 2020 UT 60, 472 P.3d 827. Just as in In re L.L.B., we see no findings from the district court that EE and LE’s “current living situation [is] not healthy and stable” or that their living situation will change in any way if Stepfather does not adopt them. See 2023 UT App 66, ¶ 27. Indeed, we see no evidence, or even an assertion, that Stepfather’s love, care, or attachment would change in the absence of an adoption decree.

¶20      Thus, the categorical concern of stability and permanency does not support the court’s decision to terminate Father’s parental rights.

  1. Incarceration

¶21      Because Father has been in and out of prison for much of the children’s lives, the district court relied on the categorical concern of his incarceration to support its termination decision. While it is true that it is much harder for incarcerated parents to be engaged in their children’s lives, the legislature’s policy that we must begin with an assumption that it is in the best interest of children “to be raised under the care and supervision of [their] natural parents” does not support a categorical rule that incarcerated parents’ rights should be terminated. In re D.S., 2023 UT App 98, ¶ 18, 535 P.3d 843 (cleaned up), cert. granted, Jan. 25, 2024 (No. 20230877). In In re D.S., our court recently reversed a juvenile court’s termination of parental rights in the case of a father who was incarcerated at the time. Id. ¶ 33. The father there expressed “a desire to have a stronger relationship” with his children. Id. ¶ 11 (cleaned up). This court determined that “a parent’s desire to build and maintain—coupled with efforts to actually maintain—a meaningful relationship with a child is a factor that will often weigh in favor of . . . a determination that it is in the child’s best interest to keep the relationship intact.” Id. ¶ 27. Our court also explained that the father’s desire to have visitation with his children upon his release should also be “viewed positively” in the best-interest inquiry. Id.

¶22      Here, Father is currently incarcerated and has not, at the present, turned his life around like the father in In re L.L.B, 2023 UT App 66, ¶ 30, 532 P.3d 592However, Father has expressed that he misses the children and has a desire to “support them in their daily lives, their school, [and] their personal affairs.” Father said that he is “glad that they are living a decent” life, but he still wants to be a part of that life. We acknowledge and credit Father’s desire to build a relationship with the children despite his incarceration. Additionally, from 2013 to 2018, Father interacted with the children in the only avenue available to him as an incarcerated parent—through “at most, a weekly visit” at the prison. And though these visits did not continue during his subsequent periods of incarceration, it was at this point that Father had no means of contacting his children due to Mother’s actions.

¶23      Furthermore, there is no evidence that Father’s relationship with EE and LE is harmful to them—just as in In re L.L.B. where there was no finding that the father’s presence “affirmatively harmed” the child or that the father’s “attempts to exercise his parental rights” in any way “negatively affected or disrupted” the child’s life. 2023 UT App 66, ¶ 24; see also In re D.S., 2023 UT App 98, ¶ 24 (reversing termination of an incarcerated father’s parental rights in part because there was “no indication that [the father’s] continuing relationship” with the children was “harmful to them, rather than merely perhaps inconvenient”). Here, neither party has raised any concerns about Father ever

posing a threat to or endangering the children. This is important. Even in In re L.L.B., though the father had turned his life around, there were instances in the past of concern for the child’s safety, such as the four-wheeling accident and supervised visits over fear of the father’s substance abuse. See 2023 UT App 66, ¶ 4. We note that in In re L.L.B our court emphasized that courts must weigh parental conduct in the past against later conduct and that the father was a “presently fit and capable” parent. Id. ¶ 29 (cleaned up). We only point to this concern to emphasize that no such circumstance exists here.

¶24      Thus, not only is the district court’s reliance on the fact of Father’s incarceration unsupported in this case, but the creation of such a categorical rule goes against Utah’s statutes and caselaw.

III. Other Concerns

¶25      Mother and Stepfather, in an effort to distinguish In re L.L.B. from the present case, point to the fact that, unlike Father, the father in that case made “many” attempts to communicate with the children after his incarceration. 2023 UT App 66, ¶ 29, 532 P.3d 592. However, Father’s argument is well-taken that the district court determined this lack of communication was “largely the result of Mother and Stepfather’s interference.” Mother moved the children without telling Father or providing any means of contacting them. This lack of communication should not be held wholly against Father as it was the result of Mother’s actions; to do so would certainly encourage other parents to prevent communication in an effort to similarly strengthen their cases for termination of parental rights.

¶26      Relatedly, any lack of relationship—or as the court put it “destruction” of the relationship—between the children and Father’s extended family was due to Mother’s lack of support and her “failure to respond to [the extended family’s] efforts . . . to see the children.” Mother’s failure to respond to these efforts should likewise not be held against Father.

¶27      Thus, looking holistically at the evidence presented, as courts are required to do, see id. ¶ 21, we conclude that the evidence does not clearly and convincingly demonstrate that termination of Father’s parental rights was in EE’s and LE’s best interest. In our view, the primary bases for the district court’s decision were its categorical conclusions about the need for permanency and the insubstantial nature of a parent/child relationship when a parent is incarcerated. We view Utah precedent as precluding reliance on such categorical concerns. And we view the remainder of the district court’s findings to be insufficient to meet the required burden of proof once these bases are removed from the analysis. Given our legislature’s clear expression that, “as a matter of state policy, the default position is that it is in the best interest and welfare of a child to be raised under the care and supervision of the child’s natural parents,” id. ¶ 31 (cleaned up), we must reverse.

¶28      The court’s order in the adoption decree relied on the termination of all Father’s “rights, duties and responsibilities, including residual parental rights.” Accordingly, with our reversal of the termination order, we also reverse the adoption decree. While this decision is final, it does not preclude the possibility of future termination and adoption proceedings if there is a material change in circumstances.

CONCLUSION

¶29      The district court’s conclusion that the termination of Father’s parental rights was in the best interest of EE and LE was against the clear weight of the evidence. As a consequence of this error, the court also erred when it granted Stepfather’s adoption of the children in reliance on termination of Father’s rights. We therefore reverse.

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


[1] Regarding this opinion’s omission of periods following initials, see A.W. v. Marelli, 2024 UT App 8, ¶ 1 n.1. This practice is consistent with The Chicago Manual of Style, which states that if “an entire name is abbreviated, spaces and periods can usually be omitted.” The Chicago Manual of Style Online ¶ 10.12 (17th ed. 2017).

[2] A third child, JE, was initially a part of these proceedings but has since turned eighteen and is no longer included.

[3] In the same case, our supreme court determined that a court may terminate parental rights only “when it concludes that a different option is in the child’s best interest and that termination is strictly necessary to facilitate that option.” In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 66, 472 P.3d 827 (emphasis added). The district court here made the legal determination that the legislature intended a strictly necessary requirement to apply to the Utah Adoption Act (UAA) for district courts. Yet, the court did not make any subsidiary findings or give reasoned analysis as to whether termination was strictly necessary here; instead, it simply noted in the order’s conclusion that it was strictly necessary to terminate Father’s rights to allow the adoption to proceed. Both parties make arguments on appeal whether the district court erred in this conclusion but neither addresses whether the strictly necessary requirement is even appropriate to apply.

The UAA applies to district courts and reads as follows: “The district court may terminate an individual’s parental rights in a child if . . . the individual’s parental rights are terminated on grounds described in Title 80, Chapter 4, Termination and Restoration of Parental Rights, and termination is in the best interests of the child.” Utah Code § 78B-6-112(5)(e).

Comparatively, the Termination of Parental Rights Act applies to juvenile courts and reads as follows: “[I]f the juvenile court finds termination of parental rights, from the child’s point of view, is strictly necessary, the juvenile court may terminate all parental rights with respect to the parent if the juvenile court finds any one of the [listed grounds for termination].” Id. § 80-4-301(1) (emphasis added).

The case in which our supreme court stated that the best interest of the child analysis includes the strictly necessary requirement was an appeal from juvenile court. See In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 1. The supreme court has not yet addressed whether this analysis also applies to appeals from a district court— particularly given the absence of the “strictly necessary” language in the UAA.

Our court recently acknowledged, but did not answer, this same question in In re L.L.B. when it determined that it did not need to address the issue because “even without considering the strictly necessary part of the best-interest analysis . . . there [was] not clear and convincing evidence supporting the district court’s conclusion that termination of Father’s parental rights was in [the child’s] best interest.” 2023 UT App 66, ¶ 18, 532 P.3d 592. We conclude the same and will not address the issue further.

[4] The legislature might wish to consider that our court frequently sees this issue raised by stepparents who are concerned over what their legal role will be in a child’s life if their spouse—the child’s natural parent—dies. A statute addresses this concern for grandparents, but no such legal protections exist for stepparents. See Utah Code § 30-5-2(4); see also In re S.T.T., 2006 UT 46, ¶ 30, 144 P.3d 1083 (upholding the statute recognizing that the death of one parent creates potential conflict between the surviving parent and the “in-law” grandparents and, accordingly, providing “an avenue for grandparents and grandchildren to maintain their relationship” through visitation rights).

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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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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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Lamb v. Lamb, 2024 UT App 16 – divorce, custody, business, home equity

2024 UT App 16

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

JOSEPH EARL LAMB,

Appellee,

v.

SONYA ELIZABETH LAMB,

Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20210787-CA

Filed February 8, 2024

Third District Court, Salt Lake Department

The Honorable Robert P. Faust

No. 174904728

Mary Deiss Brown, Attorney for Appellant

Gregory G. Skordas, Gabriela Mena, and Allison R.

Librett, Attorneys for Appellee

JUDGE DAVID N. MORTENSEN authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES RYAN M. HARRIS and AMY J. OLIVER concurred.

MORTENSEN, Judge:

¶1 Joseph Earl and Sonya Elizabeth Lamb’s divorce was decided at a bench trial.[1] As relevant here, Joseph was awarded custody of their children, ownership of a family business, and half the equity of the marital home. Sonya now challenges the court’s custody determination and the award of the business. She also challenges the manner in which the court determined the equity in the marital home. We affirm the district court’s rulings in all aspects.

BACKGROUND[2]

¶2        Joseph and Sonya married in 2007 and separated in July 2017. We address separately each of the district court’s determinations with which Sonya takes issue.

The Custody of the Children

¶3        Joseph and Sonya have three children, all of whom were minors when they divorced in August 2021. In November 2017, at a hearing for temporary orders, Sonya’s counsel told the court that Sonya had been the children’s primary caregiver “until recently.” Sonya also admitted that she was arrested in July 2017 and was facing charges for possession and use of drugs, but she asserted that she had “taken responsibility,” had “stopped using drugs,” was “sober and more than capable of caring for the children and continuing on as their primary caregiver,” and had “been attending Narcotics Anonymous and Al-Anon meetings.” Sonya asserted that Joseph had a “serious drug addiction problem.” Joseph claimed that Sonya had vacated the marital home shortly before her arrest, and he revealed that he obtained a protective order against her. The court acknowledged the allegations both sides made against the other but noted that Joseph currently had the children in his care and was living in the marital home. The court then determined that Joseph should maintain “custody of the children on a temporary basis.”

¶4        Apparently, the children remained in the temporary custody of Joseph until the parties’ divorce trial, where the court received the testimony of a “reunification therapist” (Family Therapist), who had been hired by the parties after the custody evaluator had been “unable to perform an evaluation due to the children spending less than minimum time” with Sonya.

¶5        Based on the testimony of Family Therapist, which we recount when relevant in our analysis below, the court found that “unification” between Sonya and the two older children was “lacking” because of acrimonious relationships. The court noted that Family Therapist had testified that progress in reunification therapy would “influence what possible custody” Sonya might have in the future relative to the older children. The court determined that it was “in the best interest of the children that reunification therapy” continue to allow Sonya the opportunity “to reunify her relationship with the children.”

¶6        Accordingly, the court found that it was in the children’s best interest that Joseph be “awarded sole physical custody and final decision making authority,” with both parties being awarded joint legal custody. With regard to the youngest child, the court awarded supervised parent-time to Sonya one night a week. The court awarded Sonya no parent-time with the older two children. The court noted that supervised parent-time for Sonya would “be flexible” and might “increase after the current reunification issues” and Sonya’s “medical issues” were addressed. The court also stated that Sonya’s “non-use of cannabis” needed to be verified because marijuana use was “a contributing factor” that brought on her mental health episodes.

The Business

¶7        During their union, the parties were financially supported, at least in part, by a business that distributed supplies to gas stations. During the divorce proceedings, Joseph maintained that he was in the process of purchasing the business from his father but that he did not have the money to pay for it. Joseph explained that he drew a salary for his work with the business. In contrast, Sonya maintained that she and Joseph agreed to buy the business in 2010 and that they completed paying off the business in 2016. Sonya claimed that she and Joseph signed a document “to take over the business” but that she did “not have the document.” Sonya did produce a different document that explicitly stated the business was being sold only to Joseph.

¶8        The district court awarded the business to Joseph, along with all its debts and obligations. In addition, the court, apparently recognizing that the business was possibly still owned by Joseph’s father, ordered that any money Joseph borrowed against the marital home to purchase the business would “not be used to reduce the total equity in the home” so as to reduce Sonya’s share of the home’s value. In making this award to Joseph, the court was clear that it was basing its decision “on the testimony” provided by Joseph.

The Marital Home

¶9        Based on a Zillow estimate[3] provided by Sonya, the court determined the value of the marital home to be $998,659, but the equity in the home was reduced by mortgages and liens on the property. Joseph testified that three mortgages, totaling $402,000, were on the property.[4] And the home was additionally encumbered by eleven liens. Two of these liens, totaling $2,414, were attributed to Sonya and Joseph. The remaining nine, totaling $256,521, were tax liens and civil judgments incurred by the previous owner of the home.[5]

¶10      The court received evidence that when Joseph and Sonya purchased the home in November 2009, it was subject to some existing debt. Joseph testified as follows:

Counsel: “Was there anything particular about that purchase [of the home]?”

Joseph: “We didn’t have the credit or the means to get into a home at the time, so my brother is a real estate agent and he’s good friends with [the previous owner] and said, ‘Hey, this house is available. If you like it, I can probably get you into it.’ And so we took him up on that and (inaudible) that we had to take on (inaudible).”

Counsel: “So there were other debts on that house when you purchased it?”

Joseph: “Yes        I didn’t know about all of them at the time, but yes.”

Counsel: “What are those debts?”

Joseph: “There’s a lot of tax liens from [the previous owner] throughout the years. There’s a couple of (inaudible) from Sonya and I, medical bills that weren’t paid. . . .”

Counsel: “And have you paid off the tax liens? The liens on the house?”

Joseph: “No.”

Thus, in a somewhat unusual arrangement, the parties appear to have purchased the home subject to certain liabilities, even if they did not know the precise extent of those liabilities. Presumably, these liabilities would have been offset by a reduction in the purchase price, making the home more affordable.

¶11      Adding the mortgages and liens together for an amount of $660,935, the court determined that equity in the home was $337,724. The court ordered Joseph to pay Sonya $168,862 as her share of that equity.

¶12      Sonya appeals.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶13 Sonya identifies multiple ways in which she believes the district court erred. But “[f]or the sake of brevity,” we “consolidate these grounds” and “set out in the opinion only so much . . . as we deem necessary to a decision of the questions involved herein.” Patterick v. Carbon Water Conservancy Dist., 145 P.2d 503, 505 (Utah 1944), overruled on other grounds by Timpanogos Plan. & Water Mgmt. Agency v. Central Utah Water Conservancy Dist., 690 P.2d 562 (Utah 1984).

¶14      Sonya first contends that the district court abused its discretion in making custody and parent-time decisions because it lacked sufficient information to make those decisions. “We review custody determinations deferentially, and so long as the district court’s discretion is exercised within the confines of the legal standards we have set, and the facts and reasons for the decision are set forth fully in appropriate findings and conclusions, we will not disturb the resulting award.” Kingston v. Kingston, 2022 UT 43, ¶ 20, 532 P.3d 958 (cleaned up).

¶15      Sonya next contends that the district court’s findings were “entirely inadequate to explain” its reasoning for awarding ownership of the business to Joseph. “We review the legal sufficiency of factual findings—that is, whether the trial court’s factual findings are sufficient to support its legal conclusions— under a correction-of-error standard, according no particular deference to the trial court.” Brown v. Babbitt, 2015 UT App 161, ¶ 5, 353 P.3d 1262 (cleaned up).

¶16      Lastly, Sonya argues that the district court’s “procedures and decisions regarding the division of equity in the marital home were illogical and manifestly unjust.” “Determining and assigning values to marital property is a matter for the trial court, and an appellate court will not disturb those determinations absent a showing of clear abuse of discretion.” Mintz v. Mintz, 2023 UT App 17, ¶ 12, 525 P.3d 534 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 531 P.3d 730 (Utah 2023).

ANALYSIS

  1. A Note on Briefing

¶17      Sonya’s briefing is plagued by significant deficiencies and does not comply with the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure for appropriate briefing. First, excluding the cases cited for the standards of review, Sonya cites only a single case in her opening brief, and she does so in a perfunctory fashion—making only a shallow attempt to explain its relevance to the issues. Sonya continues this trend in her reply brief, where she cites no cases at all. In this regard, she falls far short of appellate expectations. “A party may not simply point toward a pile of sand and expect the court to build a castle. In both district and appellate courts, the development of an argument is a party’s responsibility, not a judicial duty.” Salt Lake City v. Kidd, 2019 UT 4, ¶ 35, 435 P.3d 248; see also Utah R. App. P. 24(a)(8) (“The argument must explain, with reasoned analysis supported by citations to legal authority and the record, why the party should prevail on appeal.”); id. R. 24(b)(3).

¶18      Second, in her statement of the case, Sonya fails to include a single citation to the record. This is in contravention of our clearly stated rule. See Utah R. App. P. 24(a)(6) (“The statement of the case must include, with citations to the record: (A) the facts of the case, to the extent necessary to understand the issues presented for review; (B) the procedural history of the case, to the extent necessary to understand the issues presented for review; and (C) the disposition in the court or agency whose judgment or order is under review.” (emphasis added)). We note that Sonya somewhat more adequately cites the record in the argument section of her brief, but that is not what the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure require, and by ignoring the rules to suit her briefing preferences, she does little to bolster judicial efficiency.[6]

¶19      We point out these deficiencies not to ridicule, disparage, or shame counsel, but to provide warning that future briefing of this nature will likely be deemed inadequate and that any arguments on the merits may not be substantively considered by this court. This court receives hundreds of briefs each year. They vary in quality and in their adherence to the rules. We recognize that members of the bar have a lot on their plates and occasionally miss a typo or overlook a citation. But wholesale disregard of briefing rules is quite beyond the pale and can have unwelcome consequences for attorneys (and their clients) who choose this risky path. See Ostler v. Department of Public Safety, 2022 UT App 6, ¶ 27, 505 P.3d 1119 (“We . . . retain discretion to not address an argument that is inadequately briefed.” (cleaned up)); accord State v. Schwenke, 2007 UT App 354U, para. 2; State v. Garner, 2002 UT App 234, ¶¶ 8–13, 52 P.3d 467. And we hasten to point out that the risk of ignoring briefing requirements should come as no surprise to any attorney in Utah owing to our multiple references to the issue over the years. See Trees v. Lewis, 738 P.2d 612, 612–13 (Utah 1987) (stating that the merits of a dispute need not be reached if an appellant “has not supported the facts set forth in [a] brief with citations to the record” as required by rule 24(a)(6) of the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure); State v. Price, 827 P.2d 247, 249 (Utah Ct. App. 1992) (“We have routinely refused to consider arguments which do not include a statement of the facts properly supported by citations to the record.”); Koulis v. Standard Oil Co. of Cal., 746 P.2d 1182, 1184 (Utah Ct. App. 1987) (“If a party fails to make a concise statement of the facts and citation of the pages in the record where those facts are supported, the court will assume the correctness of the judgment below.”). That we have exercised our discretion to address the merits of the issues on appeal here should not be taken as an imprimatur sanctioning inadequate briefing but as a conduit to raise awareness of the risk of ignoring the rules.

¶20 We take this occasion to recall the advice offered by our supreme court several decades ago:

If the questions involved in a case are of sufficient importance to justify asking this court to decide them, they are worthy of the careful consideration of counsel presenting them. It is the duty of attorneys practicing in this court to present to the court the authorities supporting their views and to assist the court in reaching a correct conclusion.

State v. Thomas, 1999 UT 2, ¶ 13, 974 P.2d 269 (cleaned up). With that, we remind counsel of their responsibility to assist the judiciary in advancing jurisprudence through diligent advocacy, adherence to our rules, and competent representation.

  1. Custody and Parent-Time
  2. Disclosure

¶21      Sonya argues that the district court erred in admitting Family Therapist’s testimony when Joseph had not timely disclosed him as an expert witness pursuant to rule 26 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure, which requires disclosure “within 14 days after the close of fact discovery.” Utah R. Civ. P. 26(4)(C)(i). Sonya’s briefing on this point leaves much to be desired. She entirely ignores what happened at trial, instead substituting her own retrospective take on what she believes should have happened without attempting to explain why her timeliness argument should now be considered. Providing some persuasive caselaw—which may or may not exist—would have gone far to support her argument. But like the rest of her briefing, this part is inadequate.

¶22      A review of the record shows that Sonya did not object to Family Therapist’s testimony on the grounds of untimely disclosure. Instead, Sonya argued that Family Therapist had “far exceeded any kind of mandate,” that he had not signed confidentiality waivers, and that allowing his testimony created patient privacy and ethical violations. In her objection at trial, rule 26 was mentioned only in passing and not in a way that would suggest she was objecting on timeliness grounds. It certainly would not have been clear to opposing counsel that a rule 26 timeliness issue was being raised such that he would have known to argue a harmlessness or good-cause defense for the failure to disclose, which would have been an easy argument to make given that both Joseph and Sonya had jointly retained Family Therapist and Sonya knew about Family Therapist several years before trial. And it would not have been clear to the district court that it was being asked to rule on a timeliness-based objection. For these reasons, Sonya did not preserve any such objection for appellate review. See State v. Centeno, 2023 UT 22, ¶ 57, 537 P.3d 232 (“It is well established that we will not address the merits of an unpreserved issue absent a showing that an exception to the preservation rule applies.”).

  1. Hearsay

¶23 Sonya additionally argues that Family Therapist’s testimony, insofar as he testified as a fact witness, “was inadmissible hearsay and based entirely on his conversations with the parties and their children as their reunification therapist.” Sonya’s hearsay argument is difficult to follow and poorly briefed. Instead of analysis in support of her hearsay argument, she provides scant and unsupported assertions.

¶24      Sonya objected below to Family Therapist’s testimony on the grounds that it was hearsay. But the court ruled that it was not hearsay, concluding that Family Therapist’s testimony was not offered “for the truth of the matter asserted.” Rather, the court ruled that the “focus of [the] questioning” was, first, to allow the court “to find out how [the children were] doing, if they’re capable of going forward” and, second, to identify the present “obstacles” to “structuring visitation with [Sonya].” On appeal, Sonya makes no attempt to engage with the court’s reasoning, instead limiting her analysis to a blanket assertion that “it [was] evident” Family Therapist was “allowed to testify as an expert, offering hearsay, opinions and recommendations in [a] manner that simply is not permitted by the Rules of Civil Procedure.” Such superficial and undeveloped argument is simply not persuasive, most especially because it does not address the alleged error in the court’s reasoning. It is well settled that appellants who fail to “address the district court’s reasoning” also fail to carry their “burden of persuasion on appeal.” See Federated Cap. Corp. v. Shaw, 2018 UT App 120, ¶ 20, 428 P.3d 12; see also Spencer v. Spencer, 2023 UT App 1, ¶ 27, 524 P.3d 165; Bad Ass Coffee Co. of Haw. v. Royal Aloha Int’l LLC, 2020 UT App 122, ¶ 48, 473 P.3d 624.

  1. Custody Factors

¶25 Sonya next argues that the court did not address the custody factors outlined in section 30-3-10 of the Utah Code, making its custody findings insufficient. More specifically, Sonya argues that the court’s factual findings were deficient due to the court’s reliance on the testimony of Family Therapist in making those findings.

¶26 Section 30-3-10 states that in “determining any form of custody and parent-time . . . , the court shall consider the best interest of the child and may consider . . . other factors the court finds relevant,” including factors for each parent articulated in the code. Utah Code § 30-3-10(2) (emphasis added). These factors a court may consider are “not on equal footing.” Hudema v. Carpenter, 1999 UT App 290, ¶ 26, 989 P.2d 491. Instead, “it is within the trial court’s discretion to determine, based on the facts before it and within the confines set by the appellate courts, where a particular factor falls within the spectrum of relative importance and to accord each factor its appropriate weight.” Id. (emphasis added). “And where significant evidence concerning a particular factor is presented to the district court, findings that omit all discussion of that evidence must be deemed inadequate.” Twitchell v. Twitchell, 2022 UT App 49, ¶ 21, 509 P.3d 806. Thus, to “ensure that the trial court’s custody determination, discretionary as it is, is rationally based, it is essential that the court set forth in its findings of fact not only that it finds one parent to be the better person to care for the child, but also the basic facts which show why that ultimate conclusion is justified.” Id. ¶ 24 (cleaned up).

¶27      Here, the factors about which the court received significant evidence concerned Sonya’s ability to function as a parent, which the court received as testimony from Family Therapist. As we have explained above, Sonya’s challenges to the admissibility of Family Therapist’s testimony fail, and we accordingly conclude that the district court acted well within its discretion in relying on his testimony.

¶28      Regarding Sonya’s ability to parent the two older children, Family Therapist testified that they were “very angry” with Sonya and “announced that they would never see or talk to her again.” Their anger was due to their religious sensibilities and Sonya’s announcement that she was pregnant by a man other than their father during the pendency of the divorce.

¶29      With regard to Sonya’s parenting, Family Therapist stated that the youngest child was very frightened after “his last visit with [Sonya] when she was struggling psychiatrically.” Moreover, Family Therapist also testified the youngest child was beginning to see himself as Sonya’s “partner,” resulting in the child “becoming parentified.”[7]

¶30 Family Therapist further indicated that while he was unaware of Sonya’s “current condition or functioning,” Sonya had been “hospitalized and diagnosed with some issues.” He asserted that “safety” needed to be addressed, meaning that Sonya required a psychiatric evaluation to demonstrate that her “situation” was “under control.” He also indicated that Sonya needed to work on “being forthright with medications.” Sonya, by her own admission, had “suffered an isolated manic episode” related to bipolar disorder and “called the police for assistance” because she was suffering from “visual and auditory hallucinations.”

¶31    Sonya’s briefing on this point misses the mark because it entirely relies on the assumption that Family Therapist’s testimony was inadmissible, an assumption we conclude is without foundation. See supra ¶¶ 21–24. She does not explain why, in light of Family Therapist’s admissible testimony, the court’s consideration of the statutory custody factors was insufficient. Sonya’s briefing makes no attempt to explain why the court is not allowed to rely on the evidence it receives when making custody decisions.

¶32 Moreover, Sonya does not identify any “significant evidence,” see Twitchell, 2022 UT App 49, ¶ 21, as to the other factors in section 30-3-10 that the court received but left unaddressed. Instead, her briefing advances an argument that is entirely conclusory and unsupported by record citation or legal authority:

Although § 30-3-10 gives broad discretion to the court as to the relevance and appropriate weight to give each factor, the district court in this case simply did not have any information that would allow it to make findings as to most of the statutory factors. For instance, the district court did not know who the primary caretaker of the children during the marriage was. The district court did not know anything about the marriage. The district court would not permit any testimony relevant to Joseph’s moral character or his history of drug abuse and sexual proclivities. The Court would not allow any testimony as to Joseph’s inability and unwillingness to co-parent with Sonya. At the end of the day, the Court simply sidestepped its responsibility as an independent factfinder and deferred to [Family Therapist].

This might be a good argument if Sonya had supported it with citations to the record and to legal authority. As this argument stands before us, we are unable to verify what it asserts. But we suspect that Sonya might be indulging in hyperbole here. Indeed, Sonya’s assertion that “the district court did not know anything about the marriage” is patently false. Our review of the record indicates that the court, in fact, knew quite a bit about the marriage, such as its financial situation, issues related to the children, and the problems that led to its demise, to name just a few topics within its familiarity. And with regard to Joseph’s alleged use of illegal drugs, we found only one instance (subsequently echoed by Sonya’s attorney) in the record where Sonya asserted before the district court that Joseph had a “cocaine habit.” But the district court was free to “disregard such testimony if it [found] the evidence self-serving and not credible,” since the factfinder “is in the best position to judge the credibility of witnesses.” See Clark v. Clark, 2023 UT App 111, ¶ 37, 537 P.3d 633 (cleaned up). An isolated allegation made in passing certainly does not amount to “significant evidence,” see Twitchell, 2022 UT App 49, ¶ 21, especially given the district court’s role as the factfinder to judge the credibility of witnesses, see Ouk v. Ouk, 2015 UT App 104, ¶ 14, 348 P.3d 751. And as to the other statutory custody factors that Sonya asserts the court left unaddressed, she has not pointed us to any significant evidence that the court received with respect to those factors.

¶33      Thus, unlike the situation in Twitchell, where we concluded “that the district court exceeded its discretion by failing to include in its findings any discussion of the evidence relating to the abuse allegations against [the mother], her alleged neglect of [the child,] and her moral character, as well as the effect that evidence had on its best-interest analysis,” see 2022 UT 49, ¶¶ 22–23, 25, here there simply wasn’t significant evidence presented regarding section 30-3-10’s other custody factors. This lack of evidence—insofar as there was a lack—was not the court’s fault; it was Sonya’s fault for not presenting it. After all, a court cannot be faulted for failing to consider evidence that was not presented to it. In contrast, given the substantial evidence the court did receive about the serious mental health issues Sonya faced, we conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion in its consideration of the statutory factors when determining that awarding physical custody to Joseph was in the best interest of the children.

¶34 In sum, Sonya has failed to show that the district court abused its discretion in accepting and relying on the testimony of Family Therapist in making custody determinations or that the district court did not properly address the statutory factors in determining custody of the children.

III. Ownership of the Business

¶35      Both parties agree that the district court concluded that the business was not a joint marital asset. The district court awarded the business to Joseph “[b]ased on [Joseph’s] testimony.” Along with awarding the business to Joseph, the court stated that Joseph was “responsible for payment of the purchase price of the business.”

¶36      Sonya’s briefing on this point is challenging because it consists largely of recounting financial matters pertaining to the marriage but unrelated to the ownership of the business. She then asserts, with no discernible effort to explain why, that the “findings/conclusions were entirely inadequate to explain the Court’s reasoning for giving ownership” of the business to Joseph. Her argument is difficult to follow, but its essence, insofar as we can tell, appears to be that the court erred in believing Joseph’s testimony over hers.

¶37 We disagree with Sonya that the court erred in crediting Joseph’s testimony regarding the ownership of the business over Sonya’s. Again, the court stated in its factual findings that its award of the business to Joseph was “[b]ased on [his] testimony.” In making this credibility determination, the court acted well within its discretion. “[W]here there exists evidence sufficient to support a court’s rulings regarding a divorcing couple’s finances, that ruling will be upheld on appeal, even if evidence was presented that might have cut the other way.” Clarke v. Clarke, 2023 UT App 160, ¶ 27. This is because “the fact-finder is in the best position to judge the credibility of witnesses and is free to disbelieve their testimony. Even where testimony is uncontroverted, a trial court is free to disregard such testimony if it finds the evidence self-serving and not credible.” Ouk v. Ouk, 2015 UT App 104, ¶ 14, 348 P.3d 751 (cleaned up); see also Kimball v. Kimball, 2009 UT App 233, ¶ 20 n.5, 217 P.3d 733 (“[I]t is the trial court’s singularly important mission to consider and weigh all the conflicting evidence and find the facts.”).

¶38      Here, the district court was in the best position to judge the credibility of the parties. It clearly found Joseph’s testimony regarding the ownership of the business to be more credible. Sonya has provided no reasoned argument—apart from her assertion that she disagrees with it—as to why the district court’s conclusion that the business was not marital property was erroneous. Accordingly, Sonya has failed to meet her “burden on appeal to show that no reasonable person would take the view adopted” by the district court, and we therefore conclude that the district court did not err in awarding the business, along with its liabilities, to Joseph. See Ouk, 2015 UT App 104, ¶ 14.[8]

  1. Equity in the Marital Home

¶39      Sonya’s final claim is that the district court abused its discretion in dividing equity in the marital home. “In divorce actions, a district court is permitted considerable discretion in adjusting the financial and property interests of the parties, and its actions are entitled to a presumption of validity.” Gardner v. Gardner, 2019 UT 61, ¶ 18, 452 P.3d 1134 (cleaned up). Thus, in such proceedings,

we will reverse only if (1) there was a misunderstanding or misapplication of the law resulting in substantial and prejudicial error; (2) the factual findings upon which the award was based are clearly erroneous; or (3) the party challenging the award shows that such a serious inequity has resulted as to manifest a clear abuse of discretion. Because we can properly find abuse only if no reasonable person would take the view adopted by the trial court, appellants have a heavy burden to show that an alleged error falls into any of these three categories.

Id. (cleaned up).

¶40      Sonya’s claim focuses on three aspects of the court’s valuation of the home: (1) the mortgage amount, (2) the use of the Zillow estimate, and (3) the amount of the liens on the home. We address each in turn.

¶41      The Mortgage Amount. Sonya complains that the district court, based on Joseph’s testimony, should have used $298,000 as the amount owing on the mortgages rather than $402,000, an adjustment that would have benefitted her by increasing the equity she would have received. “Generally, the marital estate is valued at the time of the divorce decree or trial. However, in the exercise of its equitable powers, a trial court has broad discretion to use a different date, such as the date of separation, when circumstances warrant. If the trial court uses a date other than the date of the divorce decree, it must support its decision with sufficiently detailed findings of fact explaining its deviation from the general rule.” Rothwell v. Rothwell, 2023 UT App 50, ¶ 39, 531 P.3d 225 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 537 P.3d 1011 (Utah 2023). In response to Sonya’s motion for amended findings, the court explained, “[Joseph’s] statement of the mortgage balance of $298,000 was referring to the total amount of all three (3) mortgages. The Court also took that into evidence taking into account that it was [Joseph’s] best estimate according to what his monthly mortgage payments are and how much was deducted from the principal each month.” We understand this to mean that the court took into consideration that it was through Joseph’s extraordinary post-separation payment efforts that the mortgage amount had been reduced. Moreover, Sonya concedes in her reply brief that it was within the district court’s discretion to use the earlier mortgage total. Accordingly, we see no abuse of discretion in the court’s use of the date of the separation to determine the amount of the mortgages.

¶42      The Zillow Estimate. Sonya next complains that the home should have been valued at about $260,000 more than was indicated by the Zillow estimate the court used. The glaring problem with this aspect of Sonya’s complaint is that it was her counsel’s idea to use the Zillow estimate. In open court, her counsel looked up the estimate and announced it to the court. And the court proceeded to base its calculations on the very data Sonya’s counsel supplied. We simply will not countenance Sonya’s assertion that the district court erred in proceeding to use the estimate that Sonya herself, through counsel, provided. Sonya invited any error in this regard. See Somer v. Somer, 2020 UT App 93, ¶ 14, 467 P.3d 924 (“Where a party makes an affirmative representation encouraging the court to proceed without further consideration of an issue, an appellate court does not consider the party’s objection to that action on appeal.” (cleaned up)). In her briefing on appeal, Sonya points to nothing in the record that would have allowed the court to value the home using anything other than the Zillow estimate. Sonya does not challenge that the court acted on the only information it had and that Sonya herself provided. Accordingly, “given the absence of any expert financial testimony, . . . the paucity of assistance the parties offered the court,” and the representations made by Sonya’s counsel regarding the marital home’s value, we conclude that “the court in this instance made findings within its discretion and supported by the evidence it was given.” Clarke v. Clarke, 2023 UT App 160, ¶ 55.

¶43      The Liens. Sonya argues that the district court abused its discretion in counting third-party liens against the equity in the home. Given the evidence the court received, we see no error on the part of the court in this regard. Indeed, there was evidence to support the court’s determination that the third-party liens should be included in the calculation of the home’s equity. Joseph testified that when he and Sonya purchased the home, they did so knowing that they were assuming responsibility for some of the previous owner’s debts. This is an admittedly odd arrangement, but Joseph testified that they were willing to accept it because they were not in a financial position to purchase the home otherwise. Sonya offered no testimony or other evidence to contradict Joseph’s assertion, and she still points to nothing presented at trial that contradicted this evidence. Accordingly, we conclude that the factual findings that included the liability associated with the third-party liens were not clearly erroneous and that the court did not abuse its discretion in calculating the home’s equity.

CONCLUSION

¶44      Sonya has not demonstrated that the district court abused its discretion in its custody determination, in awarding the business to Joseph, or in its division of equity in the marital home. Affirmed.

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


[1] Because the parties share a surname, we refer to them by their given names.

[2] As addressed below, neither party’s briefs included sufficient citations to the record. This shortcoming has necessitated us combing the record to establish some semblance of a background, something we are not obligated to do. See State v. Wright, 2019 UT App 66, ¶ 47 n.6, 442 P.3d 1185 (explaining the parties’ duty to cite the record in appellate briefs), cert. denied, 456 P.3d 391 (Utah 2019). Accordingly, our recitation of the facts is necessarily minimal as we limit it to what is essential to resolve the issues on appeal.

