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Tag: appeal

How can you appeal a child custody decision?

You have to show that the trial court that made the child custody decision committed an appealable error.

Many people believe that an appeal of a trial court’s decision is a “second bite at the apple”-style situation, that if you simply don’t like the outcome of the trial, then you can “appeal” the decision and get the appellate court to “re-try” the case on disputed facts. That is not how an appeal works.

The appellate courts do not retry cases or hear new evidence. They do not hear witnesses testify. There is no jury. Appellate courts review the procedures and the decisions in the trial court to make sure that the proceedings were fair and that the proper law was applied correctly (reference: Do appellate courts hear evidence? (LegalKnowledgeBase.com)).

As for just how a trial court’s decision is appealed, that is a rather complicated process that few who are not attorneys (and attorneys either with experience in appellate practice or geniuses who have the time to learn appellate while working their full-time jobs) can undertake successfully.

You also need to know that there is very short time limit for filing an appeal, and that filing an appeal is very expensive (although in some jurisdictions certain kinds of appeals may, under certain circumstances, entitle a parent to the services of an appellate attorney free of charge, such as in termination of parental rights cases in the jurisdiction where I practice law (Utah)).

If you want to appeal a trial court’s decision, talk to an appellate practice attorney immediately.

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

https://www.quora.com/How-can-you-appeal-a-child-custody-decision/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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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

 

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

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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 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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State v. Fowers – 2023 UT App 128 – violation of protective order

State v. Fowers – 2023 UT App 128

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellant,

v.

THOMAS FOWERS,

Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20220073-CA

Filed October 26, 2023

Fourth District Court, Provo Department

The Honorable Robert A. Lund

No. 201402484

Sean D. Reyes and Jeffrey D. Mann, Attorneys for

Appellant, assisted by law student Rebecca Barker[1]

Douglas J. Thompson, Attorney for Appellee

JUDGE JOHN D. LUTHY authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and AMY J. OLIVER concurred.

LUTHY, Judge:

¶1        Thomas Fowers’s ex-wife (Ex-Wife) is married to his adopted brother (Brother). A court issued a protective order directing Fowers not to “contact . . . or communicate in any way with [Ex-Wife], either directly or indirectly,” and not to “threaten to commit any form of violence against” her. Early one morning, Fowers called Brother’s phone three times in two minutes from an unrecognized number. The first two times, no one answered. The third time, Ex-Wife answered, and Fowers said, “You and that f***ing whore have it coming.”

¶2        Fowers was charged with violating the protective order. The district court declined to bind Fowers over and dismissed the charge, determining that there was “no evidence in the record to establish that Mr. Fowers . . . intentionally communicat[ed] either directly or indirectly to [Ex-Wife]” since “the statement itself clearly [was] directed at [Brother]” and Fowers did not tell Brother “to direct the comment to [Ex-Wife].” The State appeals, and we reverse.

BACKGROUND

¶3        Ex-Wife obtained a protective order against Fowers in August 2017. The order included a “No Contact Order” stating, “Do not contact, phone, mail, e-mail, or communicate in any way with [Ex-Wife], either directly or indirectly.” It also included a “Personal Conduct Order” stating, “Do not commit, try to commit or threaten to commit any form of violence against [Ex-Wife] . . . . This includes stalking, harassing, threatening, physically hurting, or causing any other form of abuse.”

¶4        One morning in July 2020, Brother’s phone received three calls between 4:57 a.m. and 4:58 a.m. from an unrecognized number. At the time of the first call, Ex-Wife and Brother “were, of course, sleeping.” As they awoke, they thought that maybe someone was calling for help related to a wedding they were to attend that day. When Ex-Wife answered the third call, she recognized Fowers’s voice saying, “You and that f***ing whore have it coming.”

¶5        Ex-Wife reported the calls to authorities, and Fowers was charged with one third-degree felony count of violation of a protective order with a domestic violence enhancement.

¶6        The district court held a preliminary hearing on the charge. The State presented evidence that Fowers had been served with the protective order. In addition to Ex-Wife, who testified about the phone calls, the deputy who received Ex-Wife’s report testified that he had checked the number from which the calls had been made against local records and found that the number was attached to Fowers. The deputy also said that he called the number and that, when he asked to speak to Fowers, the person who answered identified himself as Fowers. Additionally, the court accepted into evidence records of three prior convictions of Fowers’s for violating this protective order and a previous protective order because those convictions were “relevant to establish under evidence [r]ule 404 both knowledge by the defendant and intention.”

¶7        After the State presented its case, the court found “that the [S]tate ha[d] not met its burden.” The court explained:

[A]lthough the direct and circumstantial evidence establishes that Mr. Fowers made the call, the number that he called was his adoptive brother’s number, not the alleged victim’s number. . . .

[And] the statement itself clearly is directed at [Brother], not at [Ex-Wife]. He say[s] “you and that f’ing whore,” meaning that he’s directing his comment toward [Brother] and not [Ex-Wife] . . . . [W]hat is glaringly missing from the record here is any statement by Mr. Fowers to [Brother] to direct the comment to the alleged victim. Therefore, there is no evidence in the record to establish that Mr. Fowers intentionally violated this order by intentionally communicating either directly or indirectly to [Ex-Wife].

Based on those findings, I find that the [S]tate has not—even drawing inferences in the light most favorable to the [S]tate— . . . establish[ed] sufficient evidence[,] and I decline to bind the charge over.

The court dismissed the charge with prejudice, and the State now appeals.

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶8        The State contends that it presented evidence establishing probable cause that Fowers violated the protective order and that the district court therefore erred by not binding Fowers over. In essence, the State argues that the court applied the wrong legal standard by not viewing the evidence and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn from it in favor of the prosecution. A district court’s “decision to bind over a criminal defendant for trial presents a mixed question of law and fact and requires the application of the appropriate bindover standard to the underlying factual findings. As a result, in reviewing a bindover decision, an appellate court should afford the decision limited deference.” In re I.R.C., 2010 UT 41, ¶ 12, 232 P.3d 1040 (cleaned up). “Applying the wrong legal standard . . . will always exceed whatever limited discretion the [court] has in the bindover decision.” State v. Ramirez, 2012 UT 59, ¶ 7, 289 P.3d 444.

ANALYSIS

¶9        Our supreme court has explained that the evidentiary threshold for bindover is a low bar:

Although the guarantee of a preliminary hearing is fundamental, the evidentiary threshold at such hearing is relatively low. As we have emphasized, a showing of “probable cause” entails only the presentation of evidence sufficient to support a reasonable belief that the defendant committed the charged crime. . . . To justify binding a defendant over for trial, the prosecution need not present evidence capable of supporting a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Nor is the prosecution required to eliminate alternative inferences that could be drawn from the evidence in favor of the defense. All that is required is reasonably believable evidence—as opposed to speculation—sufficient to sustain each element of the crime(s) in question.

State v. Ramirez, 2012 UT 59, ¶ 9, 289 P.3d 444 (cleaned up). Here, the State needed to present “evidence sufficient to support a reasonable belief” that Fowers violated the protective order, id. (cleaned up), and the court was required to “view all evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution and . . . draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the prosecution,” State v. Clark, 2001 UT 9, ¶ 10, 20 P.3d 300 (cleaned up).

¶10 A person commits the crime of violation of a protective order if the person “(a) is the respondent or defendant subject to a protective order . . . and (b) intentionally or knowingly violates that order after having been properly served” with it. Utah Code § 76-5-108(2). A person acts intentionally “when it is his conscious objective or desire to engage in the conduct.” Id. § 76-2-103(1). And a person acts knowingly “when he is aware of the nature of his conduct or the existing circumstances.” Id. § 76-2-103(2).

¶11 There is no dispute that Fowers was subject to the protective order at issue, and the State showed that Fowers was served with that protective order. Thus, the only issue before us is whether the State offered evidence supporting a reasonable belief that Fowers intentionally or knowingly violated the protective order. On this point, the State first argues that it put on evidence sufficient to establish probable cause that Fowers violated the No Contact Order portion of the protective order by “intentionally or knowingly contact[ing] Ex-Wife at least indirectly” because “[i]t was reasonable to infer that Fowers knew or intended that his contact and [message] . . . would be relayed to Ex-Wife.” The State then argues that Fowers’s statement “You and that f***ing whore have it coming” can also be reasonably interpreted as a threat of violence in violation of the Personal Conduct Order portion of the protective order. We agree with each of the State’s arguments.[2]

¶12      The State put on evidence establishing probable cause that Fowers intentionally or knowingly contacted Ex-Wife at least indirectly. In State v. Fouse, 2014 UT App 29, 319 P.3d 778, cert. denied, 329 P.3d 36 (Utah 2014), this court affirmed a conviction for violation of a protective order where the defendant mailed envelopes to the victim’s sisters rather than to the victim, his estranged wife. Id. ¶¶ 4–7, 43. The victim was living with one of the sisters, and the other sister lived in the apartment next door. Id. ¶ 3. While some of the letters in the envelopes were addressed to the victim, others contained statements such as, “Please hold onto this. . . . [E]ven though I can’t send nor talk to my wife or kids[,] . . . writing sure does help.” Id. ¶ 4. Nonetheless, we reasoned that a factfinder “could readily infer that communication directed to or dealing with one’s ex-spouse, and sent to the ex-spouse’s siblings, will routinely and predictably be conveyed by the siblings to their family member.” Id. ¶ 40. And we noted, “Such an inference is particularly sound in this case, given the jury’s awareness that [the victim] and her sisters were close—in both senses of that term.” Id.

¶13 The same reasoning applies here. A factfinder could readily infer that calls Fowers placed to Brother or statements Fowers made to him would “routinely and predictably be conveyed” to Ex-Wife, Brother’s spouse, especially where a factfinder could reasonably infer that Brother and Ex-Wife were “close” “in both senses of that term.” Id. Indeed, a factfinder could infer that Fowers’s decision to call Brother just before 5:00 a.m.— a time when spouses could reasonably be assumed to be together—manifested his intent to catch Brother and Ex-Wife together. Therefore, we have no trouble concluding that the State’s evidence was sufficient to support a reasonable belief that Fowers, by calling Brother’s phone when he did, intentionally or knowingly contacted Ex-Wife directly or indirectly. Fowers did not need to explicitly direct Brother to communicate his message to Ex-Wife, and the court erred in suggesting as much.

¶14 The State also asserts that Fowers’s statement “You and that f***ing whore have it coming” can be reasonably interpreted as a threat of violence. We agree. In State v. Spainhower, 1999 UT App 280, 988 P.2d 452, this court recognized that the admittedly “vague and indirect” statement, “‘I’m going to get you,’ surely may connote a threat of bodily injury” because “among the many dictionary definitions of the verb ‘get’ are: ‘to bring to retribution, take vengeance on, KILL’ and ‘to strike with force, HIT.’” Id. ¶¶ 6– 7 (cleaned up). Likewise, the words at issue here, though perhaps similarly vague and indirect, could carry either a violent or a nonviolent meaning and must be interpreted by the factfinder in light of “the inferences to be drawn from the context in which the words were spoken.” Id. ¶ 7. And again, at the preliminary hearing stage, a court must “view all evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution and must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the prosecution.” Clark, 2001 UT 9, ¶ 10 (cleaned up). Accordingly, at this stage, the court should have interpreted Fowers’s words to be capable of conveying, in context, a threat of violence.

CONCLUSION

¶15 The protective order’s No Contact Order forbade Fowers from contacting, phoning, mailing, e-mailing, or communicating in any way with Ex-Wife, either directly or indirectly. Its Personal Conduct Order forbade him from threatening violence against Ex-Wife. Plainly there is “reasonably believable evidence—as opposed to speculation—sufficient to” show that Fowers violated one or both of these provisions. State v. Ramirez, 2012 UT 59, ¶ 9, 289 P.3d 444. By not viewing the evidence and the reasonable inferences to be drawn from it in the light most favorable to the State—and instead requiring a statement by Fowers to Brother to direct the comment at issue to Ex-Wife—the district court applied the wrong legal standard and exceeded “whatever limited discretion” it had in the bindover decision. Id. ¶ 7. We therefore reverse and remand this matter to the district court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


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

[2] Fowers asserts that the State did not preserve “the arguments” it now makes on appeal because the prosecutor “did not raise [them] in a way that gave the district court the opportunity . . . to address [them].” “An issue is preserved by presenting it to the trial court in such a way that the trial court has an opportunity to rule on that issue.” Vierig v. Therriault, 2023 UT App 67, ¶ 43, 532 P.3d 568 (cleaned up); see id. ¶ 44 (“Of note, issues must be preserved, not arguments for or against a particular ruling on an issue raised below. By contrast, new arguments, when brought under a properly preserved issue or theory, do not require an exception to preservation.” (cleaned up)).

Fowers is mistaken when he says that the State did not meet this preservation standard here. At the close of the preliminary hearing, the State referenced “paragraph 1 and 2 of the protective order”; identified those paragraphs as the Personal Conduct Order and No Contact Order respectively; and noted that they prohibited Fowers from “threatening [Ex-Wife] in any way” and from “communicating in any way with [Ex-Wife] either directly or indirectly.” The State then highlighted the evidence that Fowers “called the husband of [Ex-Wife] in the early morning hours when they would presumably be together and made a statement against her to [her] then husband,” which is the same evidence that the State emphasizes here. By presenting evidence and arguing below for bindover based on an alleged violation of both the Personal Conduct Order and the No Contact Order, the State gave the district court an opportunity to rule on the same questions we are now asked to rule on. So regardless of whether those questions are characterized as arguments or issues—and we express no opinion as to the proper characterization here— Fowers’s preservation argument fails.

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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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In re M.M. – 2023 UT App 95 – termination of parental rights

2023 UT App 95

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF M.M.,

A PERSON UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

A.M.,

Appellant,

v.

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20220624-CA

Filed August 24, 2023

Second District Juvenile Court, Ogden Department

The Honorable Jeffrey J. Noland

No. 1140984

Emily Adams, Sara Pfrommer, and Hannah K.

Leavitt-Howell, Attorneys for Appellant

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

Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

JUDGE MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES JOHN D. LUTHY and AMY J. OLIVER concurred.

 

CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, Judge:

 

¶1        Following a multi-day bench trial, the juvenile court entered an order terminating A.M.’s (Mother) parental rights to her child, M.M. (Child). Mother contends the court erred in denying her reunification services and in concluding termination of her parental rights was strictly necessary. Because Mother has not persuaded us that the court committed reversible error, we affirm its order terminating Mother’s parental rights.

BACKGROUND[1]

¶2      Mother is the biological parent of three children: Child, born in 2015; A.M. (Sister), born in 2018; and B.B. (Brother), born in 2019. All three children have different biological fathers. This appeal concerns only Child. Nevertheless, a complete understanding of the events giving rise to this case necessitates a recounting of the background as it relates to all three children.

¶3        In December 2016, prior to the birth of Sister and Brother, Child’s maternal grandmother (Grandmother) and maternal step-grandfather (Grandfather) noticed “large bruises on [Child’s] hips and thighs when they put him into the bath.” The following day, a caseworker from the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) met with Grandmother and Grandfather and examined Child. The caseworker observed the same bruising on Child that had been seen the day before, as well as a “small bruise in [Child’s] hairline above his forehead.” Child was transported to the hospital where a doctor observed the bruising and opined that “the bruising is concerning for abuse because of its location, linear component, the large size, and the lack of history explaining them.”

¶4        A few months later, in February 2017, Child was brought to the hospital for a breathing treatment for his asthma. While at the hospital, a doctor again observed “linear bruising on [Child’s] buttocks,” which she described as a “classic bruise found with spanking or inflicted trauma.” She explained the bruising was consistent with “excessive,” “repeated high-force spanking.”

¶5        During the time of these injuries, Child had been residing with Mother, Mother’s husband (Stepfather),[2] Grandmother, and Grandfather, and he had also attended daycare. Ultimately, no one was able to provide an explanation for the bruising. As a result, the juvenile court concluded that Child “has been abused by an unknown perpetrator” and adjudicated him dependent as to Mother. The court allowed Child to remain with Mother, contingent on her compliance with a safety plan and completion of court-ordered services. In December 2017, after Mother had received a year of services, the court terminated its jurisdiction and returned permanent custody and guardianship of Child to Mother.

¶6        The following month, Sister was born. Brother was born a year and a half later.

¶7        In August 2019, Brother suffered a series of abusive episodes. First, Mother said she “fell going down some stairs” while holding Brother. Thereafter, Brother’s father picked Brother up from a babysitter and became concerned that Brother was vomiting and appeared dehydrated. Brother was taken to the doctor for examination but was sent home with his father because the cause of the vomiting was “undetermined.” A few weeks later, Brother’s father again observed that Brother had been vomiting and appeared dehydrated. Brother was taken to the hospital for examination.

¶8        Upon examination, Brother’s head appeared “swollen.” A subsequent CT scan revealed a “large” brain bleed and a skeletal survey revealed “multiple healing rib fractures.” A doctor evaluated Brother the following day and expressed that Brother’s initial vomiting was “consistent with the brain injury” and a “sign” that the brain injury had occurred. She noted that although Brother’s head circumference had not been measured during his initial visit to the doctor, by the time of his second visit—which occurred approximately two weeks later—Brother “had a massive head.” She also opined that Brother’s injuries were caused by one of his caregivers and were “consistent with inflicted trauma and child abuse.” When questioned, both parents denied any involvement or knowledge of injuries to Brother. However, based on her conversation with both parents, the doctor had “much more concern” that Mother had caused Brother’s injuries.

¶9        Based on Brother’s injuries, the State filed a verified petition for custody and guardianship on behalf of all three children in August 2019. In the petition, the State asked the juvenile court to find that “[Brother] is severely abused by [Mother]” and that Child and Sister were “siblings at risk” and “neglected” as to Mother.

¶10      Over the next several months, the juvenile court transferred temporary custody of Sister and Brother to their respective fathers. Although the State requested that Child be removed from Mother’s custody, the court allowed Child to remain home with Mother on the condition that she comply with a safety plan. The safety plan required “line of sight supervision” by Grandmother and Grandfather for “any contact” between Mother and Child. But Mother did not abide by the safety plan, and in January 2020, after a DCFS caseworker observed a series of three events of non-compliance, the court transferred Child to DCFS’s custody, finding that Mother had “substantially endangered” Child’s welfare. Child was then placed in a foster care home.

¶11      In July 2020, Mother appeared before the juvenile court for adjudication of the State’s verified petition for custody.[3] After negotiations with Mother, the State agreed to amend the petition by removing the allegation that Mother had severely abused Brother, replacing it with an allegation that Brother suffered “severe physical abuse while in the care of [Mother].” Following this amendment, Mother proceeded with adjudication and entered a plea pursuant to rule 34(e) of the Utah Rules of Juvenile Procedure by which she neither admitted nor denied the allegations but they were deemed admitted as a matter of law.

¶12      At the close of the hearing, the court found by clear and convincing evidence that Brother had suffered “severe physical abuse while in the care of [Mother].” Accordingly, the court found that “[Sister] and [Child] are siblings at risk” and were “neglected” as to Mother. In addition to adjudicating the children’s statuses, the court also substantiated the DCFS supported finding of severe physical abuse of Brother while in Mother’s care. The court ordered that Brother and Sister continue in the temporary custody of their respective fathers and that Child continue in the custody of DCFS.

¶13      Shortly thereafter, the juvenile court held a disposition hearing during which it resolved the custody petition as to Brother and Sister by granting custody and guardianship to their respective fathers and terminating jurisdiction. The court requested briefing on the issue of whether Mother should be provided reunification services for Child. Citing the allegations that Mother physically abused her children, even after receiving court-ordered services, as well as Child’s success in his current foster placement, the State and the guardian ad litem (GAL) argued that reunification services were not in Child’s best interest and accordingly requested that services not be provided. In September 2020, the court entered an order denying reunification services to Mother.[4] In April 2021, the court set Child’s primary permanency goal as adoption with his current foster parents.

¶14     The next month, the State filed a petition to terminate Mother’s parental rights to Child. The matter proceeded to an eight-day bench trial that took place in March and April 2022.

¶15      At trial, several therapists who had provided mental health services to Mother testified. All agreed that Mother suffered from trauma and that treatment was needed to address it. These therapists further testified that while Mother had attended some therapy sessions, Mother had either canceled, rescheduled, or failed to attend many of the sessions, and that although Mother had made some progress in therapy, she still had a long way to go to process her trauma.

¶16    Child’s therapist and foster parents testified regarding Child’s communications with them, as well as Child’s improvements since his removal from Mother’s custody. Child’s therapist explained that Child suffered from “separation anxiety disorder and unspecified trauma and stressor-related disorder” but that these conditions had greatly improved while Child was living with his foster parents. Likewise, Child’s foster mother testified that Child had grown emotionally while in her care. She detailed Child’s emotional bonds with the members of his foster family and recounted how it was “an easy decision” to pursue adopting Child. Moreover, Child’s therapist and foster mother both testified that Child had reported witnessing Mother “hit his sibling on the head” and that Child had also reported that Mother had hit him.

¶17    Following trial, the juvenile court issued an order terminating Mother’s parental rights to Child. The court found the testimony and evidence presented to be true, and therefore concluded that the State had proved by clear and convincing evidence three statutory grounds for termination. The court also found that it was in Child’s best interest and strictly necessary to terminate Mother’s parental rights. In reaching this conclusion, the court noted it had “considered the specific circumstances” of the case, including Child’s “wishes to remain in his current foster home” and the feasibility of an alternative to termination, such as a permanent guardianship.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶18      Mother now appeals the juvenile court’s order terminating her parental rights to Child, raising two issues for our review. First, Mother argues the court erred when it refused to order reunification services to her. We review the juvenile court’s interpretation of the law for correctness; however, “[t]he ultimate decision whether to provide or deny reunification services is a determination that we review for abuse of discretion.” In re Z.G., 2016 UT App 98, ¶ 4, 376 P.3d 1077.

¶19      Second, Mother argues the juvenile court erred when it concluded that termination of her parental rights was strictly necessary. “We review deferentially a lower court’s best-interest determination and 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 J.J.W., 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 18, 520 P.3d 38 (quotation simplified).

ANALYSIS

I. Reunification Services

¶20      Mother first argues the juvenile court erred when it denied reunification services to her. Specifically, she contends the court misinterpreted the law and abused its discretion when it (1) failed to provide the “necessary findings for the presumption against reunification services to apply” and (2) improperly weighed the statutory factors a court must use when determining whether to order reunification services.

¶21      After a juvenile court adjudicates a child as abused, neglected, or dependent, the court must conduct a dispositional hearing. See Utah Code § 78A-6-311(1) (2020). At that hearing, if the court orders that the child continue in the custody of DCFS, the court shall (1) “establish a primary permanency plan” and (2) “determine whether, in view of the primary permanency plan, reunification services are appropriate.” Id. § 78A-6-312(2).

¶22      The decision to order reunification services is therefore discretionary with the juvenile court, and “parents have no constitutional right to receive these services.” In re A.K., 2015 UT App 39, ¶ 15, 344 P.3d 1153 (quotation simplified); see also In re N.R., 967 P.2d 951, 955–56 (Utah Ct. App. 1998); Utah Code § 78A­6-312(20)(a) (2020). Accordingly, we will overturn the court’s decision only if it “either failed to consider all of the facts or considered all of the facts and its decision was nonetheless against the clear weight of the evidence.” In re E.R., 2021 UT 36, ¶ 31, 496 P.3d 58 (quotation simplified).

¶23      In determining whether to order reunification services, the child’s “health, safety, and welfare shall be the court’s paramount concern.” Utah Code § 78A-6-312(5) (2020). And in making this determination, the juvenile court must consider a non-exclusive list of statutory factors, including the following:

·         “failure of the parent to respond to previous services or comply with a previous child and family plan;”

·         “the fact that the minor was abused while the parent was under the influence of drugs or alcohol;”

·         “any history of violent behavior directed at the child or an immediate family member;”

·         “whether a parent continues to live with an individual who abused the minor;”

·         “any patterns of the parent’s behavior that have exposed the minor to repeated abuse;”

·         “testimony by a competent professional that the parent’s behavior is unlikely to be successful; and”

·         “whether the parent has expressed an interest in reunification with the minor.”

Id. § 78A-6-312(23). However, in cases involving “obvious sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, abandonment, severe abuse, or severe neglect,” the court has no duty to provide services. Id. § 78A-6­-312(4). And several circumstances—if found by clear and convincing evidence—create “a presumption that reunification services should not be provided to a parent.” Id. § 78A-6-312(21).

¶24     Before the juvenile court, the State and the GAL argued that reunification services should not be offered to Mother. While only the State argued that the presumption against providing services should apply, both parties argued that the statutory factors weighed in favor of denying reunification services. Ultimately, the court denied services, finding they were not “appropriate” “given the fact that [Mother] had services before.”

¶25      Mother takes issue with the juvenile court’s determination on two grounds. As an initial matter, she asserts the court made “no findings in its reunification order, much less findings by clear and convincing evidence,” that would allow the court to apply the presumption against providing reunification services. But even if Mother’s assertion is correct and a presumption against reunification services does not apply in this case, Mother ignores that the court may still properly deny services regardless of whether a presumption exists.[5] And on the facts of this case, the court did not abuse its discretion in concluding that denying reunification services to Mother was appropriate.

¶26     Next, Mother asserts the juvenile court improperly weighed the statutory factors a court must consider when determining whether to provide reunification services. According to Mother, “four[6] of the seven factors weigh in favor of granting Mother reunification services” and “the remaining three factors do not tip the balance towards not offering reunification services.” We disagree.

¶27     First, Mother contends the juvenile court improperly determined she had failed to respond to reunification services in the past. See Utah Code § 78A-6-312(23)(a) (2020) (requiring courts to consider the “failure of the parent to respond to previous services or comply with a previous child and family plan” when determining whether to order reunification services). She claims that the dismissal of the first protective services case in December 2017 and the full restoration of custody of Child shows she responded to services and complied with her previous family plan. But in concluding that this factor weighed against Mother, the court considered Mother’s compliance in the first protective services case as well as her actions after that case was closed. The court explained,

I see that you’ve had services before on [Child]. We had a [protective supervision services] case. . . . You engage in services. We think things are good. We close the case.

Then not much longer . . . we have a severe abuse to [Child]’s younger sibling . . . . We’ve already done reunification services or services by DCFS for you on [Child] and here we are again with a severely abused child.

¶28     This explanation is sufficient to show that the court adequately considered whether Mother had failed to respond to previous reunification services. The court weighed Mother’s prior compliance against her actions following the completion of the original services. Because the court’s decision is not “against the clear weight of the evidence,” a “measure of deference is owing” to the court’s decision. In re E.R., 2021 UT 36, ¶ 32 (quotation simplified). Accordingly, we will not perform an “independent ‘reweighing’ of the evidence” but will instead “respect[]” the court’s decision. Id.

¶29      Second, Mother contends the juvenile court improperly weighed against her the factors concerning “any history of violent behavior directed at the child or an immediate family member” and “any patterns of the parent’s behavior that have exposed the minor to repeated abuse.” See Utah Code § 78A-6-312(23)(c), (e) (2020). Specifically, Mother asserts these factors do not weigh against her because she “was not adjudicated as abusing [Child] in 2017,” there are “no other allegations” that Child or Sister have been otherwise injured, and it has “never been established that Mother harmed [Brother].”

¶30      But Mother’s arguments on this point ignore substantial record evidence indicating that Mother did have a history of violent behavior directed at Child or Child’s immediate family members and that Mother’s behavior exposed Child to repeated abuse. While Mother is correct that she was not adjudicated as abusing Child in 2017, Child’s statements to his foster mother and therapist provide substantial evidence of Mother’s history of violent behavior toward Child and other immediate family members. Notably, the juvenile court found that during a therapy session, Child credibly reported to his therapist that he had witnessed Mother “hit his sibling on the head.” And at trial, Child’s foster mother testified that on multiple occasions, Child told her that Mother had hit him. Further, as the juvenile court found, Child, Brother, and Sister were all exposed to repeated abuse while in Mother’s care. Indeed, Child and Sister were found to be “siblings at risk” and “neglected” based on Mother’s rule 34(e) plea to the allegation that Brother suffered “severe physical abuse while in the care of [Mother].” This exposure occurred subsequent to the court’s 2017 determination that Child had been “abused by an unknown perpetrator” during a time when Mother “was the primary caregiver.”

¶31      The juvenile court did not abuse its discretion by deciding not to order reunification services for Mother. In reaching this decision, the court evaluated the evidence before it, and Mother has not demonstrated that the court’s decision was against the clear weight of the evidence.[7]

II. Strictly Necessary

¶32      Next, Mother argues the juvenile court erred in determining it was strictly necessary to terminate her parental rights to Child. In particular, Mother contends the court’s strictly necessary analysis was “improperly brief and conclusory.”

¶33     “Because the relationship between parent and child is constitutionally protected, a court may only terminate parental rights upon a finding that termination is strictly necessary to the best interest[] of the child.”[8] In re S.T., 2022 UT App 130, ¶ 25, 521 P.3d 887 (quotation simplified). “This analysis should be undertaken from the child’s point of view, not the parent’s.” In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 63, 472 P.3d 827 (quotation simplified).

¶34      When evaluating whether termination is strictly necessary,

the juvenile court must address whether “the child can be equally protected and benefited by an option other than termination.” Id. ¶ 66. This inquiry cannot be satisfied merely by relying on the “categorical concern” that adoption offers the highest degree of permanency. In re J.A.L., 2022 UT 12, ¶ 25, 506 P.3d 606. Instead, the court must analyze the “particularized circumstances of the case” and “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 S.T., 2022 UT App 130, ¶ 26 (quotation simplified). If another option exists where “the child can be equally protected and benefited,” then “termination is not strictly necessary” and “the court cannot order the parent’s rights terminated.” In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 66.

¶35      In determining that it was strictly necessary to terminate Mother’s parental rights, the juvenile court explicitly stated that it “considered whether a placement with Permanent Guardianship would equally protect and benefit [Child].” Ultimately, the court decided against such an arrangement, finding it was not in Child’s best interest “as it does not provide the permanency that he seeks and wishes for.” Citing In re J.A.L., 2022 UT 12, 506 P.3d 606, Mother contends this conclusion was error because it is based on the categorical concern that a permanent guardianship is not as permanent as an adoption.[9] Mother’s argument is unavailing, however, because it selectively focuses on the court’s conclusion without considering it in the fuller context.

¶36      Here, the juvenile court was not presented with any feasible alternative option for a permanent guardianship placement, nor has Mother proposed one on appeal. At the time of trial, the only individuals that had previously been involved in the case were not feasible placement options. Indeed, Grandfather had failed to comply with the safety plan by allowing Mother to interact with Child outside his “line of sight,” which ultimately led to Child’s removal; Grandmother and Mother were estranged; and the State had initiated termination proceedings for Father.[10] Consequently, there was “no other option, short of termination and adoption, that would have otherwise been apparent to the juvenile court.” See In re D.G., 2022 UT App 128, ¶ 8 n.2, 522 P.3d 39, cert. denied, 527 P.3d 1106 (Utah 2023). And “where only one feasible custody option exists, the categorical concern that adoption is more stable than a permanent guardianship is not implicated.” In re S.T., 2022 UT App 130, ¶ 32 n.6 (quotation simplified).

¶37      In sum, given Child’s “strong emotional ties with [his] foster parents,” see id., and the lack of “any remotely feasible alternatives to termination and adoption,” see In re D.G., 2022 UT App 128, ¶ 8 n.2, it was entirely proper for the juvenile court to find that it was strictly necessary to terminate Mother’s parental rights.[11]

CONCLUSION

¶38      The juvenile court did not err in terminating Mother’s parental rights to Child. The court’s decision to deny Mother reunification services was not an abuse of discretion because the court’s decision is well supported by evidence in the record. And the court did not err when it found that termination of Mother’s parental rights was strictly necessary because there were no feasible alternative placement options other than termination and adoption. Affirmed.


[1] “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).

[2] Stepfather and Mother married one day after DCFS made the initial home visit to observe Child. Prior to the marriage, Stepfather spent “multiple nights in a row” in the home with Mother and Child.

[3] Although the juvenile court adjudicated Child’s status as to Mother in July 2020, the written order was not entered until August 2021—approximately one year after the adjudication hearing. Mother appealed the written adjudication order, arguing that she was deprived of due process by the court’s delay in entering the order, but this court affirmed.

[4] At the time reunification services for Mother were denied, an Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children (ICPC) request form had been sent to Child’s biological father (Father), who resides in South Carolina. Following denial of services for Mother, the juvenile court changed Child’s primary permanency goal from reunification with Mother to reunification with Father with a concurrent goal of adoption. During a subsequent permanency hearing, the court terminated reunification services to Father due to his failure to comply with any of the three ICPC requests initiated by DCFS and changed Child’s primary permanency goal to adoption with his current foster parents. Father’s parental rights to Child were then terminated in June 2022.

[5] Moreover, Mother’s position on this point seems to ignore the juvenile court’s own explanation of its reasoning to deny reunification services. At the disposition hearing, the court explicitly agreed with Mother’s counsel that Child did not qualify as a “severely abused child,” which would create a presumption against providing services. As a result, the court stated, “I don’t really attach the presumption that [Mother] should not receive reunification services. I’m kind of looking towards the presumption that she should . . . .”

[6] These factors are (1) “the fact that the minor was abused while the parent was under the influence of drugs or alcohol,” (2) “whether a parent continues to live with an individual who abused the minor,” (3) “testimony by a competent professional that the parent’s behavior is unlikely to be successful,” and (4) “whether the parent has expressed an interest in reunification with the minor.” See Utah Code § 78A-6-312(23)(b), (d), (f), (g) (2020).

[7] Mother challenges the adequacy of the juvenile court’s findings in support of its decision not to order reunification services by asserting that “the juvenile court made no findings in its reunification order.” But Mother’s assertion is overbroad; the juvenile court did make explicit factual findings regarding a number of the facts we have noted as supportive of its determination not to order services. And, while we acknowledge that the court did not explicitly disclose all the analytic steps it took in deciding not to provide services, this is a case where the court’s “unstated findings can be implied” because “it is reasonable to assume that the [juvenile] court actually considered the controverted evidence and necessarily made . . . finding[s] to resolve the controversy, but simply failed to record the factual determination[s] made.” Fish v. Fish, 2016 UT App 125, ¶ 22, 379 P.3d 882 (quotation simplified). It is not a case “where there is a matrix of possible factual findings and we cannot ascertain the [juvenile] court’s actual findings.” Hall v. Hall, 858 P.2d 1018, 1025–26 (Utah Ct. App. 1993) (quotation simplified). The evidence and arguments presented below, coupled with the juvenile court’s decision not to order services, necessarily imply that the juvenile court found the factors in Utah Code subsections 78A-6­312(23)(c) and (e) weigh against the provision of services based on the findings and evidence we have outlined above. Although on this record the unstated steps of the juvenile court’s analysis can be implied, we caution courts to ensure that the analytic steps taken in support of such fact-sensitive decisions are fully articulated in an oral or written ruling, order, or judgment. Detailed findings aid appellate review and reduce the likelihood of reversal.

[8] “To terminate a parent’s rights, Utah law requires that both elements of a two-part test are satisfied. First, the court must find that one or more of the statutory grounds for termination are present. Second, the court must find that termination of the parent’s rights is in the best interest[] of the child.” In re S.T., 2022 UT App 130, ¶ 25 n.5, 521 P.3d 887 (quotation simplified). Here, Mother acknowledges the juvenile court properly found at least one ground to terminate her parental rights. Accordingly, our focus is limited to only the court’s best interest determination.

[9] In a related vein, Mother also asserts the juvenile court’s decision was conclusory because the court focused only on negative testimony and overlooked the positive testimony of several of Mother’s therapists. But this position ignores that “Lilt 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.” In re G.V., 916 P.2d 918, 920 (Utah Ct. App. 1996) (per curiam). As such, we decline to reweigh the evidence.

[10] The lack of alternative options was reiterated through the trial testimony of Child’s great-uncle (Uncle). Uncle testified that Mother and Grandfather were estranged, largely due to Grandfather’s role in having Child removed from Mother’s custody, and that Mother and Grandmother were estranged because Grandmother is “a very toxic individual” and “abusive toward” Mother. Uncle also explained that although he wanted to be “involved” with Child, he was not in a position for Child to be placed with him. Lastly, Uncle noted that his brother had applied for Child to be placed with him, but his application was not approved.

[11] We again caution juvenile courts to “adequately disclose[]”— either in an oral or written ruling—all the “analytic steps” they take when they conduct a best interest analysis. Keiter v. Keiter, 2010 UT App 169, ¶ 21, 235 P.3d 782 (describing a challenge to the adequacy of findings as raising the issue of whether “the findings as a whole adequately disclosed the analytic steps taken by the trial court”). Here, however, even assuming that the court’s articulation of its strictly necessary analysis could have or even should have been more robust, without any feasible alternatives to termination and adoption, Mother cannot show that the court’s finding on this point was against the clear weight of the evidence. See generally In re J.J.W., 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 19, 520 P.3d 38 (“[I]n some instances (e.g., where the existence of a particular option would not be readily apparent to the court), a parent may need to expressly ask a [juvenile] court to consider a specific non-termination option in order to properly preserve the right to argue, on appeal, that the court did not adequately consider that option.”). But in cases where a feasible alternative placement option does exist, a court assessing strict necessity must explain, “on the record,” why adoption and termination of the parent’s rights would better further the child’s best interest than the alternative option. See In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 74, 472 P.3d 827.

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State v. Hararah – 2023 UT App 77 – domestic violence prosecution

State v. Hararah – 2023 UT App 77

2023 UT App 77

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellee,

v.

