BLANK

Tag: neglect

What are the child custody factors that judges consider?

What are the child custody factors that judges consider when determining what’s in a child’s best interest in custody disputes according to Utah’s family law statutes?

The main factors are found in Utah Code § 30-3-10 (and the main factors of § 30-3-10 itself are highlighted below in red text, but you should read the entire applicable code section for all factors):

30-3-10.  Custody of a child — Custody factors.

(2) In determining any form of custody and parent-time under Subsection (1), the court shall consider the best interest of the child and may consider among other factors the court finds relevant, the following for each parent:

      (a) evidence of domestic violence, neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, or emotional abuse, involving the child, the parent, or a household member of the parent;

      (b) the parent’s demonstrated understanding of, responsiveness to, and ability to meet the developmental needs of the child, including the child’s:

             (i) physical needs;

             (ii) emotional needs;

             (iii) educational needs;

             (iv) medical needs; and

             (v) any special needs;

      (c) the parent’s capacity and willingness to function as a parent, including:

             (i) parenting skills;

             (ii) co-parenting skills, including:

     (A) ability to appropriately communicate with the other parent;

     (B) ability to encourage the sharing of love and affection; and

     (C) willingness to allow frequent and continuous contact between the child and the other parent, except that, if the court determines that the parent is acting to protect the child from domestic violence, neglect, or abuse, the parent’s protective actions may be taken into consideration; and

            (iii) ability to provide personal care rather than surrogate care;

     (d) in accordance with Subsection (10), the past conduct and demonstrated moral character of the parent;

     (e) the emotional stability of the parent;

     (f) the parent’s inability to function as a parent because of drug abuse, excessive drinking, or other causes;

     (g) whether the parent has intentionally exposed the child to pornography or material harmful to minors, as “material” and “harmful to minors” are defined in Section 76-10-1201;

     (h) the parent’s reasons for having relinquished custody or parent-time in the past;

     (i) duration and depth of desire for custody or parent-time;

     (j) the parent’s religious compatibility with the child;

     (k) the parent’s financial responsibility;

     (l) the child’s interaction and relationship with step-parents, extended family members of other individuals who may significantly affect the child’s best interests;

     (m) who has been the primary caretaker of the child;

     (n) previous parenting arrangements in which the child has been happy and well-adjusted in the home, school, and community;

     (o) the relative benefit of keeping siblings together;

     (p) the stated wishes and concerns of the child, taking into consideration the child’s cognitive ability and emotional maturity;

     (q) the relative strength of the child’s bond with the parent, meaning the depth, quality, and nature of the relationship between the parent and the child; and

     (r) any other factor the court finds relevant.

(3) There is a rebuttable presumption that joint legal custody, as defined in Section 30-3-10.1, is in the best interest of the child, except in cases when there is:

     (a) evidence of domestic violence, neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, or emotional abuse involving the child, a parent, or a household member of the parent;

     (b) special physical or mental needs of a parent or child, making joint legal custody unreasonable;

     (c) physical distance between the residences of the parents, making joint decision making impractical in certain circumstances; or

     (d) any other factor the court considers relevant including those listed in this section and Section 30-3-10.2.

*****

(6)

     (a) Except as provided in Subsection (6)(b), a court may not discriminate against a parent due to a disability, as defined in Section 57-21-2, in awarding custody or determining whether a substantial change has occurred for the purpose of modifying an award of custody.

     (b) The court may not consider the disability of a parent as a factor in awarding custody or modifying an award of custody based on a determination of a substantial change in circumstances, unless the court makes specific findings that:

         (i) the disability significantly or substantially inhibits the parent’s ability to provide for the physical and emotional needs of the child at issue; and

         (ii) the parent with a disability lacks sufficient human, monetary, or other resources available to supplement the parent’s ability to provide for the physical and emotional needs of the child at issue.

*****

(7) This section does not establish a preference for either parent solely because of the gender of the parent.

(8) This section establishes neither a preference nor a presumption for or against joint physical custody or sole physical custody, but allows the court and the family the widest discretion to choose a parenting plan that is in the best interest of the child.

*****

(10) In considering the past conduct and demonstrated moral standards of each party under Subsection (2)(d) or any other factor a court finds relevant, the court may not:

     (a) consider or treat a parent’s lawful possession or use of cannabis in a medicinal dosage form, a cannabis product in a medicinal dosage form, or a medical cannabis device, in accordance with Title 4, Chapter 41a, Cannabis Production Establishments and PharmaciesTitle 26B, Chapter 4, Part 2, Cannabinoid Research and Medical Cannabis, or Subsection 58-37-3.7(2) or (3) any differently than the court would consider or treat the lawful possession or use of any prescribed controlled substance; or

     (b) discriminate against a parent because of the parent’s status as a:

         (i) cannabis production establishment agent, as that term is defined in Section 4-41a-102;

         (ii) medical cannabis pharmacy agent, as that term is defined in Section 26B-4-201;

         (iii) medical cannabis courier agent, as that term is defined in Section 26B-4-201; or

         (iv) medical cannabis cardholder in accordance with Title 26B, Chapter 4, Part 2, Cannabinoid Research and Medical Cannabis.

Just how does a court consider the child custody factors? The recent case of Lamb v. Lamb (2024 UT App 16) provides a concise explanation:

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

But note that § 30-3-10 does not constitute the only list of factors the court can consider in making its child custody and parent-time award decisions.

Equal physical custody factors

30-3-35.2.  Equal parent-time schedule.

(1) (a) A court may order the equal parent-time schedule described in this section if the court determines that:

         (i) the equal parent-time schedule is in the child’s best interest;

         (ii) each parent has been actively involved in the child’s life; and

         (iii) each parent can effectively facilitate the equal parent-time schedule.

     (b) To determine whether each parent has been actively involved in the child’s life, the court shall consider:

         (i) each parent’s demonstrated responsibility in caring for the child;

         (ii) each parent’s involvement in child care;

         (iii) each parent’s presence or volunteer efforts in the child’s school and at extracurricular activities;

         (iv) each parent’s assistance with the child’s homework;

         (v) each parent’s involvement in preparation of meals, bath time, and bedtime for the child;

         (vi) each parent’s bond with the child; and

         (vii) any other factor the court considers relevant.

     (c) To determine whether each parent can effectively facilitate the equal parent-time schedule, the court shall consider:

         (i) the geographic distance between the residence of each parent and the distance between each residence and the child’s school;

         (ii) each parent’s ability to assist with the child’s after school care;

         (iii) the health of the child and each parent, consistent with Subsection 30-3-10(6);

         (iv) the flexibility of each parent’s employment or other schedule;

         (v) each parent’s ability to provide appropriate playtime with the child;

         (vi) each parent’s history and ability to implement a flexible schedule for the child;

         (vii) physical facilities of each parent’s residence; and

         (viii) any other factor the court considers relevant.

(2) (a) If the parties agree to or the court orders the equal parent-time schedule described in this section, a parenting plan in accordance with Sections 30-3-10.7 through 30-3-10.10 shall be filed with an order incorporating the equal parent-time schedule.

     (b) An order under this section shall result in 182 overnights per year for one parent, and 183 overnights per year for the other parent.

     (c) Under the equal parent-time schedule, neither parent is considered to have the child the majority of the time for the purposes of Subsection 30-3-10.3(4) or 30-3-10.9(5)(c)(ii).

     (d) Child support for the equal parent-time schedule shall be consistent with Section 78B-12-208.

     (e) (i) A court shall determine which parent receives 182 overnights and which parent receives 183 overnights for parent-time.

         (ii) For the purpose of calculating child support under Section 78B-12-208, the amount of time to be spent with the parent who has the lower gross monthly income is considered 183 overnights, regardless of whether the parent receives 182 overnights or 183 overnights under Subsection (2)(e)(i).

(3) (a) Unless the parents agree otherwise and subject to a holiday, the equal parent-time schedule is as follows:

         (i) one parent shall exercise parent-time starting Monday morning and ending Wednesday morning;

         (ii) the other parent shall exercise parent-time starting Wednesday morning and ending Friday morning; and

         (iii) each parent shall alternate weeks exercising parent-time starting Friday morning and ending Monday morning.

     (b) The child exchange shall take place:

         (i) at the time the child’s school begins; or

         (ii) if school is not in session, at 9 a.m.

(4) (a) The parents may create a holiday schedule.

     (b) If the parents are unable to create a holiday schedule under Subsection (4)(a), the court shall:

         (i) order the holiday schedule described in Section 30-3-35; and

         (ii) designate which parent shall exercise parent-time for each holiday described in Section 30-3-35.

(5) (a) Each year, a parent may designate two consecutive weeks to exercise uninterrupted parent-time during the summer when school is not in session.

     (b) (i) One parent may make a designation at any time and the other parent may make a designation after May 1.

         (ii) A parent shall make a designation at least 30 days before the day on which the designated two-week period begins.

     (c) The court shall designate which parent may make the earlier designation described in Subsection (5)(b)(i) for an even numbered year with the other parent allowed to make the earlier designation in an odd numbered year.

     (d) The two consecutive weeks described in Subsection (5)(a) take precedence over all holidays except for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.

Parent-time factors

30-3-32.  Parent-time — Definitions — Considerations for parent-time — Relocation.

(1) As used in Sections 30-3-32 through 30-3-37:

     (a) “Child” means the child of divorcing, separating, or adjudicated parents.

     (b) “Supervised parent-time” means parent-time that requires the noncustodial parent to be accompanied during parent-time by an individual approved by the court.

     (c) “Surrogate care” means care by any individual other than the parent of the child.

     (d) “Uninterrupted time” means parent-time exercised by one parent without interruption at any time by the presence of the other parent.

     (e) “Virtual parent-time” means parent-time facilitated by tools such as telephone, email, instant messaging, video conferencing, and other wired or wireless technologies over the Internet or other communication media, to supplement in-person visits between a noncustodial parent and a child or between a child and the custodial parent when the child is staying with the noncustodial parent.

(2) (a) A court shall consider as primary the safety and well-being of the child and the parent who experiences domestic or family violence.

     (b) Absent a showing by a preponderance of evidence of real harm or substantiated potential harm to the child:

         (i) it is in the best interests of the child of divorcing, divorced, or adjudicated parents to have frequent, meaningful, and continuing access to each parent following separation or divorce;

         (ii) each divorcing, separating, or adjudicated parent is entitled to and responsible for frequent, meaningful, and continuing access with the parent’s child consistent with the child’s best interests; and

         (iii) it is in the best interests of the child to have both parents actively involved in parenting the child.

(3) An order issued by a court pursuant to Title 78B, Chapter 7, Part 6, Cohabitant Abuse Protective Orders, shall be considered evidence of real harm or substantiated potential harm to the child.

(4) If a parent relocates because of an act of domestic violence or family violence by the other parent, the court shall make specific findings and orders with regards to the application of Section 30-3-37.

30-3-33.  Advisory guidelines.

In addition to the parent-time schedules provided in Sections 30-3-35 and 30-3-35.5, the following advisory guidelines are suggested to govern all parent-time arrangements between parents.

(1) Parent-time schedules mutually agreed upon by both parents are preferable to a court-imposed solution.

(2) The parent-time schedule shall be used to maximize the continuity and stability of the child’s life.

(3) Special consideration shall be given by each parent to make the child available to attend family functions including funerals, weddings, family reunions, religious holidays, important ceremonies, and other significant events in the life of the child or in the life of either parent which may inadvertently conflict with the parent-time schedule.

(4) The responsibility for the pick up, delivery, and return of the child shall be determined by the court when the parent-time order is entered, and may be changed at any time a subsequent modification is made to the parent-time order.

(5) If the noncustodial parent will be providing transportation, the custodial parent shall have the child ready for parent-time at the time the child is to be picked up and shall be present at the custodial home or shall make reasonable alternate arrangements to receive the child at the time the child is returned.

(6) If the custodial parent will be transporting the child, the noncustodial parent shall be at the appointed place at the time the noncustodial parent is to receive the child, and have the child ready to be picked up at the appointed time and place, or have made reasonable alternate arrangements for the custodial parent to pick up the child.

(7) Regular school hours may not be interrupted for a school-age child for the exercise of parent-time by either parent.

(8) The court may make alterations in the parent-time schedule to reasonably accommodate the work schedule of both parents and may increase the parent-time allowed to the noncustodial parent but may not diminish the standardized parent-time provided in Sections 30-3-35 and 30-3-35.5.

(9) The court may make alterations in the parent-time schedule to reasonably accommodate the distance between the parties and the expense of exercising parent-time.

(10) Neither parent-time nor child support is to be withheld due to either parent’s failure to comply with a court-ordered parent-time schedule.

(11) The custodial parent shall notify the noncustodial parent within 24 hours of receiving notice of all significant school, social, sports, and community functions in which the child is participating or being honored, and the noncustodial parent shall be entitled to attend and participate fully.

(12) The noncustodial parent shall have access directly to all school reports including preschool and daycare reports and medical records and shall be notified immediately by the custodial parent in the event of a medical emergency.

(13) Each parent shall provide the other with the parent’s current address and telephone number, email address, and other virtual parent-time access information within 24 hours of any change.

(14) Each parent shall permit and encourage, during reasonable hours, reasonable and uncensored communications with the child, in the form of mail privileges and virtual parent-time if the equipment is reasonably available, provided that if the parties cannot agree on whether the equipment is reasonably available, the court shall decide whether the equipment for virtual parent-time is reasonably available, taking into consideration:

     (a) the best interests of the child;

     (b) each parent’s ability to handle any additional expenses for virtual parent-time; and

     (c) any other factors the court considers material.

(15) Parental care shall be presumed to be better care for the child than surrogate care and the court shall encourage the parties to cooperate in allowing the noncustodial parent, if willing and able to transport the children, to provide the child care. Child care arrangements existing during the marriage are preferred as are child care arrangements with nominal or no charge.

(16) Each parent shall provide all surrogate care providers with the name, current address, and telephone number of the other parent and shall provide the noncustodial parent with the name, current address, and telephone number of all surrogate care providers unless the court for good cause orders otherwise.

(17) Each parent shall be entitled to an equal division of major religious holidays celebrated by the parents, and the parent who celebrates a religious holiday that the other parent does not celebrate shall have the right to be together with the child on the religious holiday.

(18) If the child is on a different parent-time schedule than a sibling, based on Sections 30-3-35 and 30-3-35.5, the parents should consider if an upward deviation for parent-time with all the minor children so that parent-time is uniform between school aged and non-school aged children, is appropriate.

(19) When one or both parents are servicemembers or contemplating joining a uniformed service, the parents should resolve issues of custodial responsibility in the event of deployment as soon as practicable through reaching a voluntary agreement pursuant to Section 78B-20-201 or through court order obtained pursuant to Section 30-3-10. Servicemembers shall ensure their family care plan reflects orders and agreements entered and filed pursuant to Title 78B, Chapter 20, Uniform Deployed Parents Custody, Parent-time, and Visitation Act.

30-3-34.  Parent-time — Best interests — Rebuttable presumption.

(1) If the parties are unable to agree on a parent-time schedule, the court may:

     (a) establish a parent-time schedule; or

     (b) order a parent-time schedule described in Section 30-3-3530-3-35.130-3-35.2, or 30-3-35.5.

(2) The advisory guidelines as provided in Section 30-3-33 and the parent-time schedule as provided in Sections 30-3-35 and 30-3-35.5 shall be considered the minimum parent-time to which the noncustodial parent and the child shall be entitled.