[3] Neither party produced an appraisal of the home or an appraisal witness at trial, leading the court to ask the parties, “Does anybody have any valuation [of the home] at all?” Sonya’s counsel answered, “Well, we could do it [with] Zillow.” At this point, while in court, Sonya’s counsel looked up the value and reported, “According to Zillow as of today, the estimated value is $998,659.” No objection was lodged at trial to the court receiving this information. “Zillow is a commercial website that provides, among other things, an estimated market value for many residential properties.” Chaudry v. Chaudry, No. 1794, 2021 WL 2910977, at *9 n.7 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. July 12, 2021).

[4] This number reflected the amount owing at the time of separation. At the bench trial, Joseph testified that the amount was currently about $298,000.

[5] Joseph’s counsel provided a LexisNexis report as evidence of the liens on the home. This report was admitted as evidence with no objection.

[6] Nor did Joseph’s counsel provide a single citation to the record in his brief. This shortcoming is most unhelpful. While an appellee is not required to file a brief, see, e.g.AL-IN Partners, LLC v. LifeVantage Corp., 2021 UT 42, ¶ 19, 496 P.3d 76, we observe that if a brief is filed, it would behoove counsel to provide record citations. After all, and at the risk of stating the obvious, record citations are required because in their absence it’s difficult, and at times impossible, to figure out what the parties are referencing.

[7] “Parentification is often referred to as growing up too fast. Typically, it occurs when a child takes on parental responsibility for their siblings or even their parents, taking care of a sibling or parent physically, mentally, or emotionally. This can damage a child’s mental well-being and lead to long-term mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.” Amber Felton, What Is Parentification, Web MD, https://www.webmd.com/parenting /what-is-parentification [https://perma.cc/N6TT-Y7QN].

[8] Sonya also argues that the district court violated her constitutional due process rights by its “ongoing interference” with her counsel’s presentation of her case. Quite frankly, apart from a litany of complaints about the court requiring counsel to keep her questioning relevant, the contours of her argument on appeal are difficult to discern, and she fails to cite a single case in support of the argument. Accordingly, we decline to consider her due process argument because it is inadequately briefed. See Utah R. App. P. 24(a)(8) (“The argument must explain, with reasoned analysis supported by citations to legal authority and the record, why the party should prevail on appeal.”); see also Orlando Millenia, LC v. United Title Services of Utah, Inc., 2015 UT 55, ¶ 30 n.3, 355 P.3d 965 (“The briefing on this claim . . . is inadequate. [The appellant’s] briefing on this issue fails to cite any authority and makes no attempt to connect the law to the facts of this case.”).

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In re J.T. – 2023 UT App 157

2023 UT App 157

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

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

PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

F.R.,

Appellant,

v.

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20220623-CA

Filed December 21, 2023

First District Juvenile Court, Brigham City Department

The Honorable Bryan Galloway

Nos. 1051672 and 1210454

Christopher A. Beins, Attorney for Appellant

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

Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

JUDGE JOHN D. LUTHY authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES DAVID N. MORTENSEN and RYAN M. HARRIS concurred.

LUTHY, Judge:

¶1        After minor children J.T. and A.T. were removed from the custody of their mother (Mother), their grandmother, F.R. (Grandmother), moved to intervene in the child welfare proceeding. The juvenile court ultimately denied Grandmother’s motion, and she appeals. We conclude that Grandmother should have been allowed to intervene but only as a limited-purpose party based on her statutory right to request preferential consideration for temporary placement of the children. We therefore reverse the juvenile court’s ruling on Grandmother’s intervention motion and remand this matter for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

BACKGROUND

¶2        J.T. and A.T. share the same mother but have different fathers. J.T.’s father passed away before the proceedings commenced. In 2021, J.T. turned eleven and A.T. turned eight. As of the time of the events relevant to this appeal, A.T.’s father was subject to an order that prohibited him from contacting A.T.

¶3        Grandmother is the children’s maternal grandmother. In September 2021, she filed a petition in the district court for the appointment of a guardian for J.T. In her petition, Grandmother alleged that Mother was “unwilling or unable to exercise her parental rights,” and Grandmother requested that she, Grandmother, be appointed as J.T.’s guardian.

¶4        The district court ordered Mother and Grandmother to mediation. The mediation resulted in a stipulation, filed in January 2022, under which Mother and Grandmother agreed for J.T., Mother, and Grandmother to each be evaluated by a therapist and to then “abide by the appointed therapist’s recommendations as a temporary order” until final resolution of the guardianship case. Under the stipulation, Mother and Grandmother were “required to cooperate in good faith and follow through with the requests made by the appointed therapist.”

¶5        Thereafter, the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) received repeated referrals raising concerns that J.T. and A.T. were being abused and neglected by Mother. In response to those referrals, in May 2022 (while the guardianship action remained pending in the district court), DCFS filed a petition in juvenile court alleging that J.T. and A.T. were “abused, neglected, and/or dependent children.” The children were then removed from Mother’s custody and placed in the temporary custody of DCFS.

¶6        At the ensuing shelter hearing, a temporary placement for the children was discussed. Mother and A.T.’s father objected to Grandmother as a temporary placement option. The juvenile court considered their objections and ordered DCFS to “conduct a reasonable search to determine whether there [were other] relatives of the children or friends of the parents of the children who [were] willing and appropriate to be considered for placement of the children.” The juvenile court was “reluctant to have the children placed with [Grandmother] based on . . . accusations that [had] been made and the history involved in this case,” and it stated that it did “not believe that a kinship placement [was] appropriate if the children [were] going to be kept together.”[1] Nonetheless, the juvenile court left the temporary placement decision “up to the discretion of [DCFS].”

¶7        Shortly after the shelter hearing, DCFS held a kinship meeting and considered all the placement options that had been identified, including placement with Grandmother. DCFS decided to place both children with A.T.’s paternal aunt and uncle.

¶8        Grandmother then filed a Motion to Intervene and for Kinship Placement in the child welfare proceeding. In support of her motion, Grandmother argued that she had a right to intervene under rule 24(a)(2) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure.[2] That rule requires, among other things, that the movant “claim[] an interest relating to the property or transaction that is the subject of the action” and that the movant be “so situated that disposing of the action may as a practical matter impair or impede the movant’s ability to protect its interest.” Utah R. Civ. P. 24(a)(2). Grandmother claimed to have three interests that relate to the subject of this child welfare action, each of which, she asserted, might be impaired or impeded by resolution of the action: (1) an interest related to potential grandparent visitation, (2) an interest related to her petition for guardianship of J.T., and (3) an interest related to her right to preferential consideration as a temporary kinship placement for the children.

¶9        The juvenile court acknowledged that Grandmother has “some statutory rights . . . through the child welfare proceeding,” including “the right to be given preferential treatment as it relates to placement.” But it found that none of Grandmother’s rights “would be compromised if she is not allowed to intervene as a party,” and it therefore denied Grandmother’s request to intervene. It also denied her request to be the children’s temporary kinship placement. Grandmother appeals the denial of her request to intervene in the child welfare proceeding.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶10      On appeal, Grandmother again contends that she has three interests related to this child welfare proceeding, that “her ability to pursue each of these interests was impaired or impeded by prior and prospective rulings in the child welfare case,” and that “[e]ach of these three distinct interests is thus sufficient to support her right to intervene under [r]ule 24(a)(2).”

¶11      As to Grandmother’s first two claimed interests—namely, her interest related to grandparent visitation and her interest related to her guardianship petition—we resolve this appeal under rule 24 and examine whether the claimed interests qualify under rule 24(a)(2) as “interest[s] relating to the property or transaction that is the subject of the [child welfare] action.” Utah R. Civ. P. 24(a)(2). “Whether the intervenor has claimed an interest relating to the property or transaction which is the subject of the action” is an issue that “we review for correctness.” Supernova Media, Inc. v. Pia Anderson Dorius Reynard & Moss, LLC, 2013 UT 7, ¶ 16, 297 P.3d 599 (cleaned up).

¶12 As to Grandmother’s claimed interest related to her right to preferential consideration as a temporary kinship placement in the child welfare action, we resolve the issue through application of a controlling line of Utah Supreme Court cases—In re guardianship of A.T.I.G., 2012 UT 88, 293 P.3d 276; State v. Brown, 2014 UT 48, 342 P.3d 239; and F.L. v. Court of Appeals, 2022 UT 32, 515 P.3d 421. “Our interpretation of case law . . . presents a question of law reviewed for correctness.” State v. Morgan, 2001 UT 87, ¶ 1, 34 P.3d 767.

ANALYSIS

I. Intervention as of Right Under Rule 24(a)(2)

A.        Legally Protectable Interest

¶13 To the extent that Grandmother based her motion to intervene on rule 24(a)(2) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure,[3] she was required to show (1) that her motion was timely, (2) that she “claims an interest relating to the property or transaction that is the subject of the action,” (3) that the disposition “of the action may as a practical matter impair or impede [her] ability to protect [that] interest,” and (4) that “existing parties” do not “adequately represent that interest.” Utah R. Civ. P. 24(a)(2); see also Supernova Media, Inc. v. Pia Anderson Dorius Reynard & Moss, LLC, 2013 UT 7, ¶ 22, 297 P.3d 599. With respect to Grandmother’s first two interests that she claims form the basis of her right to intervene, we conclude that the interests do not qualify under rule 24(a)(2) as interests “relating to the property or transaction that is the subject of the action” and, thus, that she is not entitled to intervene based on those claimed interests.

¶14      We begin our analysis by recounting the relevant history of rule 24(a)(2). As of 1982, rule 24(a)(2) required a showing that the applicant “is or may be bound by a judgment in the action.” Utah R. Civ. P. 24(a)(2) (1982) (emphasis added). Not surprisingly, therefore, the Utah Supreme Court held in 1982 that a “party seeking intervention must demonstrate a direct interest in the subject matter of the litigation such that the intervenor’s rights may be affected, for good or for ill.” Lima v. Chambers, 657 P.2d 279, 282 (Utah 1982) (emphasis added), superseded by rule, Utah R. Civ. P. 24(a)(2) (1987), as recognized in Supernova Media, 2013 UT 7, ¶ 39. The court further explained:

The required interest does not include a mere, consequential, remote or conjectural possibility of being in some manner affected by the result of the original action. It must be such a direct claim upon the subject matter of the action that the intervenor will either gain or lose by direct operation of the judgment to be rendered.

Id. (emphasis added) (cleaned up).

¶15 Rule 24(a)(2) was later amended—effective January 1, 1987—to eliminate the requirement to show that the applicant would be “bound” by a judgment in the action. Utah R. Civ. P. 24(a)(2) (1987). The amended rule instead allowed for intervention when “the disposition of the action may as a practical matter impair or impede [the applicant’s] ability to protect that interest.” Id. The amended rule also changed the requirement to demonstrate an interest in the subject of the action to a requirement to “claim[] an interest relating to” the subject of the dispute. Id. These changes mandated intervention on “more liberal terms” than under the pre-1987 rule.[4] Chatterton v. Walker, 938 P.2d 255, 258 (Utah 1997).

¶16      Notwithstanding the 1987 amendment, both this court and the Utah Supreme Court rearticulated the old standard in subsequent cases where the difference between the old and new standards was not determinative. See In re E.H., 2006 UT 36, ¶¶ 51–52, 137 P.3d 809 (stating in a case where “the parties stipulated that the [intervenor] had the necessary interest,” that “[t]o justify intervention, the party seeking intervention must demonstrate a direct interest in the subject matter of the litigation” (emphasis added)); Interstate Land Corp. v. Patterson, 797 P.2d 1101, 1108 (Utah Ct. App. 1990) (stating that “[t]he applicant’s interest in the subject matter of the dispute must be a direct claim upon the subject matter of the action such that the applicant will either gain or lose by direct operation of the judgment to be rendered” but concluding that the applicants had “no direct or remote interest in the subject matter of the dispute” (emphasis added)).

¶17 In Supernova Media, Inc. v. Pia Anderson Dorius Reynard & Moss, LLC, 2013 UT 7, 297 P.3d 599, however, the Utah Supreme Court emphasized the effect of the 1987 amendment. In that case, the party opposing intervention argued that the applicant had “not established a direct, substantial, and legally protectable interest in the . . . matter.”[5] 2013 UT 7, ¶ 35 (cleaned up). The supreme court responded to this argument by explaining that the party opposing intervention had “misstate[d] the standard: [the applicant] is only required to claim an interest relating to the property or transaction which is the subject of the action. [It] is not required to ‘establish’ an interest, and the interest need not be ‘direct’ or ‘substantial.’” Id. (cleaned up). Notably, while the supreme court disavowed the suggestion that our current rule 24(a)(2) requires an applicant for intervention to demonstrate either a direct or a substantial interest in the subject of the action, it did not disclaim the notion that the applicant’s claimed interest must be a legally protectable one. See id. See generally Lima, 657 P.2d at 282 (holding that a party seeking intervention must show that its “rights may be affected, for good or for ill” (emphasis added)). Indeed, in In re United Effort Plan Trust, 2013 UT 5, 296 P.3d 742, which the supreme court had decided less than three weeks before it issued Supernova Media, the court held that an applicant’s interest in the proceeding must be an interest capable of supporting a legally cognizable claim or defense. See id. ¶¶ 37– 38.

¶18      In that case, a set of applicants for intervention claimed an interest in the subject of the action “arising from a ‘sacred priesthood charge, pursuant to scripture and belief’ and grounded in the ‘tenets of [the applicants’] faith.’” Id. ¶ 37. Another set of applicants similarly claimed an interest in the subject of the action “stemming from a ‘priesthood stewardship.’” Id. Although the court did “not question the importance of these interests in the abstract,” it concluded that they were not the kind of interests that triggered rule 24(a)(2). Id. In reaching this conclusion, the court observed that “rule 24(c) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure provides helpful context for evaluating rule 24(a)(2)’s ‘interest’ requirement,” and it explained as follows:

Under 24(c), a party moving for intervention must file an accompanying pleading setting forth the claim or defense for which intervention is sought. And rule 8 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure, in turn, sets forth the requirements for pleading claims and defenses, requiring for the assertion of a claim: (1) a statement of the claim showing that the party is entitled to relief; and (2) a demand for judgment for specified relief.

Id. ¶ 38 (cleaned up). The court then held that because the applicants there had “asserted no such claim” and “[t]heir purported ‘interests’ [were] abstract ones, disconnected from any ‘demand for judgment for specified relief,’” they “lacked an interest in the subject matter of the dispute sufficient to sustain their intervention under rule 24(a)(2).” Id. In sum then, In re United Effort Plan Trust stands for the proposition that only a legally protectable interest (not an abstract one) qualifies as an interest related to the subject matter of the action under rule 24(a)(2) because only on the basis of a legally protectable interest can one state a cognizable claim for specified relief.

¶19      Representative cases leading up to In re United Effort Plan Trust demonstrate that its holding was not an innovation but, rather, a more explicit articulation of a principle the court had applied over time. For example, in In re adoption of I.K., 2009 UT 70, 220 P.3d 464, the court held that an unmarried natural father who had “failed to timely establish his parental rights” under applicable state law had “no interest in the [adoption] proceeding [for his natural daughter] that would endow him with standing to intervene under rule 24.” See id. ¶ 26. And applying the same principle with a contrasting result, the court held in In re Discipline of Alex, 2004 UT 81, 99 P.3d 865, that a landlord did have “a cognizable interest . . . sufficient to justify its intervention” in an attorney discipline action because the district court in the disciplinary action had ordered a representative of the Utah State Bar to “recover, attach, remove and possess any and all property” left by the attorney in the landlord’s building and the landlord in its motion for intervention had also asserted a contingent right in the attorney’s personal property “pursuant to [an] order of restitution entered in [an] unlawful detainer action” against the attorney. Id. ¶¶ 5, 25–28 (cleaned up). Accordingly, for an interest to qualify under rule 24(a)(2) as an interest related to the subject matter of an action, it must be a legally protectable interest, one on the basis of which the applicant for intervention articulates a demand for specified relief.[6] See In re United Effort Plan Trust, 2013 UT 5, ¶ 38.

B.        Grandmother’s First Two Claimed Interests

¶20 Under the foregoing standard, we now examine Grandmother’s first two interests that she contends entitle her to intervention as of right under rule 24(a)(2).

1.         Interest Related to Grandparent Visitation

¶21      Grandmother claims an interest related to her potential pursuit of grandparent visitation rights under section 30-5-2(1) of the Utah Code. That section provides:

In accordance with the provisions and requirements of this section: (a) a grandparent has standing to bring an action requesting visitation in district court by petition; and (b) a grandparent may file a petition for visitation rights in the juvenile court or district court where a divorce proceeding or other proceeding involving custody and visitation issues is pending.

Utah Code § 30-5-2(1). Grandmother has not filed a petition for visitation under this section, and she does not argue that resolution of this child welfare proceeding may impair or impede her right to file such a petition. Indeed, if Grandmother wishes to petition for visitation under the provisions and requirements of section 30-5-2, she is—and will remain—free to do so regardless of the resolution of this action.

¶22 Instead, Grandmother’s argument is that if she files a petition for visitation under section 30-5-2, the visitation she might be granted could be impaired because of the placement decisions made in this action:

The minor children have been placed in a home 90 miles away from [Grandmother’s] home (they previously lived in the same city); one of the minor children has been placed in a home with a family to whom he is not a relative; and [Grandmother’s] access to visitation with the children has been severely restricted since the date of removal.

¶23      But Grandmother has no legally protectable right to have the children placed close to her home or to have them placed with a relative. And she fails to articulate any legally protectable right that is being violated by other allegedly severe but unidentified restrictions that have been placed on her access to visitation with the children. Accordingly, we affirm the juvenile court’s denial of Grandmother’s intervention motion to the extent that it was based on her claimed interests related to grandparent visitation.

2.         Interest Related to the Guardianship Proceeding

¶24 Grandmother also claims an interest related to the guardianship action she commenced in district court. Grandmother bases this interest on the “signed stipulation in [the guardianship] action [that grants Grandmother] certain rights in relation to the guardianship action.”[7] Under the stipulation, Mother and Grandmother agreed to an individual evaluation of J.T., Mother, and Grandmother and to “abide by the therapist’s recommendations as a temporary order” until final resolution of the guardianship case. Yet in her motion and arguments below, Grandmother never articulated a specified claim for relief based on this stipulation. And she does not identify one on appeal.

¶25      Moreover, we are not convinced that the stipulation gives Grandmother protectable legal rights on which she could base a cognizable claim for relief in this child welfare action. Grandmother’s rights under the stipulation are rights as against Mother, and Mother’s duty to perform is cabined by the “require[ment] to cooperate in good faith.” Thus, for example, we cannot say that Grandmother has a legally protectable right to Mother’s facilitation of a therapist’s evaluation of J.T. when J.T. has been removed from Mother’s custody. Cf. Kilgore Pavement Maint., LLC v. West Jordan City, 2011 UT App 165, ¶ 9, 257 P.3d 460 (“Under the contractual defense of impossibility, an obligation is deemed discharged if an unforeseen event occurs after formation of the contract and without fault of the obligated party, which event makes performance of the obligation impossible or highly impracticable.” (cleaned up)).

¶26 Because Grandmother has failed to point us to a legally protectable right that she has under the stipulation and on the basis of which she seeks some specified relief in this child welfare action, we affirm the juvenile court’s denial of her intervention motion to the extent that it was based on her claimed interest related to the stipulation in the guardianship proceeding.[8]

II. Intervention as a Limited-Purpose Party

¶27      Grandmother’s final argument is that her statutory right to preferential consideration as a temporary kinship placement for the children provides an interest that supports her intervention as of right under rule 24(a)(2). As we have noted already, however, we do not address under rule 24(a)(2) Grandmother’s statutory right to preferential consideration as a temporary kinship placement. Instead, we address intervention based on that statutory right under a controlling line of Utah Supreme Court cases—In re guardianship of A.T.I.G., 2012 UT 88, 293 P.3d 276; State v. Brown, 2014 UT 48, 342 P.3d 239; and F.L. v. Court of Appeals, 2022 UT 32, 515 P.3d 421.

A.        Relevant Supreme Court Precedent

¶28 We begin by reviewing the identified cases. In In re guardianship of A.T.I.G., the mother of a child was “diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.” 2012 UT 88, ¶ 6. “[I]n anticipation of her death, [the mother] prepared a testamentary appointment of guardianship and conservatorship of [her child] in favor of [the child’s maternal grandparents].” Id. The child’s biological father, who was never married to the mother, was not named on the child’s birth certificate, and he had not signed a voluntary declaration of paternity at the time of the child’s birth. Id. ¶ 3. Nor was the father notified of the mother’s testamentary appointment of guardianship. Id. ¶ 6. After the mother’s passing and funeral, the grandparents took the child home and filed a petition for confirmation of their appointment as guardians, and the district court confirmed their appointment. Id. ¶ 7. When the father learned that the grandparents had been appointed and confirmed as the child’s guardians, he filed an objection. Id. ¶¶ 8, 19. The district court denied the objection, and the father appealed. Id. ¶¶ 9, 11–12.

¶29      On appeal, the grandparents argued that because the father “never formally filed a motion to intervene in [the] case, he lacked standing to object to the guardianship appointment” and “standing to bring [the] appeal.” Id. ¶ 17 (cleaned up). The supreme court disagreed, explaining that because section 75-5-203 of the Utah Code “permits ‘[a]ny person interested in the welfare of a minor’ to file a written objection to a guardianship appointment,” “the statute confers intervenor status on any person who files an objection pursuant to it.” Id. ¶ 18. Accordingly, the court concluded, “when [the father] filed his objection, [he] received statutory intervenor status.” Id. ¶ 19.

¶30      A few years later, in State v. Brown, 2014 UT 48, 342 P.3d 239, the supreme court reached a similar conclusion and elaborated on its reasoning. There, it granted intervention with “limited-party status” to a victim in a criminal proceeding. See id. ¶¶ 13–20. The defendant had been charged with sex crimes (and later pleaded guilty to one of them), and the victim “sought to intervene by filing a notice of a claim for restitution.” Id. ¶¶ 1, 5. “The district court rejected [the] filing on the ground that [the victim] was not a proper party and thus lacked standing to file pleadings.” Id. ¶ 1. The victim appealed. Id. ¶ 2.

¶31 On appeal, the supreme court acknowledged that “[t]he traditional parties to a criminal proceeding are the prosecution and the defense, and a crime victim is not that kind of party; a victim is not entitled to participate at all stages of the proceedings or for all purposes.” Id. ¶ 16. The court noted, however, that “[o]ur crime victims bill of rights recognizes the right of a victim to ‘seek restitution or reparations.’” Id. ¶ 18 (quoting Utah Code § 77-37­3(1)(e)). It then explained that “the right to ‘seek’ connotes a proactive right to ‘go in search of,’ or to ‘try to acquire or gain,’” and that “the anticipated mode of seeking restitution is . . . by a direct filing by the victim.” Id. (cleaned up). Reasoning that “[n]on-parties have no standing to file motions or to otherwise request relief,” the court concluded that the provisions of the code allowing a victim to seek restitution through a direct filing “recognize a victim’s status as a limited-purpose party.” Id. ¶ 19.

¶32      Most recently, in F.L. v. Court of Appeals, 2022 UT 32, 515 P.3d 421, the supreme court again addressed the right of a crime victim to intervene in a criminal proceeding as a limited-purpose party. The defendant in that case was also charged with sex crimes, and he requested “that the district court conduct an in camera review of [the alleged victim’s] therapy and counseling records and release specific categories of information relevant to his defense.” Id. ¶ 1. The court granted the request, conducted the review, and issued orders quoting relevant excerpts from the records. Id. The court then sealed the records, the case proceeded to trial, and the defendant was convicted of one count of sexual abuse of a child. Id. He then appealed, challenging “the adequacy of the district court’s in camera review.” Id. ¶ 2.

¶33      The appeal came to this court, and we initially “unsealed [the] records and classified them as private, which allowed [the defendant’s] attorney to make extensive use of those records in his opening brief on appeal.” Id. The victim, however, asked this court to reseal her records, and we responded by ordering the records resealed and instructing the defendant “to file a revised brief without references to the records.” Id. The defendant complied but argued that “the sealing order violated his rights.” Id. ¶ 3. The victim “then moved to intervene in [the] appeal as a limited-purpose party to assert her privacy interests.” Id. We did not grant intervention, but we did allow her to file an amicus brief. Id. ¶ 4. She then filed a petition for extraordinary relief in the supreme court, seeking an order allowing her to intervene as a limited-purpose party. Id. ¶¶ 4–5.

¶34 The supreme court held that the victim was entitled to limited-purpose party status “under the reasoning of State v. Brown and as provided in Utah Rule of Evidence 506.” Id. ¶ 35. The court determined that “[t]he reasoning of State v. Brown can be distilled into this general rule: if the law gives crime victims the ability to proactively assert a right or seek a remedy, then they may enforce those specific rights as limited-purpose parties in criminal proceedings.” Id. ¶ 37. Therefore, the question was “whether the law [gave the victim] the right to proactively assert her privacy interests in her privileged mental health records.” Id.

The court declared that it did because under rule 506, “a patient has a privilege to refuse to disclose and to prevent any other person from disclosing information that is communicated in confidence to a mental health therapist for the purpose of diagnosing or treating the patient” and “the privilege may be claimed by the patient.” Id. ¶ 38 (cleaned up). The court emphasized that, “[s]imilar to the phrase ‘seek restitution’ in Brown, the phrase ‘claim the privilege’ [in rule 506] connotes a proactive right.” Id. Because rule 506 gave the victim a proactive right to “assert that privilege and directly oppose [the defendant’s] attempts to gain access to her records,” the court concluded that the victim “possess[ed] the status of a limited-purpose party.” Id. ¶ 39 (cleaned up).

¶35 The court in F.L. also expressly addressed intervention under rule 24 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. See id. ¶ 37 n.36. It observed that the defendant and the victim had spent “much of their briefing arguing over whether [the victim] should be allowed to intervene through Utah Rule of Civil Procedure 24, which [the victim] argue[d] should apply to [the] criminal proceedings under Utah Rule of Civil Procedure 81(e).” Id. The State, on the other hand, argued that the victim did “not need to satisfy the requirements of rule 24 to become a limited-purpose party under Brown.” Id. Importantly, the court “[chose] the narrower option and resolve[d] [the] case based on Brown and Utah Rule of Evidence 506 rather than rule 24,” emphasizing that (1) it had previously “held that the traditional parties to a criminal proceeding are the prosecution and the defense, and a victim is not entitled to participate at all stages of the proceedings or for all purposes”; (2) “rule 24 allows a person to become a full-fledged party to the proceeding in every respect”; and (3) it was “concerned with the broad consequences of applying rule 24 to allow intervention in criminal proceedings.” Id. (cleaned up).

B.        Right to Preferential Consideration as a Kinship Placement

¶36      As with the father in In re guardianship of A.T.I.G. and the victims in Brown and F.L., the law gives Grandmother the ability to proactively assert a right or seek a remedy in the action into which she seeks to intervene. Specifically, section 80-3-302 of the Utah Code, which addresses shelter hearings in child welfare proceedings, provides that when considering the temporary placement of children removed from a parent’s custody, “[DCFS] and the juvenile court shall give preferential consideration to a relative’s or a friend’s request for placement of the child, if the placement is in the best interest of the child.” Utah Code § 80-3-302(7)(a)(i) (emphasis added). Furthermore, the preceding code section, which also addresses shelter hearings, requires the juvenile court conducting the hearing to “hear relevant evidence presented by the child, the child’s parent or guardian, the requesting party, or the requesting party’s counsel.” Id. § 80-3-301(5)(b)(ii) (emphasis added). Just as the law’s recognition of the rights to “file” an objection, “seek” restitution, and “claim” privacy protections each indicate an ability to proactively assert a right or seek a remedy and, thus, confer limited-purpose intervenor status on persons who exercise those rights, section 80­3-302’s recognition of a relative’s or a friend’s right to “request” preferential consideration for child placement likewise indicates an ability to proactively assert a right or seek a remedy and, thus, confers limited-purpose intervenor status on relatives or friends when they request such preferential consideration. See In re guardianship of A.T.I.G., 2012 UT 88, ¶ 19, 293 P.3d 276 (holding that “when he filed his objection, [the father] received statutory intervenor status” (emphasis added)); State v. Brown, 2014 UT 48, ¶ 19, 342 P.3d 239 (“Non-parties have no standing to file motions or to otherwise request relief. Such rights are conferred only on parties.”).

¶37 Persons who gain this type of statutory or rule-based intervenor status, however, become only “limited-purpose parties” who may participate in the action solely to “enforce those specific rights” that the law upon which their intervention is based affords “the ability to proactively assert.” Id. Hence, Grandmother’s limited-purpose party status allows her to request preferential consideration for temporary kinship placement, see Utah Code § 80-3-302(7)(a)(i), provide relevant testimony and other relevant evidence on the issue of temporary placement during the shelter hearing, see id. § 80-3-301(5)(b)(ii), and be provided information that is anticipated to be reported or requested during the portion of the shelter hearing that she is entitled to participate in as a party, see id. § 80-3-107(1)(a).

¶38 Grandmother contends that to the extent section 80-3-302(7)(a)(i) does “create some right of limited-purpose intervention,” that right should “not preempt” rule 24 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. As reflected in this opinion, we agree with Grandmother to some extent: we do not see inherent inconsistency between rule 24(a)(2) and the Utah Rules of Juvenile Procedure, see supra note 3, and we have therefore analyzed under rule 24(a)(2) Grandmother’s claimed interests that are not of the sort that would give rise to limited-purpose party status, see supra ¶¶ 13–26.

¶39 On the other hand, we note that quite like criminal proceedings where “the prosecution and the defense” are the “traditional parties” and others, including victims, are “not entitled to participate at all stages of the proceedings or for all purposes,” F.L., 2022 UT 32, ¶ 37 n.36, the traditional parties in DCFS-initiated child welfare proceedings are the State (in the interest of the children) and the parents or guardians of the children, and other parties are not entitled to participate for all purposes or at all stages of the proceedings. Given these similarities, we are concerned, as was the supreme court with respect to criminal proceedings, “with the broad consequences of applying rule 24 to allow intervention” in child welfare proceedings in instances where the “narrower option” of limited-purpose intervention is available. Id. For this reason, we follow the supreme court’s lead and resolve the portion of this case stemming from Grandmother’s claimed interest in preferential kinship placement under In re guardianship of A.T.I.G.BrownF.L., and Utah Code section 80-3-302(7)(a)(i).[9]

¶40      Based on the foregoing, we hold that when Grandmother requested preferential consideration as a temporary kinship placement for the children, she acquired limited-purpose statutory intervenor status. The juvenile court thus erred by not recognizing Grandmother as a limited-purpose party.

CONCLUSION

¶41      The juvenile court was correct when it declined to grant Grandmother’s request to intervene in this child welfare matter under rule 24(a)(2) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure based on her claimed interests related to grandparent visitation and the stipulation in the guardianship action in district court. The court erred, however, when it did not recognize Grandmother’s status as a limited-purpose party. We therefore reverse in part the juvenile court’s denial of Grandmother’s motion to intervene and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

 

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

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Clarke v. Clarke – 2023 UT App 160

2023 UT App 160

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

EDWIN M. CLARKE,

Appellee,

v.

ANGOZI R.S. CLARKE,

Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20220067-CA

Filed December 29, 2023

Third District Court, Silver Summit Department

The Honorable Teresa Welch

No. 174500147

Cassie Medura and Jarrod H. Jennings,

Attorneys for Appellant

Julie J. Nelson and Rebecca Ross,

Attorneys for Appellee

JUDGE RYAN M. HARRIS authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and JOHN D. LUTHY concurred.

HARRIS, Judge:

¶1        After about twenty years of marriage, Edwin (Ed) and Angozi (Anne) Clarke separated in 2016, and their divorce case proceeded to a four-day bench trial in late 2020 and early 2021. Anne appeals from some of the trial court’s findings and conclusions regarding the financial aspects of the case, chiefly the court’s determination as to how much alimony Ed was ordered to pay. And she appeals the court’s denial of her motion for a new trial. We reject Anne’s arguments and affirm the court’s rulings.

 

BACKGROUND

¶2        Ed and Anne[1] married in September 1996. Ed commenced this divorce action in 2017. During their marriage, the parties had three children together, none of whom are minors now and only one of whom was a minor at the time of trial. The bulk of the pretrial litigation in this case concerned the parties’ children, but none of the trial court’s eventual rulings regarding custody are at issue in this appeal; rather, the matters at issue here are exclusively financial.

¶3        Ed is an airline pilot by trade, and in the years leading up to trial he worked for Delta Air Lines (Delta); in 2016, he was promoted to captain. Anne was also employed during the marriage; the trial court found that, since 2006, she had been “self-employed as an Independent Clothing Salesperson” affiliated with a clothing company. Prior to trial, the parties exchanged several financial disclosures, including information about their respective incomes and claimed monthly expenses. As trial approached, the court entered a pretrial order commanding that the parties exchange “[u]pdated [f]inancial [s]tatements . . . 21 days prior to the scheduled trial date.”

¶4        Trial was eventually scheduled for a three-day setting in November 2020. In keeping with the pretrial scheduling order, the parties exchanged updated financial information in the weeks prior to the scheduled trial date. Anne submitted an updated financial declaration in September 2020, therein asserting that her gross employment income was $1,674 per month (not including alimony and child support payments Ed was making pursuant to a temporary order), that her total net income (including alimony and child support, but after taxes) was $3,894 per month, and that her expenses were $8,093 per month. Regarding expenses, the form she used contained two columns for each line item, one for the “current amount” and one for “marital expenses.” Anne filled out only the “current amount” column; she left the “marital expenses” column blank.

¶5      In his final pretrial disclosures, Ed submitted an updated financial declaration indicating that his net income was $14,849 per month. Regarding expenses, Ed filled out both columns, indicating that his “current” expenses were $16,399 and that his monthly “marital expenses” had been $17,007. Ed also produced documentation supporting his assertions regarding income and expenses, including his tax returns from 2015 through 2019, as well as a paystub dated September 30, 2020 that included 2020 year-to-date income information. While Anne raised one pretrial concern with Ed’s financial disclosures, she did not litigate that concern to completion,[2] and she lodged no other objection prior to or during trial to the scope of Ed’s financial disclosures.

¶6        Trial began on November 10, 2020. The most prominent issues at trial were financial ones, chiefly Anne’s request for alimony, and much of the trial was devoted to evidence of the parties’ respective incomes and expenses. The disputes were especially pointed regarding Ed’s income and Anne’s expenses. Neither side called any financial experts to the stand; the only witnesses to offer evidence regarding the parties’ finances were the parties themselves.

¶7        Ed was on the witness stand for the better part of three days, and he offered testimony about his income. He explained that, in 2016, he was promoted to captain and thereby earned a substantial raise, and that during the years 2016 through 2018 he earned relatively consistent annual amounts, from approximately $271,000 to $292,000. In 2019, however, he earned a significantly higher salary, making approximately $349,000. He testified that, given the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing change in worldwide travel conditions in 2020, this 2019 pay increase was anomalous and not representative of his earning capacity at the time of trial. He explained that his 2019 income was higher than usual because, during that year, “Delta experienced a pilot shortage” that enabled him “to work significant overtime” during this “high demand time.” And he explained that the pandemic had significantly impacted Delta’s business in several ways. In 2020, there were “far too many pilots for the flight schedules being flown,” and therefore he was not able to work even pre-2019 hours, let alone the increased 2019 hours. In addition, he explained that before the pandemic, he had, as a captain, received a profit-sharing payment from Delta; that payment from 2019 had been significant, totaling over $51,000. But he testified that, given the state of Delta’s business in 2020, he was unlikely to receive any profit-sharing payment for that year, or for the foreseeable short-term future. He testified that, given these circumstances, the income that he received during September 2020—as reflected on his paystub from that month—was most indicative of his earning capacity moving forward. In his proposed post-trial findings, Ed indicated that his net monthly income was $13,358.32, based on then-current tax codes. And he testified that his marital expenses were consistent with what he had listed on his most recent financial declaration.

¶8        Anne offered very little testimony regarding her income and expenses. She did, however, testify briefly about certain business expenses that she believed should be deducted from her income for alimony purposes. She offered no testimony regarding her total net income or how it should be computed, but she indicated in written filings (including her post-trial proposed findings) that her net income from employment (not including alimony and child support) was $920 per month.

¶9        Both parties also testified that they should receive credit, or “offsets,” for previous expenditures made using their personal funds for items or matters for which they believed both parties should be equally responsible. For instance, Ed asked for reimbursement of payments he made for maintenance of the marital home and for certain child-related expenses. Anne asked for repayment of other child-related expenses and for costs incurred in moving out of the marital home around the time of separation, and she sought some sort of credit for various other instances where she alleged Ed had used her personal funds.

¶10      As the three scheduled November 2020 trial days drew to a close, it became apparent that the parties were going to need additional time to present their evidence. After some discussion, the court agreed to schedule a fourth trial day, but the parties and the court did not have mutual availability until February 2021. Thus, the court scheduled a fourth trial day for February 11, and it scheduled closing arguments to take place on March 9.

¶11      A few weeks after the closing arguments, the court issued a lengthy ruling containing its findings of fact and conclusions of law.[3] In that ruling, the court indicated that it found Ed’s testimony about his income to be credible, and on that basis determined that the years 2019 and 2020 were both anomalous with regard to Ed’s income, and that neither year was “indicative of his normal or foreseeable income.” Instead, the court determined that the most accurate measure of Ed’s earning capacity, as of the time of trial, was an average of his 2016, 2017, and 2018 earnings. The court also believed that Ed was unlikely to receive profit-sharing income from Delta “for the foreseeable future.” Thus, the court did not include profit sharing as part of Ed’s gross income calculation. Using Ed’s 2016, 2017, and 2018 tax returns and averaging the income figures found there, the court determined that Ed’s gross monthly earning capacity, for child support and alimony purposes, was $20,452.25. And the court calculated Ed’s net income “by applying current tax rates to” the gross income figure it had come up with. Using this methodology, the court calculated Ed’s net monthly earning capacity as $13,358.32. And it calculated Ed’s reasonable monthly expenses, in light of the marital standard of living, to be $10,249.46.