HOUSTON RAEFAT HARARAH,

Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20220276-CA

Filed July 20, 2023

Eighth District Court, Vernal Department

The Honorable Edwin T. Peterson

The Honorable Gregory M. Lamb

No. 201800299

Nicolas C. Wilde and Trevor J. Lee,

Attorneys for Appellant

Tegan M. Troutner and Rachelle Shumway,

Attorneys for Appellee

JUDGE DAVID N. MORTENSEN authored this Opinion, in which

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

MORTENSEN, Judge:

¶1        Houston Raefat Hararah was charged with assault for throwing a potted plant at his then-girlfriend. He waived his right to a preliminary hearing and proceeded to trial, following which he was convicted. He now contends that he was coerced into waiving his right to a preliminary hearing because the district court[1] stated, at various points in the proceedings, that it would not permit Hararah to accept any plea deal if he chose to have a preliminary hearing. But the record indicates that Hararah rejected the State’s “best offer” and independently decided to waive the preliminary hearing and proceed to trial, so we cannot agree that the court forced his waiver. Hararah also asserts that his defense counsel (Counsel[2]) provided ineffective assistance for not objecting to the court’s allegedly problematic statements, as well as for telling the jury, during opening statements at trial, that they would not hear that Hararah had punched the victim, when the victim went on to testify that he did so. We do not agree that his counsel performed deficiently in either respect, so we affirm.

BACKGROUND

¶2        After police responded to an argument between Hararah and his then-girlfriend, Hararah was charged with assault, with a domestic violence enhancement. The Information alleged that Hararah “threw a potted plant at his girlfriend[,] striking her in the face and causing a cut above her eye.” As a result, the district court issued a no-contact order against Hararah. At a hearing to review the no-contact order, held in July 2020, the following exchange took place between Hararah, the district court, and Counsel:

Counsel:  Judge, do you want to keep [the next hearing] on the 28th? I think that at this point, I’ve discussed a plea with Mr. Hararah and it looks like we’re probably going to be setting it for a preliminary hearing.

District Court:  Well, let’s go ahead and . . . take it on the 28th and see—Mr. Hararah, do you understand if you go to preliminary hearing, you’re going to trial on the original charges? I won’t allow a plea negotiation after that.

Hararah:  Yes, Your Honor.

District Court:  Okay. Well, you think long and hard on that and I’ll talk to you on the 28th. Thank you.

¶3        The minutes for the next hearing, held in August 2020, indicate that “[t]he defendant request[ed] a Preliminary Hearing” and that “the [c]ourt set[] this matter for Preliminary Hearing.”

¶4        In court on the date set for the preliminary hearing, in September 2020, Counsel said, “I’ve had a chance to speak with Mr. Hararah, [and] he’s willing to waive his right to a preliminary hearing and we can set the case for trial—for the next step.” Then the following exchange took place:

District Court:  So you talked to [Counsel] about what a preliminary hearing is[,] right?

Hararah:  Yes.

District Court:  Okay. And you are, in fact, willing to waive your rights to a preliminary hearing and allow the matter to be bound over; is that correct?

Hararah:  Yes.

District Court:  Very good. I will go ahead and allow the waiver[;] I’ll bind the matter over. How long do you think you need to have discussions, [Counsel]?

Counsel:  Your Honor, I think that the best offer has been made and Mr. Hararah  has had a chance to discuss it, and I think we’re just going to need to figure out when we can get it on for a trial as soon as possible in front of a jury.

Later in the hearing, the district court added,

District Court: [W]e will have a trial as soon as possible. And seeing as we did not go to prelim, we could still have discussions regarding, you know, some other outcome to the . . . litigation.

¶5        The case eventually went to trial, and during opening statements, Counsel said to the jury, “You will not hear any testimony about [Hararah] punching [the alleged victim] . . . . [Y]ou’ll hear . . . that the only item that he had to protect himself from [a] taser [the alleged victim held] was the plant that was on the floor. And he picked it up and he threw it so that he could get out . . . .”

¶6        But when the victim testified, she stated that Hararah had hit her through a pillow. She testified that the pair had been drinking and started arguing when “[a] verbal argument turned into a physical [one].” She said, “I had tried knocking over his drink. I knew the conversation wasn’t ending anywhere. He ended up on top of me hitting me.” She described how she tried to leave the room but “was hit in the face” with “a pillow and his fist.” She clarified that “he was punching [her] and hitting [her] through the pillow.”

¶7        Later in the trial and outside the presence of the jury, Counsel objected to “the uncharged misconduct that we’ve now heard about for the first time today, which is this witness . . . now saying that she was punched in the face by Mr. Hararah prior to the throwing of the plant.” Counsel asserted, “That is nowhere in the State’s discovery. It is not in the officer’s report, it isn’t anywhere in the body cam. And so what we are now entertaining is the fact that these jurors can . . . believe that the bruising on her face comes from those punches rather than from the plant.” Counsel explained why this was problematic: “We don’t have the ability to bring in a rebuttal expert to say, ‘Hey, do you think these bruis[es] came from punching or . . . from a plant?’ So, I maintain that [this] is prejudicial.” The trial court responded, “I’ve previously ruled during the course of the trial that I would allow the testimony as long as it was consecutive to the day . . . in question [and] I would allow testimony from . . . the witness about the arguing and the conduct that happened during that date in question.”

¶8        The State went on to call the deputy who had arrested Hararah. On cross-examination, he testified that “[t]he only assault [he] was aware of was the plant being thrown,” and he agreed that if the victim had “mentioned being punched in the face, [he] would have put that in [his] report.” In closing arguments, Counsel portrayed the victim as an unreliable witness based on the inconsistencies between her previous accounts of what happened and her trial testimony.

¶9        Ultimately, the jury found Hararah guilty of domestic violence-related assault. Hararah now appeals.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶10 Hararah presents two issues on appeal. First, he asserts that the district court erred “when it coerced [him] into waiving his right to a preliminary hearing by threatening to not allow him to accept a plea bargain from the State if he exercised his fundamental right to a preliminary hearing.” He argues that this error “violated Article I, Section 13 and Article V, Section 1 of the Utah Constitution; Utah Rules of Criminal Procedure 7(e) and 11(i); and our adversarial system of justice.” Hararah admits that this “issue was not preserved,” but he claims that “either the exceptional circumstances exception or the plain error exception applies here.”

¶11      Second, Hararah asserts that Counsel provided ineffective assistance in two respects: (1) by “fail[ing] to object to the district court coercing [Hararah] into waiving his fundamental right to a preliminary hearing” and (2) by telling the jury “during opening statements that the jury would not hear any testimony about the alleged victim being punched.” “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 [the appellate court] must decide whether the defendant was deprived of the effective assistance of counsel as a matter of law.” State v. Reid, 2018 UT App 146, ¶ 17, 427 P.3d 1261 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 432 P.3d 1225 (Utah 2018).

ANALYSIS

  1. Preliminary Hearing Waiver

¶12      Hararah argues that the district court “violated [his] rights . . . when it—by threatening to prevent him from accepting a plea deal from the State—forced him to waive his right to a preliminary hearing.” Hararah acknowledges that he did not object or otherwise preserve this argument. He argues that either the plain error exception or the exceptional circumstances exception applies. But Hararah cannot prevail under either theory.

  1. Plain Error

¶13      To show plain error, “a defendant must establish that (i) an error exists; (ii) the error should have been obvious to the trial court; and (iii) the error is harmful, i.e., absent the error, there is a reasonable likelihood of a more favorable outcome for the appellant, or phrased differently, our confidence in the verdict is undermined.” State v. Holgate, 2000 UT 74, ¶ 13, 10 P.3d 346 (cleaned up).

¶14      We first address Hararah’s argument that the district court erred by “coercing” or “forcing” him to waive his right to the preliminary hearing. Hararah takes issue with the district court’s statement made at the July 2020 hearing: “Mr. Hararah, do you understand if you go to preliminary hearing, you’re going to trial on the original charges? I won’t allow a plea negotiation after that.” The advisability of this comment[3] is immaterial here because the record indicates that Hararah chose to waive his right to a preliminary hearing for reasons unrelated to the district court’s statement. In other words, the record is clear that the court did not, in fact, force or coerce Hararah to waive the preliminary hearing because he made an independent choice to waive it.

¶15      At the outset of the September 2020 hearing, Counsel said, “I’ve had a chance to speak with Mr. Hararah, [and] he’s willing to waive his right to a preliminary hearing and we can set the case for trial—for the next step.” Critically, Counsel also said during that hearing that “the best offer has been made and Mr. Hararah has had a chance to discuss it, and I think we’re just going to need to figure out when we can get [the case set] for a trial as soon as possible in front of a jury.”

¶16 We make much of the fact that Hararah waived his preliminary hearing in the same hearing in which he expressed his rejection of the State’s “best” plea offer. This shows that Hararah’s waiver was not based on the possibility of future bargaining or a fear that he would not be able to accept a plea deal if he had a preliminary hearing. Counsel did not indicate that Hararah anticipated any plea bargain better than the one the State had offered—as the plea bargain offered was already the “best offer” possible; instead, Counsel represented that Hararah had considered the offer and had decided to proceed to trial rather than accept the offered bargain. And Counsel did not mention the idea that the preliminary hearing was being waived to keep open the prospect of a future plea deal.

¶17      Hararah fails to provide us with any evidence supporting a belief that his independent desire to proceed to trial—after rejecting the State’s “best offer”—was not what drove his decision to waive his right to a preliminary hearing. If Hararah had represented in any way that he was forgoing the preliminary hearing because he was planning to accept a plea deal or wanted to keep his options open, the case before us would be quite different. But instead, the record demonstrates that Hararah was forgoing the preliminary hearing after having fully considered and rejected the State’s best offer and with the goal of going to trial as soon as possible. Accordingly, Hararah has not shown that any error took place, because there is no indication that the district court’s comment had any effect on Hararah’s actions.

¶18      Similarly, the district court’s post-waiver statement that “seeing as we did not go to prelim, we could still have discussions regarding, you know, some other outcome to the . . . litigation” had no bearing on Hararah’s decision to waive his right to a preliminary hearing. At that point, Hararah had already made his decision to forgo the preliminary hearing, and he had also already rejected the State’s best plea offer.

¶19      Furthermore, even if we assume that the district court’s comments alone—rather than Hararah’s counterfactual claimed reliance on them—constituted error, Hararah has not met his burden on plain error review to show prejudice. The record shows that Hararah would have taken the same course of action whether or not the district court made the comments at issue. The same facts discussed above indicate that even if the statements had never been uttered, Hararah would have been presented with and rejected the State’s “best offer” and would have wanted to move as quickly as possible toward trial, including waiving his preliminary hearing. Accordingly, Hararah’s claim on this point fails.[4]

¶20      Moreover, even if “an error exist[ed]” that “should have been obvious to the [district] court,” Holgate, 2000 UT 74, ¶ 13 (cleaned up), any such error was cured by Hararah’s conviction by a jury, see State v. Aleh, 2015 UT App 195, ¶¶ 13–18, 357 P.3d 12, cert. denied, 366 P.3d 1213 (Utah 2016). In Aleh, a defendant “contend[ed] that the trial court erred in denying his motion to withdraw the waiver of his right to a preliminary hearing.” Id. ¶ 13. This court determined that because the “sole purpose” of a preliminary hearing is “determining whether probable cause exists,” “an error at the preliminary stage is cured if the defendant is later convicted beyond a reasonable doubt.” Id. ¶¶ 14–15 (cleaned up). And “[t]his is so even when the error consists of a complete deprivation of a preliminary hearing.” Id. ¶ 16.[5] “Because conviction beyond a reasonable doubt cures any flaw in a preliminary hearing—including the complete deprivation of a preliminary hearing—it necessarily cures any error the [district] court may have made in accepting a defendant’s waiver of the right to a preliminary hearing.” Id. ¶ 18.[6] “Accordingly, [Hararah’s] conviction of all charges beyond a reasonable doubt cured any possible error attending his waiver of a preliminary hearing.” See id.

¶21      Ultimately, Hararah’s argument of plain error fails.

  1. Exceptional Circumstances Doctrine

¶22      We apply the exceptional circumstances doctrine “to reach an unpreserved issue where a rare procedural anomaly has either prevented an appellant from preserving an issue or excuses a failure to do so.” State v. Johnson, 2017 UT 76, ¶ 29, 416 P.3d 443 (cleaned up). Hararah argues that “[b]ecause it is procedurally uncommon in Utah to have a district court force a criminal defendant to waive his constitutional right to a preliminary hearing, a rare procedural anomaly occurred.”

¶23      But the claimed procedural anomaly did not actually occur. Hararah’s argument points to the presumed effect of the district court’s statements (namely, “forc[ing]” Hararah “to waive his constitutional right to a preliminary hearing”) rather than the mere occurrence of the statements as the “rare procedural anomaly.” But as we have explained, Hararah was not forced into waiving his right to a preliminary hearing, because he chose to waive that right for reasons independent from the district court’s comments. The absence of an actual “rare procedural anomaly” alone defeats Hararah’s argument as to the applicability of the exceptional circumstances doctrine, but this is not all.

¶24     Even if we assume that the district court’s statements constituted a “rare procedural anomaly,” Hararah would need to show that they “either prevented [him] from preserving an issue or excuse[d] a failure to do so.” See id. Hararah does not attempt to explain what prevented him from objecting to the district court’s statements and thereby preserving the issue. In reality, there was nothing preventing him from doing so. Hararah could have objected when the district court made the first statement at the July 2020 hearing. But this is not a case where a defendant had only one opportunity to object to an alleged error. Hararah could have taken time to review the issue and objected during the August 2020 hearing. Or he could have objected after the district court’s follow-up comment at the September 2020 hearing. Furthermore, before trial, Hararah could have filed a motion to withdraw his waiver. On this record, Hararah had time and multiple opportunities to object or preserve this issue, and he did not do so.

¶25      Moreover, we are not convinced that Hararah’s failure to preserve the issue is excusable. While we recognize the fundamental nature of the preliminary hearing and we protect defendants’ constitutional rights to preliminary hearings, we also recognize that a defendant has the constitutionally guaranteed right to waive the preliminary hearing. See Utah Const. art. I, § 13 (protecting the right to a preliminary hearing “unless the examination be waived by the accused with the consent of the State”); see also, e.g.Hafen v. State, 2011 UT App 85, ¶¶ 3–4, 249 P.3d 1006 (per curiam) (“[The defendant] filed his petition asserting that he was deprived of his preliminary hearing. . . . The petition was inconsistent with and [superseded] by [the defendant’s] waiver. [The defendant] was not deprived of any right to a preliminary hearing.” (cleaned up)). Waiving a preliminary hearing may have negative implications, but this reality does not invalidate a qualifying waiver. See State v. Bragg, 2013 UT App 282, ¶ 40, 317 P.3d 452 (“[The defendant] waived his right to a preliminary hearing, [forgoing] one opportunity to explore the exact nature of the charges against him and resolve any confusion about what those charges entailed.”). While Hararah may, in retrospect, have benefitted from taking the opportunity to develop the victim’s testimony at the preliminary hearing, this does not invalidate his waiver. And his regrets do not excuse his failure to preserve this issue. Therefore, the exceptional circumstances doctrine does not apply.

  1. Ineffective Assistance

¶26 Hararah also asserts that Counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to object to the district court’s comments discussed above and by informing the jury in opening statements that it would not hear that Hararah had punched the victim.

¶27      “To prevail on a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, [a defendant] must demonstrate that (1) [the defendant’s] counsel’s performance was deficient in that it fell below an objective standard of reasonableness and (2) the deficient performance prejudiced the defense.” State v. Streeper, 2022 UT App 147, ¶ 34, 523 P.3d 710 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 527 P.3d 1106 (Utah 2023); see also Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984). The first prong of this test “requires showing that counsel made errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as the ‘counsel’ guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687. “[T]he defendant must show that counsel’s representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.” Id. at 688.

¶28      The second prong “requires showing that counsel’s errors were so serious as to deprive the defendant of a fair trial, a trial whose result is reliable.” Id. at 687. “When a defendant challenges a conviction, the question is whether there is a reasonable probability that, absent the errors, the factfinder would have had a reasonable doubt respecting guilt.” Id. at 695. “Because failure to establish either prong of the test is fatal to an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, we are free to address [a defendant’s] claims under either prong.” Honie v. State, 2014 UT 19, ¶ 31, 342 P.3d 182.

¶29      We can easily dismiss Hararah’s first assertion of ineffective assistance. As discussed above, Hararah did not provide any evidence that he intended to accept a plea deal and that he based his waiver of the right to a preliminary hearing on such a plan.[7] Counsel was aware of Hararah’s feelings toward the choice between pleading or going to trial and stated repeatedly that Hararah was not interested in pleading guilty or accepting a plea bargain. Accordingly, Hararah has not persuaded us that any comments from the district court related to plea negotiations would have affected his plans at all, so Counsel acted reasonably in choosing not to object to such comments. In other words, the district court’s comments bore no impact on Hararah’s actions, so there was no tactical reason for Counsel to act as Hararah retroactively desires. “In evaluating trial counsel’s performance, we give trial counsel wide latitude in making tactical decisions and will not question such decisions unless there is no reasonable basis supporting them.” State v. Liti, 2015 UT App 186, ¶ 18, 355 P.3d 1078 (cleaned up). Here Counsel acted in line with Hararah’s clear desire to proceed toward trial.

¶30      Additionally, for the same reasons described above, we are convinced that Hararah was not prejudiced by this alleged deficiency in performance. Hararah asserts that “[t]here is a reasonable likelihood that if [he] had been allowed to exercise his right to a preliminary hearing,” his case would have ended differently. But Hararah was able to exercise his right to a preliminary hearing. We have already explained why the district court’s alleged carrot—permitting Hararah the possibility of accepting a plea deal—was no carrot at all based on his express refusal of the State’s “best offer” and his desire to proceed to trial. Hararah’s claim might have some foundation if he had proceeded with a preliminary hearing and the court had, in fact, restricted his ability to negotiate a plea deal or even if he had accepted a plea bargain after waiving the preliminary hearing. But given that he clearly and consistently conveyed his desire to go to trial, that he was offered the “best” plea deal and refused it, and that his conviction by a jury at trial was in no way influenced by the district court’s earlier comments on waiving the preliminary hearing, we are not persuaded that the outcome would have been any different if Counsel had objected. See Strickland, 466 U.S. at 695. Therefore, Hararah cannot show ineffective assistance on this point.

¶31      Hararah’s second allegation of ineffective assistance is also unavailing. Hararah asserts that Counsel performed deficiently by saying in opening statements that the jury would “not hear any testimony about [Hararah] punching [the alleged victim],” when the victim went on to testify that Hararah had, in fact, hit her through a pillow. Hararah argues that Counsel should not have made such a promise without first “lock[ing] in” the victim’s testimony during a preliminary hearing. But, as discussed above, Hararah waived the preliminary hearing of his own free will. And it is clear that neither side was aware the victim would testify that Hararah hit her, because the deputy testified that he did not know of any assault other than Hararah throwing the plant. Accordingly, we do not fault Counsel for making a statement in line with all the known facts, and we conclude that Counsel’s actions are not nearly “so serious that counsel was not functioning as the ‘counsel’ guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment.” Id. at 687.

¶32      Furthermore, Hararah was not prejudiced by this allegedly deficient performance. Counsel was able to paint the victim as an unreliable witness based on the inconsistencies between her previous accounts of what happened and her trial testimony. And Counsel elicited testimony from the State’s own witness that there were no allegations of punching prior to trial. Accordingly, Hararah was in a strong position to counter the State’s case, and the jury still found him guilty of assault. From this, we see no support for “a reasonable probability that, absent the errors, the factfinder would have had a reasonable doubt respecting guilt.” Id. at 695.

CONCLUSION

¶33       Hararah’s claim that the district court coerced him into waiving his preliminary hearing is not supported by the record, so the exceptional circumstances doctrine does not apply and the court also did not plainly err. Additionally, Hararah’s assertion of ineffective assistance of counsel fails. Therefore, we affirm Hararah’s conviction.

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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.

 

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[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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2023 UT 11 – In Re C.D.S. And W.E.S – Appeal of Termination Parental Rights

2023 UT 11 – In re C.D.S. and W.E.S

IN THE SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF UTAH

STATE OF UTAH, in the interest of C.D.S. and W.E.S.,

persons under eighteen years of age.

A.S.,

Petitioner,

v.

STATE OF UTAH,

Respondent.

No. 20220580

Heard February 10, 2023

Filed June 8, 2023

On Certiorari to the Utah Court of Appeals

Eighth District Juvenile, Uintah County

The Honorable Ryan B. Evershed

Nos. 1178352, 1184710

Utah Court of Appeals, Salt Lake

No. 20220100

Attorneys:

K. Andrew Fitzgerald, Moab, for petitioner,

Sean D. Reyes, Att’y Gen., Carol L. C. Verdoia, John M. Peterson,

Asst. Atty’s Gen., Salt Lake City, for respondent

Martha Pierce, Salt Lake City, Guardian ad Litem for C.D.S.

and W.E.S.

ASSOCIATE CHIEF JUSTICE PEARCE authored the opinion of the Court,

in which CHIEF JUSTICE DURRANT, JUSTICE PETERSEN,

JUSTICE POHLMAN, and JUDGE CORNISH joined.

Having recused herself, JUSTICE HAGEN does not participate herein;

DISTRICT COURT JUDGE RITA M. CORNISH sat.

 

ASSOCIATE CHIEF JUSTICE PEARCE, opinion of the Court:

INTRODUCTION

¶1 The juvenile court terminated the parental rights of a mother and father. They each had fifteen days to appeal. Father appealed within that window. Mother filed her notice of appeal on the wrong side of the deadline. The court of appeals dismissed Mother’s appeal as untimely.

¶2 Mother argues that the court of appeals erred for a couple of reasons. We reject Mother’s argument that a minute entry that came after the court signed the final order restarted the clock on her time to appeal. But we agree with her that Utah Rule of Appellate Procedure 52(c)—together with Father’s timely appeal—extended her time to file a notice of appeal. We reverse and remand to the court of appeals.

BACKGROUND

¶3 In September 2019, the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) petitioned the juvenile court to remove two-year-old Chester from Mother and Father’s custody. At the time, Mother was pregnant with their second child, Winnie.[1]

¶4 The juvenile court placed Chester in the temporary custody of his aunt and uncle. The court also ordered DCFS to provide Mother and Father with reunification services.

¶5 After Winnie was born, DCFS initially allowed Winnie to stay with Mother and Father. A few months after Winnie’s birth, however, DCFS filed a “Motion for Expedited Placement and Temporary Custody” for Winnie. From the beginning of 2020 to the beginning of 2021, the juvenile court conducted several permanency and review hearings for the children. At the end of 2020, the court authorized Chester to live with Mother and Father in a trial home placement.

¶6 At a hearing a few months later, the juvenile court determined that, while Mother and Father had substantially complied with the reunification plan, reunification was not likely to be appropriate within the next ninety days. The court terminated DCFS’s reunification services and changed the children’s primary permanency goal from reunification to adoption.

¶7 In November 2021, the juvenile court held a trial. At the trial’s conclusion, the court indicated that it would enter an order terminating Mother’s and Father’s parental rights.

¶8 The juvenile court entered the written termination order (Termination Order) on January 7, 2022, which terminated Mother’s and Father’s parental rights. In it, the court detailed the grounds it relied upon to terminate Mother’s and Father’s parental rights. The juvenile court found that DCFS made reasonable efforts to provide reunification services to Mother and Father, and found that it was in the best interest of the children for Mother’s and Father’s parental rights to be terminated and for the children to be adopted.

¶9 The Termination Order stated: “This is a final and appealable order. There will be no further order after this as related to the parent’s [sic] parental rights.” It also informed Mother and Father that they had “15 days from the signing of this order to file a Notice of Appeal with the Juvenile Court.”[2]

¶10 On January 10, 2022, the juvenile court filed a minute entry titled “Minutes.”[3] The Minutes contained a condensed recitation of what had occurred at trial. Among other particulars, it detailed who was present in the courtroom, the names of those who testified, and the exhibits the court entered into evidence. The Minutes also contained several findings of fact and ordered the termination of Mother’s and Father’s parental rights.

¶11 On January 24, 2022, Father filed his notice of appeal.[4] On January 25, Mother’s trial counsel filed a notice of appeal.

¶12 The court of appeals determined that Mother’s appeal was not filed within fifteen days of the Termination Order, as Utah Rule of Appellate Procedure 52(a) requires. The panel dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction. This court granted certiorari review.

¶13 Mother contends that her appeal was timely filed for at least one of two reasons. Mother first points to the Minutes that the court filed several days after it entered the written termination order. Mother argues that the minute entry constitutes a new appealable order and that she had fifteen days from the entry of that order to file her notice of appeal. The State and the guardian ad litem disagree.

¶14 Mother next asserts that the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure allow her to file a notice of appeal within five days of Father’s timely filed notice. Rule 52(c) states that after a party files a notice of appeal, “any other party” may file its notice of appeal within five days. Mother asserts that she is “any other party” within the rule’s meaning. The State largely agrees with Mother’s argument. The guardian ad litem does not.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶15 “Whether jurisdiction is proper is a legal question that we review for correctness . . . .” State ex rel. A.C.M., 2009 UT 30, ¶ 6, 221 P.3d 185. The court of appeals based its decision on an interpretation of the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure. “The interpretation of a rule of procedure is a question of law that we review for correctness.” Arbogast Family Tr. v. River Crossings, LLC, 2010 UT 40, ¶ 10, 238 P.3d 1035 (cleaned up).

ANALYSIS

I. THE MINUTE ENTRY DID NOT EXTEND MOTHER’S TIME TO APPEAL

¶16 The court of appeals held that it lacked jurisdiction over Mother’s appeal because it was filed outside the fifteen-day timeframe that Utah Rule of Appellate Procedure 52(c) provides. Mother argues that the court of appeals erred when it calculated the fifteen-day period from the entry of the Termination Order and not the subsequently entered Minutes. Mother argues that she is entitled to appeal from the Minutes and that her notice of appeal of that ruling was timely filed.

¶17 The State and the guardian ad litem argue that the court of appeals correctly held that the minute entry was not a separately appealable order. The State claims that the Minutes were “a mere ministerial document from which the judgment must be drawn” and that the minute entry was not an appealable order because it “was a belated entry that did not modify or change the substance of the Termination Order.” The guardian ad litem similarly argues that the Termination Order “triggered the timing for the notice of appeal” and that the minute entry was an inconsequential “after-the-fact ministerial document[].”

¶18 The clock to file a notice of appeal starts when “the court directs that no additional order need be entered.” Giusti v. Sterling Wentworth Corp., 2009 UT 2, ¶ 35, 201 P.3d 966. There can be no doubt that the Termination Order met this test. The Order stated: “There will be no further order after this as related to the parent’s [sic] parental rights,” and informed Mother and Father that they had fifteen days to appeal.[5]

¶19 This statement in the Termination Order alone, of course, does not answer the question this case presents. Mother asks what the effect is of a subsequently entered order on the same topic as a final appealable order. This is a question that we answered long ago. If one order starts to run the time for appeal, the entry of another order does not restart the clock if the later entry does not change the substance of the first.

¶20 For example, in Adamson v. Brockbank, we held that the defendants could file their appeal from an order amending an original judgment, even though the date to file a timely appeal from the original order had already passed. Adamson v. Brockbank, 185 P.2d 264, 268 (Utah 1947). The amended order corrected an inconsistency in the original judgment. Id. This correction clarified the liability of a defendant, an alteration we held was significant enough to change the character of the judgment. Id. We articulated the principle that, “where a belated entry merely constitutes an amendment or modification not changing the substance or character of the judgment, such entry . . . relates back to the time the original judgment was entered.” Id.

¶21 We relied on this holding in State v. Garner, 2005 UT 6, 106 P.3d 729. There, a modification to an original judgment clarified the nature of the defendant’s conditional plea in greater detail. Id. ¶ 12. But this was “a redundant addition, not a material change” and thus did not extend the time for Garner’s appeal. Id.¶¶ 11, 13.

¶22 Here, the Minutes did not amend or modify the substance of the Termination Order. The Minutes recited short findings of fact and repeated the conclusion that the parental rights be terminated. It did not change the parents’ rights or the children’s status. The minute entry did not amend or modify the Termination Order, so the time to appeal ran from the entry of the Termination Order. The court of appeals did not err when it rejected Mother’s argument.

II. RULE 52(C) EXTENDED MOTHER’S TIME TO APPEAL

¶23 Mother also argues that the court of appeals incorrectly concluded that Father’s appeal, filed one day before Mother’s, did not extend Mother’s time to appeal. The court of appeals held that rule 52(c) of the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure “relates to cross-appeals, i.e., appeals filed by someone who has already been made a party to the appeal.” The court, therefore, held that Mother was “required to file her own timely appeal” because she “was not a party to Father’s appeal.”

¶24 Mother argues that rule 52(c) allows a party five days to file a notice of appeal from the date another party to the case files its notice of appeal.[6] The State agrees with Mother and contends the court of appeals incorrectly determined that “rule 52(c) did not render Mother’s notice of appeal timely.”[7] The State expresses uncertainty on whether Mother has initiated her own appeal or must be limited to the issues presented in Father’s appeal, but it still concludes that the “plain language of appellate rule 52(c) means that Mother has, at least, successfully initiated a cross-appeal.”[8]

¶25 “When we interpret a procedural rule, we do so according to our general rules of statutory construction.” Arbogast Family Tr. v. River Crossings, LLC, 2010 UT 40, ¶ 18, 238 P.3d 1035. In statutory construction, “our primary goal is to evince the true intent and purpose of the Legislature,” the “best evidence” of which “is the plain language of the statute itself.” Zilleruelo v. Commodity Transporters, Inc., 2022 UT 1, ¶ 18, 506 P.3d 509 (cleaned up). Thus, “[w]e interpret court rules, like statutes and administrative rules, according to their plain language.” Arbogast Family Tr., 2010 UT 40, ¶ 18 (cleaned up). Although we do this with the added wrinkle that, when we interpret the Utah Rules of Procedure, the intent we most often attempt to discern through the text is ours, and not the Legislature’s.

¶26 Rule 52(c) is straightforward: “If a timely notice of appeal is filed by a party, any other party may file a notice of appeal within 5 days after the first notice of appeal was filed.” UTAH R. APP. P. 52(c). Nothing in the language of the rule itself limits the phrase “any other party” the way the court of appeals did. That is, nothing in the plain text limits the rule’s reach to a party who is already part of the appeal.

¶27 The court of appeals’ reading of rule 52(c) appears to have been influenced by the rule’s title. We put the label “Time for cross-appeal” on that subsection. However, we have noted that “[t]he title of a statute is not part of the text of a statute, and absent ambiguity, it is generally not used to determine a statute’s intent.” Blaisdell v. Dentrix Dental Sys., Inc., 2012 UT 37, ¶ 10, 284 P.3d 616 (cleaned up). We are in what some would consider good company with that proposition. A prominent treatise on the topic counsels that a “title or heading should never be allowed to override the plain words of a text.” ANTONIN SCALIA & BRYAN A. GARNER, READING LAW: THE INTERPRETATION OF LEGAL TEXTS 222 (2012).[9]

¶28 It nevertheless appears the court of appeals relied on this title and imported the language “party to this appeal” into the rule, such that it would read: “If a timely notice of appeal is filed by a party, any other party [who was made party to the appeal] may file a notice of appeal within 5 days after the first notice of appeal was filed.” UTAH R. APP. P. 52(c).

¶29 As Mother points out, “[t]he rules do not define ‘a party’ as something different than those who were parties to the proceedings before the district or juvenile court.” The court of appeals’ dismissal incorrectly “would define ‘a party’ in the lower courts as different than ‘a party’ before the appellate courts on the same matter.”

¶30 Our reading of the rule is buttressed by how we understand rule 52(c) came to be. It is based on rule 4 of the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure, which is, in turn, based on rule 4(a)(3) of the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure.[10] See UTAH RULES OF APPELLATE PROCEDURE: WITH NOTES OF THE SUPREME COURT ADVISORY COMMITTEE 14 (1984) (on file with the Utah State Law Library) (stating that rule 4(d) “adopts substantially the time period and concept of cross-appeal in Rule 4(a)(3)” of the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure).

¶31 Rule 4(a)(3) of the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure gives a party fourteen days after another party appeals to file its appeal.[11] Wright and Miller’s treatise on federal procedure explains that rule 4(a)(3) allows any party to take advantage of the additional time to file a notice of appeal. “The 14-day provision is not limited to cross-appeals, and plainly encompasses appeals by other parties such as co-parties or third-party defendants.” 16A CHARLES ALAN WRIGHT & ARTHUR R. MILLER, FEDERAL PRACTICE & PROCEDURE: JURISDICTION § 3950.7 (5th ed. 2022) (Westlaw).[12]

¶32 This interpretation reflects the views of the advisory committee. When the committee recommended a substantive amendment to this rule, it noted:

The added time which may be made available by the operation of the provision is not restricted to cross appeals in the technical sense, i.e., to appeals by parties made appellees by the nature of the initial appeal. The exception permits any party to the action who is entitled to appeal within the time ordinarily prescribed to appeal within such added time as the sentence affords.

Advisory Committee Note to 1966 Amendments to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73(a), 39 F.R.D. 69, 131 (1966) (amending then rule 73(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a rule later incorporated into the appellate rules).

¶33 In other words, if Mother were in federal court, or in a non-child welfare case in a Utah court, her appeal would undoubtedly be timely filed under rules that in all aspects—other than title and time frame—mirror rule 52(c). The only part of rule 52(c) that suggests a different result is the title, and, as we have noted, we don’t use titles that way.

¶34 And here, there is additional reason to believe that we did not intend to use the rule’s title to work a substantive limitation on the rule’s text. In 2003, the Advisory Committee on the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure heard from an assistant attorney general in the Child Welfare Division who “described child welfare proceedings and the need to expedite appeals from parental rights terminations” to “help stabilize” children’s lives. Approved Minutes, SUPREME COURT’S ADVISORY COMMITTEE ON THE UTAH RULES OF APPELLATE PROCEDURE, ADMINISTRATIVE OFFICE OF THE COURTS (hereinafter Approved Minutes, SUPREME COURT’S ADVISORY COMMITTEE) (Nov. 19, 2003).

¶35 The need for speed was reiterated at a 2017 committee meeting, which discussed amendments to rule 52 and other child welfare appellate rules. The minutes of that meeting laid out that “[t]he purpose of these amendments is to expedite adoption and termination of parental rights appeals from the district courts and put them on the same footing as appeals from child welfare proceedings in the juvenile courts.” Approved Minutes, SUPREME COURT’S ADVISORY COMMITTEE (Sept. 7, 2017).

¶36 The rules committee also discussed the relationship between rule 52 and rule 4 when a member “proposed, and the committee agreed, that Rule 52 should be amended to make it consistent with the recent changes that were approved to Rule 4(b).” Approved Minutes, SUPREME COURT’S ADVISORY COMMITTEE (May 5, 2016). Thus, it appears the drive behind these rules was not to have rule 52(c) exclude certain appeals that rule 4 includes but to maintain the structure of rule 4 while expediting child welfare proceedings.[13]

¶37 The guardian ad litem offers a different interpretation of the rule than Mother, the State, and the court of appeals. She avers that Mother was a party to her own termination proceedings but was never, even at the district court level, a party to Father’s termination proceedings. The guardian ad litem thus contends that Mother was not “any party” in the context of the rule because she was not a party to the proceedings Father appealed.

¶38 The guardian ad litem supports this argument with something we said in State ex rel. A.C.M. There, we noted that we “treat the termination of each parent’s rights separately for purposes of finality and appealability.” State ex rel. A.C.M., 2009 UT 30, ¶ 12, 221 P.3d 185. The guardian ad litem in A.C.M. claimed that the order terminating the father’s parental rights was not a final order because the mother’s rights had not yet been terminated. Id. We reasoned that the order terminating the father’s rights was “final and appealable because it constitute[d] a change in the child’s status” with respect to the father. Id. That also prompted the observation on which the guardian ad litem relies.

¶39 We stand by the observation that we can treat the termination of each parent’s rights separately for the purposes of finality and appealability. But that is not to say that parents cannot be parties to the same case. And A.C.M. says nothing about the applicability of rule 52(c) when the system adjudicates both parents’ rights in the same action and addresses them in the same order.

¶40 The guardian ad litem claims that there was one termination proceeding for Father and a separate one for Mother—and that the juvenile court consolidated these cases without making either parent party to the other’s case. The record before us does not bear that out. A separate case was initiated relating to each child. Mother and Father were parties in both cases. The juvenile court consolidated Chester’s case and Winnie’s case, though each case maintained its own case number. The court did not—indeed, it could not— consolidate the parents’ cases, because those cases did not exist. The court conducted a single trial in which both Mother and Father presented evidence and arguments. That trial resulted in a single order that lists both Mother and Father as parties.

¶41 On these facts, we have no trouble concluding that Mother was “another party” within the meaning of Utah Rule of Appellate Procedure 52(c) and is entitled to the additional five days to file a notice of appeal.[14]

III. WE DECLINE TO ADDRESS MOTHER’S CLAIMS OF INEFFECTIVE ASSISTANCE OF COUNSEL

¶42 Mother spends a considerable portion of her brief arguing that her appeal should be considered timely because her counsel was ineffective for filing past the fifteen-day deadline. Mother also argues she was prejudiced by her denial of the right to appeal.

¶43 Mother asked us to grant certiorari review on this issue. We did not. We note for future reference that an order that does not grant certiorari on an issue is a pretty good signal that we do not intend to address the question.[15]

CONCLUSION

¶44 The court of appeals correctly ruled that the time for Mother to file her appeal ran from the entry of the Termination Order and not the subsequent Minutes. The court of appeals erred when it concluded that Utah Rule of Appellate Procedure 52(c) only applied to parties filing a cross-appeal. Mother timely filed her notice of appeal. We reverse and remand to the court of appeals to consider Mother’s appeal.

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

 

[1] Chester and Winnie are pseudonyms.

[2] The Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure provide the fifteen-day timeline in child welfare proceedings. Rule 52(a) states that in this setting, a notice of appeal “must be filed within 15 days of the entry of the order appealed from.” UTAH R. APP. P. 52(a).

[3] As we march through our analysis, we will refer to this document as both the minute entry and the Minutes.