(3) A court may consider the following when ordering a parent-time schedule:

     (a) whether parent-time would endanger the child’s physical health or mental health, or significantly impair the child’s emotional development;

     (b) evidence of domestic violence, neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, or emotional abuse, involving the child, a parent, or a household member of the parent;

     (c) the distance between the residency of the child and the noncustodial parent;

     (d) a credible allegation of child abuse has been made;

     (e) the lack of demonstrated parenting skills without safeguards to ensure the child’s well-being during parent-time;

     (f) the financial inability of the noncustodial parent to provide adequate food and shelter for the child during periods of parent-time;

     (g) the preference of the child if the court determines the child is of sufficient maturity;

     (h) the incarceration of the noncustodial parent in a county jail, secure youth corrections facility, or an adult corrections facility;

     (i) shared interests between the child and the noncustodial parent;

     (j) the involvement or lack of involvement of the noncustodial parent in the school, community, religious, or other related activities of the child;

     (k) the availability of the noncustodial parent to care for the child when the custodial parent is unavailable to do so because of work or other circumstances;

     (l) a substantial and chronic pattern of missing, canceling, or denying regularly scheduled parent-time;

     (m) the minimal duration of and lack of significant bonding in the parents’ relationship before the conception of the child;

     (n) the parent-time schedule of siblings;

     (o) the lack of reasonable alternatives to the needs of a nursing child; and

     (p) any other criteria the court determines relevant to the best interests of the child.

(4) The court shall enter the reasons underlying the court’s order for parent-time that:

     (a) incorporates a parent-time schedule provided in Section 30-3-35 or 30-3-35.5; or

     (b) provides more or less parent-time than a parent-time schedule provided in Section 30-3-35 or 30-3-35.5.

(5) A court may not order a parent-time schedule unless the court determines by a preponderance of the evidence that the parent-time schedule is in the best interest of the child.

(6) Once the parent-time schedule has been established, the parties may not alter the schedule except by mutual consent of the parties or a court order.

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

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

House Bill 131 (HB0131 (utah.gov)), entitled “Clergy Child Abuse Reporting Requirements”

Today’s blog post reviews House Bill 131 (HB0131 (utah.gov)), entitled “Clergy Child Abuse Reporting Requirements”. It proposes changes to Utah Code § 80-2-602, the law governing when members of the clergy are and are not required to report child abuse.

Currently, Utah Code § 80-2-602(1) provides, in pertinent part regarding clergy and child abuse reporting:

“[I]f a person . . . has reason to believe that a child is, or has been, the subject of abuse or neglect, or observes a child being subjected to conditions or circumstances that would reasonably result in abuse or neglect, the person shall immediately report the suspected abuse or neglect to the division or to the nearest peace officer or law enforcement agency.” (§ 80-2-602(1)

So far, so good.

(3) Subject to Subsection (4), the reporting requirement described in Subsection (1) does not apply to:

(a) a member of the clergy, with regard to any confession made to the member of the clergy while functioning in the ministerial capacity of the member of the clergy and without the consent of the individual making the confession, if:

(i) the perpetrator made the confession directly to the member of the clergy; and

(ii) the member of the clergy is, under canon law or church doctrine or practice, bound to maintain the confidentiality of the confession[.]

*****

(4)

(a) When a member of the clergy receives information about abuse or neglect from any source other than confession of the perpetrator, the member of the clergy is required to report the information even if the member of the clergy also received information about the abuse or neglect from the confession of the perpetrator.

(b) Exemption of the reporting requirement for an individual described in Subsection (3) does not exempt the individual from any other efforts required by law to prevent further abuse or neglect by the perpetrator.

H.B. 129 would, if passed into law, include this new provision (please note that the numbers out to the side are the line numbers in H.B. 131):

58          (4) (a) Notwithstanding the exemption in Subsection (3)(a), a member of the clergy

59     may report suspected child abuse or neglect.

I have two major concerns about such a provision.

1. Confession, as they say, is good for the soul. It is. Why? Knowing that confession to clergy—and knowing that confession is and shall remain strictly confidential (private)—is often the only thing that summons a sinner’s courage to confront and admit his/her sins. The freedom to confess (to clergy) without fear of arrest or incarceration helps some who are tormented by their sins confront them. Through confession, clergy serve to help the sinner (whose sins are also often crimes) take the first step toward repentance. Take that absolute confidentiality away, and the value of confession is destroyed. Many who would have otherwise confessed will—knowing confession is no longer strictly confidential—not confess and thus not work their way to being publicly accountable. No one benefits from that.

Some well-meaning clergy might believe that taking (or even eliciting) a confession and then reporting the sinner to law enforcement is “for the sinner’s own good,” but that kind of betrayal of trust would then lead to distrusting clergy and then to avoiding and rejecting the very spiritual care we so desperately need both individually and as a society.

2. I’ve been a lawyer for a long time now (27 years, to be exact, as of the date I write this post), and while I don’t claim to know everything, I have experienced “mays” becoming “shalls”; judges and juries go from “I acknowledge that you didn’t have to report” to “I can’t believe you didn’t report!” or “Just because you weren’t required to report does not mean in this instance that you shouldn’t have; have you no decency!” I can easily foresee situations in which a clergy member keeps a confession confidential (as is his/her religious and moral duty) and then be publicly humiliated for it, sued civilly for it, and yes, even somehow convicted criminally for it (where there’s a will, there’s a way). It’s hard enough to be a clergy member as it is. It’s hard enough to encourage and inspire people to repent and better themselves. Eliminate the strictly confidential status of the confession and the essential nature of confession itself is eliminated. When it comes to reporting abuse “clergy may” turns into “clergy shall”. That would be disastrous. If clergy must rat out the sinners in their congregations, then those whom clergy could help the most will avoid and reject the clergy (see above).

To those who will say, “Have you no concern for the abuse victims?,” the answer is clear (hard to accept, perhaps, but no less clear): there is a greater interest than that of the individual victims at stake here. Confidential confession to clergy helps clergy to persuade sinners to recognize and do what is right. We are all sinners to some degree. Diluting the confidentiality of the confession will cause potential penitents to remain in the shadows.

Priest-penitent privilege: Removing it doesn’t help children | Opinion – Deseret News

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

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

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

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

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

PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

L.G.,

Appellant,

v.

R.G. AND R.G.,

Appellees.

Opinion

No. 20220920-CA

Filed November 2, 2023

Seventh District Juvenile Court, Price Department

The Honorable Craig Bunnell

No. 1210014

Steve S. Christensen and Clinton Brimhall,

Attorneys for Appellant

Colleen K. Coebergh, Attorney for Appellees

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

JUDGE DAVID N. MORTENSEN authored this Opinion, in which

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

MORTENSEN, Judge:

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

BACKGROUND

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

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

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

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

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

ANALYSIS
I. Neglect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II. Parent-Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III. Venue

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

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


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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

In re M.S. – 2023 UT App 74

In re M.S. – 2023 UT App 74

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF M.S., A PERSON UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

R.S. AND J.S.,

Appellants,

v.

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20210657-CA

Filed July 6, 2023

Fourth District Juvenile Court, Spanish Fork Department

The Honorable F. Richards Smith

No. 1186449

Emily Adams, Sara Pfrommer, Freyja Johnson, and

Hannah Leavitt-Howell, Attorneys for Appellants

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

John M. Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

JUDGE GREGORY K. ORME authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES DAVID N. MORTENSEN and RYAN D. TENNEY concurred.

ORME, Judge:

¶1 R.S. (Mother) and J.S. (Father) (collectively, Parents) appeal the juvenile court’s award of temporary custody of their infant son, M.S. (Child), to the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) following a shelter hearing and the court’s later finding that Child was neglected. We hold that Parents’ first argument is moot but conclude that their second argument satisfies the collateral consequences exception to mootness. And because the juvenile court did not make the necessary findings of fact and conduct the required analysis of whether Parents’ medical decisions for Child were “reasonable and informed,” we reverse the court’s neglect adjudication.

BACKGROUND[1]

¶2        Child was born on March 6, 2020, weighing 9.63 pounds. During her pregnancy, Mother had gestational diabetes—a condition which has been linked to increased birth weights. Therefore, while not off the charts, Child’s somewhat larger birth weight was likely caused by Mother’s gestational diabetes. Child was also born with elevated bilirubin levels and was prescribed photo light therapy for jaundice, which Parents administered for the next ten days. Hospital staff informed Mother that Child needed to be seen by a pediatrician three days following discharge from the hospital. Mother complied with the instruction and made an appointment to see a pediatrician (First Pediatrician) at a nearby clinic on March 9.

¶3        By the time of the appointment, Child had lost 12.5% of his birth weight, weighing in at 8.42 pounds. First Pediatrician found Child “to be in good health” overall, but he was concerned about Child’s elevated bilirubin levels and weight loss. Although weight loss is typically expected immediately after birth for infants whose mothers had gestational diabetes, First Pediatrician noted Child’s weight “to be more down than we usually would expect at that time.” First Pediatrician recommended a follow-up appointment “in the next day or two” to check on Child’s bilirubin levels and weight. No such follow-up appointment took place.

¶4        First Pediatrician saw Child again about two-and-a-half weeks later, on March 26. Father took Child to this appointment because Mother did not appreciate First Pediatrician’s “bedside manner” and she did not feel that he had been “very willing to listen to [her] concerns.” At this appointment, Child weighed in at 7.96 pounds, which according to First Pediatrician was a total weight loss of approximately 18% of Child’s original birth weight. First Pediatrician told Father that because Child had lost even more weight, he was concerned that Child was not getting sufficient nutrients from Mother’s breast milk—which was Child’s sole source of nourishment. First Pediatrician became even more concerned when he learned that Child had not had a bowel movement in three days. First Pediatrician explained that while exclusively breast-fed babies can sometimes “go a few days” without producing stool, this information combined with the weight loss caused him to further worry that Child’s nutritional needs were not being met.

¶5        First Pediatrician recommended that Mother pump so that they could quantify the amount of milk she was producing and that Child be given formula every few hours and be weighed each day so it could be determined whether “there was appropriate weight gain with a known specified amount of volume he was taking in.” Father expressed doubt whether this was something Mother would “go for” because they preferred to exclusively breast-feed Child, but he said he would discuss the recommendations with her. First Pediatrician wrote down his recommendations on a note for Father to give to Mother and said for her to contact him if she had any questions. He also tried to contact Mother both during and after the appointment but was unsuccessful.

¶6        First Pediatrician also emphasized the importance of a follow-up appointment the next day to check Child’s electrolyte levels and weight, which instruction he also included in his written note to Mother. At this point, First Pediatrician was “[v]ery concerned” about Child’s health and safety and noted in Child’s file, “If labs are not obtained and no visits happen, I will report to DCFS.”

¶7        Neither parent brought Child in for the labs and weight-check the following day. When First Pediatrician learned this, he called Mother to express his concerns. Mother stated that she was not aware of the missed appointment, that she was out of town, and that she would not be able to come in with Child that day. Mother informed First Pediatrician that she was feeding Child more often, but she was not giving him formula. She repeatedly thanked First Pediatrician for his recommendations and told him she would “take them under consideration.” At the end of the conversation, they both agreed that Mother should find another pediatrician for Child. Mother subsequently scheduled an appointment with another pediatrician for April 2 but did not relay this information to First Pediatrician. She also increased the frequency of Child’s breast-feedings to every two hours, and she immediately filled and began administering a medication for diaper rash First Pediatrician had prescribed during the March 26 appointment.

¶8        Following the phone conversation, First Pediatrician contacted DCFS and reported Parents’ apparent medical neglect and physical neglect of Child and Child’s failure to thrive. First Pediatrician later testified that even if he had known that Child had an appointment with another pediatrician set for April 2, his concerns would not have been eased. He explained that he had ordered labs on Child’s electrolyte levels because his “biggest concern” was that if Child became dehydrated, he would develop “elevated sodium levels in the blood . . . that could potentially cause a lot of health problems” such as lethargy, seizures, and neurological damage. First Pediatrician stated that “the problem with the elevated sodium is more of an urgent or emergent problem that could have been developing, and so it couldn’t have waited” until the April 2 appointment.

¶9        On March 30, a DCFS caseworker (Caseworker) followed up with First Pediatrician, who expressed his concern that Child was at risk of dehydration, which could lead to further health complications. Following the conversation, Caseworker had a difficult time locating and communicating with Parents. When Caseworker called one of the phone numbers provided to her, a man Caseworker believed to be Father answered. He was skeptical that Caseworker worked for DCFS, and the conversation proved unfruitful. After visiting multiple addresses on file for the family to no avail, Caseworker contacted law enforcement officers, who were able to locate Mother, Father, and Child in a motel by “pinging” their cellphone.

¶10      Caseworker arrived at the motel around 1:00 a.m. on April 1. Law enforcement was already at the motel and officers informed Caseworker that paramedics had already examined Child and had determined that Child was alert, breathing normally, had a strong heartbeat, and exhibited no obvious signs of dehydration. Because the examination revealed no concerns, the paramedics did not consider Child in need of further medical attention and returned him to Mother. The paramedics had left by the time Caseworker arrived, so she did not have an opportunity to speak with them.

¶11 The officers warned Caseworker that Father was very upset about her being there and that Father even instructed an officer to stand between him and Caseworker. During the hour-long conversation that ensued, Father refused to allow Caseworker to see Child and instead insisted that Child was “fine.” At one point, Father told Caseworker that he would allow her to see Child if she returned at 8:00 a.m. Caseworker was reluctant to do so because she was aware of a prior case in which Father had fled across state lines with two of his other children, and she worried that Child “would be gone” by 8:00 a.m. if she left. She also found it odd that she had located the family at a motel that was approximately 20 miles from their home.

¶12      Caseworker then requested a warrant for removal of Child. A judge approved the warrant, and Child was taken into DCFS custody in the wee hours of the morning. Caseworker then took Child to an emergency room. There, Child appeared to have gained a little weight, weighing in at 8.05 pounds, although Caseworker suggested the slight weight gain could have also been attributed to a wet diaper. According to the pediatrician (Second Pediatrician) who examined Child later that afternoon when he was brought in by the foster parents with whom Child had been placed, Child “was within the 11th percentile for weight, but his weight to length ratio was in the 3rd percentile,” which was troubling, especially given Child’s higher birth weight. Second Pediatrician stated that although Child was “generally well appearing,” he nonetheless “did appear dehydrated” and underweight. Child’s lab results revealed “abnormalities that were consistent with dehydration and possibly poor feeding,” including abnormal bilirubin levels and elevated liver enzymes (transaminases). Child’s initial lab results also “show[ed] evidence of hemolysis,” which is when the body destroys red blood cells quicker than it can produce them, so the hospital had the labs redone. The second round of labs revealed “normal potassium, but the transaminases still remained mildly elevated.” The lab report also included the following note: “I spoke with [the] pediatric hospitalist, and confirmed that these current findings are not worrisome in this current setting, and they recommended that the patient follow-up with [a] pediatrician in about a week for recheck.”

¶13      Second Pediatrician noted that Child needed to be closely monitored for kernicterus, which he explained “is when bilirubin levels get to a high enough point in the blood that they deposit into the brain, and can cause some brain damage, to use layman’s terms.” Second Pediatrician instructed Child’s foster parents to feed Child formula every “three to four hours” and to return in a couple of days.

¶14      At the follow-up appointment two days later, on April 3, Child had gained approximately 13 ounces,[2] weighing in at 8.88 pounds. At a second follow-up appointment three days later, on April 6, Child weighed 9.44 pounds, meaning he had gained approximately 9 more ounces. A week later, on April 13, Child weighed 10.08 pounds. Child continued to show weight gain in other subsequent exams. Based on this, Second Pediatrician testified that it was his “clinical impression” that Child had not been “receiving appropriate nutrition, and upon receiving appropriate nutrition [Child] returned to an expected weight.” He further explained that “inadequate nutrition can have devastating effects on someone so young” because “dehydration can lead to renal failure, and poor growth can affect development in all areas, physical and mental development.”