¶12 The court calculated Anne’s gross earning capacity by averaging her earnings from 2015 through 2019 and then concluding, on that basis, that her earning capacity was $3,158.50 per month. The court declined Anne’s invitation to subtract business expenses from that figure, noting that, under applicable law, “[o]nly those expenses necessary to allow the business to operate at a reasonable level may be deducted from gross receipts,” and concluding that Anne had “failed to explain which, if any, business expenses claimed on her tax returns are necessary to allow [her clothing enterprise] to operate at a reasonable level.”

¶13      The court then noted that “[n]o testimony was offered at trial regarding” how to calculate Anne’s net income. The court found it “difficult to ascertain the amount of tax [Anne] actually [paid] based upon her income” given that Anne had “been receiving alimony during the pendency of the case” and had been “responsible for the tax consequences of her alimony income,” but due to changes in the tax code subsequent alimony payments would “be received tax-free.” Given these difficulties, the court looked to Anne’s 2017 tax return for guidance, and it determined that Anne had paid $390.35 in taxes on a monthly basis that year; it then applied that same tax-paid figure to Anne’s future income. Using this methodology, the court determined that Anne’s net monthly earning capacity was $2,768.25.[4]

¶14 In determining Anne’s reasonable monthly expenses, the court primarily relied on Anne’s most recent financial declaration. The court found Anne’s latest declaration to be more credible than earlier versions, explaining that Anne had testified that one of the earlier declarations was “inaccurate,” and opining that another one was “uncredible” because it claimed monthly expenses that were “more than the gross earnings of both Parties combined for the last full year of the marriage.” For the most part, the court found the expenses claimed in Anne’s most recent declaration “to be reasonable in light of the marital standard of living.” However, the court found that a few of the listed expenses were “post-separation debt for which [Anne was] solely responsible,” and it therefore deducted those expenses from the calculation. But without being asked to do so, the court added to Anne’s list a line item for health care expenses. With these adjustments, and based largely on Anne’s own requests, the court calculated Anne’s reasonable monthly expenses as $6,218.

¶15 Using these findings and conclusions, the court then computed Anne’s alimony award. In particular, it concluded that Anne had a monthly shortfall of $3,449.75 (the difference between Anne’s expenses and her earning capacity). And it concluded that Ed had capacity to pay $2,937.11 (the difference between Ed’s expenses and his earning capacity). The court split the difference between these figures, in an effort to “equalize the poverty,” as it were, and therefore ordered Ed to pay alimony to Anne in the amount of $3,193.43 per month. Separately, however, the court ruled that, in the event Ed did “receive profit sharing amounts” from Delta “during the years that [he] is paying alimony” to Anne, he would be required to make an additional payment to Anne of half of any such amount, after taxes.

¶16 The court also made a separate finding regarding the amount that the parties had been spending on a monthly basis during the marriage, an amount the court referred to as “the parties’ marital standard of living.” Using the expenses listed on Ed’s financial declaration as a starting point (after all, he was the only one who had filled out the “marital expenses” column on the form) and then making certain adjustments, the court concluded that the parties “marital standard of living” was $15,745.73 per month. But this figure did not play any role in the court’s mathematical calculation of Anne’s alimony award; as noted, the court calculated that amount by computing Anne’s shortfall and Ed’s ability to pay, and then by “equalizing the poverty.”

¶17      The court also made rulings dividing the parties’ property, assets, and debts, and most of those rulings are not at issue in this appeal. As relevant here, however, the court awarded Ed offsets for certain expenditures that “were used for family or child-related expenses, for which [Anne] should be equally responsible.” Anne also requested offsets, but the court declined to award them for several reasons, most notably because the court found that Anne “failed to provide credible and sufficient proof” supporting her requests. The court also concluded that Anne’s requests for offsets had not been timely asserted because they were “first mentioned in her Trial Brief (filed five days before trial)” and therefore Ed had been deprived of any opportunity to “conduct discovery on these requested offsets.”

¶18      Later, the court entered a decree of divorce incorporating its findings and conclusions. A few weeks after that, Anne filed a motion asking for a new trial or, in the alternative, for amendments to the decree. The main grievance asserted in this motion was Anne’s allegation that Ed had withheld relevant financial information indicating that his income was higher than he testified at trial. Shortly before filing this motion, Anne had obtained a copy of Ed’s 2020 W-2 form which, in her view, indicated that Ed had earned approximately $25,000 per month in gross income during October, November, and December 2020. Anne argued in her motion that Ed was in possession of this information during trial—certainly by the fourth day of trial, which was held in February 2021—but he did not inform her or the court of these developments. Anne also claimed that there existed “new evidence” showing that Ed was back to working at least some overtime hours during 2021 and that Delta was recovering from the pandemic faster than Ed had testified.

¶19      After full briefing, the court denied Anne’s motion, stating that Anne “did not prove the existence of newly discovered evidence that existed at the time of the trial (as opposed to facts or evidence that occurred subsequent to trial),” and noting that a “petition to modify is the appropriate mechanism for any pertinent changes that occur after trial.”

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶20      Anne now appeals, taking issue with certain aspects of the court’s post-trial findings and conclusions, as well as with the court’s denial of her motion for a new trial.

¶21      As noted, all of Anne’s challenges to the court’s findings and conclusions involve financial rulings. “In divorce actions, a [trial] court is permitted considerable discretion in adjusting the financial and property interests of the parties, and its actions are entitled to a presumption of validity.” Gardner v. Gardner, 2019 UT 61, ¶ 18, 452 P.3d 1134 (quotation simplified); see also Miner v. Miner, 2021 UT App 77, ¶ 11, 496 P.3d 242 (“We review all aspects of the trial court’s alimony determination for an abuse of discretion . . . .” (quotation simplified)). “We will reverse only if (1) there was a misunderstanding or misapplication of the law resulting in substantial and prejudicial error; (2) the factual findings upon which the award was based are clearly erroneous; or (3) the party challenging the award shows that such a serious inequity has resulted as to manifest a clear abuse of discretion.” Gardner, 2019 UT 61, ¶ 18 (quotation simplified). “Appellants have a heavy burden to show that an alleged error falls into any of these three categories” because “we can properly find abuse only if no reasonable person would take the view adopted by the trial court.” Id. (quotation simplified).

¶22      Anne also challenges the court’s denial of her motion for a new trial. “There are two aspects to a court’s decision-making process in ruling on a motion for new trial, and there are differences in the manner in which we review each aspect.” Peterson v. Hyundai Motor Co., 2021 UT App 128, ¶ 30, 502 P.3d 320 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 509 P.3d 768 (Utah 2022). “First, a trial court must determine that there exists a problem . . . that may require a retrial.” Id. ¶ 31. Some of the grounds for retrial listed in rule 59(a) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure “cannot be found to exist without some sort of factual determination on the part of the trial court,” and we review any such determination for abuse of discretion. Id. But other grounds, such as “the existence of legal errors,” “require no factual determination on the part of the trial court,” and rulings on these grounds are reviewed for correctness. Id. “Second, after determining that an error or impropriety of some kind exists, a trial court must determine whether the identified errors or improprieties are significant enough to warrant a retrial.” Id. ¶ 32. And this determination is usually reviewed for abuse of discretion. Id.

ANALYSIS

¶23      In this appeal, Anne challenges two aspects of the court’s rulings regarding the parties’ finances. Chiefly, Anne takes issue with the court’s alimony award; in her view, the award was, for several reasons, not big enough. She also asks us to review the court’s decisions regarding the parties’ claimed offsets. For the reasons explained below, we reject Anne’s challenges.

I. Alimony

¶24 Anne assails the court’s alimony award on several grounds. First, she takes issue with the court’s rulings regarding Ed’s gross monthly earning capacity. Second, with regard to her own earning capacity, she challenges the denial of her request that the court take into account certain claimed business expenses.[5] Third, she asserts that the court erred in computing the parties’ net (after-tax) incomes. And finally, she assails the overall alimony computation, arguing that the court did not properly take the parties’ pre-separation standard of living into account in assessing her reasonable monthly expenses. We discuss each argument, in turn, and find none of them persuasive.

A. Ed’s Gross Earning Capacity

¶25 Anne’s challenge to the court’s rulings regarding Ed’s gross earning capacity has two parts. First, Anne asks us to review the court’s original findings and conclusions. And second, Anne takes issue with the court’s denial of her motion for a new trial.

1

¶26      After considering the evidence presented during the four-day trial, the court made findings regarding Ed’s earning capacity. In particular, it determined that Ed’s current earning capacity, viewed from the perspective of a trial that occurred in late 2020 and early 2021, was best estimated by looking at his income in 2016, 2017, and 2018. In the court’s view, Ed’s 2019 income was anomalous, because he had worked significantly more that year than in previous years, and he was unlikely to work that much in the near future. And the court determined not to use Ed’s 2020 income either, given the uncertainty in the airline industry that year due to the pandemic. The court decided that the best indicator of Ed’s current earning capacity was an average of the three years prior to these two anomalous years. And the court determined not to include Delta profit-sharing payments in the income calculation, on the basis that—at the time of trial— airlines were struggling due to the pandemic and therefore Ed was unlikely to receive any profit-sharing payments “in the foreseeable future.” Using these parameters, the court calculated Ed’s “gross monthly income” as $20,452.25.

¶27 There was ample evidence presented during the trial to support these findings and conclusions. The parties presented tax returns and paystubs setting forth Ed’s salary and other income, and Ed offered extensive testimony in this regard that the court expressly found credible.[6] The court also heard evidence regarding conditions in the airline industry in 2019 and 2020, and about the COVID-19 pandemic. The trial record therefore contains evidence sufficient to support the court’s findings regarding which years to use in the income calculation, and regarding the specific amounts computed. And where there exists evidence sufficient to support a court’s rulings regarding a divorcing couple’s finances, that ruling will be upheld on appeal, even if evidence was presented that might have cut the other way. See Kimball v. Kimball, 2009 UT App 233, ¶ 20 n.5, 217 P.3d 733 (“The pill that is hard for many appellants to swallow is that if there is evidence supporting a finding, absent a legal problem—a ‘fatal flaw’—with that evidence, the finding will stand, even though there is ample record evidence that would have supported contrary findings. After all, it is the trial court’s singularly important mission to consider and weigh all the conflicting evidence and find the facts.”).

¶28 Anne resists this conclusion by asserting that the court specifically erred in excluding any profit-sharing payments from the income calculation. She points out—correctly—that Utah law defines “gross income” as including “prospective income from any source.” See Utah Code § 78B-12-203(1). But the court found— based on prevailing economic conditions existing at the time of trial—that Ed was unlikely to “receive profit sharing payments for the foreseeable future,” and on that basis chose not to include those amounts in its calculation of Ed’s income. As noted, there was evidence to support this determination, and it therefore survives Anne’s appellate challenge.

¶29 Moreover, we have held that, while trial courts must “consider all sources of income when determining alimony,” Utah law “does not dictate that all sources of income be counted as income received by a spouse for that purpose.” Eberhard v. Eberhard, 2019 UT App 114, ¶ 21, 449 P.3d 202. Instead, our case law “preserv[es] a [trial] court’s broad discretion to treat sources of income as the court sees fit under the circumstances.” Id. Here, the trial court certainly considered the profit-sharing component of Ed’s historical income. And after consideration, it determined not to include profit sharing in Ed’s income calculation due to unfavorable economic conditions in existence at the time of trial, but it did order—separately—that, if economic conditions improved and Ed ended up receiving profit-sharing payments from Delta “during the years that [he] is paying alimony” to Anne, Ed would be “required to pay [Anne] half” of any such payments. As Ed points out, this order has the potential to be much better for Anne, in terms of dollars received over time,

than the order she is now asserting the court should have entered. But more to the point, it was well within the court’s discretion to craft this sort of creative solution to the parties’ alimony conundrum.

¶30      In short, the trial court’s findings regarding Ed’s gross monthly earning capacity were amply supported by evidence presented during the trial, and the court’s final computations and orders were not an abuse of its discretion.

2

¶31 Next, Anne takes issue with the court’s decision to deny her motion for a new trial. In that motion, Anne asked the court to order that a new trial be held in light of information— that she claimed was new—regarding Ed’s income. In particular, Anne asserted that Ed had, during trial, withheld relevant financial information indicating that his income in late 2020 and early 2021 was higher than he testified at trial. Anne also claimed that there existed “new evidence” that Ed was back to working at least some overtime hours during 2021 and that Delta was recovering from the pandemic faster than Ed had testified. The court denied Anne’s motion, and declined her invitation to order a new trial. We perceive no error in this determination.

¶32      Under applicable rules, a new trial “may be granted to any party on any issue” for any one of several enumerated reasons. See Utah R. Civ. P. 59(a). Those reasons include “irregularity in the proceedings of the court, . . . or any order of the court, or abuse of discretion by which a party was prevented from having a fair trial,” id. R. 59(a)(1); “newly discovered material evidence that could not, with reasonable diligence, have been discovered and produced at the trial,” id. R. 59(a)(4); “insufficiency of the evidence to justify the verdict or other decision,” id. R. 59(a)(6); and “the verdict or decision [being] contrary to law or based on an error in law,” id. R. 59(a)(7). Anne asked for a new trial under each of these subsections, and we discuss them in turn.

¶33      Rule 59(a)(1): Anne first argues that she is entitled to a new trial because of an irregularity in the proceedings. She points to Ed’s 2020 W-2 form, which she obtained in September 2021 (several months after the conclusion of the trial), and she asserts that Ed’s testimony at trial was inconsistent with that document. She characterizes Ed’s testimony as materially inaccurate, and she accuses him of being less than candid with the court.[7] Based on these assertions, she concludes that there was an irregularity in the trial proceedings sufficient to justify a new trial.

¶34 In this vein, Anne asserts that Ed had an ongoing obligation, which continued even during trial, to supplement his pretrial disclosures with up-to-date financial information. She acknowledges that Ed provided then-current financial information in his final pretrial disclosures, which the court ordered the parties to exchange some three weeks prior to trial; this information included Ed’s September 2020 paystub, including year-to-date income information. But she asserts that, despite Ed’s compliance with the court’s pretrial disclosure order, Ed violated his ongoing supplementation obligation, an event she asserts contributed to creating an “irregularity” in the trial proceedings. She points out that, even though the trial was originally scheduled to conclude over three days in November 2020, the court eventually scheduled a fourth trial day to take place in February 2021. She acknowledges that, ordinarily, a party discharges its pretrial disclosure obligations by complying with the court’s pretrial disclosure order, but she asserts that, under the unique circumstances of this case—in which trial was extended for another three months, into another calendar year—Ed became obligated to update his financial disclosures without further order of the court and without any request on her part.

¶35 We are unpersuaded. When it scheduled the fourth trial date, the court did not amend its pretrial disclosure order, or otherwise command the parties to update their financial disclosures, one more time, prior to that trial date. We also note that Anne herself did not attempt to supplement her disclosures during trial (for instance, she did not provide her own year-end 2020 financial information to Ed prior to the fourth trial date in February), nor did she complain to the trial court, during trial, about Ed’s failure to do so.

¶36 And Anne cites no statute or case law in support of the specific position she advocates. The only rules to which she directs our attention are the ones containing parties’ general disclosure and supplementation obligations. See Utah R. Civ. P. 26(d)(5), 26.1. We acknowledge Anne’s point, and certainly agree with her that, during litigation, parties have ongoing supplementation obligations regarding their discovery disclosures. But we are aware of no specific rule compelling parties to continue to provide updated financial information after the final pretrial disclosure deadline; indeed, as we understand it, trial courts often set such deadlines so that trials can proceed in an orderly fashion and facilitate assessment of the litigants’ situation as of the date of the final financial disclosures.

¶37      Moreover, in the family law context, there exists a specific remedy for situations in which a party’s income changes materially after a trial has been held and findings about the parties’ financial situation have been made: a party may file a petition to modify the existing order. See id. R. 106; Utah Code §§ 30-3-5(11)(a), 78B-12-210(8). Indeed, in this case, the trial court

denied Anne’s motion for a new trial, at least in part, because it concluded that a “petition to modify is the appropriate mechanism” for addressing “any pertinent changes” in Ed’s income that have occurred “subsequent to trial.” We agree with the trial court that, ordinarily, the petition to modify remedy is the method that should be used to address post-trial changes in divorcing parties’ financial status. That remedy remains open to Anne here, despite the court’s denial of her motion for a new trial.

¶38      For all of these reasons, we perceive no abuse of discretion, under the circumstances presented here, in the trial court’s conclusion that Ed’s failure to provide ongoing paystubs and W-2 forms he received after the court’s final pretrial disclosure deadline did not constitute the sort of “irregularity in the proceedings” that would justify a new trial.

¶39      Rule 59(a)(4): Next, Anne argues that a new trial is necessary because of newly discovered evidence. See Utah R. Civ. P. 59(a)(4). Again, she points to Ed’s 2020 and 2021 W-2 forms, as well as new evidence about Delta’s 2021 resurgence, and asserts that this evidence constitutes “newly discovered material evidence” that would justify a new trial. We remain unpersuaded.

¶40      As an initial matter, “a motion for a new trial or amended judgment cannot be based on facts occurring subsequent to trial.” In re C.L., 2007 UT 51, ¶ 14, 166 P.3d 608 (quotation simplified). “Otherwise, there would be no end to litigation.” Id. (quotation simplified). Some of the “newly discovered evidence” obviously fits into this category: Ed’s 2021 W-2 was not available until well into 2022, and evidence of Delta’s 2021 resurgence was not available during any of the trial dates in this case.

¶41      Ed’s 2020 W-2 form, on the other hand, may well have been available, at least to Ed, prior to the fourth and final trial date in this case, which took place on February 11, 2021. But in order to demonstrate that the evidence in question is the kind of evidence that fits within rule 59(a)(4), Anne must show that the evidence “could not, by due diligence, have been discovered and produced

at trial.” Id. ¶ 12 (quotation simplified); see also Utah R. Civ. P. 59(a)(4) (stating that, to be “newly discovered material evidence,” the evidence in question “could not, with reasonable diligence, have been discovered and produced at the trial”). In our view, Anne has not carried her burden of demonstrating that Ed’s 2020 W-2 form could not have been discovered and discussed during the February 11 trial date. Ed testified during the proceedings on February 11, and Anne’s attorney had the opportunity to ask Ed questions that day. Yet Ed was not asked any questions about his income during late 2020 or early 2021, and in particular he was not asked if his income had changed appreciably in the months since September 2020, the last month for which documentary information had been presented during the November 2020 trial dates. We are hard-pressed to conclude that information about Ed’s income during the last three months of 2020 and the first two months of 2021 “could not, with reasonable diligence, have been discovered and produced” at the February 11 trial date, when Anne had the chance to ask Ed about those issues and did not.

¶42      For these reasons, we discern no abuse of discretion in the trial court’s determination that no new trial was warranted under rule 59(a)(4).

¶43      Rule 59(a)(6): Next, Anne suggests that the trial court should have granted a new trial on the basis that there was insufficient evidence to justify its conclusions. See Utah R. Civ. P. 59(a)(6). We need not discuss this issue further, however, given our conclusions—set forth above—that sufficient evidence existed to support the trial court’s original findings and conclusions regarding Ed’s gross earning capacity.

¶44      Rule 59(a)(7): Finally, Anne asserts that the trial court should have granted a new trial because its initial findings regarding Ed’s income were “contrary to law or based on an error in law.” See id. R. 59(a)(7). But in this regard, Anne does not make any additional arguments that we have not already addressed; as noted, we perceive no legal error in the court’s findings and conclusions regarding Ed’s gross earning capacity, and no legal

error in the way the court conducted the trial, including specifically its pretrial disclosure order.

¶45 Accordingly, we see no infirmity in the court’s rulings regarding Ed’s gross earning capacity. Its initial findings and conclusions were supported by sufficient evidence, and the court did not err in denying Anne’s motion for a new trial and advising Anne to address the issues raised there, if at all, in the context of a petition to modify the decree.

B. Anne’s Business Expenses

¶46 Anne’s next challenge to the court’s alimony award involves one aspect of its ruling regarding her own earning capacity. As noted, the court determined that Anne’s gross earning capacity was $3,158.50 per month; it derived that figure by averaging her earnings from 2015 through 2019. The court declined Anne’s invitation to subtract business expenses from that figure, concluding that Anne had “failed to explain which, if any, business expenses claimed on her tax returns are necessary to allow [her clothing enterprise] to operate at a reasonable level.” Anne takes issue with the court’s refusal to subtract her claimed business expenses from her monthly gross income computation.

¶47 Under applicable statutory guidance, when a court is assessing a self-employed person’s gross income, the court shall “subtract[] necessary expenses required for self-employment or business operation from gross receipts.” Utah Code § 78B-12­203(4)(a). However, “[o]nly those expenses necessary to allow the business to operate at a reasonable level may be deducted from gross receipts.” Id. “The person claiming business expenses” bears the burden of proving that the claimed “expenses are necessary to allow the business to operate at a reasonable level.” See Ouk v. Ouk, 2015 UT App 104, ¶ 4, 348 P.3d 751 (quotation simplified). Thus, Anne bore the burden of demonstrating, at trial, that her claimed business expenses were necessary to allow her business to operate at a reasonable level. The trial court concluded that Anne failed to carry that burden.

¶48 At trial, Anne pointed to the “Schedule Cs” on her 2017, 2018, and 2019 tax returns as evidence of her business expenses. There, she claimed expenses for “Office expense,” “Supplies,” “Travel,” and “Utilities,” among other more minor items. The trial court explained its reasoning for rejecting Anne’s claim on these items. With regard to “Office expense,” the court noted that Anne “did not explain what actual and necessary business expense this would entail,” and that Anne had “admitted that she does not have an office outside her home.” With regard to “Utilities,” the court noted that Anne had acknowledged that this expense was simply “personal expenses that she is permitted to write off for tax purposes,” and that Anne was unable, during her trial testimony, to “be certain what her claimed ‘Utilities’ expenses entailed.” And with regard to “Supplies,” the court concluded that the figure Anne listed on her tax returns was confusing, because it was unclear, even after Anne’s trial testimony, whether this figure properly accounted for revenue Anne received from selling some of these supplies “at the end of each season.” Given these evidentiary deficiencies, the court found that Anne “failed to meet her burden to demonstrate that the claimed business expenses are only those necessary to allow her business to operate at a reasonable level.”

¶49 We perceive no infirmity in this determination. Anne offered very little testimony about her business expenses, and she supported that testimony only with her tax returns. In its ruling, the court identified several legitimate concerns about the persuasiveness of the evidence Anne presented, and it determined that Anne had not carried her burden of proof. Trial courts have discretion to credit, or not credit, evidence presented to them. See id. ¶ 14 (stating that “the fact-finder is in the best position to judge the credibility of witnesses and is free to disbelieve their testimony” (quotation simplified)). Thus, under the circumstances of this case, the court did not abuse its discretion by finding that Anne had failed to carry her burden to prove the necessity of her business expenses.

C. Net Income Calculations

¶50      Anne’s next challenge to the alimony award involves the court’s net income calculations. She argues that, in assessing the impact of taxes on gross income, the court “miscalculated” her net income and “treated [her] differently than” it treated Ed.

¶51 Anne provided no testimony or documentary evidence regarding net income. That is, she offered the court no assistance in computing net income from the court’s gross income figures. And neither party hired an accountant or offered testimony from any other financial professional. Given these evidentiary realities, the court noted that it was “difficult to ascertain the amount of tax” Anne “actually pays,” especially given certain then-recent changes in the tax code regarding alimony. In the absence of better evidence, the court simply looked to Anne’s tax returns, which showed that, in 2017, Anne had paid $390.35 per month in combined federal and state taxes. The court then subtracted that number from its monthly gross income finding ($3,158.50), and found that Anne’s monthly net income, for alimony purposes, was $2,768.25. On appeal, Anne does not lodge any specific objection to this methodology at a conceptual level.

¶52      Instead, she complains that the court did not compute her net income in the same way as it computed Ed’s. In this, Anne is correct: the court did compute Ed’s net income in a different way. For Ed, the court simply took his gross income figure and applied a tax rate to it. As noted above, the court found that Ed’s monthly gross earning capacity was $20,452.25. The court simply applied “current tax rates” to that figure, without accounting for any potential tax deductions. Using this methodology, the court computed Ed’s monthly net income as $13,358.32.

¶53 Anne complains that using two different methodologies resulted in potential inequity: by using Anne’s actual “tax paid” figure from years past, the court accounted for any tax deductions she had taken, but by simply applying a tax rate to Ed’s gross income figure, the court did not similarly account for any tax deductions Ed might take in the future and effectively assumed that he wouldn’t take any. We take Anne’s point that, as a general matter and where possible, courts should compute divorcing parties’ net incomes for alimony purposes using the same methodology. But courts in appropriate cases may find it necessary to employ differing methodologies for computing spouses’ respective net incomes, and we cannot say that the court abused its discretion by doing so here.

¶54      In this case, there are differences between Anne’s and Ed’s situations. For starters, Anne did not offer any testimony or evidence regarding how the court should go about calculating her net income, so the court used the information it was given. More specifically, Anne did not provide the court any assistance in navigating the changes to the tax code regarding alimony. And with regard to Ed, the court would have found it difficult to use the “tax paid” figure from past tax returns, given that this figure may have included taxes paid on profit-sharing income, which the court had determined not to include in Ed’s future monthly gross income estimate. And as Ed points out, some of the key tax deductions he would have taken in past years (such as for children) would not be available to him in the future.

¶55 In our view, given the absence of any expert financial testimony, and given the paucity of assistance the parties offered the court in making these calculations, the court in this instance made findings within its discretion and supported by the evidence it was given. While we generally advise trial courts to use mirror-image methodologies to compute parties’ respective net incomes in family law cases, we cannot say that Anne has carried her appellate burden of demonstrating that the court abused its discretion by making the calculations it made.

D. Overall Alimony Computation

¶56 The final challenge Anne raises to the court’s alimony award is a more general one: she questions the formula the court used to arrive at its computation, and specifically challenges the manner in which the court assessed her reasonable monthly expenses. She notes that the court went to the trouble of making a finding regarding the parties’ overall marital standard of living ($15,745.73 per month), but she observes—correctly—that it is “unclear what role the marital standard of living then plays in the [c]ourt’s alimony determination.” And she points out that the court “did not use [this figure] as any sort of ‘baseline.’” It is not entirely clear exactly what Anne believes the court should have done with its $15,745.73 figure, but she complains that the court did not take it—and the marital standard of living—appropriately into account in assessing her expenses, and she laments that the court “based its alimony award wholly on [Anne’s] actual expenses at the time of trial.”

¶57 We see at least two problems with Anne’s argument, one general and one case-specific. At a general level, Anne misunderstands the formula that is to be used to compute alimony awards. As we recently observed, courts should not calculate alimony by simply dividing the couple’s pre-separation expenses in half. See Fox v. Fox, 2022 UT App 88, ¶¶ 18-19, 515 P.3d 481, cert. denied, 525 P.3d 1263 (Utah 2022). Indeed, we noted that “[t]here is usually no need for a trial court to make a separate specific finding regarding the overall ‘marital standard of living’ as measured by the total amount of money spent each month by the couple while they were married.” Id. ¶ 19. Such a finding is typically unnecessary; it is not one of the input variables that a court needs to assess before computing an alimony award.

¶58 In this case, the court did go to the trouble of making a finding about the parties’ monthly expenses prior to separation ($15,745.73). But as Anne points out, the court did not use that figure in its ultimate alimony calculation. In this case (as, we suspect, in most cases), such a finding was not necessary and only served to complicate matters. The court did not need to make this finding at all, and its failure to use the $15,745.73 figure in its alimony calculation was not error.

¶59      To be sure, trial courts may not ignore the marital standard of living when making an alimony award. The pre-separation standard of living must be taken into account, because the primary purpose of alimony is “to get the parties as close as possible to the same standard of living that existed during the marriage.” See Rule v. Rule, 2017 UT App 137, ¶ 14, 402 P.3d 153 (quotation simplified). But the way a court should take that standard into account is by assessing a party’s claimed line-item expenses in light of that standard, and not by making an overall-expenses finding and chopping it in half. See Fox, 2022 UT App 88, ¶¶ 19–21, 24; see also Miner v. Miner, 2021 UT App 77, ¶ 20, 496 P.3d 242 (examining each of the claimed line-item expenses “with the marital standard of living in mind”). To give effect to the marital standard of living, courts should—as a general rule— assess parties’ expenses as of the time of separation and not as of the time of trial. See Rule, 2017 UT App 137, ¶ 16 (cautioning “against determining alimony based upon actual expenses at the time of trial because . . . a party’s current, actual expenses may be necessarily lower than needed to maintain an appropriate standard of living for various reasons, including, possibly, lack of income” (quotation simplified)). But “in appropriate situations with regard to certain line items, a court may apply equitable principles, in its discretion, to base alimony on the standard of living that existed at the time of trial.” See Miner, 2021 UT App 77, ¶ 18 (quotation simplified). To assist with this process, the financial declaration form often used in family law cases—and used in this case—includes two columns for each expense item, one for “current amount” and one for “marital expenses.”

¶60      And this leads us to the case-specific problem with Anne’s argument: Anne provided the court with only time-of-trial expenses, and the court gave Anne credit for more or less everything she asked for on her financial declaration.

¶61      The trial court, after making its superfluous “marital standard of living” finding, then proceeded to use the correct formula to compute Anne’s alimony award. See Fox, 2022 UT App 88, ¶ 20. As relevant here, it correctly assessed “the needs of the parties, in light of their marital standard of living.” See id. (quotation simplified). In assessing Anne’s expenses, the court simply gave Anne everything she asked for—to the dollar—in her most recent financial declaration, with only a few exceptions. The court found that a few of the listed expenses were “post-separation debt for which [Anne] is solely responsible,” and it therefore deducted those expenses from the calculation.7F8 And without being asked to do so, the court added to Anne’s list a line item for health care expenses. With regard to all the rest of Anne’s claimed expenses, the court found that these expenses were “reasonable in light of the marital standard of living.” With these adjustments, and based largely on Anne’s own requests, the court calculated Anne’s reasonable monthly expenses as $6,218.

¶62 We perceive no error in the court’s analysis of Anne’s reasonable expenses. It is significant that Anne did not provide the court, in her financial declaration or in her trial testimony, with any evidence regarding the “marital expenses” amount for her claimed line items. 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. Any complaint on Anne’s part that the court failed to appropriately take the marital standard of living into account in assessing these expenses rings hollow when Anne herself apparently didn’t take the marital standard of living into account in making her claims, and where the court—more or less—credited Anne with all of the expenses she was claiming.

¶63      We therefore reject all of Anne’s challenges to the court’s alimony award. The court employed the proper formula, and all of its determinations were supported by sufficient evidence and were within the court’s discretion.

8. On appeal, Anne does not take issue with the court’s deduction of these post-separation debts from her expenses.

II. Offsets

¶64      The only non-alimony argument Anne raises concerns the court’s rulings regarding the parties’ claimed offsets. During trial, both parties claimed that they should each receive credits, or “offsets,” for purchases made using their personal funds that they believed both parties should be equally responsible for. Ed sought reimbursement of payments he made for maintenance of the marital home and for certain child-related expenses. For her part, Anne sought repayment of other child-related expenses and of costs incurred in moving out of the marital home, and she sought equalization for various other instances where she alleged Ed had used her personal funds. In its post-trial ruling, the court granted Ed’s requests for offsets, but declined to grant Anne’s requests. The court determined that Anne’s requests were “not credible and not proven” because Anne “failed to provide credible and sufficient proof” supporting her claims. The court also concluded that Anne’s requests for offsets had not been timely asserted because they were “first mentioned in her Trial Brief (filed five days before trial)” and therefore Ed had been deprived of any opportunity to “conduct discovery on these requested offsets.”

¶65      Anne contends that the court should not have denied her requests and granted Ed’s, and again complains that the court treated her differently than it treated Ed. She directs much of her appellate ire at the court’s secondary reason for its ruling—that Anne’s requests were not timely made—and asserts that Ed’s requests suffered from the same infirmity. While the court did note that Anne did not timely disclose her offset requests, we do not perceive that as the primary basis for the court’s denial of her requests. Rather, the court’s main concern was that Anne had not carried her burden of proving her requested offsets. By contrast, the court determined that Ed had proven his requested offsets, and that he had done so through a spreadsheet exhibit and “credible” testimony.

¶66 On appeal, Anne does little to engage with the court’s conclusion that her claims—unlike Ed’s—were “not credible and not proven.” Rather, Anne lists the offset awards and denials that she disagrees with, and she offers her view that the rulings were in error. She makes conclusory statements about who paid certain expenses, without proper record citations for those propositions. And for several of the offsets awarded to Ed, Anne claims that there was insufficient evidence, but she does not explain how or why Ed’s spreadsheet exhibit, coupled with his testimony that the court found credible, does not constitute sufficient evidence.

¶67      “An appellant bears the burden of persuasion on appeal, and this burden includes engaging with and responding to the grounds for the decision the appellant is challenging on appeal.” In re A.B., 2022 UT 39, ¶ 39, 523 P.3d 168 (quotation simplified). In this case, Anne has not carried her appellate burden of demonstrating that the court erred in its offset determinations.

CONCLUSION

¶68 The trial court’s post-trial findings and conclusions regarding alimony and offsets were all supported by sufficient evidence and were not an abuse of its discretion. And the court did not err in denying Anne’s motion for a new trial. For all of these reasons, we reject Anne’s appellate challenges.

¶69 Affirmed

 

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2023 UT App 137 – Lobendahn v. Lobendahn – petition to modify custody

2023 UT App 137  – Lobendahn v. Lobendahn

 

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

MARCUS JAMES LOBENDAHN,

Appellant and Cross-appellee,

v.

LEEYEN MOEVAI LOBENDAHN,

Appellee and Cross-appellant.

Opinion

No. 20210278-CA

Filed November 16, 2023

Fourth District Court, Provo Department

The Honorable Thomas Low

No. 164400262

Luke A. Shaw and Jill L. Coil,

Attorneys for Appellant

Julie J. Nelson, Daniel Ybarra, and Alexandra

Mareschal, Attorneys for Appellee

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

concurred.

CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, Judge:

 

¶1        Marcus James Lobendahn (Father) appeals the district court’s denial of his petition to modify the parties’ divorce decree. LeeYen Moevai Lobendahn (Mother)[1] also appeals the court’s order denying her request for attorney fees incurred in responding to Father’s petition to modify. We affirm the district court’s order in all respects.

BACKGROUND

¶2        The parties were married in 2008 in Hawaii. Following their marriage, the parties moved to Utah and had two children— a daughter and a son (Son). In May 2015, Father moved to New Jersey for employment purposes, and Mother and the children followed a little while later. Shortly after Mother arrived in New Jersey, Father asked Mother for a divorce and filed for a divorce in Utah. Mother suggested that the children live with Father in the marital apartment while she rented a separate place and cared for the children while Father was at work. Father declined the offer and advised Mother that she and the children should move back to Utah, which they did. The parties’ divorce was finalized through a stipulated decree in Utah in early 2016 while Father still lived in New Jersey. The decree awarded the parties joint legal and physical custody of the children and Father parent-time under section 30-3-37 of the Utah Code with additional time during certain breaks.

¶3        Father moved back to Utah in the fall of 2016, and Mother allowed him parent-time every other weekend, similar to the schedule provided in section 30-3-35 of the Utah Code. In 2017, Father filed a petition to modify based on his relocation, and the parties resolved the petition through a stipulation modifying the decree of divorce. Based upon their agreement, Father would exercise parent-time as provided in section 30-3-35 until he moved within fifteen miles of Mother’s residence in Utah County, at which time his parent-time would increase pursuant to the schedule described in section 30-3-35.1, with some modifications. Father did not move within fifteen miles of Mother and the children at that time but remarried and moved to his wife’s residence in Salt Lake County. Even so, Mother allowed Father to exercise increased parent-time.

¶4      Mother sent a letter to Father in March 2018, notifying him of her intent to remarry and relocate with the children to Washington state. A few weeks later, Father notified Mother that he had signed a lease for an apartment in an area within fifteen miles of her residence in Utah County. Father continued to reside with his wife in Salt Lake County but would stay at the apartment when exercising parent-time with the children. Thereafter, Father filed a motion to restrain Mother from relocating, which the court denied, concluding that Mother’s move to Washington was in the best interest of the children. Mother remarried and moved to Washington in the summer of 2018.

¶5        While the parties were litigating Mother’s relocation, Father filed a second petition to modify. Father argued that he should be awarded primary physical custody of the children, who should live with him in Utah, and that Mother should be awarded parent-time under section 30-3-37 of the Utah Code. Father’s petition alleged that Mother had not been entirely truthful in describing the reasons for her relocation, that the children struggled in school upon moving to Washington, that Mother had been evasive about Father’s proposal to relocate to Washington to live close to the children, that Mother interfered with his parent-time since she had relocated, that Mother had been uncooperative in planning the children’s travel, and that Mother interfered with Father’s participation in Son’s baptism. Father also requested that a custody evaluator be appointed to make recommendations about what custodial arrangement would be in the best interest of the children, and the court granted that request.