[4] The fifteenth day was Saturday, January 22, 2022. By operation of rule 22(a) of the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure, which does not require parties to file on Saturdays and Sundays, the time for filing the petition was extended to the following Monday, January 24. See UTAH R. APP. P. 22(a).

[5] Mother questions whether our precedent on the finality of orders applies to child welfare proceedings. It generally does, though our rules and precedent make some distinction between child welfare and non-child welfare cases. For example, rule 58A of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure requires that “[e]very judgment and amended judgment must be set out in a separate document.” There is no such requirement in child welfare proceedings. See UTAH R. APP. P. 52(a); State ex rel. A.C.M., 2009 UT 30, ¶ 10, 221 P.3d 185. But no rule or precedent alters the conclusion that a belated entry or modification that does not change the substance of a final order does not create a new final and appealable order.

[6] Rule 52(c) of the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure, titled “Time for cross-appeal,” reads:

If a timely notice of appeal is filed by a party, any other party may file a notice of appeal within 5 days after the first notice of appeal was filed, or within the time otherwise prescribed by paragraphs (a) and (b) of this rule, whichever period last expires.

[7] The State—both in its briefs and during oral argument— acknowledges that rule 52(c)’s plain language supports Mother’s argument. We commend the State for its candor.

[8] The guardian ad litem disagrees for reasons we will discuss and dismiss in a page or two.

[9] That is not to say that titles are irrelevant. When “we need help understanding an ambiguous provision, titles are persuasive and can aid in ascertaining the statute’s correct interpretation and application.” Graham v. Albertson’s LLC, 2020 UT 15, ¶ 24, 462 P.3d 367 (cleaned up). We just don’t use titles to create ambiguity. This is because titles are generally shorthand descriptions of what is to follow and can miss some of the complexities of the text to come.

[10] Utah Rule of Appellate Procedure 4 states, in relevant part: “If a timely notice of appeal is filed by a party, any other party may file a notice of appeal within 14 days after the date on which the first notice of appeal was filed.” UTAH R. APP. P. 4(d). Unlike rule 52(c), it gives “any other party” fourteen days (instead of five) to file an appeal. In addition, rule 4(d) is titled “Additional or cross-appeal” rather than “Time for cross-appeal.” Compare UTAH R. APP. P. 4(d), with UTAH R. APP. P. 52(c).

[11] The federal rule bears the title “Multiple Appeals.” FED. R. APP. P. 4(a)(3).

[12] Other treatises echo this understanding. See, e.g., JAMES WM. MOORE ET AL., MOORE’S FEDERAL PRACTICE: CIVIL § 304.11 (2023) (LexisNexis) (“This provision is not restricted, however, to parties named as appellees in the initial appeal.”); 18 BENDER’S FEDERAL PRACTICE FORMS, COMMENT ON APPELLATE RULE 4 (2022) (LexisNexis) (“This provision is not restricted to parties named as appellees in the initial appeal. Any party to the action is entitled to the benefit of the additional 14-day period.”). This is also the way several federal cases have interpreted the rule. See, e.g.N. A,ii. Sav. Ass’n v. Metroplex Dev. P’ship, 931 F.2d 1073, 1077–78 (5th Cir. 1991); Melton v. Frank, 891 F.2d 1054, 1056 n.1 (2d Cir. 1989); Jackson Jordan, Inc. v. Plasser A,ii. Corp., 725 F.2d 1373, 1374–76 (Fed. Cir. 1984).

[13] We encourage the Advisory Committee on the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure to look at clarifying the title so it better reflects the rule’s language and intent.

[14] 14 There is logic underlying rule 52(c). There may be occasions when a party’s calculus on whether to file an appeal may be impacted by another party’s decision to appeal. Using the facts of this case, for example—and we stress that this is a hypothetical and not a reflection of what we think actually occurred—it is entirely possible that a person in Mother’s position might decide not to appeal the termination of her parental rights if she thinks it will only delay adoption of the children. Mother’s thinking could dramatically change if her co-parent appeals and the possible outcomes include not only adoption, but restoration of Father’s parental rights and not hers. In that case, it makes sense that our rules would give Mother a few additional days to assess the changed landscape and decide whether to appeal.

[15] The guardian ad litem advocates that we task our rules committee with considering a new rule that would “reinstate the time for appeal in child welfare cases where a parent’s right to effective counsel is implicated.” We have previously recognized that a trial court may extend the time for appeal in a proceeding on termination of parental rights if a parent was denied effective assistance of counsel. State ex rel. M.M., 2003 UT 54, ¶¶ 6, 9, 82 P.3d 1104. But this is not the same as a rule that says the court shall reinstate the time for appeal when a parent can show that they have been denied effective representation. We encourage the Advisory Committee on the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure to explore such a rule, and we thank the guardian ad litem for the excellent suggestion.

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2023 UT App 61 – State v. West – violation of civil stalking injunction

2023 UT App 61 – State v. West

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellee,

v.

DEBORAH JEAN WEST,

Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20210335-CA

Filed June 2, 2023

Fifth District Court, St. George Department

The Honorable Jeffrey C. Wilcox

The Honorable John J. Walton

No. 191500815

Nicolas D. Turner, Attorney for Appellant

Eric Clarke and James R. Weeks,

Attorneys for Appellee

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

concurred.

CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, Judge:

¶1        Deborah Jean West appeals from a jury’s determination that she violated a civil stalking injunction, challenging her conviction and the sentencing court’s sentence on several grounds. West asserts that the trial court erred in denying her pretrial motions to exclude certain evidence and to continue the trial. West also argues that her pro se post-trial motions to dismiss were denied in error. Finally, West argues that her constitutional right to be represented by counsel was violated when the court sentenced her without first determining whether her decision to represent herself was made knowingly and intelligently.

¶2        We uphold the trial court’s denial of the motion to exclude evidence and the motion to continue and therefore affirm West’s conviction. However, because the sentencing court did not ensure that West’s waiver of counsel was done knowingly, we vacate West’s sentence and remand for further proceedings. Because of our resolution of those issues, we do not reach the merits of West’s argument regarding her post-trial motions.

BACKGROUND

The Pretrial Motions and Trial

¶3        In May 2019, West was charged with violating a stalking injunction. The stalking injunction included the restriction that West was not to come within twenty feet of C.L. (Petitioner). The charge against West derived from an encounter between Petitioner and West that occurred in their housing community’s clubhouse library. At trial, the State bore the burden to prove that West intentionally or knowingly violated the stalking injunction. See Utah Code § 76-5-106.5(2)(b).

¶4        After being notified by the State that it intended to introduce evidence that West had allegedly violated the injunction on two other occasions after charges were filed, West filed a motion in limine the day before trial to preclude the admission of that evidence. The court addressed this motion on the first day of trial. West argued that the evidence should be excluded because it was improper character evidence, lacked any relevance, and posed a danger of unfair prejudice. The State argued that the evidence of West’s other alleged violations of the injunction should be admitted and presented to the jury to show West’s intent, knowledge, or lack of mistake, which the State argued was relevant to proving the intent element of the charged crime. See Utah R. Evid. 404(b) (stating that evidence of a crime, wrong, or other act is not admissible to prove propensity, but may be admissible to prove “motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, absence of mistake, or lack of accident”).

¶5        When the trial court indicated its intention to admit the evidence, West’s counsel requested a continuance of the trial, arguing that as the State’s disclosure of the evidence was made only fifteen days before trial, he was precluded from appropriately preparing for the evidence, such as giving potential witnesses the proper notice to appear to testify. West’s counsel further contended that based on the sparse information regarding the State’s evidence, he would not have known whom to subpoena. The trial court ultimately denied the motion to continue, stating, “We have a jury here, a jury panel. I want the case tried,” indicating that it might “revisit the issue again” as the evidence was admitted.

¶6        During trial, the evidence presented showed that Petitioner was present at the clubhouse library, West entered the library, a brief verbal interaction occurred between the two, Petitioner called the police, and West left the library.

¶7        Petitioner testified that when she saw West was about to enter the library, she said, “Please don’t come in now. There is a 20-feet rule. You need to stay away from me 20-feet. . . . Or I’m going to have to call the police.” Despite this warning, West continued to enter the library and responded by saying something to the effect that she did not care and to “go ahead.” She then proceeded to remove her shoes, step onto a couch cushion, and hang a poster advertising a community event. Petitioner then left the clubhouse library in search of another person to witness that West had entered the clubhouse library where Petitioner had been. During Petitioner’s testimony, the State also showed video surveillance of the door to the clubhouse library, showing West walking in and Petitioner walking out shortly afterward. And a police officer testified that following the incident, based upon Petitioner’s report, he measured the approximate distance that would have been between Petitioner and West and concluded that West was easily within the twenty-foot radius prohibited by the stalking injunction.

¶8        The State also presented evidence of the two other interactions between West and Petitioner—both occurring after the library incident for which West was charged and before the trial—where West was alleged to have been closer to Petitioner than the injunction’s twenty-foot restriction. In the first incident, both West and Petitioner attended a community potluck, and West sat at a table within twenty feet of Petitioner. In the second incident, while attending services at their church, Petitioner was in the church foyer and West approached, put her things down near where Petitioner was standing, and then stood within the same area for an extended time.

¶9        West testified at trial and she and her counsel had the following exchange after viewing surveillance video from the clubhouse library:

Counsel: [S]o you saw in the video [Petitioner] walks off away from the library, correct? And then the video shows you walking out some seconds later in the same direction. Is that correct?

West: That is correct.

Counsel: Now did you know where she had gone?

West: No.

Counsel: Okay. So where were you going when you walked out of there?

West: I was going to the kitchen . . . . And then I went from there into the exercise room.

Counsel: So you hung up two more posters after the library. And then did you leave?

West: Yes . . . .

¶10 Following deliberation, the jury found West guilty of violating the stalking injunction.

The Post-trial Motions and Sentencing

¶11      After trial and prior to sentencing, West filed several pro se post-trial motions, claiming in each that she was no longer represented by counsel. West also aired numerous grievances, of which few are relevant here. Pertinent to this appeal, West took issue with the trial court’s admission of the evidence of the other instances of alleged contact between her and Petitioner, and she repeatedly requested that her case be dismissed.

¶12      During a sentencing review hearing in December 2019, the sentencing court[1] asked West if she would “like a new lawyer,” to which West responded in the negative. Without engaging in any colloquy[2] and without questioning West about her understanding of the significance and the risk of proceeding without counsel, the court accepted West’s indication to proceed pro se, ordered West’s trial counsel to withdraw, and allowed West to represent herself.

¶13      At her sentencing hearing approximately sixteen months later—the delay in proceedings due in small part to expected scheduling conflicts and in larger part to the COVID-19 pandemic—the court engaged in no further discussion with West about her decision to waive counsel and represent herself, other than to note that West “put [herself] at a disadvantage . . . having fired [her] lawyer,” which was “pretty clear in the record, and [West] confirmed that . . . at [the sentencing review].” During this hearing, the sentencing court focused on West’s post-trial motions. The sentencing court indicated on the record that West had “framed most of the written materials . . . as motions to dismiss,” and noted that the motions had not “been submitted for decision, which would normally be required under the [Utah] Rules of Criminal Procedure.” However, the court expressed its intention to provide immediate responses to the motions, having told West that the court “would rule on [the] motions” during the sentencing hearing. The court then proceeded to deny the portion of West’s motions to dismiss dealing with the evidence of the other alleged injunction violations admitted at trial.

¶14 Next, the sentencing court addressed the other issues raised in West’s motions, simply concluding that “frankly, . . . the motions that [West had] made [were] legally frivolous.” The court ultimately denied all of West’s motions in totality and then proceeded with sentencing. The court sentenced West to serve 364 days in jail, but it suspended the jail time, and imposed a fine. The court ordered West to serve eighteen months of probation with the conditions that she complete community service, complete an anger management course, and continue to comply with the stalking injunction. West appeals.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶15      The first issue we address is West’s challenge to the denial of her pretrial motions. She argues that the trial court erred in denying the motion in limine, contending that she was denied the right to a fair trial when the court allowed evidence of additional interactions between West and Petitioner to be admitted. We review for an abuse of discretion a trial court’s decision to admit evidence under rules 404(b), 402, and 403 of the Utah Rules of Evidence. See State v. Tarrats, 2005 UT 50, ¶ 16, 122 P.3d 581 (“Trial courts have wide discretion in determining relevance, probative value, and prejudice. Therefore, we will not reverse the trial court’s ruling on evidentiary issues unless it is manifest that the trial court so abused its discretion that there is a likelihood that injustice resulted.” (quotation simplified)). In the event that the trial court admits evidence in error, “we will not disturb the outcome of a trial if the admission of the evidence did not reasonably affect the likelihood of a different verdict.” State v. Miranda, 2017 UT App 203, ¶ 24, 407 P.3d 1033 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 417 P.3d 581 (Utah 2018). And West “bears the burden of showing that [she] was harmed by the trial court’s error.” See id. ¶ 44.

¶16      West further asserts that the trial court erred in denying her request to continue the trial after the court determined the other-acts evidence was admissible. We review the court’s denial of a motion for continuance for an abuse of discretion. State v. Cabututan, 861 P.2d 408, 413 (Utah 1993) (“The standard of review for the denial of a motion for continuance is abuse of discretion: It is well-established that the granting of a continuance is discretionary with the trial judge. Absent a clear abuse of that discretion, the decision will not be reversed by this court.” (quotation simplified)). A trial court “abuses its discretion when it denies a continuance and the resulting prejudice affects the substantial rights of the defendant, such that a review of the record persuades the court that without the error there was a reasonable likelihood of a more favorable result for the defendant.” Mackin v. State, 2016 UT 47, ¶ 33, 387 P.3d 986 (quotation simplified).

¶17      Next, we address West’s argument that her constitutional right to be represented by counsel at sentencing was violated because the sentencing court did not adequately explore through an on-the-record colloquy whether her waiver of counsel was knowingly and intelligently made with an understanding of the risks of representing herself. In the absence of a colloquy, we review the record de novo to determine whether the defendant knowingly and intelligently waived her right to counsel. See State v. Pedockie, 2006 UT 28, ¶ 45, 137 P.3d 716 (“De novo review is appropriate because the validity of a waiver does not turn upon whether the trial judge actually conducted the colloquy, but upon whether the defendant understood the consequences of waiver.” (quotation simplified)). “Whether [West’s] waiver was knowing and intelligent involves a mixed question of law and fact which we review for correctness, but with a reasonable measure of discretion given to the [trial] court’s application of the facts to the law.” State v. Bozarth, 2021 UT App 117, ¶ 21, 501 P.3d 116 (quotation simplified).[3]

ANALYSIS

  1. Pretrial Motions

¶18      West first challenges the trial court’s denials of her motion to exclude evidence and motion to continue the trial. We do not reach the merits of West’s argument that the trial court erroneously admitted the other-acts evidence or abused its discretion in denying her continuance motion because even if the trial court erred, West has failed to meet her burden to show that she was prejudiced by either alleged error such that our confidence in the jury’s verdict is undermined. See State v. High, 2012 UT App 180, ¶ 41, 282 P.3d 1046 (“We will not disturb the jury’s verdict unless the likelihood of a different outcome is sufficiently high to undermine confidence in the verdict.” (quotation simplified)). In other words, West has not persuaded us that a “reasonable likelihood exists that the [alleged] error affected the outcome of the proceedings.” State v. Bilek, 2018 UT App 208, ¶ 35, 437 P.3d 544 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 440 P.3d 693 (Utah 2019). “A reasonable likelihood requires a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome.” State v. Gallegos, 2020 UT App 162, ¶ 62, 479 P.3d 631 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 496 P.3d 717 (Utah 2021).

  1. Motion to Exclude Rule 404(b) Evidence

¶19      West contends on appeal that evidence of other uncharged alleged violations of the stalking injunction admitted at trial was “precisely what [rule] 404(b) was intended to bar.”[4] West further argues that had the jury not heard the evidence of these other alleged violations, “there was a reasonable likelihood that West would not have been found guilty of the charge.” Rule 404(b) of the Utah Rules of Evidence provides that other-acts evidence, while prohibited to “prove a person’s character in order to show that on a particular occasion the person acted in conformity with the character,” may be admissible for other purposes, such as “proving motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, absence of mistake, or lack of accident.” Utah R. Evid. 404(b). Such evidence must also pass the muster of rules 402 and 403, which require that evidence be relevant and have probative value that is not substantially outweighed by a danger of unfair prejudice. See id. R. 402, 403.

¶20      However, we need not address the underlying question of whether the trial court erred in admitting the other-acts evidence because, “even if the admission of rule 404(b) evidence by the [trial] court was in error, reversal on appeal is not appropriate unless the defendant demonstrates that the error materially affected the fairness or outcome of the trial.” Bilek, 2018 UT App 208, ¶ 35 (quotation simplified). Thus, the burden rests on West to make such a showing, and she fails to carry her burden here. In arguing that she was prejudiced, West simply asserts that, “[a]bsent the 404(b) evidence, there was a reasonable likelihood that West would not have been found guilty of the charge herein.” But she does not then provide much discussion as to how the outcome of the trial would have differed absent the admitted other-acts evidence, other than to essentially conclude that because it was, therefore it is so. That is, West has failed to demonstrate how excluding evidence that she was close to Petitioner at church and at a potluck, after the events in the clubhouse library, would have changed the jury’s determination that West knowingly and intentionally came within twenty feet of Petitioner while in the clubhouse library in violation of the injunction.

¶21      To be sure, the evidence of the other acts was most likely helpful to the State in proving its case. Absent the evidence, the State would have had to rely solely on Petitioner’s credibility in the eyes of the jury and her testimony of what occurred between West and her to support its case that West had knowingly and intentionally violated the stalking injunction. See Utah Code § 76-5-106.5(2)(b). But even without the other-acts evidence, evidence and testimony presented to the jury during trial sufficiently supports our confidence in the jury’s verdict. See State v. Ferguson, 2011 UT App 77, ¶ 20, 250 P.3d 89 (acknowledging that while erroneously admitted evidence had “the potential of being highly prejudicial, the other evidence presented at trial was sufficiently strong as to convince us that there was no reasonable likelihood of a different result” (quotation simplified)), cert. denied, 262 P.3d 1187 (Utah 2011); High, 2012 UT App 180, ¶¶ 50– 51, 54 (noting that while the case was not like Ferguson, “where the evidence of guilt was overwhelming” in the absence of evidence allegedly admitted in error, the court’s “confidence in the jury’s verdict” was not undermined as “the jury would still have heard unchallenged and properly admitted” evidence supporting the defendant’s guilt).

¶22      For example, here the jury heard generally unchallenged testimony from Petitioner about the nature of her encounter with West: that she told West to stop and not enter until she was finished or she would have to call the police, and that West ignored her entreaty and threat and carried on with her business in the clubhouse library. The jury then heard West testify as to her actions following the encounter with Petitioner. Even by her own account, West did not immediately leave after the incident, but instead made her way through the clubhouse facilities without much concern about whether Petitioner was still in the area or not. The jury was also aware, by nature of the charge against West, that a stalking injunction was in place, and it could have reasonably inferred that West had a history of unwanted interactions with Petitioner that would warrant the imposition of the stalking injunction, and that the reported clubhouse library incident was not just a solitary incident. And West has not argued how all of this, standing alone and absent the added gloss of the rule 404(b) evidence, would have induced the jury to find in her favor instead.

¶23 Accordingly, we are not persuaded that exclusion of the other two alleged incidents would so tilt the jury’s view of West’s credibility as to change its verdict. In other words, West has failed to persuade us that even without the admission of the other alleged violations of the stalking injunction, the result of the trial would have been favorable for her.

  1. Motion to Continue

¶24 West also contends the court’s denial of her motion to continue to address the other violations evidence “deprived [her] of her right to a fair trial.” A defendant bears the burden of showing that the trial court’s denial of the motion to continue was “an unreasonable action that prejudiced the party.” State v. Cornejo, 2006 UT App 215, ¶ 14, 138 P.3d 97 (quotation simplified). “Such prejudice exists when our review of the record persuades us that had the trial court not denied the continuance request there would have been a reasonable likelihood of a more favorable result for the moving party.” Id. (quotation simplified). West again fails to persuade us that the denial of the continuance was prejudicial.

¶25      West has not outlined on appeal how her defense strategy would have changed had she been given more time to prepare. And though she indicates in her brief and told the sentencing court judge that she had witnesses to one of the incidents, she has neither provided even the slightest information on who those witnesses may be nor provided an explanation as to whether they would have been available to testify within an appropriate time frame. Moreover, West does not flesh out on appeal why the State’s information was so lacking that she could not subpoena witnesses prior to trial. See id. ¶ 15 (“When a party to a criminal action moves for a continuance in order to procure the testimony of an absent witness, the party must demonstrate that: (1) the testimony sought is material and admissible, (2) the witness could actually be produced, (3) the witness could be produced within a reasonable time, and (4) due diligence had been exercised before the request for a continuance.” (quotation simplified) (quoting State v. Creviston, 646 P.2d 750, 752 (Utah 1982))). West contends only that once the trial court allowed the other-acts evidence to be introduced, “had the continuance been afforded as it should have been, counsel would have had time to gather evidence, find witnesses, and raise a defense against that other evidence.” This simply is not a sufficient showing on appeal to persuade us that the denial of her motion to continue affected the outcome of the trial. Therefore, her claim fails here as well.

  1. Knowing and Intelligent Waiver

¶26 The next question before us is whether West knowingly and intelligently waived her right to be represented by counsel at sentencing. West argues that because there was no colloquy on the record that would inform this court that her waiver was knowingly and intelligently made, her waiver was invalid. The State disagrees and argues that even in the absence of a colloquy conducted by the sentencing court, the record shows that West knowingly and intelligently waived her right to counsel because she “was given a front row seat to the intricacies of navigating a criminal case” as she did not excuse her counsel until after the trial.

¶27 “Under both the United States and Utah Constitutions, a criminal defendant has the right to assistance of counsel,” State v. Hall, 2013 UT App 4, ¶ 25, 294 P.3d 632, cert. denied, 308 P.3d 536 (Utah 2013), which includes the right to effective counsel for sentencing proceedings, see State v. Casarez, 656 P.2d 1005, 1007 (Utah 1982) (“Sentencing is a critical stage of a criminal proceeding at which a defendant is entitled to the effective assistance of counsel.”). “Concomitant with that right is the criminal defendant’s guaranteed right to elect to present [one’s] own defense.” State v. Hassan, 2004 UT 99, ¶ 21, 108 P.3d 695; see also State v. Pedockie, 2006 UT 28, ¶ 26, 137 P.3d 716 (“Defendants also have the right to waive their right to counsel.”). Because the right to counsel and the right to waive counsel are mutually exclusive, “a trial court must be vigilant to assure that the choice [to waive counsel] is freely and expressly made ‘with eyes open.’” State v. Bakalov, 1999 UT 45, ¶ 15, 979 P.2d 799 (quoting Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806, 835 (1975)). “Before permitting a defendant to [self-represent], . . . a trial court should ensure that the waiver [of counsel] is voluntary, knowing, and intelligent.” Pedockie, 2006 UT 28, ¶ 26.

¶28      A defendant may employ any of three different methods to validly waive a right to counsel: “true waiver, implied waiver, and forfeiture.” State v. Smith, 2018 UT App 28, ¶ 17, 414 P.3d 1092.

¶29      At issue here is true waiver: “A true waiver is one in which the defendant affirmatively represents that [she] wishes to proceed without counsel.” Id. ¶ 18. To be a valid true waiver, a defendant must “clearly and unequivocally” communicate to the court the wish “to proceed pro se.” Id. (quotation simplified); see also State v. Bozarth, 2021 UT App 117, ¶ 34, 501 P.3d 116 (“True waiver occurs when a defendant directly communicates a desire to proceed pro se.”). “Where a defendant expressly declines an offer of counsel by the trial judge” but later challenges the validity of that waiver, “[she] has the burden of showing by a preponderance of the evidence that [she] did not knowingly and intelligently waive this right.” Bozarth, 2021 UT App 117, ¶ 39 (quotation simplified).[5]

¶30 There is no question in this case that West clearly and unequivocally communicated to the court her desire to represent herself at sentencing. In her written motions, and then at the sentencing hearing when the court asked if she wanted a new lawyer, West plainly expressed her wish to proceed on her own without the assistance of counsel. But waiver alone is not enough to verify that West understood the significant right being waived and how her waiver might be applied in the real-world setting of sentencing. So, we must next address whether West’s waiver was knowingly and intelligently made. See id. ¶ 34 (“To be a valid true waiver, the defendant must (1) clearly and unequivocally request self-representation and (2) act knowingly and intelligently, being aware of the dangers inherent in self-representation.” (quotation simplified) (emphasis added)).

¶31 For a waiver to be knowingly and intelligently made, a defendant must understand “the relative advantages and disadvantages of self-representation in a particular situation.” State v. Frampton, 737 P.2d 183, 188 (Utah 1987) (quotation simplified). In other words, a court must be satisfied that a defendant has “actual awareness of the risks of proceeding pro se under the particular facts and circumstances at hand.” Smith, 2018 UT App 28, ¶ 19 (quotation simplified). The best way to ascertain if a defendant has the requisite knowledge of the legal mire she wishes to wade into is for a court to engage in “penetrating questioning,” Frampton, 737 P.2d at 187, on the record, see Smith, 2018 UT App 28, ¶ 19. Such questioning is the “encouraged” practice for courts, utilizing Frampton’s “sixteen-point guide” as a framework to ensure a defendant is making the decision to proceed pro se knowingly and intelligently. See id.see also Pedockie, 2006 UT 28, ¶ 42 (“The sixteen-point colloquy found in State v. Frampton establishes a sound framework for efficient and complete questioning.”); cf. State v. Patton, 2023 UT App 33, ¶ 14 n.5 (“We encourage trial courts to keep a prepared Frampton waiver-of-counsel colloquy script at the ready on the bench, for use when the occasion arises.”).

¶32      Absent a colloquy, it is still possible for a reviewing court to find that a defendant’s waiver was validly made after examining “any evidence in the record which shows a defendant’s actual awareness of the risks of proceeding pro se” at the time the defendant communicated the wish to self-represent. Frampton, 737 P.2d at 188. Therefore, we must conduct a “de novo review of the record to analyze the particular facts and circumstances surrounding the case” to establish “whether the defendant understood the consequences of waiver.” See Bozarth, 2021 UT App 117, ¶ 41 (quotation simplified). However, more than once and quite recently, Utah’s appellate courts have noted that such a conclusion is rare. See id. (“It is possible—although perhaps rare—for a defendant to knowingly and intelligently waive the right to counsel without a Frampton colloquy.” (citation omitted)); Pedockie, 2006 UT 28, ¶ 45 (“We therefore anticipate that reviewing courts will rarely find a valid waiver of the right to counsel absent a colloquy.”).[6]

¶33 Given the rarity, we look to Frampton and Bozarth for instruction, both of which demonstrate when the record may support a conclusion that a defendant did knowingly and intelligently waive the right to counsel in the absence of an adequate colloquy. See Frampton, 737 P.2d at 188–89; Bozarth, 2021 UT App 117, ¶¶ 42–48.

¶34      In Frampton, the defendant was represented by counsel at a trial that resulted in a hung jury. 737 P.2d at 186. The defendant then opted to represent himself at a second trial that resulted in a mistrial. Id. A third trial was scheduled, and prior to the third trial, the defendant filed eighteen of his own motions, two of which “asserted his right to assistance of counsel,” but he “insisted on being represented by a non-member of the Bar,” which option is not constitutionally protected. Id. at 189. On the day of the third trial, the defendant indicated that he wished to represent himself, and the court acknowledged the defendant’s right to self-representation and indicated that “[the defendant] would be accorded every courtesy along that line.” Id. at 186 (quotation simplified). The court then appointed standby counsel, over the defendant’s objections, but the defendant “refused to receive any help from the appointed counsel.” Id. at 186, 189. On appeal, the Utah Supreme Court concluded that the defendant had “knowingly and intelligently waived the right to representation by counsel” for several reasons. Id. at 188–89. First, the record clearly indicated that the “value of counsel should have been apparent to defendant” because while represented, his trial ended in a hung jury. Id. at 189. Furthermore, the court noted that the record showed several instances that, taken together, supported a conclusion that the defendant was sufficiently versed in legal procedures and proceedings: (1) he had filed eighteen of his own motions, (2) he had explained to jurors “the statute under which he was charged,” (3) he had been informed of the charge he faced and the possible penalty for a guilty verdict, and (4) he had been “accorded . . . every courtesy” by the court when it “explain[ed] applicable procedure and [gave] defendant extremely wide latitude in conducting his defense.” Id.

¶35      Likewise, in Bozarth, this court reached a similar conclusion regarding the question of whether a waiver was knowingly and intelligently made for a similar reason: the record showed as much. 2021 UT App 117, ¶ 44. In Bozarth, the defendant initially requested counsel but reserved his right to self-representation in the event that he wanted to “retake the helm” at a later time. Id. (quotation simplified). Additionally, prior to the defendant undertaking his own representation, the trial court had instructed and the defendant was aware of the importance of having counsel, and the defendant specifically requested that standby counsel be provided to “assist” only. Id. The defendant had even demonstrated knowledge about court procedures: he invoked the exclusionary rule at an evidentiary hearing and negotiated a plea deal that included his reservation of the right to appeal all prior objections, including “ineffective assistance of counsel.” Id. ¶¶ 14, 18. Lastly, the defendant had been informed of the charges against him and the potential penalties of a conviction on his charges. Id. ¶ 44. The Bozarth court then concluded that, with all these things taken together, the defendant had failed to meet his burden of proving that he “did not knowingly and intelligently waive his right to counsel.” Id.

¶36 But West’s case went differently. Here, unlike the defendants in both Frampton and Bozarth, there is no indication in the record that West had been informed by her counsel or by the sentencing court of the risks she faced by proceeding alone, nor was it clear that she understood the associated value of having the assistance of counsel during her sentencing or that she understood the law or the procedural requirements of a sentencing hearing. When West elected to proceed pro se, the sentencing court simply mentioned on the record that by doing so, she may have put herself at a disadvantage, with no other discussion or explanation as to why West’s decision would have done so. Again, this is in direct contrast to the facts of both Frampton and Bozarth, where those judges not only advised the defendants of the risks of proceeding pro se, but also encouraged or insisted on appointing standby counsel in the event assistance was needed.

¶37      Furthermore, while it is true that West filed several pro se motions prior to sentencing, which action on its face could indicate an awareness of court procedures like in Frampton, the content of West’s filings should have suggested to the sentencing court that she did not understand that attorneys and litigants are expected to conduct themselves with decorum and professionalism every time they enter the courtroom or file a pleading. The sentencing court even commented on the disparaging content of West’s motions: “If you were a lawyer, you would, in all likelihood, if you said those kinds of things to a judge, and wrote the kinds of things that you did, there’s a significant possibility that you would have sanctions issued against you.” But even with these indications that West perhaps did not grasp the implications of proceeding without counsel, the sentencing court’s investigation of West’s knowledge of the risks of self-representation stopped there.[7]

¶38 The State defends West’s waiver as knowing and intelligent because West “was given a front row seat” to observe her trial counsel at trial and argues that this knowledge was sufficient to establish that West knew the “intricacies of navigating a criminal case.” We disagree with this reasoning. Merely observing court proceedings does not provide an untrained pro se defendant with the awareness or knowledge of the risks of appearing for sentencing without representation. Few lay people, even after observing a trial from start to finish, would then be able to understand “the various matters germane to a sentencing proceeding,” such as the ability to argue mitigating circumstances and evidence to influence sentencing. See State v. Smith, 2018 UT App 28, ¶ 26, 414 P.3d 1092. For instance, a sentencing may involve discussion of the actions that a defendant may take following a guilty verdict, the financial ability that a defendant has to pay a fine or pay for a remedial course, appropriate lengths of jail time or suspended jail time, and previous criminal history. Without prior exposure to a sentencing for a charge of violating a stalking injunction, it is not persuasive to argue that West would understand the differences between a trial and a sentencing proceeding and the risks she assumed by continuing without the assistance of counsel to aid her in arguing, for instance, against the imposition of an anger management class or for a reduced fine or suspended jail time. We therefore strongly disagree that West’s “observations” of her attorney in action in court proceedings resulted in something that resembled the legal acuity or understanding of court proceedings that the defendants in Frampton and Bozarth exhibited.

¶39      Accordingly, we conclude that West has met her burden to show that her waiver of counsel prior to sentencing, though express, was not knowingly and intelligently made. The sentencing court should have conducted further inquiry into West’s awareness, or lack thereof, of the risks of self-representation before allowing her to be sentenced without the assistance of counsel. Therefore, we vacate West’s sentence and remand for resentencing.[8]

CONCLUSION

¶40 We are not convinced by West’s argument that the trial court abused its discretion in denying the pretrial motions, because West has not met her burden to show that if the other-acts evidence had been excluded or her motion to continue had been granted the outcome of her trial would have been different. We therefore affirm West’s conviction. However, we are persuaded that West did not knowingly and intelligently waive her right to be represented by counsel at her sentencing. We therefore vacate West’s sentence and remand for the limited purpose of resentencing.

 

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[1] The judge who presided over West’s trial and ruled on the pretrial motions was not the same judge who presided over West’s sentencing hearings and denied West’s pro se post-trial motions.

[2] The entire exchange between the sentencing court and West consisted of the following:

Sentencing Court: [Trial counsel] was appointed to represent you previously?

West: He was.

Sentencing Court: Would you like a new lawyer?

West: No. I will represent myself. I can do better representing myself.

Sentencing Court: Okay. So [trial counsel] is allowed to withdraw from the cases. And Ms. West will represent herself.

[3] West also argues on appeal that the sentencing court erred in interpreting West’s pro se post-trial motions as motions to dismiss instead of considering them as motions for a new trial and denying those motions. However, given our determination that West did not knowingly and intelligently waive her constitutional right to counsel at sentencing, which requires vacating the sentence and remanding for further proceedings, we need not reach West’s final argument here. Remand for re-sentencing will allow West to refile her motions for consideration, with the assistance of counsel if she so chooses.

[4] West highlights in her brief the fact that these events occurred after the incident for which she is charged but does not further expound on any potential significance of this. Even so, we reiterate that timing of other acts in relation to the incident for which a defendant is charged is not a precluding factor to the admission of evidence of those acts: “Rule 404(b) itself . . . makes no reference to ‘prior’ crimes, wrongs, or acts, but refers only to ‘other’ crimes, wrongs, or acts.” State v. Barney, 2018 UT App 159, ¶ 16 n.2, 436 P.3d 231. “Many courts have recognized that other crimes, wrongs, or acts can be relevant, even if those acts occurred after the charged conduct.” Id. (collecting cases).

[5] This court has recently noted the dissonance between the language in State v. Frampton, 737 P.2d 183, 187 (Utah 1987)—that a defendant who expressly declines a trial court’s offer of counsel then bears the burden to show “by a preponderance of the evidence that [she] did not so waive this right”—and the language in State v. Pedockie, 2006 UT 28, ¶ 45, 137 P.3d 716—that because of the “strong presumption against waiver and the fundamental nature of the right to counsel, any doubts must be resolved in favor of the defendant.” See State v. Patton, 2023 UT App 33, ¶ 22 n.6. We again take the liberty to suggest that the “better, and far clearer, rule would be that where a trial court fails to employ a Frampton colloquy, the presumption is that waiver did not occur and the burden would be placed on the State to prove otherwise. We hope that our supreme court would look favorably on such an articulation.” Id.

[6] Echoing previous decisions addressing this issue, “we continue to strongly recommend a colloquy on the record as the preferred method of determining whether a defendant is aware of [the] risks.” Pedockie, 2006 UT 28, ¶ 42. While we are cognizant that the “colloquy is not mandatory,” State v. Bozarth, 2021 UT App 117, ¶ 41, 501 P.3d 116, it is nevertheless “the most efficient means by which appeals may be limited,” Frampton, 737 P.2d at 187. We encourage courts to engage in a full colloquy to ensure that criminal defendants are conscious of the challenges that come with self-representation.

[7] Of further note, the April 2021 sentencing hearing occurred sixteen months after the sentencing review hearing at which West verbally asserted her desire to self-represent at sentencing. Sixteen months is a long time—with a pandemic in the middle, no less—and it would have been helpful to revisit West’s intention of being sentenced without an attorney.

[8] During oral argument, there was discussion about whether what occurred at West’s sentencing would be subject to “harmless error” review. However, the State acknowledged that it did not brief this argument. Therefore, “we do not address [the argument] on its merits.” See State v. Smith, 2018 UT App 28, ¶ 27 n.2, 414 P.3d 1092.

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2023 UT App 57 – State v. Schroeder

2023 UT App 57 – State v. Schroeder

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellee,

v.

MICHAEL SCHROEDER,

Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20190339-CA[1]

Filed May 25, 2023

Fifth District Court, Cedar City Department

The Honorable Troy A. Little

No. 191500104

Trevor J. Lee, Attorney for Appellant

Shane Klenk, Attorney for Appellee

JUDGE GREGORY K. ORME authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGE MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER and

SENIOR JUDGE KATE APPLEBY concurred.[2]

ORME, Judge:

¶1        Following a consolidated bench trial, the court found Michael Schroeder guilty on three charges of protective order violations and one charge of criminal stalking, all class A misdemeanors. Schroeder now appeals, primarily contending that there was insufficient evidence to establish his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt on the convictions still at issue in this appeal.[3]

¶2        We conclude that Schroeder’s convictions for violations of a protective order are supported by sufficient evidence and affirm those convictions. But we conclude that Schroeder’s conviction for stalking is against the clear weight of the evidence developed at trial in support of that charge and therefore reverse that conviction.

BACKGROUND[4]

¶3        After Michael Schroeder and Samantha[5] ended their romantic relationship in 2018, Samantha sought a protective order against Schroeder. On August 13, 2018, Utah’s Fifth District Court held a protective order hearing. Because Schroeder was present and because he did not object to the protective order becoming permanent, the court signed and served the Protective Order, which required Schroeder to refrain from contacting Samantha, to stay at least 1,000 feet from her, and to stay away from her home.