¶15 On April 1, the State petitioned for legal custody and guardianship of Child, alleging, in relevant part, neglect by Parents “in that [Child] lacks proper parental care by reason of the fault or habits of the parents.” See Utah Code Ann. § 80-1-102(58)(a)(ii) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022).[3] The petition alleged, among other things, the following:

  • Child “had lost 18% body weight since birth and was at significant risk for seizures and brain damage,” but Parents refused to follow medical advice and supplement Mother’s breast milk with formula.
  • Parents had provided First Pediatrician’s office with an incorrect address, but with assistance from law enforcement, DCFS eventually located them and Child in a motel approximately 20 miles from their home.
  • Paramedics examined Child and determined that he “was not in distress,” but because the paramedics left prior to Caseworker’s arrival at the motel, DCFS “was not able to get additional information regarding the failure to thrive medical concerns, particularly a weight measurement.”
  • Father refused to allow Caseworker to see Child, and he was “hostile” toward her, even going so far as instructing a police officer to stand between them “so that [he] did not harm” her.
  • Father had several aliases and had “a history of parental kidnapping.”[4]
  • At the emergency room, it was noted that Child had gained a little weight but also that he had a significant diaper rash.

¶16 The juvenile court held a shelter hearing on April 3, which at Parents’ request was then continued until April 8. Following the continued hearing, the court “found that, based upon the medical records relating to [Child], removal was appropriate.” Specifically, the court found that “[t]he medical records indicate that [Child] was underweight,” that Child’s “lab values continued to show that transaminases still remained mildly elevated, and that the bilirubin is also mildly elevated.” The court was also “concerned about the medical evidence of malnutrition presented by the State.”

¶17      A few weeks later, on April 30, Parents filed an Emergency Motion to Return Custody and Dismiss Petition, in which they argued, among other things, that it was common for infants born from mothers with gestational diabetes to lose more than 10% of their birth weight in their first week. They also emphasized the benefits of breast-feeding and asserted that Child had repeatedly been examined following removal and had been found to be healthy. They also submitted a letter from their latest pediatrician (Third Pediatrician), who had originally been scheduled to see Child on April 2. Although Third Pediatrician had not examined Child, he reviewed Child’s medical records and concluded that “while the concerns of [First Pediatrician] were valid, he failed to convey this concern properly to the parents and their wishes were not taken into consideration” and that the April 1 lab results did not reveal “signs of nutritional deficiency or compromise.”

¶18 Some three weeks later, Parents filed an Order to Show Cause and Motion for Order seeking sanctions against DCFS for violating their right to seek a second medical opinion prior to removal. At a subsequent hearing, the State explained that it never opposed a second medical opinion but that Parents had never properly requested one under the Utah Rules of Juvenile Procedure or the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. Parents withdrew their motion for sanctions and Order to Show Cause and moved for Third Pediatrician to examine Child. At a subsequent hearing, Mother reported that Third Pediatrician had examined Child and concluded “there are no safety concerns in this case.” And in September 2020, the juvenile court placed Child in a trial home placement with Parents.

¶19 Following a multi-day trial in January 2021, the juvenile court found the State had proved the allegations in its petition by clear and convincing evidence and adjudicated Child neglected on the ground that Child lacked “proper parental care by reason of the fault or habits of” Parents. The court did not find that Parents abused Child. The court found First Pediatrician’s and Second Pediatrician’s testimonies to be persuasive and stated “that the cursory physical examination by paramedics could not have identified” the “very real and very serious” medical issues that were later identified at the hospital.

¶20 The court next determined that Child’s removal from Parents’ home following the shelter hearing “was appropriate and necessary and in [Child’s] best interest.” But the court also found that the circumstances giving rise to Child’s removal, i.e., Child’s failure to thrive, were “largely resolved” and that Child’s trial home placement with Parents that had begun some six months earlier had “not revealed any child safety concerns.” Accordingly, the court terminated its jurisdiction in the case and returned custody of Child to Parents.

¶21      Parents appeal. Obviously, they do not appeal the decision that Child be returned to them. But they challenge prior rulings of the court.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶22 Parents raise two issues on appeal. First, they argue that “the juvenile court erred as a matter of law by awarding custody of Child to the State at the shelter hearing without giving [them] a reasonable time to obtain a second medical opinion.” But because this issue is moot, as explained in Part I.A. below, we lack judicial power to address it. See Transportation All. Bank v. International Confections Co., 2017 UT 55, ¶ 14, 423 P.3d 1171 (“The mootness doctrine is not a simple matter of judicial convenience or an ascetic act of discretion. It is a constitutional principle limiting our exercise of judicial power under article VIII of the Utah Constitution.”) (quotation simplified); Utah Transit Auth. v. Local 382 of Amalgamated Transit Union, 2012 UT 75, ¶ 12, 289 P.3d 582 (“[B]ecause it is moot, we lack the power to address the underlying merits or issue what would amount to an advisory opinion.”).

¶23 Second, Parents argue that the “court improperly adjudicated Child as neglected.” Specifically, they assert that (a) the court “did not consider the full statutory definition of neglect,” (b) the court’s findings “did not support its ultimate decision that Child was neglected,” and (c) “the neglect adjudication was against the clear weight of the evidence.” “We apply differing standards of review to findings of fact, conclusions of law, and determinations of mixed questions of law and fact.” In re E.R., 2021 UT 36, ¶ 14, 496 P.3d 58. “We afford the [juvenile court] no deference on questions of law, reviewing issues de novo, and the most deference on questions of fact, reviewing only for clear error.” In re A.B., 2022 UT 39, ¶ 23, 523 P.3d 168. The level of deference afforded to mixed questions of law and fact, however, depends on whether they are more “law-like” or “fact-like,” with the former being subject to de novo review while the latter are subject to deferential review. See In re E.R., 2021 UT 36, ¶ 18. A juvenile court’s neglect adjudication falls within the former category because, “[o]nce the facts have been established, the juvenile court is limited to determining whether the statutory criteria for neglect have been met,” which “is primarily a law-like endeavor.” In re A.B., 2022 UT 39, ¶ 28. Accordingly, we review the court’s ultimate adjudication of neglect for correctness.

ANALYSIS

  1. Mootness

¶24 Before we proceed to address the merits of Parents’ arguments, we must first address the contention of the guardian ad litem (the GAL) that this appeal is moot. See Ramos v. Cobblestone Centre, 2020 UT 55, ¶ 22, 472 P.3d 910 (stating that “mootness is a threshold determination” that appellate courts must make before reaching the merits of an appeal). “The defining feature of a moot controversy is the lack of capacity for the court to order a remedy that will have a meaningful impact on the practical positions of the parties.” Utah Transit Auth. v. Local 382 of Amalgamated Transit Union, 2012 UT 75, ¶ 24, 289 P.3d 582. “When a case is moot in this sense, the parties’ interest in its resolution is purely academic.” Id. See Transportation All. Bank v. International Confections Co., 2017 UT 55, ¶ 15, 423 P.3d 1171 (“A case may be mooted on appeal if the relief requested is rendered impossible or of no legal effect.”) (quotation simplified).

¶25 The GAL argues that both issues Parents raise on appeal are moot. We agree that Parents’ argument related to Child’s removal following the shelter hearing is moot and does not satisfy a mootness exception, and we therefore do not reach the merits of that argument. But because we conclude Parents’ arguments related to the juvenile court’s adjudication that Child was neglected satisfies the collateral consequences exception to mootness, we address the merits of those arguments in Part II.

  1. Child’s Removal

¶26      The GAL argues that Parents’ challenge to Child’s removal from their care following the shelter hearing is moot because “they now enjoy full custody of Child.” Although Parents concede that “appellate review would not affect the rights of the parties because the shelter hearing ruling was an interim ruling that is no longer operative,” thereby rendering the issue technically moot, they nonetheless assert that “the issue qualifies under the exception to the mootness doctrine.”

¶27 Under the mootness exception, “we will decide a moot issue when a litigant can demonstrate that the issue will (1) affect the public interest, (2) be likely to recur, and (3) because of the brief time that any one litigant is affected, be likely to evade review.” Widdison v. State, 2021 UT 12, ¶ 14, 489 P.3d 158 (quotation simplified). Even assuming, without deciding, that the first and third elements are met, Parents have not carried their burden of persuasion on the second element. Accordingly, this issue does not satisfy the mootness exception.

¶28      Under the second element, “[a] party must convince us that the issue will arise again.” Id. ¶ 17. “Under settled case law, a mere physical or theoretical possibility of recurrence is insufficient” to satisfy this element. Id. (quotation simplified). Rather, “there must be a reasonable expectation or a demonstrated probability that the same controversy will recur.” Utah Transit Auth., 2012 UT 75, ¶ 36 (quotation simplified).

¶29 Parents’ argument on this element is limited to the assertion that at shelter hearings, “whenever the basis for removal is an allegation of medical neglect, the issue will again arise as to whether the juvenile court can remove the child without permitting the parents reasonable time to seek a second medical opinion.” But Parents’ argument is more intricate than the mere question of whether they were entitled to seek a second medical opinion prior to Child’s removal from their care. Indeed, Utah law is clear that parents facing removal of their child for medical neglect are generally entitled to a reasonable time to obtain such an opinion. See Utah Code Ann. § 80-3-304(1) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022) (“In cases of alleged medical neglect where [DCFS] seeks protective custody, temporary custody, or custody of the child based on the report or testimony of a physician, a parent or guardian shall have a reasonable amount of time, as determined by the juvenile court, to obtain a second medical opinion from another physician of the parent’s or guardian’s choosing who has expertise in the applicable field.”). See also id. § 80-3-304(3) (“If the second medical opinion results in a different diagnosis or treatment recommendation from that of the opinion of the physician [DCFS] used, the juvenile court shall give deference to the second medical opinion as long as that opinion is reasonable and informed and is consistent with treatment that is regularly prescribed by medical experts in the applicable field.”). What Parents’ argument on this issue boils down to, however, is whether, under the facts of this case, Child was facing “an imminent risk of death or a deteriorating condition of [his] health,” see id. § 80-3-304(2),[5] or “an immediate threat of death or serious and irreparable harm,” see id. § 80-3-304(4),[6] thereby depriving Parents of what would otherwise be their statutory right to seek a second medical opinion prior to Child’s removal, see id. § 80-3-304(1)–(2).

¶30      Because Parents’ argument on the “likely to recur” element of the mootness exception does not directly address the intricacies of the issue they raise on appeal, they have not carried their burden of persuasion on this element. See Allen v. Friel, 2008 UT 56, ¶ 9, 194 P.3d 903. Accordingly, this issue is not exempted from the mootness doctrine, and we lack judicial power to address it further.

  1. Neglect Adjudication

¶31 The GAL next asserts that because the juvenile court terminated its jurisdiction and returned Child to Parents’ custody, Child no longer has the status of “neglected” and Parents’ challenge to the juvenile court’s neglect adjudication is therefore moot. Parents and the State oppose this suggestion of mootness. Specifically, although the State agrees that “this appeal may be technically moot because the child has been returned to the Parents and court jurisdiction terminated,” it concedes that the issue satisfies the collateral consequences exception to mootness. This argument is likewise adopted by Parents in their reply brief.[7]

¶32 “Generally, once mootness has been demonstrated, the party seeking to survive dismissal bears the burden of demonstrating that collateral legal consequences will flow from the challenged issue.” In re J.S., 2017 UT App 5, ¶ 11, 391 P.3d 358 (quotation simplified). Our approach to applying the collateral consequences exception differs depending on whether the collateral consequences are presumed or not. “When collateral legal consequences are presumed, the case isn’t moot unless it can be shown that no adverse collateral consequences will result.” State v. Legg, 2018 UT 12, ¶ 14, 417 P.3d 592 (quotation simplified). Conversely, “[w]hen collateral legal consequences aren’t presumed, a case is moot unless the party opposing mootness can establish actual collateral legal consequences.” Id. We conclude that Parents’ argument satisfies the former of these two approaches.

¶33 While “we presume collateral legal consequences follow criminal convictions,” id. ¶ 17, the presumption may arise in other contexts when the collateral consequences are “sufficient to mandate the same undeniable conclusion as criminal convictions, i.e., the existence of a collateral legal consequence is virtually inescapable,”[8] id. ¶ 18. See id. (“We will only presume collateral legal consequences when the challenged action carries extensive collateral consequences imposed by law.”); id. ¶ 24 (“Presumed collateral legal consequences aren’t inherently limited to the realm of criminal convictions.”). This presumption “does not come lightly.” Id. ¶ 18. Indeed, the presumption in the criminal conviction context exists only because “the law mandates numerous legal consequences follow a criminal conviction to such an extent that the existence of at least one collateral legal consequence for an individual defendant is effectively inevitable.”[9] Id. ¶ 17. Thus, in the non-conviction context, the presumption likewise requires a demonstration of “numerous consequences imposed by law that would command the conclusion that some collateral legal consequence is inevitable for every” similarly situated party. Id. ¶ 32. Such consequences must be “statutorily mandated and cannot be avoided by conforming with the law.” Id. ¶ 31. See id. ¶¶ 29–30.

¶34      Parents and the State both argue that the juvenile court’s “finding of neglect remains significant and important notwithstanding the fact that the juvenile court has now terminated jurisdiction over this family.” Specifically, they assert that “a finding of neglect does provide a statutory basis for termination of parental rights were Parents to again find themselves before the juvenile court.” See Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-301(1)(b) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022) (listing “that the parent has neglected or abused the child” as a legal ground for which a parent’s rights may be terminated); In re J.M., 2020 UT App 52, ¶¶ 28–30 & n.3, 463 P.3d 66 (stating that a prior adjudication of abuse or neglect, regardless of whether the “parent has improved herself since,” satisfies the statutory ground for parental termination, leaving the juvenile court to decide only whether termination is in the best interest of the child). The State additionally asserts that the neglect adjudication “precludes Parents from challenging their substantiated finding of neglect on the DCFS Management Information System child abuse database,” see Utah Code Ann. § 80-2-707(7)(a) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022) (“[A]n alleged perpetrator may not make a request . . . to challenge a supported finding if a court of competent jurisdiction entered a finding, in a proceeding in which the alleged perpetrator was a party, that the alleged perpetrator is substantially responsible for the abuse, neglect, or dependency that is the subject of the supported finding.”), which will have “implications for any future investigations of child abuse/neglect regarding the Parents, as well as affect[] things such as the Parents’ ability to serve as foster parents in the future.” We agree and conclude that this satisfies the presumed collateral consequences approach.

¶35 In State v. Legg, 2018 UT 12, 417 P.3d 592, our Supreme Court held that revocation of probation did not warrant presumed collateral consequences (or amount to actual collateral consequences, for that matter). See id. ¶¶ 25, 32, 38. The appellant in that case argued that probation revocation could be used as a “prior history in future contact with the legal system,” could be used “as an aggravating factor in the sentencing recommendation matrix,” could be a basis for the State to refuse “plea offers or offers of probation,” and would render him ineligible “for a reduction of the degree of his or her first offense under Utah Code section 76-3-402.” Id. ¶ 28 (quotation simplified). The Court rejected these arguments, holding that the first three arguments simply amounted to the allegation that “certain non-statutory consequences may occur,” and that “these types of discretionary decisions are not governed by the mere presence or absence of a recorded violation of probation.” Id. ¶ 29 (quotation simplified). Additionally, the Court stated that “the first three potential collateral legal consequences are contingent upon [the appellant] again violating state law,” and that he is “able—and indeed required by law—to prevent such a possibility from occurring.” Id. ¶ 30 (quotation simplified). And concerning the fourth argument regarding “the potential of a 402 reduction,” the Court stated that because it was discretionary, the reduction was “at most, highly speculative and nothing more than a mere possibility.” Id. ¶ 31.