¶6        The court appointed a custody evaluator (Evaluator), who began her evaluation in July and completed her work in November 2019. Evaluator interviewed the parties, their respective spouses, and Son, and she observed the children with both parents in their homes. At the time Evaluator conducted her evaluation, the children had lived in Washington with Mother for approximately one year. Evaluator delivered her recommendations to the parties at a settlement conference in April 2020, and completed her report five months later. Evaluator recommended that the parties continue to share joint physical and legal custody but that the children should relocate back to Utah. Evaluator recommended that if Mother did not return with the children, Father should have primary physical custody with statutory visitation for Mother. Later, at the trial on Father’s petition to modify, Evaluator advised that in her opinion—while both parents shared a close, positive relationship with the children and Mother had been the children’s primary caretaker for their entire lives—Mother did not truly support the children’s relationship with Father and the broad benefit of having access to Father outweighed the potential risk that a second relocation adjustment would be hard for the children. And she acknowledged that her relocation recommendation was based on her understanding that if the court ordered the children to relocate back to Utah, Mother would move back to Utah as well. Evaluator also conceded that by the time of trial, the children had lived in Washington for two-and-a-half years and that the delay between her evaluation and the trial could be significant. She agreed that “some of the facts that [she] relied on to make [her] determinations are now out of date.” She agreed that the children had probably changed and matured emotionally, psychologically, socially, and physically and that she had not had any contact with the children in more than a year and a half.

¶7        The court held a trial in March 2021 on Father’s petition to modify. Father’s petition was based on his contention that Mother’s move to Washington was selfishly motivated and harmed the children and that Mother had failed to facilitate Father’s role in the children’s lives and had excluded him from decision-making. Father testified about particular instances that, in his view, demonstrated Mother’s inability to co-parent and unwillingness to facilitate his role in the children’s lives. These included:

·         Son’s difficulty in school after the relocation and resultant disputes between the parties about whether to move him to a different classroom or have him tested for autism;

·        Son’s baptism in July 2019 and Father’s role in that event;

·        Mother’s apparent unwillingness to commit to living in Washington for the long term when Father was contemplating relocating there to be closer to the children;

·         Father’s participation in obtaining passports for the children so they could visit Mother’s ill father in Tahiti and Father’s contention that he did not intend to use these circumstances to coerce Mother into moving back to Utah; and

·         Mother’s alleged interference with Father’s visitation in February 2019.

·         ¶8        Mother testified to her version of the events and issues raised in Father’s testimony. Specifically, Mother testified:

·         That her decision to move from Utah was not to get herself and the children away from Father;

·        That she addressed Son’s difficulties in school following the relocation and how she wanted to have him tested for autism as recommended by his teacher but Father did not want the school to do any testing;

·         That Son’s school difficulties had mostly been resolved by the time of trial and that his recent less-than-stellar report card had more to do with remote learning than continued transition issues;

·         That given Son’s his age and stage of development, she believed it was appropriate to let him choose who would baptize him and where the baptism would take place and that Mother never interfered with Father’s wish to perform the baptism;

·         That Father caused a big scene before the baptism ceremony, which Son overheard, and Father demanded that he perform both the baptism and the confirmation;

·        That when Father considered moving to Washington and asked Mother to commit to remaining in the area, Mother did not think it was wise to promise Father that she would live in Washington forever because of the constant litigation she had already experienced over custody;

·         That the conflict that arose when Mother tried to obtain passports for the children in 2018 to visit her father in Tahiti after he had been diagnosed with cancer required her to file an order to show cause in December 2019 to compel Father to complete an affidavit and sign the passport applications, which he eventually did, but the children’s passports did not arrive in time for them to travel to Tahiti before Mother’s father passed away; and

·         That Father does a good job keeping up with and supporting the children’s interests.

¶9        At the conclusion of the trial, Mother asked the court to award her attorney fees.

¶10      In its written ruling issued after the trial, the court addressed Mother’s alleged failure to facilitate Father’s role in the children’s lives. Regarding Son’s baptism, the court found that Father had adduced no evidence demonstrating that Mother had broached the subject of baptism with Son in an attempt to create contention, or that Son had suffered any psychological harm from Mother’s actions. The court found, however, that the evidence admitted “demonstrates poor judgment on Father’s part,” that the only evidence of conflict surrounding the baptism was created by Father himself, and that the “only harm [Son] suffered was having to overhear Father yelling at [Son’s] bishop . . . inside the closed bishop’s office.”

¶11 Regarding the circumstances surrounding obtaining the children’s passports, the court was extremely critical of Father’s actions. Among other things, it found that Father’s actions were “senselessly cruel” and “among the most reprobate [the] court [had] encountered in a domestic relations case.” It faulted Father for using “the imminent death of a grandparent as a bargaining chip” and found that his behavior “demonstrates that his control over the children’s welfare must be reduced.”

¶12 The court also addressed Mother’s move to Washington, finding that the move did not cause the children harm or interfere with the parties’ ability to co-parent. Specifically, the court determined that both parents had chosen to live in places that did not prioritize proximity to the other parent—Mother moving to Washington to remarry and attend school after living in Utah for more than three years and Father remaining in New Jersey while Mother and the children returned to Utah and then moving to Salt Lake County with his wife rather than moving to a place within fifteen miles of the children (until Mother indicated she would be relocating). Moreover, the court noted that although Father is “untethered,” in that he is employed for a company that allows him to work from home and he could live and work anywhere, he is unwilling to move unless Mother commits to remain in Washington, which she had not done because she eventually wants to work as a pharmacist and may need to move for that career. The court found that Father’s decision to remain in Utah despite his ability to move reflects his choice not to live close to the children.

¶13      As far as the children’s best interest in staying in their current placement, the court found that Mother’s spouse has an extensive family network with whom the children have grown close and share a Pacific Islander heritage. Besides a strong family connection, the children also have close friends in the area, which the court found to be good for the children. And due in part to the length of time spent in Washington, the court found that “[o]verall, the children’s social network is stronger in Washington” than in Utah. The court also determined that no evidence supported Father’s assertion that the move to Washington caused Son to have behavioral issues at school. If anything, Father’s refusal to allow Son to be tested for autism or to allow him to change classrooms when he started having trouble has potentially caused continuing suffering for Son and created stalemates between the parents that Father chose to address in the courts. Father’s proclivity for litigation, which he can afford and which the court found bordered on harassment, caused harm to the children, created unpredictability, and demonstrated less-responsive parenting.

¶14      The court found that both Mother and Father have capacity to parent and to co-parent and have excellent parenting skills. But the court determined that Mother “exhibits greater respect of Father’s role than Father does of Mother’s.” Specifically, the court found that “[w]hen the children ask Mother a question on which Father should be consulted, she tells them ‘I’ll talk to your dad about that and we’ll decide together.’” The court recognized that the children’s bond with Father is very strong, but it agreed with Evaluator that “the children are more bonded with Mother in light of being under her primary care for their entire lifetimes.”

¶15      The court analyzed the custody factors found in section 30­3-10(2) of the Utah Code and made the following determinations:

·        Both parents demonstrate an appropriate understanding of, and responsiveness to, the developmental needs of the children, but Mother’s openness to the advice and assistance of professionals exceeds Father’s.

·        Both parents have an excellent capacity to parent and co-parent and endorse the other’s role in the presence of the children. Except for Mother’s use of inappropriate terms in some of her written communication (which the court believed was on the mend), “both parents appropriately communicate with the other, encourage the sharing of love and affection, and exhibit a willingness to allow frequent and continuous contact with the other parent.” However, Mother exhibits a greater respect for Father’s role in the children’s lives than Father does for Mother’s.

·         Father has relinquished both custody and parent-time in the past.

·         Both parents desire custody and time with the children. Mother has been the primary caretaker and Father has made it a priority to maintain good contact with the children. But “Mother’s commitment to the care and custody of the children exceeds Father’s.”

·         Both parents have always cared for the children financially and are financially responsible, but “Mother has expressed more constant and less evasive financial responsibility than Father.”

·         The children enjoy a strong social and familial network in Washington with their stepfather and his side of the family and have close friends there. The children also enjoy the close proximity of their stepmother and her family and their maternal aunt and grandmother in Utah. Overall, the children’s social network is stronger in Washington.

·         The children are more bonded to Mother because she has always been their primary caretaker.

·        The children have both benefitted and suffered from the sharing of parental responsibilities. Father is very involved and committed to his role. “But Father’s veto-power over decisions regarding the children’s health, education, and welfare” has prevented Son from being tested for autism, prevented Father from honoring Son’s preferences at his baptism, and “prevented the children from traveling to see their dying grandfather in Tahiti.”

·        The parents are generally able to cooperate with each other and make decisions jointly but struggle to reach agreement on significant decisions in the children’s best interest and these frequent stalemates harm the children. Specifically, the court noted that the parents could not communicate effectively to make Son’s baptism conflict-free and they could not agree on how to address Son’s difficulties in school after the relocation or obtain passports for the children. “Given her less affluent status, Mother usually surrenders in the face of disagreement because she cannot afford to take the matter further. Father, however, has substantial funds at his disposal, and has exhibited the ability and willingness to press his concerns in the courts.”

·         Both parents ensure that the children are protected from conflict, except for Father’s refusal to complete the passport paperwork to allow the children to travel to Tahiti, which harmed the children, and allowing Son to overhear the conflict over his baptism.

¶16      After weighing the evidence and the statutory factors, the court concluded that granting Father’s petition and relocating the children back to Utah would not be in their best interest. The court found that the children are doing well in their current circumstances and that they are primarily bonded with Mother as their primary caretaker. “Father has presented no evidence that removing primary custody from Mother would be in the children’s best interests. . . . [Rather,] doing so would be harmful to the children.” The court determined that “the children are happy in Washington, that the parties have successfully mitigated the effects of distance on parent-time, that Father continues to enjoy a healthy relationship and strong bond with the children, and that the current custody arrangement is working well.” The court noted that the trial evidence “establish[ed] that [Father] and Mother have been extraordinarily successful in managing the geographical distance between them,” “that the children do not grasp the gravity of the distance,” and that “all evidence indicates that the children are happy, thriving, and well-adjusted in the current circumstances.” The court found that none of the statutory custody factors favored a change in custody.

¶17 Accordingly, the court denied Father’s petition to modify custody and his request that he be awarded primary custody if Mother did not relocate to Utah. The court ordered joint legal custody to continue but awarded Mother final decision-making authority as to the children’s health, education, and welfare. It also ordered that Mother “should be designated as the parent with the sole legal right to determine the residence of the children.” The court denied Mother’s request for an award of attorney fees because (1) she presented no evidence of her need for such an award and (2) even though Mother had ultimately prevailed, Father’s petition was not frivolous because it had been supported by Evaluator’s recommendation for a change in custody. But the court then explained that it chose to disregard the custody evaluation because it was “outdated and fail[ed] to adequately address the evidence presented at trial.”

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶18 Father now appeals the court’s denial of his petition to modify, including its decision to reject Evaluator’s recommendation. “We review custody determinations under an abuse of discretion standard, giving the district court broad discretion to make custody awards.” Hinds v. Hinds-Holm, 2022 UT App 13, ¶ 26, 505 P.3d 1136 (quotation simplified). We will not disturb a district court’s findings of fact unless they are clearly erroneous. See Robertson v. Robertson, 2016 UT App 55, ¶ 5, 370 P.3d 569. And “[a]lthough a district court is not bound to accept a custody evaluator’s recommendation, the court is expected to articulate some reason for rejecting that recommendation.” R.B. v. L.B., 2014 UT App 270, ¶ 18, 339 P.3d 137.

¶19 Mother cross-appeals and challenges the court’s denial of her request for attorney fees. We review a district court’s attorney fee determination for an abuse of discretion. Jensen v. Jensen, 2009 UT App 1, ¶ 7, 203 P.3d 1020.

ANALYSIS

¶20 Father argues the district court erred in denying his petition to modify. Father’s challenge comprises two parts. First, Father takes issue with the court’s weighing of the evidence and its associated factual findings and conclusions. Second, Father challenges the court’s decision to reject Evaluator’s recommendation. We address each of Father’s arguments in turn. Lastly, we address Mother’s cross-appeal concerning the denial of her request for attorney fees.

I. The Evidence Supports the District Court’s Determination to Deny the Petition to Modify

¶21      Father’s first argument on appeal is that the district court ignored the evidence presented at trial that supported Father’s position that it was in the best interest of the children to move them back to Utah and that he should be awarded primary custody if Mother did not relocate with them. Father also argues that the court viewed the evidence presented from a biased perspective. In the context of determining custody, the district court is to analyze the best interest of the children through the custody factors outlined in section 30-3-10(2) of the Utah Code. Generally, it is within the court’s discretion to consider each custody factor and accord each factor the appropriate weight. See Hudema v. Carpenter, 1999 UT App 290, ¶ 26, 989 P.2d 491. The “court’s discretion stems from the reality that in some cases the court must choose one custodian from two excellent parents, and its proximity to the evidence places it in a more advantaged position than an appellate court.” Tucker v. Tucker, 910 P.2d 1209, 1214 (Utah 1996). Thus, a custody determination “may frequently and of necessity require a choice between good and better.” Hogge v. Hogge, 649 P.2d 51, 55 (Utah 1982).

¶22      While the district court is accorded discretion in weighing the statutory custody factors, “it must be guided at all times by the best interests of the child,” see Tucker, 910 P.2d at 1214, and it “must set forth written findings of fact and conclusions of law which specify the reasons for its custody decision,” see id. at 1215. “Whenever custody is contested, the district court must provide the necessary supporting factual findings that link the evidence presented at trial to the child’s best interest and the ability of each parent to meet the child’s needs.” K.P.S. v. E.J.P., 2018 UT App 5, ¶ 27, 414 P.3d 933.

¶23      Moreover, the factual findings of the district court “will not be disturbed unless they are clearly erroneous” by being “in conflict with the clear weight of the evidence.” Kimball v. Kimball, 2009 UT App 233, ¶ 14, 217 P.3d 733 (quotation simplified). And “the existence of conflicting evidence is not sufficient to set aside a [district] court’s finding.” Bond v. Bond, 2018 UT App 38, ¶ 6, 420 P.3d 53 (quotation simplified). Rather, “to successfully challenge a [district] court’s factual findings on appeal, the appellant must overcome the healthy dose of deference owed to factual findings by identifying and dealing with the supportive evidence and demonstrating the legal problem in that evidence, generally through marshaling the evidence.” Taft v. Taft, 2016 UT App 135, ¶ 19, 379 P.3d 890 (quotation simplified).[2] Thus, a party challenging the sufficiency of the evidence to support a custody decision will almost certainly fail to carry its burden of persuasion on appeal if it fails to marshal. See State v. Nielsen, 2014 UT 10, ¶ 42, 326 P.3d 645. In addition, a district court “may make findings, credibility determinations, or other assessments without detailing its justification for finding particular evidence more credible or persuasive than other evidence supporting a different outcome.” Shuman v. Shuman, 2017 UT App 192, ¶ 6, 406 P.3d 258 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 412 P.3d 1257 (Utah 2018).

¶24      On appeal, Father asserts that the district court ignored evidence that was presented to Evaluator and to the court at trial. But on appeal, Father has not wrestled with the evidence that supports the court’s conclusion that most of the custody factors favor Mother, and he has made no attempt to marshal the evidence that supports the court’s factual findings. Father “clearly views the evidence as compelling a different outcome, but it is not within our purview to engage in a reweighing of the evidence, and [Father] has not demonstrated that the evidence underlying the [district] court’s findings is insufficient.” See id. ¶ 9 (quotation simplified). We address Father’s specific challenges to the court’s conclusions below.

A.        Father’s relinquishment of parent-time with the children by voluntarily choosing not to live close to them

¶25      Father complains that the district court misunderstood and ignored the evidence when it determined that Father had made decisions that minimized his parent-time. But Father has not addressed the evidence the court chose to credit nor demonstrated how that evidence was insufficient for the court to conclude that Father had not prioritized living close to the children to maximize his parent-time. That is, the court found the following evidence convincing:

·         While the family lived in New Jersey in 2015, and after Father announced he wanted a divorce, Mother offered to move out of their apartment so the children could remain with Father. Father declined this offer and advised Mother to return to Utah with the children.

·         Father remained in New Jersey for over a year before moving back to Utah.

·         After the parties mediated a settlement in August 2017 wherein Father could exercise more parent-time if he moved within fifteen miles of Mother’s residence, he did not do so. Instead, Father remarried in 2018 and moved to his wife’s residence in Salt Lake County (Mother’s residence was in Utah County).

·         Father rented an apartment within fifteen miles of Mother’s residence in Utah County only after she had announced her intention to relocate to Washington.

·        Father is employed by a company that allows him to work from home and his wife does not work outside the home, so Father’s employment does not necessarily tie him to Utah. Father has even shopped for houses in Washington but requires a commitment from Mother that she will remain there long term before he will move.

·        Evaluator opined that despite Father’s valid professional and financial motives for staying in New Jersey and then in Utah, Father failed to capitalize on the opportunity for more frequent parent-time by living close to the children.

¶26 Father appears to fault the court for not considering dispositive his testimony that he sought and exercised more than the minimum parent-time once he returned to Utah in 2016. Father asserts that this evidence disproves the court’s determination that Father had not prioritized his time with the children. But “Father [doing] what was within his rights . . . to exercise the expanded parent-time” was not persuasive to the court given the evidence listed above. And Father has not challenged any of the factual findings that support the court’s conclusion that he did not make choices for his living situation to be closer to the children. Father simply challenges how the court considered the evidence that supports his position.

¶27 The existence of conflicting evidence in the record is not sufficient to set aside a district court’s findings. See Nebeker v. Orton, 2019 UT App 23, ¶ 16, 438 P.3d 1053. “The pill that is hard for many appellants to swallow is that if there is evidence supporting a finding, absent a legal problem—a fatal flaw—with that evidence, the finding will stand, even though there is ample record evidence that would have supported contrary findings.” Kimball, 2009 UT App 233, ¶ 20 n.5 (quotation simplified). The district court’s “mission” is “to consider and weigh all the conflicting evidence and find the facts.” Id. Thus, even though “contrary facts might have been found from all the evidence,” this court defers to the district court’s “pre-eminent role as fact-finder,” and we “take the findings of fact as our starting point, unless particular findings have been shown . . . to lack legally adequate evidentiary support.” Id. Because Father has not directly challenged any of the court’s subsidiary findings supporting its determination that Father made decisions that minimized, rather than maximized, his parent-time, we will not reweigh the evidence.

B.        The circumstances surrounding Son’s baptism

¶28      Father complains that the issue surrounding Son’s baptism “is an issue of legal custody . . . [and] should [have been] discussed between the parents before decisions [were] made.” Father asserts that the district court committed legal error when it failed to rule that a decision about who will perform a child’s baptism is a major parenting decision that should not be left up to a child. Father also takes issue with the court crediting Mother’s testimony about the dispute that occurred before the baptism— and not Father’s testimony that he did not agree with the accounts that he was yelling or losing his cool—to determine that the circumstances of the event demonstrated poor judgment on Father’s part and that Father’s actions caused Son harm.

¶29      On the facts of this case, we cannot fault the district court for its determination that who performs the various parts of a child’s religious ceremonies within the shared religious tradition of both parents (as opposed to whether the ceremonies will be performed at all) is not a major parenting decision requiring the agreement of both parents. Father cites no authority for the proposition that the decision about who performs a religious ceremony is equivalent to decisions concerning a child’s medical care, school attendance, or overall religious practice. Nor has Father challenged any of the factual findings that support the court’s conclusion that Father had failed to demonstrate that Mother’s decision to allow Son to have “input regarding his own baptism was an unhealthy or unwise parenting decision.” Thus, Father cannot show the court erred in considering this decision to be something other than a major parenting decision. And while we understand that Father is unhappy with the court’s conclusion that Father’s behavior before Son’s baptism showed poor judgment on his part rather than ineffective co-parenting on Mother’s part, the evidence in the record supports the court’s conclusion that Mother’s parenting regarding the baptism was not problematic, and we will not reweigh the evidence.

C.        The circumstances surrounding having Son tested for autism

¶30 Father next takes issue with the court’s findings about whether the children have benefitted from the parties’ sharing of parenting responsibilities and about the abilities “of the parents to give first priority to the welfare of the [children] and reach shared decisions in the [children’s] best interest.” See Utah Code § 30-3-10.2(2)(b). Among other things, in determining that Mother should be designated the final decision-maker as to the children’s health, education, and welfare, the court found that Father exhibited an “injudicious use of his veto power over decisions relating to the children’s health” and had “evidenced [a] tendency to act contrary to the children’s interests and to use those interests as leverage against Mother.” But Father’s complaint that the evidence demonstrated that he suggested they not rush into testing Son for autism rather than that he objected to the testing does not diminish the court’s determination that “Father’s veto-power over decisions regarding the children’s health, education, and welfare [] prevented [Son] from being tested for autism at a time when educational professionals believed the test would be helpful to address his needs.” Thus, we agree with Mother that “[e]ven if the court should have used the word ‘delayed’ rather than ‘prevented’” in its finding, Father has not shown how the court’s decision to award Mother final decision-making authority was an abuse of discretion or legal error.

D.        The circumstances surrounding obtaining the children’s passports

¶31 Father next challenges the court’s view of the circumstances surrounding Mother’s attempts to obtain passports for the children in time to visit her cancer-stricken father in Tahiti in 2019. Father argues that the court’s pointed and direct comments about this incident are overly aggressive and suggest that this evidence was the “ultimate basis for [the court’s] ultimate conclusion.” Father asserts that he did not interfere with the passport applications or attempt to condition his facilitation of the passports upon Mother’s promise to return to Utah and suggests that Mother was at fault for not obtaining the passports in time. But, once again, on appeal, Father selectively highlights the evidence he submitted at trial, asserts that the evidence supports a different outcome, and criticizes the court for not crediting his testimony rather than Mother’s. It is not this court’s “purview to engage in a reweighing of the evidence.” Shuman v. Shuman, 2017 UT App 192, ¶ 9, 406 P.3d 258 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 412 P.3d 1257 (Utah 2018). In fact, when “a foundation for the court’s decision exists in the evidence, [we] may not engage in a reweighing of the evidence.” In re B.R., 2007 UT 82, ¶ 12, 171 P.3d 435. On appeal, this court will look to whether the district court’s decision is supported by the evidence and in cases where the appellant has “merely point[ed] to evidence that might have supported findings more favorable to them” rather than “identify[ing] flaws in the evidence relied on by the [district] court that rendered” the court’s findings clearly erroneous, we will not reverse. Shuman, 2017 UT App 192, ¶ 8 (quotation simplified). Because the court’s decision is supported by the record and Father has identified no fatal flaws in the evidence upon which the court relied, we will not reweigh the evidence.

E.         The reasons and representations given for Mother’s relocation to Washington

¶32 Father next challenges the court’s view of Mother’s relocation. Father appears to attack Mother’s honesty and credibility by asserting that the reasons she gave for her move to Washington were not true. But Father did not appeal the court’s order approving Mother’s relocation, and by not directly challenging the district court’s findings about Mother’s move, Father has failed to persuade us that the court’s determination that “Mother’s move to Washington was not contrary to the children’s interests” was an abuse of discretion or legal error since it “is undisputed that the children are thriving and happy there”.

F.         The district court’s custody factor findings

¶33      Father challenges the court’s determination that evaluation of the statutory custody factors favored denying his petition to modify and awarding Mother more decision-making authority. Specifically, Father argues that the court’s analysis of the custody factors is not supported by the evidence with regard to (1) the parents’ commitment to the care and custody of the children, (2) not disrupting a custody arrangement where the children are happy and well-adjusted in their current circumstances, (3) the respect each parent affords the other parent’s role, (4) the parents’ ability to make decisions jointly, and (5) whether it was better to remain in Washington versus returning to Utah.

¶34      But Father does not tie his argument to a particular custody factor or explain how the court’s findings in these areas are critically important to the overall custody determination. Nor does Father explain how the court’s findings on these factors are against the clear weight of the evidence. “Generally, it is within the [district] court’s discretion to determine . . . where a particular factor falls within the spectrum of relative importance and to accord each factor its appropriate weight.” Hudema v. Carpenter, 1999 UT App 290, ¶ 26, 989 P.2d 491. “While the district court is accorded discretion in weighing these factors, it must be guided at all times by the best interests of the child.” Hinds v. Hinds-Holm, 2022 UT App 13, ¶ 30, 505 P.3d 1136 (quotation simplified).

¶35      Father’s argument that the court disregarded the evidence that supports his preferred evaluation of the statutory custody factors is not persuasive. It is not this court’s role to reweigh the evidence to see if we would reach a different conclusion from that of the district court. Father has not demonstrated that the court’s evaluation of the custody factors lacks evidentiary support or that any finding regarding each factor is against the clear weight of the evidence. Given this, we cannot say that the court abused its discretion or committed legal error in concluding that “none of the factors favor a change in custody” or that “[t]he critically important factors—bonding and continuity of placement— strongly favor leaving primary custody with Mother.”

¶36 In sum, Father has not directly challenged any of the court’s specific findings supporting the determinations listed above. Indeed, he simply highlights evidence he claims the district court ignored. Without a direct challenge to any specific finding, we consider the district court’s findings as established and will not reweigh the evidence.

II. The District Court Did Not Abuse Its Discretion When It
Rejected Evaluator’s Recommendation

¶37      Father contends that the district court erred in rejecting the recommendations and testimony of Evaluator. “Courts are not bound to accept the testimony of an expert and are free to judge the expert testimony as to its credibility and its persuasive influence in light of all of the other evidence in the case.” Barrani v. Barrani, 2014 UT App 204, ¶ 4, 334 P.3d 994 (quotation simplified). “This is because . . . the fact-finder is in the best position to judge the credibility of witnesses and is free to disbelieve their testimony . . . even if that testimony comes from an expert witness.” Woodward v. Lafranca, 2016 UT App 141, ¶ 13, 381 P.3d 1125 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 384 P.3d 570 (Utah 2016). These principles apply to a court’s assessment of the opinions offered by a custody evaluator. Indeed, a “district court is not bound to accept a custody evaluator’s recommendation,” but if a court chooses to reject the evaluator’s opinion, it “is expected to articulate some reason for” doing so. See R.B. v. L.B., 2014 UT App 270, ¶ 18, 339 P.3d 137. In this case, while the court could have perhaps more fully explained its reasons for rejecting Evaluator’s recommendations, in our view the court had sufficient reasons for doing so and adequately explained itself.

¶38      Father first contends that the district court erroneously rejected Evaluator’s recommendations because the court had unreasonable expectations of Evaluator, that it was incumbent on the court to solicit further information from Evaluator through questioning at trial if the court thought her report was insufficient, and that the court should have accepted Evaluator’s recommendation without question because the court did not contest her qualifications and admitted her report into evidence without objection. But the record does not support Father’s complaints, and he does not support his argument with legal citation. The court invited Evaluator to augment her report at trial by “putt[ing] in context or explain[ing] or add[ing] flesh to the bones of the report,” and the court dialogued at length with Evaluator during direct questioning and cross-examination. Father’s complaint that the court discouraged additional testimony or additional explanation from Evaluator because it stated during her examination that “[n]ow that I have received the report, if she’s just going to read it, maybe there’s more effective ways for her to spend her time” is not compelling, especially because Father’s counsel agreed to “expedite the process a bit” by then focusing on Evaluator’s recommendations. Thus, Father does not persuade us that the court abused its discretion or committed legal error in choosing not to ask Evaluator further questions.

¶39      Next, Father takes issue with the court’s decision to reject Evaluator’s recommendation because it was “outdated” at the time of trial.[3] But Father fails to acknowledge that while all the statutory custody factors are equally important, “[a]t the critically important end of the spectrum, when [a] child is thriving, happy, and well-adjusted, lies continuity of placement.” Hudema v. Carpenter, 1999 UT App 290, ¶ 26, 989 P.2d 491. Utah law requires courts to “give substantial weight to the existing joint legal . . . custody order when the child is thriving, happy, and well-adjusted.” Utah Code § 30-3-10.4(2)(c). And here, the court relied heavily on continuity of placement as the basis for rejecting Evaluator’s report. The court found that the evidence presented at trial was “virtually unanimous” in establishing that the children were “happy, well-adjusted, and thriving under [their] current arrangement” and it rejected Evaluator’s contention that relocating the children back to Utah would not be that big of a deal because “[w]e don’t have a child . . . moving into a different developmental phase or a child with specific developmental needs.” Because the court heard the evidence on both sides and it explained why it was rejecting certain evidence, the court did not abuse its discretion or commit legal error. Thus, we see no infirmity in the court’s determination that Evaluator’s report was outdated by the time of trial.

¶40      We are, of course, sensitive to the emotional undercurrents giving rise to Father’s challenges on appeal. This appears to have been a very difficult case for both parties—both of whom love and care for their children. And we acknowledge the district court’s determination that both “parents are well suited to parent the children [who] are surrounded by an unusual amount of love on both sides of the family. . . . All children everywhere deserve to be loved as much as these children are.” But ultimately, the fact that Father disagrees with the court’s decision to deny his petition to modify does not render the district court’s findings inadequate or unsupported by the evidence, nor does it require an outright grant of custody in his favor. See Shuman v. Shuman, 2017 UT App 192, ¶ 10, 406 P.3d 258, cert. denied, 412 P.3d 1257 (Utah 2018).

¶41 In sum, Father has failed to meaningfully address the evidence supporting the district court’s findings or persuasively demonstrate that those findings are against the clear weight of the evidence or legally erroneous. We therefore affirm the district court’s denial of Father’s petition to modify custody and its associated adjustment to the parties’ legal custody arrangement.

III. Mother’s Attorney Fees Request

¶42 Finally, we address Mother’s challenge to the district court’s denial of her request for attorney fees incurred in responding to Father’s petition to modify. Mother asserts entitlement to fees under two different statutes, but we reject both of her arguments.

¶43 First, Mother claims that the court should have awarded her fees pursuant to a statute authorizing a court to award fees in cases where the “action” was “filed or answered frivolously and in a manner designed to harass the other party.” See Utah Code § 30-3-10.4(5). The court determined that whether the litigation was frivolous or filed with the intent to harass was “a very close call” but that Evaluator’s change-of-custody recommendation provided Father with at least some basis to file his petition. We agree. The district court has discretion to determine whether an action was filed frivolously or with an intent to harass, and we will not substitute our judgment for that of the district court unless the action it takes is so flagrantly unjust as to constitute an abuse of discretion. See Wall v. Wall, 700 P.2d 1124, 1125 (Utah 1985). We discern no abuse of discretion in the court’s determination not to award fees under section 30-3-10.4(5) of the Utah Code.

¶44      Second, Mother claims that the court should have awarded her fees under a different statute, one that authorizes courts to order one party to pay fees to the other in order “to enable the other party to prosecute or defend the action.” See Utah Code § 30­3-3(1). The court denied Mother’s request for fees under this statute based on its determination that Mother did not produce evidence of her financial need. When reviewing requests for attorney fees in divorce proceedings, “both the decision to award attorney fees and the amount of such fees are within the [district] court’s sound discretion.” Stonehocker v. Stonehocker, 2008 UT App 11, ¶ 10, 176 P.3d 476 (quotation simplified). However, the party to be awarded attorney fees under this statute has the burden to prove (1) that the payee spouse has a financial need, (2) that the payor spouse has the ability to pay, and (3) that the fees requested are reasonable. See Dahl v. Dahl, 2015 UT 79, ¶ 168, 459 P.3d 276.

¶45 Here, Mother argues that the district court erred in concluding that an award of fees was not warranted when it determined that “Mother did not adduce any evidence of her need for an award of attorney’s fees under section 30-3-3(1).” Mother contends that there was evidence before the court to demonstrate her need and Father’s ability to pay. Specifically, Mother points to the parties’ stipulated order from 2017 that showed the parties’ incomes and the custody evaluation that reported the parties’ incomes in 2020. But Mother did not point to this evidence in connection with her fee request, and we do not think it is incumbent on a district court to comb through the record to find evidence of a party’s need. Rather, the party to be awarded fees has the burden to submit that evidence or at least point the court to that evidence and ask that the court utilize that evidence to determine need.

¶46      Accordingly, we affirm the district court’s conclusion that fees were not warranted in this case.

CONCLUSION

¶47      We conclude that the evidence supports the district court’s findings and conclusions that relocating the children back to Utah would not be in the children’s best interest and supports the denial of Father’s petition to modify. We further conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying Mother’s request for attorney fees. Affirmed.

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


[1] Mother has remarried and has adopted her husband’s surname, Sahim.

[2] As this court stated in Kimball v. Kimball, 2009 UT App 233, 217

P.3d 733:

After all, it is the [district] court’s singularly important mission to consider and weigh all the conflicting evidence and find the facts. No matter what contrary facts might have been found from all the evidence, our deference to the [district] court’s pre-eminent role as fact-finder requires us to take the findings of fact as our starting point, unless particular findings have been shown, in the course of an appellant’s meeting the marshaling requirement, to lack legally adequate evidentiary support.

Id. ¶ 20 n.5.

[3] In addition to rejecting Evaluator’s report for being outdated, the court rejected the report because it “fail[ed] to adequately address the evidence presented at trial.” Specifically, the court noted that the report “mentions but glosses over Father’s sending the children away from New Jersey, choosing several times thereafter not to live near the children (including now), preventing them from traveling to Tahiti, and declining to engage [Son] regarding his baptism.” Father takes issue with the court’s reasoning on each point, arguing that the court “did not agree with [Evaluator’s] expert view and analysis of the evidence.” But his argument is limited to merely explaining his view of why each of these events happened and why Evaluator did not find them important. Father does not show that the court’s view was unsupported by the evidence. And regardless of these stated reasons, the court’s decision to reject the report because it was outdated was entirely proper.

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In re G.H. – 2023 UT App 132 – juvenile court grandparent guardianship

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF G.H. AND R.H.,

PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

L.G.,

Appellant,

v.

R.G. AND R.G.,

Appellees.

Opinion

No. 20220920-CA

Filed November 2, 2023

Seventh District Juvenile Court, Price Department

The Honorable Craig Bunnell

No. 1210014

Steve S. Christensen and Clinton Brimhall,

Attorneys for Appellant

Colleen K. Coebergh, Attorney for Appellees

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

JUDGE DAVID N. MORTENSEN authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES RYAN M. HARRIS and AMY J. OLIVER concurred.

MORTENSEN, Judge:

¶1        The maternal grandparents of two children filed a petition for guardianship, alleging neglect by both parents and abuse at the hands of the children’s father. The guardianship was contested, and a trial was held. After trial, the juvenile court granted the petition, finding facts consistent with the allegations of the petition and determining that the guardianship was in the best interest of the children. Further, the juvenile court determined that the mother’s parent-time, if any, would take place at the unfettered discretion of the grandparents. The mother appeals, claiming the juvenile court erred in determining neglect, erred in failing to order parent-time, and wrongfully denied a motion to change venue as to one of the children. For the most part, we affirm. However, the juvenile court’s findings regarding the mother’s parent-time rights are inadequate, and we therefore remand this matter for the entry of further findings and conclusions as necessary.

BACKGROUND

¶2        AG (Mother) and JH (Father) are the natural parents of GH and RH (the Children).[1] In April 2022, Mother’s parents, RG and RG (Grandparents), petitioned for guardianship and custody of the Children, alleging that such a placement was in the best interest of the Children due to Father’s abuse and both parents’ neglect. A few days later, Grandparents filed an ex parte motion for temporary custody of the Children, and the juvenile court granted the request.

¶3        At a pre-trial hearing, Mother asked for an expedited evidentiary hearing regarding temporary custody. The court declined that request and instead held a combined adjudication and disposition hearing over two trial days in July and August 2022.

¶4        After that hearing, the court issued an order setting forth findings of fact and conclusions of law regarding adjudication and disposition. Because Mother does not dispute the findings of fact, we recite the facts directly from the juvenile court’s findings.[2]

¶5        The court took judicial notice of a 2019 order in which the same court terminated Mother’s parental rights to an older child, who was adopted by Grandparents shortly thereafter. Mother stated she had “no idea” why her maternal rights for the older child were terminated, but the record shows that it was primarily due to Mother’s neglect.

¶6        Mother moved in with Grandparents in Price, Utah, in July 2019 and lived with them through the first part of January 2022. From June through September 2021, Mother worked evenings (5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.). She had surgery for “a minor thing” in September 2021. Mother was unemployed until she obtained full-time employment in December 2021. At this job, she worked ten-hour shifts (10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.) four days per week.

¶7        While living with Grandparents, Mother “relied on [Grandparents] almost exclusively and for nearly everything for [the Children] . . . . [Grandparents] were the primary caretakers for [the Children’s] day-to-day physical, developmental, medical, and financial needs.”

¶8        With regard to the Children’s physical needs, Mother “did very little to make arrangements for [the Children], provide basic care, or assist with household duties,” even when asked to do so. She did not provide “day-to-day food or meals” for the Children, nor did she help with potty training GH.

¶9        Regarding developmental needs, Grandparents provided for “the vast majority of [the Children’s] indoor and outdoor activities, toys, and one-on-one parent-role interactions.” Mother “did very little to actually parent [the Children] or care for their needs,” and she did not assist with “mothering” the Children. When asked to care for the Children, other than watching the Children for about five hours some weekdays when Grandparents were both working, “Mother would often say she was too tired, too busy, be on her phone or smoking, or on her bed resting or lounging.”

¶10      Mother’s sister (Sister) would often visit Grandparents’ house (about two times each week when Grandparents were not there), and she observed Mother being “verbally abusive or terse with [the Children],” leaving them “unattended or unsupervised, not changing diapers as needed, or not caring for them.” The court also found, based on Sister’s testimony, that Mother would often “come to [Sister’s] house (at times unannounced) without child­care supplies or clothes,” asking for help with the Children because Mother was “tired, needed a break, going out with friends, or going to work (although, at times, she did not go to work, but went back to [Grandparents’] house to sleep or smoke).”