September 23 Protective Order Charge

¶4        During the bench trial, Samantha, her friend, a police officer, and Schroeder each testified about an event that took place on September 23, 2018. Schroeder testified that on that day, he drove his truck through the city where he and Samantha lived and inadvertently turned onto Samantha’s street. After turning onto the street, he suddenly recognized where he was and further realized that if he maintained his course, he would ultimately pass Samantha’s home. He also recognized that driving past her home may violate the Protective Order, but he was not certain. Although he contemplated turning around to avoid passing Samantha’s home, he testified that he chose to continue driving down her street.

¶5        When Schroeder approached Samantha’s home, Samantha was sitting outside with a friend. She and her friend testified that they saw the truck approaching and recognized the truck as belonging to Schroeder. Samantha testified that she saw the truck slow down to almost a stop in front of her home. She was able to identify Schroeder as the driver of the truck through the truck’s open window. Samantha further testified that Schroeder stared at her and made “complete eye contact” with her before driving off. Samantha estimated that she was “maybe 20 feet” from where Schroeder drove past. Her friend testified that he too had been able to identify Schroeder through the truck’s open window. The friend further corroborated Samantha’s testimony that when Schroeder passed Samantha’s home, he was “maybe 20” or “25 feet” from their position and that Schroeder had slowed down to a stop and stared at them for “a few seconds” before driving off.

¶6        Samantha called the police and reported what had happened. An officer arrived and spoke with Samantha and her friend, then contacted Schroeder and met with him at his residence. Schroeder explained that he had made a wrong turn onto Samantha’s street, thought about turning around, made the decision not to, and then proceeded to drive past Samantha’s home. Schroeder also told the officer that he did not know the conditions of the Protective Order.

¶7        Soon after this event, the State filed an Information and Affidavit of Probable Cause against Schroeder, charging him with a protective order violation for coming within 1,000 feet of Samantha.

January 7 Protective Order Violation Charge and Stalking Charge

¶8        During the bench trial, Samantha and Schroeder also testified regarding an event that took place on the morning of January 7, 2019. Samantha testified that she was with her dog in front of her home when she heard a diesel truck approaching the cross street at the end of the block, three houses away. The distinctive sound of a diesel engine caused her to look up, and she saw Schroeder’s truck slowly driving by on the cross street. Samantha recounted that she made eye contact with Schroeder and shook her head at him before he drove off. When she went back inside her home, she again called the police and reported what happened. Samantha stated that she is “really . . . not good” with estimating distances, but she estimated she was “maybe 35 feet” from where she saw Schroeder. Schroeder denied having any knowledge of this incident and suggested that Samantha might have seen “some other gray truck” and confused it with his truck.

¶9        Following this incident, the State filed an Information and Probable Cause Statement against Schroeder, charging him with a violation of the Protective Order’s prohibition on coming within 1,000 feet of Samantha and also charging him with criminal stalking. The State predicated the stalking charge on events specified in the charging documents, discussed in more detail below.

Consolidated Trial

¶10      All cases and charges addressed in this appeal came before the trial court in a consolidated bench trial on April 4, 2019. In its case addressing the September 23 protective order violation, the State called Samantha, her friend, and the officer as witnesses. They testified as outlined above, and Schroeder testified in his defense but did not call other witnesses or present any other evidence. Following the trial, the court expressly found all the State’s witnesses to be credible. The court found that Schroeder had been properly served the Protective Order because he was present when the Protective Order was issued and did not object to its issuance. The court further found that because Schroeder recognized that he was driving down Samantha’s street and chose not to alter his course, he intentionally violated the Protective Order. Based on those findings, the trial court found Schroeder guilty of the protective order violation that occurred on September 23, 2018.

¶11      With respect to the January 7 protective order violation, the court found that the State presented sufficient evidence that Schroeder drove by on the adjacent street—which it found to be less than 1,000 feet away from Samantha—and that, while passing, Schroeder slowed down enough to stare at Samantha and for Samantha to identify him and shake her head at him. The court acknowledged that if Schroeder had just driven down the adjacent street and neither slowed down nor stared at Samantha, this likely would have been insufficient to support a protective order violation. But because he was driving down a street close to where he knew Samantha’s home to be and had slowed and stared at her while he passed, his actions were sufficient to amount to a violation of the Protective Order.

¶12 Regarding the stalking charge, the State specified the following three events in the Probable Cause Statement as the basis for the charge: (1) an alleged incident on January 6, 2019, at a local smoke shop; (2) the January 7 protective order violation; and (3) an alleged drive-by incident that occurred a few hours after the January 7 protective order violation. At trial, while the State presented evidence of the January 7 protective order violation, the State did not present any evidence of the other two events specified in the charging documents.

¶13      After both parties rested and presented closing arguments, the court determined that the September 23 and January 7 acts “were clearly course of conduct acts” that could and did cause Samantha “emotional distress and fear.” Thus, contrary to the State’s theory set out in the charging documents and not developed at trial, the court combined the September 23 and January 7 episodes to establish the proscribed course of conduct under the stalking statute.

¶14 Schroeder was convicted on all counts. This appeal followed.

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶15 Schroeder argues that there was insufficient evidence to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. “Unlike challenges to a jury verdict, a defendant need not file a separate motion or make a separate objection to challenge the sufficiency of the evidence supporting the court’s factual findings in a bench trial.” State v. Holland, 2018 UT App 203, ¶ 9, 437 P.3d 501, cert. denied, 437 P.3d 1252 (Utah 2019). “[W]e review a claim of insufficient evidence at a bench trial for clear error,” State v. Ayala, 2022 UT App 1, ¶ 15, 504 P.3d 755, meaning we “must sustain the district court’s judgment unless it is against the clear weight of the evidence, or if we otherwise reach a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made,” Holland, 2018 UT App 203, ¶ 9 (quotation simplified)In other words, “before we can uphold a conviction it must be supported by a quantum of evidence concerning each element of the crime as charged from which the factfinder may base its conclusion of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” Spanish Fork City v. Bryan, 1999 UT App 61, ¶ 5, 975 P.2d 501 (emphasis added) (quotation otherwise simplified).

ANALYSIS

  1. Protective Order Violations

¶16      Schroeder asks us to conclude that the trial court erred in finding him guilty of the September 23, 2018 and the January 7, 2019 protective order violations. He contends that there was insufficient evidence from which the court could find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. See generally State v. Austin, 2007 UT 55, ¶ 6, 165 P.3d 1191. We address each of the court’s rulings in turn.

  1. September 23 Protective Order Violation

¶17 Schroeder contends that the State did not produce sufficient evidence regarding Schroeder’s mental state when he drove past Samantha and her friend in front of Samantha’s home. As outlined by our Supreme Court, “when reviewing a bench trial for sufficiency of the evidence, we must sustain the trial court’s judgment unless it is against the clear weight of the evidence, or if we otherwise reach a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made.” State v. Gordon, 2004 UT 2, ¶ 5, 84 P.3d 1167 (quotation simplified). “An example of an obvious and fundamental insufficiency is the case in which the State presents no evidence to support an essential element of a criminal charge.” State v. Prater, 2017 UT 13, ¶ 28, 392 P.3d 398 (quotation simplified).

¶18      It is a violation of a protective order and “a class A misdemeanor,” Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-108(3) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022), when a defendant “intentionally or knowingly violates [an] order after having been properly served or having been present, in person or through court video conferencing, when the order was issued,” id. § 76-5-108(2)(b). Schroeder concedes that he was properly served with the Protective Order on August 13, 2018, and was aware of its existence. Therefore, what remains for us to decide is whether the State adduced sufficient evidence that Schroeder was aware of the Protective Order and that he “intentionally or knowingly” violated it. See id. In reviewing the sufficiency of the evidence, we are mindful that “credibility is an issue for the trier of fact.” Zappe v. Bullock, 2014 UT App 250, ¶ 8, 338 P.3d 242 (quotation simplified).

¶19      At trial, Schroeder conceded that he intentionally drove his truck past Samantha’s home after deciding not to turn around so as to avoid doing so. He recounted, “As soon as I turned on the road and realized what was going on, like I was going to flip around and then just kept on going through.” He also acknowledged that he came within 1,000 feet of Samantha’s home. Accordingly, we conclude that there was sufficient evidence to support the conviction. We further conclude that the trial court’s findings were not against the clear weight of the evidence and affirm Schroeder’s conviction regarding the September 23 protective order violation.

  1. January 7 Protective Order Violation

¶20 Schroeder next contends that the State did not provide sufficient evidence on which the trial court could determine, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he slowed down and stared at Samantha as he drove by on the cross street three houses away from her home.

¶21      At trial, the court appropriately recognized that simply driving down a cross street near Samantha’s home would “not necessarily be a violation” of the Protective Order. But the court found that Schroeder did not simply drive down the cross street, minding his own business. Instead, based on Samantha’s testimony, which the court found to be credible, the court found that Schroeder slowed and stared at Samantha as he drove past. Samantha’s testimony included her estimation, apparently found reasonable by the trial court, that she was less than 1,000 feet from the cross street when Schroeder slowed and stared at her.

¶22 Therefore, there was sufficient evidence to support the conviction, and the trial court’s findings were not against the clear weight of the evidence. Accordingly, we also affirm Schroeder’s conviction regarding the January 7 protective order violation.

  1. Stalking Conviction

¶23 Schroeder contends that the evidence supporting his stalking conviction was insufficient to establish the necessary course of conduct as charged by the State and that his conviction was therefore against the clear weight of the evidence.[6] We agree.

¶24      “Article I, section 12 of the Utah Constitution provides that every criminal defendant has a right to know ‘the nature and cause of the accusation.’” State v. Burnett, 712 P.2d 260, 262 (Utah 1985) (quoting Utah Const. art. I, § 12). “This entitles the accused to be charged with a specific crime, so that he can know the particulars of the alleged wrongful conduct and can adequately prepare his defense.” Id. Additionally, rule 4 of the Utah Rules of Criminal Procedure provides that “[a] prosecution may be commenced by filing an information,” Utah R. Crim. P. 4(a), which must contain “the name given to the offense by statute or ordinance, or stating in concise terms the definition of the offense sufficient to give the defendant notice of the charge,” id. R. 4(b)(2). And an information charging a felony or a class A misdemeanor must include “a statement of facts sufficient to support probable cause for the charged offense or offenses.” Id. R. 4(c)(1). Our Supreme Court has stated that “in a criminal proceeding . . . [the accused] is entitled to be charged with a specific crime so that he may know the nature and cause of the accusation against him” and that “the State must prove substantially as charged the offense it relies upon for conviction.” State v. Taylor, 378 P.2d 352, 353 (Utah 1963) (quotation simplified). This did not happen here with respect to the stalking charge.

¶25      The charging documents concerning the stalking charge alleged, in contemplation of section 76-5-106.5(2) of the Utah Code, as follows:

[Schroeder], on or about January 07, 2019, in Iron County, State of Utah, did (a) intentionally or knowingly engage in a course of conduct directed at [Samantha] and knew or should have known that the course of conduct would cause a reasonable person: (i) to fear for the person’s own safety or the safety of a third person; or (ii) to suffer other emotional distress[.]

¶26 Under section 76-5-106.5(2), an actor commits the offense of stalking when the actor “intentionally or knowingly . . . engages in a course of conduct” that “would cause a reasonable person . . . to fear for the individual’s safety” or “to suffer other emotional distress.” Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-106.5(2) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022). The statute also explains that a course of conduct comprises “two or more acts directed at or toward a specific individual,” id. § 76-5-106.5(1)(a)(i), and further defines emotional distress as “significant mental or psychological suffering, whether or not medical or other professional treatment or counseling is required,” id. § 76-5-106.5(1)(a)(ii)(A).

¶27 The Probable Cause Statement indicated that the stalking charge in this case was based on a course of conduct consisting of an event occurring “[oin or about January 6, 2019,” an event occurring the “following morning on January 7, 2019, between 8:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m.,” and an event occurring “[liater that morning” on January 7, 2019. The charging documents concerning the stalking offense made no mention of the September 23 incident.

¶28      At trial, the State presented evidence only of the January 7 event. The State did not present any evidence addressing either of the other two events specified in the charging documents as establishing the requisite course of conduct for stalking. Accordingly, Schroeder had no reason to introduce controverting evidence when presenting his defense.

¶29      Following closing arguments, the trial court made findings of fact and entered its ruling. The court found Schroeder guilty of stalking based on its finding that the January 7 protective order violation and the September 23 protective order violation “were clearly course of conduct acts.”

¶30 Schroeder does not challenge the court’s finding that the January 7 protective order violation, included in the charging documents, could be a qualifying act to partially establish a stalking course of conduct. And the State presented sufficient evidence of its occurrence at trial. See supra Part I.B. But the State did not produce evidence concerning the other two incidents referred to in the Probable Cause Statement, and it never argued that the September 23 incident was relevant to the stalking charge, nor did it seek to amend the charging documents to incorporate that theory. Thus, by the end of trial, the State had established only one of the two or more incidents required to prove the stalking offense it charged. Because evidence is necessarily insufficient when the State fails to establish “an essential element of a criminal charge,” State v. Ayala, 2022 UT App 1, ¶ 15, 504 P.3d 755 (quotation simplified), we reverse Schroeder’s conviction for stalking.[7]

CONCLUSION

¶31      The trial court’s judgments were not against the clear weight of the evidence regarding Schroeder’s two convictions for the protective order violations. Therefore, we affirm Schroeder’s convictions regarding the September 23 protective order violation and the January 7 protective order violation. But because the State did not present evidence of any act specified in the relevant charging documents as constituting stalking, apart from the January 7 protective order violation, and because stalking is predicated on a course of conduct comprising two or more acts, the evidence was necessarily insufficient. Therefore, Schroeder’s stalking conviction was against the clear weight of the evidence, and we reverse that conviction.

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

 

[1] This case is the consolidated appeal of cases 20190339-CA, 20190507-CA, and 20190508-CA.

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

[3] During the pendency of this appeal, Schroeder filed a motion for remand under rule 23B of the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure on a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel he asserted in connection with his conviction for a protective order violation that was alleged to have occurred on January 26, 2019. We granted that motion. In March 2022, following a hearing on Schroeder’s rule 23B motion, the trial court granted the parties’ Stipulated Motion to Dismiss Charge with Prejudice. By so doing, the court dismissed the case concerning Schroeder’s January 26 protective order violation. For that reason, we do not discuss the events surrounding that charge, which is no longer at issue in this appeal.

[4] Following a bench trial, “we recite the facts from the record in the light most favorable to the findings of the trial court and present conflicting evidence only as necessary to understand issues raised on appeal.” State v. Cowlishaw, 2017 UT App 181, ¶ 2, 405 P.3d 885 (quotation simplified).

[5] A pseudonym.

[6] As previously noted, “a defendant need not file a separate motion or make a separate objection to challenge the sufficiency of the evidence supporting the court’s factual findings in a bench trial.” State v. Holland, 2018 UT App 203, ¶ 9, 437 P.3d 501, cert. denied, 437 P.3d 1252 (Utah 2019). When findings of fact are made in actions tried by the court without a jury, the question of the sufficiency of the evidence to support the findings may thereafter be raised on appeal regardless of whether the party raising the question has made an objection to such findings via a motion or otherwise. See State v. Jok, 2021 UT 35, ¶ 18, 493 P.3d 665 (noting that “a sufficiency of the evidence claim is effectively preserved by the nature of a bench trial and does not require making a specific motion”).

[7] Schroeder additionally argues that the trial court’s sua sponte reconstruction of the stalking charge, following trial, in which it embraced a theory of stalking not charged, was at odds with the variance doctrine. The variance doctrine prevents the State from introducing evidence at trial that varies from the charging documents where the variance would prejudice a defendant’s case. See State v. Fulton, 742 P.2d 1208, 1215 (Utah 1987). While we premise our affirmance on the more straightforward rationale that there was insufficient evidence to establish the stalking offense as charged by the State, we recognize that our reversal of that conviction also advances the salutary purposes served by the variance doctrine.

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2023 UT App 55 – In re F.C.G.

2023 UT App 55 – In re F.C.G.

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF F.C.G.,

A PERSON UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

L.C.G.,

Appellant,

v.

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellee.

Per Curiam Opinion

No. 20221129-CA

Filed May 25, 2023

Third District Juvenile Court, Salt Lake Department

The Honorable Monica Diaz

No. 1205462

Julie J. Nelson Attorney for Appellant

Sean D. Reyes and John M. Peterson,

Attorneys for Appellee

Martha Pierce Guardian ad Litem

Before JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME,

MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, and AMY J. OLIVER.

PER CURIAM:

¶1        L.C.G. (Mother) appeals the juvenile court’s order terminating her parental rights. We affirm.

¶2        “To terminate parental rights, a juvenile court must make two separate findings.” In re C.T., 2018 UT App 233, ¶ 12, 438 P.3d 100 (quotation simplified). First, a court must find by clear and convincing evidence that there is at least one statutory ground for termination.” Id. (quotation simplified). “Second, “a court must find that termination of the parent’s rights is in the best interest of the child.” Id. Because a parent’s rights are constitutionally protected, a court may terminate parental rights only if it finds that termination is strictly necessary for the best interest of a child. See id.

¶3 Mother does not challenge the juvenile court’s determination that there were statutory grounds supporting the termination of her parental rights, or the court’s determination that doing so was strictly necessary and in F.C.G.’s (Child) best interest. However, the record supports the juvenile court’s determination that there were statutory grounds supporting the termination of Mother’s parental rights, that termination was strictly necessary, and that terminating Mother’s rights was in Child’s best interest.

¶4        Instead, Mother asserts that the juvenile court erred by determining that she waived her right to counsel, and by permitting counsel to withdraw at trial. Specifically, Mother asserts that the juvenile court violated rule 53(c) of the Utah Rules of Juvenile Procedure and her due process rights by permitting counsel’s withdrawal. “We review waiver of a statutory right to counsel for correctness but grant the trial court a reasonable measure of discretion when applying the law to the facts.” In re A.B., 2017 UT App 99, ¶ 5, 400 P.3d 1107 (quotation simplified). The “termination of parental rights involves a statutory right to counsel, not a constitutional right to counsel. See id. Accordingly, “waiver of a statutory right to counsel is proper as long as the record as a whole reflects the parent’s reasonable understanding of the proceedings and awareness of the right to counsel.” Id. (quotation simplified).

¶5        Rule 53(c) provides that a motion to withdraw may be made orally before the court, and counsel’s request to withdraw should demonstrate a parent’s familiarity with his or her right to counsel, the withdrawal of counsel, the right to appeal, and post-judgment motions. Utah R. Juv. P. 53(c)(1). The record demonstrates that Mother was aware of the rights identified in rule 53(c). On November 30, 2021, the juvenile court appointed counsel for Mother. Based on Mother’s lack of contact with counsel, and her failure to meaningfully participate in the proceeding, the court permitted counsel to withdraw.

¶6        On October 13, 2022, Mother appeared at the termination trial. Knowing that counsel had been permitted to withdraw, Mother once again requested the appointment of counsel. The juvenile court re-appointed Mother’s counsel and continued the trial until December 12, 2022, so that Mother could participate in trial preparations and trial. The court scheduled a pretrial hearing for November 7, 2022. Mother failed to appear at the pretrial hearing. Mother also failed to appear at the December 12, 2022 trial.

¶7        The court determined that Mother received notice of both the pretrial hearing and the continued trial when she appeared on October 13, 2022. Mother failed to communicate with counsel and assist in trial preparations. Mother’s counsel attempted to contact Mother at least twelve times prior to the continued trial. Mother’s counsel received only one email from Mother, but it was not substantive, and it did not address any of counsel’s “questions or advice or anything that I had given to her.” The court determined that based on Mother’s nonappearances in court, plus her lack of contact with counsel, Mother waived her right to counsel.

¶8        Mother next argues that the court violated her due process rights. Specifically, she argues that she had a constitutional right to counsel, beyond that of a statutory right to counsel. Mother asserts that “the Utah Supreme Court determined that, under certain factual circumstances, a parent facing termination of their parental rights has a right to counsel under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the federal constitution.” In re adoption of K.A.S., 2016 UT 55, ¶ 35, 390 P.3d 278. Mother argues that a constitutional right to counsel requires a heightened showing that a parent knowingly and voluntarily waived the right to counsel, rather than whether the “record as a whole reflects the parent’s reasonable understanding of the proceedings and awareness of the right to counsel.” In re A.B., 2017 UT App 99, ¶ 5.

¶9        Mother acknowledges that the Supreme Court did not hold that parents are always entitled to the constitutional right to counsel. The Supreme Court determined that “where, for example, the parent has not taken an interest in the proceedings and the weight of the evidence of the parent’s lack of interest is great—the presumption against the right to counsel will not be overcome.” In re adoption of K.A.S., 2016 UT 55, ¶ 38 (quotation simplified). Given the juvenile court’s determinations regarding Mother’s nonappearances in court, her lack of contact with counsel, and her lack of participation, the record supports the juvenile court’s determination that Mother did not take an interest in the proceedings, and the weight of the evidence of Mother’s lack of interest is great. The record does not support that Mother had a constitutional right to counsel, or that the court erred in its waiver determination and allowing counsel to withdraw.

¶10      Mother next asserts that she received ineffective assistance of counsel when counsel withdrew, rather than requesting another trial continuance or additional appointment of counsel. To prevail on an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, Appellant must show: (1) her counsel’s performance was deficient and (2) the deficient performance prejudiced the defense. See Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 669, 687 (1984); In re C.M.R., 2020 UT App 114, ¶ 19, 473 P.3d 184 (applying Strickland to an ineffective assistance of counsel claim in a child welfare proceeding). To demonstrate deficient performance, Mother must persuade this court that, considering the record as a whole, counsel’s performance was objectively unreasonable. State v. Scott, 2020 UT 13, ¶ 36, 462 P.3d 350. To demonstrate prejudice, Mother must show that “there exists a reasonable probability that the case would have had a different outcome had trial counsel not performed deficiently.” State v. Florez, 2020 UT App 76, ¶ 43, 465 P.3d 307.

¶11      Mother asserts that counsel was deficient because he did not adequately comply with rule 53(c) of the Utah Rules of Juvenile Procedure. However, as addressed above, it was apparent from the record that Mother was familiar with her rights identified in rule 53(c). See Utah R. Juv. P. 53(c)(1)(iii). Counsel had been appointed twice in Mother’s proceeding, and the court permitted counsel’s withdrawal due to Mother’s refusal to communicate with counsel, participate, and to attend court. Counsel’s decision to withdraw, rather than request yet another continuance or additional counsel was not deficient. “Because the decision not to pursue a futile motion is almost always a sound trial strategy, counsel’s failure to make a motion that would be futile if raised does not constitute deficient performance.” State v. Powell, 2020 UT App 63, ¶ 20, 463 P.3d 705. Given the required short time frames in child welfare cases, Mother’s nonappearances, lack of communication with counsel, and her lack of participation, the record does not support Mother’s claim that counsel was ineffective for declining to request yet another continuance or requesting that the court appoint another attorney.

¶12      Mother next argues that the doctrine of structural prejudice suggests that she was prejudiced when counsel withdrew at trial. See State v. Bond, 2015 UT 88, ¶ 40, 361 P.3d 104. To satisfy this part of Strickland’s test, Mother must demonstrate particularized prejudice in her specific case. See State v. Juarez, 2021 UT App 53, ¶ 27, 489 P.3d 231. “Allegations of structural prejudice, or prejudice per se, are generally insufficient in the context of an ineffective assistance claim.” Id. (quotation simplified). However, we need not address both components of the Strickland inquiry if we determine that Mother made an insufficient showing on either prong. See id. ¶ 26. Because the record does not support Mother’s claim that counsel was deficient, we need not address this claim. See id.

¶13      The juvenile court’s order terminating Mother’s parental rights is affirmed.

 

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

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State In Interest of B.W. – 2022 UT App 131

State In Interest of B.W. – 2022 UT App 131

Court of Appeals of Utah.

STATE of Utah, IN the INTEREST OF B.W., J.W., and N.W., persons under eighteen years of age.

H.W., Appellant,

v.

State of Utah, Appellee.

No. 20210886-CA

Filed November 17, 2022

Eighth District Juvenile Court, Duchesne Department, The Honorable Jeffry Ross, No. 1182864

Attorneys and Law Firms

Emily Adams and Sara Pfrommer, Park City, Attorneys for Appellant

Sean D. Reyes, Carol L.C. Verdoia, and John M. Peterson, Salt Lake City, Attorneys for Appellee

Martha Pierce, Salt Lake City, Guardian ad Litem

Judge Ryan D. Tenney authored this Opinion, in which Judges Gregory K. Orme and Ryan M. Harris concurred.

Opinion

TENNEY, Judge:

¶1 In December 2019, H.W. (Mother) gave birth to twins, J.W. and N.W. (collectively, the Twins). At the hospital, Mother tested positive for methamphetamine, as did the Twins’ umbilical cords. The Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) soon began providing protective supervision services to Mother, the Twins, and B.W., Mother’s one-year-old son. After Mother repeatedly failed drug tests, the juvenile court placed B.W., J.W., and N.W. (collectively, the Children) in DCFS custody.

¶2 Mother continued to struggle with illegal drug use, and the court terminated reunification services in May 2021. Mother was then treated in an inpatient treatment facility from May through August 2021. After leaving this treatment facility, Mother again relapsed, using methamphetamine several times in the ensuing weeks. At the close of a termination hearing in November 2021, the court terminated Mother’s parental rights in the Children.

¶3 Mother now appeals the termination decision, arguing that there was not clear and convincing evidence (1) that any ground for termination existed or (2) to support the court’s best interest determination. As set forth below, however, there was enough evidence on both fronts. We accordingly affirm the challenged rulings.

BACKGROUND

DCFS Petitions for Protective Supervision

¶4 In December 2019, when B.W. was one year old, Mother gave birth to the Twins. At the time of their birth, Mother tested positive for “methamphetamine and amphetamines.” The Twins’ umbilical cords also tested positive for methamphetamine and amphetamines. Mother claimed that “she didn’t know why or how she could have tested positive unless it was her e-cigarette.”1

¶5 Based on the positive drug tests, DCFS filed a verified petition for protective supervision services a few weeks after the Twins’ births. In that petition, DCFS alleged that the Children were abused and neglected based on the Twins’ fetal exposure to illegal drugs.

¶6 Mother responded pursuant to rule 34(e) of the Utah Rules of Juvenile Procedure, meaning that she neither admitted nor denied the allegations but accepted that the allegations would “be deemed true.” See Utah R. Juv. P. 34(e). Based on Mother’s rule 34(e) response, the juvenile court found that the Twins had been exposed to illegal drugs and that all the Children were abused and neglected by Mother. The juvenile court accordingly ordered DCFS “to provide protective supervision services to the family” and to develop a child and family plan.

 

¶7 With Mother’s input, DCFS then created a child and family plan. The plan listed several responsibilities for Mother, such as maintaining a residence appropriate for the Children, completing a mental health and substance abuse assessment, submitting to random drug testing, and making daily calls to the Treatment Assessment Screening Center (TASC) system.

¶8 The court held a disposition hearing less than one month after it adjudicated the Children as abused and neglected. At that hearing, DCFS reported that Mother had not been calling into the TASC system or completing drug tests. The guardian ad litem moved for the Children to be taken into DCFS custody, but the court declined that request and instead again ordered Mother to comply with the plan. The court also scheduled a thirty-day review hearing.

DCFS Petitions for Custody

¶9 Over the next month, “Mother failed to call into TASC 7 times, missed 3 drug tests, and tested positive for methamphetamines on two occasions.” As a result, on April 16, 2020, DCFS filed an expedited verified petition for custody.

¶10 About a week later, the juvenile court held a pretrial hearing on the custody petition. Mother entered a rule 34(e) response, and the court again determined that Mother had abused and neglected the Children. The court also found that DCFS had made “[r]easonable efforts” to “prevent the removal of” the Children but that those “efforts were unsuccessful.” The court thus ordered the Children to be removed from Mother and placed in the temporary custody of DCFS.

¶11 The court held a disposition hearing the following month. At that hearing, the court ordered Mother to comply with a newly created child and family plan, which contained “essentially the same provisions as the previous one,” including the requirements noted above. The court also ordered DCFS to provide reunification services, acknowledging that reunification was “the primary goal.”

Mother Requests Placement with Grandparents

¶12 At the pretrial and disposition hearings (and, as will be discussed, at subsequent hearings in the case as well), Mother requested that the Children be placed with her mother (Grandmother) and stepfather (Step-Grandfather) (collectively, Grandparents). After Mother made this request, however, the State notified the court that Step-Grandfather was unable to pass a DCFS background check. The record lacks some of the specifics regarding this background check, but it does show that DCFS informed the court that Step-Grandfather was unable to pass it because there were five cases against him in the Licensing Information System (LIS). The LIS is a “sub-part of the Management Information System,” a database that DCFS is statutorily required to maintain.2 Utah Code Ann. § 62A-4a-1006(1) (LexisNexis Supp. 2021). For an individual to be included in the LIS, DCFS must make “a supported finding” that the individual committed “a severe type of child abuse or neglect.” Id. § 62A-4a-1005(1); see also id. § 62A-4a-1006(1)(b).

¶13 DCFS gave information to Step-Grandfather about how to appeal the LIS cases. After he did, three of the cases were administratively overturned.3 But the remaining two were upheld because they “were of such significance that they [could not] be overturned.”

¶14 Even so, Mother still requested that the Children be placed with Grandparents. Over the course of several hearings, Grandmother informed the court that Step-Grandfather was only home one day every week, that the LIS cases in question were from “[a]bout 20 years ago,” and that Step-Grandfather was “never charged with sexual abuse.” Nonetheless, the court repeatedly decided against placing the Children with Grandparents.4

Juvenile Court Terminates Reunification Services

¶15 For the remainder of 2020, Mother struggled to comply with the new child and family plan. For example, although Mother successfully completed a mental health and substance abuse assessment, she “struggled for the first several months to fully engage in the therapy that was recommended for [her], with attendance being very sporadic and inconsistent.” On December 1, 2020, Mother was scheduled to check into an inpatient treatment facility. But when the DCFS caseworker went to pick her up, “Mother did not answer the door and missed her appointment to check in.” Mother belatedly went to the treatment facility the following week, but on arrival, she tested positive for methamphetamine. When the facility offered to accept Mother despite the positive drug test, she “refused to enter.” After learning of these events, the court ordered Mother to be jailed if she was not in an inpatient treatment facility by December 23, 2020. Mother checked into a facility on December 23, but she left two days later.

¶16 In February 2021, Mother gave birth to another child, A.W. Shortly after A.W.’s birth, DCFS removed him from Mother’s care via warrant. He was returned to Mother’s custody once his umbilical cord test came back showing no presence of illegal drugs. But the court ordered Mother to “strictly comply with the court’s drug testing orders going forward, or A.W. would likely be removed from [her] custody again.” In April 2021, the court removed A.W. from Mother’s custody based on Mother’s “ongoing drug testing issues.”5

¶17 The court held a permanency hearing for the Children in May 2021. At that hearing, the court found that DCFS had made “[r]easonable efforts” to provide reunification services and that Mother “partially complied with the requirements of the service plan.” But the court stated that it could not find that Mother had “the strength to stay away from drugs with the [Children] in the home.” In support of this, the court detailed the many times that Mother had tested positive for illegal drugs or had failed to test at all. The court further determined that it could not extend reunification services for the Children, so it changed their final permanency plan to adoption.6

Mother Enters an Inpatient Treatment Facility

¶18 From May 3, 2021, through August 31, 2021, Mother received inpatient drug treatment. Although she tested positive for methamphetamine when she arrived, she reportedly did very well in the program and remained drug-free throughout her stay. Before leaving treatment, Mother told a caseworker that she no longer wished to live with the alleged father because he was also struggling to stay clean. But when Mother left the facility, “she almost immediately” started living with the alleged father again and “very quickly relapsed on methamphetamine.” Mother later testified that in the two months after she left the facility, she had “3 relapses and 5 methamphetamine uses.”

Juvenile Court Terminates Mother’s Parental Rights

¶19 On June 15, 2021, the State filed a verified petition for termination of Mother’s parental rights. The court held a termination hearing on November 1, 2021, and the parties stipulated to present the evidence by proffer and have the witnesses available for cross-examination. In support of its petition, the State proffered the testimony of two DCFS caseworkers, and those caseworkers also appeared in court for live cross-examination. The State also offered, and the court received, the caseworkers’ case notes. The Children’s current foster mother (Foster Mother) testified in person.

¶20 The first DCFS caseworker (Caseworker 1) had worked with the family from the Twins’ births until December 2020. The State proffered that she would have testified about DCFS’s unsuccessful efforts to place the Children with relatives, Mother’s supervised visits with the Children, and Mother’s efforts to comply with the plan, including drug testing and participation in therapy. Caseworker 1 also would have discussed how she arranged to take Mother to an inpatient treatment facility and how Mother did not answer the door when Caseworker 1 arrived.

¶21 On cross-examination, Mother’s counsel asked how Mother interacted with the Children during the supervised visits. Caseworker 1 responded that Mother was “very engaging” with the Children and that the “visits went very well.” Caseworker 1 also agreed that Mother clearly loved the Children. When Counsel asked if Mother was a “good and appropriate parent[ ]” “but for the drug use,” Caseworker 1 replied, “Yes, except for the drug use.” Counsel also asked about her observations of Mother’s home. Caseworker 1 responded that “[m]ost of the time, [she] was just in the living room” and that she “did not see any drugs or paraphernalia.”7 Caseworker 1 also agreed that before the Children were removed from Mother’s custody, she never observed them to be without proper food, clothing, supervision, affection, or medical care.

¶22 Mother’s counsel also questioned Caseworker 1 about why the Children weren’t placed with Grandparents. Caseworker 1 responded that the Children were not placed with Grandparents because “[t]here were some things on [Step-Grandfather’s] background check that [DCFS] just could not look at them being a placement.” When asked if she remembered what was troubling about Step-Grandfather’s background check, Caseworker 1 answered, “I don’t, no. Usually I look at those, and once it’s not acceptable for our agency, it – you know, that’s pretty much it for me.”

¶23 The guardian ad litem (the GAL) assigned to the Children also cross-examined Caseworker 1. When the GAL asked if Mother took responsibility for her drug use, Caseworker 1 responded that although Mother “was always very apologetic,” she didn’t “follow through” or “do what we asked.” Caseworker 1 said that Mother had “a tendency to blame other people for [her] problems.” And when asked about Mother’s drug testing, Caseworker 1 said that it “went in waves,” where Mother would “do really well for a while” but then “wouldn’t do well for a while.”

¶24 The State also proffered testimony from a second DCFS caseworker (Caseworker 2). Caseworker 2 had worked with the family from December 2020 through the termination hearing in November 2021. She would have testified that she attempted to take Mother to the inpatient treatment facility in December 2020, that Mother tested positive for methamphetamine when they arrived at the facility, and that, for “unclear” reasons, Mother ultimately refused to stay at the facility. Caseworker 2 also would have testified that later in December 2020, Mother entered an inpatient program but left after two days. And she would have testified about attempts to place the Children with relatives, the supervised visits, and Mother’s efforts to comply with the plan. She also would have explained how Mother’s youngest child, A.W., was placed in DCFS custody due to Mother’s failed drug tests. Caseworker 2 would have further testified that Mother entered an inpatient treatment facility in May 2021, that Mother had plans to move in with Grandmother after she left the program because the alleged father is one of her “triggers,” but that after leaving the program, Mother almost immediately moved back in with the alleged father.8

¶25 During her cross-examination, Caseworker 2 acknowledged that Mother “interact[s] very well” with the Children and described her behavior during the supervised visits as “appropriate.” Caseworker 2 also acknowledged that in the times she had been inside Mother’s home, she had never “seen any sign of drug use or paraphernalia.” But when the GAL asked if the Children could “be safely returned to the home today,” Caseworker 2 replied, “No.” And when asked if Mother was “a good and appropriate parent” “but for” her drug use, Caseworker 2 responded, “I don’t like the term good parent, bad parent. I think it’s too subjective. But I think in answer to that, I would say she is an appropriate parent. I think she’s a parent with issues, but she tries her best.”

¶26 Foster Mother testified next. Foster Mother explained that she and her husband started fostering N.W. in April 2020 and J.W. and B.W. in May 2020. Foster Mother described the Children as her “whole world” and testified that she and her husband were willing to adopt the Children.

¶27 Foster Mother then spoke about each individual child. She said that B.W., for example, is “enrolled in early intervention” with PrimeTime 4 Kids and “receives speech and language therapy.”9 And she said that J.W. also does PrimeTime 4 Kids, but that he doesn’t have any “physical limitations or medical needs.” Foster Mother also explained that N.W. has a rare chromosomal syndrome. When N.W. first came into their home, he was on “supplemental oxygen 24 hours a day” and had a G-tube to help with feeding, which required daily cleaning. She further testified that N.W.’s chromosomal syndrome has caused developmental delays and that he will “remain delayed.” On cross-examination, she discussed how she and her husband “did a lot of research” into the syndrome by watching YouTube videos and “lectures given by doctors.”

¶28 After the State rested, Mother proffered the testimony of three witnesses: a clinical mental health counselor (Counselor) who worked with Mother at the inpatient treatment facility, Grandmother, and Mother. As had occurred with the State’s witnesses, the three witnesses’ testimonies were offered via proffer, and Grandmother and Mother were then subject to live cross-examination.10

 

¶29 Counselor would have testified that Mother entered the inpatient treatment facility in May 2021 and successfully completed the program in August 2021. She would have stated that “[o]ver the last four to five weeks of her treatment, [Mother] gave this program her all, attending all groups, individual sessions, case management appointments, et cetera.” Counselor also would have explained that Mother gave “each assignment careful thought and consideration” and had “agreed to continue to work on learning parenting skills and how to improve her ability to manage her emotions in a healthy way.” And Counselor would have testified that Mother “created a strong after care plan that included support from 12-step meetings, her religious community, and her ongoing therapists.” After proffering Counselor’s testimony, Mother’s counsel clarified that Counselor and Mother had not been in contact since Mother left the facility.