¶36 Our Supreme Court also distinguished its prior opinion in In re Giles, 657 P.2d 285 (Utah 1982), in which it “concluded that an appeal of a civil commitment was not moot because there were ‘collateral consequences that may be imposed upon appellant that might arise were he to face future confrontations with the legal system,’” Legg, 2018 UT 12, ¶ 29 n.4 (quoting In re Giles, 657 P.2d at 287) (quotation otherwise simplified). The Court stated that individuals subject to civil commitments “face similar deprivations of liberty as criminals” and that “unlike the use of previous commitment in future commitment hearings, a defendant is able to completely avoid the use of a probation revocation in a future sentencing decision by not committing a future violation of law.”[10] Id. (quotation simplified). Adjudications of neglect by a juvenile court are on much the same footing.

¶37      As an initial matter, “[a] parent’s right to raise his or her child is one of the most precious rights any person enjoys, and is among the fundamental rights clearly protected by our federal and state constitutions.” In re B.T.B., 2018 UT App 157, ¶ 9, 436 P.3d 206, aff’d, 2020 UT 60, 472 P.3d 827. See Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-104(1) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022) (“Under both the United States Constitution and the constitution of this state, a parent possesses a fundamental liberty interest in the care, custody, and management of the parent’s child. For this reason, the termination of family ties by the state may only be done for compelling reasons.”). Accordingly, although taking a different form than that in the criminal-conviction context, parents nonetheless face “deprivations of liberty” as a result of neglect adjudications, which include collateral consequences in possible “future confrontations with the legal system.” See Legg, 2018 UT 12, ¶ 29 n.4 (quotation simplified).

¶38      Unlike the arguments made by the appellant in Legg, the consequences that Parents would be subject to as a result of the neglect adjudication are imposed by law and are not discretionary. Under Utah law, the prior adjudication of neglect is a sufficient ground for termination of parental rights. See Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-301(1)(b); In re J.M., 2020 UT App 52, ¶¶ 28–30. Although it would satisfy only one of the two elements required for termination of parental rights,[11] see Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-301, that first element plays a critical role in the protection of parental rights, see In re B.T.B., 2018 UT App 157, ¶ 14 (“Termination of parental rights solely on the basis of the child’s best interest and without any finding of parental unfitness, abandonment, or substantial neglect, violates the parent’s constitutional liberty rights.”) (quotation simplified). Additionally, a finding of neglect carries various consequences because the adjudication remains on the DCFS Management Information System child abuse database. See Utah Code Ann. § 80-2-707(7)(a). As the State explains, this will at the very least preclude Parents from acting as foster parents and will affect any possible future investigations conducted by DCFS.

¶39 Finally, unlike in Legg where the appellant’s arguments were contingent on the appellant again violating the law, see 2018 UT 12, ¶ 30, such is not the case here. Under the parental rights termination test, based on the prior adjudication of neglect, a parent’s rights could conceivably be terminated without the parent subsequently satisfying a statutory ground for termination, so long as termination is in the child’s best interest. See In re J.M., 2020 UT App 52, ¶¶ 28–30 & n.3.

¶40 For these reasons, we hold that Parents’ challenge to the juvenile court’s neglect adjudication satisfies the collateral consequences exception to the mootness doctrine. We accordingly proceed to address the merits of their argument, even though the issue is technically moot.

  1. Merits of the Neglect Adjudication

¶41 In challenging the juvenile court’s adjudication of Child as neglected, Parents argue that the court committed a threshold legal error when it “failed to conduct the requisite legal analysis into whether Parents’ conduct involved a reasonable and informed health care decision.” We agree with Parents in this regard.

¶42 The juvenile court adjudicated Child neglected on the ground that Child lacked “proper parental care by reason of the fault or habits of” Parents. See Utah Code Ann. § 80-1-102(58)(a)(ii) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022). But the Utah Code specifically exempts from its definition of neglect “a health care decision made for a child by the child’s parent or guardian, unless the state or other party to a proceeding shows, by clear and convincing evidence, that the health care decision is not reasonable and informed.” Id. § 80-1-102(58)(b)(ii).[12]

¶43 In determining whether a parent acted reasonably regarding a child’s healthcare, “the pivotal question is what action by the parent was proper under the circumstances.” In re N.K.C., 1999 UT App 345, ¶ 15, 995 P.2d 1.[13] This standard “is flexible and depends on the actual circumstances involved,” id. ¶ 17, “includes a full range of conduct on the part of parents and guardians,” and “does not require extraordinary caution or exceptional skill,” id. ¶ 19 (quotation simplified). See id. ¶ 18 (“[P]erfection is not required[.]”). Rather, “similar to a reasonableness standard in torts,” “reasonable care is what an ordinary, prudent parent uses in similar situations.” Id. ¶ 19 (quotation simplified). Additionally, although this “standard may accommodate the cautious and the hesitant, . . . it cannot accommodate inaction in the face of an obvious cause for immediate concern.” Id. ¶ 21. See id. ¶ 16 (“[W]aiting even an hour when a child is suffering from an obvious and serious injury is ordinarily not reasonable and could support a determination of medical neglect.”).

¶44 In addition to being reasonable, the parent’s health care decisions must be “informed.” Utah Code Ann. § 80-1-102(58)(b) (ii). “Informed” is defined as “having information” or “based on possession of information.” Informed, Merriam-Webster Dictionary, https://www.merriam-webster.com /dictionary/infor med [https://perma.cc/S8NV-S8X7]See InformedDictionary.comhttps://www.dictionary.com/browse/informed [https://perma.cc/ TN64-KHLB] (defining “informed” as “having or [being] prepared with information or knowledge; apprised”). Thus, parents must take the time to apprise themselves of the necessary information to allow them to make a considered health care decision for their child. Indeed, in cases of alleged medical neglect, absent “an immediate threat of death or serious and irreparable harm” to the child, if a parent obtains a second medical opinion that “results in a different diagnosis or treatment recommendation from that of the opinion of the physician [that DCFS] used,” that opinion is entitled to deference “as long as that opinion is reasonable and informed and is consistent with treatment that is regularly prescribed by medical experts in the applicable field.” Utah Code Ann. § 80-3-304(3)–(4) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022).

¶45 Here, at the adjudication hearing, the State argued that Parents’ actions “were not reasonable and informed under the circumstance” because they failed to appear for follow-up appointments to check Child’s weight and conduct additional lab tests. Parents countered, asserting that they “have a strong conviction against formula” and that based on the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation, they believed that exclusively breast-feeding “is the healthiest way to provide for your child.” Indeed, the materials First Pediatrician gave Parents following the March 26, 2020 appointment state, “Breast milk is the best food for your baby.” Parents further asserted that they did follow medical advice by “treating the bilirubin levels with the light therapy,” treating Child’s diaper rash by administering prescribed medication, and treating Child’s weight loss by increasing the frequency of feedings and by making an appointment to see Third Pediatrician on April 2. Parents pointed to the fact that increased feedings (albeit with formula) were what Second Pediatrician instructed Child’s foster parents to do following his examination of Child. Accordingly, they asserted that although they “disagreed with” First Pediatrician concerning the use of formula, they “did not disregard” his medical recommendation to increase the frequency of Child’s feedings.

¶46 In finding Child was neglected by Parents, the juvenile court did not discuss whether the State had proven, by clear and convincing evidence, that Parents’ medical decisions for Child were not “reasonable and informed.” Instead, the court found that the State had proven the following facts by clear and convincing evidence:

  • By March 30, 2020, Child “had lost 18% body weight since birth and was at significant risk for seizures and brain damage.”
  • Paramedics who examined Child at the motel concluded that Child “was not in distress,” but this “cursory physical examination . . . could not have identified” the “very real and very serious” medical issues that were later identified at the hospital.
  • First Pediatrician “was very concerned about dehydration of” Child.
  • Parents “were advised by [First Pediatrician] of the very serious medical danger to [Child] and advised [Parents] to supplement the baby’s intake with formula.”
  • Parents “refused to follow the medical advice and bring the baby in for weight checks, lab draws, and treatment recommendations regarding [Mother’s] breastmilk supply, or follow the other medical advice given to” them.
  • When taken to the emergency room by DCFS, Child’s “weight had increased from the last time he was seen by” First Pediatrician.

The court also made findings regarding the difficulty Caseworker experienced in locating Child, Father’s aggressive and belligerent attitude toward Caseworker, Father’s use of aliases and “history of parental interference,” and Father’s “very strong, passionate feelings about Government interference or involvement in the lives of private citizens.”[14]

¶47 But despite the GAL’s assertions to the contrary, these facts, without more, are insufficient to establish that Parents’ medical decisions for Child were unreasonable, i.e., that Parents did not “exhibit appropriate concern for the infant’s needs given the observable evidence,” In re N.K.C., 1999 UT App 345, ¶ 20 (quotation simplified), and whether their decisions were informed. Specifically, the court’s findings do not go to the reasonableness of Parents’ decision to increase feeding frequency without supplementing with formula in response to Child’s more-than-expected weight loss, whether Parents’ decision to forgo feeding Child formula under the circumstances was informed, or the reasonableness of Parents’ decision to wait until April 2 to have Child re-examined following the March 26 appointment with First Pediatrician in lieu of the follow-up appointment scheduled for the following day.

¶48      More importantly, even if the juvenile court did make the relevant findings, it did not undertake the necessary analysis of whether Parents’ medical decisions were reasonable, which is an ultimate determination that is left to the juvenile court—not an appellate court. Reasonableness determinations involve the application of law to facts, some of which, depending on the context, are entitled to deferential review and others of which are subject to de novo review. See Sawyer v. Department of Workforce Services, 2015 UT 33, ¶ 20, 345 P.3d 1253 (“[S]ome determinations of reasonableness should be reviewed de novo and others should not.”). The reasonable parent standard is “similar to a reasonableness standard in torts,” In re N.K.C., 1999 UT App 345, ¶ 19, which “is determined by the fact-finder and subject only to deferential review,” Sawyer, 2015 UT 33, ¶ 21. This is because “the particular facts and circumstances of the [parent’s] conduct are likely to be so complex and varying that no rule adequately addressing the relevance of all these facts can be spelled out.” In re adoption of Baby B., 2012 UT 35, ¶ 43, 308 P.3d 382 (quotation simplified). Additionally, a juvenile court’s determination under the reasonable parent standard “would often be affected by [the court’s] observation of a competing witness’s appearance and demeanor on matters that cannot be adequately reflected in the record available to the appellate courts.” Id. (quotation simplified). Accordingly, absent the court’s analysis of whether Parents’ medical decisions satisfied the reasonable parent standard, the juvenile court’s adjudication of neglect in this case is unsustainable, and this court cannot undertake the analysis in the juvenile court’s stead even if it had made the requisite factual findings.

¶49 The State argues that Parents’ conduct was objectively unreasonable and the fact that Child did not suffer permanent harm is not determinative. We certainly agree with the latter portion of this argument, that is, “[a] parent should not benefit from the happenstance that her child’s condition did not worsen” as a result of her unreasonable medical decision. In re N.K.C., 1999 UT App 345, ¶ 14. But for a healthcare decision to be objectively unreasonable, as was the case in In re N.K.C.,[15] the court needed to find that Child’s condition presented “an obvious cause for immediate concern.” Id. ¶ 21 (emphasis added). Although the juvenile court did find that Child’s examination at the hospital revealed “very real and very serious” medical issues, the court did not make a finding regarding whether they were issues that should have been obvious to Parents. To the contrary, the court acknowledged that the examination completed by responding paramedics earlier that night at the motel revealed that Child “was not in distress.” See id. ¶ 20 (stating that a parent is not expected “to make a diagnosis, only to exhibit appropriate concern for the infant’s needs given the observable evidence”) (emphasis added) (quotation otherwise simplified). Thus, Parents’ conduct at the time could not have been objectively unreasonable.

¶50 In sum, because the underlying conduct that should have been the focus of the juvenile court’s neglect adjudication was Parents’ medical decisions regarding Child, the court could not find neglect unless the State had met its burden of proving that those decisions were not “reasonable and informed.” See Utah Code Ann. § 80-1-102(58)(b)(ii) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022). Because the court did not conduct the requisite analysis, its ruling contained legal errors, and we therefore reverse.

CONCLUSION

¶51 Because Parents’ argument regarding Child’s removal from their care following the shelter hearing is moot and not subject to a recognized exception to the mootness doctrine, we lack judicial power to address it. But we have power to address Parents’ challenge to the juvenile court’s neglect adjudication because that argument, while technically moot, satisfies the collateral consequences exception to mootness. And because the juvenile court did not make findings or conduct an analysis related to whether Parents’ medical decisions for Child were “reasonable and informed,” the court’s ruling contained critical legal errors, and we therefore reverse the court’s neglect adjudication.

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

 

[1] “We recite the facts in the light most favorable to the juvenile court findings.” In re J.M., 2020 UT App 52, n.1, 463 P.3d 66 (quotation simplified).

[2] Second Pediatrician testified that Child had gained around 6 ounces by the April 3 appointment, but medical records show that Child’s weight increased from 3.65 kg to 4.03 kg in the two-day interval, for a total weight gain of 0.38 kg, which is 13.40 ounces.

[3] At the time, the relevant provision appeared in section 78A-6-105 of the Utah Code. The provision has since, without any substantial change, been moved to section 80-1-102. Compare Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-105(36)(a)(ii) (LexisNexis Supp. 2018), with id. § 80-1-102(58)(a)(ii) (Supp. 2022). We cite the current version of the annotated code for convenience.

[4] Specifically, the petition alleged that he took his then two- and four-year-old children out of state during his weekend parent-time and disappeared for eight months. Father and the children were finally located in Pennsylvania where they were observed outside in the winter cold, without coats. The petition further alleged that Father first refused to give responding police officers his name and eventually gave an alias. Once his true identity was discovered, Father was arrested, and the children were returned to their mother in Utah.

[5] The subsection, in its entirety, states,

Unless there is an imminent risk of death or a deteriorating condition of the child’s health, the child shall remain in the custody of the parent or guardian while the parent or guardian obtains a second medical opinion.

Utah Code Ann. § 80-3-304(2) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022).

[6] The subsection, in its entirety, states,

Subsections (1) through (3) do not apply to emergency treatment or care when the child faces an immediate threat of death or serious and irreparable harm and when there is insufficient time to safely allow the parent or guardian to provide alternative necessary care and treatment of the parent’s or guardian’s choosing.

Id. § 80-3-304(4).

[7] But unlike the State, Parents do not concede that the current appeal is technically moot. Rather, they argue that the appeal is not moot because the juvenile court’s neglect adjudication affects their parental rights. They support their assertion by adopting the State’s collateral consequences argument. That is, Parents do not assert that our resolution of this issue in their favor would have any current or practicable effect on their parental rights. Instead, they base their argument on a potential future event, asserting that their rights are affected because, as discussed in greater detail later in this opinion, “a neglect adjudication remains a statutory basis for terminating Parents’ rights going forward.” See In re J.M., 2020 UT App 52, ¶¶ 28–30, 463 P.3d 66 (“Once neglect has occurred, a juvenile court is entirely justified in making a finding that a parent ‘has neglected’ a child, even if that parent has improved herself since.”). But we are unpersuaded that even if Parents’ argument proves meritorious, any remedy we could order would “have a meaningful impact on the practical positions of the parties.” Utah Transit Auth. v. Local 382 of Amalgamated Transit Union, 2012 UT 75, ¶ 24, 289 P.3d 582. See State v. Legg, 2018 UT 12, ¶ 26, 417 P.3d 592 (“The question of mootness doesn’t turn on which collateral legal consequences the defendant will suffer, but on whether the requested judicial relief can affect the rights of the litigants.”) (quotation simplified).

[8] An example of a non-criminal context in which the collateral consequences presumption applies is that of civil commitments because “patients of mental hospitals face similar deprivations of liberty as criminals.” State v. Legg, 2018 UT 12, ¶ 29 n.4, 417 P.3d 592 (quotation simplified). See In re Giles, 657 P.2d 285, 286–87 (Utah 1982).