¶11 Financially, Mother sometimes shared her government food assistance card but relied on Grandparents for most of the Children’s financial needs. She also relied on Grandparents to provide birthday or Christmas gifts for the Children. She did, however, reimburse Grandparents a few hundred dollars and paid for some daycare.

¶12 Regarding medical needs, Mother took the Children for immunizations, but she did not take them to other types of medical appointments or help Grandparents when the Children were sick with ear infections, colds, or other maladies.

¶13 In January 2022, Mother moved in with another relative (Step-Grandmother) in Highland, Utah, which was twenty minutes from her newly acquired job. Grandparents continued as GH’s primary caretakers in Price, but RH moved to Step-Grandmother’s house with Mother.

¶14 During this time-period, RH received daily and weekly care in four different cities separated by nearly a hundred miles and by four different caregivers besides Mother, namely Step-Grandmother, Great-Grandmother, Father’s mother, and Grandparents. Essentially, Grandparents and Great-Grandmother would relieve Step-Grandmother when she was not available to watch RH. Sometimes Mother would be the one to take RH to Great-Grandmother’s house. Step-Grandmother, Grandparents, the maternal great-grandmother (Great-Grandmother), or Mother transported RH, and sometimes GH, from house to house on weekends. Mother’s mother handled most of the Children’s care coordination, “unless Mother needed to preplan to accommodate her own work schedule.” RH did not stay in “one consistent place or house” during this time-period; RH was at a “different house almost every day of the week, and each week was different than the last.”

¶15 Watching Mother with the Children “scared” Step-Grandmother, and she never saw Mother being “a mother” to the Children. Mother was “negative verbally” to the Children and “put her own wants and needs before RH’s needs.” Mother would get upset when Step-Grandmother wanted to go out, making it necessary for Mother to watch RH.

¶16 Mother provided very little assistance to Step-Grandmother with household duties, except for washing her and RH’s clothes, and “Mother’s bedroom was always cluttered (with RH’s clothes on the floor) and never cleaned.” Mother put RH to bed half the time, but Step-Grandmother noted that the time was never consistent, as Mother sometimes would come home as late as 10:30 p.m. On some Friday nights, Mother did not come home at all until later that weekend.

¶17 While living with Step-Grandmother, Mother changed RH’s diaper only about once per day; smoked cigarettes “all the time”; was “always on her phone”; did not give baby food or regular feeding; and did not read to, play with, sing to, or bathe RH.

¶18      In mid-March 2022, Mother moved into a rental house in Murray, Utah, with RH. Although Step-Grandmother no longer provided RH daily care after the move, Mother still used Grandparents, Great-Grandmother, and Father’s mother to care for RH. Mother’s work schedule changed to eight hours per day, five days per week (12:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. or 2:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.). Grandparents primarily watched RH on weekends. GH continued to live with Grandparents.

¶19 On April 5, 2022, Mother picked up Father from prison, and he lived with Mother from then until at least July 2022, when Mother learned—on the first day of trial through Father’s probation officer’s testimony—that Father had used drugs just a week before. Before hearing this testimony, “Mother did not believe he would use drugs.” Mother allowed Father to watch the Children unsupervised, and until trial, she had planned to continue living with him, despite knowing that Father was convicted of assaulting someone in prison two months prior to his release and despite complaining to Grandparents that Father was “controlling and threatening her, taking her phone and car, refusing to work, and taking advantage of her.” Father’s assault conviction “did not cause her any concern” about him being with her or the Children.[3] The court found that Mother’s reintroduction of Father into the Children’s lives “was an emphatic demonstration to the Court of Mother’s poor judgment and her continued inability (since having her parental rights terminated to an older child in 2019 and since [the Children] were born) to put [the Children’s] needs and welfare before her own.”

¶20 Mother made efforts to obtain a full-time job and to perform well at her job to provide for her and the Children.[4] But the court concluded that Mother “did not progress over the last three years as was necessary and appropriate for her to meet the daily needs” of the Children. Instead, Grandparents, Step-Grandmother, Great-Grandmother, and others provided “the crucial day-to-day parenting and caretaking that are necessary for [the Children] to thrive developmentally and otherwise.”

¶21 The court also found that the Children “thrived living together with [Grandparents] prior to Mother moving out of [Grandparents’] home in January 2022” and after being reunited in Grandparents’ home in April 2022. The court noted that Grandparents “demonstrated their reliability and consistent efforts to provide for all of [the Children’s] day-to-day physical, mental, emotional, developmental, medical, financial, and educational needs.” The court emphasized that the Children should be living together.

¶22      Based on these factual findings, the court concluded there was clear and convincing evidence that Mother neglected the Children. The court also concluded, based on clear and convincing evidence, that the Children’s best interests would be met by granting Grandparents permanent custody and guardianship. Additionally, the court ordered that Mother’s and Father’s parent-time with the Children “shall be at the discretion and under the control or management of [Grandparents].”

¶23 As relevant here, Mother moved the court to dismiss Grandparents’ petition for improper venue or to transfer venue, which the court denied. Mother now appeals.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶24 Mother argues that the juvenile court erred when it determined that the Children were neglected. Mother clarifies that she is not disputing the court’s findings of fact but the court’s application of these findings to the law; therefore, “we accept these findings as true in our analysis on appeal.” d’Elia v. Rice Dev., Inc., 2006 UT App 416, ¶ 24, 147 P.3d 515. “We view the question presented here as law-like because it concerns whether the facts as constituted meet the legal standard of the statute. . . .

Accordingly, we review the issue presented here giving no deference to the juvenile court.” In re A.B., 2021 UT App 91, ¶ 10, 498 P.3d 894, aff’d, 2022 UT 39, 523 P.3d 168.

¶25 Mother also argues that the juvenile court erred in not awarding her parent-time and thus failing to give due consideration to her residual parental rights. “We generally will not disturb the district court’s parent-time determination absent a showing that the court has abused its discretion. However, we review the district court’s interpretation of a statute for correctness. Likewise, we review the legal adequacy of findings of fact for correctness as a question of law.” Lay v. Lay, 2018 UT App 137, ¶ 4, 427 P.3d 1221 (cleaned up).

¶26 Finally, Mother argues that the juvenile court erred in denying her motion to dismiss or transfer based on venue. Venue “is a question committed to the district court’s discretion, which we review for an abuse of discretion.” Davis County v. Purdue Pharma, LP, 2020 UT 17, ¶ 7, 463 P.3d 619.

ANALYSIS
I. Neglect

¶27      “If, at the adjudication[5] hearing, the juvenile court finds, by clear and convincing evidence, that the allegations contained in the abuse, neglect, or dependency petition are true, the juvenile court shall conduct a dispositional hearing.” Utah Code § 80-3­402(1). “The dispositional hearing may be held on the same date as the adjudication hearing . . . .” Id. § 80-3-402(3). At the dispositional hearing, the juvenile court then “may vest custody of an abused, neglected, or dependent minor in the division or any other appropriate person.” Id. § 80-3-405(2)(a)(i). “If a minor has been placed with an individual or relative as a result of an adjudication . . . , the juvenile court may enter an order of permanent legal custody and guardianship with the individual or relative of the minor.” Id. § 80-3-405(2)(d)(i). “Clear and convincing evidence is an intermediate standard of proof that implies something more than the usual requirement of a preponderance of the evidence; and something less than proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Put differently, this standard requires the existence of facts that make a conclusion very highly probable.” In re K.K., 2023 UT App 13, ¶ 22, 525 P.3d 519 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 531 P.3d 731 (Utah 2023).

¶28      Neglect is statutorily defined, and can be proved in any one of several ways. See Utah Code § 80-1-102(58)(a)(i)–(vi).[6] While the juvenile court found neglect under several subsections, to affirm we need conclude only that neglect was established under one of the bases. See In re E.F., 2013 UT App 13, ¶ 3, 295 P.3d 1165 (per curiam) (upholding juvenile court’s conclusion that mother neglected child under the sole basis of lack of proper parental care by reason of parent’s faults or habits). Among other bases, the juvenile court found neglect under subsection (ii), which defines neglect as “action or inaction causing . . . lack of proper parental care of a child by reason of the fault or habits of the parent, guardian, or custodian.” Utah Code § 80-1-102(58)(a)(ii). We agree with the juvenile court that the evidence supported a finding that this basis for neglect had been proved.

¶29      First and foremost, the factual findings demonstrated that Mother did not attend to the Children’s basic health and welfare needs, such as feeding and bathing them, changing their diapers regularly, and obtaining medical care for them when they were sick. Mother also did not show any interest in potty training GH.

¶30      Moreover, Mother did not behave in a manner consistent with parenting a child. For example, Mother did not demonstrate a desire to play with the Children, read or sing to them, or buy them birthday and Christmas presents. And Grandparents were the ones to provide the Children’s indoor and outdoor activities and toys rather than Mother.

¶31      Similarly, the findings revealed that Mother lacked interest in being around the Children, and she would refuse to care for them when asked by the family members with whom she was living. Mother would complain that “she was too tired” or “too busy,” or she would prefer to “be on her phone or smoking, or on her bed resting or lounging.” Likewise, Mother would drop off the Children unannounced at Sister’s house—“without child-care supplies or clothes”—because Mother was “tired, needed a break, [or was] going out with friends, or going to work,” although, at times she went back to Grandparents’ house “to sleep or smoke” instead. Mother also would get upset when Step-Grandmother wanted to go out some evenings, thus leaving Mother to care for the Children. In addition, “Mother did not do household duties when asked to do so.”

¶32 Although the court did acknowledge Mother’s commendable efforts with her current job, it still found that Mother “did not progress over the last three years as was necessary and appropriate for her to meet the daily needs of each of [the Children].”

¶33 Furthermore, the findings demonstrate that Mother was not troubled by Father being with her or the Children. Even though Mother knew that Father was convicted of assaulting someone while in prison and said that he was “controlling and threatening her, taking her phone and car, refusing to work, and taking advantage of her,” Mother allowed Father to watch the Children unsupervised and, until learning of his continued drug use at trial, had planned to go on living with him. Additionally, despite Father’s history with drug use, Mother “did not believe he would use drugs.” Mother’s reintroduction of Father into the Children’s lives demonstrated to the court “emphatic[ally]” that Mother showed “poor judgment and [a] continued inability (since having her parental rights terminated to an older child in 2019 and since [the Children] were born) to put [the Children’s] needs and welfare before her own.”

¶34 The court also highlighted that during the time when Mother lived with Step-Grandmother, the Children were cared for by many different caregivers other than Mother. The court found that Grandparents were the main caregivers for GH, and the court emphasized that RH’s daily and weekly care was provided by five different caregivers located in four different cities. Mother argues that a “child is not without proper parental care solely because that care is not always at the hands of a parent” and that it is “not uncommon for parents, especially single working mothers, to place children in daycare or arrange for care with family.” In support of her argument, Mother cites In re A.B., 2021 UT App 91, 498 P.3d 894, aff’d, 2022 UT 39, 523 P.3d 168, where we held that a child is not neglected if the child receives proper parental care, “even if not always at [a mother’s] hand.” Id. ¶ 20.

¶35 We agree with Mother that it can be completely appropriate for parents to arrange for others to help them in caring for their children, and we empathize with single parents whose childcare arrangements may not always seem ideal to others of greater means and opportunity. But Mother’s behavior in this case is distinguishable from that in In re A.B. Here, the juvenile court found, and Mother does not dispute, that Mother did “very little to make arrangements” for the Children, would drop off the Children at Sister’s “at times unannounced,” would not come home when she was expected to, and would not take care of the Children when at home. In contrast, In re A.B. concerned a child who spent summers with “welcoming relatives[,] . . . and on agreement, summer turned into a whole year.” Id. ¶ 1 (emphases added). Moreover, that mother arranged the child’s care with the relatives, id. ¶¶ 2–3, and she never refused to take care of her child when she oversaw the child’s care, id. ¶ 19. Therefore, Mother’s reliance on In re A.B. misses the mark.

¶36 Based on the foregoing, we conclude that the juvenile court’s findings of fact meet the legal standard of neglect. See Utah Code § 80-1-102(58)(a)(ii). Therefore, we affirm its grant of permanent custody and guardianship to Grandparents. See id. § 80-3-405(2)(d)(i).[7]

II. Parent-Time

¶37      Mother next argues that the juvenile court erred by failing “to even consider providing Mother parent-time in the final analysis order.” While we don’t quite agree with Mother’s characterization of the order as a complete failure to consider Mother’s residual rights, we agree that remand on this issue is necessary.

¶38 When the juvenile court vests custody of a child in someone other than the child’s natural parent, the court “shall give primary consideration to the welfare of the minor.” Utah Code § 80-3-405(2)(a)(ii)(A). Here the court did so by awarding custody to Grandparents, whom the court found to “have demonstrated their reliability and consistent efforts to provide for all of [the Children’s] day-to-day physical, mental, emotional, developmental, medical, financial, and educational needs.”

¶39      But the court’s responsibilities when awarding custody do not end there. The court also “shall give due consideration to the rights of the parent or parents concerning the minor.” Id. § 80-3-405(2)(a)(ii)(B). This includes consideration of awarding reasonable parent-time. Specifically, the statute provides that “[a] parent of a minor for whom a guardian is appointed retains residual parental rights and duties.” Id. § 75-5-209(5). These residual parental rights include “the right to reasonable parent-time unless restricted by the court.” Id. § 80-1-102(70)(a)(iv). Thus, our legislature intended for juvenile courts to give careful thought to an award of parent-time when granting custody and guardianship to someone else. And we note that parent-time is significant because it offers “the parent the possibility of maintaining a meaningful relationship with the child despite lack of physical custody.” Moreno v. Board of Educ., 926 P.2d 886, 890 (Utah 1996).

¶40      Yet here, the juvenile court simply stated that Mother’s and Father’s parent-time with the Children “shall be at the discretion and under the control or management” of Grandparents, without making any findings regarding the amount of parent-time that would be reasonable. Instead, the court delegated that determination entirely to Grandparents. And this could lead to Grandparents denying Mother any parent-time[8] without the court making any findings of fact to justify such a denial.[9] Here, we find the court’s findings and conclusions regarding parent-time to be inadequate.

¶41      A juvenile court’s factual findings “must be sufficiently detailed and include enough subsidiary facts to clearly show the evidence upon which they are grounded.” In re S.T., 928 P.2d 393, 398 (Utah Ct. App. 1996); see also In re M.G., 2003 UT App 313U, para. 5 (holding that “a review of the court’s oral findings reveals the subsidiary facts and basis for the juvenile court’s written findings and demonstrates that the written and oral findings, taken together, are sufficiently detailed to permit appellate review”). “Put another way, findings are adequate when they contain sufficient detail to permit appellate review to ensure that the [juvenile] court’s discretionary determination was rationally based. Indeed, the [juvenile] court’s obligation to render adequate findings facilitates meaningful appellate review and ensures the parties are informed of the [juvenile] court’s reasoning.” Lay v. Lay, 2018 UT App 137, ¶ 19, 427 P.3d 1221 (cleaned up). “Unless the record clearly and [incontrovertibly] supports the [juvenile] court’s decision, the absence of adequate findings of fact ordinarily requires remand for more detailed findings by the [juvenile] court.” Woodward v. Fazzio, 823 P.2d 474, 478 (Utah Ct. App. 1991) (cleaned up).

¶42      We are unable to determine the court’s basis for leaving all parent-time decisions in the hands of Grandparents, a situation that potentially denies Mother any parent-time with the Children.

Accordingly, we vacate the juvenile court’s decision regarding parent-time and remand this matter for specific findings demonstrating what conditions of parent-time are reasonable. If the court determines that it is reasonable to award no parent-time to Mother, then the court must make specific findings to justify such a determination.

III. Venue

¶43 Mother brought a motion to dismiss or change venue on the morning of trial, asserting that the case had been brought in the wrong venue.[10] The juvenile court took the motion under advisement and delayed ruling on the motion until it could take evidence and determine facts relative to venue. In its dispositional order, the juvenile court determined that venue was correct in the Seventh District. Now on appeal, Mother challenges that conclusion only as to RH. Mother maintains that on the day the petition for guardianship was filed, RH was living with Mother in Salt Lake County. Even assuming, for purposes of the discussion, that venue was incorrectly determined to be in the Seventh District as to RH, we affirm the decision of the juvenile court because Mother has failed to show any harm.

¶44 The guardian ad litem’s briefing maintained that Mother needs to show harm to obtain reversal based on an erroneous denial of the motion to change venue as it pertains to RH. Mother does not quibble with this legal assertion but claims that she implicitly identified and showed harm in her principal brief. As both parties have proceeded under the assumption that an appellant must show harm, we will do likewise without deciding that discrete issue.[11] The sole harm Mother points to is that the case regarding RH would have been dismissed and that dismissal would have benefitted Mother. Mother is wrong on the first point and utterly fails to meet her burden of persuasion on the second.

¶45      First, as to automatic dismissal, this result was rejected several years ago by this court when In re adoption of B.N.A., 2018 UT App 224, 438 P.3d 10, explored the consequences of hearing a case in the wrong venue. Initially, we explained that under current precedent, subject-matter jurisdiction is not implicated when a case is filed in the wrong district. Id. ¶¶ 12–24. Then we concluded that the “consequence for filing in the wrong district is not automatic dismissal.” Id. ¶ 25. Instead, “any party, upon proper motion, may request that the case be transferred to the correct district.” Id. So, if the Mother’s motion had been granted, the case would have been transferred, not dismissed. Accordingly, the argument that harm resulted because the case would have been dismissed fails.

¶46 Second, Mother fails to identify any other harm. She merely concludes that “[d]ismissal would have benefitted Mother.” But as just explained, dismissal would not have occurred. And Mother presents no argument that she would have obtained a different result had the case been transferred. Importantly, where Mother does not challenge that the case involving GH would have remained in the Seventh District, we easily foresee that upon transfer, any other juvenile court would have likely transferred the RH case back to the Seventh District under its discretionary powers, and more particularly under rule 42 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure.[12] Further, Mother fails to show how the result rendered in a different venue would have been better for her. Thus, Mother fails to meet her burden of persuasion that she was harmed by the denial of her motion to change venue.

¶47      Accordingly, we see no basis to reverse the judgment of the juvenile court on the issue of venue.

CONCLUSION

¶48      We affirm the juvenile court’s determination that Mother neglected the Children and that venue was proper in the Seventh District with regard to RH. We also conclude that the juvenile court made inadequate findings regarding its parent-time award. Therefore, we vacate the court’s award of sole discretion over Mother’s parent-time to Grandparents and remand the matter for further proceedings consistent with this opinion to consider Mother’s residual parental rights when determining a reasonable award of parent-time.

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


[1] RH has a twin, who has lived with the maternal great-grandmother since April 2021 and is not involved in this case.

 

[2] Mother disputes the findings of fact only with regard to venue. But as our disposition makes clear, these factual disputes are immaterial.

[3] Although the court found that Father had “an extensive and violent criminal history, including convictions for interfering with arrests, assaults, disorderly conduct, and threats of violence,” it did not make a specific finding regarding Mother’s knowledge of his violent criminal history outside of the event in prison.

[4] When asked about how Mother was performing at work, her supervisor testified, “She is incredibly reliable. She’s one of my go-to staff . . . .”

[5] Adjudication “means a finding by the court . . . that the facts alleged in the petition have been proved.” Utah Code § 80-1­102(3)(a).

[6] Utah Code section 80-1-102(58)(a) defines “neglect” as follows:

[An] action or inaction causing: (i) abandonment of a child . . . ; (ii) lack of proper parental care of a child by reason of the fault or habits of the parent, guardian, or custodian; (iii) failure or refusal of a parent, guardian, or custodian to provide proper or necessary subsistence or medical care, or any other care necessary for the child’s health, safety, morals, or well-being; (iv) a child to be at risk of being neglected or abused because another child in the same home is neglected or abused; (v) abandonment of a child through an unregulated child custody transfer under Section 78B-24-203; or (vi) educational neglect.

[7] After a dispositional hearing, the juvenile court may award permanent custody and guardianship to a relative if it finds by clear and convincing evidence either abuse or neglect by the natural parent. See Utah Code §§ 80-3-402(1), -405. Mother made additional arguments that the court erred in determining that GH was abused by Father and that Mother had standing to appeal any determinations regarding Father that contributed to a finding that Mother neglected the Children. Because we affirm the juvenile court’s determination that Mother neglected the Children, we do not need to address these arguments.

[8] Mother alleges that when she has asked Grandparents for parent-time, they have refused and told her, “You have no rights.” Mother’s allegations are not part of our appellate record, however.

[9] It is possible for a juvenile court, in an appropriate case, to determine that a parent retaining residual rights is not entitled to any parent-time. But any such determination should be rare and should be supported with findings that demonstrate why it is not reasonable, for example, for the parent to have at least short periods of unsupervised or supervised parent-time.

[10] Utah law provides that “a proceeding for a minor’s case in the juvenile court shall be commenced in the court of the district in which . . . the minor is living or found.” Utah Code § 78A-6­350(1)(b).

[11] Some courts that have decided this issue have held that harm must be shown. See Lamb v. Javed, 692 S.E.2d 861, 864 (Ga. Ct. App. 2010); Schmutz v. State, 440 S.W.3d 29, 39 (Tex. Crim. App. 2014). But we do not decide this issue and leave it for another day.

[12] Mother asserts that venue rights are so substantial that a denial of a motion to change venue can be grounds for an interlocutory appeal, citing Davis County v. Purdue Pharma, LP, 2020 UT 17, 463 P.3d 619. While this is true, Mother sought no interlocutory appeal here. And other courts have held that failure to immediately appeal a denial of a motion to change venue constitutes a waiver of the venue claim. See, e.g.Patterson v. Alexander & Hamilton, Inc., 844 So. 2d 412, 415 (La. Ct. App. 2003).

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In re K.A.S. – 2023 UT App 138 THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF K.S., A PERSON OVER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

STATE OF UTAH, Appellee, v. K.S., Appellant. Opinion No. 20210291-CA Filed November 16, 2023 Third District Juvenile Court, Salt Lake Department The Honorable Mark W. May No. 1108274 Monica Maio, Marina Pena, Sam Pappas, and Hilary Forbush, Attorneys for Appellant Sean D. Reyes and Jeffrey S. Gray, Attorneys for Appellee JUDGE RYAN D. TENNEY authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER and DAVID N. MORTENSEN concurred.

TENNEY, Judge:

¶1        K.S., a minor, spent several weeks babysitting the infant child of some family members while they were at work. When the infant’s parents returned home one day, the infant was in pronounced distress. The infant was taken to the hospital, but she died a few days later.

¶2        K.S. was charged in juvenile court with having committed child abuse homicide. At the close of trial, the juvenile court found that K.S. had committed the crime and adjudicated K.S. delinquent as a result. K.S. now appeals that adjudication, arguing that there was insufficient evidence to support it. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm.

BACKGROUND

¶3        A.M., a four-month-old infant, died on May 10, 2019. Several medical experts later testified that the cause of death was a brain injury and that the fatal injury was likely inflicted in a non-accidental manner. The question at the heart of this case is who inflicted the fatal injury.

¶4        A.M.’s parents (Mother and Father) both worked and needed someone to watch their two children (A.M. and a two-year-old son) during the day. After an arrangement with a previous babysitter fell through, Mother and Father learned that K.S., the 16-year-old son of Mother’s cousin, was available to babysit. Although K.S. had no prior child-care experience, he began watching the children in April 2019. Because of K.S.’s lack of experience, Father had to teach him the basics of childcare, including how to prepare a bottle, how to change a diaper, and how to calm A.M. down and “hold her correctly.” K.S. frequently stayed overnight to save on gas, sleeping on a couch in the front room.

¶5        On May 2, Mother and Father took A.M. to the emergency room because A.M. had been sick for a few days. On examination, the ER doctor found “nothing worrisome,” and tests indicated that her heart rate, oxygen saturation, and temperature were all “reassuring.” The ER doctor concluded that A.M. “might have a bug” and sent her home. By May 6, A.M. seemed to be “feeling a little better.”

¶6        K.S. slept over at the house on the night of May 6 to 7, and A.M. was “real fussy” that night. According to her parents’ subsequent accounts, though, A.M. was “crying normal[ly]” and even “cheery, smiling, [and] glowing” by the next morning. Mother left for work by 9:30 a.m.[1] Father later testified that he left for work between 8:30 and 8:45 a.m. (though, as will be discussed below, testimony from an officer suggested that Father didn’t actually leave until 10:55 that morning).

¶7        At some point between 11:36 and 11:56 a.m., K.S. sent Mother a video that showed A.M. experiencing troubling symptoms—specifically, A.M. had a limp arm and labored breathing. K.S. texted, “Is this normal?” After viewing the video, Mother asked her sister (Aunt) to stop by on her lunch break to check on A.M.

¶8        Aunt arrived at about 1:20 that afternoon. A.M. seemed “lethargic” to her, and it seemed like “moving her was upsetting her more, almost like it was causing her pain.” Aunt thought that A.M. might have an ear infection, so she gave her some ibuprofen. After returning to work, Aunt told Mother her concern about the ear infection and encouraged Mother to take A.M. to the hospital after Mother’s shift ended. During her own lunch break an hour later, Mother returned home and checked on A.M., who was “fussy and whiney”; when Mother picked A.M. up, she also observed her legs “dangling down.” Mother was concerned enough to schedule an appointment with a pediatrician, but she made lunch and returned to work without taking further action.

¶9        There was no additional contact between K.S. and the parents until around 7:45 that evening, when K.S. called Mother and reported that A.M still didn’t seem to be feeling better. Mother said she was on her way. After picking Father up from his work, Mother arrived home to find A.M. “pale as a light.” Father performed CPR while Mother called 911. Mother told the 911 dispatcher that A.M. had been “fine throughout the day and stuff.”

¶10 A.M. was first taken to the Intermountain Healthcare hospital, then life-flighted to Primary Children’s Medical Center (Primary Children’s). Doctors at Primary Children’s concluded that A.M. had suffered a severe brain injury.

¶11      Police detained Mother and Father for questioning before allowing them to see A.M. While awaiting the arrival of a detective, Father engaged police officers in light-hearted banter, telling them “a story about getting drunk and . . . dancing on the table,” as well as a story about a woman beating up a man in their apartment complex. Mother and Father eventually met with a detective who questioned them about the events of the day. This detective later testified that, during these interviews, Father told him that he had left for work around 10:55 that morning.

¶12      The following day, K.S. sent Father two text messages. The first said: “im so sorry. . . . if it weren’t for my laziness and wanting to relax [A.M.] wouldn’t be like this and if i had never tossed her up in the air to try and cheer her up.” The second said: “im truly sorry plz tell [Mother] im so so so sorry and i would never intentionally hurt your kids out of anger or frustration.”

¶13      A.M. died two days later. Later that week, Dr. Christensen, the medical examiner, performed an autopsy and determined that the “primary cause” of death was “blunt injuries” to A.M.’s head. Dr. Christensen classified the death as a homicide.

¶14 The State subsequently charged K.S. with child abuse homicide in juvenile court. Over the course of eight days of trial, the court heard testimony from, among others, both parents, several medical experts, and the responding officer.

¶15      Mother and Father testified about the events on May 7 and A.M.’s health in the relevant period. Mother testified that A.M. was “pretty fine” and “cheery, smiling, [and] glowing” before she left for work that morning. Father testified that, after a few days of being fussy, A.M. “was feeling a little better” and that there was “nothing out of the ordinary” that morning. Father testified that he remembered leaving home between 8:30 and 8:45 a.m. so that he could catch the bus.

¶16 The court also heard testimony from three medical experts—Dr. Thorn, Dr. Hatch, and Dr. Christensen—about the nature of A.M.’s injuries and the timing of those injuries.

¶17 Dr. Thorn. Dr. Thorn was an ER doctor who had “extensive training and expertise specialization in the management of head injury,” and he was the doctor who treated A.M. on May 7 at the Intermountain Healthcare hospital. Dr. Thorn testified that A.M.’s symptoms likely resulted from “non-accidental trauma,” which “is a nice way of saying a child . . . was physically abused.” Dr. Thorn also testified that A.M.’s injuries would have required the application of “[e]xtremely violent” force, though he opined that it might have been “possible” that a person might not have “recognize[d] the severity” of the injury that he or she had inflicted.

¶18      On a CAT scan, Dr. Thorn observed two layers of blood in A.M.’s brain, which suggested to him that A.M. had sustained “at least two” discrete injuries. He estimated that the earlier of the two injuries occurred “within days” to “maybe a week” before May 7. Dr. Thorn speculated that the symptoms that prompted A.M.’s visit to the hospital on May 2 had come from the first brain injury, but he acknowledged that “[w]e’ll never know.” With respect to the injuries that led to A.M.’s death, Dr. Thorn testified that the “most severe injury leading eventually to the death” happened anywhere from “sometime within hours” to “almost right before” the video that was taken on May 7. He further testified that there was “some event soon before arrival [at the ER] that had caused” A.M.’s “respiratory depression.” Dr. Thorn felt unable to narrow the timeframe any further, and he expressed doubt that any doctor “would be able to comment as to a more definitive timeframe.” Dr. Thorn also testified that A.M. “was very, very sick at the time that that video was taken.”[2]

¶19 Dr. Hatch. Dr. Hatch was a recent medical school graduate who was completing a post-residency fellowship in child abuse pediatrics at the University of Utah, and he was part of the team that treated A.M. at Primary Children’s. Dr. Hatch testified that it would have required a significant amount of force to cause A.M.’s symptoms, such as “shaking by itself” or shaking combined “with some form of impact, or impact by itself.” He added that “we don’t observe these kinds of injuries from falls” or even from “significant” car accidents. In Dr. Hatch’s view, A.M.’s symptoms “suggest[ed]” that A.M. had “experienced significant force to her head.” He also opined that anyone who was present when the injuries were inflicted “would know that the force was excessive and that an injury was likely” to follow.

¶20 Dr. Hatch thought there were two potentially plausible explanations for the two layers of blood in A.M.’s brain: he thought it was possible that the blood represented two different injuries that were separated by time, and he also thought it was possible that the blood represented a single injury where some of the blood had changed colors when it mingled with cerebral spinal fluid. Thus, in Dr. Hatch’s opinion, A.M. was definitely injured on May 7, and it was possible that she had suffered an earlier brain injury as well.

¶21      As to the question of timing of the May 7 injury, Dr. Hatch testified that “the head injury immediately preceded the development of any symptoms that [A.M.] had. So in this situation where she became unconscious, the injury would immediately precede that.” Continuing, Dr. Hatch testified that the “medical literature would support that in almost all cases with this severe of an injury,” the resulting symptoms would appear “immediately afterward.”

¶22 Dr. Christensen. Dr. Christensen is the chief medical examiner for the Utah Department of Health and, as noted, performed A.M.’s autopsy. Dr. Christensen testified that A.M. had suffered a “traumatic” “axonal injury” to her brain and that the injury was “not consistent with having occurred accidentally.” In his view, the force involved would have been “noticeably violent.”

¶23      Like Dr. Thorn, Dr. Christensen saw signs of both an earlier and a later injury. Dr. Christensen agreed that “some of [A.M.’s] prior symptoms”—including the nausea that led to her May 2 visit to the hospital—could have been “related to a prior head injury.” On questioning from the State, however, Dr. Christensen seemed to agree that the later injury was “the ultimately fatal” one.

¶24      Dr. Christensen testified that in “some cases,” fatal injuries can be inflicted as many as three to ten days before the child actually dies. But Dr. Christensen explained that doctors look to “other aspects of the case as well” when estimating the time at which the injuries were inflicted, such as “what was the child’s behavior at various points along the way.” He said that in this case, he thought the fatal injury “occurred around the time” that A.M. arrived at the hospital. He also testified that with “traumatic axonal injury, you would expect [A.M.] to be symptomatic essentially immediately. I mean very, very quickly. It’s not going to be the kind of thing where she is going to be normal for a few hours . . . . It’s a global insult to the brain that is going to manifest as . . . abnormal behavior very soon after infliction.”

¶25      After the conclusion of the trial, the court entered a single-sentence ruling determining that the State had met its burden of proving that K.S. committed child abuse homicide. K.S. timely appealed.

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶26      K.S. argues there was insufficient evidence to support his adjudication for child abuse homicide. In cases tried without a jury (which include juvenile court proceedings), factual determinations “must not be set aside unless clearly erroneous, and the reviewing court must give due regard to the trial court’s opportunity to judge the credibility of the witnesses.” Utah R. Civ. P. 52(a)(4); cf. In re Z.D., 2006 UT 54, ¶ 29, 147 P.3d 401 (holding that an “appellate court must launch any review of factual findings from rule 52(a) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure and its ‘clearly erroneous’ test”). “The content of Rule 52(a)’s clearly erroneous standard, imported from the federal rule, requires that if the findings (or the trial court’s verdict in a criminal case) are against the clear weight of the evidence, or if the appellate court otherwise reaches a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made, the findings (or verdict) will be set aside.” State v. Walker, 743 P.2d 191, 193 (Utah 1987) (quotation simplified).

¶27 The parties agree that we should apply the above-cited standard of review to this case. We pause here to note, however, that the parties have disputed whether we should apply an additional layer of deferential gloss in this case as well.

¶28 It’s well-settled that when an appellate court reviews a jury’s verdict, the court views the evidence and all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the verdict. See, e.g.State v. Green, 2023 UT 10, n.2, 532 P.3d 930; State v. Bonds, 2023 UT 1, n.3, 524 P.3d 581; State v. Winfield, 2006 UT 4, ¶ 2, 128 P.3d 1171. But there’s a divergence in Utah’s caselaw about whether an appellate court does the same when reviewing a verdict from a bench trial. On this, some Utah cases say no. See, e.g.In re Z.D., 2006 UT 54, ¶ 35 (“An appellate court must indulge findings of fact made by a jury that support the verdict. No such indulgence is required of findings made by a judge.”); Alta Indus. Ltd. v. Hurst, 846 P.2d 1282, 1284 n.2 (Utah 1993) (holding that “an appellate court does not, as a matter of course, resolve all conflicts in the evidence in favor of the appellee” when findings were made by a judge); Walker, 743 P.2d at 193 (noting that “it is not accurate to say that the appellate court takes that view of the evidence that is most favorable to the appellee” when reviewing findings of the court (quotation simplified)). But other Utah cases—including some from our court that reviewed adjudications from juvenile court delinquency proceedings—say yes. See, e.g.State v. Layman, 1999 UT 79, ¶¶ 12–13, 985 P.2d 911 (holding that when “reviewing a conviction, an appellate court should consider the facts in a light most favorable to the verdict,” and then applying that standard to a ruling from “the trial judge, who was the finder of fact” in the bench trial at issue); In re J.R.H., 2020 UT App 155, ¶ 9, 478 P.3d 56 (applying the “light most favorable” standard to a juvenile court adjudication (quotation simplified)); In re V.T., 2000 UT App 189, ¶ 8, 5 P.3d 1234 (relying on Layman for the proposition that “[w]hen reviewing a juvenile court’s decision for sufficiency of the evidence, we must consider all the facts, and all reasonable inferences which may be drawn therefrom, in a light most favorable to the juvenile court’s determination”); see also In re C.C.R., 2011 UT App 228, ¶ 10, 257 P.3d 1106; In re M.B., 2008 UT App 433, ¶ 5, 198 P.3d 1007.

¶29      We need not resolve this conflict here. Again, the parties at least agree that K.S. can only prevail on his sufficiency challenge if he establishes that the verdict was against the clear weight of the evidence, or, instead, if we reach a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made. And the parties further agree that we give “due regard” to the juvenile court’s opportunity to “judge the credibility of witnesses.” Utah R. Civ. P. 52(a)(4). For the reasons set forth below, we affirm the juvenile court’s adjudication under these agreed-upon standards alone. We accordingly leave for another day (and, more likely, another court) the question of how to resolve the tension in the cases about whether the additional deferential gloss that applies to jury verdicts should apply to juvenile court decisions as well.

ANALYSIS

¶30      K.S. argues there was “insufficient evidence that [he], as opposed to someone else, caused the injuries that resulted in A.M.’s death.” We disagree.

¶31      The State’s case against K.S. relied on the interplay between three propositions: (i) A.M. died from an injury to her brain that was caused by violent force; (ii) A.M.’s symptoms would have manifested very quickly after the injury was inflicted; and (iii) K.S. was alone with A.M. immediately prior to the symptoms’ initial appearance. There was competent testimony to support each of these propositions.

¶32 Injury. All three medical experts agreed that A.M. died from a brain injury that was caused by violent force. Dr. Thorn testified that A.M.’s injury would have been caused by “[e]xtremely violent” force or a “violent, blunt act,” such as the “shaking back and forth of a child’s brain.” In his view, this was “not an accidentally dropped child.” Dr. Hatch similarly testified that a significant amount of force would have been required, either “shaking by itself,” or shaking combined “with some form of impact,” or “impact by itself.” He added that doctors “don’t observe these kinds of injuries from falls” or even from “significant” car accidents. Dr. Hatch believed anyone “who witnessed an incident like this occur would know that the force was excessive and that an injury was likely” to follow. Finally, Dr. Christensen testified that the injury was “not consistent with having occurred accidentally” and that the force involved would have been “noticeably violent.”