¶30 Mother proffered Grandmother’s testimony next. Grandmother would have testified that Mother and B.W. lived with her until B.W. was six months old. Grandmother would have described Mother as a “phenomenal mother” who dedicated her time to teaching and loving the Children. She would have described how Mother took the Children to the doctor frequently. She would have also testified that “she’s absolutely never known [Mother] to be high around her kids” and that she “didn’t know much about the drug use when [Mother and the alleged father] were living with [Grandparents] because they were never high around the kids.” Grandmother would have further explained that Mother had been working hard toward recovery and had been implementing what she learned in therapy.

¶31 Grandmother would have also testified about her attempts to have the Children placed with her and Step-Grandfather. She would have explained that they were denied placement because of the LIS cases against Step-Grandfather and “that they went through the appeal process,” “but they were denied again.” She would have testified that she and Step-Grandfather were “willing to work any safety plan requested by DCFS, including line-of-sight supervision any time” Step-Grandfather is around the Children. Grandmother would have also stated that Step-Grandfather was “willing to do a sexual behavioral risk assessment” and that “they would follow through with any treatment.”

¶32 At this point, the court asked for clarification about when Grandparents had requested custody, and Mother’s counsel provided a summary of when Grandparents had done so.11 Mother’s counsel further explained that DCFS denied placement with Grandparents because DCFS claimed there was “a substantiated sexual abuse allegation on the licensing database” that couldn’t be overturned. She said that DCFS “would not provide any more details than that as to what their concerns were.” When the court asked if Grandparents’ placement request was denied each time, Mother’s counsel stated that the requests were “denied,” or, rather, “continued more often than denied outright.”

¶33 Mother then proffered her testimony. Mother would have testified that “she loves her children very much and has worked very hard to be successful in this case.” She would have testified that she promptly addressed all safety concerns that DCFS caseworkers had about her home, like getting a fire extinguisher. She would have also explained how she always took the Children to their doctors’ appointments and how they were healthy and clean when they went into the State’s custody. With respect to her drug use, she would have described her improvement since entering a treatment facility and how she’s worked on implementing the skills she learned. Mother would have also acknowledged, however, that she was “not yet in active recovery.” But Mother would have testified that “despite her substance abuse disorder, … she always kept the drugs out of her home” and that she never used “around the [Children] and never at the house.”

¶34 During cross-examination, Mother acknowledged that she and the Twins’ umbilical cords tested positive for methamphetamine when they were born. She also acknowledged that she tested positive for drugs while pregnant with A.W. And Mother confirmed that since leaving the inpatient treatment facility, she had three relapses and used methamphetamine five times. She further testified that she created a safety plan while in the treatment facility and that she did not follow that plan. And she testified that since leaving the treatment facility, she had not been in contact with her “after care” contacts.

 

¶35 After closing arguments from all parties, the court ruled from the bench that grounds for termination existed and that it was in the Children’s best interest to terminate both parents’ parental rights. The court later issued written findings of fact and conclusions of law detailing its findings. There, the court found that Mother “struggled with drug testing and maintaining [her] sobriety throughout the entirety of the case.” The court then made extensive findings about Mother’s drug use, including a finding that “in 2020, Mother had 36 missed call-ins, 19 missed tests, 5 tests that were positive for methamphetamine[,] including on dates when she would have been pregnant with A.W., 1 test that was positive for alcohol, 1 test that was positive for THC[,] and 1 diluted test.” The court further found that in January 2021, “Mother had 4 missed call-ins and 1 missed test”; that in February 2021, Mother had “perfect testing compliance”; that in March 2021, “Mother missed 1 test”; and that in April 2021, “Mother failed to test on 4 occasions, failed to call in on 2 occasions, and tested positive for methamphetamine” on one occasion. Relatedly, the court found that Mother “quickly relapsed” after leaving the inpatient treatment facility and that, by her own testimony, “she had 3 relapses and 5 methamphetamine uses in the short two months’ time from leaving treatment to the date of trial.”

¶36 The court also concluded that “Mother’s attendance at therapy up until April of 2021 can be described as inconsistent at best.” In particular, the court noted DCFS’s attempts to help Mother get into an inpatient treatment facility and Mother’s initial resistance to inpatient treatment.

¶37 The court also made findings about Mother’s efforts and progress. It found that “by all accounts,” Mother did well at the inpatient treatment facility and “gave the program her all, attended all groups, individual sessions and case management meetings and that she excelled in her program and appeared to grow in her confidence and sobriety.” The court also found that “Mother completed a parenting class, consistently participated in family team meetings, kept in regular contact with DCFS, allowed DCFS to conduct home visits, obtained proper housing, attended visits with the [Children], and completed some adult education classes.” And the court concluded “that Mother appears to have good parental instincts and was always appropriate and attentive during visits with the [Children].” The court also stated that it was “very clear” that Mother “love[s] the [Children] very much.”

¶38 The court then addressed whether DCFS made “reasonable efforts” to provide reunification services. See Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-301(3)(a) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022).12 The court concluded that DCFS did make reasonable efforts, such as “holding regular family team meetings, completing regular home visits,” helping Mother get into a treatment facility, and providing transportation. The court also noted that Mother never argued that DCFS failed to make reasonable efforts. And the court pointed out that because Mother was provided reunification services for A.W., she was “afforded an opportunity to take full advantage of these ‘additional’ services and ‘additional’ time to remedy the safety concerns that brought the [Children]” into DCFS custody.

¶39 Having made these findings, the court then engaged in the two-part inquiry for termination of parental rights, determining (1) whether a statutory ground for termination exists and, (2) if so, whether termination is in the best interest of the child. See In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 62, 472 P.3d 827.

¶40 On the question of whether grounds for termination existed, the court determined that four separate grounds existed:

• First, the court found that Mother’s use of illegal drugs “constituted abuse and neglect of the [Children].” See Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-301(1)(b) (listing “that the parent has abused or neglected the child” as a ground for termination). In support of this, the court relied on Mother’s drug use while pregnant and her “ongoing continued use of methamphetamines.”

• Second, the court found that Mother was an unfit parent because her “habitual use of methamphetamines and inability to maintain sobriety for any significant amount of time during the pendency of this matter render[s] [her] unable to properly care for the [Children].” See id. § 80-4-301(1)(c) (listing “that the parent is unfit or incompetent” as a ground for termination).

• Third, the court found that the Children “are being cared for in an out-of-home placement under the supervision of the juvenile court,” Mother is “either unwilling or unable to remedy the circumstances that caused the [Children] to be in an out-of-home placement notwithstanding reasonable and appropriate reunification efforts by DCFS, and there is a substantial likelihood that Mother … will not be capable of exercising proper and effective parental care in the near future.” See id. § 80-4-301(1)(d)(i) (listing a ground for termination applicable when children are “being cared for in an out-of-home placement under the supervision of the juvenile court”). Relevant here, the court found that despite nearly two years of reunification services, Mother was “still in active methamphetamine addiction and use, which is the entire reason the [Children] were placed in DCFS custody to begin with.” The court further found that “more than a year after subjecting the [Twins] to fetal exposure of methamphetamines, Mother did the same thing to yet another child, all while participating in reunification services with DCFS.”

• Fourth, the court found that Mother “demonstrated a failure of parental adjustment.” See id. § 80-4-301(1)(e) (listing “failure of parental adjustment” as a ground for termination”); id. § 80-4-102(2) (defining “failure of parental adjustment”). Here, the court again relied on its conclusion that “with respect to Mother’s … methamphetamine addiction, very little if any progress has been made.”

¶41 Because it found that grounds for termination existed, the court then moved to the question of whether termination of Mother’s parental rights was in the Children’s best interest. As part of this analysis, the court considered whether “efforts to place the child with kin who have, or are willing to come forward to care for the child, were given due weight.” (Quoting Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-104(12)(b)(ii) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022).) The court concluded that efforts to place the Children with kin were given due weight. With respect to Grandparents, the court stated that Step-Grandfather “did not pass the DCFS background check and, as a result, [Grandparents’] request for placement was denied.” It further explained that the “denial was administratively appealed” and that Grandparents lost the appeal. And it finally noted that when Mother asked the court to “waive the failed background check” and place the Children with Grandparents anyway, the court “denied this request after considering all of the information and argument from the parties.” The court accordingly concluded that “due weight” had been given to efforts to place the Children with Grandparents but that the placement “did not occur due to [Step-Grandfather] failing his background check.”13

¶42 The court then considered whether termination was “strictly necessary” to promote the Children’s best interest. See Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-104(12)(b) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022); see also In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 66, 472 P.3d 827. On this, the court made several findings about the Children’s relationship with their foster parents, including:

• The Twins “have been with the foster parents nearly their entire lives and [B.W.] for nearly half of his young life.”

• The Children “have thrived in the care of the foster parents. [B.W.] has made great strides in his speech through regularly working with a speech therapist. [N.W.] has an extremely rare condition … which results in many developmental delays and requires extra precautions and care. The foster parents have spent many hours researching the condition and how they can best care for [N.W.]”

• The Children “have formed a strong familial bond with the foster parents and look to the foster parents as their natural parents.”

• “The foster parents have treated the [Children] as their own and have tailored their lives so that one of their primary objectives is to provide for the needs and safety of the [Children].”

• “The [Children’s] sibling, A.W.[,] is also in the care of the foster parents.”

¶43 Based on these findings, the court concluded that “it is clearly in the [Children’s] best interests to have parental rights terminated so that they may be adopted.” The court further explained, “Given the young age of the [Children] and the amount of time they have been in the home of the foster parents in relation to their young ages, it is strictly necessary to terminate parental rights so the [Children] may be adopted and receive the permanency they deserve.” The court thus terminated Mother’s parental rights in the Children. Mother now appeals.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶44 Mother first challenges the juvenile court’s determination that grounds for termination existed. She next challenges the juvenile court’s best interest determination, arguing that the court erred when it “failed to require clear and convincing evidence to preclude a kinship placement with Grandmother” and “concluded that it was strictly necessary to terminate Mother’s parental rights.”

¶45 “Whether a parent’s rights should be terminated presents a mixed question of law and fact.” In re E.R., 2021 UT 36, ¶ 7, 496 P.3d 58 (quotation simplified). We will thus overturn a juvenile court’s termination decision only if “it is against the clear weight of the evidence or leaves [us] with a firm and definite conviction that a mistake has been made.” Id. (quotation simplified). Put differently, 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); see also id. ¶ 12.

ANALYSIS

¶46 In the Termination of Parental Rights Act (the Act), our legislature set forth two findings that a juvenile court must make before terminating parental rights. See Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-103(2)(c) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022); see also In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 46, 472 P.3d 827. First, the juvenile court must find that at least one ground for termination exists under Utah Code section 80-4-301. See In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 46, 472 P.3d 827; In re J.M., 2020 UT App 52, ¶ 30, 463 P.3d 66. Second, the court must find that termination is in the best interest of the child. See In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 46, 472 P.3d 827. Both findings must be supported by clear and convincing evidence. See Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-103(2)(a); In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 48, 472 P.3d 827.

¶47 In this case, the court terminated Mother’s parental rights in the Children after finding that four grounds for termination existed and that termination was in the Children’s best interest. Mother challenges both parts of that ruling.

I. Grounds for Termination

¶48 Utah Code section 80-4-301 lists several possible grounds for terminating parental rights. The juvenile court found that four of them existed with respect to Mother: “that the parent has neglected or abused the child,” Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-301(1)(b) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022); “that the parent is unfit or incompetent,” id. § 80-4-301(1)(c); “that the child is being cared for in an out-of-home placement” and additional requirements have been met, id. § 80-4-301(1)(d)(i); and “failure of parental adjustment,” id. § 80-4-301(1)(e).

¶49 Mother challenges the court’s finding of each ground, contending that there wasn’t clear and convincing evidence to support any of them. But we conclude that the evidence was sufficient with respect to at least one of the grounds—failure of parental adjustment—and we accordingly reject Mother’s argument. See In re J.M., 2020 UT App 52, ¶ 30, 463 P.3d 66 (explaining “that the presence of a single statutory ground is sufficient to fulfill the first element of the termination test”).14

¶50 As defined by the Act, failure of parental adjustment “means that a parent or parents are unable or unwilling within a reasonable time to substantially correct the circumstances, conduct, or conditions that led to placement of their child outside of their home, notwithstanding reasonable and appropriate efforts made by the division to return the child to the home.” Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-102(2) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022). Here, the juvenile court found that Mother demonstrated a failure of parental adjustment because, although she made “significant progress with a number of requirements on the child and family plan, [she was] still in active methamphetamine addiction and use, which is the entire reason the [Children] were placed in DCFS custody to begin with.” The court particularly focused on Mother’s testimony that she used methamphetamine while pregnant with A.W. and that “in the two months leading up to trial, she used methamphetamine on five occasions.”

 

¶51 After reviewing the record, we cannot conclude that the court’s finding that Mother demonstrated a failure of parental adjustment went “against the clear weight of the evidence.” In re E.R., 2021 UT 36, ¶ 7, 496 P.3d 58 (quotation simplified). As explained, DCFS filed a petition for protective supervision services a few weeks after the Twins’ birth, after the Twins’ umbilical cords tested positive for methamphetamine and amphetamine. The juvenile court granted the petition, adjudicated the Children as abused and neglected, and ordered Mother to submit to drug testing as part of a child and family plan. Two months later, the court removed the Children from Mother and placed them in DCFS custody because Mother missed drug tests and tested positive for methamphetamine.

¶52 Again, this ground looks to whether the parent was able to “substantially correct” the “conduct” or “conditions that led to placement of [the] child outside of their home.” Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-102(2). So here, since the Children had been removed from the home because of Mother’s positive and missed drug tests, the question before the court was whether Mother had “substantially corrected” that behavior between their removal in April 2020 and the termination hearing in November 2021.

¶53 The record supports the court’s conclusion that Mother hadn’t. Indeed, the record shows that up through the termination hearing, Mother continued to struggle with drug testing and drug use. As the court found, “in 2020, Mother had 36 missed call-ins, 19 missed tests, 5 tests that were positive for methamphetamine[,] including on dates when she would have been pregnant with A.W., 1 test that was positive for alcohol, 1 test that was positive for THC[,] and 1 diluted test.” From January to March 2021, Mother had 4 missed call-ins and 2 missed tests. “In April 2021, Mother failed to test on 4 occasions, failed to call in on two occasions, and tested positive for methamphetamine” once. From May to August 2021, Mother was in the inpatient treatment facility, where she reportedly did very well. But upon leaving the facility, Mother “almost immediately returned” to live with the alleged father and “very quickly relapsed on methamphetamine.” Indeed, in “the short two months’ time from leaving treatment to the date of trial,” Mother “had 3 relapses and 5 methamphetamine uses.” Mother has not challenged these findings, and they support a finding that Mother was “unable or unwilling within a reasonable time to substantially correct the circumstances, conduct, or conditions that led to placement of [the Children] outside of [her] home.” Id.

¶54 Mother nevertheless argues that the court improperly took a “ ‘zero-tolerance’ approach” and failed “to in any way take into account Mother’s efforts and progress.” But the court didn’t take a zero-tolerance approach. Rather, the court concluded that Mother was unable or unwilling to substantially correct her drug use after making findings about Mother’s repeated use of methamphetamine, including specific findings about her use while pregnant and again in the few months between her inpatient treatment and the termination hearing. The court also didn’t fail to “take into account Mother’s efforts and progress.” In its order, the court acknowledged that Mother had “made significant progress with a number of requirements on the child and family plan” and that Mother had “successfully completed” the inpatient treatment program. But the court then found that Mother “very quickly relapsed on methamphetamine” after leaving the facility and that Mother was still “in active methamphetamine addiction and use.” In short, the court recognized Mother’s progress, but it nevertheless found that even with this progress, her ongoing methamphetamine use still demonstrated that she was either unwilling or unable to substantially correct her drug use.

¶55 Mother also argues that she didn’t “willfully refuse to deal with her drug issue, but rather really tried to stay clean.” But a court can find failure of parental adjustment based on a parent’s unwillingness or inability to “substantially correct the circumstances, conduct, or conditions that led to placement of [the] child outside of their home.” Id. In this sense, a parent’s unsuccessful efforts, even if sincere, might not be sufficient to prevent a finding of failure of parental adjustment if the behavior that led to the child’s removal is not substantially corrected. See id. As explained, the court’s finding that Mother was either unwilling or unable to substantially correct her drug use does not go against the clear weight of the evidence, given that Mother continued to miss tests and continued to test positive even while benefiting from reunification services, and given that she “very quickly relapsed on methamphetamine” after spending over three months at an inpatient treatment facility. In short, the evidence showed that Mother either could not stop using drugs because of addiction, in which case she was unable to substantially correct the behavior, or that she was choosing to not stop using drugs, in which case she was unwilling. Either way, the court’s finding did not go against the clear weight of the evidence.

¶56 Lastly, Mother contends that her relapses “should only be disqualifying if the relapse renders her incapable of taking care of her children.” For this proposition, Mother cites Utah Code subsection 80-4-302(2)(c), which states, “In determining whether a parent or parents are unfit or have neglected a child the juvenile court shall consider: … habitual or excessive use of intoxicating liquors, controlled substances, or dangerous drugs that render the parent unable to care for the child. …” See id. § 80-4-302(2)(c) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022). According to Mother, the court was only allowed to ground its termination decision in her drug use if it made specific findings that the drug use made her “unable to care” for the Children. See id.

¶57 But we have previously stated that the considerations listed under subsection 80-4-302(2) “apply to two specific grounds for termination under subsection [80-4-301(1)]—whether a parent is ‘unfit or incompetent’ pursuant to subsection [80-4-301(1)(c)], and whether a parent ‘has neglected or abused the child’ pursuant to subsection [80-4-301(1)(b)].” In re L.A., 2017 UT App 131, ¶ 33, 402 P.3d 69. This is because the statute only requires the juvenile court to take the listed considerations into account “[i]n determining whether a parent or parents are unfit or have neglected a child.” Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-302(2) (emphasis added). So under our controlling precedent, subsection 80-4-302(2) is inapplicable to the ground for termination at issue here, which is failure of parental adjustment. The court was thus not required to consider whether Mother’s drug use rendered her “unable to care for” the Children, and we need not consider Mother’s argument on that point. See id.see also In re L.A., 2017 UT App 131, ¶ 33, 402 P.3d 69.

¶58 In short, there was sufficient evidence of Mother’s ongoing drug use, thereby also supporting the court’s finding that Mother was “unable or unwilling within a reasonable time to substantially correct the circumstances, conduct, or conditions that led to placement of [the Children] outside of their home.” Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-102(2). We are thus unconvinced that the court “failed to consider all of the facts” or that the court’s decision was “against the clear weight of the evidence.” In re E.R., 2021 UT 36, ¶ 7, 496 P.3d 58 (quotation simplified).

II. Best Interest

¶59 After finding that grounds for termination existed, the juvenile court determined that termination of Mother’s parental rights and adoption by the foster family was in the Children’s best interest. On appeal, Mother argues that there was not clear and convincing evidence that termination of Mother’s parental rights, as opposed to placement with Grandparents, was in the Children’s best interest. Relatedly, she asks us to “remand with instructions to the juvenile court to consider the viability of guardianship or other custodial arrangements with Grandmother.” We decline this request and instead affirm the juvenile court’s best interest determination.15

¶60 If a juvenile court determines that grounds for termination exist, the court must then consider whether termination is in the child’s best interest. See In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 46, 472 P.3d 827; see also Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-103(2)(c) (explaining that a court should “consider the welfare and best interest of the child of paramount importance in determining whether to terminate parental rights”). This consideration should be directed by “two related pieces of important guidance” provided by our legislature. In re J.J.W., 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 27, 520 P.3d 38.

¶61 First, “[a] child’s need for a normal family life in a permanent home, and for positive, nurturing family relationships is usually best met by the child’s natural parents.” Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-104(8) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022). There is accordingly “a strong preference for families to remain together.” In re J.J.W., 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 27, 520 P.3d 38. Second, a court should terminate parental rights only when doing so is “strictly necessary” “from the child’s point of view.” Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-301(1); see also In re J.J.W., 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 28, 520 P.3d 38. Put differently, “termination must be strictly necessary to promote the child’s best interest.” In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 60, 472 P.3d 827. Because this analysis occurs “from the child’s point of view,” “the court’s focus should be firmly fixed on finding the outcome that best secures the child’s well-being.” Id. ¶ 64.

¶62 When considering whether termination is strictly necessary, a juvenile court must consider, “among other relevant factors,” whether “efforts to place the child with kin who have, or are willing to come forward to care for the child, were given due weight.” Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-104(12)(b)(ii). Our supreme court has clarified 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 parental rights. In some cases, alternatives will be few and unsatisfactory, and termination of the parent’s rights will be the option that is in the child’s best interest. But in other cases, courts should consider whether other less-permanent arrangements might serve the child’s needs just as well. In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 67, 472 P.3d 827 (quotation simplified).16

¶63 Two of our recent cases shed light on how a court should consider kinship placements: In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, 518 P.3d 993, and In re J.J.W., 2022 UT App 116, 520 P.3d 38.

¶64 In the first case, the State moved to terminate the rights of a mother and father to their seven children. In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 16, 518 P.3d 993. The juvenile court did not terminate the parents’ rights in the oldest five children, and those children were placed with their grandparents “under an order of permanent custody and guardianship.” Id. ¶ 21. But the court did terminate the parents’ rights in the youngest two children, and the court did so even though the grandparents were willing and able to care for those younger children. See id. ¶¶ 26, 29. The court’s decision regarding the younger children was based on its finding that it was in their best interest to be adopted by their foster family. Id. ¶ 29. We reversed on appeal, however, concluding “that the juvenile court’s best-interest determination was against the clear weight of the evidence presented at trial.” Id. ¶ 57. We did so because there was not clear and convincing evidence that terminating the parents’ rights in the younger children “was strictly necessary, especially given the presence of another available and acceptable option—permanent guardianship with [the grandparents], alongside their five siblings—that would not require permanent severance of familial bonds and that would serve the [younger children’s] best interest at least as well as adoption.” Id.

¶65 In the second case, a district court terminated a father’s parental rights after determining that it was in the child’s best interest to be adopted by his grandparents. In re J.J.W., 2022 UT App 116, ¶¶ 13, 16, 520 P.3d 38. On appeal, we held that the “court fell into legal error when it failed to expressly consider other apparent reasonable options short of termination that might serve [the child’s] best interest just as well.” Id. ¶ 37. More specifically, we concluded that “the court erred by failing to explain, on the record, why a permanent custody and guardianship arrangement” with the child’s grandparents “could not serve [the child’s] best interest, and why termination of [the father’s] parental rights—as opposed to imposition of a guardianship—was strictly necessary to further that interest.” Id. We accordingly vacated the termination order and remanded “the case for a renewed best-interest analysis.” Id.

¶66 From our review of these cases and the statutes that they interpreted, three principles emerge that matter here.

¶67 First, courts have an obligation to consider proposed kinship placements, and if a court rejects a kinship placement, it must give reasons on the record for doing so. See id. ¶ 32 (faulting a court for rejecting a kinship placement without explaining “why it rejected that option”); see also In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 37, 518 P.3d 993 (“Courts that order termination of parental rights without appropriately exploring feasible alternatives to termination have not properly applied the second part of the two-part termination test.” (quotation simplified)); In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 74, 472 P.3d 827 (explaining that strict necessity “requires the court to find, on the record, that no other option can achieve the same welfare and best interest for the child” as termination).

¶68 Second, although there’s a statutory preference for kinship placements, and although courts must appropriately explore kinship placements as a result, courts that explore such options may then conclude, on the facts before them, that a different option is in fact in a child’s best interest. See In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 37, 518 P.3d 993 (“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.” (quotation simplified)); see also In re J.J.W., 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 29, 520 P.3d 38 (same). On this, In re A.H. stands as something of an illustrative contrast. There, we explained that if “a completely appropriate kinship placement” exists, it “becomes significantly more difficult” to show that termination is strictly necessary. 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 49, 518 P.3d 993. And we accordingly reversed in that case because there were “no concerns” with the proposed kinship placement and there was accordingly not clear and convincing evidence that termination was strictly necessary. Id. ¶¶ 50, 57. But if a case presents itself in which a court does appropriately consider the proposed kinship options and yet concludes that those options are not completely appropriate based on valid concerns, the court could then reject the proposed kinship placement and find that termination is strictly necessary. See id. ¶ 37; see also In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 66, 472 P.3d 827; In re J.J.W., 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 29, 520 P.3d 38.

¶69 Third, if a court has complied with its statutory obligations, its resultant best interest determination is entitled to deference. See In re J.J.W., 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 18, 520 P.3d 38; see also In re E.R., 2021 UT 36, ¶ 22, 496 P.3d 58. This is because the best interest determination “is a factually intense inquiry dependent on the unique circumstances and needs of each child.” In re E.R., 2021 UT 36, ¶ 22, 496 P.3d 58 (quotation simplified). Furthermore, “the juvenile court has a superior perspective in light of its view of the demeanor of both parents and children.” Id. ¶ 23. For these reasons, “we do not lightly reverse a court’s best-interests determination.” In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 38, 518 P.3d 993. But to be clear, a juvenile court’s determinations are not “afforded a high degree of deference”; rather, “the deference afforded to the juvenile court is the same level of deference given to all lower court findings of fact and fact-like determinations of mixed questions.” In re E.R., 2021 UT 36, ¶¶ 29–30, 496 P.3d 58. Accordingly, we will overturn a juvenile court’s decision “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). In In re J.J.W., for example, we remanded because the district court failed to consider whether a kinship placement could serve the child’s best interest. 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 37. And in In re A.H., we reversed where the juvenile court did consider the kinship placement but its decision went “against the clear weight of the evidence presented at trial.” 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 57, 518 P.3d 993.

¶70 With these principles in mind, we review the juvenile court’s best interest determination in this case and affirm.

¶71 First, unlike what occurred in In re J.J.W., the court here did “consider” and “discuss” the possibility of a kinship placement (namely, one with Grandparents). See 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 31, 520 P.3d 38. When Mother first requested that the Children be placed with Grandparents, the court denied that request because Step-Grandfather could not pass a background check. But the minutes for the hearing indicate that the court planned to “continue to work on placement clearance of” Grandparents. And the minutes from later hearings indicate that placement with Grandparents continued to be a topic of discussion among the parties and the court. Notably, the parties informed the court that although Step-Grandfather was able to get three of his LIS cases overturned, two could not be overturned because of their significance. In its termination order, the court documented this history, explaining that Step-Grandfather “did not pass the DCFS background check and, as a result, [Grandparents’] request for placement was denied.” The court explained further: “The denial was administratively appealed, which [Grandparents] lost. Thereafter, Mother … asked the Court to waive the failed background check and place the [Children] in [Grandparents’] direct custody. The Court denied this request after considering all of the information and argument from the parties.” And it later concluded that “due weight was given to possible kin placements, but they did not occur due to [Step-Grandfather] failing his background check.”

¶72 Despite all this, Mother argues that the court’s consideration was inadequate because the court did not further consider Grandparents’ apparent willingness to comply with a safety plan and Step-Grandfather’s offer to complete a sexual behavioral risk assessment. Relatedly, Mother points out “that Step-Grandfather worked out of the house six days a week” and thus claims “that his presence in Grandmother’s household would therefore be minimal.” But there is nothing in the record to suggest that the court didn’t consider this information. Rather, the record indicates that the court considered it but still concluded that Grandparents were an inappropriate placement given the import of Step-Grandfather’s LIS cases and background.

¶73 In short, the juvenile court repeatedly considered the possibility of placing the Children with Grandparents. It is thus clear to us that the court fully complied with its obligation to “appropriately explor[e]” whether they were an appropriate placement option. See In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 37, 518 P.3d 993.

¶74 Second, unlike what occurred in In re A.H., there were valid concerns in this case with Grandparents. See id. ¶ 50 (explaining that there were “no concerns” with the grandparents and that the juvenile court even found that they were “certainly appropriate caregivers”). As explained above, the juvenile court rejected Grandparents as a placement option because Step-Grandfather could not pass the DCFS background check due to his cases in the LIS. We see no basis for invalidating the court’s conclusion about the import of Step-Grandfather’s background.

¶75 If DCFS “makes a supported finding that a person committed a severe type of child abuse or neglect,” it enters “the name and other identifying information of the perpetrator with the supported finding” into the LIS. Utah Code Ann. § 62A-4a-1005(1)(b)(i) (LexisNexis Supp. 2021). A “supported finding” “means a finding by [DCFS] based on the evidence available at the completion of an investigation that there is a reasonable basis to conclude that abuse, neglect, or dependency occurred.” Id. § 62A-4a-101(42). If the alleged perpetrator is “18 years of age or older,” then “severe type of child abuse or neglect” means “chronic abuse,” “severe abuse,” “sexual abuse,” “sexual exploitation,” “abandonment,” “chronic neglect,” or “severe neglect.” Id. § 62A-4a-1002(1)(i) (2018). If the alleged perpetrator is “under the age of 18,” then “severe type of child abuse or neglect” means “serious physical injury, as defined in Subsection 76-5-109(1), to another child which indicates a significant risk to other children” or “sexual behavior with or upon another child which indicates a significant risk to other children.” Id. § 62A-4a-1002(1)(ii).17

¶76 As part of this process, DCFS must “serve notice of the finding on the alleged perpetrator.” Id. § 62A-4a-1005(1)(a) (Supp. 2021). The alleged perpetrator may then “file a written request asking [DCFS] to review the findings made,” “immediately petition the juvenile court under Section 80-3-404,” or “sign a written consent to … the supported finding” and entry in the LIS. Id. § 62A-4a-1005(3)(a). DCFS must remove an alleged perpetrator’s name and information from LIS “if the severe type of child abuse or neglect upon which the [LIS] entry was based: (A) is found to be unsubstantiated or without merit by the juvenile court under Section 80-3-404; or (B) is found to be substantiated, but is subsequently reversed on appeal.” Id. § 62A-4a-1005(e)(i). A finding is “substantiated” if a juvenile court determines “based on a preponderance of the evidence that abuse or neglect occurred.” Id. § 62A-4a-101(40).

¶77 Mother is correct that the record does not include the underlying facts of the LIS cases, and it may have been helpful for the analyses of both the juvenile court and our court if such information had been provided below. Nevertheless, the record is still sufficiently clear on several key things. One is that Step-Grandfather at one point had five cases in the LIS. These cases would have necessarily required a finding from DCFS that Step-Grandfather committed “a severe type of child abuse or neglect.” Id. § 62A-4a-1005(1). Another is that DCFS made efforts to help Step-Grandfather get the cases overturned, that three of the cases were overturned, but that two cases were still upheld because they were “of such significance that they cannot be overturned.”18 And finally, Grandmother’s proffered testimony was that there “was a successful reunification” in at least one of those cases, which meant that, whatever it was, the conduct at issue was serious enough that Step-Grandfather’s own children had been removed from his custody at some point.

¶78 We simply cannot fault the juvenile court for finding that it was not in the Children’s best interest to be placed in a home with somebody who, despite having tried to be removed from the LIS, nevertheless remained in the LIS based on two prior cases that were “of such significance that they cannot be overturned.” See In re J.P., 2021 UT App 134, ¶¶ 11, 20–23, 502 P.3d 1247 (upholding a juvenile court’s determination that placement with relatives was inappropriate where one member of the household had a “history of violence”). Indeed, beyond the obvious safety concerns raised by the LIS cases, we further note some legislative support for the court’s assessment of their significance to the question before it. By statute, a person who is listed in the LIS “may be disqualified from adopting a child, receiving state funds as a child care provider, or being licensed by” DCFS. Utah Code Ann. § 62A-4a-1005(2)(a)(v). While Mother points out that a kinship placement is not precisely the same thing as an adoption or being licensed by DCFS, this statute still evidences the legislature’s conclusion that placement on the LIS should result in some restriction of a person’s ability to have sustained access to children. Given this, we don’t see why a juvenile court couldn’t likewise conclude that there is good reason to not place children in the care of someone who is listed in the LIS.

¶79 Mother nevertheless contends that the facts underlying the LIS cases could have been fairly benign and therefore an invalid basis for not placing the Children with Grandparents. But if that were true, Step-Grandfather could have testified at the termination hearing, provided more information, and thus explained to the court himself why the LIS cases shouldn’t preclude placement. But he didn’t. Because of this, what the court was left with was that Step-Grandfather still had LIS cases that were based on a finding that he committed “a severe type of child abuse or neglect,” and that almost eighteen months after learning that these cases could prevent placement, two of the cases were still in the LIS because of their significance. Given all this, we decline to fault the court for not delving deeper into evidence that Mother could have provided but didn’t.19

¶80 Third and finally, given the court’s consideration of Grandparents and the information that it received throughout the proceedings and then noted in its order, we defer to its ultimate conclusion that although there was a potential kinship option, termination was in the Children’s best interest. See In re E.R., 2021 UT 36, ¶ 22, 496 P.3d 58. As explained above, DCFS found that Step-Grandfather committed “a severe type of child abuse or neglect” and that two of the cases could not be overturned because of their significance. Faced with those facts, the juvenile court could and indeed did validly conclude that placement with Grandparents would be “unsatisfactory,” In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 67, 472 P.3d 827 (quotation simplified), and not “acceptable,” In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 49, 518 P.3d 993.

¶81 Having properly rejected the proposed kinship placement, the court then explained why adoption was in the Children’s best interest. It found that the Children had “thrived in the care of the foster parents” and “formed a strong familial bond with the foster parents and look to the foster parents as their natural parents.” The court also explained that N.W. has a rare chromosomal syndrome and that the foster parents have spent time researching the condition and learning how to best care for N.W. And with respect to the Children, the court found that the foster parents “treated [the Children] as their own” and “tailored their lives so that one of their primary objectives is to provide for the needs and safety of” the Children. These findings amply demonstrate that adoption by the foster parents was indeed a viable and positive option for the Children.

¶82 Given the findings detailed above, Mother has not persuaded us that the court “failed to consider all of the facts” or that it “considered all of the facts and its decision was nonetheless against the clear weight of the evidence.” In re E.R., 2021 UT 36, ¶ 7, 496 P.3d 58 (quotation simplified). We accordingly decline to disrupt the court’s determination that it was in the Children’s best interest to be adopted by their foster family and that termination of Mother’s parental rights was strictly necessary to achieve that outcome.

CONCLUSION

¶83 The court’s finding that grounds for termination existed was not against the clear weight of the evidence, nor was its determination that terminating Mother’s parental rights was strictly necessary to promote the Children’s best interest. The decision below is accordingly affirmed.

——————–

1 When the Twins were born, Mother was living with the Children’s alleged father. The alleged father participated throughout the proceedings, and at the close of the same termination proceeding at issue in this appeal, the juvenile court terminated his rights, if any, in the Children. In a separate appeal, this court upheld that decision based on the alleged father’s failure to establish paternity. See Order, Case No. 20210915-CA (Feb. 18, 2022).

Mother was married to another man when each of the Children were born. This made him their presumptive father under the Utah Uniform Parentage Act. See Utah Code Ann. § 78B-15-204(1)(a) (LexisNexis 2018). But although this man was properly served, he never appeared. The juvenile court thus determined that he had abandoned the Children and terminated his parental rights as well. That portion of the court’s order is not at issue in this appeal.

The Management Information System “contain[s] all key elements of each family’s current child and family plan” and “alert[s] caseworkers regarding deadlines for completion of and compliance with policy, including child and family plans.” Utah Code Ann. § 62A-4a-1003(3)(a), (b) (LexisNexis Supp. 2021).

Effective September 1, 2022, several sections relevant to the LIS were repealed and renumbered. Compare id. §§ 62A-4a-101, -1005, -1006, with id. §§ 80-2-102, -708, -1002 (Supp. 2022). We cite to the versions in effect at the time of the termination hearing.

Although not entirely clear from the record, it appears that it was DCFS that administratively overturned three of the LIS cases against Step-Grandfather. See generally Utah Code Ann. § 62A-4a-1005(3)(i) (explaining that “the alleged perpetrator” may “file a written request asking [DCFS] to review the findings made”).

The Children were initially placed in the care of a foster mother. When the foster mother was no longer able to care for all the Children, the Twins went to live with another foster family. In either April or May 2020, all the Children went to live with a new foster family, where they remained through the duration of the proceedings.

The termination decision at issue in this appeal applied only to Mother’s parental rights in the Children. But because the juvenile court’s decision in this case was partly based on Mother’s choices while pregnant with A.W., we include those relevant facts.

Unless a statutory exception applies, “the juvenile court may not extend reunification services beyond 12 months after the day on which the minor is initially removed from the minor’s home.” Utah Code Ann. § 80-3-409(6) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022). As the juvenile court later explained in its termination decision, Mother was provided with separate reunification services with respect to A.W., so she was provided “ ‘additional’ services and ‘additional’ time to remedy the safety concerns that brought the [Children] in this matter into DCFS custody.”

The supervised visits occurred at either a DCFS office or a park, but the DCFS caseworkers periodically made visits to Mother’s home.

Grandmother, whose testimony was offered via proffer, would have testified that Mother had planned to move in with her after leaving the inpatient treatment facility, that there was room for Mother to move in, but that Mother never came to live with her.

“PrimeTime 4 Kids is an early intervention program serving children 0–2 and their families. … Early intervention is a federally mandated program that is established to help children 0–2 with developmental disabilities.” PrimeTime 4 Kids, https://primetime4kids.org/ [https://perma.cc/HC8T-U7GF].

10 The alleged father also testified, but his testimony was relevant to his asserted parental rights, which are not at issue in this appeal.

11 The juvenile court judge that presided over the termination hearing was new to the case.

12 Because there have been no material changes to the relevant statutory provisions, we cite the current version unless otherwise noted.

13 The court also found that “one of Mother’s cousins expressed a desire to have the [Children] placed with her; however, the cousin never filled out the required background check.” Mother has not challenged this aspect of the court’s ruling.