[9]Our Supreme Court has “recognized several collateral legal consequences that may result from a criminal conviction, such as the use of the conviction to impeach the petitioner’s character or as a factor in determining a sentence in a future trial, as well as the petitioner’s inability to vote, engage in certain businesses, or serve on a jury.” State v. Legg2018 UT 12, ¶ 22, 417 P.3d 592 (quotation simplified).

[10] Our Supreme Court also noted that, at the time, “being labeled ‘mentally incompetent’ carried collateral legal consequences comparable to criminal convictions,” such as restrictions on voting rights and the ability to serve on a jury, obtain a driver license, or obtain a firearm license. See Legg, 2018 UT 12, ¶ 29 n.4.

[11] Parental rights may be terminated only if the following two elements are met: (1) “a trial court must find that one or more of the statutory grounds for termination are present” and (2) “a trial court must find that termination of the parent’s rights is in the best interests of the child.” In re B.T.B., 2018 UT App 157, ¶ 13, 436 P.3d 206 (quotation simplified), aff’d, 2020 UT 60, 472 P.3d 827.

[12] The Utah Code further exempts from its definition of neglect a parent’s exercise of his or her right to seek a second medical opinion when DCFS seeks to remove the child from the parent’s custody on allegations of medical neglect. See Utah Code Ann. § 80-1-102(58)(b)(iii) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022). See also id. § 80-3-304 (stating that, with certain limitations, parents have a right to seek a second medical opinion in cases of alleged medical neglect). Parents also argue that the juvenile court erred in failing to consider this provision as part of its adjudication ruling. Because we reverse on the ground that the court did not consider whether Parents’ medical decisions were “reasonable and informed,” we do not reach this question.

[13] In re N.K.C., 1999 UT App 345, 995 P.2d 1, addressed the reasonable parent standard under the medical neglect statute then in effect, which required this court to determine whether a parent provided a child with “proper or necessary” medical care. See id. ¶ 8. The statute has since been rephrased and renumbered, without any substantive change that is relevant to the current appeal. Compare Utah Code Ann. § 80-1-102(58)(a)(iii) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022) (defining “neglect” as “failure or refusal of a parent, guardian, or custodian to provide proper or necessary subsistence or medical care, or any other care necessary for the child’s health, safety, morals, or well-being”), with id. § 78-3a-103(1)(r)(i)(C) (Supp. 1999) (defining “neglected child” as “a minor . . . whose parent, guardian, or custodian fails or refuses to provide proper or necessary subsistence, education, or medical care, including surgery or psychiatric services when required, or any other care necessary for health, safety, morals, or well-being”). Although the juvenile court in the case before us did not adjudicate Child neglected under the medical neglect statute, it nevertheless was barred from finding neglect if the underlying conduct constituted a “reasonable and informed” healthcare decision. See id. § 80-1-102(58)(b)(ii) (Supp. 2022) (“‘Neglect’ does not include . . . a health care decision made for a child by the child’s parent or guardian, unless the state or other party to a proceeding shows, by clear and convincing evidence, that the health care decision is not reasonable and informed[.]”). Additionally, we see no reason why the reasonable parent standard that is applied to a determination of whether a parent provided “proper or necessary” medical care under the medical neglect statute should differ from the standard applied in determining whether a parent made a “reasonable” healthcare decision under the statute at issue in this case.

[14] The GAL makes much of Father’s contentious behavior, his history of parental interference, and the difficulty Caseworker experienced in locating Parents and Child. There is no question that these behaviors were not constructive and were not helpful to Parents’ cause. But these findings of fact do not go to the reasonableness of Parents’ medical decisions and are therefore largely irrelevant to the determination of whether their medical decisions were reasonable and informed.

[15] In In re N.K.C., 1999 UT App 345, 995 P.2d 1, the father “vigorously shook” his one-month-old child. Id. ¶ 2. The child’s mother, who had been absent during the abuse, later “observed that the child was limp and lethargic” and that his “pupils were fixed.” Id. Instead of seeking immediate medical attention, the mother put the child to bed. Id. Later that night, after the child’s condition had not improved, the mother contacted the child’s pediatrician, who directed her to immediately take the child to the emergency room. Id. ¶ 3. The mother arrived with the child at the emergency room almost five hours after she initially discovered the child’s serious condition. Id. The juvenile court determined that the mother “neglected the child by failing to obtain timely medical care.” Id. ¶ 6 (quotation simplified). We affirmed, stating that under the reasonable-parent standard, the mother’s conduct, in light of the severe symptoms the child was exhibiting, was “well outside that which can reasonably be expected of a parent in that situation,” and therefore “the mother’s failure to summon immediate medical attention amounted to a failure to exercise the minimum degree of care expected of a reasonably prudent parent.” Id. ¶ 21.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

State in Interest of P.J.R., 2023 UT App 27

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF P.J.R., A PERSON UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

C.S.,

Appellant,

V.

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20220264-CA

Filed March 23, 2023

Sixth District Juvenile Court, Manti Department

The Honorable Brody L. Keisel

No. 1097003

Emily Adams, Freyja Johnson, and Caleb Proulx,
Attorneys for Appellant

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

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

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

HARRIS, Judge:

¶1        C.S. (Mother) appeals an order terminating her parental rights regarding P.J.R. (Child). But Mother does not contest the juvenile court’s findings that there were grounds for termination and that termination was in Child’s best interest. Instead, Mother limits her appellate challenge to the court’s determination that the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) made reasonable efforts, during the course of the case, toward reunification of Mother and Child. Specifically, she claims that the court applied an incorrect evidentiary standard in arriving at its reasonable efforts determination and—alternatively—challenges the merits of that ultimate determination. We find Mother’s arguments unpersuasive, and therefore affirm.

BACKGROUND

¶2        In 2019, DCFS filed a petition seeking protective supervision of Mother’s five children, including Child. In the petition, DCFS alleged that Mother had abused and neglected Child, and specifically alleged (among other things) that, during an incident in the waiting room of a family counseling center, Mother “grabbed [Child] by the back-collar area of his shirt in such a manner that it restricted his ability to breathe and caused him to choke,” and then “shoved his face into the corner with force.” Even after Child “told Mother he was having difficulty breathing and that Mother was hurting him,” Mother “did not let up on his shirt or the forcing of his face into the corner.” At an ensuing shelter hearing, the juvenile court placed all five children in the temporary custody of DCFS.

¶3        Mother responded to the petition by admitting some of the State’s allegations and, with respect to the rest, neither admitting nor denying them; this response resulted in the court deeming the State’s allegations true. See Utah R. Juv. P. 34(e) (“A respondent may answer by admitting or denying the specific allegations of the petition, or by declining to admit or deny the allegations. Allegations not specifically denied by a respondent shall be deemed true.”). On the basis of Mother’s responses, the court adjudicated Child as abused and neglected by Mother. Mother appealed that adjudication order, and this court affirmed it but remanded for additional proceedings on issues not material to this appeal. See In re C.M.R., 2020 UT App 114, ¶ 33, 473 P.3d 184.

¶4        Following adjudication, the court issued a disposition order in September 2019, setting the primary permanency goal as reunification and the concurrent permanency goal as adoption. In connection with setting reunification as the primary permanency goal, the court adopted a service plan—prepared with Mother’s input and cooperation—and found, “by clear and convincing evidence,” that fulfillment of the plan’s terms would “constitute reasonable efforts on the part of . . . DCFS to finalize the permanency goals,” including reunification. Among other things, the plan required DCFS to “follow up with [Child]’s therapist to monitor his progress in therapy,” to follow up with Mother’s therapist regarding her treatment, to promptly communicate with Mother, to “assess [Mother]’s increase in parenting skills during supervised parent-time,” and to ensure that Child’s living, academic, and health needs were being addressed.

¶5        As the case progressed, friction arose between Mother and the DCFS caseworker. As Mother showed at trial, the conflict became apparent at one supervised visit between Mother and her daughters; in a “heated interaction,” the caseworker cut the visit short after observing Mother say certain things to her daughters that the caseworker deemed inappropriate. On a later occasion, the caseworker sent a text message to the guardian ad litem lamenting the fact that Mother received visitation with one of her daughters at all, noting that “[t]hese kids have been the victims of severe physical and emotional abuse for years.” Eventually, Mother refused to communicate with the caseworker (other than by text message) without her attorney present. Even the State’s attorney noticed that the caseworker was having a hard time keeping her “emotions out of this case,” and admonished the caseworker to be more circumspect in her communication.

¶6        Mother also came to believe that the caseworker was interfering with family therapy during the course of the case. Under the service plan, family therapy involving Mother and Child was to begin when Mother’s and Child’s therapists both recommended it, and the caseworker was supposed to follow up with both therapists. In December 2019, the caseworker apparently told Mother that Child’s therapist did not recommend face-to-face visits when, in fact, the caseworker had not yet communicated with Child’s therapist. The first documented communication between the caseworker and Child’s therapist about family therapy was in June 2020, about nine months after the service plan was put in place. However, some evidence shows that the caseworker had “reached out to [Child]’s therapist regularly throughout the case,” and that as of May 2020, Child’s therapist did not “recommend family therapy with [Mother] at this time.” But when the caseworker was asked at trial whether she communicated with Child’s therapist prior to June 2020, she stated that she did not recall. When the caseworker did reach out to Child’s therapist inquiring about family therapy, the therapist responded that before family therapy would be recommended, Mother would need to take a parenting course, continue her own therapy, and “take[] accountability for her actions and . . . learn[] . . . to regulate her own emotions.”

¶7        Shortly thereafter, Mother complained that the caseworker might be attempting to influence the therapists away from holding family therapy, and the caseworker then told the therapists that the court had instructed her to tell them that they were to communicate with each other (rather than through the caseworker as an intermediary) about “whether family therapy with [Mother] and [Child] would be in [Child’s] best interest.” By this point, Child’s therapist had come to believe that family therapy was now appropriate, and expressed interest in beginning the process. The caseworker said she would follow up to see whether Mother and Child were making progress from the therapy, but—apparently in response to Mother’s request that DCFS “back off”—she stated that she would “not be a part of the scheduling process.”

¶8      In August 2020, the caseworker learned that criminal charges had been filed against Mother, and informed the therapists of this fact. Mother believes that the caseworker implied that the conduct in question had occurred recently, when it had actually occurred prior to removal of the children from Mother’s care. After the therapists learned of the charges, communication between them seemed to halt, and family therapy between Mother and Child never did take place.

¶9        During the reunification period, the court held periodic review hearings to assess Mother’s progress under the service plan; at some of these hearings, Mother voiced concerns about the fact that family therapy was not occurring, and on other occasions she expressed concerns about certain statements the caseworker was alleged to have made. But for the most part Mother was non­specific about what else DCFS could have done to improve its efforts; indeed, on at least one occasion, the court expressly asked Mother’s attorney if “there’s anything else . . . as far as services go . . . that could be provided by [DCFS],” or if there was “anything else that you think [DCFS] should be providing to help [Mother] complete the service plan,” and counsel responded that he did not “have any specific request of [the court] right now.” The most specific complaint Mother raised was in August 2020 when she filed a “motion to take evidence and make findings regarding reasonable efforts” in which she accused DCFS of “hostility” and “actively work[ing] against the reunification goal.”

¶10      But by the time this motion was filed, the court had already made—on several different occasions during the reunification period—specific findings that DCFS was making reasonable efforts toward accomplishing the stated permanency goals, including reunification. For instance, in November 2019, the court after a hearing found that “DCFS has provided and is providing reasonable efforts to finalize the permanency goals.” Several months later, the court made a similar finding, noting along the way that Mother’s attorney “could not articulate other efforts that DCFS should be making to further the permanency goals.” In August 2020, the court found that “DCFS has and continues to provide reasonable efforts to finalize the child/children’s permanency goals and to comply with its court ordered responsibilities.” And a few weeks after that, the court did so again, noting that “[n]o party suggested efforts/services that could be provided by DCFS which are not already being provided.” There is no record of Mother making any objection to any of these interim findings regarding reasonable efforts.

¶11      In November 2020, after fourteen months of reunification services and with a permanency hearing looming, the parties engaged in settlement negotiations and entered into a stipulation that resolved many of the issues in the case. The parties and counsel then appeared before the court to put the terms of their stipulation on the record. Following the hearing, counsel for the State prepared an order memorializing the events of that hearing, and circulated it to Mother’s counsel for review. Mother’s counsel did not object or otherwise comment on the proposed form of the order, and therefore the State submitted it to the court “as being stipulated to,” and the court entered it as an order of the court. That order recites that the parties stipulated that “DCFS or other agency/ies continue to make reasonable efforts to assist the family finalize the service plan and its permanency goals.” The order recites that the parties also stipulated that the court would “terminate reunification services” as to Child, and that “termination of those services” was in Child’s best interest. Based on this stipulation, the court changed Child’s primary permanency goal from reunification to adoption. Mother did not object to the terms of this order, either before or after its entry, and did not object to the change in permanency goal.

¶12      Thereafter, the State filed a petition seeking the termination of Mother’s parental rights regarding Child. Some months later, the parties again entered into negotiations and agreed to resolve some of the issues surrounding the State’s termination petition. In particular, Mother stipulated “to the Court finding that it is in Child’s best interests and strictly necessary for the Court to terminate her parental rights should the Court also find legal grounds for terminating her parental rights.” After entry of this stipulation, the court scheduled a two-day termination trial to consider whether grounds for termination existed and whether DCFS had made reasonable efforts toward reunification.

¶13 The trial took place in November 2021. When the parties and their attorneys appeared for the first day of trial, the State informed the court that it did not intend to call any witnesses in its case-in-chief and, instead, asked the court to “take judicial notice of all the filings in the . . . case.” Mother objected to the court taking judicial notice of such a large quantity of material, arguing that she would never be able to respond to everything in the docket and the court would not have time to review so many documents. Eventually, the State narrowed its request to all the “findings and orders specific to [Child],” and Mother did not object. The court then agreed to take judicial notice of all its interim findings and orders regarding Child. The State then asked the court to take judicial notice of the court-ordered child and family plan pertaining to Child, psychological evaluations of Mother and Child, and court reports pertaining to Child; Mother did not object to the court taking judicial notice of the plan, but did object to the court taking judicial notice of the evaluations and court reports. The court initially took the matter under advisement, but later decided to take judicial notice of the service plan as well as the court reports, reasoning that they had been explicitly incorporated into the court’s previous orders and findings. The reports showed efforts the caseworker made, such as visiting all involved parties, providing transportation for Child, inspecting foster parents’ and Mother’s living situations, communicating with therapists, gauging Mother’s progress, promptly communicating with Mother, and ensuring Child had proper educational, medical, and mental health care.

¶14 The State then made its opening statement, pointing out that the only two issues for trial were grounds for termination and reasonable efforts, and arguing that grounds had already been established through the juvenile court’s previous adjudication that this court affirmed. Regarding reasonable efforts, the State argued that, throughout the entire proceeding, the juvenile court had periodically and continuously found that DCFS had made reasonable efforts toward reunification. The State also asserted that, at the end of the reunification period, Mother had stipulated—as part of the November 2020 stipulation prior to the permanency hearing—that DCFS had made reasonable efforts. The State asserted that it had sufficiently proven its case regarding grounds and reasonable efforts through the judicially noticed documents, and it rested its case without calling any witnesses.

¶15 After the State rested, Mother made a “motion for judgment as a matter of law,” arguing that the court’s previous orders “cannot as a matter of law be relied upon for a finding of reasonable efforts in the context . . . of a termination of parental rights trial” and that these orders were only “interim orders” and “can be revisited.” Mother also suggested that she never actually stipulated to a finding of reasonable efforts, even though the court’s order—to which she had not objected—stated otherwise. The court took Mother’s motion under advisement, and did not ever make an explicit ruling on it, but implicitly denied it by eventually making a ruling on the merits in the State’s favor.