¶33 Timing of symptoms. There was also testimony from medical experts that A.M.’s symptoms would have manifested very quickly after the force that caused the fatal injury. Dr. Hatch testified that “the head injury immediately preceded the development of any symptoms that [A.M.] had” and that the “medical literature would support that in almost all cases with this severe of an injury,” the resulting symptoms would appear “immediately afterward.” Dr. Christensen similarly testified that with “traumatic axonal injury, you would expect [A.M.] to be symptomatic essentially immediately.” He added: “It’s not going to be the kind of thing where she is going to be normal for a few hours . . . . It’s a global insult to the brain that is going to manifest as . . . abnormal behavior very soon after infliction.”[3]

¶34 K.S. was alone with A.M. Finally, there was testimony establishing that K.S. was alone with A.M. immediately before the symptoms’ initial appearance. Mother and Father both testified that A.M. was in good health that morning. Father stated that after a few days of being fussy, A.M. was “feeling a little better” and that there was “nothing out of the ordinary.” Mother also testified that A.M. was “cheery, smiling, [and] glowing” that morning.

¶35      Mother left for work by 9:30 a.m., and at trial, Father testified that he left for work between 8:30 and 8:45 a.m. (though there was some suggestion that he may have left at 10:55 a.m.). At some point between 11:36 and 11:56 that morning, K.S. sent Mother a video showing A.M. with limp limbs and having difficulty breathing.

¶36      The collective import of these propositions is clear. Since K.S. was alone with A.M. for at least a half hour (if not several hours) before A.M.’s symptoms appeared, and since two medical experts testified that A.M.’s symptoms would have appeared very quickly (if not immediately) after the infliction of the injury, it stands to reason that K.S. caused the fatal injury. This would provide a basis to sustain the adjudication.[4]

¶37 K.S. nevertheless argues that there was insufficient evidence to support the adjudication because of various problems with the above evidence and with other aspects of the State’s case. While we certainly agree that there was conflicting evidence on certain points, the problems that K.S. identifies are not so conclusive that we can overturn the adjudication as a result.

¶38      Much of K.S.’s argument is focused on ambiguities in the record about the critical question of timing. K.S. points out that while Dr. Christensen opined that the symptoms likely manifested soon after the injury, Dr. Christensen also acknowledged that “those things”—apparently meaning medical conclusions about the time at which an injury occurred—“are not precise.” K.S. also relies heavily on Dr. Thorn’s testimony that the injury could have occurred anywhere from “almost right before” the symptoms appeared to “hours” earlier. And K.S. further points to Dr. Thorn’s testimony that he didn’t think “you could find anyone else that would be able to comment as to a more definitive timeframe.”

¶39 But when Dr. Thorn opined that he didn’t think that “anyone else” could provide “a more definitive timeframe,” Dr. Thorn was mistaken. As discussed, the State called two medical experts—Dr. Christensen and Dr. Hatch—who each testified under oath that they thought that A.M.’s symptoms would have appeared very quickly (if not immediately) after the fatal injury was inflicted. And to the extent that there was any conflict between the experts’ conclusions on this, the juvenile court was in a better position than we are to determine which version to believe. See, e.g.In re M.M., 2023 UT App 95, ¶ 35 n.9, 536 P.3d 102, petition for cert. filed, October 25, 2023 (No. 20230944) (recognizing that it “is the role of the juvenile court, not this court, to assess the weight and credibility of expert witnesses and to choose among their testimonies” (quotation simplified)); Knowlton v. Knowlton, 2023 UT App 16, ¶ 59 n.13, 525 P.3d 898 (noting that a trial court “is in the superior position to assess the weight of evidence,” including questions about which expert’s testimony to accept), cert. denied, 531 P.3d 730 (Utah 2023); Woodward v. Lafranca, 2016 UT App 141, ¶ 13, 381 P.3d 1125 (noting that a “fact-finder is in the best position to judge the credibility of witnesses and is free to disbelieve their testimony, even if that testimony comes from an expert witness” (quotation simplified)).

¶40      K.S. also points to testimony showing that Mother left for work by 9:30 a.m., as well as testimony that Father told a detective that he didn’t leave until 10:55 that morning. Since K.S. maintains that the window in which the injury could have been inflicted was several hours long, K.S. posits that Mother or Father could have inflicted the injury before they left for work. But again, on the question of timing, Dr. Christensen and Dr. Hatch both spoke of symptoms appearing very quickly after the fatal injury was inflicted. This testimony, alone, undermines this theory, and the juvenile court was entitled to credit it.

¶41 And there are other problems with this theory too. After all, K.S.’s suggestion that Mother or Father caused the injury that morning or overnight is at odds with their sworn testimonies. Again, both of them testified under oath that A.M. was healthy when they left the house. And it also seems possible (if not probable) that K.S. would have noticed something if Mother or Father had used violent force against A.M. that morning—after all, he’d spent the night there and was at the house all morning. But K.S. never claimed to have heard or witnessed either parent injuring A.M. earlier that day. Thus, to have accepted this theory, the court would have had to discredit the injury-to-symptoms chronology testimony of two medical experts, disbelieve the testimonies of Mother and Father, and then infer that Mother or Father had used violent force against A.M. without K.S. noticing or deciding to comment on it.

¶42 K.S. also points to evidence suggesting that A.M. had sustained a prior brain injury sometime before May 7, and he then argues that this prior injury might have been responsible for A.M.’s death. But while Dr. Christensen and Dr. Thorn both believed that A.M. had suffered multiple injuries, Dr. Hatch thought it was possible that there weren’t two injuries at all. Regardless, even assuming that the earlier injury did occur, K.S. could have inflicted that injury too given that he’d been babysitting for weeks. And more to the point, Dr. Christensen testified that the earlier injury wasn’t the cause of death. Dr. Christensen explained that both the earlier injury and the later injury had caused “subdural hemorrhage[s]” but that a subdural hemorrhage “didn’t ultimately lead directly to the child’s death.” Instead, Dr. Christensen testified that “diffuse axonal injury” in the brainstem created “respiratory compromise” that led to “brain swelling and ultimately death.” And when the prosecutor asked Dr. Christensen whether the “fatal” or “ultimately fatal” injury occurred close in time to A.M. arriving at the hospital, Dr. Christensen agreed with the State’s timeline. He reiterated that after the infliction of the “traumatic axonal injury,” which he had previously identified as the ultimate cause of death, symptoms would appear “essentially immediately.”[5]

¶43                Finally, K.S. points to various problems with the version of

events offered by Mother and Father, including Mother’s decision not to take the baby to the hospital that afternoon, Father’s seemingly odd storytelling while waiting for detectives that night, and certain discrepancies between the parents’ initial statements to officers and their testimonies at trial. We’ve reviewed the record and acknowledge the potential problems identified by K.S. But these problems all go to the perceived credibility (or lack thereof) of Mother and Father, particularly as it relates to their sworn testimonies that they did not injure their child. Our supreme court, however, has directly cautioned the appellate courts to avoid second-guessing lower courts about credibility issues like these. As the court explained in In re Z.D.:

Appellate courts are removed temporally and geographically from trial courts. They do not see juries impaneled or oaths administered to witnesses. They do not view first-hand witnesses’ “tells” of posture, inflection, or mood that strengthen or erode credibility. It is the lot of appellate judges to take their sustenance from the printed page; to peer into the facts as deeply as the flat plane of paper will permit. By the time the trial transcript reaches the hands of the appellate judge, the universal adjective describing its condition is “cold.”

2006 UT 54, ¶ 24, 147 P.3d 401. It’s of course possible that the court could have chosen to disbelieve the testimonies of Mother and Father. But given its adjudication, it’s clear that the court did accept their accounts (or, at least, those portions that suggested that it was K.S., not Mother or Father, who inflicted the fatal injury on A.M.). Without something more, it’s not our place to second-guess that determination.

¶44      In short, this evidentiary picture could certainly have been clearer, and we do see this as something of a close case. But the fact that it’s a close case is the reason we shouldn’t overturn this adjudication. In In re Z.D., our supreme court stressed that an “appellate court must be capable of discriminating between discomfort over a trial court’s findings of fact—which it must tolerate—and those that require the court’s intercession. It must forebear disturbing the ‘close call.’” Id. ¶ 33. And again, under even the standard of review that both parties agree on, K.S. must convince us that the verdict was against “the clear weight of the evidence,” or, instead, we must be left with “a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made.” State v. Walker, 743 P.2d 191, 193 (Utah 1987) (emphases added, quotations otherwise simplified).

¶45      On this record, the juvenile court could have sided with K.S. based on certain evidence about the timing of the injuries and who was around A.M. during a potentially relevant window. But the State’s narrower view of the timing window was backed by two medical experts, and its view of who was where and when was backed by sworn testimony as well. And under the State’s evidence, K.S. was the only person who could have caused the fatal injury.

¶46      Unlike members of this court, the juvenile court observed the relevant testimony firsthand. As a result, it was in a better position than we are to evaluate the credibility of that testimony and make determinations about the key facts. While K.S. has highlighted some problems with the State’s case, we don’t see those problems as being so pronounced that the court’s decision was against the clear weight of the evidence, nor are we left with a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made. We accordingly see no basis for overturning this adjudication.

CONCLUSION

¶47 There was sufficient evidence to support the juvenile court’s adjudication that K.S. committed child abuse homicide. The adjudication is therefore affirmed.

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

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

In re A.S.G.-R. – 2023 UT App 126

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

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

A PERSON UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

G.R.,

Appellant,

v.

STATE OF UTAH AND E.G.,

Appellees.

Opinion No. 20220645-CA

Filed October 19, 2023

Fourth District Juvenile Court, Provo Department

The Honorable D. Scott Davis

No. 1196726

Alexandra Mareschal and Julie J. Nelson,

Attorneys for Appellant

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

Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee State of Utah

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

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

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

concurred.

HARRIS, Judge:

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

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

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

BACKGROUND[1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

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

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

ANALYSIS

I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II

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

A

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

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

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

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

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

1

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

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

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

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

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

2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

¶64 Affirmed.

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

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

In re H.M. – 2023 UT App 122

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

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

PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

G.B.,

Appellant,

v.

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20220774-CA

Filed October 13, 2023

First District Juvenile Court, Logan Department

The Honorable Kirk M. Morgan

No. 1187751

Julie J. Nelson and Alexandra Mareschal,

Attorneys for Appellant

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

Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee State of Utah

Jonathan P. Thomas, Attorney for Father

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

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

TENNEY, Judge:

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

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

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

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

BACKGROUND

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

Allegations of Abuse from 2015 Through 2020[1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Protective Supervision Services Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mother’s Allegations Against Father Resume

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Termination Proceedings

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

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

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

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

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

Trial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Termination Decision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

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

¶63      This court applies “differing standards of review to findings of fact, conclusions of law, and determinations of mixed questions of law and fact.” In re E.R., 2021 UT 36, ¶ 14, 496 P.3d 58. “A best interest determination involves neither a pure finding of fact nor an abstract conclusion of law. This is a mixed determination of law and fact—in which the abstract law is applied to a given set of facts.” Id. ¶ 17. “The juvenile court’s decision can be overturned only if it either failed to consider all of the facts or considered all of the facts and its decision was nonetheless against the clear weight of the evidence.” Id. ¶ 31 (quotation simplified).[2]

ANALYSIS

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

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

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

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

  1. Present-Tense Best Interest of the Children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

¶85      But again, a “juvenile court’s decision can be overturned only if it either failed to consider all of the facts or considered all of the facts and its decision was nonetheless against the clear weight of the evidence.” In re E.R., 2021 UT 36, ¶ 31, 496 P.3d 58 (quotation simplified). Here:

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

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

  1. Supervised Visitation

¶87      A court may only terminate a parent’s rights if it finds that termination is in the child’s best interest and that “termination of parental rights, from the child’s point of view, is strictly necessary.” Utah Code § 80-4-301(1). “The strictly necessary language is designed to ensure that the court pause long enough to thoughtfully consider the range of available options that could promote the child’s welfare and best interest.” In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 69. “If the child can be equally protected and benefited by an option other than termination, termination is not strictly necessary” and “the court cannot order the parent’s rights terminated.” Id. ¶ 66. Moreover, when a juvenile court is presented with a readily apparent non-termination option, the court must “state, on the record, its reasons for rejecting feasible alternatives.” In re K.Y., 2022 UT App 149, ¶ 43 (quotation simplified). This “leaves no room for implicit rejection.” Id. (quotation simplified).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III. Mother’s Additional Arguments

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

  1. Adoption

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

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

  1. “Piling On”

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

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

  1. Mandatory Reporting

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

In re D.S. – 2023 UT App 98

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

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

PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

S.S.,

Appellant,

v.

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20220956-CA

Filed August 31, 2023

Third District Juvenile Court, Salt Lake Department

The Honorable Annette Jan

No. 1198250

Sheleigh A. Harding, Attorney for Appellant

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

John M. Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

JUDGE RYAN M. HARRIS authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES DAVID N. MORTENSEN and AMY J. OLIVER concurred.

HARRIS, Judge:

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

BACKGROUND

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

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

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

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

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

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

¶8                      Grandmother testified that the Children were doing well

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶15      Father appeals the juvenile court’s termination order, and challenges the court’s conclusion that termination of his parental rights was strictly necessary to further the Children’s best interest. “We review a lower court’s best interest determination deferentially, and we will overturn it only if it either failed to consider all of the facts or considered all of the facts and its decision was nonetheless against the clear weight of the evidence.” In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 30, 518 P.3d 993 (quotation simplified), cert. granted, 525 P.3d 1279 (Utah 2023). But “we do not afford a high degree of deference to such determinations; rather, we simply apply the same level of deference given to all lower court findings of fact and fact-like determinations of mixed questions.” Id. (quotation simplified). Moreover, because the “evidentiary standard applicable in termination of parental rights cases” is “the clear and convincing evidence standard,” we will “assess whether the juvenile court’s determination that the clear and convincing standard had been met goes against the clear weight of the evidence.” Id. (quotation simplified); see also In re G.D., 2021 UT 19, ¶ 37, 491 P.3d 867 (“Whether the juvenile court correctly concluded there was no feasible alternative to terminating . . . [the father’s] parental rights is a mixed question of fact and law,” and “we review the juvenile court’s findings of fact for clear error and its conclusions of law for correctness, affording the court some discretion in applying the law to the facts.” (quotation simplified)).

ANALYSIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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John v. John – 2023 UT App 103

John v. John – 2023 UT App 103

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

LUCAS ALLEN JOHN,

Appellee,

v.

CASSANDRA KATHLEEN JOHN,

Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20210506-CA

Filed September 14, 2023

Third District Court, Salt Lake Department

The Honorable Su Chon

Commission Joanna Sagers

No. 164904953

Benjamin K. Lusty, Attorney for Appellant Mary Deiss Brown, Attorney for Appellee

JUDGE JOHN D. LUTHY authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and RYAN D. TENNEY concurred.

LUTHY, Judge:

¶1        In Lucas Allen and Cassandra Kathleen John’s divorce decree, the district court gave Lucas[1] sole legal and physical custody of the parties’ daughter, Child. The decree gave Cassandra once-a-week virtual parent-time and in-person parent-time as often “as the parties agree, or as recommended by the reunification therapist.” The court ordered that Cassandra’s virtual parent-time “not be . . . monitored” but that her in-person parent-time be “subject to line-of-sight supervision.” The court then outlined a “reunification” plan, with the goal of Cassandra’s eventual transition to unsupervised parent-time with Child.

¶2        Cassandra contends that the district court erred by ordering supervised in-person parent-time without making the statutorily required finding of “evidence that [Child] would be subject to physical or emotional harm or child abuse . . . from [Cassandra] if left unsupervised with [her].” Utah Code § 30-3-34.5(1).[2] Cassandra also forwards multiple arguments in support of the assertion that the court erred by failing to provide, as required by statute, “specific goals and expectations” for her to meet “before unsupervised parent-time may be granted.” Id. § 30-3-34.5(5). We conclude that the district court made an adequate finding of evidence that Child would be subject to physical or emotional harm from Cassandra if left unsupervised with her, and we conclude that each of Cassandra’s arguments regarding specific goals and expectations is either mistaken or unpreserved. We therefore affirm.

BACKGROUND

¶3        Lucas and Cassandra married in March 2014. Child was born in September of that year. Cassandra had “engaged in drug use over the years,” and “even though [Cassandra] was a stay-at-home mom,” Lucas “hired a baby-sitter to take care of [Child] . . . because of [Cassandra’s] drug use” and because “he feared for [Child’s] safety.”

¶4        Soon after Child was born, Cassandra became pregnant with the parties’ second child. When the second child was born, the baby “had substances in her system,” “indicat[ing] that [Cassandra had been] engaging in activities that were potentially harmful to the . . . child.” This child died shortly after her birth.[3]

¶5        The parties separated around May 2016, and Cassandra moved in with her boyfriend later that year. In August 2016, Lucas petitioned for divorce. The next month, he moved for temporary orders to grant him sole legal and physical custody of Child. He also requested that Cassandra’s visitation time with Child be supervised and that Cassandra be ordered to submit to drug testing.

¶6        Around this time, Lucas and Cassandra were together “at a local restaurant” when Cassandra “took [Child], put her in the front seat of [a] truck without any car seat or any appropriate child restraints and then drove off,” hitting Lucas with the truck in the process. A temporary protective order was entered against Cassandra because she had attempted to run Lucas over with her truck and abscond with Child. A hearing on the protective order was held in October 2016, at which the commissioner recommended dismissal of the protective order,[4] entry of a mutual restraining order, and the granting to Cassandra of “unsupervised parent time . . . with no overnights.”

¶7        On December 8, 2016, a hearing was held on Lucas’s Motion for Temporary Orders. Following the hearing, the court entered mutual restraining and no-contact orders against the parties, awarded Lucas temporary sole legal and physical custody of Child, and directed Cassandra to “submit to a hair follicle [drug] test before 5:00 p.m.” that day. The court gave Cassandra parent-time “with . . . no overnights” and provisionally ordered that it be “facilitated” by a particular family friend. The court further instructed that if Cassandra’s drug test came back positive, Lucas’s attorney was to “call the court to schedule a telephone conference to determine the status moving forward.”

¶8        Cassandra’s hair follicle drug test came back positive for both cocaine and marijuana, and another hearing was held on December 20, 2016. Following that hearing, the court ordered that Cassandra’s parent-time be subject to line-of-sight supervision and that Cassandra complete another drug test by January 9, 2017.

¶9        On January 9, 2017, Cassandra submitted an “unofficial” drug test showing negative results for a collection taken that day. At a review hearing on January 30, 2017, however, the commissioner was “concern[ed]” because the results of the January 9 unofficial test were “drastically different” than the results of the test on December 8, 2016. The commissioner therefore directed Cassandra to complete another drug test that day. The commissioner also ordered “continue[d] . . . supervised parent time, status quo,” and set a review hearing for February 13, 2017.

¶10 Cassandra’s drug test on January 30, 2017, came back positive for marijuana, and following the February 13 review hearing, the court ordered “expanded supervised parent-time” with “no overnight visits.” It also ordered Cassandra to submit to a urinalysis by March 8, 2017, and it set another review hearing for March 13, 2017.

¶11 Cassandra took the required test before the March 13 review hearing, but she failed to submit the results. Her counsel (Counsel) nevertheless proffered at the hearing that the test had come back “positive for THC.” The court ordered that Cassandra’s parent-time remain subject to “direct line-of-sight” supervision “with no overnight visits.”

¶12 “At some point”—likely during April 2017—Cassandra “moved to Idaho for several months.” After a “stint in Louisiana,” she then moved to Iowa and lived there with a boyfriend. Once she had left Utah, Cassandra did not request any review hearings or make any attempt to exercise in-person parent-time with Child. As a result, she was “around [Child] physically on [only] three occasions” between January 2017 and June 2021.

¶13      Eventually, in March 2021, after compromise negotiations proved only minimally successful, the court held a bench trial on the parties’ outstanding issues. At the time of trial, Child was six years old.

¶14      Following trial, the court held a hearing to orally announce its rulings. To Cassandra’s credit, the court found that she was “trying to make some changes in her life,” including engaging in “therapy to resolve anger, trauma, and substance abuse” issues, and that she “appear[ed] to be improving.” But the court found that Cassandra still “lack[ed] . . . maturity in her decision-making processes,” “consider[ed] her own needs first and primary over [Child]’s,” and might not be “completely emotionally stable.” The court also found that Cassandra had engaged in “instances of violence” in the past (including the one that led to the temporary protective order noted above). And it found that Cassandra’s failures to “give[] first priority to [Child]’s welfare” were due to her “history with drug abuse.” Based on the foregoing findings, the court awarded Lucas sole legal and physical custody of Child.

¶15 The court then granted Cassandra supervised in-person parent-time at a frequency to be determined by a therapist and unsupervised virtual parent-time at least once per week. The court said that it thought there ought to be “some sort of ramping up” of supervised in-person visits and that a therapist should “come up with a schedule” for those visits after talking with Child, Cassandra, and Lucas to “see what’s appropriate.” The court further explained, “I expect that the therapist will come up with so many overnights so that [Cassandra] can practice with all of those things, and then once she’s completed the therapist’s plan, then I would say that the standard relocation statute would then become effective.” Counsel then asked whether “at that point”—i.e., when Cassandra had completed the therapist’s plan—“supervision would no longer be required.” The court responded, “I don’t know, Counsel,” “because there’s . . . some ongoing drug issues . . . and we don’t have any evidence . . . that she would have clean tests.”

¶16      Counsel then asked if the court was going to make findings as to whether Child “would be in danger if she were with [Cassandra unsupervised].” In response, the court said:

[G]iven that [Cassandra]’s not complied with the Court orders, it’s not clear to me whether or not she’s a danger to [Child] still. She hasn’t completed the drug tests, et cetera, so given her noncompliance with the Court’s prior temporary orders, she potentially could still be a danger; but given also that she hasn’t been around [Child] physically except for three times, I just think that’s problematic.[5]

¶17      Counsel then said, “So . . . [a]fter two things occur, if I understand correctly, then [Cassandra]’s parent time will be according to [section] 30-3-37 and unsupervised.” He listed “one, the completion of the ramp up period as recommended by the therapist; and two, . . . submitting to the Court a clean drug test.” He asked, “Is that accurate?” The court responded that it could not “say that [Cassandra]’s going to go immediately to unsupervised [visitation] after the ramp up” because the court might “need some more information at that point.”

¶18 Counsel then informed the court, “My understanding, your Honor, is that the Court needs to provide specific criteria that [Cassandra] needs to meet . . . in order to have supervision dismissed.” The court replied, “I . . . don’t know what the therapist is going to say, Counsel. So I think it’s a little bit speculative. . . . What I’m going to have to see is what the therapist recommends, and then I can give you some further instructions at that point.” It added, “But yes, we do need her to have clean drug tests . . . .” Then the court, Counsel, and Lucas’s attorney discussed what the drug test requirements would be.

¶19      Counsel later asked, “Your Honor, what would be the time line and/or process for setting up what sounds like is a . . . review hearing on how we are going to . . . establish the criteria for having supervision lifted?” The court asked Lucas’s attorney if she “want[ed] to respond,” saying, “[Counsel] wants criteria on how to remove supervision.” Lucas’s attorney explained that she did not think there was “enough information . . . to anticipate . . . the factors that [the court was] going to have to consider” and that it seemed reasonable to “notice up a hearing after [the parties got] a lot of these things going[] and have enough information to go ahead.” But the court indicated that it was “not going to notice up a hearing at [that] point.” It directed the parties to “get the therapist on board first, and . . . to do that within three weeks,” then to get “the drug test filed.” The court said, “[A]fter I’ve reviewed these things[,] . . . I’d like to make sure that Cassandra is complying with everything, and that she’s able to do what she needs to do.” It further stated, “So I would like to do that as quickly as possible, [Counsel], but I don’t know how long of a period it’s going to take because it will also depend on whether or not your client is able to do everything that’s required. I hope that she does.”

¶20      Counsel then, again, stated his interpretation of the process the court was explaining:

[I]t sounds like . . . you’re saying that there’s a two-step process. That we won’t be able to arrive at the criteria for . . . when supervision will be lifted until [Cassandra] has complied with everything the therapist has said and filed clean drug tests. Then we can come back to have a hearing to determine what the criteria are for supervision to be lifted; is that accurate?

¶21 At that point, the court turned to Lucas’s attorney and asked whether she “[had] any objection” to the process Counsel had just summarized or whether she thought that supervision “should be lifted” as soon as Cassandra “completes the criteria” the court had already identified. She said that she thought “there might be concerns” even after Cassandra completes reunification therapy, although she did not “know what they would be.” The court then said, “Let’s just get through the therapy portion, and then I want to see what the reports are. . . . It could be likely that if she’s successful with all of th[e] things [the therapist recommends] that the Court will lift supervision at that time.”

¶22      Counsel once again spoke, seeking “to clarify” certain matters by asking, “[I]f after [Cassandra] has met with the therapist and complied with the therapist, the therapist recommends that supervision be lifted, . . . then would the Court accept that recommendation . . . or do we still need to meet to determine criteria for if and how supervision would be lifted?” The court replied that it “[did not] know the answer to that yet,” saying, “[B]ut let’s go through that, and if the therapist recommends it, if we need to have a discussion with the therapist present, then we might need to do that, okay? Because I might . . . have some questions.”

¶23      Counsel then asked the court to order that the therapist be an Association for Family and Conciliation Courts therapist, and the court agreed. Then the court said, “If there’s no other questions, I do need to get to my next hearing.” Counsel initially replied that he had “[n]o other questions” but then said, “Last question, your Honor. . . . [I]s the review hearing going to be . . . before you or the Commissioner?” The court answered that the review hearing would be before the court.

¶24      The court concluded the hearing and memorialized its oral rulings into written Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law and a Decree of Divorce. Cassandra appeals.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶25      On appeal, Cassandra contends that the district court erred in two ways when it ordered supervised parent-time. First, she argues that the order of supervised parent-time was legally inappropriate under Utah Code section 30-3-34.5(1) because the court “did not find that Cassandra poses a present threat of harm” to Child. Second, she argues that the order of supervised parent-time was legally inappropriate under Utah Code section 30-3-34.5(5) because the court did not “provide specific goals and expectations for Cassandra to meet” in order to be granted unsupervised parent-time. “We generally will not disturb the district court’s parent-time determination absent a showing that the court has abused its discretion. However, we review the district court’s interpretation of a statute for correctness. Likewise, we review the legal adequacy of findings of fact for correctness as a question of law.” Lay v. Lay, 2018 UT App 137, ¶ 4, 427 P.3d 1221 (cleaned up).

ANALYSIS

  1. Adequacy of the District Court’s Findings in Support of
    Supervised Parent-Time

¶26      Cassandra argues that the district court erred in ordering supervised parent-time because it did not make the finding that the Utah Code mandates as a prerequisite to supervised parent-time. The pertinent portion of the relevant provision reads as follows:

When necessary to protect a child and no less restrictive means is reasonably available . . . , a court may order supervised parent-time if the court finds evidence that the child would be subject to physical or emotional harm or child abuse, as described in Sections 76-5-109, 76-5-109.2, 76-5-109.3, and 76-5­114, from the noncustodial parent if left unsupervised with the noncustodial parent.

Utah Code § 30-3-34.5(1).

¶27 As an initial matter, we agree with Cassandra’s assertion that this statute means that the court must find a current risk of harm to the child from unsupervised parent-time, “rather than merely [a] past or historic risk of harm.” (Emphasis added.) To require “evidence that the child would be subject to . . . harm or . . . abuse . . . if left unsupervised with the noncustodial parent,” id. (emphasis added), is to require evidence of harm or abuse during a potential situation that would occur, if at all, in the future.[6] Thus, before ordering supervised parent-time, a court must find that there is evidence that harm or abuse could occur in the future, not merely that harm or abuse, or a risk of harm or abuse, occurred or was present in the past.

¶28      That is not to say that the existence of harm, or a risk of harm, from a noncustodial parent in the past has no bearing on whether there is a risk of harm from that parent in the future. Evidence that harmful or potentially harmful circumstances from the past have recurred or have not substantially abated could certainly be probative of whether there is a risk of harm in the future.

¶29      Moreover, a court need not find that the child definitely would be subjected to harm or abuse if left unsupervised with the noncustodial parent. Rather, a court is required to find only “evidence that the child would be subject to . . . harm or . . . abuse” if left alone with the noncustodial parent. Id. (emphasis added). For this reason, we, like Cassandra, conclude that a finding of a presently existing threat or risk of harm or abuse is sufficient to support supervised parent-time under section 30-3-34.5(1).

¶30      However, we disagree with Cassandra that “the district court did not find that [she] presently poses a threat of harm to [Child] if she were [to be left] unsupervised with [Child].”

¶31      Cassandra’s argument here is a challenge to the adequacy of the district court’s findings, not to the sufficiency of the evidence.[7] When we assess the adequacy of findings, “we review the [trial court’s] written and oral findings of fact together to determine if they are [adequate] to support the trial court’s rulings.” Stonehocker v. Stonehocker, 2008 UT App 11, ¶ 17, 176 P.3d 476. See generally Utah R. Civ. P. 52(a)(1) (“The findings . . . may be stated in writing or orally following the close of the evidence.”). This is particularly true when “the written findings are incomplete, inadequate, or ambiguous.” Bill Nay & Sons Excavating v. Neeley Constr. Co., 677 P.2d 1120, 1121 (Utah 1984). In those instances, the written findings “may be elaborated [on] or interpreted (in respects not inconsistent therewith) by reference to the trial court’s . . . oral explanation of the decision.” Id. This is one of those instances.

¶32      Cassandra supports her argument that the court failed to make the requisite finding by pointing to only one statement from the district court’s written findings: “[I]t is not clear whether [Cassandra] is still a danger to [Child].” But the court orally supplied additional findings and reasoning. When asked if it was going to make findings as to whether “[Child] would be in danger if she were with [Cassandra],” the court replied, “[G]iven that [Cassandra has] not complied with the Court orders, it’s not clear to me whether or not she’s a danger to [Child] still. She hasn’t completed the drug tests, et cetera, so given her noncompliance with the Court’s prior temporary orders, she potentially could still be a danger . . . .” (Emphasis added.) The court then added that it also found it “problematic” that Cassandra “[had]n’t been around [Child] physically except for three times” during the preceding four-plus years. Because Counsel, in posing the question, employed the phrase “[Child] would be in danger if she were with [Cassandra]” to summarize the requirement of a current threat of harm or abuse, we take the court’s responsive statement that Cassandra “potentially could still be a danger” to Child to be a finding of a current threat of physical or emotional harm to Child if Child were to be left unsupervised with Cassandra.[8]

¶3        Our reading of the court’s answer to Counsel’s question is bolstered by the fact that it came on the heels of additional findings that Cassandra still “lack[ed] . . . maturity in her decision-making processes,” that Cassandra still “consider[ed] her own needs first and primary over [Child]’s,” that Cassandra still might not be “completely emotionally stable,” and that Cassandra’s failures to “give[] first priority to [Child]’s welfare” were linked to her “history with drug abuse.” When the court’s response to Counsel’s question is viewed in the context of these and other findings, its import is unmistakable: Cassandra has a history of drug abuse, which, without objection, merited supervised parent-time in the past; since supervised parent-time was instituted, Cassandra has failed to provide a negative drug test; six-year-old Child has been in Cassandra’s physical presence only three times over the course of four-plus years; and Cassandra remains immature, potentially emotionally unstable, and self-centered in relation to Child; accordingly, Cassandra “potentially could still be a danger” to Child in the present. This finding is adequate to support the court’s order of supervised parent-time.[9]

  1. The District Court’s Provision of Specific Goals and Expectations to Discontinue Supervised Parent-Time

¶34 When a court orders supervised parent-time, it must “provide specific goals and expectations for the noncustodial parent to accomplish before unsupervised parent-time may be granted.” Utah Code § 30-3-34.5(5). Cassandra’s initial brief on appeal states at least two, and perhaps three, independent arguments to support her assertion that the district court did not comply with section 30-3-34.5(5). We disagree with her first argument, and we conclude that her second possible argument and her third argument are unpreserved.

¶35      Cassandra’s first argument regarding the district court’s compliance with section 30-3-34.5(5) is that the court’s orders “are silent on the question of what conditions Cassandra must meet prior to [the] lifting of supervised parent time” and that, because of this purported silence, “the district court erred.” Cassandra is mistaken, however.

¶36      After Counsel informed the court of his understanding that the court “need[ed] to provide specific criteria that [Cassandra] needs to meet . . . in order to have supervision dismissed,” the court said that it “need[ed] her to have clean drug tests” and also directed the parties to “get [a] therapist on board . . . within three weeks.” Moreover, Cassandra acknowledges that the court ordered her to complete reunification therapy. The court repeated these requirements multiple times. Plainly, the court provided three specific goals or expectations for Cassandra to meet before unsupervised parent-time would be granted: (1) Cassandra needed to provide clean drug tests in connection with her supervised visitation; (2) Cassandra needed to work with Lucas to identify a therapist within three weeks; and (3) Cassandra needed to complete reunification therapy as determined by the therapist. Thus, Cassandra’s first argument fails.

¶37      Next, Cassandra asserts that the district court did not comply with Utah Code section 30-3-34.5(5) because the court did not say that “completion of reunification therapy . . . [was] a condition precedent to lifting supervised parent time.”[10] What Cassandra means by this assertion is not clear. If what she means is that completion of reunification therapy is not a condition the court expected her to meet before supervision would be lifted, this is merely a restatement of Cassandra’s first argument and Cassandra is simply mistaken, as we have explained. On the other hand, if what she means is that to comply with section 30-3-34.5(5), a court must identify at the time it orders supervised parent-time comprehensive list of the things the parent must do to receive a guarantee that supervision will be lifted, she did not preserve this potential issue for our review.

¶38      “In order to preserve an issue for appeal,” the appellant must have “presented [it] to the trial court in such a way that the trial court ha[d] an opportunity to rule on that issue.” 438 Main St. v. Easy Heat, Inc., 2004 UT 72, ¶ 51, 99 P.3d 801 (cleaned up). “For a trial court to be afforded an opportunity to correct [an asserted] error (1) the issue must be raised in a timely fashion, (2) the issue must be specifically raised, and (3) the challenging party must introduce supporting evidence or relevant legal authority.” Id. (cleaned up). As to the second of these requirements, “an objection must at least be raised to a level of consciousness such that the trial court can consider it.” State v. Cruz, 2005 UT 45, ¶ 33, 122 P.3d 543 (cleaned up).

¶39      Here, Counsel indicated to the district court that his “understanding” was “that the Court needs to provide specific criteria that [Cassandra] needs to meet . . . in order to have supervision dismissed.” The court then identified or reiterated three specific criteria for Cassandra to meet, as we have explained. Counsel then repeated, over the course of a lengthy discussion, essentially the same question three times. First, he asked, “[W]hat would be the time line and/or process for setting up what sounds like is a . . . review hearing on how we are going to . . . establish the criteria for having supervision lifted?” The second time he described “a two-step process” in which the parties “won’t be able to arrive at the criteria for” lifting supervision “until [Cassandra] has complied with everything the therapist has said and filed clean drug tests” and they then “come back to have a hearing to determine what the criteria are for supervision to be lifted.” He asked the court, “[I]s that accurate?” Finally, “to clarify,” he asked a third time whether—“after [Cassandra] has met with the therapist and complied with the therapist”—if “the therapist recommends that supervision be lifted, . . . would the Court accept that recommendation . . . or do we still need to meet to determine criteria for if and how supervision would be lifted?” Each of these questions came after the court had iterated or reiterated specific initial expectations for Cassandra to meet to have supervision lifted. In that context, each of Counsel’s foregoing questions can be fairly understood as an attempt to clarify when or whether additional expectations would be set, not as an objection to the fact that the court had not identified a comprehensive set of expectations at the outset.

¶40      Indeed, after the second of the foregoing questions from Counsel, the court turned to Lucas’s attorney and asked if she objected to the process Counsel had just summarized. This clearly indicates that the court did not understand Counsel’s question to be an objection but rather an attempt at clarification. Thereafter, Counsel emphasized the notion that he was attempting to gain clarity rather than objecting when he explicitly prefaced the third of his questions by stating that he was seeking “to clarify.” Then, after the court reiterated for the third time its initial expectation— for Cassandra to “go through” therapy—it said, “If there’s no other questions, I do need to get to my next hearing.” Cassandra’s counsel responded not by objecting but by saying: “Last question, your Honor. . . . [Ills the review hearing going to be . . . before you or the Commissioner?”

¶41      Given the foregoing, we conclude that even if Counsel was trying to raise an objection to the fact that the district court had not provided a comprehensive set of expectations for Cassandra to meet in order to have supervision of her parent-time lifted, he did not raise that objection to a level of consciousness in the mind of the court such that the court could consider it. Accordingly, this potential issue was not preserved for our review. See Cruz, 2005 UT 45, ¶ 33; State v. Olsen, 860 P.2d 332, 336 (Utah 1993) (“A party who fails to make a clear and timely objection waives the right to raise the issue at the appellate level.” (cleaned up)).

¶42 Finally, Cassandra argues that the expectation that she complete reunification therapy as determined by a therapist before she is allowed unsupervised parent-time violates section 30-3-34.5(5) because that section “does not allow the district court to delegate the [setting of conditions for the lifting of supervision] to a therapist.” Again, she did not raise this issue below. Because it is unpreserved, we do not address it. See True v. Utah Dep’t of Transp., 2018 UT App 86, ¶ 32, 427 P.3d 338 (stating that “an argument based upon an entirely distinct legal theory is a new claim or issue and must be separately preserved” (cleaned up)).