14 The juvenile court found that DCFS made reasonable efforts to return the Children to Mother. It also found that Mother received “ ‘additional’ services and ‘additional’ time” due to A.W.’s birth. Mother did not challenge those findings below or on appeal.

15 In her briefing, Mother seems to separately argue that the Children should have been placed with Grandmother alone, even if Step-Grandfather was not a good placement option. But the court’s order, as well as minute entries from prior hearings, indicate that Mother and Grandparents collectively requested that the court place the Children with Grandmother and Step-Grandfather together. Regardless, even if the request was that the Children be placed with only Grandmother, it was still appropriate for the court to consider Step-Grandfather’s background since he lived with Grandmother. Cf. In re J.P., 2021 UT App 134, ¶¶ 11, 20–23, 502 P.3d 1247 (affirming a juvenile court’s determination that a placement was inappropriate where one member of the household had a “history of violence”).

16 Our supreme court was writing generally about the strict necessity requirement and not specifically about the kinship inquiry. But we take its analysis to apply to the kinship inquiry, which is, after all, a part of strict necessity. See In re J.J.W., 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 29 (applying this language to the kinship inquiry); In re A.H., 2022 UT App 114, ¶ 37, 518 P.3d 993 (same).

17 Section 62A-4a-1002 has been repealed. See In re A.C., 2022 UT App 121, ¶ 6 n.6, 521 P.3d 186. The definition of “severe type of child abuse or neglect” can now be found in Utah Code section 80-1-102(78)(a) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022).

18 The State claimed that one of the cases involved sexual abuse, but Grandmother would have testified that the cases were “not … for any form of sexual abuse.” Our resolution of this issue does not turn on whether the cases involved sexual abuse, so we need not resolve this dispute.

19 At oral argument, Mother suggested that Step-Grandfather couldn’t have testified about the cases because they happened long ago and “he didn’t know” what the cases were about. If it were true that Step-Grandfather didn’t remember the underlying facts of the cases, he could have requested information from DCFS. See Utah Code Ann. § 62A-4a-1006(4)(c)(ii)(B) (explaining that DCFS can access the LIS to “respond to a request for information from a person whose name is listed in” the LIS).

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In Re K.K. – 2023 UT App 14 – Abuse and Neglect Adjudication

In re K.K. – 2023 UT App 14

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

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

PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

B.K.,

Appellant,

v.

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20220051-CA

Filed February 9, 2023

Second District Juvenile Court, Farmington Department

The Honorable Sharon S. Sipes

No. 1176751

Scott L. Wiggins, Attorney for Appellant

Sean D. Reyes, John M. Peterson, and Candace

Roach, Attorneys for Appellee

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

JUDGE MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER authored this Opinion,

in which JUDGE GREGORY K. ORME concurred. JUDGE RYAN M.

HARRIS concurred, with opinion.

CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, Judge:

¶1        This is a companion case to and arises out of the same facts involved in In re K.K., 2023 UT App 13, which also issues today. In short,[1] B.K. (Mother) and D.K. (Father) are the parents of triplets K.K., S.K., and S.K. (collectively, the Children). When the Children were six years old, the State filed a petition for custody and guardianship on the grounds that the Children were neglected and abused by Mother and Father. The underlying facts giving rise to the petition were multiple acts of domestic violence, culminating in a physical and boisterous verbal altercation between the couple that occurred on June 22, 2021, and that took place in front of the Children and other witnesses.

¶2        Following an adjudication trial on the petition, during which the juvenile court heard testimony from Mother, Father, two neighbors who had witnessed the June 22 altercation, and two police officers who had responded to the neighbors’ 911 calls regarding the June 22 altercation, the court issued an order adjudicating the Children neglected and abused as to Mother.

¶3        In the adjudication order, the court found, among other things, that Mother and Father had engaged in numerous acts of domestic violence, some of which had occurred in the presence of the Children, including on June 22; that when Mother and Father fight they sometimes send the Children downstairs to wait with a roommate, which had occurred two or three times that year; that the Children are aware they are sent downstairs because Mother and Father fight; that “[a]ccording to the [C]hildren, [Father] and [Mother] fight and yell and hurt each other’s bodies”; and that “[t]he [C]hildren have experienced domestic violence with enough frequency that they appear calm during incidents between their parents . . . even though the parents ‘fight a lot and hurt’ each other.”

¶4        As to Mother, the court found she was not yelling back at Father during the June 22 altercation but that she did yell at him on another occasion during which officers were dispatched to the house on a “domestic” call. In addition, the court found that Mother “is not concerned” that the Children witness her and Father fight and that her “demeanor and testimony”—including her inability to recall much of what happened on June 22—“is in tune with her desire to protect [Father] rather than address the domestic violence that exists in her home.” Based on these findings, the court concluded that Mother “has failed to protect the [C]hildren from exposure to domestic violence in the home” and that “[Father] and [Mother’s] domestic violence in their home has harmed the[] [C]hildren.”

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶5        Mother now appeals the juvenile court’s neglect and abuse adjudications, asserting the court erred in determining that she neglected and abused the Children. We review the juvenile court’s factual findings deferentially, reversing the court’s findings only if they are clearly erroneous. In re E.R., 2021 UT 36, ¶ 15, 496 P.3d 58. A finding is clearly erroneous when the court either “failed to consider all of the facts or reached a decision against the clear weight of the evidence.” Id. ¶ 32 (quotation simplified). And we review the juvenile court’s underlying legal determinations nondeferentially for correctness. See In re A.B., 2022 UT 39, ¶¶ 27–28.

ANALYSIS

¶6        Mother argues the juvenile court erred in determining that the State had proved by clear and convincing evidence that she neglected and abused the Children “by exposing them to domestic violence.” Clear and convincing evidence is an “intermediate standard of proof” that “implies something more than the usual requirement of a preponderance . . . of the evidence; and something less than proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” Essential Botanical Farms, LC v. Kay, 2011 UT 71, ¶¶ 21, 24, 270 P.3d 430 (quotation simplified). “For a matter to be clear and convincing to a particular mind it must at least have reached the point where there remains no serious or substantial doubt as to the correctness of the conclusion.” In re S.Y.T., 2011 UT App 407, ¶ 42, 267 P.3d 930 (quotation simplified).

¶7        Because neglect and abuse are distinct, with different statutory definitions, we address Mother’s challenge to the juvenile court’s adjudications separately. With regard to Mother’s neglect adjudication, we conclude the court did not err in determining that she neglected the Children. As to the court’s abuse adjudication, we conclude that Mother, like Father, cannot show prejudice resulting from the abuse adjudication where the underlying facts giving rise to both adjudications are the same. Accordingly, we decline to address the merits of Mother’s challenge to the abuse adjudication.

I. Neglect

¶8        To prove that Mother neglected the Children, the State needed to present clear and convincing evidence that Mother’s “action[s] or inaction[s]” caused the Children to experience a “lack of proper parental care . . . by reason of the fault or habits of” Mother or that Mother “fail[ed] or refus[ed] . . . to provide proper . . . care necessary for [the Children’s] health, safety, morals, or well-being.” See Utah Code § 80-1-102(58)(a)(ii)–(iii). Mother argues the juvenile court’s conclusion that she neglected the Children by “‘allowing’ them to be exposed to her abuse at Father’s hands” does not satisfy the statutory definition of neglect. She further contends that the court “engaged in unwarranted assumptions that are contrary to the well-settled notions underlying the Battered Woman Syndrome” by concluding that Mother’s “behavior constituted ‘nonaccidental’ conduct or that her behavior was due to her ‘faults or habits.’” We disagree.

¶9        The evidence presented at trial included testimony from six witnesses who detailed Father and Mother’s history of engaging in domestic disputes with each other and specifically described the altercation that occurred on June 22. The testimony indicated that two of the children were present during the June 22 altercation and were observed “clinging” to Mother outside in the front yard while Father argued with her, punched her, and threw objects at her. One of the officers who responded to the June 22 altercation testified that the two children who had witnessed the altercation “seemed calm” and were not “distraught or flustered at all.”[2] The officers acknowledged they had been called to Mother and Father’s house prior to the June 22 altercation on a “domestic” call after neighbors reported Mother and Father were screaming at each other.

¶10 Mother also testified that on many occasions she tried to prevent the Children from observing her and Father fight. To accomplish this, “as soon as any argument started” she would send the Children downstairs with her roommate, where they would wait until the fight was over. Despite making this effort, Mother testified that she believed the Children were aware they were sent downstairs to avoid hearing any fighting. Moreover, the evidence also showed that Mother repeatedly allowed Father to return home after the court issued a criminal no contact/protective order and that she minimized the severity of the domestic violence. Mother was also largely unwilling to testify at trial about the June 22 altercation, claiming that she had “trouble remembering” much of what happened. Based on this evidence, the juvenile court found, “[Mother] is not concerned that the [C]hildren are subjected to the argument[s] between [Mother] and [Father]. [Mother’s] demeanor and testimony is in tune with her desire to protect [Father] rather than address the domestic violence that exists in her home.”

¶11      As described above, in its adjudication order, the juvenile court made several findings in support of its determination of neglect as to Mother. Those findings address Mother’s ongoing relationship with Father and the violent dynamic of their relationship, Mother’s knowledge that the Children were aware of her fights with Father despite her attempts to shield them from the violence, and Mother’s apparent lack of concern or desire to extricate herself from future interactions with Father. Under Utah law, a parent “ha[s] a statutory duty not to knowingly place [their] child in harm’s way.” In re C.B., 1999 UT App 293, ¶ 9, 989 P.2d 76. By voluntarily returning to the abusive relationship with Father, Mother ignored this duty by “potentially subjecting the [Children] to witness, or be the victim of, further abuse.” See id. Moreover, as discussed in In re C.C.W., 2019 UT App 34, 440 P.3d 749, a parent’s act of domestic violence can have adverse impacts on a child, even if there is no evidence of violence toward the child and even if the child does not directly witness the violence. Relying on “both common sense and expert opinion,” this court recognized that children who are exposed to domestic violence may suffer “direct physical and psychological injuries,” regardless of whether they are physically harmed. Id. ¶¶ 20–21 (quotation simplified). Among other things, children who observe domestic violence “may be taught that violence is an acceptable way to handle issues with loved ones,” which “breeds a culture of violence in future generations. . . . Abused children are at great risk of becoming abusive parents.” Id. ¶ 20 (quotation simplified). Although it is unfortunate that Mother is a victim of domestic violence, her decision to knowingly return to Father and to protect him rather than to protect the Children despite her knowledge that the Children are aware of the abuse in the home satisfies the statutory definition of neglect.

¶12      We recognize that most, if not all, of the domestic violence at issue in this case was committed by Father against Mother and that Mother was therefore often the victim rather than the perpetrator. But under Utah’s statutory definition of neglect, under certain circumstances, even victims of domestic violence can “neglect” their children if they fail to take sufficient steps to protect them from the domestic violence present in the home or if they choose to prioritize their relationship with the perpetrator of the violence over the need to protect their children. After all, neglect can stem from either “action or inaction” on the part of a parent, see Utah Code § 80-1-102(58)(a), as long as the “inaction” in question causes either “lack of proper parental care of a child by reason of the fault or habits of the parent” or “failure or refusal of a parent . . . to provide . . . care necessary for the child’s health, safety, morals, or well-being,” see id. § 80-1-102(58)(a)(ii)–(iii). Here, the juvenile court found that Mother was “not concerned” about protecting the Children from domestic violence and that Mother had a “desire to protect [Father] rather than address the domestic violence that exists in her home.” These findings were supported by substantial evidence presented at trial. And these facts, as found by the court, constitute “neglect” as our legislature has defined that term. In short, Mother’s “inaction” in failing to protect the Children from exposure to domestic violence and prioritizing her toxic relationship with Father resulted in a failure to provide the “care necessary for [the Children’s] health, safety, morals, or well-being” and caused the Children to experience a “lack of proper parental care.” See id.

¶13      Mother resists this conclusion by contending the juvenile court improperly relied on In re C.C.W. for “the proposition that children are harmed by domestic violence in the home.” She asserts the court’s reliance on In re C.C.W. was unwarranted because that case concerned a proceeding to terminate parental rights whereas this case concerns abuse and neglect adjudications. While Mother is correct that the two proceedings are different, those differences do not bear on whether the court could properly rely on the research and studies cited in In re C.C.W. supporting the general proposition that domestic violence is harmful to children. See 2019 UT App 34, ¶ 20. Termination proceedings and abuse and neglect adjudications are both governed by the Utah Juvenile Code, see Utah Code § 80-4-301 (termination of parental rights); id. § 80-3-201 (abuse or neglect proceedings), and the statutory definitions of “neglect,” “abuse,” “harm,” and “threatened harm” are the same in both proceedings, see id. § 80­1-102(1), (37), (58)(a), (92) (providing definitions applicable to provisions of Title 80, Utah Juvenile Code). Accordingly, it does not follow that the court may properly consider the effect of domestic violence in finding neglect in one proceeding but not the other.

¶14      In addition, Mother asserts that the juvenile court “rel[ied] on the unfounded presumption that Mother’s decision to maintain a relationship with Father constituted a conscious failure to protect the Children from exposure to domestic violence.” In so doing, Mother posits that the juvenile court ignored the directive offered in In re C.C.W. cautioning courts “to avoid unnecessarily drawing negative inferences from a battered spouse’s decision to maintain a relationship with the batterer, or from a battered spouse’s decision to decline to immediately seek help.” See 2019 UT App 34, ¶ 19 n.4. But that is not what happened here.

¶15      In this case, the juvenile court analyzed the evidence before it in adjudicating Mother for neglect. Thus, the court’s conclusion was not based on an unfounded presumption. As previously discussed, the evidence the court considered included testimony that Father had engaged in multiple acts of domestic violence in the presence of the Children. And based on Father’s multi-year track record of assaulting Mother, even after services were provided to him, the court could reasonably conclude that Father is likely to continue perpetrating acts of domestic violence against Mother in the future and that the Children will continue to be exposed to the violence if Mother fails to take action. In short, the court’s determination that Mother failed to provide the proper care for the Children’s health, safety, morals, or well-being by failing to protect them and prioritizing her relationship with Father was based on the evidence presented at trial and not on an unwarranted presumption.

¶16      Finally, Mother misconstrues the directive offered in In re C.C.W. cautioning courts to “avoid unnecessarily drawing negative inferences from a battered spouse’s decision to maintain a relationship with the batterer.” See id. Mother contends that by adjudicating her for neglect, the juvenile court made an “automatic determination that both the batterer and victim are responsible as a unit,” which in turn results in the victim being blamed for the domestic violence. While we are sympathetic to Mother and acknowledge that extricating oneself from an abusive relationship can often prove difficult, see In re L.M., 2019 UT App 174, ¶ 9, 453 P.3d 651 (per curiam); In re C.C., 2017 UT App 134, ¶¶ 46–48, 402 P.3d 17 (Christiansen, J., concurring), we cannot say that a parent’s status as a domestic violence victim excuses the parent’s duty to protect the children or provides the parent with license to elevate the relationship with the abuser over the safety of the children. Indeed, the directive offered in In re C.C.W. merely cautions courts to “avoid unnecessarily drawing negative inferences” about a victim’s decision to stay in an abusive relationship. 2019 UT App 34, ¶ 19 n.4. It does not prevent the court from considering domestic violence issues in their entirety, nor does it provide absolution for a parent who continues to expose a child to domestic violence. To find otherwise would be contrary to precedent. See, e.g.In re L.M., 2019 UT App 174, ¶ 8 (“A parent who maintains a relationship with an abusive partner jeopardizes a child’s safety.”); In re T.M., 2006 UT App 435, ¶ 20, 147 P.3d 529 (collecting cases and observing that “Utah case law indicates that courts have minimal empathy for parents whose strong emotional ties to their spouses or significant others jeopardize their children’s safety”).

¶17      Accordingly, we affirm the court’s neglect adjudication.

II. Abuse

¶18      The juvenile court determined that Mother both neglected and abused the Children by failing to protect them from exposure to domestic violence and that Father and Mother’s “domestic violence in their home has harmed the[] [C]hildren.” Mother argues the court’s abuse adjudication was in error because the State failed to produce clear and convincing evidence of abuse as it is statutorily defined. See Utah Code § 80-1-102(1)(a)(i)(A)–(B), (37)(a)–(b) (defining abuse as including “nonaccidental harm of a child” and “threatened harm of a child” and defining harm as “physical or developmental injury or damage” and “emotional damage that results in a serious impairment in the child’s growth, development, behavior, or psychological functioning”). Mother raises a fair point that other than applying the general principles set forth in In re C.C.W. to infer harm, the State did not present specific evidence that the Children had sustained harm, and the court made no specific findings—other than that the Children appeared calm during incidents of domestic violence between their parents—that the Children were developmentally harmed or suffered the sort of emotional damage that constituted serious impairment to their growth, development, behavior, or psychological functioning.[3]

¶19      But even if we were to agree with Mother that the juvenile court erred in adjudicating the Children as abused as to Mother, Mother cannot show she was prejudiced by any such error. See In re N.M., 2018 UT App 141, ¶ 27, 427 P.3d 1239 (“An error is prejudicial only if a review of the record persuades the appellate court that without the error there was a reasonable likelihood of a more favorable result for the appellant.” (quotation simplified)); In re. J.B., 2002 UT App 268, ¶¶ 8–12, 53 P.3d 968 (affirming the termination of a father’s parental rights despite the juvenile court’s reliance on improper findings because such reliance did not result in “prejudicial error”). Mother claims that being labeled an abuser “negatively affect[s] her ability—going forward—to perform the primary caretaking responsibilities to [the] Children.” But Mother does not demonstrate how the court’s abuse adjudication will affect her more severely or more negatively as this case proceeds than the neglect adjudication will. See In re G.B., 2022 UT App 98, ¶ 34, 516 P.3d 781 (declining to reach the merits of a challenge to an abuse adjudication where the parent did not challenge a neglect adjudication based on the same facts because the parent did not demonstrate that the abuse adjudication carried “some collateral consequences . . . that [did] not follow from a neglect determination”). Indeed, post-adjudication dispositions turn on the factual circumstances that bring a family into court rather than on the category of adjudication and are implemented based on concern for the child’s health and safety and remedying the underlying issues resulting in the adjudication. See Utah Code § 80-3-405. Here, as found by the juvenile court, whether her inaction is labeled as abuse or neglect, Mother failed to protect the Children from exposure to domestic violence and prioritized her relationship with Father over the well-being of the Children. The services that will be offered to Mother and the Children to remedy these circumstances are not likely to differ based on whether the adjudication is for neglect or abuse. We agree with the guardian ad litem’s assertion that “any or all three categories of adjudication (abuse, neglect, dependency) trigger the same dispositional provisions.” Accordingly, because Mother has not demonstrated how the court’s abuse adjudication will affect her any differently than the neglect adjudication, she cannot show prejudice.[4] See In re K.K., 2023 UT App 13, ¶ 28 (concluding, based on the same facts as the current case, that Father could not show prejudice stemming from the court’s abuse adjudication because the abuse adjudication was based on the same underlying facts supporting the neglect adjudication).

CONCLUSION

¶20 We are cognizant that Mother is a victim of domestic violence, not a perpetrator. Nevertheless, the primary purpose of the State’s petition alleging neglect was to protect the Children, not to punish Mother. Based on the foregoing, we conclude the evidence presented by the State was sufficient to support the juvenile court’s neglect adjudication as to Mother. And even if the juvenile court erred in its abuse adjudication, Mother has not persuaded us that she was prejudiced by any such error because she has not shown how she will be negatively affected by the abuse adjudication over and above the effect of her neglect adjudication. Accordingly, we affirm.

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HARRIS, Judge (concurring):

¶21      I concur fully in the majority opinion. I write separately to offer a word of caution to juvenile courts when it comes to finding that a parent who is a victim of domestic violence has “abused” or “neglected” his or her children by allowing them to be exposed to domestic violence in the home. In my view, Utah’s statutory definitions of the terms “abuse” and “neglect” are broad enough to make it possible, in certain situations, for courts to determine that a domestic violence victim has committed abuse or neglect. But courts should exercise caution in doing so, and should make these rather striking findings only in appropriate cases.

¶22 With regard to neglect, we hold today that the juvenile court’s determination was appropriate in this case, because Mother’s “inaction” in failing to protect the Children from the domestic violence occurring in the home constituted a lack of proper parental care, as well as a failure to provide care necessary for the Children’s health, safety, or well-being. See supra ¶¶ 8–16; see also Utah Code Ann. § 80-1-102(58)(a)(ii)–(iii) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022). In my view, the key to affirming this determination, in this case, was the court’s finding that Mother had prioritized her relationship with her abuser over the safety and well-being of the Children. Evidence presented at trial indicated that Mother repeatedly allowed Father to return to the home despite the existence of protective orders making it unlawful for him to be there, and that she was less than fully cooperative with DCFS and law enforcement officials who were investigating the situation. This sort of evidence, to my way of thinking, is critical to any determination that a domestic violence victim has neglected his or her children. Absent evidence like this, domestic violence victims will likely not have committed actions or inactions significant enough to constitute “neglect” of their children.

¶23      And given the differing statutory definitions, it is even more difficult for domestic violence victims to be considered to have “abused” their children than it is for them to be considered to have “neglected” their children. The statutory definition of “abuse” is (justifiably) narrower than the statutory definition of “neglect.” In order to find that abuse has occurred, a court in most cases (that is, in cases not involving sexual exploitation, sexual abuse, human trafficking, or the child’s death) must find either (a) “nonaccidental harm of a child” or (b) “threatened harm of a child.” See id. § 80-1-102(1)(a)(i)(A), (B); see also In re K.T., 2017 UT 44, ¶ 9, 424 P.3d 91 (“To find abuse under Utah law, a court must find harm.”).

¶24 A finding that a child has sustained nonaccidental harm involves a backward-looking determination, one that must be supported by evidence that the child has already been harmed. And the kind of harm at issue—according to strict statutory definition—must be either “physical or developmental injury or damage” or the sort of “emotional damage that results in a serious impairment in the child’s growth, development, behavior, or psychological functioning.” See id. § 80-1-102(37)(a), (b). I can envision a court, in many cases, being able to make a finding of physical harm without the necessity of expert testimony, but in my view a finding of already-sustained “developmental injury or damage” or emotional damage severe enough to cause “a serious impairment in the child’s growth, development, behavior, or psychological functioning” will often require expert testimony. I think this will nearly always be the case where the question presented is whether a child has already sustained non-physical “harm” as a result of a victim parent failing to protect the child from violence in the home.

¶25      A finding that a child has sustained “threatened harm” is— by contrast—more of a forward-looking inquiry, under the applicable statutory definition. As our legislature has defined it in this context, “threatened harm means actions, inactions, or credible verbal threats, indicating that the child is at an unreasonable risk of harm or neglect.” See Utah Code Ann. § 80-1­102(92) (emphasis added). A child can sustain “threatened harm” even if the child has not yet sustained actual “harm.” Pursuant to statutory definition, a child sustains “threatened harm” when, through the “actions” or “inactions” of a parent, the child is placed at “unreasonable risk” of future “developmental injury or damage” or “emotional damage” severe enough to seriously impair the “child’s growth, development, behavior, or psychological functioning.” See id. § 80-1-102(37)(a)–(b), 102(92). In cases involving parents who are victims of domestic violence, a juvenile court could perhaps more easily make a finding of “threatened harm” than already-sustained past harm. Indeed, we have already recognized that “domestic violence can have adverse impacts on a child, even if that child is not the direct object of such violence, and even if the child does not directly witness the violence.” See In re C.C.W., 2019 UT App 34, ¶ 20, 440 P.3d 749. A parent victim’s failure to adequately protect a child from violence in the home could—if the violence was frequent and severe enough, and likely to continue in the future—lead to a supported finding that the parent, through inaction, has placed the child at an unreasonable risk of future developmental damage. It may even be possible, in appropriate cases, for such a finding to be made without expert testimony.

¶26      But in order to reach “abuse” through “threatened harm” in cases involving victims of domestic violence, a court must make specific and supported findings regarding each of the elements of the statutory definition. First, a court must specify that it is finding “abuse” by way of “threatened harm” (as opposed to through a finding of already-sustained “nonaccidental harm”). Second, the court must make a detailed finding of threatened harm on the facts of the case at hand, including specific identification of the “action or inaction” taken by the parent that leads to the “unreasonable risk” of future harm, as well as a satisfactory explanation of why the risk of future harm is “unreasonable.” Third, the court must specify the type of future harm it believes the child is at risk of sustaining, whether it be developmental injury or severe emotional damage, and should explain—with reference to specific evidence in the record—why the court believes the child is likely to sustain that particular type of harm.

¶27 In short, Utah’s statutory definitions of “neglect” and “abuse” are broad enough to allow courts, in appropriate cases, to find that a parent who is the victim of domestic violence has committed neglect or abuse by failing to protect his or her child from domestic violence in the home. But courts should exercise caution in so doing, and should reserve such findings for those cases in which the domestic violence is severe and sustained and in which the victim parent has taken specific actions or inactions aimed at prioritizing his or her relationship with the abuser over care and protection of the children.

¶28      In this case, I concur in the majority’s view that the court made appropriate findings of neglect with regard to Mother. I also concur in the majority’s decision not to reach the merits of the propriety of the court’s findings regarding abuse as to Mother, but I register serious reservations about the adequacy and sufficiency of those findings, and urge courts to exercise caution in making neglect and abuse determinations in situations like this one.

 

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[1] A more fulsome description of the relevant facts and procedural history can be found in In re K.K., 2023 UT App 13, the case in which we adjudicated Father’s appeal. In this case, we adjudicate Mother’s appeal.

[2] The juvenile court did not take this evidence to mean that the Children had not been adversely affected by their parents’ inappropriate behavior. Rather, the inference drawn by the court was that the parental conflict had been so pervasive that the Children had become somewhat numb to it.

[3] We do not intend to suggest the State could never demonstrate that a parent who is the victim of domestic violence has “abused” his or her children, as that term is statutorily defined. We agree with the general sentiments expressed in the concurring opinion that such a path is possible but is more difficult than demonstrating “neglect” and would require specific evidence and findings. See infra ¶¶ 22–27.

[4] In fact, a review of the underlying docket in Mother’s case reveals that Mother and the Children have done so well in their treatment and services that the juvenile court released the Children from DCFS’s protective supervision and terminated the court’s jurisdiction last fall.

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In re K.K. – 2023 UT App 13

In re K.K. – 2023 UT App 13

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

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

PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

D.K.,

Appellant,

v.

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20220050-CA

Filed February 9, 2023

Second District Juvenile Court, Farmington Department

The Honorable Sharon S. Sipes

No. 1176751

Freyja Johnson, Emily Adams, and Hannah K.

Leavitt-Howell, Attorneys for Appellant

Sean D. Reyes, John M. Peterson, and Candace

Roach, Attorneys for Appellee

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

JUDGE MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and RYAN M. HARRIS

concurred.

CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, Judge:

¶1        D.K. (Father) and B.K. (Mother) are the parents of triplets K.K., S.K., and S.K. (collectively, the Children). When the Children were six years old, the State filed a child welfare petition for custody and guardianship on the grounds that the Children were neglected and abused by Father and Mother. Following an adjudication hearing on the petition, the juvenile court issued an order adjudicating the Children as neglected and abused.

¶2        Father now appeals the juvenile court’s abuse adjudication, arguing that the State failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that he abused the Children. We affirm.

BACKGROUND

¶3        In 2019, when the Children were four years old, the State filed a petition seeking protective supervision services based on allegations that Father and Mother had engaged in repeated acts of domestic violence in front of the Children. Thereafter, Father and Mother agreed to engage in services voluntarily, and the State eventually dismissed its petition.

¶4        Two years later, however, Father and Mother again engaged in a series of domestic violence incidents that involved law enforcement. In May 2021, Father called the police and told them that Mother had “beat him up.” When officers arrived on scene and talked to Father, he told them he and Mother were “fighting about money” and that Mother “swung to hit him but never touched him.” On June 10, officers were again dispatched to the family home on a “domestic” call because Father and Mother were “screaming at each other with the [C]hildren in the home.” When officers arrived, they could hear the screaming. Father was uncooperative with the officers, but he eventually left the home. However, Father returned to the home later that same night.

¶5        On June 22, Father and Mother were involved in an altercation that led the State to seek custody and guardianship of the Children. During this altercation, Father and Mother were arguing inside the home. Mother was sitting on the couch, and Father sat on top of her demanding that she give him the keys to the car. Father then “head butted” Mother and told her to get out of the home, which she did. Once Mother was outside, Father followed her and began punching her “with a closed fist on the side of her stomach.” Father proceeded to grab a large rock and chase Mother around the car, “acting like he was going to throw the rock at her.” The Children were outside of the home for the duration of the altercation and witnessed Father chasing Mother and hitting her. Several neighbors also witnessed the altercation and called the police. When officers arrived, Father was arrested and taken to jail.

¶6        After Father’s arrest, Mother completed a lethality assessment, an evaluation given to assess the level of danger an abused person faces, which resulted in a score of high risk. Mother did not seek a protective order for herself or for the Children during the eight days Father was in jail. However, due to the severity of the prior altercation, the district court entered a criminal no contact/protective order on July 1. The order prohibited Father from residing with Mother and the Children.

¶7        On July 8, a caseworker from the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) went to the home for an unannounced visit. During the visit, the caseworker found Father outside; Father reported that Mother was inside sleeping. Father allowed the caseworker to interview the Children. During the interview, the Children reported that Father and Mother “fight and yell” and “hurt each other’s bodies.” Father was subsequently arrested for violation of the criminal no contact/protective order. Thereafter, the caseworker attempted to talk to Mother, who had been inside sleeping, but Mother refused to speak with the caseworker.

¶8        Based on the foregoing, the State filed a petition for custody and guardianship of the Children on the grounds that they were neglected and abused based on Father and Mother engaging in domestic violence in the home. Following a shelter hearing, the juvenile court determined the Children should remain in Mother’s custody for the time being but ordered Mother and the Children to have “absolutely no contact” with Father and that Mother “immediately notify law enforcement” if Father appeared at the home.

¶9        Following a series of pretrial hearings, the matter proceeded to an adjudication trial in December 2021. At trial, the State presented the testimony of six witnesses: Mother, Father, two neighbors who had witnessed the June 22 altercation, and two police officers who had responded to the neighbors’ 911 calls regarding the June 22 altercation.

¶10 According to the neighbors, Father and Mother were arguing about car keys. As Father approached Mother, “she put her arms out to stop him . . . and he slapped her hands aside.” Father then began punching Mother “haymaker style” to her side and stomach. The punching continued “for a minute or two,” and Father connected “five to ten” times. After the punching stopped, Father chased Mother around the front yard, “throwing rocks” and “bikes and other toys” in the direction of Mother, although the neighbors did not see any of the objects hit Mother.

¶11      The neighbors testified that during the altercation, two of the Children were in the front yard “standing behind [Mother]” and “clinging” to her. Mother was positioned between Father and the two children, acting as a “buffer” between them. One neighbor opined that he did not “believe any [of Father’s] aggression was towards the children,” and that “at no[] point did [he] think [the two children] were in any sort of danger.” However, the two children were outside the entire time, “seeing everything.”

¶12      In addition, one neighbor testified that she had witnessed Father and Mother “screaming” at each other multiple times in the presence of the Children prior to the June 22 altercation. Moreover, the neighbor had witnessed Father yelling at the Children twice and had observed that the Children “are terrified and trying to do whatever [Father] says to not be in trouble.”

¶13      The responding officers testified next. One officer testified that after arriving at the scene on June 22, he interviewed Mother, who told him that she had been arguing with Father over car keys. During the argument, Father “sat down on her” to keep her from leaving, headbutted her in the forehead, and “punched her in the back of the leg.” After Mother jumped out the window to the front yard, Father followed her and the two continued arguing. Father chased Mother around a vehicle parked in the front yard; once he caught her, he began “punching her in the side underneath her arms with a closed fist.” Mother was able to break away, but Father chased her with a rock in his hands. Mother told the officer the Children were outside with her during the altercation.

¶14      The officer also interviewed Father about the altercation. Father said he was “upset” because Mother hid the car keys from him but that “nothing got physical.” Father told the officer he and Mother had argued and run around the vehicle in the front yard. Father indicated that he had picked up a rock and held it over his head, but he did not throw it, nor did he intend to.

¶15      Lastly, the officer testified regarding his observations of the Children. When the officer arrived at the scene, the Children were inside the house. The officer interviewed Mother while she was standing at the front door. During the interview, the officer saw “at least two” of the Children standing by the front door behind Mother and “one of the kids popped his head outside” and asked for stickers. Officer opined that the Children’s demeanor “seemed calm.” The Children seemed “a little upset that some toys were . . . strewn about the front yard,” but otherwise they did not seem “distraught or flustered” by the altercation.

¶16      Mother testified that the June 22 incident started when she refused to give Father the keys to the car. Mother explained that she could not remember all the details about the altercation because she has “trouble remembering things.” However, she did remember that the altercation began when Father headbutted her in the house. After the headbutt, Father and Mother went outside to the front yard. Although Mother did not remember whether Father hit her in the yard, she recalled that he “didn’t follow [her] around the yard,” that he picked up a basket and “threw it up in the air” but not “at” her, and that he “picked up a rock” but did not chase her while holding it. Mother maintained that the Children had not observed the altercation because they were downstairs inside the house with a roommate where they stayed until the officers arrived.

¶17      Mother also testified that the Children “were never present for full on arguments or yelling.” She explained that “as soon as any argument started,” her roommate would take the Children downstairs so they would not be able to hear the fighting. Although Mother did not believe the Children had been impacted by the fighting, she did believe the Children were aware that they were sent downstairs to avoid hearing any fighting.

¶18 Father testified last. When asked about the June 22 altercation he invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to testify because criminal charges were pending against him regarding that incident. But Father explained that “before” he and Mother would engage in any verbal arguments, the Children would go downstairs.

¶19      After considering all the evidence, the juvenile court issued an adjudication order. In the order the court found, among other things, that Father and Mother had engaged in numerous acts of domestic violence, some of which had occurred in the presence of the Children, including the one on June 22; that when Father and Mother fight they sometimes send the Children downstairs to wait with a roommate, which had occurred two or three times that year; that the Children are aware that they are sent downstairs because Father and Mother fight; that “[a]ccording to the [C]hildren, [Father] and [Mother] fight and yell and hurt each other’s bodies”; and that “[t]he [C]hildren have experienced domestic violence with enough frequency that they appear calm during incidents between their parents . . . even though the parents ‘fight a lot and hurt’ each other.”

¶20 As to Father, the court drew a number of adverse inferences based on his decision to invoke his constitutional right to silence when asked specific questions about the June 22 altercation. And as to Mother, the court found that she “is not concerned” about the Children witnessing her and Father fighting and that her “demeanor and testimony”—including her inability to recall much of what happened on June 22—“is in tune with her desire to protect [Father] rather than address the domestic violence that exists in her home.” Based on these findings, the court concluded that Father “failed to provide proper care necessary for the health, safety, morals and well-being of the children in that he has engaged in domestic violence with [Mother], and [both Father and Mother] failed to protect the [C]hildren from exposure to domestic violence in the home.” The court also concluded that “[Father] and [Mother’s] domestic violence in their home has harmed [the Children]” and, accordingly, adjudicated the Children as neglected and abused as to Father.

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶21 Father now appeals only the juvenile court’s abuse adjudication, arguing that the court’s ruling was in error because the State failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that he had harmed or threatened harm to the Children. “We apply differing standards of review to findings of fact, conclusions of law, and determinations of mixed questions of law and fact.” In re E.R., 2021 UT 36, ¶ 14, 496 P.3d 58. We review the juvenile court’s factual findings deferentially, reversing the court’s findings only if they are clearly erroneous. Id. ¶ 15. A finding is clearly erroneous when the court either “failed to consider all of the facts or reached a decision against the clear weight of the evidence.” Id. ¶ 32 (quotation simplified). However, the question of whether the juvenile court properly applied the governing law to the facts of the case presents “a law-like mixed question subject to nondeferential review.” In re A.B., 2022 UT 39, ¶ 27.

ANALYSIS

¶22      At an adjudication trial, the juvenile court must determine whether “the allegations contained in the abuse, neglect, or dependency petition are true” by “clear and convincing evidence.” Utah Code § 80-3-402(1). Clear and convincing evidence is an “intermediate standard of proof” that “implies something more than the usual requirement of a preponderance . . . of the evidence; and something less than proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” Essential Botanical Farms, LC v. Kay, 2011 UT 71, ¶¶ 21, 24, 270 P.3d 430 (quotation simplified). Put differently, this standard requires “the existence of facts that make a conclusion very highly probable.” Id. ¶ 24 (quotation simplified).

¶23      As relevant here, “abuse” is defined as the “nonaccidental harm of a child” or the “threatened harm of a child.” Utah Code § 80-1-102(1)(a)(i)(A), (B). Thus, “[t]o find abuse under Utah law, a court must find harm.” In re K.T., 2017 UT 44, ¶ 9, 424 P.3d 91. “Harm” includes “physical or developmental injury or damage” and “emotional damage that results in a serious impairment in the child’s growth, development, behavior, or psychological functioning.” Utah Code § 80-1-102(37)(a), (b). And “[t]hreatened harm” is defined as “actions, inactions, or credible verbal threats, indicating that the child is at an unreasonable risk of harm or neglect.” Id. § 80-1-102(92).

¶24      As applied to this case, to satisfy the clear and convincing standard, the State “needed to present evidence that would allow the [juvenile] court to conclude that it was very highly probable that the [C]hildren had been harmed.” See In re K.T., 2017 UT 44, ¶ 9 n.3 (quotation simplified). In reaching this conclusion the court may properly “infer harm” based on the evidence presented. Id. ¶ 14. However, the court may not “speculate” about the existence of harm absent clear and convincing evidence demonstrating the actions actually resulted in harm. Id. ¶¶ 14–17.