¶16      Mother then proceeded with her case-in-chief, in which she called the caseworker and her therapist in addition to presenting her own sworn testimony. The caseworker testified about the events described above, outlining the actions she took to facilitate reunification and discussing her disagreements with Mother. Mother’s therapist testified about her sessions with Mother and the progress Mother made through therapy. Mother testified about the events, described above, that caused her to believe that DCFS was not making reasonable efforts toward reunification.

¶17      At the conclusion of trial, the court took the matter under advisement. About three months later, the court issued an oral ruling,[1] concluding that there were grounds to terminate Mother’s parental rights, and that the State had demonstrated that DCFS had indeed made reasonable efforts to facilitate reunification. After announcing its ruling, the court instructed the State to prepare an order reflecting the court’s ruling. The State did so, and circulated the proposed order to Mother; within her time to object, Mother filed an objection taking issue with one small part of the order, but did not make any objection to the order’s treatment of the proper evidentiary standard.

¶18      Eventually, the court signed a version of the written order prepared by the State, finding “by clear and convincing evidence” that grounds for termination existed because “Child was previously adjudicated to be abused and neglected” in an order that had been affirmed on appeal.

¶19 The court also found—based on “the review hearings, court reports, and other evidence”—that DCFS had provided reasonable efforts toward reunification, although the court did not specify which standard of proof (e.g., clear and convincing evidence or preponderance of the evidence) it was applying with regard to this determination. Among other things, the court found that DCFS had taken action to (i) ensure that Child’s medical, dental, and mental health needs were met, (ii) visit Child at placements, (iii) supervise visits, (iv) review education records, (v) transport Child, (vi) communicate with Child’s therapist, (vii) “coordinate[] virtual parent-time,” (viii) communicate with Mother, and (ix) answer questions and arrange visits. The court also noted that it had, throughout the pendency of the case, “consistently found reasonable efforts on the part of DCFS” in its previous orders and findings. However, the court did not treat these orders and findings as dispositive, and went on to examine the rebuttal evidence offered by Mother, directly addressing her two main arguments: “personal friction between the Mother and [the caseworker], and the delay in starting family therapy with all of the children.” Regarding the friction, the court noted that “DCFS cases are almost always high stress situations and there are bound to be disagreements between DCFS and the parent whose rights are at risk.” And in this case, the court determined that “[t]he disagreements here were based on the DCFS caseworker’s frustration/stress at the lack of progress made by [Mother], which in some sense suggests the DCFS caseworker’s desire for [Mother] to progress and move forward toward reunification.” Regarding the delay in family therapy, the court noted that “DCFS regularly reported that they were following up with the therapist and that the strategy taken by the therapist was determined by the therapist, not DCFS,” and concluded that, “while there may not have been perfection in the case, . . . DCFS has acted reasonably in their efforts.”

¶20 Accordingly, the court entered an order terminating Mother’s rights as to Child.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶21 Mother now appeals from the court’s termination order, but her appeal is narrowly targeted. As noted, Mother did not contest best interest at trial, after stipulating that termination of her parental rights to Child would be in Child’s best interest. And here on appeal, Mother does not contest the court’s determination that grounds for termination existed. She does, however, challenge—in three different ways—the court’s determination that DCFS made reasonable efforts toward reunification.

¶22 Her first challenge concerns the evidentiary standard the juvenile court applied in making its reasonable efforts determination. She contends that the court should have, but did not, apply a “clear and convincing evidence” standard in making its reasonable efforts determination. “The applicable burden of proof for termination proceedings is a question of law we review for correctness.” In re G.D., 2021 UT 19, ¶ 36, 491 P.3d 867.

¶23      Next, she challenges the merits of the court’s reasonable efforts determination, and this challenge has two parts. First, she contends that the court erred in denying her motion, made at the conclusion of the State’s case-in-chief, for “judgment as a matter of law.” In a bench trial, a motion for judgment as a matter of law’s “procedural counterpart,” Grossen v. DeWitt, 1999 UT App 167, ¶ 8, 982 P.2d 581, is a motion for involuntary dismissal, In re J.A., 2018 UT App 29, ¶ 26, 424 P.3d 913, cert. denied, 420 P.3d 704 (Utah 2018). Such a motion “should be granted when the trial judge finds that the claimant has failed to make out a prima facie case or when the trial judge is not persuaded by the evidence presented.” Accesslex Inst. v. Philpot, 2023 UT App 21, ¶ 33 (quotation simplified). “Whether a party has established a prima facie case is a question of law which we review for correctness.” In re M.L., 965 P.2d 551, 558 (Utah Ct. App. 1998).

¶24      Next, Mother challenges the court’s ultimate finding that DCFS made reasonable efforts toward reunification. “A court’s determination that DCFS made reasonable efforts to provide reunification services involves an application of statutory law to the facts that presents a mixed question of fact and law, requiring review of the juvenile court’s factual findings for clear error and its conclusions of law for correctness, affording the court some discretion in applying the law to the facts.” In re N.K., 2020 UT App 26, ¶ 15, 461 P.3d 1116 (quotation simplified). “Because reasonableness determinations are fact-intensive, we afford the juvenile court broad discretion in determining whether reasonable reunification efforts were made.” In re S.T., 2022 UT App 130, ¶ 17, 521 P.3d 887 (quotation simplified). “Absent a demonstration that the [reasonable efforts] determination was clearly in error, we will not disturb the determination.” In re K.F., 2009 UT 4, ¶ 52, 201 P.3d 985 (quotation simplified). “A finding of fact is clearly erroneous only when, in light of the evidence supporting the finding, it is against the clear weight of the evidence.” In re A.W., 2018 UT App 217, ¶ 23, 437 P.3d 640 (quotation simplified).

ANALYSIS

¶25 We first address Mother’s contention that the juvenile court applied an incorrect evidentiary standard in making its reasonable efforts determination. After that, we address Mother’s challenges to the merits of the court’s determination. For the reasons that follow, we are unpersuaded by Mother’s arguments.

I. Evidentiary Standard

¶26      Mother’s first assertion is that the juvenile court needed to make its reasonable efforts determination by clear and convincing evidence—rather than by the lower preponderance of the evidence standard—and that it did not do so. The first part of Mother’s assertion is correct, but the second part is unsupported by the record in this case.

¶27      With regard to what the proper legal standard is, Mother’s position is correct: the juvenile court needed to apply the clear and convincing evidence standard in making its reasonable efforts determination. Neither the State nor the guardian ad litem takes issue, in this case, with Mother’s position regarding the proper legal standard. And this position is clearly supported by statutory mandate. In all cases in which reunification services are offered, the reasonable efforts determination is a necessary part of the termination inquiry—it is mandated by the statutes governing termination proceedings, see Utah Code § 80-4-301(3)(a) (stating that, “in any case in which the juvenile court has directed the division to provide reunification services to a parent, the juvenile court must find that the division made reasonable efforts to provide those services before” terminating parental rights)—and all facts in termination cases must be established by clear and convincing evidence, see id. § 80-4-103(2)(a) (commanding juvenile courts, in all termination cases, to “require the petitioner to establish the facts by clear and convincing evidence”); see also In re Castillo, 632 P.2d 855, 857 (Utah 1981) (stating that the presumption of parental rights “should be overcome only by clear and convincing evidence”); Utah R. Juv. P. 41(b) (discussing “[t]he burden of proof in matters brought before the juvenile court,” and stating that “cases involving the permanent deprivation of parental rights must be proved by clear and convincing evidence unless otherwise provided by law”).

¶28      But the other half of Mother’s contention—that the juvenile court applied a different standard to its reasonable efforts inquiry—is simply not borne out by the record. As an initial matter, examination of the court’s order indicates that it was generally applying the clear and convincing evidence standard in this termination case. With regard to its determination about grounds for termination, the court specified that it was using the higher evidentiary standard, stating that it “finds that DCFS has proven, by clear and convincing evidence,” that grounds for termination are present. And later in its order, it specified that it was making its legal conclusions regarding termination “by clear and convincing evidence.” Significantly, nowhere in its order did the court reference, even obliquely, any other evidentiary standard. Moreover, earlier in the case, in the court’s September 2019 order approving the service plan, the court had indicated its awareness of the correct evidentiary standard, finding at that point, “by clear and convincing evidence,” that fulfillment of the service plan would “constitute reasonable efforts on the part of [DCFS] to finalize the permanency goals.”

¶29 Mother points out, however, that—while the court, in its final order, specified that its grounds determination and its legal conclusions were being made by clear and convincing evidence— the court did not specifically indicate that it was making its reasonable efforts determination by clear and convincing evidence. As noted, it did not indicate the application of a different evidentiary standard; rather, the reasonable efforts section of the court’s final order was simply silent regarding which evidentiary standard was being applied. As Mother sees it, any uncertainty about which standard the court was applying should be held against the court; in particular, she asks us to infer from this uncertainty that the court was applying an evidentiary standard to that section of its analysis that was different from what it specifically applied to the other sections.

¶30      But this is not the way such inferences work. Uncertainty in the record “is not a basis for reversal.” State v. Hummel, 2017 UT 19, ¶ 82, 393 P.3d 314. Indeed, “[u]ncertainty counts against the appellant, who bears the burden of proof on appeal, and must overcome a presumption of regularity as to the record and decision in the trial court.” Id. “Thus, a lack of certainty in the record does not lead to a reversal and new trial; it leads to an affirmance on the ground that the appellant cannot carry [the] burden of proof.” Id.

¶31      We encountered a similar situation in Gerwe v. Gerwe, 2018

UT App 75, 424 P.3d 1113. In that case, a district court determined, after an evidentiary hearing, that a man had fraudulently induced his ex-wife into signing a postnuptial agreement. Id. ¶ 3. But in so doing, the court was silent regarding which evidentiary standard it was applying; it “did not expressly state that [the ex-wife] presented clear and convincing evidence of fraudulent inducement,” but “it never suggested that a lower standard of proof applied.” Id. ¶ 13. On that record, we rejected the appellant’s assertion of error, stating that a “reviewing court will not presume from a silent record that the court applied an incorrect legal standard but must presume the regularity and validity of the district court’s proceedings, and that it applied the correct legal standard, in the absence of evidence to the contrary.” Id. (quotation simplified). We concluded our analysis by stating that “[b]ecause nothing in the record suggests that the court applied something less than the clear and convincing standard, [the appellant] cannot establish error.” Id. (quotation simplified).

¶32 So too here. Mother offers no evidence—aside from the uncertainty engendered by silence—that the juvenile court applied an evidentiary standard other than clear and convincing to its reasonable efforts determination. And as in Gerwe, this is not enough to satisfy Mother’s appellate burden, especially where the court—in two other places in the order—indicated that it was applying the clear and convincing standard.[2] On this basis, we reject Mother’s contention that the juvenile court applied an incorrect evidentiary standard.

II. Reasonable Efforts

¶33      Next, Mother challenges the merits of the juvenile court’s reasonable efforts determination, and this challenge has two parts. First, Mother asserts that the court erred in failing to grant the motion she made at the conclusion of the State’s case-in-chief. Second, she asserts that the court’s ultimate reasonable efforts determination was against the clear weight of the evidence. We address, and reject, each of these arguments, in turn.

A

¶34      At the end of the State’s witness-less case-in-chief, Mother made an oral motion for “judgment as a matter of law.” The court took the motion under advisement, but never issued an express ruling on it; the court implicitly denied the motion when it ruled in the State’s favor on the merits of the reasonable efforts question. Mother challenges the court’s implicit denial of that motion.

¶35      Although Mother referred to her motion as either a motion for summary judgment or a motion for judgment as a matter of law, in bench trials the proper reference is a motion for involuntary dismissal. See In re Trujillo, 2001 UT 38, ¶ 21 n.13, 24 P.3d 972 (stating that “a motion for a directed verdict contemplates only jury trials,” and “[i]n the context of a bench trial, the directed verdict’s procedural counterpart is a motion for involuntary dismissal”); accord Accesslex Inst. v. Philpot, 2023 UT App 21, ¶ 33. As already noted, the relevant question raised by such a motion—at least where the nonmovant bears the burden of proof on the issue at hand—is whether the nonmovant has, during its case-in-chief, made at least a prima facie case in support of its claim. See Accesslex Inst., 2023 UT App 21, ¶ 33 (stating that, where “the party making [the motion] is the party that does not bear the burden of proof,” the motion “should be granted when the trial judge finds that the claimant has failed to make out a prima facie case” (quotation simplified)). “A prima facie case has been made when evidence has been received at trial that, in the absence of contrary evidence, would entitle the party having the burden of proof to judgment as a matter of law.” In re J.A., 2018 UT App 29, ¶ 27, 424 P.3d 913 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 420 P.3d 704 (Utah 2018). Thus, we must consider whether the State—the nonmovant who bore the burden of proof—made out at least a prima facie case in support of its reasonable efforts claim during its case-in-chief.

¶36      Our supreme court has defined “reasonable efforts” as a “fair and serious attempt to reunify a parent with a child prior to seeking to terminate parental rights.” In re K.F., 2009 UT 4, ¶ 51, 201 P.3d 985 (quotation simplified). Thus, in order to make a prima facie showing with regard to reasonable efforts, the State had to produce evidence that would—at least before consideration of any contrary evidence—show that DCFS had made a fair and serious effort to reunify Mother with Child during the reunification period. As noted, the State called no witnesses in its case-in-chief, choosing instead to rely entirely on documentary evidence that included the juvenile court’s previous interim orders and the court reports incorporated into those orders. But despite this unorthodox approach,[3] in our view the State did enough—on the facts of this particular case—to make at least a prima facie showing in support of its reasonable efforts claim.

¶37      The State’s evidence, such as it was, included the juvenile court’s interim orders, and those orders indicated that the court, in its ongoing supervisory role over the proceedings during the reunification period, had made multiple and repeated findings that DCFS had engaged in reasonable efforts to further the permanency goals, the primary one of which was reunification. The court never made a contrary finding, despite Mother having registered some dissatisfaction on this point at various stages of the case. Moreover, those interim orders incorporated the court reports, which included detailed accounts of the measures DCFS took to fulfill the requirements of the service plan, including visiting Child, providing transportation for Child, inspecting foster parents’ and Mother’s living situations, communicating with the therapists, gauging Mother’s progress on the service plan, communicating with Mother, and ensuring Child had proper educational, medical, and mental health care. Finally, at the end of the reunification period in November 2020, with a permanency hearing looming, Mother apparently stipulated that “DCFS or other agency/ies continue to make reasonable efforts to assist the family finalize the service plan and its permanency goals.” The use of the word “continue” in the stipulation could reasonably be taken to mean that Mother was acknowledging that, throughout the entirety of the reunification period up until the date of the stipulation, DCFS had made reasonable efforts to accomplish the permanency goals, including reunification. Thus, in this particular case, the State’s evidentiary presentation, despite its truncated and unorthodox nature, was sufficient to indicate— at least in the absence of Mother’s contrary evidence, which had yet to be presented—that DCFS had made a fair and serious effort to reunify Mother with Child.

¶38      We recognize that Mother was eventually able to point to at least some contrary evidence. For instance, Mother put on evidence about the ongoing friction between herself and the DCFS caseworker, and about the issues that came up regarding initiation of family therapy. In addition, Mother had some colorable arguments to make about the November 2020 stipulation, asserting that the parties’ actual agreement had not in fact included any stipulation about reasonable efforts and that, if any such stipulation had been reached, its scope was limited. But at the time the court was considering Mother’s motion for involuntary dismissal—at the close of the State’s case-in-chief— none of that evidence had been presented. And in assessing whether the State had made out a prima facie case regarding reasonable efforts, the court was not supposed to consider whatever contrary evidence Mother might eventually produce. The prima facie case inquiry is simply whether the State produced sufficient evidence, standing on its own and without considering any rebuttal, to support its claim. And on the facts of this unique case, we conclude that it did.