CONCLUSION

¶43 The district court made an adequate finding that Cassandra posed a present risk of harm to Child if Child were to be left unsupervised with her. Additionally, Cassandra’s first argument in support of a conclusion that the district court failed to comply with Utah Code section 30-3-34.5(5) by not providing specific goals and expectations for Cassandra to meet before being granted unsupervised parent-time is mistaken, and her other arguments in support of that conclusion were unpreserved. We therefore affirm.

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

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Blake v. Smith – 2023 UT App 78 – child custody, child support

Blake v. Smith – 2023 UT App 78

2023 UT App 78

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

DEJUAN BLAKE,

Appellee,

v.

JILLYN SMITH,

Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20210779-CA

Filed July 20, 2023

Third District Court, Salt Lake Department

The Honorable Su Chon

No. 184900112

Julie J. Nelson, Attorney for Appellant

DeJuan Blake, Appellee Pro Se

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

concurred.

CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, Judge:

 

¶1        Jillyn Smith appeals the district court’s order regarding custody and child support for her minor son (Child). Because we determine the court abused its discretion by awarding Smith sole physical and legal custody while requiring joint decision-making between Smith and Child’s father, DeJuan Blake, we vacate that part of the court’s custody award. Furthermore, because we conclude the court made a mathematical error in calculating the amount of child support, and that a further examination of the evidence of Blake’s income is warranted, we reverse the court’s child support award and remand for recalculation as appropriate.

BACKGROUND

¶2        Smith met Blake in 2007 in Las Vegas, Nevada, and the two entered into a relationship. As a result of the relationship, Smith became pregnant with Child in 2009. At the time Smith learned about the pregnancy, she was no longer living in Las Vegas—she had moved to Utah to escape her relationship with Blake.

¶3        After a tumultuous pregnancy, during which Blake continuously asked Smith to have an abortion, Child was born in Utah in October 2009. Blake traveled to Utah to visit Child twice during the first year of Child’s life, with each visit lasting “maybe an hour or two.” The sporadic visits continued over the next few years, with Child and Smith traveling with Blake on short trips together. Although Smith asked Blake for financial support during this time, Blake did not provide support and instead always offered an “excuse.” Eventually, the communications between the couple became too toxic and Smith elected to “take a break from communication” with Blake.

¶4        Thereafter, Smith decided to “give [Blake] a second chance.” Blake and Child had “maybe a few” “infrequent[]” telephone conversations a year, but the conversations were short due to Child’s speech impediment. Blake was not involved in Child’s schooling or scheduling, he never attended Child’s doctor’s appointments, and he “wouldn’t follow through” or offer any explanation as to why he could not help Smith with financial support for Child’s medical care or educational needs.

¶5        Blake traveled to Utah in 2015 to attend Child’s birthday party. Toward the end of the party, Blake and Smith had a verbal altercation regarding Blake’s failure to honor their agreement for Blake to pay Smith child support. Following this visit, Blake returned to Utah once in 2016 to attend Child’s baseball game. That visit also ended in a verbal altercation.

¶6        In January 2018, Blake petitioned the district court for paternity and custody of Child. At the time, Child was eight years old and living with Smith.

¶7        After initiating custody proceedings, Blake filed a series of three financial declarations with the district court. Blake is self-employed and owns a company managing professional and aspiring boxers. Blake’s stated gross income, monthly expenses, and debt listed on each of the three financial declarations differed significantly. In the first declaration, Blake claimed $0 in gross monthly income, $1,875 in monthly expenses, and a debt of $7,240. In the second, Blake claimed $2,000 in gross monthly income, $17,797 in monthly expenses, and no debt. And in the third, Blake claimed $1,686 in gross monthly income, $3,947 in monthly expenses, and no debt. The bank statements filed with each disclosure were incomplete; however, the bank statements that were submitted showed that between August 2017 and January 2019, Blake made deposits into his personal account totaling $456,669.98, and that during that same time, he made withdrawals totaling nearly $50,000 for investments in cryptocurrency, payments to his mother, payments to the mother of one of his other children, and luxury clothing.

¶8        The case proceeded to a bench trial in October 2020. At trial, Smith detailed the relationship between Child and Blake. She explained that Blake had never been actively involved in Child’s life and that Blake had not seen Child at all since May 2016. Smith testified that she and Blake had reached an “original agreement” for child support where Blake would pay her $1,000 per month. She further testified that this agreement did not start until 2015—when Child was already six years old—and that the payments had lasted for only one month. In total, Smith estimated that Blake had contributed $1,600 in support payments “over the entirety of [Child’s] life.”

¶9        Following trial, the district court adjudicated Blake as Child’s father, awarded Smith sole physical and legal custody of Child, and awarded Blake standard relocation parent-time pursuant to Utah Code section 30-3-37, which is approximately 17% of the year. In reaching its legal custody determination, the court analyzed the statutory factors outlined in Utah Code sections 30-3-10 and 30-3-10.2 and concluded that the presumption favoring joint legal custody had been rebutted and that joint legal custody was not in Child’s best interest. However, the court ordered a joint decision-making arrangement between the parties, requiring that the parties “discuss with each other decisions that should be made regarding [Child].” The arrangement further provides, “If there is a dispute, the parties should attend mediation and each pay half of the mediation fees. If the dispute remains, then [Smith] will have final say. [Blake] can . . . bring the matter to court if he is unsatisfied with the decision.”

¶10      Regarding child support, the district court primarily calculated Blake’s past child support payments based on his 2018 tax record, where he claimed $45,050 in gross receipts and $34,483 in deductions. After reviewing the evidence, the court concluded that several of the deductions—totaling $27,530—were unsupported and accordingly struck those deductions. Based on this, the court found that Blake’s “annual income should be $23,790” through March 2020. However, given the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the court concluded that “Blake’s income has come to a halt,” and it accordingly found it “appropriate . . . to impute minimum wage income of $1,257/month from March 2020 forward.”

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶11      Smith now appeals the district court’s order regarding custody and child support, raising two issues for our review. First, Smith argues the court abused its discretion when it “issued an internally inconsistent [custody] award” giving Smith “sole legal and physical custody but also order[ing] joint decision-making” between her and Blake. “We review custody determinations under an abuse of discretion standard, giving the district court broad discretion to make custody awards.” K.P.S. v. E.J.P., 2018 UT App 5, ¶ 24, 414 P.3d 933 (quotation simplified). “But this broad discretion must be guided by the governing law adopted by the Utah Legislature. And on matters of statutory interpretation, we review for correctness.” Dahl v. Dahl, 2015 UT 79, ¶ 155, 459 P.3d 276 (quotation simplified). And “[w]here the court’s findings are internally inconsistent on a material point, reversal and remand are appropriate.” Vandermeide v. Young, 2013 UT App 31, ¶ 21, 296 P.3d 787, cert. denied, 308 P.3d 536 (Utah 2013).[1]

¶12      Second, Smith argues the district court abused its discretion when it calculated Blake’s income for purposes of child support. “We review the district court’s decisions regarding child support . . . under the abuse of discretion standard.” Pankhurst v. Pankhurst, 2022 UT App 36, ¶ 13, 508 P.3d 612 (quotation simplified). Where the court’s findings contain mathematical error or conflict with the record, we will remand for recalculation. See Miner v. Miner, 2021 UT App 77, ¶¶ 57–60, 496 P.3d 242.

ANALYSIS
I. Custody

¶13      Smith first challenges the district court’s custody award, contending the court abused its discretion in crafting the award because it is “internally inconsistent.” According to Smith, the joint decision-making arrangement “undermines” her award of sole physical and legal custody because it “allows [Blake] to force mediation and litigation whenever he disagrees with a decision made by [Smith], even though she has sole legal and physical custody.” We agree.

¶14      As an initial matter, the Utah Code does not define “sole physical custody” or “sole legal custody.” But in Hansen v. Hansen, 2012 UT 9, 270 P.3d 531, our supreme court provided guidance as to the meaning of those terms. In Hansen, the father and the mother were awarded joint custody of their daughter following their divorce. Id. ¶ 2. The mother was awarded sole physical custody and the father was ordered to pay child support to the mother. Id. Sometime later, the daughter entered a private youth homeless shelter, where she lived through her eighteenth birthday. Id. While the daughter was living at the shelter, the father filed a petition with the district court seeking to redirect his child support payments from the mother to the homeless shelter. Id. ¶¶ 2–3. The court denied the motion, which denial was ultimately upheld by the Utah Supreme Court. Id. ¶¶ 4–5, 30.

¶15      The supreme court’s decision centered on the meaning of custody. Although the daughter had been residing at the shelter, the court determined that the daughter’s physical custody had not changed; rather, the mother still retained physical custody. Id. ¶¶ 15–19, 28. The court explained,

Family law treatises consistently define custody as a bundle of constituent rights and obligations to a child’s possession, care, and control, and explain that the essence of custody is control over all aspects of the child’s life coupled with responsibility for the child’s welfare. Standard dictionary definitions of custody are to the same effect.

Custody is often divided into two subsets: legal and physical custody. Both encompass a duty of control and supervision. While legal custody carries the power and duty to make the most significant decisions about a child’s life and welfare, physical custody involves the right, obligation, and authority to make necessary day-to-day decisions concerning the child’s welfare. Although the latter is limited to the right to control the child’s daily activities, it still involves a right of control. This grant of authority is necessary so that the custodian can control and discipline the child or make emergency medical or surgical decisions for the child.

Id. ¶¶ 16–17 (quotation simplified). Put differently, “the legal duty of control or supervision [is] the essential hallmark of custody.” Id. ¶ 18 (quotation simplified). Legal custody encompasses the ability to make major decisions in a child’s life, while physical custody encompasses the ability to make day-to-day decisions in a child’s life.

¶16      Although the Utah Code does not define sole physical or legal custody, it does define “joint legal custody” and “joint physical custody.”[2] Under the current statutory scheme, a parent may be awarded “joint legal custody,” which is defined as “the sharing of the rights, privileges, duties, and powers of a parent by both parents.” Utah Code § 30-3-10.1(2)(a) (emphasis added). As this court has long recognized, the purpose of joint legal custody is to allow “both parents [to] share the authority and responsibility to make basic decisions regarding their child’s welfare.” See Thronson v. Thronson, 810 P.2d 428, 429–30 (Utah Ct. App. 1991), cert. denied, 826 P.2d 651 (Utah 1991).

¶17      Taken together, it follows that an award of “sole” legal custody does not involve sharing the “rights, privileges, duties, and powers of a parent.” See Utah Code § 30-3-10.1(2)(a). Accordingly, when the district court awarded sole legal and physical custody to Smith, it also awarded her alone the “rights and obligations to [Child’s] possession, care, and control,” see Hansen, 2012 UT 9, ¶ 16 (quotation simplified), including the sole authority to “make the most significant decisions about [Child’s] life and welfare,” see id. ¶ 17 (quotation simplified), and the “authority to make necessary day-to-day decisions concerning [Child’s] welfare,” see id. (quotation simplified). It therefore was inconsistent to simultaneously order a joint decision-making arrangement.

¶18       Moreover, the joint decision-making arrangement is at odds with the district court’s own findings regarding Child’s best interest. “In making a custody determination, a [district] court’s primary focus is what custody arrangement would be in the best interest[] of the child.” Grindstaff v. Grindstaff, 2010 UT App 261, ¶ 4, 241 P.3d 365. Utah law presumes that joint legal custody is in a child’s best interest, but that presumption may be rebutted by showing “by a preponderance of the evidence that it is not in the best interest of the child.” Utah Code § 30-3-10(3)–(4). And under Utah law, there is “neither a preference nor a presumption for or against joint physical custody or sole physical custody.” Id. § 30­3-10(8).

¶19      “In determining whether the best interest of a child will be served by ordering joint legal custody or joint physical custody or both, the court shall consider” a number of statutory factors. See id. § 30-3-10.2(2). Here, the court analyzed the statutory factors and determined that awarding Smith sole legal and physical custody of Child was in Child’s best interest. In particular, the court found that there was “very little evidence provided that either parent could function appropriately with co-parenting skills,” that it was “unclear” whether the parties could work together to reach shared decisions in Child’s best interest, and that there was “very little evidence” the parties “actually discussed and made decisions together.” In light of these findings, it is unclear how the joint decision-making arrangement—which is not limited to major decisions but instead encompasses all decisions—could be properly viewed as advancing Child’s best interest. It does not follow from the evidence of the parties’ ongoing issues making decisions relating to Child that such an arrangement would lead to success in the future. Rather, precisely because of the court’s findings, it seems likely that such an arrangement would cause ongoing issues, result in costly mediation and additional court involvement, and be detrimental to Child’s best interest, which is exactly what Utah law seeks to avoid.

¶20      In sum, the district court abused its discretion when it awarded Smith sole physical and legal custody while also ordering a joint decision-making arrangement between Smith and Blake. Although Utah law does not prohibit a joint decision-making arrangement in cases involving an award of joint physical and legal custody, an examination of the underlying statutory scheme reveals that such an arrangement is not compatible with an award of sole physical and legal custody. Furthermore, these competing provisions belie the court’s own findings regarding Child’s best interest as relates to custody. As such, we vacate the portion of the court’s custody award ordering the joint decision-making arrangement.

II. Child Support

¶21      Smith next argues the district court erred in calculating child support. Specifically, Smith takes issue with the court’s calculation of Blake’s income for purposes of child support, contending the court’s calculation (1) contains a mathematical error and (2) is inconsistent with the evidence in the record. We agree.

¶22      The Utah Child Support Act outlines the process by which a district court must evaluate the income of a parent when calculating child support. See generally Utah Code § 78B-12-202. To begin, the court must consider the “gross income” of a parent, which the Utah Code defines broadly as including

prospective income from any source, including earned and nonearned income sources which may include salaries, wages, commissions, royalties, bonuses, rents, gifts from anyone, prizes, dividends, severance pay, pensions, interest, trust income, alimony from previous marriages, annuities, capital gains, Social Security benefits, workers’ compensation benefits, unemployment compensation, income replacement disability insurance benefits, and payments from “nonmeans-tested” government programs.

Id. § 78B-12-203(1). And when a parent is self-employed—as is the case with Blake—the statute directs how gross income should be handled. It provides that “[g]ross income from self-employment or operation of a business shall be calculated by subtracting necessary expenses required for self-employment or business operation from gross receipts. . . . Gross income . . . may differ from the amount of business income determined for tax purposes.” Id. § 78B-12-203(4).

¶23      The district court determined that Blake’s income had been impacted as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and accordingly evaluated his income for purposes of child support based on what he had earned pre-pandemic and what he was earning during the pandemic. On the record before us, we see two errors in the court’s calculations. First, the court made a discrete mathematical error in calculating Blake’s pre-pandemic income. Second, and more broadly, the court did not consider all the evidence of Blake’s finances when calculating Blake’s income, both pre-pandemic and at the time of trial.

¶24      First, the district court calculated Blake’s past child support payments using his 2018 tax record. On that record, Blake claimed $45,050 in gross receipts. From that, Blake deducted $34,483 as follows: $5,270 for “materials and supplies,” $3,605 for “advertising,” $360 for “legal and professional services,” $500 for “office expense,” $21,760 for “other business property,” and $2,988 for “utilities.” After viewing the evidence, the court found that Blake had failed to adequately explain why he should be entitled to deductions for “materials and supplies” ($5,270), “other business property” ($21,760), or “office expense” ($500), and it accordingly struck those deductions, totaling $27,530. As a result, the court should have concluded that Blake’s income was $38,097, or $3,175 per month rounded. But it did not. Instead, it concluded that Blake’s income was $23,790, or $1,983 per month. This value is mathematically incorrect.

¶25      Second, notwithstanding the mathematical error in the court’s calculation of Blake’s income, the value imputed by the court is inconsistent with the evidence in the record. Utah law is clear that “in contested cases,” a judge is entitled to impute income to a parent so long as the judge “enters findings of fact as to the evidentiary basis for the imputation.” See id. § 78B-12­203(8)(a). “The purpose of such imputation is to prevent parents from reducing their child support or alimony by purposeful unemployment or underemployment.” Connell v. Connell, 2010 UT App 139, ¶ 16, 233 P.3d 836 (quotation simplified). Accordingly, when imputing income, “the income shall be based upon employment potential and probable earnings considering,” among other things, “employment opportunities,” “work history,” and “occupation qualifications.” Utah Code § 78B-12­203(8)(b).

¶26      As explained above, the court calculated Blake’s income at $1,983 per month up until the time that the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020. And at trial, which was held in October 2020, the court concluded that due to the pandemic, “Blake’s income has come to a halt” and therefore determined it was “appropriate . . . to impute minimum wage income of $1,257/month from March 2020 forward.” But the financial documents submitted by Blake do not support the low amount of income the court chose to impute.

¶27      Blake’s bank records—which were all filed with the court—show that Blake made deposits into his personal account totaling $456,669.98 between August 2017 and January 2019. These deposits included a check for $200,000, which Blake testified “was for my services that was rendered” in connection with a high-publicity boxing match. And in addition to the deposits, Blake’s bank records show significant withdrawals. For example, the records indicate that Blake had regularly invested in cryptocurrency, had transferred over $15,000 to his mother, had transferred over $9,000 to the mother of one of his other children,[3] and had spent over $10,000 on luxury clothing.

¶28      Despite the evidence of Blake’s spending, Blake did not demonstrate how he was funding his lifestyle, and he claimed only one debt of $7,240 in the first of his three financial disclosures. In light of the foregoing, the district court’s determination that Blake was making no money and therefore should be imputed minimum wage is not supported by the evidence. Rather, the evidence suggests that Blake was less than forthcoming with the court as to the actual amount of his income. As such, on remand the court should reevaluate evidence of Blake’s finances, his earning capacity, and whether he is voluntarily underemployed and should make a further determination as to whether greater income should be imputed to him.[4] In so doing, the court should take special care to ensure that the final award is void of mathematical error.

CONCLUSION

¶29      The district court abused its discretion when it awarded Smith sole physical and legal custody of Child while also ordering a joint decision-making arrangement with Blake. We therefore vacate the court’s custody ruling as it relates to the joint decision-making arrangement. The court also abused its discretion when calculating child support. The current award contains a mathematical error and is not supported by record evidence. Accordingly, we reverse the court’s award of child support and remand with instructions that the court reexamine the evidence to determine whether greater income should be imputed to Blake.

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


[1] Blake did not file a brief or otherwise appear in this appeal. Although “an appellee’s failure to file a brief does not amount to an automatic default and consequent reversal of the lower court,” our supreme court has recently recognized that such failure does impact the “typical burden of persuasion on appeal.” See AL-IN Partners, LLC v. LifeVantage Corp., 2021 UT 42, ¶ 19, 496 P.3d 76 (quotation simplified). Because an appellee’s failure to raise any argument leaves the appellant’s claims “unrebutted,” see Broderick v. Apartment Mgmt. Consultants, LLC, 2012 UT 17, ¶¶ 18–21, 279 P.3d 391, “when an appellee fails to present us with any argument, an appellant need only establish a prima facie showing of a plausible basis for reversal,” AL-IN Partners, 2021 UT 42, ¶ 19 (quotation simplified). We question whether the standard articulated in AL-IN Partners should apply the same way in cases such as this where the standard of review on appeal is deferential to the discretionary decisions of the district court. But because this issue was not briefed and our decision on both arguments presented ultimately involves the conclusion that the district court did abuse its discretion and committed other errors, we need not decide the issue today. However, we note the question does warrant additional consideration in a case where it is squarely before the court.

[2] In relevant part, the statute defines “joint physical custody” as when “the child stays with each parent overnight for more than 30% of the year.” Utah Code § 30-3-10.1(3)(a). This particular provision is not applicable here because Blake was awarded standard relocation parent-time which falls below the 30% threshold. See id. § 30-3-37. Nevertheless, Utah law is clear that “[e]ach parent may make decisions regarding the day-to-day care and control of the child while the child is residing with that parent.” Id. § 30-3-10.9(6). Thus, by statute Smith has sole decision-making authority over day-to-day decisions when Child is in her care. Likewise, Blake has decision-making authority over day-to-day decisions when Child is in his care.

[3] This amount does not include child support payments awarded to the mother, which were $1,000 per month. Those support payments were made directly to Nevada’s State Collection and Disbursement Unit.

[4] Smith filed a post-trial motion pursuant to rule 59(e) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure seeking to amend, among other things, the court’s child support award. The district court issued a Memorandum Decision and Order denying the motion. In analyzing the child support issue, the court stated that “[g]ifts are not generally considered income.” This is legally incorrect. As explained above, the Utah Code explicitly defines “gross income” as including “gifts from anyone.” See Utah Code § 78B-12-203(1). To the extent Blake was gifted items, the court must include the value of those gifts when calculating his income.

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THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS STATE OF UTAH, Appellee, v. CODY BLAIR MURRAY, Appellant. Opinion

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellee,

v.

CODY BLAIR MURRAY,

Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20200890-CA

Filed May 18, 2023

Second District Court, Ogden Department

The Honorable Joseph M. Bean

No. 191902454

Emily Adams, Freyja Johnson, and Cherise Bacalski,

Attorneys for Appellant

Sean D. Reyes and William M. Hains,

Attorneys for Appellee

JUDGE RYAN D. TENNEY authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN

FORSTER concurred.

TENNEY, Judge:

¶1        After Cody Murray pleaded guilty to violating a protective order, the district court ordered him to pay the victim’s moving expenses and 12 weeks of lost wages as restitution. Murray now appeals that restitution order, arguing that his criminal conduct did not proximately cause either of those losses. On the moving expenses, we agree with Murray and reverse that portion of the order. On the lost wages, however, we conclude that there was sufficient evidence to link Murray’s criminal conduct to the claimed loss. We accordingly affirm that portion of the order.

BACKGROUND

¶2        Murray married C.M. in March 2018, and they lived together throughout their short marriage. On January 2 or 3, 2019, C.M. filed a report with law enforcement alleging that Murray had engaged in sexual intercourse with her without her consent while she was medicated and sleeping. On the same day that she filed this report, C.M. obtained a temporary protective order against Murray based on this same allegation.

¶3        On January 3, 2019, law enforcement served Murray with the protective order at the residence he shared with C.M., and Murray complied with the order by packing his belongings and leaving the residence. Within an hour of leaving, however, Murray asked a friend to contact C.M. on his behalf. As subsequently alleged in a probable cause affidavit, C.M. soon received “phone calls and text messages” from the friend’s phone in which the friend relayed messages that Murray “loved her” and “missed her.” As also alleged, while the friend was on the phone speaking to C.M., Murray “passed a paper note” to the friend asking him “to let C.M. know that [Murray] was scared.” C.M. reported these communications to law enforcement as a violation of the protective order.

¶4        The State later filed two cases against Murray. The two cases were filed separately and were not consolidated. In the first case, the State charged Murray with one count of rape. That charge was based on C.M.’s allegation that Murray had sexual intercourse with her without her consent while she was sleeping. That case was later dismissed.

¶5        In the second case, which is the case at issue in this appeal, the State charged Murray with one count of violating a protective order. See Utah Code § 76-5-108 (2018). This charge was based on Murray’s indirect communications with C.M. on January 3, 2019. In March 2020, Murray pleaded guilty to the charged offense. As a result of a plea deal, the charge was reduced from a class A misdemeanor to a class B misdemeanor. In his affidavit in support of the plea, Murray admitted that “[o]n or about January 3, 2019,” he “knowingly and intentionally communicate[d] with C.M. through a mutual friend . . . through phone calls and text messages.” Murray also agreed that he “may be ordered to make restitution to any victims of [his] crimes.”

¶6        Murray agreed to be sentenced at that same hearing. During the sentencing portion of the hearing, C.M.’s attorney asked the court to leave open C.M.’s restitution claim for the “one year statutory time limit,” informing the court that she would “submit any restitution” after receiving further documentation. The court left C.M.’s restitution claim open as requested.

¶7        In July 2020, the Utah Office of Victims of Crime (UOVC) filed a motion for restitution, asserting that it had paid C.M. a total of $6,264.47.[1] Of that amount, $5,520.28 was designated as reimbursement for “[l]oss of wages” and $744.19 was designated as reimbursement for “[r]elocation.”

¶8        Murray objected to UOVC’s motion for restitution and requested a hearing. At that hearing, UOVC’s attorney called two witnesses: (1) a representative from UOVC (Representative) and (2) C.M.

¶9        Representative testified that UOVC received C.M.’s application for restitution in November 2019. Representative testified that C.M. listed both the protective order violation and the alleged rape as the bases for her restitution claim. Representative further noted that in reviewing C.M.’s restitution claim, “the reparations officer indicated that the claim was approved based on both incidents”—the alleged rape and the protective order violation—because “they were so close together” that “the reparations officer couldn’t separate them into two separate claims.”

¶10      Representative testified that UOVC ultimately approved and paid C.M.’s expenses for “loss of wages” in the amount of $5,520.28, as well as “relocation” or moving expenses in the amount of $744.19, thus totaling $6,264.47. With respect to the lost wages claim, Representative testified that UOVC received a document from C.M.’s employer that explained “how much [C.M.] made at the time and how long she was out of work.” Representative said that UOVC also received a “health provider statement” that corroborated that C.M. missed work. Representative further said that from these documents and other verification efforts with C.M.’s employer, UOVC determined that C.M. missed “over 68 days” of work, and that it had then paid “12 weeks of lost wages” for the work C.M. missed from “January 3rd of 2019 through March 15th of 2020” at “[s]ixty-six percent of the full-time salary,” which in C.M.’s case amounted to $5,520.28.

¶11      With respect to the moving expenses, Representative testified that UOVC paid C.M. $744.19 to cover “reimbursement for movers.” Representative said that C.M. told UOVC that she had moved because “she didn’t feel comfortable in having [Murray] know where she lived.”

¶12      UOVC’s attorney then called C.M., who testified that she obtained the protective order against Murray because of the “actions he was making to [her] in [her] sleep.” C.M. also provided and referred to a note from a doctor indicating that C.M. had been seen because “[f]or the duration of her marriage her husband was sexually assaulting her in her sleep,” “[s]he was experiencing UTIs on many occasions from the sexual abuse,” and she had “[m]ajor depressive disorder” and “post-traumatic stress disorder.”

¶13      During C.M.’s testimony, UOVC’s attorney asked, “[A]s a result of the violation of the protective order, can you tell us what effect the violation of the protective order, the conduct that the defendant caused—what happened to you as a result?” C.M. responded that she suffered “severe panic attacks” and flashbacks, “live[d] in fear nearly every day,” felt a “[l]oss of trust of people in general,” and had “a hard time concentrating or focusing.” She said she had “severe depression” and was simply not “able to function like [she had] always been able to.”

¶14      UOVC’s attorney then asked if Murray’s conduct “in December or January of 2018, ’19 . . . interfere[d] with [her] ability to interact with people,” to which C.M. responded, “Definitely.” C.M. testified that because these issues “interfere[d] with [her] ability to work,” there were times where she had to take leave from work. She testified that the “very first time” she “took leave was for a doctor’s appointment . . . back in December of 2018” and that she was out of work periodically after that, thus agreeing with the suggestion from the attorney that she missed work “every few days, a couple hours here, a few hours there, a full day here, a few days there” until March 2020, when she was “out of work altogether and couldn’t work at all.” UOVC’s attorney asked if C.M.’s requests to take leave from work starting in “December of 2018” were “related to [Murray’s] conduct . . . that was occurring at that time,” and C.M. responded, “It was.”

¶15      With respect to the moving expenses, C.M. testified that she moved from the home she’d shared with Murray because the divorce decree ordered her to sell it. C.M. said that she moved in May 2020—17 months after Murray violated the protective order—and that her restitution request was based on the movers she had hired to assist with that move.

¶16      Murray didn’t call any witnesses at the restitution hearing. Instead, after UOVC’s attorney rested, each side presented closing arguments. UOVC’s attorney asked the court to order restitution for lost wages because C.M. had to take leave from work “[a]s a result of [Murray’s] conduct . . . because she wasn’t able to fully perform the job.” UOVC’s attorney asked for restitution for moving expenses because “it was [Murray’s] conduct which caused” C.M. to move and she “had reason to hide her whereabouts from” Murray out of fear.

¶17     Murray, however, argued that under the restitution statute, “restitution has to be tied directly” to the offense for which he’d been convicted—which, here, was a class B misdemeanor violation of a protective order. In Murray’s view, restitution for the lost wages was not appropriate because C.M. “missing all of [that] work . . . [could not] be tied” to his violation of the protective order (as opposed to the underlying rape allegation that the protective order was based on). Murray also argued that the moving expenses could not be tied to this conviction because C.M.’s decision to move was based on an order from the divorce decree requiring C.M. and Murray to sell the house.

¶18      At the close of arguments, the court ordered restitution in the amount of $6,264.47 to cover lost wages and moving expenses. In its oral ruling, the court noted that Murray was “alleged to have committed sexual offenses against [C.M.] in her sleep” in the latter part of 2018. The court said that it would “take the testimony of the witness at face value with regard to what she felt was a violation that caused the fear,” and the court then found that Murray’s “past history” of “sexual[ly] assaulting” C.M. “in her sleep” caused her “fear” and “anxiety.” With respect to C.M.’s missed work, the court found that “whatever happened, certainly enhanced or contributed to [C.M.’s] anxiety, depression, [and] fear,” and that “after the circumstances giving rise to whatever happened in December, there was a definite downturn with regard to [C.M.’s] ability . . . to work.” And with respect to the moving expenses, the court found that the “moving expenses [were] also reasonable and arising out of the crime that occurred.”

¶19      Murray objected to the court’s ruling. Murray argued that the court could “only tie restitution to what [Murray] was convicted of or pled guilty to, which would be the violation of the protective order,” and he further argued that the court should not “consider any of the alleged sexual misconduct” in its determination of restitution. In response, the court referred to the document submitted by C.M. in her restitution application, noting that “for the duration of the marriage, [Murray] was sexually assaulting [C.M.] in her sleep” and that she “was experiencing UTIs on many occasions from the sexual abuse.” The court observed that C.M. suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress as a result. Of note, the court then wondered whether these conditions were “exacerbated . . . or caused by a violation of a protective order,” “especially the loss of work after his commission of the violation of the protective order.” (Emphasis added.)

¶20      In a subsequent written restitution order, the court ordered Murray to pay UOVC a total of $6,264.47 for lost wages and moving expenses. In its Findings of Fact, the court found that C.M. “suffered emotional trauma as a result of [Murray’s] conduct in this case” and that her “fear, anxiety, and depression . . . rendered [her] unable to perform her duties and required her to miss work.” The court found that the trauma C.M. suffered “also caused her to relocate because she feared [Murray] and didn’t want him to know where she lived.” Murray filed a timely notice of appeal from that judgment.[2]

ISSUE AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶21      Murray argues that the district court improperly ordered restitution for C.M.’s lost wages and moving expenses. “We will not disturb a district court’s restitution determination unless the court exceeds the authority prescribed by law or abuses its discretion.” State v. Calata, 2022 UT App 127, ¶ 12, 521 P.3d 920 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 525 P.3d 1268 (Utah 2023). “To the extent that the district court made legal determinations in connection with its restitution analysis, we review those legal determinations for correctness.” State v. Oliver, 2018 UT App 101, ¶ 15, 427 P.3d 495 (quotation simplified). But when “a defendant argues that the evidence was insufficient to support a restitution order, the defendant must demonstrate that the clear weight of the evidence contradicts the court’s ruling.” State v. Chadwick, 2021 UT App 40, ¶ 6, 486 P.3d 90 (quotation simplified).

ANALYSIS

¶22      The Crime Victims Restitution Act (the CVRA) requires the district court “to determine restitution for any pecuniary damages proximately caused by the defendant’s criminal conduct.” State v. Blake, 2022 UT App 104, ¶ 9, 517 P.3d 414. Here, Murray challenges the court’s decision ordering him to pay C.M.’s moving expenses and her lost wages. In Murray’s view, his criminal conduct did not proximately cause either loss.

¶23      We first quickly dispense with the moving expenses issue. Murray argues that “[n]o evidence tied C.M.’s move from the marital home” to his criminal conduct, but that “the evidence on the record was that C.M. had to move because of the divorce decree.” Based on this, Murray argues that there was no basis for requiring him to pay these expenses as part of restitution. In its responsive brief, the State concedes this point. Having reviewed the record, we conclude that Murray’s argument and the State’s concession are well taken. We accordingly reverse that portion of the restitution order.

¶24      The remaining and principal issue on appeal, then, is whether the court also erred in ordering Murray to pay C.M.’s lost wages. On this, Murray argues that the court erred in two key respects: (I) by taking into account the alleged rape and (II) by then determining that Murray’s criminal conduct proximately caused C.M. to miss work. We address each argument in turn.

I. Alleged Rape

¶25      Murray argues that the district court improperly based the restitution order for lost wages on C.M.’s rape allegation, rather than limiting itself to considering the sole offense to which he had pleaded guilty: violating a protective order. We see no legal error in the court’s decision.

¶26      As a general rule, we “apply the law in effect at the time of the occurrence regulated by that law.” State v. Wilkerson, 2020 UT App 160, ¶ 24, 478 P.3d 1048 (quotation simplified). The version of the restitution statute in effect at the time of Murray’s sentencing provided that

[w]hen a defendant enters into a plea disposition or is convicted of criminal activity that has resulted in pecuniary damages, . . . the court shall order that the defendant make restitution to victims of crime as provided in this chapter, or for conduct for which the defendant has agreed to make restitution as part of a plea disposition.

Utah Code § 77-38a-302(1) (2019); see also id. § 77-38a-302(5)(a) (2019) (“For the purpose of determining restitution for an offense, the offense shall include any criminal conduct admitted by the defendant to the sentencing court or for which the defendant agrees to pay restitution.”).[3] Under these statutes, Murray therefore could not “be ordered to pay restitution for criminal activities for which he did not admit responsibility, was not convicted, or did not agree to pay restitution.” State v. Randall, 2019 UT App 120, ¶ 13, 447 P.3d 1232 (quotation simplified)

¶27      It’s true that Murray was not convicted of raping C.M. As noted, the separate criminal case that was based on the rape allegation was dismissed. It’s also true that Murray did not admit to raping C.M. in this case either. But contrary to Murray’s arguments, this doesn’t mean that his alleged sexual misconduct against C.M. could play no role in the court’s restitution analysis.

¶28      Again, Murray pleaded guilty to violating a protective order, and the elements of that offense were that Murray was “subject to a protective order” and “intentionally or knowingly violate[d] that order after having been properly served or having been present . . . when the order was issued.” Utah Code § 76-5­108(1) (2018). In his plea agreement, Murray acknowledged these elements and agreed that he had “committed the crime.” In the factual basis portion of the plea agreement, Murray further agreed that he had “knowingly and intentionally communicate[d] with C.M. through a mutual friend . . . through phone calls and text messages.” Pulling this together, the criminal activity for which Murray was convicted (by way of plea) included these key pieces:

·        Murray was subject to a protective order;

·         Murray intentionally or knowingly violated the protective order; and

·         Murray did so by knowingly and intentionally communicating with C.M. through a mutual friend through phone calls and text messages.

¶29      Once Murray was convicted of this offense, the district court could then order restitution for any damages that were “proximately caused” by that offense. State v. Ogden, 2018 UT 8, ¶¶ 31–48, 416 P.3d 1132.[4] Our supreme court has explained that restitution is intended “to compensate the victim for pecuniary damages,” as well as “to rehabilitate and deter the defendant, and others, from future illegal behavior.” State v. Laycock, 2009 UT 53, ¶ 18, 214 P.3d 104. Because the question before a restitution court is what damages were proximately caused by the offense, the court isn’t confined to just the narrow elements of the offense of conviction. Rather, while the “restitution statute requires that responsibility for the criminal conduct be firmly established, much like a guilty plea, before the court can order restitution,” “it is only the initial crime for which liability must be legally certain.” State v. Hight, 2008 UT App 118, ¶¶ 3, 5, 182 P.3d 922 (quotation simplified). Once guilt for the offense has been firmly established, the court then has “broad discretion, after reviewing the evidence presented at the restitution hearing,” to “order restitution for any pecuniary damages clearly resulting from” that offense. Id. ¶ 5 (quotation simplified). In other words, once the defendant is convicted of “criminal conduct,” the defendant can “be held responsible for all damages proximately caused by that conduct.” State v. Huffman, 2021 UT App 125, ¶ 9, 501 P.3d 564 (emphasis in original), cert. denied, 509 P.3d 198 (Utah 2022).

¶30      Our decision in Huffman is illustrative. Therethe defendant pleaded guilty to possessing drugs. Id. ¶ 7. Although the offense of drug possession doesn’t include, as an element, the destruction of property, we held that it was appropriate for the court to order restitution for damage that was done to the victim’s motorhome. This was so because evidence before the court established that the defendant’s possession of drugs inside the motorhome proximately caused those damages. Id. ¶¶ 12–14.

¶31      A similar dynamic is in play here. Again, Murray pleaded guilty to violating a protective order. In doing so, he acknowledged both the existence of the protective order and that he had violated its terms. Once these things were firmly established through the guilty plea, the court then had broad discretion to order restitution for any damage that was proximately caused by Murray’s criminal conduct.

¶32      When making that proximate cause determination, the court had at least some latitude to consider the conduct that had led to the protective order, and this is largely so because of the nature of the offense. After all, Murray wasn’t convicted of a crime because he contacted a stranger with whom he had no prior history. Rather, Murray was convicted of intentionally or knowingly contacting a person who had obtained a protective order against him. In this key sense, it was the protective order that made Murray’s communications criminal.