¶25 After considering the evidence presented during the adjudication trial, the juvenile court concluded the Children were abused because “[Father] and [Mother’s] domestic violence in their home has harmed [the Children].” Father argues the court’s conclusion was in error because the State failed to produce clear and convincing evidence that he physically harmed the Children or that the Children were developmentally harmed or emotionally damaged by observing Father assault Mother and Father and Mother argue. But even if we were to agree with Father that the State failed to present sufficient evidence that Father harmed the Children and were to agree that the juvenile court erred in adjudicating Father as abusing the Children, Father has not demonstrated that he was prejudiced by the alleged error. See In re N.M., 2018 UT App 141, ¶ 27, 427 P.3d 1239 (“An error is prejudicial only if a review of the record persuades the appellate court that without the error there was a reasonable likelihood of a more favorable result for the appellant.” (quotation simplified)); In re. J.B., 2002 UT App 268, ¶¶ 8–12, 53 P.3d 968 (affirming the termination of a father’s parental rights despite the juvenile court’s reliance on improper findings because such reliance did not result in “prejudicial error”). As noted above, the court adjudicated the Children as both neglected and abused, and Father appeals only the court’s abuse adjudication. Although Father is correct that “[a]buse and neglect are statutorily defined and given ‘distinct statuses’” and that “[u]nder the statutory definitions . . . abuse requires a higher level of improper conduct from a parent than neglect,” that distinction has no bearing in this case—and Father has not shown that it is likely to have any bearing in the future—because the court’s adjudications of neglect and abuse were based on the same underlying incidents of domestic violence.

¶26 When a juvenile court adjudicates a child as either neglected or abused, that determination brings the child within the jurisdiction of the court and allows the court to enter dispositional orders. See Utah Code § 80-3-402. The dispositions available to the court do not hinge on whether the child was adjudicated as neglected or abused. Instead, dispositions are tied to the factual findings about what is going on in the case and are implemented based on concern for the child’s health and safety and remedying the underlying issues resulting in the adjudication. See id. § 80-3-405.

¶27 Here, the juvenile court’s disposition is governed by the need to address Father’s commission of domestic violence in the presence of the Children and the risk such behavior will continue. Services to address this behavior will not differ whether the underlying adjudication is labeled as neglect or abuse because the court’s neglect determination was based on the same underlying facts as the abuse determination: here, Father’s failure to protect and to provide proper care for the Children as a result of his engaging in acts of domestic violence.[1]

¶28      Father cites this court’s decision in In re C.M.R., 2020 UT App 114, 473 P.3d 184, for the proposition that Father was harmed by the court’s abuse adjudication, asserting that the findings of abuse in the adjudication order “will form the basis for whether [Father] is able to comply with the requirements of [any service plan] going forward and whether [Father] can be reunited with the Children.” See id. ¶ 28. But unlike the mother in In re C.M.R., who was potentially prejudiced by entering admissions to allegations regarding a specific additional incident of abuse at the adjudication hearing, Father’s abuse adjudication was based on the exact same underlying set of facts as his neglect adjudication. In this case, Father has not challenged the juvenile court’s neglect adjudication, nor has he challenged the court’s underlying factual findings—which support both the neglect and the abuse adjudications—that he assaulted Mother in the presence of the Children and repeatedly engaged in heated verbal arguments with her. Those underlying actions, which form the foundation for both adjudications, are the reason why he “can only have supervised visitation with [the] Children” and why “[h]e is not allowed in the home,” and not because the court adjudicated the Children as abused in addition to neglected. Because Father has not challenged the neglect adjudication or demonstrated how the ramifications flowing from this unchallenged adjudication would be less severe than those resulting from an abuse adjudication, he has not demonstrated that he has sustained any prejudice as a result of the court’s abuse adjudication.[2] See In re G.B., 2022 UT App 98, ¶ 34, 516 P.3d 781 (declining to reach the merits of a challenge to an abuse adjudication where the parent did not challenge a neglect adjudication based on the same facts because the parent did not demonstrate that the abuse adjudication carried “some collateral consequences . . . that [did] not follow from a neglect determination”).

 

CONCLUSION

¶29 On appeal, Father does not challenge the juvenile court’s findings that he committed domestic violence in the presence of the Children or that those actions resulted in him neglecting the Children by failing to provide them proper care and to protect them from exposure to domestic violence. Under these circumstances, even if the juvenile court erred in its separate abuse adjudication—a conclusion we stop short of reaching—Father has not demonstrated he was prejudiced by any such error because he has not challenged the court’s neglect adjudication or the facts underlying it, which are the same facts underlying the court’s abuse adjudication, and any court-ordered disposition will be based upon Father’s own acts and not the adjudication of abuse.

¶30 Affirmed.

______________

[1] In his reply brief Father argues he was harmed by the juvenile court’s abuse adjudication because “an abuse adjudication goes into a central abuse registry system managed by DCFS” and “the information in that registry is used for licensing purposes and prevents individuals who have been adjudicated of abuse from holding licenses in certain professions.” But this argument misses the mark. While Father correctly notes that the abuse registry system—called the Management Information System (the MIS)— can be accessed by the State for all future cases involving Father, see Utah Code § 80-2-1001, he conflates the MIS with a “sub-part” of the MIS called the Licensing Information System (the LIS), see id. § 80-2-1002(1)(a)(i). Information on the MIS includes facts relevant to each child welfare case, whereas the LIS is maintained for “licensing purposes.” See id. § 80-2-1002(1)(a)(i). Although an individual on the LIS may be prohibited from, among other things, holding licenses in certain professions, see id. § 80-2-708(2)(a)(v), inclusion on the LIS is not automatic in every child welfare case. Rather, the LIS identifies only individuals found to have committed a “severe type of child abuse or neglect.” See id. § 80-2-708(1). Because the court did not adjudicate Father as severely abusing the Children, inclusion on the LIS does not automatically follow, and Father has not asserted that he has been—or is likely to be—included therein. Accordingly, Father has not demonstrated that, in this case, he has sustained any prejudice as a result of the juvenile court’s abuse determination.

[2] Indeed, in the juvenile court’s dispositional order, entered approximately two months after the adjudication order, Father’s primary responsibility is to “complete a domestic violence/mental health assessment . . . and follow any and all of the recommendations made.”

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Mintz v. Mintz – 2023 UT App 17

Mintz v. Mintz – 2023 UT App 17

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

RAYNA ELIZABETH MINTZ,

Appellant and Cross-appellee,

v.

GLEN RYAN MINTZ,

Appellee and Cross-appellant.

Opinion

No. 20200507-CA

Filed February 9, 2023

Third District Court, Silver Summit Department

The Honorable Kent R. Holmberg

No. 174500034

Julie J. Nelson and Alexandra Mareschal, Attorneys for Appellant and Cross-appellee

Thomas J. Burns and Aaron R. Harris, Attorneys for Appellee and Cross-appellant

JUDGE DAVID N. MORTENSEN authored this Opinion, in which JUDGE GREGORY K. ORME and JUSTICE DIANA HAGEN concurred.[1]

MORTENSEN, Judge:

¶1        After a lengthy marriage, Rayna and Glen Mintz[2] divorced and have since been involved in ongoing litigation regarding the distribution of marital property. Rayna and Glen now raise various issues for review, including questions about alimony, property distribution, and dissipation awards. In response to these appeals, we affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand to the district for further proceedings.

BACKGROUND[3]

¶2        Through more than twenty years of marriage, Rayna and Glen enjoyed a relatively luxurious lifestyle. During the marriage, in addition to meeting their regular expenses, Rayna and Glen invested money essentially as savings. Before 2014, they made deposits into investment accounts “when money was left over after normal marital spending,” and after 2014, they made direct deposits into investment accounts as part of Glen’s employment. Historically, they spent money freely, traveled frequently, and treated themselves to a variety of entertainment—often with other people. For Rayna’s part, she often invited friends to join her on different jaunts across the globe or visits to the theater. For Glen’s part, as is relevant to this appeal, he invested both time and substantial money into an extramarital affair.

¶3        Rayna and Glen financed this lifestyle through substantial income generated by Glen’s employment as an investment advisor managing the assets and investments of various clients. As a salaried employee for his employer (Employer), Glen “did not sell . . . a client list to [Employer]”; instead, he expanded the clients he serviced by creating relationships with other employees and assisting other employees in managing their clients’ assets. As part of Glen’s compensation, Employer offered cash awards distributed as forgivable loans. For each loan, Employer provided the cash to Glen up front and then forgave Glen’s payback obligation each year, leaving Glen with a decreased payback obligation but an increased tax obligation. The cash awards were deposited directly into Glen and Rayna’s investment accounts.

¶4        When Rayna discovered Glen’s infidelity, the couple sought a divorce. Ultimately, the district court made several determinations relevant to this appeal. First, although Rayna would be awarded alimony, a monthly amount for investment would be excluded from the calculation because she presented insufficient evidence to show that the parties’ investments were “standard practice during the marriage” or that they “helped form the couple’s standard of living.”

¶5        Second, although an amount for entertainment was included as a historical expense in alimony calculations, the court “divided by four” the amount Rayna had proposed because the entertainment amount was calculated based on a time “when two minor children also lived in the home.”

¶6        Third, although the list of clients Glen serviced could be considered an asset, Glen did not own a “book of business,” and accordingly, whatever value his client list contained could not be divided between the parties.

¶7        Fourth, although Glen had admitted to dissipating $75,000 on his extramarital affair and although the court determined that Rayna should be entitled to “half” that amount, in an appendix to the district court’s findings of fact and conclusions of law, designating the specific property distributions, the court provided no amount in the space for money awarded to Rayna because of Glen’s dissipation.

¶8        And fifth, although Rayna would receive what Glen argued was an investable property distribution, the court declined to include investment income in its alimony calculation because (1) the likelihood of a specific return was uncertain, (2) Rayna’s investment income should be left unencumbered as was Glen’s, and (3) the parties had traditionally reinvested investment income instead of living off it.

¶9        Following entry of the divorce decree, Rayna filed a motion to enforce, asserting that various investment accounts at issue in the divorce “were not divided immediately after trial and that they subsequently appreciated in value.” Accordingly, Rayna sought an order requiring Glen to transfer holdings “equivalent to her proportionate share of appreciation since trial.” However, before the hearing on that motion, Rayna filed a notice of appeal. At the hearing, the court determined that the enforcement order Rayna requested would require the court to not just enforce the order but to “read language into [the decree] and interpret [the decree] in a way that modifie[d] or amend[ed]” it. Because a notice of appeal had been filed in the case, the court determined it had been “divested of jurisdiction” to amend the decree and therefore could not provide the relief Rayna requested.

¶10      On these issues, Rayna and Glen both appeal.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶11      First, Rayna contends that the court abused its discretion through its award of alimony. Specifically, Rayna contends that (1) the court “misapplied Utah law” when it declined to award alimony consistent with historical investment and (2) the court entered unsupported findings of fact in reducing her entertainment expenses. “We review a district court’s alimony determination for an abuse of discretion and will not disturb its ruling on alimony as long as the court exercises its discretion within the bounds and under the standards we have set and has supported its decision with adequate findings and conclusions.” Gardner v. Gardner, 2019 UT 61, ¶ 16, 452 P.3d 1134 (cleaned up). However, misapplication of the law is a de facto abuse of discretion, and an alimony award based on a misapprehension of the law will not be upheld. See Bjarnson v. Bjarnson, 2020 UT App 141, ¶ 5, 476 P.3d 145. Moreover, an alimony award based on clearly erroneous findings of fact will be overturned, see Leppert v. Leppert, 2009 UT App 10, ¶ 8, 200 P.3d 223, as will be an incorrect determination that evidence is insufficient to support an award, see Kimball v. Kimball, 2009 UT App 233, ¶ 14, 217 P.3d 733. “[U]nder our clearly erroneous standard, we will disturb a court’s factual findings only where the court’s conclusions do not logically follow from, or are not supported by, the evidence.” Gardner, 2019 UT 61, ¶ 32.

¶12      Second, Rayna contends that the district court erred when it determined that the list of clients Glen managed as an investment advisor (the book of business) was not a divisible marital asset. “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.” Talley v. Talley, 739 P.2d 83, 84 (Utah Ct. App. 1987).

¶13 Third, Rayna contends that the district court failed to award or reimburse her half of the amount that Glen dissipated. “Where the trial court’s conclusions of law do not properly follow from the findings of fact, those conclusions can be overturned on appeal.” Cowley v. Porter, 2005 UT App 518, ¶ 46, 127 P.3d 1224.

¶14 Fourth, Rayna contends that the court erred in determining, based on the divorce decree’s language, that it lacked jurisdiction to grant Rayna appreciation on investment account awards. We review for correctness the district court’s interpretation of a divorce decree, Mitchell v. Mitchell, 2011 UT App 41, ¶ 5, 248 P.3d 65, and the district court’s “determination on jurisdictional issues,” National Advert. Co. v. Murray City Corp., 2006 UT App 75, ¶ 11, 131 P.3d 872 (cleaned up).

¶15      Fifth, on cross-appeal, Glen contends that the district court abused its discretion when it did not “determine an amount of income that Rayna [would] be able to earn from her awarded investment account assets and . . . apply that income to her ability to pay for her marital standard of living.” As indicated above, we review the district court’s alimony determination for abuse of discretion. See Gardner, 2019 UT 61, ¶ 16.

ANALYSIS
I. Alimony

A.        Investment

¶16 Rayna contends that the district court erred in excluding from the alimony award an amount reflective of historical investment. Specifically, Rayna argues that the court misunderstood the phrases “standard practice” and “marital standard of living” as these phrases have been employed in Utah caselaw concerning the appropriateness of alimony awards that include amounts for investment or savings. Rayna argues that the parties made deposits into investment accounts as a standard practice that contributed to their marital standard of living, and she asserts that she should have received a higher alimony award to be able to continue this practice and maintain her standard of living. On appeal, we conclude that the district court erred in its application of the law on this point.

¶17      In Bakanowski v. Bakanowski, 2003 UT App 357, 80 P.3d 153, we indicated that “while the recipient spouse’s need to fund post-divorce savings, investment, or retirement accounts may not ordinarily be factored into an alimony determination, we cannot say that the ability to fund such post-divorce accounts may never be taken into account as part of” that analysis. Id. ¶ 16. Rather, “[t]he critical question is whether funds for post-divorce savings, investment, and retirement accounts are necessary because contributing to such accounts was standard practice during the marriage and helped to form the couple’s marital standard of living.” Id. (emphasis added); see also Knowles v. Knowles, 2022 UT App 47, ¶ 57 n.8, 509 P.3d 265; Miner v. Miner, 2021 UT App 77, ¶ 58 n.8, 496 P.3d 242. Thus, the court should, as a legal matter, ensure it employs the correct legal definitions of standard practice and marital standard of living, apply the facts of a given case to those definitions, and then determine whether the facts as found meet the criteria for a savings-based alimony award.

¶18      First, the district court erred in concluding that Rayna and Glen’s undisputed course of conduct did not demonstrate a standard practice. See Bakanowski, 2003 UT App 357, ¶ 16; Kemp v. Kemp, 2001 UT App 157U, paras. 3–4, 2001 WL 522413. When the Bakanowski court provided the test for appropriate consideration of savings, investment, and retirement accounts in alimony calculations, it cited Kemp v. Kemp, in which the court reasoned that because “the parties had made regular savings deposits,” including savings in the alimony award could help “maintain the recipient spouse’s marital standard of living.” See 2001 UT App 157Uparas. 3–4 (emphasis added).

¶19 An event must certainly be recurring but need not be uniformly systematic to be considered “regular.” See id. at para. 3. Indeed, “something can be done ‘regularly’ if done whenever the opportunity arises, though the actual time sequence may be sporadic.” Youth Tennis Found. v. Tax Comm’n, 554 P.2d 220, 223 (Utah 1976); see also Allen Distrib., Inc. v. Industrial Comm’n, 604 P.2d 938, 940 (Utah 1979) (reciting the then-enacted workers’ compensation laws that provided that “regularly” could include employment “continuous throughout the year or for only a portion of the year” (cleaned up)); Holt v. Industrial Comm’n, 87 P.2d 686, 689 (Utah 1939) (defining “regularly employed” to include “all employees who are employed and engaged in the usual or regular business of the employer, regardless of whether they were regularly or only casually or occasionally employed” (cleaned up)). Thus, even though an activity may “occur[] at intermittent times,” it can still be a regular activity. See Youth Tennis, 554 P.2d at 223 (cleaned up); see also B.L. Key, Inc. v. Utah State Tax Comm’n, 934 P.2d 1164, 1166 (Utah Ct. App. 1997). And although “regular” could also be understood to require methodic uniformity, see Valentine v. Farmers Ins. Exch., 2006 UT App 301, ¶ 11, 141 P.3d 618 (noting that “‘regular use’ connotes use that is consistent with a recurring pattern or uniform course of conduct or dealing” and that it “embodies use that is marked by a pattern of usage or some frequency of usage”); Youth Tennis, 554 P.2d at 223 (noting that “one of the meanings of the term ‘regular’ is: ‘Steady or uniform in course, practice or occurrence’” (quoting Black’s Law Dictionary 1450 (Rev. 4th Ed. 1968))), there exists no requirement that savings or investment deposits be made with uniform frequency.

¶20      Accordingly, even if savings deposits and investments do not occur on an exact timetable, such marital expenditures can be considered a standard practice, see Bakanowski, 2003 UT App 357, ¶ 16, in those infrequent and unusual circumstances where a party can produce sufficiently persuasive evidence that savings deposits and investments were a recurring marital action “whenever the opportunity ar[ose], though the actual time sequence may be sporadic.” See Youth Tennis, 554 P.2d at 223; see also Bakanowski, 2003 UT App 357, ¶ 16.

¶21 The district court found that Rayna did not present “sufficient evidence” to show that contributing to savings and investment accounts was the standard practice during the marriage. But on appeal, neither party appears to dispute that the district court was presented with evidence that before 2014 the parties invested substantial amounts of income at least yearly and that after 2014 a substantial portion of Glen’s income was deposited directly into investment accounts at least yearly. Accordingly, for nearly a decade immediately preceding the divorce, the parties set aside substantial money for investments at least annually. This undisputed evidence established that the parties followed a regular pattern, i.e., a “standard practice,” see Bakanowski, 2003 UT App 357, ¶ 16, of investing a portion of their annual income. In other words, given these undisputed facts, we conclude the district court applied too narrow a definition of standard practice in rejecting this evidence as insufficient.

¶22 Second, to justify an alimony award that includes an amount for investment, the parties’ acts of investing must also contribute to the “marital standard of living.” Id. “Standard of living is defined as a minimum of necessities, comforts, or luxuries that is essential to maintaining a person in customary or proper status or circumstances.” Howell v. Howell, 806 P.2d 1209, 1211 (Utah Ct. App. 1991) (cleaned up) (emphasis added). In other words, in the alimony context, the marital standard of living is all that the parties enjoyed during the marriage—including luxuries and customary allocations—by virtue of their financial position. See id.see also Rule v. Rule, 2017 UT App 137, ¶ 15, 402 P.3d 153.

¶23 In Knowles v. Knowles, 2022 UT App 47, 509 P.3d 265, the trial court refused to include tithing expenditures as part of the alimony calculation because it was “not a necessary living expense.” Id. ¶ 57 (cleaned up). On appeal, we reversed that decision, explaining that it “ignored the requirement that [trial courts] assess the expense based on how the parties chose to spend and allocate their money while married.” Id. (emphasis added). “By failing to assess whether the parties’ expenditures were consistent with the marital standard of living, the court abused its discretion.” Id.

¶24 The marital standard of living analysis is not merely a question about what the parties spent their money on or whether they spent it at all. Rather, 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 (i.e., the historical allocation of their resources). Something may contribute to the marital standard of living even though it may not result in a direct benefit or detriment to the marital estate’s net worth.

¶25      Like the trial court in Knowles, the district court here did not fully consider how the parties chose to “allocate” their income. See id. The parties’ choice to devote a substantial portion of income to investment and savings—much like the parties in Knowles chose to devote a substantial portion of their income to tithing, see id.—contributed to the parties’ marital standard of living. The court should consider this evidence in determining the amount of investment and savings expenditures to include in its alimony calculations. See id.see also, e.g.Lombardi v. Lombardi, 145 A.3d 709, 716 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2016) (“An appropriate rate of savings can, and in the appropriate case should, be considered as a living expense when considering an award of maintenance.” (cleaned up)); Bryant v. Bryant, 534 S.E.2d 230, 232 (N.C. Ct. App. 2000) (“The trial court may also consider established patterns of contributing to savings as part of the parties’ standard of living.” (cleaned up)); In re Marriage of Stenzel, 908 N.W.2d 524, 536 (Iowa Ct. App. 2018) (“[R]etirement savings in a reasonable sum may be a part of the needs analysis in fixing spousal support.”).

¶26 Below, the district court declared that “Rayna ha[d] not convinced the court that [the couple’s] savings [practices] somehow helped form the couple’s standard of living.” The court continued, “There was no evidence that the deposits into the investment accounts were used to fund future purchases or otherwise contributed to the marital standard of living.” In making this ruling, the district court apparently relied on Kemp, where the court found that “during their marriage, the parties had made regular savings deposits to fund future major purchases, rather than making those purchases on credit.” 2001 UT App 157U, para. 3. Including saved money in the “marital standard of living,” however, does not require a party to spend it, as the parties did in Kemp. Our precedent does not exclude prudent saving from the definition of the marital standard of living. Indeed, it would be a perverse state of the law if we, as a rule, always included in an alimony calculation all sums parties spent, even imprudently, but excluded sums wisely saved.

¶27      The parties presented evidence (and on appeal the parties continue to agree) that the investments were meant to facilitate future financial growth; that during the economic recession in 2008, the parties dipped into their investments to maintain their standard of living; and that they later used investments to pay tax obligations incurred because of Glen’s compensation structure. The very fact that such a substantial amount of Glen’s income went straight to investment that then served to pay off a tax obligation represents the type of allocation that constituted part of the marital standard of living. An understanding of the marital standard of living that is restricted to direct and immediate expenses is simply too limited. Instead, the use of marital funds to cover the parties’ investments and savings—provided it was standard practice during the marriage—is a proper consideration in determining the marital standard of living. See Bakanowski, 2003 UT App 357, ¶ 16.

¶28 In sum, the district court erred in concluding that insufficient evidence supported Rayna’s request to include amounts for investment in alimony calculations. The undisputed evidence established that it was both a standard practice to invest marital assets annually and that this pattern of investment contributed to the marital standard of living. We remand the case to the district court to recalculate alimony based on the amount that the couple’s historical investment contributed to the marital standard of living. See Bjarnson v. Bjarnson, 2020 UT App 141, ¶ 5, 476 P.3d 145 (“We will reverse if the court has not exercised its discretion within the bounds and under the standards we have set.” (cleaned up)).

B.         Entertainment

¶29 Rayna also contends that the district court “entered a factual finding that was unsupported by the evidence regarding [her] entertainment expenses.” This is so, she argues, because testimony at trial established that the amount she originally requested for entertainment as part of her living expenses was “carved out . . . for her alone” and because the evidence, including the exhibit used to calculate her living expenses, did not otherwise suggest that the amount should have been reduced as it was by the district court. We agree that the district court’s reduction of Rayna’s entertainment expenses was based on clearly erroneous findings of fact because “the court’s conclusions do not logically follow from” and are not supported by “the evidence.” See Gardner v. Gardner, 2019 UT 61, ¶ 32, 452 P.3d 1134.

¶30      In determining the amount for entertainment expenses to include in its alimony calculation, the district court stated that the amount “presents expenses calculated for . . . years . . . when two minor children also lived in the home. Therefore, this amount should have been divided by four.” The district court reduced the amount it considered in its alimony calculation related to entertainment accordingly. However, this does not follow from the evidence presented at trial.

¶31      As an initial matter, when asked about the entertainment line item, Rayna testified that she loved “to go to concerts,” that she went “to New York City to the ballet [and] to the theater,” and that she generally hosted a friend on those trips. And testimony from Rayna’s expert on the matter explained that the amount was for “entertainment that she would normally spend on a monthly basis” and, specifically, that the amount was “what she actually spent if . . . carved out [for] her alone.” (Emphasis added.)

¶32      Glen attempts to provide support for the district court’s apparently contrary finding by suggesting that several line items on Rayna’s living-expense exhibit included a note that the amount was for “Rayna Only,” and that based on this notation, the district court “acted within its appropriate discretion” when it determined the amount requested for entertainment should be reduced because that line item did not include that note. However, in our review of the exhibit referred to by Glen, of the thirty-nine line items listed, only three specify that the amount was for “Rayna Only.” Yet some of the unmarked items reflect amounts the parties agree were spent on Rayna alone. Therefore, the absence of the “Rayna Only” notation does not necessarily reflect that those items were not for “Rayna Only.” And further, a line item for “Money Spent on Kids” specifically notes that it includes “Entertainment” expenses for those children. If Rayna’s entertainment expenses included money spent on the children, there would be no need to include a separate line item for entertainment under “Money Spent on Kids.” Moreover, we note that the district court’s determination that the amount should be “divided by four” because “two minor children also lived in the home” does not quite add up. Rayna and two children add up to three, and whether the court also included Glen or the friends Rayna often hosted is unclear from the court’s findings of fact. Either way, the justification does not appear to support the reduction.

¶33      Accordingly, the district court’s reduction of the alimony amount requested for entertainment contradicts not only the direct testimony at trial but also the very exhibit on which the court expressly based its findings. Because the court’s conclusions do not logically follow from and are not supported by the evidence, we determine that this portion of the award is based on clearly erroneous findings of fact, and we therefore remand to the district court for clarification and correction of the matter. See Leppert v. Leppert, 2009 UT App 10, ¶ 8, 200 P.3d 223; Gardner, 2019 UT 61, ¶ 32.

II. Book of Business

¶34      Rayna next opposes the district court’s determination that the book of business “was not a divisible marital asset.” However, to prevail on such a contention, Rayna would need to show that the court clearly abused its discretion, see Talley v. Talley, 739 P.2d 83, 84 (Utah Ct. App. 1987), something she has not done here.

¶35      In dealing with Rayna’s argument that Glen owned a book of business that should be a divisible marital asset, the district court first explained that the alleged book of business, comprising “a client list and the assets under management from these clients,” constituted an “asset” as a legal matter —a determination neither party appears to challenge on appeal. But the court did not stop there, determining next that this “asset” was owned not by Glen but by Employer.

¶36 The court explained its reasoning in over five pages of detailed findings of fact and conclusions of law. Throughout those pages, the district court explained, among other things, that although Glen had extensive experience in his field and a portion of his compensation required him to meet lofty expectations concerning the funds he managed, “[w]hen Glen began work for [Employer], he did not sell a book of business or a client list to [Employer]”; “[n]owhere within [the relevant employment documents] did [Employer] indicate that it was purchasing any client list from Glen or that Glen was selling anything at all to [Employer]”; and “Rayna ha[d] not presented any evidence that Glen sold any client list, client information, or other asset to [Employer] as a condition of his hiring.” Further, Glen “worked as an employee of [Employer]”; “ha[d] been paid a salary . . . as a W-2 employee”; and “expand[ed] the client list” by, in part, “creat[ing] relationships with other . . . employees who advise individuals that they service to place assets under Glen’s management.” The court then noted that often “Glen manages assets owned by numerous individuals and entities with whom he has no personal relationship.”

¶37 The court then described various agreements concerning Glen’s compensation and employment and highlighted portions of those agreements. One read,

All information concerning [c]lients of [Employer], former clients of [Employer], and prospective clients of [Employer] must be treated as confidential and must not be disclosed to anyone outside of [Employer.] . . . [I]n the event Employee’s employment is terminated for any reason whatsoever[,] Employee may not take any records or information referring or relating to [c]lients of [Employer], former clients of [Employer] and prospective clients of [Employer], whether originals or copies, in hard copy or computerized form.

Another read,

Employee may not directly or indirectly use, maintain, take or disclose any Confidential Information, except . . . in the course of carrying out Employee’s duties for [Employer] during Employee’s employment[.] . . . “Confidential Information” . . . includes . . . client relationships and prospective client relationships, client lists and contact information, client information (including but not limited to clients’ past and present financial conditions, investment practices, preferences, activities, objectives, and plans and other client data Employee obtained while in [Employer’s] employ)[.] . . . Employee further expressly agrees that, in the event his or her employment terminates, Employee’s use of Confidential Information, including but not limited to any information referring or relating to clients of [Employer], former clients of [Employer] and prospective clients of [Employer], must immediately cease and that Employee must immediately return, destroy or delete, any Confidential Information whether in hard copy or computerized form, including in any electronic device owned by Employee.

The court then reasoned, “[i]f the clients were clients, relationships, or contracts that Glen owned, he would not be subject to any restrictions with respect to the manner in which he stored, maintained, or utilized any of the client information, either during or after his employment with [Employer]. Similarly, if the client information was owned by Glen, he would not be subject to any restrictions.” Significantly, the court noted that “individuals and entities that own the assets under management have no contractual obligation to continue to use Glen to manage their assets; they are free to select a different . . . adviser [of Employer] at any time.” These individuals had “not contracted with Glen” but instead had “contracted with” Employer. And finally, the court reasoned that “[t]he terms Glen was offered by [Employer] were not negotiated. He did not negotiate higher pay or different terms but simply accepted employment on the terms offered by [Employer]. If Glen owned the book of business[,] he would have been in a position of greater leverage and been able to negotiate with [Employer].” In short, the district court determined that because Glen’s interactions with the book of business did not demonstrate ownership, “Glen [did] not own the book of business.”

¶38 Rayna attacks this determination primarily based on the alleged existence of alternative evidence. First, she asserts that evidence that Glen had some control over the book of business and its fruits and that the book of business included the information of some clients he had obtained before joining Employer demonstrated that Glen owned the book of business. But regardless of whether such evidence was before the district court, it would not contradict the findings the court did make— findings on which it relied to determine that, on the whole, Glen did not own the book of business. And although Rayna contends that “the evidence showed that [Employer] hopes to buy Glen’s book of business when he retires or transitions out of the industry and would facilitate the transfer of all of his clients to another advisor within [Employer],” this argument fails to acknowledge that the district court specifically considered this evidence in its findings of fact and ultimately found that the evidence did not deserve “any weight” because of a “lack of any testimony or other evidence by anyone who actually knew anything about” such a buy-out program. Indeed, “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.” See Hinds v. Hinds-Holm, 2022 UT App 13, ¶ 28 n.4, 505 P.3d 1136 (cleaned up). And here Rayna has not demonstrated that such a flaw exists.

¶39      Because none of Rayna’s arguments on appeal show that the court clearly abused its discretion in its thorough and record-supported explanation of why Glen did not own the book of business, her contention on appeal is unavailing and we affirm the district court’s determination.

III. Dissipation

¶40 Rayna also contends that the district court erred when it included in the final distribution only half of the amount it determined Glen dissipated and failed to award Rayna any of it. Indeed, the district court found that “the amount of dissipation attributable to [Glen’s affair] is $75,000” and that “[t]hese funds were marital funds, for which Glen was entitled to half and Rayna to half.” But in the next line, the court, in seeming contradiction, stated, “Through dissipation, Glen spent half of $37,500 which Rayna was entitled to and therefore should be added to Glen’s [distribution] column.”

¶41 On appeal, the parties agree that Rayna is owed $37,500 due to Glen’s dissipation of $75,000. But the parties do not agree about the meaning of the court’s order or its associated appendix distributing the marital property. Having viewed both the court’s order, as recited above, and the appendix that purports to effectuate that order, we remand this issue to the district court for clarification.

¶42 Because the parties agree that the full amount of dissipation is $75,000 and that Rayna is thus entitled to $37,500, the only matter for us on appeal is to ensure that the order of the district court reflects that agreement. And it does not appear to do so. The court’s appendix lists three columns: one for the value of a given property item, one for Rayna’s portion of the property, and one for Glen’s portion of the property. In Rayna’s and Glen’s respective columns, a number was entered without parentheses to indicate a positive sum owed to the party, and a number was entered inside parentheses to indicate a sum to be subtracted from the ultimate distribution. For the line-item entry for dissipation, instead of $75,000, the value was listed as only $37,500. More important for our present purposes, Rayna’s column for that line item is empty whereas Glen’s contains $37,500 without parentheses, indicating a positive sum. As we read this entry, it appears that the incorrect dissipation amount was entered into the value, and instead of Rayna being awarded half of that $75,000, the amount of $37,500 was given to Glen. This was error.

¶43      On remand, the district court should correct this error and the associated appendix to indicate without ambiguity that the full amount of dissipation is $75,000 and that Rayna will be awarded $37,500 as her share of that total.[4]

IV. Property Distribution Appreciation

¶44 Rayna lastly contends that the district court “abused its discretion when it refused to award [her] a proportional share of the appreciation that accrued on the marital investment accounts” as she requested in her motion to enforce. She asserts that the court mischaracterized her motion to enforce as a motion to amend and that it accordingly erred in determining that it lacked jurisdiction to provide the relief she requested. On appeal, Rayna appears to maintain that her motion below was nothing more than a motion to enforce the decree; that the court had jurisdiction to enforce its decree; and that in determining that the order she requested would require an amendment (as opposed to mere enforcement), the court inherently “determined the decree did not already offer Rayna a proportional amount of the appreciation.” We agree with the district court that the relief Rayna sought would have required an amendment to the decree and that the court did not have jurisdiction to amend that decree once the notice of appeal had been filed.

¶45      We note that a “trial court is [generally] divested of jurisdiction upon the filing of an appeal.” Ortiz v. Crowther, 2017 UT App 133, ¶ 2, 402 P.3d 34 (per curiam). But a court may still enforce its decree even if an appeal has already been sought.[5] See Cheves v. Williams, 1999 UT 86, ¶ 48, 993 P.2d 191. Accordingly, because “Rayna filed a motion to enforce the decree,” she asserts that the court should have reached the merits of the issue she presented to it. But “[t]he substance of a motion, not its caption, is controlling.” DeBry v. Fidelity Nat’l Title Ins. Co., 828 P.2d 520, 523 (Utah Ct. App. 1992). And here, although Rayna titled her motion as one “to enforce,” the requested relief does not match that title. Cf. CBS Enters. LLC v. Sorenson, 2018 UT App 2, ¶¶ 11–12, 414 P.3d 925.

¶46      The decree instructed Glen “to ‘transfer’ equities valued at the exact amounts set forth.” (Emphasis added.) But in her motion, Rayna requested not only those exact amounts but also “post-trial appreciation over and above the exact figures set forth.” On appeal, Rayna concedes that “the decree said nothing about who should receive the appreciation that accrued” post-trial. Accordingly, we agree with the district court that to award the relief that Rayna sought would require the district court to “read language into” the decree “in a way that modifie[d] or amend[ed]” it. See Mitchell v. Mitchell, 2011 UT App 41, ¶ 5, 248 P.3d 65 (“We interpret a divorce decree according to established rules of contract interpretation.” (cleaned up)); see also Brady v. Park, 2019 UT 16, ¶ 53, 445 P.3d 395 (“If the language within the four corners of the contract is unambiguous, the parties’ intentions are determined from the plain meaning of the contractual language . . . .” (cleaned up)).

¶47      Because Rayna filed her notice of appeal before the district court ruled on her request for post-trial appreciation of the investment distribution, the district court had been divested of jurisdiction to alter the divorce decree in the way Rayna requested. See Ortiz, 2017 UT App 133, ¶ 2. Accordingly, we affirm the district court’s determination.

V. Investment Income

¶48      On cross-appeal, Glen contends that the district court abused its discretion when it did not include in its alimony calculation an amount reflecting Rayna’s ability to earn income from awarded investment accounts and apply that amount toward Rayna’s unmet needs.[6] Initially, Glen asserts that the district court “fail[ed] to consider Rayna’s ability to earn” income from these sources, but in the remainder of his argument, he proceeds to explain why the court’s actual consideration of her ability to earn income from investment accounts is based on unsupported findings or is otherwise unjustified.

¶49 For its part, the district court acknowledged Glen’s argument that Rayna would receive an investable property distribution that could provide “at least” a six percent return. While Utah “caselaw directs district courts to consider all sources of income when determining alimony, it does not dictate that all sources of income be counted as income received”—instead district courts have “broad discretion to treat sources of income as the court sees fit under the circumstances.” Eberhard v. Eberhard, 2019 UT App 114, ¶ 21, 449 P.3d 202. The court then provided three justifications for its determination that “it would be inequitable to include interest, dividend or other unearned income potentially generated from investment assets received in the marital property award.”

¶50      First, the court explained that the “ability to obtain a 6% return is not sufficiently certain for the court to rely on.” It noted the inconsistency of historical returns, Rayna’s discretion to use her distribution for purposes other than investment, and the difficulty of projecting future investment income. Second, the court explained that “[i]t would be inequitable for Glen to be able to keep his share of the investments and retain their income stream to reinvest as he continues to generate professional income, while Rayna would retain only the investments after being compelled to expend her investment income to pay her living expenses.” The court felt that such an order would “wrongly deprive[] Rayna of the full benefit and value of” her distribution and that she should be able to “grow” any investments she would make without the obligation to use that money for providing for her own standard of living. Third, the district court explained that “[i]t was the parties’ regular practice not to spend or live off investment income, but rather to entirely reinvest that income.” Accordingly, the court refrained from applying any amount of potential investment income toward Rayna’s projected earning capacity.

¶51      In determining whether a spouse should receive alimony, the general rule is that a court should first take care of property distribution. See Batty v. Batty, 2006 UT App 506, ¶ 5, 153 P.3d 827 (“[An alimony] evaluation properly takes into account the result of the property division, particularly any income-generating property [the receiving spouse] is awarded, but alimony is not meant to offset an uneven property award. Rather, as a matter of routine, an equitable property division must be accomplished prior to undertaking the alimony determination.”). Then, depending on how the property distribution works out— especially considering income-generating property—the court considers whether alimony will be necessary for a spouse to meet demonstrated needs. See Burt v. Burt, 799 P.2d 1166, 1170 (Utah Ct. App. 1990) (“Alimony is appropriate to enable the receiving spouse to maintain as nearly as possible the standard of living enjoyed during the marriage and to prevent the spouse from becoming a public charge.” (cleaned up)); see also Batty, 2006 UT App 506, ¶ 4 (“In determining alimony, the trial court must consider three important factors: (1) the financial condition and needs of the spouse claiming support, (2) the ability of that spouse to provide sufficient income for him or herself, and (3) the ability of the responding spouse to provide the support. Although a trial court is given considerable discretion in determining an alimony award, failure to consider these factors constitutes an abuse of discretion.” (cleaned up)). And as we held in Eberhard v. Eberhard, 2019 UT App 114, 449 P.3d 202, while the district court must consider all potential sources of income, it is not required to count those sources of income. Id. ¶ 21. This is nothing more than an expression of the rule that a district court has “broad discretion to treat sources of income as the court sees fit under the circumstances.” Id.