¶39 For these reasons, we discern no error in the juvenile court’s implicit denial of Mother’s motion for involuntary dismissal made at the conclusion of the State’s case-in-chief.

B

¶40 Finally, Mother challenges the juvenile court’s ultimate determination, made as factfinder after trial, that DCFS had made reasonable efforts to facilitate reunification. As noted already, we review this determination deferentially, giving “broad discretion” to the juvenile court “in determining whether reasonable reunification efforts were made.” See In re K.F., 2009 UT 4, ¶ 52, 201 P.3d 985; see also In re A.C., 2004 UT App 255, ¶ 12, 97 P.3d 706 (stating that a juvenile court “is in the best position to evaluate the credibility and competence of those who testify regarding the services that were provided” and to assess the reasonable efforts question). See generally supra ¶ 24.

¶41      Here, the juvenile court listened to the testimony of Mother, the caseworker, and Mother’s therapist, and examined the dozens of exhibits submitted by the parties. This same court had previously been involved in all of the interim review hearings during the reunification period, during which the court assessed DCFS’s reasonable efforts throughout the case. In issuing its ultimate determination, the court took its previous orders into account, but correctly did not treat them as completely dispositive of the question; instead, it considered those orders as potentially persuasive evidence supporting the State’s position, but evaluated that evidence in the context of the rebuttal evidence Mother offered.[4]

¶42 Indeed, the court directly addressed both of Mother’s specific arguments: that the “personal friction” between Mother and the caseworker indicated that the caseworker did not make reasonable efforts, and that the caseworker caused delay in the start of family therapy. With regard to the friction, the court rather astutely noted that child welfare cases “are almost always high stress situations and there are bound to be disagreements between DCFS and the parent whose rights are at risk.” But the court, after reviewing the friction in the context of the entire case, concluded that the disagreements between Mother and the caseworker, while regrettable, did not rise to the level of indicating that the caseworker had failed to provide reasonable efforts. On this record, we cannot say that such a determination is “against the clear weight of the evidence.” See In re A.W., 2018 UT App 217, ¶ 23, 437 P.3d 640.

¶43      With regard to the delay in family therapy, the court noted that, under the service plan, family therapy was not to begin until both Mother’s and Child’s therapists recommended it, and the court was aware that responsibility for scheduling the therapy sessions, once both therapists were on board, was to be up to the therapists themselves. The court, after reviewing this issue in context, concluded that most of the blame for any delay in family therapy should not be laid at the feet of the caseworker, observing that “DCFS cannot, nor should they be required to hold the hand of every party involved to ensure that those parties are also making some efforts,” and ultimately determined that, “while there may not have been perfection in the case, . . . DCFS has acted reasonably in their efforts.” On this record, we cannot say that this determination is against the clear weight of the evidence either.

¶44 Accordingly, we discern no abuse of the juvenile court’s discretion in its ultimate determination, made as factfinder after trial, that DCFS provided reasonable efforts toward reunification.

CONCLUSION

¶45 Mother has not carried her appellate burden of demonstrating that the juvenile court applied an incorrect evidentiary standard to its reasonable efforts determination. And we reject Mother’s challenges to the merits of the court’s ultimate determination that DCFS provided reasonable efforts toward reunifying Mother with Child during the reunification period.

¶46 Affirmed.

 

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

[1] A transcript of the court’s oral ruling was not included in the record submitted to us.

[2] Moreover, Mother had an opportunity to bring this issue to the court’s attention prior to entry of the order. Recall that the court issued an oral ruling, which was then memorialized by the State into a written order and circulated to Mother for her input. Mother filed a limited, targeted objection to one point in the draft order, but—notably—did not raise any objection to the court’s discussion of the evidentiary standard it was applying to its determinations. Any lack of clarity about the standard being applied could easily have been remedied at that stage. See Jensen v. Skypark Landowners Ass’n, 2013 UT App 48, ¶ 6 n.4, 299 P.3d 609 (per curiam) (stating that a party who made “no objection to the form of the order” could not complain, for the first time on appeal, that the order was “vague and ambiguous”), cert. denied, 308 P.3d 536 (Utah 2013); cf. In re K.F., 2009 UT 4, ¶ 63, 201 P.3d 985 (stating that “[j]udicial economy would be disserved” by permitting an appellant to bring, “for the first time on appeal,” a challenge regarding the adequacy of the court’s findings, because such errors are “easy for a trial judge to correct” and are “best corrected when the judge’s findings are fresh in the judge’s mind,” and because “the only likely remedy is merely a remand to the trial court for more detailed findings”).

[3] It would not have been difficult for the State to call at least one critical live witness—the DCFS caseworker—in support of its reasonable efforts claim. The caseworker was available that day to testify, and indeed did testify when she was called to do so by Mother. We do not go very far out onto the proverbial limb by stating that, in most cases, it would be preferable (and, indeed, advisable) for the State, in reasonable efforts cases, to do more than simply rely on previous interim court orders, and we hope that our decision to affirm the juvenile court in this case does not encourage the State to present similarly truncated cases-in-chief in future reasonable efforts cases.

[4] Considering such orders, as well as Mother’s failure to formally object to them, as potentially persuasive but nondispositive evidence appears consistent with previous decisions by this court in reasonable efforts cases. See In re A.W., 2018 UT App 217, ¶ 31, 437 P.3d 640 (“Father also ignores the several times in the record in which the juvenile court made an unchallenged periodic finding—before its termination order—that DCFS had made reasonable efforts to provide him with reunification services.”); see also In re S.T., 2022 UT App 130, ¶ 21, 521 P.3d 887 (noting that, “[a]t no point did Mother object to the court’s findings or indicate that she needed additional or different services.”); In re A.C., 2004 UT App 255, ¶ 17, 97 P.3d 706 (“It is the parent’s responsibility to demand services if they are not offered prior to the termination hearing.” (quotation simplified)).

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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

2022 UT App 114

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF

A.H., J.H., J.H., L.H., N.H., S.H., AND E.H., PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

N.J.H. AND S.H., Appellants, v. STATE OF UTAH, Appellee.

Opinion

Nos. 20210353-CA and

20210354-CA

Filed October 6, 2022

Fourth District Juvenile Court, Provo Department

The Honorable Suchada P. Bazzelle No. 1145453

Alexandra Mareschal, Attorney for Appellant N.J.H.

Kirstin H. Norman, Attorney for Appellant S.H.

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

Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

JUDGE RYA N M. HARRIS authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGE DAVID N. MORTENSEN and SENIOR JUDGE KATE APPLEBY concurred.[1]

HARRIS, Judge:

¶1 After a bench trial, the juvenile court terminated S.H.’s (Mother) and N.J.H.’s (Father) (collectively, Parents) parental rights regarding the two youngest of their seven children: A.H. and L.H. (the Subject Children). The court did not terminate Parents’ rights regarding their other five children; it accepted the parties’ stipulation that the best interest of those children would be served by placing them in a guardianship with relatives. But despite those same relatives being willing to take and care for (by either adoption or guardianship) the Subject Children as well, the court determined that the Subject Children’s best interest would be served by termination of Parents’ rights and adoption by their foster parents. In separate appeals that we consider together in this opinion, Parents challenge that decision, asserting that termination of their rights was neither strictly necessary nor in the best interest of the Subject Children. We agree and reverse.

BACKGROUND

¶2 Mother and Father are the parents of seven children (the Children), each born approximately two years apart. The eldest (E.H.) was born in 2005, and the two youngest (A.H. and L.H.) were born in February 2015 and December 2016, respectively. Mother is the biological parent of all seven of the Children. Father is the biological parent of the six youngest Children and the legal parent of all of them; he adopted E.H. when E.H. was an infant. Mother and Father met in New Mexico, which is where the parents of E.H.’s biological father (Grandparents) live.[2] Parents moved to Utah, with the Children then born, in 2007.

¶3 Over the years, Grandparents developed a close relationship not only with E.H.—their biological grandson—but with the other Children as well. They made trips to Utah on at least an annual basis during which they spent time with the Children, and they engaged in regular telephonic contact as well. After L.H. was born in 2016, he required a lengthy stay in the newborn intensive care unit, and Grandmother took three weeks off from her job as a nurse to come to Utah and help.

¶4 In June 2017, the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) filed a petition for protective supervision, asserting that Father had physically abused N.H., one of the older sons, and that L.H.—who was then just a few months old—was malnourished and failing to thrive. DCFS’s plan, at that point, was to leave the Children in the home and provide supportive services. After adjudicating N.H. abused as to Father and the other Children neglected as to Father, the juvenile court granted DCFS’s requested relief and ordered that Father have only supervised contact with the Children. For the time being, the Children remained in the home under Mother’s care.

¶5 In August 2017, however, DCFS filed a petition seeking custody of the Children, citing not only the issues raised in its previous petition but also a more recent incident involving Mother and L.H. In response to a report of reckless driving, police found Mother slumped over the steering wheel of her parked car with L.H. in the backseat, and a search of the vehicle turned up several prescription medications in a container not intended for prescriptions, as well as a red straw with “white powder” inside it. Police arrested Mother on suspicion of, among other things, impaired driving; she was later able to provide prescriptions for all the medications found in the car.

¶6 After a hearing, the court granted DCFS’s requested relief and placed the Children in the temporary custody of DCFS. The Children were removed from Mother’s care later that same day and, when caseworkers went to the home to effectuate the court’s order, they observed Mother “wobbling back and forth” and having “a hard time keeping her eyes open.” Initially, DCFS caseworkers—with Mother’s agreement—arranged a safety plan in which Mother would leave the home and the Children would stay there, in their familiar environment, cared for by Mother’s brother. But Mother knowingly failed to follow that plan, and returned to the home without permission two days later. As a result of Mother’s actions, DCFS removed the Children from the home and placed them in a group home for children.

¶7 But that placement was temporary, and DCFS eventually needed to move the Children to foster care placements. But because no available foster care placement could accommodate all seven Children, DCFS found it necessary to split the Children up into three different placements. The oldest two were placed in one foster home, the next three in a second, and the Subject Children in a third. Three months later, the oldest two were placed with a paternal aunt. For almost a year, the seven Children were separated into these three groups, and the different groups saw each other only during Parents’ supervised parent-time; they were sometimes permitted to call each other, but DCFS did not facilitate any in-person sibling visitation during this period.

¶8 At later hearings, the juvenile court adjudicated the children neglected as to Mother. The court noted L.H.’s “failure to thrive” and the incident involving the parked car, as well as Mother’s criminal history—which involved both drug crimes and retail theft—and her “history of mental health issues that [could] place the [C]hildren at risk of harm.” Despite these concerns, however, the goal remained reunification and, over the ensuing months, Parents complied with the court’s direction well enough that, by July 2018, the family was able to reunify in the home. For the next nine months, the family was together—for the most part[3]—and doing reasonably well, and DCFS anticipated that it might be able to close the case in the spring of 2019. But three events occurred in early 2019 that prompted DCFS to reconsider.

¶9 First, in March 2019, Father injured two of the older Children, and DCFS made a supported finding of physical abuse by Father. In the wake of this incident, and in an effort to avoid a second removal of the Children from the home, Father agreed to move out and to have only supervised visits with the Children. When caseworkers visited the home following Father’s departure, they became concerned about Mother’s ability to care for the Children on her own; in particular, caseworkers observed several incidents in which Mother left the younger Children unattended.

¶10 Second, in late April 2019, police were called to the home at 1:54 a.m. and found L.H., then just two years old, alone in the family car, which was parked in front of the house. Mother explained that she had been out shopping, gotten home late, and then taken a phone call while L.H. was still out in the car asleep.

¶11 Third, in early May 2019, Mother had an encounter with police while in her car at a fast-food restaurant. Officers observed Mother responding quietly and slowly to questions, and they discovered in the car a plastic bag and an unlabeled prescription bottle containing pills later identified as controlled substances. In addition, officers found a razor blade with white residue and a rolled-up dollar bill in the vehicle, evidence that suggested Mother had been misusing the drugs. Mother passed a field sobriety test, and officers later determined that she had valid prescriptions for the pills.

¶12 Following these incidents, DCFS filed a new petition, again seeking to remove the Children from the home and place them in state custody. The juvenile court again adjudicated the Children abused and neglected as to each Parent, and again placed them into the custody of DCFS. The Children were extremely emotional when they learned of the court’s order removing them from the home for a second time; in fact, officials even had to use physical force to restrain two of the older sons when the time came to take them into custody. This time, the seven Children were sent to four placements: one of the older sons was placed in a short-term behavioral health facility because of his aggressive behavior during the removal; two of the older sons were placed together; and the two next-oldest sons and the Subject Children were returned to their respective previous foster placements. Just a few weeks later, six of the Children—all but the oldest—were placed together with a single foster family in a different county, but this short reunion lasted only about two months.

¶13 In August 2019, with the school year approaching, Parents requested that the Children be returned to Utah County, a request that again required the Children to be split up. This time, the two oldest were placed together; the next three were placed together in a new placement; and the Subject Children were—for the first time—placed with the family (the Foster Family) who now wishes to adopt them.[4] The Subject Children bonded very quickly with Foster Family, calling the parents “mom and dad” within just a few weeks of being placed with them. Still, the primary goal remained reunification, and the court ordered additional reunification services. However, DCFS still did not facilitate any sibling visitation, but “left that mostly up to [the] foster parents.” Although the foster families initially managed “a few meet-ups on their own,” these efforts diminished over time, despite the absence of any indication that the Children—including the Subject Children—did not want to see each other.

¶14 At a court hearing in July 2019, shortly after the second removal, Mother’s attorney requested that Grandparents—who were and remain willing to take all seven of the Children—be considered as a possible placement. The court was open to this suggestion but, because Grandparents reside in New Mexico, the court ordered DCFS to “initiate an ICPC[5] as to” Grandparents. But DCFS delayed acting upon the court’s order for nearly four months, until late October 2019. DCFS attributed the delay, in part, to inadvertence related to a caseworker switch that was occurring right then, but the new caseworker later testified that her “understanding” of the situation was that DCFS “made a decision not to proceed” with the ICPC process “because reunification services were still being offered.” Owing at least in part to the four-month delay in getting it started, the ICPC report was still not completed by the beginning of the eventual termination trial in October 2020. On the third day of trial, a DCFS witness explained that New Mexico had just finished its end of the process and had given its “approval” the day before, and that DCFS had filled out its final form the night before.

¶15 The ICPC report, when it was finally completed, raised no concerns with regard to Grandparents, and concluded that their home would be an appropriate placement for the Children. Indeed, one of the DCFS caseworkers testified at trial that she had “no concerns directly about [Grandparents] and their ability to be a safe home.” But none of the Children were actually placed with Grandparents until October 2020, due in large part to the delays associated with completion of the ICPC report.

¶16 For several months following the second removal of the Children from the home, the primary permanency goal remained reunification, and DCFS continued to provide reunification services to the family. But in the fall of 2019, after yet another substance use incident involving Mother, DCFS became dissatisfied with Parents’ progress and asked the court to change the primary permanency goal. At a hearing held at the end of October 2019, the court agreed, terminated reunification services, and changed the primary permanency goal to adoption with a concurrent goal of permanent custody and guardianship. A few weeks later, the State filed a petition seeking the termination of Parents’ rights with regard to all seven Children.

¶17 The court originally scheduled the termination trial to occur at the end of February 2020, but the State requested a continuance because it was working on placing the Children with Grandparents, was waiting for the ICPC report, and wanted “to ensure [that] the Grandparents kn[ew] what they [were] getting into.” The court granted the State’s requested continuance and rescheduled the trial for the end of March 2020. On March 12— the day before all “non-essential” court hearings in Utah were postponed by administrative order[6] due to the emerging COVID19 pandemic—all parties filed a stipulated motion asking that the trial be postponed yet again because there was “an ICPC request pending approval” and it was “highly anticipated by all parties that the results of the ICPC [would] resolve all issues pending before the Court.” The court granted the stipulated motion and continued the trial, but did so without date because the termination trial was deemed “to be a non-essential hearing.” Eventually, after the COVID-related administrative order was amended to allow some non-essential hearings to go forward, the court rescheduled the trial for October 2020, to take place via videoconference.