¶33      A protective order acts as a “mechanism” for giving victims a measure of “protection against their abusers.” State v. Hardy, 2002 UT App 244, ¶ 17, 54 P.3d 645; see also State v. Baize, 2019 UT App 202, ¶ 20 n.5, 456 P.3d 770. One of the principal ways that a protective order does this is by creating a legal barrier between the victim and the abuser. If a person who is subject to a protective order subsequently breaches that barrier, a court couldn’t realistically be expected to decide whether the victim was traumatized by the violative act by considering that act as if it had occurred in a vacuum. Given that the victim had previously obtained judicial protection from the person, the nature of the alleged prior conduct would very likely have some bearing on the interconnected questions of whether and why the illegal contact had proximately caused any trauma or harm to the victim (not to mention how much damage the victim had actually suffered).

¶34      In short, because Murray pleaded guilty to violating a protective order, the district court could consider the fact that C.M. had obtained a protective order against him as part of its restitution analysis. And from there, it then had discretion to consider the conduct that led to the issuance of the protective order, at least to the extent that such conduct could inform its decision about whether Murray’s actions proximately caused any harm to C.M.

II. Proximate Cause

¶35      Murray next argues that the evidence before the district court was insufficient to show that his criminal conduct proximately caused C.M. to miss 12 weeks of work. We disagree.

¶36      The “proximate cause standard requires a showing that the crime, in a natural and continuous sequence, unbroken by any new cause, produced the injury and that the injury would not have occurred absent the crime.” Blake, 2022 UT App 104, ¶ 9 (quotation simplified). The “burden is on the State to prove proximate cause,” State v. Morrison, 2019 UT App 51, ¶ 13, 440 P.3d 942, and this “requires proof of two elements: (1) but-for causation and (2) foreseeable harm,” State v. Watson, 2021 UT App 37, ¶ 15, 485 P.3d 946.

¶37      Proximate cause is generally a “fact question[] to be resolved by the fact finder.” State v. Barzee, 2007 UT 95, ¶ 81, 177 P.3d 48; see also Mackay v. 7-Eleven Sales Corp., 2000 UT 15, ¶ 7, 995 P.2d 1233 (noting that proximate cause is a fact question). Because of this, we review a district court’s finding of proximate cause for clear error. State v. Grant, 2021 UT App 104, ¶¶ 24, 35, 499 P.3d 176, cert. denied, 505 P.3d 56 (Utah 2022). Thus, when “a defendant argues that the evidence was insufficient to support a restitution order, the defendant must demonstrate that the clear weight of the evidence contradicts the court’s ruling.” State v. Chadwick, 2021 UT App 40, ¶ 6, 486 P.3d 90 (quotation simplified).

¶38      Here, we see no clear error in the court’s finding that Murray’s violation of the protective order proximately caused C.M. to miss 12 weeks of work.

¶39      At the restitution hearing, C.M. testified that she obtained the protective order because of “actions [Murray] was making to [her] in [her] sleep” that began “at the end of December of 2018.” She further agreed that this “conduct” was “the reason for the ongoing protective order.” Of note, C.M. then testified that, “as a result of the violation of the protective order,” she has “severe panic attacks,” “severe depression,” and flashbacks; that she “live[s] in fear nearly every day”; that she has a “[l]oss of trust in people” generally; that she has a “hard time concentrating or focusing”; and that she was unable “to function like [she has] always been able to.” (Emphasis added.) When C.M. was then asked whether “the problems” that she was having “interfere[d] with [her] ability to work,” she responded, “Definitely.” While she said that the “very first time” she “took leave was for a doctor’s appointment . . . back in December of 2018” (which would have predated Murray’s violation of the protective order), C.M. also agreed that she missed work “every few days, a couple hours here, a few hours there, a full day here, a few days there” until March 2020, when she was “out of work altogether and couldn’t work at all.” The district court determined that C.M.’s testimony was credible, and on appeal, we give deference to that credibility determination. See State v. Miles, 2020 UT App 120, ¶ 34, 472 P.3d 978 (noting that “because of the district court’s advantaged position in observing the witnesses firsthand, we defer to its credibility findings” (quotation simplified)); State v. Taylor, 2017 UT App 89, ¶ 10, 402 P.3d 790 (noting that “we accord deference to the trial court’s ability and opportunity to evaluate credibility and demeanor” (quotation simplified)).

¶40      As also noted, UOVC introduced evidence showing that C.M. missed “over 68 days” of work, and UOVC’s Representative testified that UOVC paid for 12 weeks of work that she missed “span[ning] from January 3rd of 2019 through March 15th of 2020” because that missed work was “related to the incident in this particular case, which is the violation of a protective order.” When coupled with C.M.’s testimony about the effects of the protective order violation itself on her psyche and her ability to function, this provided an evidentiary basis for the court to find that Murray’s criminal conduct proximately caused C.M. to miss this work.

¶41      Murray nevertheless pushes back on several fronts, none of which are availing.

¶42      First, Murray points to testimony showing that C.M. was traumatized by the alleged rape (as opposed to the protective order violation), as well as testimony establishing that C.M. began missing work even before the unlawful communication. Both things are, on this record, unquestionably true. But even if the alleged rape caused psychological trauma to C.M. on its own, and even if that trauma caused her to miss work (either before or even after January 3, 2019), this doesn’t mean that Murray’s violation of the protective order couldn’t proximately cause her to miss work too.

¶43      Again, if there was sufficient evidence to establish that C.M.’s losses were proximately caused by the communication, then those losses were compensable. The fact that the losses may have been linked to some other causal source does not change this. In civil cases, it has long been recognized that there can be multiple causes for an injury or a trauma. See, e.g.McCorvey v. Utah State Dep’t of Transp., 868 P.2d 41, 45 (Utah 1993) (confirming “there can be more than one proximate cause” of “an injury”); Steffensen v. Smith’s Mgmt. Corp., 820 P.2d 482, 486 (Utah Ct. App. 1991) (“There can be more than one proximate cause of an injury so long as each is a concurrent contributing factor in causing the injury.” (quotation simplified)). And this is true in a criminal case too. See, e.g.State v. Gonzales, 2002 UT App 256, ¶ 21, 56 P.3d 969 (“A defendant’s acts may be found to be the proximate cause of the victim’s death even if the victim actually died as a result of the combination of the defendant’s acts plus some other contributing factor.” (quotation simplified)).[5]

¶44      Here, we agree with Murray that C.M.’s trauma and associated anxiety from the violation of the protective order was likely linked in some measure to the alleged rape. As discussed above, however, the alleged rape was the very reason that C.M. had previously obtained a protective order against Murray. And as also discussed, C.M.’s testimony at the restitution hearing supported the conclusion that when Murray contacted her in violation of that order, this both exacerbated her prior trauma and caused additional trauma too, thereby further interfering with her ability to work. Given this sworn and court-credited testimony, we cannot conclude that it was against the clear weight of the evidence for the court to conclude that, even accounting for the trauma associated with the alleged rape, the violation of the protective order itself proximately caused C.M. to miss work.

¶45      Second, Murray argues that it could not have been “reasonably foreseeable that C.M. would miss 12 weeks of work” because he sent her “a single indirect text message.” As an initial matter, it’s unclear from the record if this case really does involve just a single text message. For “the purpose of determining restitution for an offense, the offense shall include any criminal conduct admitted by the defendant to the sentencing court or for which the defendant agrees to pay restitution.” Utah Code § 77-38a-302(5)(a) (2019). Here, the probable cause affidavit alleged that C.M. had “received phone calls and text messages” from Murray through their mutual friend. And in his plea affidavit, Murray agreed under oath that he “knowingly and intentionally communicate[d] with C.M. through a mutual friend . . . through phone calls and text messages.” On this record, the court could therefore assess the restitution question in light of Murray’s admission that there had been multiple communications.

¶46      In any event, whether viewed as multiple communications or even just a single communication, this argument still fails because the effect of the communication(s) can’t meaningfully be divorced from the surrounding context. Again, Murray wasn’t convicted of sending a message to a stranger with whom he had no prior history. Rather, Murray was convicted because he knowingly or intentionally communicated with C.M. in violation of a protective order. By communicating with C.M. despite the existence of an order from a judge that prohibited him from contacting her, Murray undermined the sense of distance and security that the protective order was intended to give her. Because of this context and history, we disagree with Murray’s assertion that it could not have been reasonably foreseeable that C.M. would be traumatized and miss work as a result.

¶47      Finally, Murray argues that the restitution order was at odds with our decision in State v. Bickley, 2002 UT App 342, 60 P.3d 582. We disagree. In Bickley, the defendant was charged with criminal nonsupport, and the “Amended Information listed the nonpayment period from February 1, 1997 to January 10, 2000.” Id. ¶ 3. After the defendant pleaded guilty to this offense, however, the district court awarded restitution for arrears that occurred prior to 1997. Id. ¶¶ 3–4. We reversed that decision on appeal, concluding that the court could not impose restitution for pre-1997 arrears “without making inferences.” Id. ¶ 12 (quotation simplified). Because of this, we held that it was not “firmly established” that the defendant was in fact responsible for the pre-1997 arrears. Id.

¶48      Bickley is readily distinguishable. The arrears at issue in Bickley plainly fell outside the conviction (which, again, was specifically limited to arrears that occurred from February 1997 on). As discussed above, however, the offense at issue here was the violation of a protective order, and that protective order was by definition linked to some prior conduct. Thus, unlike Bickley, it’s not at all clear that this restitution order was based on damages that fell outside of the offense at issue. In addition, there’s no suggestion that the district court in Bickley based its restitution award for the pre-1997 arrears on any evidence or testimony. Id. ¶¶ 2–4, 12. This is why we faulted the court for “making inferences” and imposing restitution for arrears that were not “firmly established.” Id. ¶ 12 (quotation simplified). But again, this was not the case here, where the restitution order was based on sworn testimony from the hearing itself.

¶49      In short, we can overturn the court’s proximate cause determination only if Murray has established “that the clear weight of the evidence contradicts the court’s ruling.” Chadwick, 2021 UT App 40, ¶ 6 (quotation simplified). Having reviewed the record, we conclude that C.M.’s testimony about the effects of the protective order violation on her psyche and her ability to function, coupled with the evidence presented by UOVC about the days that she missed at work, was sufficient to support the court’s finding that Murray’s criminal conduct proximately caused C.M. to miss this work, thereby causing these damages. Because the court’s ruling was not against the clear weight of the evidence before it, we affirm that determination.

CONCLUSION

¶50      The district court erred when it required Murray to pay $744.19 in restitution for moving expenses. We accordingly vacate that portion of the court’s order. But the court did not err when it ordered restitution in the amount of $5,520.28 for lost wages. We accordingly affirm the restitution award of $5,520.28 for lost wages.

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

Click to access State%20v.%20Murray20230518_20200890_52.pdf

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[1] UOVC was represented by an attorney from the Utah Attorney General’s office who serves as “agency counsel” for UOVC.

[2] In between the court’s oral and written rulings, Murray filed a motion to reconsider. But after the written ruling was entered, Murray filed a timely notice of appeal. Despite the fact that this notice of appeal had been filed, and over an objection from UOVC, the district court subsequently held oral argument on Murray’s motion to reconsider, after which it denied the motion.

On appeal, both parties now agree that Murray’s notice of appeal divested the district court of jurisdiction to rule on the motion to reconsider. We agree with the parties. Because the motion to reconsider was filed before the written ruling, it was a prejudgment motion to reconsider the oral ruling. While the court was “free to consider” what was essentially a request for “reargument” at “any time before entering the final judgment,” Gillett v. Price, 2006 UT 24, ¶ 7 n.2, 135 P.3d 861, the court did not do so. Instead, it issued the written final judgment. When Murray then filed his notice of appeal after that final judgment had been entered, his notice of appeal “divest[ed] the district court of jurisdiction.” Garver v. Rosenberg, 2014 UT 42, ¶ 11, 347 P.3d 380. Of note, our supreme court has held that a prejudgment motion to reconsider does “not toll the time for appeal once a final judgment [is] entered.” Gillett, 2006 UT 24, ¶ 7 n.2. We likewise see no basis for holding that a prejudgment motion to reconsider would somehow undermine the finality of a written final judgment or allow the court to retain jurisdiction after a notice of appeal has been filed. As a result, we agree with the parties that the only ruling properly before us is the original restitution order.

 

[3] The legislature recently amended the CVRA. The most recent version of the statute provides that the “court shall order a defendant, as part of the sentence imposed,” to “pay restitution to all victims: (i) in accordance with the terms of any plea agreement in the case; or (ii) for the entire amount of pecuniary damages that are proximately caused to each victim by the criminal conduct of the defendant.” Utah Code § 77-38b-205(1)(a) (2023).

[4] The version of the statute that governed at the time of Murray’s sentencing did not expressly state that restitution could be awarded for damages “proximately caused” by the offense, see Utah Code § 77-38a-302(1) (2019), but our supreme court had interpreted that statute as containing such an allowance, see State v. Ogden, 2018 UT 8, ¶¶ 31–48, 416 P.3d 1132. The statute has since been amended to expressly incorporate the proximate cause standard. See Utah Code § 77-38b-205(1)(a)(ii) (2023).

[5] Something somewhat similar can be true outside the proximate cause context too. In State v. O’Bannon, 2012 UT App 71, ¶ 38, 274 P.3d 992, for example, we recognized “a basis under Utah law for holding a defendant culpable for causing death even when other factors contributed to the victim’s death.”

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In re K.R. – 2023 UT App 75 – termination of parental rights vs. guardianship

In re K.R. – 2023 UT App 75

 

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF K.R. AND R.B.,

PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

R.S.,

Appellant,

v.

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellee.

Per Curiam Opinion

No. 20230255-CA

Filed July 13, 2023

Third District Juvenile Court, Salt Lake Department

The Honorable Monica Diaz

No. 1207437

Kelton Reed and Lisa Lokken

Attorneys for Appellant

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

Verdoia, Attorneys for Appellee

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

Before JUDGES MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, DAVID N.

MORTENSEN, and AMY J. OLIVER.

PER CURIAM:

 

¶1        R.S. (Mother) appeals the juvenile court’s order terminating her parental rights with respect to K.R. (Brother) and R.B. (Sister) (collectively, the children). Mother alleges the juvenile court exceeded its discretion in determining that it was strictly necessary to terminate her rights rather than awarding permanent custody and guardianship to the children’s maternal grandmother (Grandmother). We affirm.

¶2        In January 2022, the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) received a report that Mother was using drugs and neglecting Sister, who was an infant at the time. Four-year-old Brother was already living with Grandmother, and DCFS soon placed Sister with Grandmother as well.

¶3        Following a disposition hearing, the Court set a primary goal of reunification and set up a child and family plan. Mother received an initial substance abuse and mental health assessment but made no progress toward receiving treatment. She took only five of ninety-six required drug tests and tested positive on all five.

¶4        Nevertheless, Mother continued to demonstrate an attachment to the children. She participated in visits with the children on a bi-weekly basis, although she did miss some visits and had not seen the children for several weeks prior to the termination trial. The visits were supervised by a DCFS caseworker (Caseworker), and the children had to travel six-and-a-half hours round trip to attend. On some occasions, Mother cancelled visits without notifying Grandmother, leading the children to make the trip unnecessarily. Brother became upset when Mother missed visits with him.

¶5        Early on, Caseworker observed Mother having “inappropriate conversations” with Brother regarding Grandmother, such as telling him that Grandmother was not properly caring for him. Caseworker would redirect Mother to more appropriate topics, and “with reminders, this behavior . . . stopped.” Mother engaged with the children during visits and planned activities for them to do together.

¶6      Grandmother and Mother used to have a good relationship, but it had deteriorated due to Mother’s drug use and the DCFS case. According to Grandmother, Brother’s behavior would “deregulate[] for a couple days” after visits with Mother and he would become belligerent toward Grandmother. Mother would send Grandmother insulting text messages, and she had trouble respecting boundaries Grandmother set. Both women indicated they would not be comfortable “co-parenting” with one another.

¶7        Following the termination trial, the juvenile court found several grounds for termination, which Mother does not challenge on appeal. The court then turned to the best interest analysis, including the question of whether termination of parental rights was strictly necessary.

¶8        The court considered whether awarding permanent guardianship to Grandmother was an alternative to termination that could “equally protect and benefit the children.” However, the court ultimately determined that termination was strictly necessary for the following reasons:

·         Mother and Grandmother “do not have a relationship” and are “unable to communicate regarding the children’s needs and wellbeing.” And while Grandmother attempts to set reasonable boundaries, Mother does not respect them. Mother herself acknowledged that “having her and [Grandmother] co-parent would not be healthy for the children.”

·         Mother had a history of making inappropriate comments regarding Grandmother to Brother during parent time. These comments led Brother to become belligerent toward Grandmother following visits. Although Mother had stopped making such comments at the direction of Caseworker, the court was concerned that she would “revert to making these comments, without the oversight of the Division.” The court found that pitting the children against their caregiver in this way was “unhealthy” for their “emotional development and wellbeing.”

·         Visits with Mother “are emotionally hard on the children.” Brother experiences behavioral problems after visits with Mother.

·        The children have to travel six-and-a-half hours round trip to visit Mother. Because Mother does not communicate with Grandmother, she does not let her know when she is unable to attend visits. This has led the children to “endure the travel time needlessly.” Additionally, it is emotionally hard on Brother when Mother misses visits. The long travel time, emotional harm due to missed visits, and Mother’s inability to communicate with Grandmother combine to undermine the children’s stability. “They need to know that their relationships are stable and that they can count on the adults in their lives. . . . [Mother] missing visits undermines and disregards the children’s psychological and emotional security.”

·        The children are happy and thriving in Grandmother’s care. She addresses their physical, mental, developmental, and emotional needs. The children are bonded to their extended family, which consists of Grandmother’s husband and other children living in Grandmother’s home. The children “need a permanent home,” and “[f]rom the children’s point of view, that home is [Grandmother’s] home.”

Based on these factors, the court found that termination of Mother’s parental rights was “strictly necessary from the children’s point of view.”

¶9        Mother challenges the juvenile court’s determination that termination of her rights was strictly necessary. “Whether a parent’s rights should be terminated presents a mixed question of law and fact.” In re B.W., 2022 UT App 131, ¶ 45, 521 P.3d 896 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 525 P.3d 1269 (Utah 2023). “We will overturn a termination decision only if the juvenile court either failed to consider all of the facts or considered all of the facts and its decision was nonetheless against the clear weight of the evidence.” Id. (quotation simplified).

¶10 Mother asserts (1) that the court did not appropriately weigh certain evidence and (2) that the court inappropriately focused on the needs of the adults rather than the children by basing its decision on Mother and Grandmother’s inability to “coparent” the children.

¶11      Before terminating a parent’s rights, the court must find that termination is “strictly necessary to promote the child’s best interest.” In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 60, 472 P.3d 827. And this analysis must be undertaken from the child’s point of view. See Utah Code § 80-4-301(1); In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 64. “Termination is strictly necessary only when, after exploring possible placements for the child, the juvenile court concludes that no other feasible options exist that could address the specific problems or issues facing the family, short of imposing the ultimate remedy of terminating the parent’s rights.” In re J.P., 2021 UT App 134, ¶ 15, 502 P.3d 1247 (quotation simplified). “If the child can be equally protected and benefited by an option other than termination, termination is not strictly necessary.” Id. (quotation simplified).

¶12      The strictly necessary analysis “is designed to ensure that the court pause long enough to thoughtfully consider the range of available options that could promote the child’s welfare and best interest.” In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 69. “[I]f a court has complied with its statutory obligations, its resultant best interest determination is entitled to deference.” In re B.W., 2022 UT App 131, ¶ 69. Thus, a parent’s mere dissatisfaction “with the manner in which the juvenile court weighed the evidence . . . has no traction on appeal.” In re J.P., 2021 UT App 134, ¶ 23.

¶13      Mother argues that the court’s finding that Brother was upset when she missed visits should weigh against a finding that termination was strictly necessary. She also asserts that the court should have given more weight to her recent history of stopping her inappropriate comments to Brother rather than inferring that she was likely to resume such comments in the future. These arguments ultimately take issue with “the manner in which the juvenile court weighed the evidence” rather than its compliance with its statutory mandate. See id. The court’s findings are entitled to deference, and we will not disturb them on appeal. See In re B.W., 2022 UT App 131, ¶ 69.

¶14      Mother next asserts that the court’s focus on her and Grandmother’s inability to “co-parent” the children was inappropriate and led it to consider the strictly necessary analysis from the adults’ perspective rather than the children’s perspective. See Utah Code § 80-4-301(1) (dictating that the strictly necessary analysis must be undertaken from the child’s point of view). Mother argues that a permanent custody and guardianship order does not result in “co-parenting” but rather involves “the Guardian call[ing] the shots” while “the parent has a handful of residual rights.” We take Mother’s point that co-parenting may not have been quite the right term to use in describing the relationship between a parent and a permanent guardian.[1] However, we are more concerned with the substance of the court’s analysis than the term it used. And that analysis indicates that the court’s true concern was whether it was in the children’s best interests to be pitted between a parent and guardian who could neither cooperate nor communicate with one another.

¶15      “[L]ong-term guardianship arrangements are typically only in a child’s best interest where the guardians and the parent have a working, relatively healthy relationship in which they are both willing to work together to preserve the parent-child relationship and where the child has a healthy relationship with both the guardian and the parent.” In re J.P., 2021 UT App 134, ¶ 22 (quotation simplified). Thus, when a parent and guardian have “little to no relationship,” the particular circumstances of the case may indicate that permanent custody and guardianship will not meet the children’s needs as well as termination of parental rights. See id. That is what the juvenile court found here, and such a finding was not an abuse of its discretion under the circumstances.

¶16      Furthermore, we are not convinced that the juvenile court inappropriately conducted the strictly necessary analysis from the adults’ point of view rather than that of the children. The court explicitly discussed the effect Mother and Grandmother’s inability to cooperate had on the children, finding that being put in the middle of the conflict was “unhealthy” for the children’s “emotional development and wellbeing” and undermined their stability, that the children suffered when Mother did not communicate with Grandmother about missing visits, and that Mother herself acknowledged that the conflict was “unhealthy” for the children. These findings indicate that the court considered the conflict between Mother and Grandmother from the children’s point of view in determining that the conflict made termination of Mother’s rights strictly necessary.

¶17      The juvenile court here carefully considered whether the children could be equally benefited and protected by a permanent custody and guardianship arrangement as opposed to termination of Mother’s parental rights. It also made detailed findings in support of its determination that termination was strictly necessary from the children’s point of view. Accordingly, the juvenile court’s decision to terminate Mother’s parental rights is affirmed.

 

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

[1] Nevertheless, as the guardian ad litem observes, it is not apparent from the record that Mother was “up to the tasks involved with residual parental rights,” given that she has not paid child support, has not respected the boundaries Grandmother has put in place, has not progressed past supervised visitation, and has disappointed the children by failing to communicate about missed visits.

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In re M.S. – 2023 UT App 74

In re M.S. – 2023 UT App 74

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF M.S., A PERSON UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

R.S. AND J.S.,

Appellants,

v.

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20210657-CA

Filed July 6, 2023

Fourth District Juvenile Court, Spanish Fork Department

The Honorable F. Richards Smith

No. 1186449

Emily Adams, Sara Pfrommer, Freyja Johnson, and

Hannah Leavitt-Howell, Attorneys for Appellants

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

John M. Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

JUDGE GREGORY K. ORME authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES DAVID N. MORTENSEN and RYAN D. TENNEY concurred.

ORME, Judge:

¶1 R.S. (Mother) and J.S. (Father) (collectively, Parents) appeal the juvenile court’s award of temporary custody of their infant son, M.S. (Child), to the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) following a shelter hearing and the court’s later finding that Child was neglected. We hold that Parents’ first argument is moot but conclude that their second argument satisfies the collateral consequences exception to mootness. And because the juvenile court did not make the necessary findings of fact and conduct the required analysis of whether Parents’ medical decisions for Child were “reasonable and informed,” we reverse the court’s neglect adjudication.

BACKGROUND[1]

¶2        Child was born on March 6, 2020, weighing 9.63 pounds. During her pregnancy, Mother had gestational diabetes—a condition which has been linked to increased birth weights. Therefore, while not off the charts, Child’s somewhat larger birth weight was likely caused by Mother’s gestational diabetes. Child was also born with elevated bilirubin levels and was prescribed photo light therapy for jaundice, which Parents administered for the next ten days. Hospital staff informed Mother that Child needed to be seen by a pediatrician three days following discharge from the hospital. Mother complied with the instruction and made an appointment to see a pediatrician (First Pediatrician) at a nearby clinic on March 9.

¶3        By the time of the appointment, Child had lost 12.5% of his birth weight, weighing in at 8.42 pounds. First Pediatrician found Child “to be in good health” overall, but he was concerned about Child’s elevated bilirubin levels and weight loss. Although weight loss is typically expected immediately after birth for infants whose mothers had gestational diabetes, First Pediatrician noted Child’s weight “to be more down than we usually would expect at that time.” First Pediatrician recommended a follow-up appointment “in the next day or two” to check on Child’s bilirubin levels and weight. No such follow-up appointment took place.

¶4        First Pediatrician saw Child again about two-and-a-half weeks later, on March 26. Father took Child to this appointment because Mother did not appreciate First Pediatrician’s “bedside manner” and she did not feel that he had been “very willing to listen to [her] concerns.” At this appointment, Child weighed in at 7.96 pounds, which according to First Pediatrician was a total weight loss of approximately 18% of Child’s original birth weight. First Pediatrician told Father that because Child had lost even more weight, he was concerned that Child was not getting sufficient nutrients from Mother’s breast milk—which was Child’s sole source of nourishment. First Pediatrician became even more concerned when he learned that Child had not had a bowel movement in three days. First Pediatrician explained that while exclusively breast-fed babies can sometimes “go a few days” without producing stool, this information combined with the weight loss caused him to further worry that Child’s nutritional needs were not being met.

¶5        First Pediatrician recommended that Mother pump so that they could quantify the amount of milk she was producing and that Child be given formula every few hours and be weighed each day so it could be determined whether “there was appropriate weight gain with a known specified amount of volume he was taking in.” Father expressed doubt whether this was something Mother would “go for” because they preferred to exclusively breast-feed Child, but he said he would discuss the recommendations with her. First Pediatrician wrote down his recommendations on a note for Father to give to Mother and said for her to contact him if she had any questions. He also tried to contact Mother both during and after the appointment but was unsuccessful.

¶6        First Pediatrician also emphasized the importance of a follow-up appointment the next day to check Child’s electrolyte levels and weight, which instruction he also included in his written note to Mother. At this point, First Pediatrician was “[v]ery concerned” about Child’s health and safety and noted in Child’s file, “If labs are not obtained and no visits happen, I will report to DCFS.”

¶7        Neither parent brought Child in for the labs and weight-check the following day. When First Pediatrician learned this, he called Mother to express his concerns. Mother stated that she was not aware of the missed appointment, that she was out of town, and that she would not be able to come in with Child that day. Mother informed First Pediatrician that she was feeding Child more often, but she was not giving him formula. She repeatedly thanked First Pediatrician for his recommendations and told him she would “take them under consideration.” At the end of the conversation, they both agreed that Mother should find another pediatrician for Child. Mother subsequently scheduled an appointment with another pediatrician for April 2 but did not relay this information to First Pediatrician. She also increased the frequency of Child’s breast-feedings to every two hours, and she immediately filled and began administering a medication for diaper rash First Pediatrician had prescribed during the March 26 appointment.

¶8        Following the phone conversation, First Pediatrician contacted DCFS and reported Parents’ apparent medical neglect and physical neglect of Child and Child’s failure to thrive. First Pediatrician later testified that even if he had known that Child had an appointment with another pediatrician set for April 2, his concerns would not have been eased. He explained that he had ordered labs on Child’s electrolyte levels because his “biggest concern” was that if Child became dehydrated, he would develop “elevated sodium levels in the blood . . . that could potentially cause a lot of health problems” such as lethargy, seizures, and neurological damage. First Pediatrician stated that “the problem with the elevated sodium is more of an urgent or emergent problem that could have been developing, and so it couldn’t have waited” until the April 2 appointment.

¶9        On March 30, a DCFS caseworker (Caseworker) followed up with First Pediatrician, who expressed his concern that Child was at risk of dehydration, which could lead to further health complications. Following the conversation, Caseworker had a difficult time locating and communicating with Parents. When Caseworker called one of the phone numbers provided to her, a man Caseworker believed to be Father answered. He was skeptical that Caseworker worked for DCFS, and the conversation proved unfruitful. After visiting multiple addresses on file for the family to no avail, Caseworker contacted law enforcement officers, who were able to locate Mother, Father, and Child in a motel by “pinging” their cellphone.

¶10      Caseworker arrived at the motel around 1:00 a.m. on April 1. Law enforcement was already at the motel and officers informed Caseworker that paramedics had already examined Child and had determined that Child was alert, breathing normally, had a strong heartbeat, and exhibited no obvious signs of dehydration. Because the examination revealed no concerns, the paramedics did not consider Child in need of further medical attention and returned him to Mother. The paramedics had left by the time Caseworker arrived, so she did not have an opportunity to speak with them.

¶11 The officers warned Caseworker that Father was very upset about her being there and that Father even instructed an officer to stand between him and Caseworker. During the hour-long conversation that ensued, Father refused to allow Caseworker to see Child and instead insisted that Child was “fine.” At one point, Father told Caseworker that he would allow her to see Child if she returned at 8:00 a.m. Caseworker was reluctant to do so because she was aware of a prior case in which Father had fled across state lines with two of his other children, and she worried that Child “would be gone” by 8:00 a.m. if she left. She also found it odd that she had located the family at a motel that was approximately 20 miles from their home.

¶12      Caseworker then requested a warrant for removal of Child. A judge approved the warrant, and Child was taken into DCFS custody in the wee hours of the morning. Caseworker then took Child to an emergency room. There, Child appeared to have gained a little weight, weighing in at 8.05 pounds, although Caseworker suggested the slight weight gain could have also been attributed to a wet diaper. According to the pediatrician (Second Pediatrician) who examined Child later that afternoon when he was brought in by the foster parents with whom Child had been placed, Child “was within the 11th percentile for weight, but his weight to length ratio was in the 3rd percentile,” which was troubling, especially given Child’s higher birth weight. Second Pediatrician stated that although Child was “generally well appearing,” he nonetheless “did appear dehydrated” and underweight. Child’s lab results revealed “abnormalities that were consistent with dehydration and possibly poor feeding,” including abnormal bilirubin levels and elevated liver enzymes (transaminases). Child’s initial lab results also “show[ed] evidence of hemolysis,” which is when the body destroys red blood cells quicker than it can produce them, so the hospital had the labs redone. The second round of labs revealed “normal potassium, but the transaminases still remained mildly elevated.” The lab report also included the following note: “I spoke with [the] pediatric hospitalist, and confirmed that these current findings are not worrisome in this current setting, and they recommended that the patient follow-up with [a] pediatrician in about a week for recheck.”

¶13      Second Pediatrician noted that Child needed to be closely monitored for kernicterus, which he explained “is when bilirubin levels get to a high enough point in the blood that they deposit into the brain, and can cause some brain damage, to use layman’s terms.” Second Pediatrician instructed Child’s foster parents to feed Child formula every “three to four hours” and to return in a couple of days.

¶14      At the follow-up appointment two days later, on April 3, Child had gained approximately 13 ounces,[2] weighing in at 8.88 pounds. At a second follow-up appointment three days later, on April 6, Child weighed 9.44 pounds, meaning he had gained approximately 9 more ounces. A week later, on April 13, Child weighed 10.08 pounds. Child continued to show weight gain in other subsequent exams. Based on this, Second Pediatrician testified that it was his “clinical impression” that Child had not been “receiving appropriate nutrition, and upon receiving appropriate nutrition [Child] returned to an expected weight.” He further explained that “inadequate nutrition can have devastating effects on someone so young” because “dehydration can lead to renal failure, and poor growth can affect development in all areas, physical and mental development.”

¶15 On April 1, the State petitioned for legal custody and guardianship of Child, alleging, in relevant part, neglect by Parents “in that [Child] lacks proper parental care by reason of the fault or habits of the parents.” See Utah Code Ann. § 80-1-102(58)(a)(ii) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022).[3] The petition alleged, among other things, the following:

  • Child “had lost 18% body weight since birth and was at significant risk for seizures and brain damage,” but Parents refused to follow medical advice and supplement Mother’s breast milk with formula.
  • Parents had provided First Pediatrician’s office with an incorrect address, but with assistance from law enforcement, DCFS eventually located them and Child in a motel approximately 20 miles from their home.
  • Paramedics examined Child and determined that he “was not in distress,” but because the paramedics left prior to Caseworker’s arrival at the motel, DCFS “was not able to get additional information regarding the failure to thrive medical concerns, particularly a weight measurement.”
  • Father refused to allow Caseworker to see Child, and he was “hostile” toward her, even going so far as instructing a police officer to stand between them “so that [he] did not harm” her.
  • Father had several aliases and had “a history of parental kidnapping.”[4]
  • At the emergency room, it was noted that Child had gained a little weight but also that he had a significant diaper rash.

¶16 The juvenile court held a shelter hearing on April 3, which at Parents’ request was then continued until April 8. Following the continued hearing, the court “found that, based upon the medical records relating to [Child], removal was appropriate.” Specifically, the court found that “[t]he medical records indicate that [Child] was underweight,” that Child’s “lab values continued to show that transaminases still remained mildly elevated, and that the bilirubin is also mildly elevated.” The court was also “concerned about the medical evidence of malnutrition presented by the State.”

¶17      A few weeks later, on April 30, Parents filed an Emergency Motion to Return Custody and Dismiss Petition, in which they argued, among other things, that it was common for infants born from mothers with gestational diabetes to lose more than 10% of their birth weight in their first week. They also emphasized the benefits of breast-feeding and asserted that Child had repeatedly been examined following removal and had been found to be healthy. They also submitted a letter from their latest pediatrician (Third Pediatrician), who had originally been scheduled to see Child on April 2. Although Third Pediatrician had not examined Child, he reviewed Child’s medical records and concluded that “while the concerns of [First Pediatrician] were valid, he failed to convey this concern properly to the parents and their wishes were not taken into consideration” and that the April 1 lab results did not reveal “signs of nutritional deficiency or compromise.”

¶18 Some three weeks later, Parents filed an Order to Show Cause and Motion for Order seeking sanctions against DCFS for violating their right to seek a second medical opinion prior to removal. At a subsequent hearing, the State explained that it never opposed a second medical opinion but that Parents had never properly requested one under the Utah Rules of Juvenile Procedure or the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. Parents withdrew their motion for sanctions and Order to Show Cause and moved for Third Pediatrician to examine Child. At a subsequent hearing, Mother reported that Third Pediatrician had examined Child and concluded “there are no safety concerns in this case.” And in September 2020, the juvenile court placed Child in a trial home placement with Parents.

¶19 Following a multi-day trial in January 2021, the juvenile court found the State had proved the allegations in its petition by clear and convincing evidence and adjudicated Child neglected on the ground that Child lacked “proper parental care by reason of the fault or habits of” Parents. The court did not find that Parents abused Child. The court found First Pediatrician’s and Second Pediatrician’s testimonies to be persuasive and stated “that the cursory physical examination by paramedics could not have identified” the “very real and very serious” medical issues that were later identified at the hospital.

¶20 The court next determined that Child’s removal from Parents’ home following the shelter hearing “was appropriate and necessary and in [Child’s] best interest.” But the court also found that the circumstances giving rise to Child’s removal, i.e., Child’s failure to thrive, were “largely resolved” and that Child’s trial home placement with Parents that had begun some six months earlier had “not revealed any child safety concerns.” Accordingly, the court terminated its jurisdiction in the case and returned custody of Child to Parents.

¶21      Parents appeal. Obviously, they do not appeal the decision that Child be returned to them. But they challenge prior rulings of the court.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶22 Parents raise two issues on appeal. First, they argue that “the juvenile court erred as a matter of law by awarding custody of Child to the State at the shelter hearing without giving [them] a reasonable time to obtain a second medical opinion.” But because this issue is moot, as explained in Part I.A. below, we lack judicial power to address it. See Transportation All. Bank v. International Confections Co., 2017 UT 55, ¶ 14, 423 P.3d 1171 (“The mootness doctrine is not a simple matter of judicial convenience or an ascetic act of discretion. It is a constitutional principle limiting our exercise of judicial power under article VIII of the Utah Constitution.”) (quotation simplified); Utah Transit Auth. v. Local 382 of Amalgamated Transit Union, 2012 UT 75, ¶ 12, 289 P.3d 582 (“[B]ecause it is moot, we lack the power to address the underlying merits or issue what would amount to an advisory opinion.”).

¶23 Second, Parents argue that the “court improperly adjudicated Child as neglected.” Specifically, they assert that (a) the court “did not consider the full statutory definition of neglect,” (b) the court’s findings “did not support its ultimate decision that Child was neglected,” and (c) “the neglect adjudication was against the clear weight of the evidence.” “We apply differing standards of review to findings of fact, conclusions of law, and determinations of mixed questions of law and fact.” In re E.R., 2021 UT 36, ¶ 14, 496 P.3d 58. “We afford the [juvenile court] no deference on questions of law, reviewing issues de novo, and the most deference on questions of fact, reviewing only for clear error.” In re A.B., 2022 UT 39, ¶ 23, 523 P.3d 168. The level of deference afforded to mixed questions of law and fact, however, depends on whether they are more “law-like” or “fact-like,” with the former being subject to de novo review while the latter are subject to deferential review. See In re E.R., 2021 UT 36, ¶ 18. A juvenile court’s neglect adjudication falls within the former category because, “[o]nce the facts have been established, the juvenile court is limited to determining whether the statutory criteria for neglect have been met,” which “is primarily a law-like endeavor.” In re A.B., 2022 UT 39, ¶ 28. Ac