¶52      Here, contrary to Glen’s assertion, the district court did, in fact, consider Rayna’s ability to earn income from her distributed investment assets in reaching its determination that she would still require additional alimony to support herself to the level of the marital standard of living. See Dobson v. Dobson, 2012 UT App 373, ¶ 21, 294 P.3d 591 (stating that for the purposes of determining alimony, “the needs of the spouses are assessed in light of the standard of living they had during marriage” (cleaned up)). Given that the district court considered Rayna’s ability to earn income in reaching its determination that she was entitled to alimony, the question before us is whether the circumstances allowed the district court to refrain from counting any future investment income Rayna may receive in its calculation. None of Glen’s arguments attacking the court’s determination persuade us that the court exceeded its discretion here.

¶53 First, Glen argues that the court’s determination that the “ability to obtain a 6% return is not sufficiently certain for the court to rely on” contradicts its other findings. Specifically, he cites a finding that states “Glen’s income has consistently increased” and “[o]ther than general economic uncertainty, there was no evidence at trial that this trend would not continue.” He then claims that this statement contradicts the court’s determination that Rayna would not obtain a return on her investments.

¶54 However, the two findings are not comparable at their roots. Regarding Rayna’s potential income, the court was specifically discussing income resulting from a return on investments; but regarding Glen’s income, the court was noting an increase in his income as a whole, including that income derived from gainful employment and not exclusively income derived from any returns on Glen’s ongoing investments. A projection that Glen’s income as a whole, salary and all, will continue to increase is not incompatible with a determination that a return on investment income is insufficiently certain to rely on.

¶55 As part of this argument, Glen also characterizes an unrelated finding from the court’s ruling as a determination that Rayna’s relevant accounts were “not easily liquidated” and asserts that the court’s statement that Rayna may choose to liquidate a portion of these investments contradicts that finding. But this description of the court’s finding is simply inaccurate— the court noted that the “accounts [were] not liquid,” and it made no statement about whether there would be difficulty in liquidating them. And even if the accounts were difficult to liquidate, it would, again, not be incongruous with the court’s other findings, specifically that Rayna could choose to liquidate, any difficulty notwithstanding.

¶56 Further, Glen asserts that the court unjustifiably determined that both parties should “grow” their investments but that growth on Rayna’s accounts was uncertain. Again, these findings are not incongruous—the district court could reasonably find that a return was uncertain, that requiring Rayna to use any return to provide for her needs would prevent her from increasing the amount invested, and that Rayna deserved the opportunity to have her investment returns be reinvested for potential future growth.

¶57      Second, Glen asserts that the court gave Rayna freedom to reinvest her investment returns while it restricted Glen to using his investment returns to pay for both the taxes owed on his forgiven loans and Rayna’s alimony award. As to the alimony award, we note that Glen has not directed us to anywhere in the record where the district court explained that he must pay for Rayna’s alimony using investment income, and as such, Glen is free to provide for Rayna’s alimony using whatever resources he desires, whether it be his salary, proceeds from a mortgage or other loan, or, indeed, his investment income.

¶58      Third, Glen asserts that the court’s finding that “Lilt was the parties’ regular practice not to spend or live off investment income, but rather to entirely reinvest that income” contradicts its acknowledgment that Glen incurred a tax obligation from the forgiven loans. However, we note that although Glen maintains on appeal that he used the forgivable-loan investment returns to pay tax obligations, Glen has not pointed to the court ever making a finding to that effect, and thus the findings are not inconsistent. Further, although such evidence was before the court, the court also stated that “Glen did not include his own investment income in his Financial Declaration as income available to pay alimony or to otherwise meet his own need.” That fact, the court stated, “demonstrate[d] that neither party considered investment income as income to be spent or expended, but rather as a vehicle to increase savings and net worth.” While a pattern of using investment returns to pay tax obligations may not be completely compatible with a pattern of using returns to “increase savings and net worth,” we do not view this apparent inconsistency as enough to persuade us that the court abused its discretion.

¶59      In sum, Glen has not demonstrated that the court abused its discretion in refusing to count Rayna’s potential investment returns as income toward her ability to meet her living expenses. Accordingly, we affirm the district court on this point.

CONCLUSION

¶60      First, we remand to the district court to apply the correct standard to the evidence regarding investments and savings and to adjust the alimony award based on calculations that account for Rayna’s historical spending on future investments; we also remand to the district court to adjust the alimony award based on calculations that account for Rayna’s historical spending on entertainment. Second, we affirm the district court’s determination that Glen did not own the book of business. Third, we remand to the district court to ensure that Rayna is awarded the $37,500 owed to her due to Glen’s dissipation. Fourth, we affirm the district court’s determination that the relief Rayna requested in her motion to enforce would have required it to amend the decree and that it lacked jurisdiction to do so. And fifth, we affirm the district court’s decision not to include potential investment income in calculating Rayna’s actual income. On remand, we instruct the district court to engage in further proceedings as necessary to effectuate the holdings provided in this opinion.

 

[1] Justice Diana Hagen began her work on this case as a judge of the Utah Court of Appeals. She became a member of the Utah Supreme Court thereafter and completed her work on the case sitting by special assignment as authorized by law. See generally Utah R. Jud. Admin. 3‑108(4).

[2] Due to the parties’ shared surname, we employ their given names.

[3] The parties are appealing an order 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. However, we present conflicting evidence to the extent necessary to clarify the issues raised on appeal.” Kidd v. Kidd, 2014 UT App 26, n.1, 321 P.3d 200 (cleaned up).

[4] The district court’s view, which we endorse, is that Glen spent $75,000 in marital funds on his affair—not a proper marital purpose. Half of that amount was essentially his, but the half belonging to Rayna should properly be restored to her by Glen.

[5] Notwithstanding this general rule, the lower court may, in addition to dealing with motions to enforce the decree address clerical errors and other mistakes “arising from oversight or omission” that the appellate court asks it to address even after an appeal has been filed. See Utah R. Civ. P. 60(a); see also Cheves v. Williams, 1999 UT 86, ¶ 45, 993 P.2d 191 (“We have also recognized exceptions to [the general] rule, in the interest of preventing unnecessary delay, where any action by the trial court is not likely to modify a party’s rights with respect to the issues raised on appeal, or where the action by the trial court is authorized by rule or statute.” (cleaned up)).

[6] Although the district court did not impute income to Rayna based on investment earnings, it did impute to her some income based on an undisputed amount of earning capacity.

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Twitchell v. Twitchell – 2022 UT App 49 – child custody and support

Twitchell v. Twitchell – 2022 UT App 49

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

JAZMIN S. TWITCHELL,

Appellee,

V.

JOSEPH N. TWITCHELL,

Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20200546-CA

Filed April 14, 2022

First District Court, Logan Department

The Honorable Brian G. Cannell

No. 184100383

Ryan L. Holdaway and Diane Pitcher, Attorneys

for Appellant

Robert L. Neeley, Attorney for Appellee

JUDGE MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES DAVID N. MORTENSEN and JILL M. POHLMAN concurred.

CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, Judge:

¶1 Joseph N. Twitchell appeals from a divorce decree and appurtenant findings of fact and conclusions of law, arguing that the district court failed to consider relevant statutory factors when forming its custody determination, awarded him less parent-time than the statutory minimum, and erroneously calculated his child support obligation based on an inaccurate accounting of the income of his ex-wife, Jazmin S. Twitchell. We find Joseph’s arguments persuasive on each of these issues, and accordingly, we remand for further proceedings.

BACKGROUND

¶2 Joseph and Jazmin[1] were married in 2016 and share one child (Child), who was born in May 2017. The parties “separated about a year after she was born.” Shortly thereafter, in June 2018, Jazmin filed for divorce, citing “irreconcilable differences.”

¶3 The court issued temporary orders in December 2018, awarding the parties joint legal custody of Child and designating Jazmin as the primary physical custodian, “subject to [Joseph’s] right to parent-time.” As to the parent-time schedule, the court directed the parties to follow the minimum schedule set out in section 30-3-35 of the Utah Code, with Joseph generally “designated as the non-custodial parent,” meaning that he could exercise parent-time on alternating weekends. In addition, the temporary orders granted Joseph an additional overnight with Child “every Thursday night,” with Joseph keeping Child for the weekend when it was one of his parent-time weekends and returning Child to Jazmin’s care by noon on Friday when it was not.

¶4 As the case proceeded to trial, Jazmin filed her financial disclosures, dated November 7, 2019. In her disclosures, Jazmin reported her gross monthly income as $2,111. In this document, under an entry entitled “Employment Status,” Jazmin listed the name of a child care center where she worked at some point. Under an entry for “Name of Employer,” she listed a local private school. Jazmin also filed a supplemental disclosure, dated September 23, 2019, informing the court that she had been serving as a “houseparent” at the private school since September 1, 2019, for which she received no monetary compensation but was provided room and board. Jazmin included a letter from a representative of the school who estimated that the value of the housing and utilities provided to Jazmin was $980 per month.

¶5 A two-day trial was held in December 2019, at which multiple witnesses testified. During Joseph’s testimony, he described instances of physical and verbal altercations beginning a few months into the parties’ marriage. He averred that the first time things became physical between the two was in November 2016, when stress regarding the upcoming holiday season resulted in an argument and Jazmin eventually “going after [him] with a knife,” cutting his hand. Joseph also described a time in Spring 2017 when he and Jazmin were in another argument, and he “went to go give her a hug and apologize . . . and she bit [his] right arm.” He then described one more instance where Jazmin told Joseph “she hated [him], over and over and over again,” which prompted him to threaten leaving with Child. In response, Jazmin “slapped or hit [him] with something across the face.” Joseph also presented photographs of injuries he sustained from each of these incidents, which were admitted into evidence without objection.

¶6 Several witnesses also testified as to their observations of Child’s condition once she went from Jazmin’s to Joseph’s care. One witness testified that on multiple occasions when Joseph received Child from Jazmin, Child had “severe diaper rashes” with blistering, “yeast infections,” and “bite marks on her feet,” and that she was “really dehydrated” to the point of not “even having a bowel movement for a day or two after.” Another witness also confirmed that Child had severe diaper rashes when she came to Joseph, to the point that Joseph had to seek care from a pediatrician, and testified that Child often “had bite marks on both her hands . . . and her feet.” Joseph also produced evidence documenting incidents of what he characterizes as “assaults” from other children at a daycare while Child was in Jazmin’s care.

¶7 Jazmin testified about her employment history since the parties’ separation. During the marriage, Jazmin had been “a stay-at-home mom,” but she started a job “within two weeks of leaving” to help provide for Child. She testified to working at a child care center from approximately July 2018 until March 2019, when she left to accept an offer to work for higher pay at another daycare center. She worked at that second center full-time until October 2019. Jazmin began serving as a houseparent at the private school in September 2019, a role she was still working in at the time of trial.

¶8 In addition to her financial disclosure in which she reported the aforementioned $2,111 figure, Jazmin also offered her 2018 tax return into evidence. That return listed only the first child care center as her employer and an annual gross income of $7,044.75—which would translate to approximately $587 per month. Jazmin nevertheless confirmed at trial that her gross monthly income was $2,100. When asked if that amount included the $980 value of her housing and utilities, she stated, “No. That . . . doesn’t have anything to do with that.” When asked about her current employment, she testified that she had just started working as a substitute teacher earning $75 per day, which she “guesstimate[d]” she did two to three days per week. Based on that “guesstimate,” Jazmin testified that she earned approximately $813 per month from substitute teaching as opposed to the $2,100 in her financial declaration. Jazmin also confirmed that, at the time of trial, she had no sources of income other than her “service as a houseparent, [and her] income from substitute teaching.”

¶9 Later, on cross-examination, when asked about the $2,111 reported as her gross monthly income in her disclosure, Jazmin admitted that there was actually “no documentation being provided with that [disclosure] that would substantiate that number.” While Jazmin was being cross-examined, the court interjected and expressed its confusion as to whether the $980 value of her housing expenses had been included in her reported monthly income; although Jazmin never answered the court directly, her attorney asserted that it was included within that amount (contradicting Jazmin’s earlier testimony in which she had stated the opposite). Jazmin also stated that at the time of trial, she had actually worked as a substitute teacher on only one occasion up to that point.

¶10 Testimony was also given by a representative of the private school, whom Jazmin had contacted to secure documentation of the value of her housing and utilities. A final draft of a letter from the representative was attached to Jazmin’s supplemental disclosure. But at trial, Joseph offered evidence of an earlier draft of the letter in which the representative had originally stated that the value of what Jazmin received was estimated at $1,800 per month for rent and $1,000 per month for utilities, whereas the amount given in the final letter was $980 for both rent and utilities. The representative testified that she had sent the initial draft to Jazmin’s grandmother asking if it was “acceptable,” and either Jazmin or her grandmother had then asked additional questions about the square footage and what portion of the house Jazmin was actually living in, and whether that was reflected in the amount the representative gave. This prompted the representative to change the amount to $980 in the final letter, based on a “pro-rated amount” that seemed more consistent with the part of the house where Jazmin was living.

¶11 The court issued findings of fact and conclusions of law in April 2020.[2] While it awarded the parties joint legal custody of Child, it also found that it was in Child’s “best interest” that Jazmin be awarded primary physical custody. In support, the court cited the following findings: Jazmin had primary physical custody of Child since the parties separated, and the parties had been “following” the parent-time schedule imposed by the court in its temporary orders, consisting of “alternating weekends, with [Joseph] being awarded overnight every Thursday”; Child was “happy and well[-]adjusted and [was] progressing well developmentally”; Child was “closely bonded to [Jazmin] as she ha[d] been the primary custodial parent since birth, while [Joseph] was the primary bread winner in the family”; it was in Child’s “best interest . . . to maintain a close relationship with her half sister,” of whom Jazmin has primary physical custody; Jazmin had “exhibited good parenting skills” and was “of good moral character, and emotionally stable”; Jazmin had “exhibited a depth and desire for custody of [Child] since . . . birth”; Jazmin had “a flexible work and school schedule and she ha[d] the ability to provide personal care rather than surrogate care”; Jazmin had experience in early childhood education; and Jazmin “exhibited sound financial responsibility” whereas the court was “concerned about [Joseph’s] lack of financial responsibility” based on his debt accumulations. In the findings, the court also expressed its “concern[] about the alleged physical abuse between the parties during the marriage” and therefore found it “appropriate” for the exchanges of Child to occur at a police department safe zone located roughly halfway between the parties’ homes.

¶12 The court additionally noted its consideration of the factors outlined in section 30-3-10.2 of the Utah Code, finding in particular that Child’s “physical, psychological, emotional and development needs will benefit from the parties sharing joint legal custody.” But the court listed several reasons under these factors why joint physical custody would not be appropriate, finding that the “parties do not effectively communicate with each other”; they lived “approximately 60 miles” apart; Joseph “participated in raising [Child] but not to the extent that [Jazmin] did”; “[t]o date there ha[d] not been . . . opportunities for either parent to protect [Child] from any conflict that may arise between the parties, due to [Child’s] age”; and “the parties’ relationship ha[d] stabilized and once these divorce proceedings have concluded it is anticipated the parties will be able to cooperate with each other and make appropriate joint decisions regarding [Child].”

¶13 As to parent-time, the court concluded that Joseph’s parent-time “shall be, until [Child] starts Kindergarten, every Thursday overnight and every other weekend from Friday (after school) to Sunday evening at 6 p.m.” And on weeks that ended with Jazmin’s designated weekend, Joseph “shall return [Child] to [Jazmin] by Friday at noon, after his Thursday overnight visit.” The court also concluded that “[t]he parties shall follow the holiday parent time pursuant to Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-35” but that Joseph “shall be awarded six[ ]weeks of extended summer vacation instead of four[ ]weeks, consistent with Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-35 and by stipulation of [Jazmin] at closing arguments.”

¶14 Regarding child support, the court found that Jazmin “earn[ed] $980 per month gross wage from her house parent job” and “approximately $780 per month” from substitute teaching. It therefore calculated her gross monthly income at $1,760 for child support purposes. The court then found that Joseph’s average gross income is $5,011 per month, and therefore his “child support obligation is $582 per month.”

¶15 The court entered a decree of divorce in June 2020, in which it largely echoed the parent-time findings, ordering that Joseph’s parent-time “shall be every Thursday overnight and every other weekend from Friday (after school) to Sunday evening at 6 p.m. On [Jazmin’s] weekend with the parties’ child, [Joseph] shall return [Child] to [Jazmin] by Friday at noon following his Thursday overnight parent time.” And once Child “commences Kindergarten [Joseph’s] parent time shall change[] to every other weekend from Friday (after school) to Sunday at 6 p.m., and a mid-week from after school until 7 p.m.” The decree did not mention a schedule for holidays or extended/vacation parent-time. The decree also reiterated what the court found to be the parties’ respective incomes, and accordingly it memorialized its decision ordering Joseph to pay $582 per month in child support.

¶16 Joseph promptly appealed the findings of fact and conclusions of law, as well as the divorce decree.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶17 On appeal, Joseph presents two main issues for our consideration. First, he attacks the district court’s custody determination on two bases, arguing that the court’s custody conclusion and the underlying factual findings are deficient because it failed to consider certain relevant factors and that the court erred in awarding him less than the minimum time provided by statute without explaining a reason to depart from the statutory minimum. “[W]e review the district court’s custody and parent-time determination for abuse of discretion.” 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).

¶18 Second, Joseph challenges the district court’s child support determination, asserting that it made errors in calculating Jazmin’s income, resulting in an inaccurate child support obligation.[3] “In reviewing child support proceedings, we accord substantial deference to the [district] court’s findings and give it considerable latitude in fashioning the appropriate relief. We will not disturb that court’s actions unless the evidence clearly preponderates to the contrary or there has been an abuse of discretion.” Hibbens v. Hibbens, 2015 UT App 278, ¶ 17, 363 P.3d 524 (quotation simplified).

ANALYSIS

I. Custody and Parent-Time

A. Consideration of the Relevant Factors

¶19 Joseph first asserts that the district court erred by failing to adequately consider certain statutory factors in formulating its custody determination. Specifically, he asserts that two factors did not receive the attention he feels they deserved by the district court, namely, any “evidence of domestic violence, neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, or emotional abuse, involving the child, the parent, or a household member of the parent” and “the past conduct and demonstrated moral character of the parent.” See Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(2)(a), (d) (LexisNexis 2019). We agree with Joseph that it is not clear from the district court’s findings that it considered evidence regarding abusive behavior by Jazmin, neglect and injuries to Child, or Jazmin’s moral character. Accordingly, we remand for the court to fully evaluate that evidence through supplemented or additional findings.

¶20 “In all custody determinations, the district court’s primary focus must be on the best interests of the child.” Pingree v. Pingree, 2015 UT App 302, ¶ 7, 365 P.3d 713 (quotation simplified). Furthermore, when “determining any form of custody and parent-time” arrangement, the district court “shall consider the best interest of the child and may consider [any] factors the court finds relevant” to that end, including certain factors that are specifically articulated in the Utah Code. See Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(2). Importantly, not all these factors are “on equal footing”; instead, the 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.” T.W. v. S.A., 2021 UT App 132, ¶ 16, 504 P.3d 163 (quotation simplified).

¶21 Determining which factors the court must address in a given case, and to what degree, presents a tricky task. Inevitably, some factors will loom larger in a given case than other factors, and “[t]here is no definitive checklist of factors to be used for determining custody.” Sukin v. Sukin, 842 P.2d 922, 924 (Utah Ct. App. 1992). Consequently, “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.” Shuman v. Shuman, 2017 UT App 192, ¶ 6, 406 P.3d 258. On the other hand, a “court’s factual findings are adequate only if they are sufficiently detailed and include enough subsidiary facts to disclose the steps by which the ultimate conclusion on each factual issue was reached.” Lay v. Lay, 2018 UT App 137, ¶ 19, 427 P.3d 1221 (quotation simplified). 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. See Barnes v. Barnes, 857 P.2d 257, 261 (Utah Ct. App. 1993) (“The record is replete with highly disputed evidence relevant to the custody issue which is not dealt with at all in the findings. The findings do not show whether the court considered the moral conduct or emotional stability of the parties and what evidence the court found determinative in deciding the best interests of the children.”); Sukin, 842 P.2d at 925 (“Whenever custody is contested and evidence presents several possible interpretations, a bare conclusory recitation of factors and statutory terms will not suffice. We must have the necessary supporting factual findings linking those factors to the children’s best interests and each parent’s abilities to meet the children’s needs.” (quotation simplified)).

¶22 Joseph asserts that the district court failed to consider evidence presented at trial of domestic violence Jazmin had perpetrated against him as well as neglectful behavior Jazmin had purportedly inflicted on Child. Specifically, Joseph points to his own testimony at trial that Jazmin had slapped him in the face hard enough to leave red marks, had attempted to stab him with a pocket knife, and had bitten him. Joseph also presented photographic exhibits purporting to show his injuries from these incidents. Joseph also points to testimony at trial and an exhibit he introduced into evidence tending to show injuries that Child sustained while she was in Jazmin’s care. One witness testified that when Joseph received Child from Jazmin, Child often had “severe diaper rashes” with blistering, “yeast infections,” and “bite marks on her feet,” and that she was “really dehydrated” to the point of not “even having a bowel movement for a day or two after.” Another witness also confirmed that Child had severe diaper rashes when she came to Joseph, such that Joseph had to seek care from a pediatrician, and testified that Child often “had bite marks on both her hands . . . and her feet.” Finally, Joseph asserts that the court did “not analyze or even mention . . . multiple incidents” in which Jazmin supposedly “engaged in deceitful tactics” during the litigation. Specifically, Joseph asserts that Jazmin instructed a witness on what to testify regarding Jazmin’s income from her houseparent job, that Jazmin and another witness mischaracterized the events that precipitated an incident when the police were called around the time of the parties’ separation, that Jazmin claimed that the parties were married on a date different from that indicated on their marriage certificate, and that Jazmin supposedly attempted to manipulate the testimony of her ex-husband in the case.

¶23 With respect to “evidence of domestic violence, neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, or emotional abuse, involving the child, the parent, or a household member of the parent” and “the past conduct and demonstrated moral character of the parent,” see Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(2)(a), (d), the court made only the following finding: “[Jazmin] has exhibited good parenting skills, is of good moral character, and emotionally stable.” It then proceeded to emphasize the facts it believed supported Jazmin’s bid for custody: that Jazmin had been Child’s primary caretaker; that Child had a bond with Jazmin’s other child, her half-sister; that Jazmin had made sure Joseph received his parent-time in accordance with the temporary orders; that Jazmin had “a depth and desire for custody”; that Jazmin had a flexible schedule that would allow her to provide personal care for Child; that Jazmin had taken Child to her medical appointments; and that Jazmin was financially responsible, “industrious,” and “goal oriented.” The court made no findings regarding Joseph’s parenting abilities, past conduct, bond with Child, etc., except to express concern that he was in debt.[4] Finally, the court stated that it was “concerned about the alleged physical abuse between the parties” and concluded it was therefore appropriate for them to exchange Child at a police department safe zone.

¶24 “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.” Sukin, 842 P.2d at 924 (quotation simplified). The court’s finding that Jazmin “has exhibited good parenting skills, is of good moral character, and emotionally stable” is inadequate for us to determine whether the court exceeded its discretion in assessing the abuse/neglect and moral character factors or how those factors impacted Child’s best interests. Likewise, the court’s expression of “concern[] about the alleged physical abuse between the parties during the marriage” tells us nothing about how or even if the court weighed the abuse allegations in its custody evaluation. Indeed, it is not clear to us that the court considered this factor at all in assessing which parent should be awarded custody, as it mentioned the factor only in the context of concluding that it would be “appropriate” for the exchanges of Child to occur at a police department safe zone. Without at least some discussion of the evidence the court relied on in assessing the factors and how the court related the factors to Child’s best interests, the court’s findings regarding the custody factors are inadequate. See, e.g.K.P.S. v. E.J.P., 2018 UT App 5, ¶¶ 30–42, 414 P.3d 933 (determining that the court’s factual findings were inadequate where it made factual conclusions but did not discuss the evidence underlying those conclusions and rejected the guardian ad litem’s recommendation without explanation); Bartlett v. Bartlett, 2015 UT App 2, ¶ 6, 342 P.3d 296 (rejecting the court’s conclusory finding that the mother was “better able and equipped to support and sustain a positive relationship between the children and their father” where the “court identified no subsidiary facts supporting this finding” and had, in fact, “admonished Mother for denying Father court-ordered access to the children” (quotation simplified)); Barnes, 857 P.2d at 261 (rejecting as inadequate the court’s finding that “[t]he Plaintiff’s level of commitment to her children during the course of this separation has exceeded that of the Defendant and that’s been established by their actions during the course of their separation” because “[t]he findings do not show whether the court considered the moral conduct or emotional stability of the parties and what evidence the court found determinative in deciding the best interests of the children”); Roberts v. Roberts, 835 P.2d 193, 196–97 (Utah Ct. App. 1992) (deeming inadequate findings that “Husband has physically abused Wife during the marriage” and that “both parties have participated in acts that bear on their moral character,” accompanied by a recitation of examples of each party’s bad behavior because the recitation did not give any “guidance regarding how those acts bear on the parties’ parenting abilities or affect the children’s best interests” (quotation simplified)); Cummings v. Cummings, 821 P.2d 472, 478–79 (Utah Ct. App. 1991) (reversing the district court’s custody determination based on its failure to make findings regarding evidence relating to important custody factors); Paryzek v. Paryzek, 776 P.2d 78, 83 (Utah Ct. App. 1989) (holding that it was an abuse of discretion for the court’s findings to “omit any reference” to a custody evaluation and evidence relating to the bond between father and son, the father’s status as primary caretaker pending trial, the fact that the child thrived while in the father’s care, and the son’s preference for living with his father).

¶25 Thus, we conclude 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 Jazmin, her alleged neglect of Child, and her moral character, as well as the effect that evidence had on its best-interest analysis. Accordingly, we vacate the district court’s custody and parent-time order and remand for the court to revisit that evidence and enter additional or supplemented findings, as necessary.

B. Deviation from Statutory Minimum Parent-Time Schedule

¶26 Joseph next argues that the district court committed reversible error by awarding him less than the minimum parent-time he is guaranteed by statute. Because we agree that the court’s custody award indeed creates a situation in which Joseph is guaranteed less than the statutory minimum, without explaining its reasoning in adequate factual findings, we conclude that this is an additional reason to vacate the court’s parent-time order.

¶27 In the event that the parents of a minor child litigating that child’s custody are unable to agree to a parent-time schedule, our legislature has codified a “minimum parent-time [schedule] to which the noncustodial parent and the child shall be entitled.” See Utah Code Ann. §§ 30-3-35(2), 30-3-35.5(3) (LexisNexis 2019 & Supp. 2021). In fashioning its parent-time order, the court may either “incorporate[] a parent-time schedule provided in Section 30-3-35 or 30-3-35.5; or . . . provide[] more or less parent-time” than outlined in those sections, but in either case “[t]he court shall enter the reasons underlying the court’s order for parent-time.” Id. § 30-3-34(4) (Supp. 2021). The court’s reasoning must be outlined in adequate factual findings, which must “contain sufficient detail to permit appellate review to ensure that the district court’s discretionary determination was rationally based.” Lay v. Lay, 2018 UT App 137, ¶ 19, 427 P.3d 1221 (quotation simplified). Thus, the statutory minimum “provides [the court with] a presumptive minimum, but the district court still retains discretion to award more [or less] time” to the noncustodial parent, so long as it identifies “the reasons underlying its order” in sufficiently detailed factual findings. See T.W. v. S.A., 2021 UT App 132, ¶ 30, 504 P.3d 163 (quotation simplified).

¶28 There is a separate section dealing with the minimum schedule for children who are under five years of age, see Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-35.5 (2019), and those who are between five and eighteen years of age, see id. § 30-3-35 (Supp. 2021). As Child was born in May 2017, she is still currently younger than five, so section 30-3-35.5 applies. Under that section, Joseph is entitled to “one weekday evening between 5:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.,” “alternative weekends . . . from 6 p.m. on Friday until 7 p.m. on Sunday,” certain holidays, and “two two-week periods, separated by at least four weeks, at the option of the noncustodial parent.” See id. § 30-3-35.5(3)(f) (2019).

¶29      Under the court’s findings and the divorce decree, Joseph receives parent-time “every Thursday overnight and every other weekend from Friday (after school) to Sunday evening at 6 p.m.,” and when it is Jazmin’s weekend, he returns Child to Jazmin “by Friday at noon following his Thursday overnight parent time.” Although Joseph correctly points out that the parent-time order requires him to return Child one hour earlier on Sundays than provided for in the statutory minimum schedule, Joseph ultimately receives more than the minimum parent-time required by statute while Child is under five, because he receives an additional weekday overnight, whereas the statute requires only a weekday evening visit. See id. Thus, for the time being, Joseph receives more than the statutory minimum.

¶30 But the situation changes when Child starts school. The district court ordered that once Child “commences Kindergarten,” Joseph’s parent-time “shall change[] to every other weekend from Friday (after school) to Sunday at 6 p.m., and a mid-week from after school until 7 p.m.” This schedule deviates from the statutory minimum, under which Joseph is entitled to “[a]lternating weekends . . . from 6 p.m. on Friday until Sunday at 7 p.m.,” and one weekday evening from either “5:30 p.m. until 8:30 p.m.” or, “at the election of the noncustodial parent, one weekday from the time the child’s school is regularly dismissed until 8:30 p.m.” Id. § 30-3-35(2)(a)(i), (2)(b)(i)(A) (Supp. 2021) (emphases added). Thus, under the court’s parent-time order, once Child begins kindergarten Joseph is required to return her to Jazmin one hour early on his weekends and one-and-a-half hours early during his weekday evenings.

¶31 As Joseph convincingly points out, while these discrepancies “may seem minor” to a casual observer, for “the non-custodial parent on a minimum visitation schedule, hours matter.” And, more importantly, the court did not explain—or even acknowledge—that it was departing from the statutory minimum. While section 30-3-35 is referenced in the findings of fact with respect to Joseph’s parent-time for holidays and summer vacation, the court made no other mention of the statutory minimum schedule.[5] As noted, when making its custody decision the court must give the “reasons underlying” its decision. See id. § 30-3-34(4); T.W., 2021 UT App 132, ¶ 30. The court did depart from the statutory minimum in this case, and it gave no reason for doing so in its findings.

¶32 As a result, we are prevented from conducting meaningful “appellate review to ensure that the district court’s discretionary determination was rationally based.” See Lay, 2018 UT App 137, ¶ 19 (quotation simplified). Accordingly, the findings in support of the district court’s parent-time order are insufficient, leaving us with no choice but to remand the matter for the court to adopt the statutory minimum schedule or otherwise explain its reasoning for departing from the minimum through adequate factual findings. See id.

II. Child Support

¶33 Joseph next challenges the district court’s child support determination, arguing that its determination of Jazmin’s income was entirely unsupported by the evidence and insufficiently explained. Because we agree that the court did not sufficiently explain how it reached the number it did in calculating Jazmin’s monthly income, we remand for entry of additional findings.

¶34 “A noncustodial parent’s child support obligation is calculated using each parent’s adjusted gross income.” Barrani v. Barrani, 2014 UT App 204, ¶ 11, 334 P.3d 994. Each parent’s “gross income” for purposes of child support “includes prospective income from any source, including earned and nonearned income sources which may include salaries, wages, . . . [and] rents.” Utah Code Ann. § 78B-12-203(1) (LexisNexis 2018). “Income from earned income sources is limited to the equivalent of one full-time 40-hour job.” Id. § 78B-12-203(2). “[C]hild support is appropriately calculated based on earnings at the time of trial,” but district courts also “have broad discretion to select an appropriate method” of calculating each parent’s income. Griffith v. Griffith, 959 P.2d 1015, 1019 (Utah Ct. App. 1998).

¶35      In this case, there were a number of potential bases for the court to assess Jazmin’s income. First, it could have accepted the declared full-time income in her financial declaration of $2,100, which she initially reaffirmed at trial. Second, it could have used her part-time substitute teaching income of approximately $813 per month combined with her in-kind income of $980 per month to reach a monthly income of $1,793. Third, it could have imputed her full-time income based on her substitute teaching salary of $75 per day for a total of $1,625 per month. There may, perhaps, have been other methods the court could have employed as well, had it adequately explained its reasoning.

¶36 Generally, “so long as the steps by which the ultimate conclusion on each factual issue was reached are apparent, a trial 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). And had the court taken one of the approaches outlined above, or another approach for which its reasoning was apparent, we would be inclined to affirm the court’s decision.[6] However, here the district court’s finding that Jazmin earned “approximately $780 per month” from substitute teaching does not align with any evidence submitted at trial, nor, so far as we can tell, can it be extrapolated from that evidence.[7] As Joseph observes, this number “do[es] not appear to come from the documentary or testimonial evidence at all.” Jazmin testified that she earned $75 per day working as a substitute teacher but that she worked only two to three days a week. Using these numbers, she reached a “guesstimate” of her monthly income of $813 per month ($75 per day x 2.5 days per week x 52 weeks per year / 12 months). While Jazmin was admittedly unsure about the amount she would be able to earn, the $780 figure adopted by the court appears to not be supported by the evidence presented at trial. While we are reluctant to reverse a district court’s child support order on this basis considering the small discrepancy between the $813 and $780 figures, the fact remains that we are unable to identify the “steps by which the ultimate conclusion on [this] factual issue was reached.” See id. (quotation simplified).

¶37 In such situations, “without the benefit of the reasoning and additional findings by the [district] court,” we must remand the child support decision to the district court to detail its full reasoning, through adequate findings, for why it chose the income amount for Jazmin that it did. See Bell v. Bell, 2013 UT App 248, ¶ 19, 312 P.3d 951.

CONCLUSION

¶38 This appeal compels us to remand the case because the district court’s findings and conclusions were infirm in several respects. First, the court failed to address disputed evidence that was highly relevant to the court’s custody determination. Second, the court’s order awards Joseph less than the statutory minimum parent-time once Child starts kindergarten, without explaining why or recognizing that it did so. And third, the court’s findings regarding Jazmin’s income contain insufficient detail for us to adequately review its reasoning.


[1] Because the parties share the same surname, we follow our oft-used practice of referring to them by their first names, with no disrespect intended by the apparent informality.

[2] Other than mentioning that “both parent[s] can step up and be good parents and both parents in large part have been good parents,” the court did not announce a ruling from the bench at the conclusion of the trial. Instead, it asked both parties to prepare proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law and heard closing arguments at a subsequent hearing. Ultimately, with only a few minor alterations, the court adopted Jazmin’s findings of fact and conclusions of law in their entirety.

While we would not go so far as to say that it is inappropriate for the court to fully adopt one party’s proposed findings, before signing off the court should confirm that those findings conform to the evidence presented at trial and that the findings sufficiently explain the court’s reasoning for the decision. In this case, it appears that the court adopted Jazmin’s version of the evidence without confirmation of that evidence and without disclosing the steps by which the ultimate conclusion on each factual issue was reached.

[3] As part of his broader challenge to the district court’s child support determination, Joseph purports to include another argument: that the court erred in dividing the parties’ debts. However, Jazmin points out that while Joseph included this argument in his articulation of the issues on appeal, he “did not [substantively] address the debt issue in his brief.” Indeed, we find a dearth of any argument regarding the debt distribution in Joseph’s brief; accordingly, Joseph has failed to properly raise such an argument for our consideration.

[4] We are troubled by the manner in which the district court’s findings focused exclusively on Jazmin rather than comparing hers and Joseph’s relative character, skills, and abilities. See Woodward v. LaFranca, 2013 UT App 147, ¶¶ 22, 26–28, 305 P.3d 181 (explaining that a court’s findings must “compare the parenting skills, character, and abilities of both parents” and reversing a finding that the emotional stability factor weighed in favor of mother because it was based solely on the determination that mother was emotionally stable without any findings regarding father’s emotional stability; “the question for the court was not whether Mother was emotionally stable, but whether Mother was more emotionally stable than Father” (quotation simplified)), abrogated on other grounds by Zavala v. Zavala, 2016 UT App 6, 366 P.3d 422. We urge the court on remand to make the appropriate comparisons in revising its findings.

[5] Furthermore, section 30-3-35.5 is not referenced at all, which would have been the operative section from the time the decree was entered until Child turns five.

[6] While a finding that aligned with the various numbers presented at trial would have met the bare minimum threshold for sufficiency, we note that this case would substantially benefit from further analysis. First, the court did not address the inconsistencies in Jazmin’s trial testimony regarding her income. Jazmin first agreed that the $2,111 monthly income in her financial declaration was accurate but then went on to testify that she made only $75 per day substitute teaching and worked only two to three days per week. But the court did not address or explain the reasoning behind its resolution of this inconsistency. Second, Joseph presented evidence that Jazmin’s housing and utilities had been undervalued. The court’s decision included no discussion of the conflicting evidence regarding the value of Jazmin’s in-kind earnings or its assessment of that conflicting evidence. On remand, the court’s findings could benefit from a more thorough discussion of the evidence and explanation for its resolution of these conflicts.

[7] In Jazmin’s post-trial brief, she stated, without any supporting evidence, that she earned $72 per day, for a total of $780 per month. This appears to be the source of the court’s number. As assertions in the post-trial brief are not evidence, the court could not rely on this number to calculate child support.

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