¶18 In the meantime, despite the fact that the ICPC report was not yet completed, the five oldest Children visited Grandparents in New Mexico for several weeks during the summer of 2020. DCFS did not allow the Subject Children to participate in that visit, not based on any concern about Grandparents’ ability to provide appropriate care for them, but because caseworkers believed that such a lengthy visit away from Foster Family would be “scary and upsetting” to the Subject Children.

¶19 During this time, the parties and their attorneys were preparing for trial. From the beginning of the case, Parents had each been provided with a court-appointed lawyer (collectively, Appointed Counsel) to represent them. But toward the end of July 2020, Parents asked a private lawyer (Private Counsel) to represent them at trial.[7] Private Counsel agreed, and Parents paid him a retainer. Parents informed Private Counsel of upcoming pretrial disclosure deadlines, and even gave him a list of fifteen witnesses Parents wanted to call at trial; Private Counsel told them that he would file the appropriate documents and that they did not need to contact their Appointed Counsel. Eventually, Parents discovered that no pretrial disclosures had been made and no motions for extensions of the deadlines had been filed.

¶20 The trial was finally held in October 2020. The first day was spent solely trying to clear up confusion about who was representing Parents. Appointed Counsel appeared for trial, but they indicated that they were unprepared to proceed given the lack of communication from Parents over the weeks leading up to trial. Private Counsel appeared as well, even though he had not filed a notice of appearance, and requested that the trial be continued. The court—not knowing the full picture of what had happened behind the scenes with Parents’ attempts to change counsel—chastised Private Counsel for the “very, very late notice and request” and denied the continuance, expressing concern that eleven months had already passed since the trial had originally been set. The court then recessed for the day to allow the parties to confer and negotiate about possible permanency options short of termination of Parents’ rights.

¶21 Those negotiations bore fruit, at least in part. With Private Counsel assisting Parents, the parties were able to reach a stipulation that it was in the best interest of the oldest five Children to be placed with Grandparents under an order of permanent custody and guardianship. But the parties were unable to reach a similar stipulation with regard to the Subject Children, and therefore the trial went forward as to them. At that point, Private Counsel withdrew from representing Parents, leaving Appointed Counsel to handle the trial even though they had not—given the lack of communication with Parents—made many of the usual preparations for a trial.

¶22 In support of its case, the State presented testimony from four DCFS caseworkers, two therapists, Mother’s former and current probation officers, and the mother from the Foster Family (Foster Mother). Foster Mother testified that the Subject Children had developed a strong bond with Foster Family and “love[d] spending time with [them].” She also stated that the Subject Children refer to her three children as “their brother and sisters,” that “[n]obody is ever left out amongst the kids,” and that L.H. “believes he is part of [their] family” and “has said, on multiple occasions, that he’s already adopted.” The two therapists testified that the Subject Children did indeed have a strong bond with Foster Family; one of them stated that it was “the most secure attachment [she had] ever witnessed . . . between a foster parent and a foster child,” and offered her view that it would be “hugely devastating” for them if they were removed from Foster Family.

¶23 Several of the caseworkers testified about the strength of the bond between the Subject Children and their older siblings, and they painted a picture in which those bonds were originally very strong but had begun to weaken over time as the Subject Children spent less time with their siblings and became more attached to Foster Family. One of the first caseworkers to work with the family testified that the bonds had been strong among all the Children, including the Subject Children. Another testified about how emotional the older children were upon learning that they were to be removed from the home a second time and again separated from most of their siblings. But another caseworker— who had been assigned to the family in 2019—testified that the Subject Children’s bond to their older siblings was weakening as they became more attached to Foster Family. In general, the caseworkers voiced concerns about separating siblings, offering their view that ordinarily “children should stay together” and that placing siblings together “is understood under most circumstances . . . to be beneficial to the kids.”

¶24 Parents were prohibited from introducing many of their witnesses because they had failed to make their required pretrial disclosures. In particular, Parents were prepared to call one of the Subject Children’s former foster parents as well as some of the older Children, who would each have apparently testified that the bonds between the Subject Children and their siblings had been, and still remained, very strong. But the court refused to allow Parents to call these witnesses because they had not been timely disclosed. The court did, however, allow Parents to offer testimony of their own, and to call Grandparents to testify.

¶25 For their part, Parents testified about how closely bonded the Children had been before DCFS became involved. Father testified that the older siblings had expressed a desire to all be together and noted that, if they were placed with Grandparents, the Subject Children would not only be with siblings, but also with cousins, and would have a large network of familial support. Mother testified that she, too, wanted the Children to be kept together and stated that she knew she was “not what [the Children] deserve” “right now,” but offered her view that, at some point in the future, after she has “[gotten] [her]self together,” she “will be what’s best for them.”

¶26 Grandfather testified that he and Grandmother told DCFS, right from the start, that they were willing to take all seven children. He explained that they were accustomed to large families, having raised eight children of their own; he noted that two of those children lived nearby, meaning that the Children, if they lived with him, would have aunts, uncles, and cousins in the vicinity. Grandfather testified that he and Grandmother had renovated their house to accommodate all seven children and that they were able, financially and otherwise, to take on the responsibility. He acknowledged that raising seven children was not how he had originally envisioned spending his retirement years, but he offered his view that “no matter what else I could be doing in the next ten or twenty years,” what mattered most to him was “that [he] could be doing something to make a difference in the lives of these kids.” Grandmother testified that she had bonded with A.H. during her three-week stay with the family after L.H. was born, and she offered her view that it had been difficult to get Foster Mother to facilitate telephonic or virtual visits between the older siblings and the Subject Children during the older siblings’ summer 2020 visit to New Mexico.

¶27 After trial, the court took the matter under advisement for six months, issuing a written decision in May 2021. In that ruling, the court terminated Parents’ rights as to A.H. and L.H. It found sufficient statutory grounds for termination of Parents’ parental rights, including Father’s physical abuse of some of the older sons, Parents’ neglect of L.H. when he was malnourished and failing to thrive as an infant, and neglect of the Children for failing to protect them from Mother’s substance use. Similarly, the court found that Mother had neglected the Children by failing to properly feed L.H., insufficiently supervising the Subject Children, and improperly using drugs. Moreover, the court found that Mother’s “substance abuse and criminal behavior” rendered her unfit as a parent.

¶28 The court next found that DCFS had made “reasonable efforts towards the permanency goal of reunification.” It noted that DCFS has been involved with the family since April 2017 and, “during the arc of the case, circumstances changed frequently and there were many setbacks in the attempts to reunify the children with the parents.” The court concluded that “reunification efforts were not successful through no fault of DCFS.”

¶29 Finally, as to best interest, the court determined—in keeping with the parties’ stipulation—that, with regard to the oldest five siblings, “a permanent custody and guardianship arrangement” with Grandparents “would serve their best interests as well as, or better than, an adoption would.” But the court saw it differently when it came to the Subject Children, concluding that their best interest would be best served by the facilitation of an adoption by Foster Family, and that termination of Parents’ rights was strictly necessary to advance that interest. The court reached that decision even though it meant permanently separating the Children, and even though the court acknowledged that Grandparents were “certainly appropriate caregivers.” The court offered several reasons for its decision. First, it noted that the Subject Children were very young—A.H. was two-and-a-half years old, and L.H. was eight months old, when they were first removed from the family home—and that, as a result, they “had a very short time to be with their older siblings.” Second, the court concluded that the strength of the bond between the Subject Children and their siblings was not particularly strong, opining that the Subject Children “have little beyond a biological connection” to their siblings. In this vein, the court downplayed any positive effects that might come from keeping the Children together, describing the older siblings as “a large and unruly group” that “cannot be depended upon to protect” the Subject Children. Third, the court discussed the unquestionably strong bond that the Subject Children had formed with Foster Family. Fourth, the court concluded that disruption of the Subject Children’s “placement at this time would be very detrimental” and would “put them at unnecessary risk for future emotional and mental health issues.” Fifth, the court expressed concern that, absent termination, Parents would retain some level of parental rights and might attempt “to regain custody of the [C]hildren in the future,” an eventuality the court believed would “pose a risk to” the Subject Children. And finally, the court emphasized the importance of stability, stating that “the [Subject Children] and [Foster Family] deserve, and indeed need, the highest level of legal protection available, which would be achieved through adoption.” For these reasons, the juvenile court terminated Parents’ rights with regard to the Subject Children.

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶30 Parents now appeal the juvenile court’s order terminating their parental rights, but their appeal is narrowly focused. Parents do not challenge the juvenile court’s determination that statutory grounds exist for terminating their parental rights. However, Parents do challenge the court’s determination that termination of their parental rights was strictly necessary and in the best interest of the Subject Children. We review a lower court’s “best interest” determination deferentially, and we will overturn it “only if it either failed to consider all of the facts or considered all of the facts and its decision was nonetheless against the clear weight of the evidence.” In re E.R., 2021 UT 36, ¶¶ 22, 31, 496 P.3d 58 (quotation simplified). But “such deference is not absolute.” Id. ¶ 32. We do not afford “a high degree of deference” to such determinations; rather, we simply apply “the same level of deference given to all lower court findings of fact and ‘fact-like’ determinations of mixed questions.” Id. ¶¶ 29–30. In addition, our deference must be guided by the relevant evidentiary standard applicable in termination of parental rights cases: the “clear and convincing” evidence standard. See In re G.D., 2021 UT 19, ¶ 73, 491 P.3d 867. “Although we defer to juvenile courts’ [best-interest] determinations, in reviewing their conclusions we do so with an exacting focus on the proper evidentiary standard,” and “we will not only consider whether any relevant facts have been left out but assess whether the juvenile court’s determination that the ‘clear and convincing’ standard had been met goes against the clear weight of the evidence.” Id.[8]

ANALYSIS

¶31 The right of parents to raise their children is one of the most important rights any person enjoys, and that right is among the fundamental rights clearly protected by our federal and state constitutions. See Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57, 65–66 (2000) (stating that “the interest of parents in the care, custody, and control of their children” is “perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests” the court recognizes); see also In re J.P., 648 P.2d 1364, 1372 (Utah 1982) (“A parent has a fundamental right, protected by the Constitution, to sustain his relationship with his child.” (quotation simplified)). Our legislature has expressed similar sentiments, declaring that “[u]nder both the United States Constitution and the constitution of this state, a parent possesses a fundamental liberty interest in the care, custody, and management of the parent’s child,” see Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-104(1) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022), and that this interest “does not cease to exist simply because . . . a parent may fail to be a model parent,” id. § 80-4-104(4)(a)(i).

¶32 The “termination” of these fundamental “family ties . . . may only be done for compelling reasons.” See id. § 80-4-104(1). Under our law, a parent’s rights are subject to termination only if both parts of a two-part test are satisfied. First, a court must find that one or more statutory grounds for termination are present; these include such things as abandonment, abuse, or neglect. See id. § 80-4-301(1). Second, a court must find that termination of the parent’s rights is in the best interest of the children. See In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶¶ 19–20, 472 P.3d 827. The party seeking termination of a parent’s rights bears the burden of proof on both parts of this test. See In re G.D., 2021 UT 19, ¶ 43, 491 P.3d 867 (stating that “petitioners in termination proceedings must prove termination is warranted”). And that party must make this required showing “by clear and convincing evidence.” Id.see also Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745, 769–70 (1982) (concluding that the U.S. Constitution requires application of a “clear and convincing evidence” standard in parental termination proceedings).

¶33 As noted, Parents do not challenge the juvenile court’s determination that statutory grounds for termination exist in this case. Their challenge is limited to the second part of the test: whether termination of their rights is, under the circumstances presented here, in the best interest of the Subject Children.

¶34 “The best interest of the child has always been a paramount or ‘polar star’ principle in cases involving termination of parental rights,” although it is not “the sole criterion.” In re J.P., 648 P.2d at 1368. The assessment of what is in a child’s best interest is, by definition, “a wide-ranging inquiry that asks a court to weigh the entirety of the circumstances” surrounding a child’s situation, including “the physical, intellectual, social, moral, and educational training and general welfare and happiness of the child.” See In re J.M., 2020 UT App 52, ¶¶ 35, 37, 463 P.3d 66 (quotation simplified). Because children inhabit dynamic environments in which their “needs and circumstances” are “constantly evolving,” “the best-interest inquiry is to be undertaken in a present-tense fashion,” as of the date of the trial or hearing held to decide the question. See In re Z.C.W., 2021 UT App 98, ¶¶ 12–13, 500 P.3d 94 (quotation simplified).

¶35 Our legislature has provided two related pieces of important guidance on the best-interest question. First, it has expressed a strong preference for families to remain together, establishing something akin to a presumption that a child’s best interest will “usually” be served by remaining with the child’s parents:

It is in the best interest and welfare of a child to be raised under the care and supervision of the child’s natural parents. A child’s need for a normal family life in a permanent home, and for positive, nurturing family relationships is usually best met by the child’s natural parents.

Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-104(8). In that same statutory section, our legislature also emphasized that, “[w]herever possible, family life should be strengthened and preserved.” See id. § 80-4-104(12). And the “family” includes the child’s parents as well as the child’s siblings; indeed, in the related child custody context, our legislature has specifically identified “the relative benefit of keeping siblings together” as a factor that the court “may consider” when evaluating “the best interest of the child.” See id. § 30-3-10(2)(o) (LexisNexis 2019).[9]

¶36 Second, our legislature has mandated that termination of parental rights is permissible only when such termination is “strictly necessary.” See id. § 80-4-301(1). Our supreme court has interpreted this statutory requirement to mean that “termination must be strictly necessary to promote the child’s best interest.” See In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 60. Indeed, a court’s inquiry into the strict necessity of termination should take place as part of the bestinterest inquiry that comprises the second part of the termination test. See id. ¶ 76 (stating that, “as part of [the best-interest inquiry], a court must specifically address whether termination is strictly necessary to promote the child’s welfare and best interest”).

¶37 In assessing whether termination is strictly necessary to promote a child’s best interest, courts “shall consider” whether “sufficient efforts were dedicated to reunification” of the family, and whether “the efforts to place the child with kin who have, or are willing to come forward to care for the child, were given due weight.” See Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-104(12)(b). Indeed,

this part of the inquiry also requires courts to explore whether other feasible options exist that could address the specific problems or issues facing the family, short of imposing the ultimate remedy of terminating the parent’s rights. In some cases, alternatives will be few and unsatisfactory, and termination of the parent’s rights will be the option that is in the child’s best interest. But in other cases, courts should consider whether other less permanent arrangements might serve the child’s needs just as well.

In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 67 (quotation simplified). Courts that order termination of parental rights without appropriately exploring “feasible alternatives to termination” have not properly applied the second part of the two-part termination test. See, e.g.In re H.F., 2019 UT App 204, ¶ 17, 455 P.3d 1098 (reversing and remanding a juvenile court’s termination order because, among other things, “the court’s determination that termination was strictly necessary was not supported by an appropriate exploration of feasible alternatives to termination”).

¶38 In this case, Parents challenge the juvenile court’s best interest determination, including its subsidiary conclusion that termination of their rights was strictly necessary to promote the best interest of the Subject Children. As discussed herein, we find merit in Parents’ challenge. We recognize that we are reviewing the juvenile court’s determinations deferentially, and we do not lightly reverse a court’s best-interest determination. But the facts of this case simply do not amount to strict necessity, and therefore the best-interest requirement is not met. Stated another way, the evidence presented at trial did not constitute clear and convincing evidence that termination of Parents’ rights to the Subject Children would be in the best interest of those children. Under the specific circumstances of this case, the juvenile court’s determination was against the clear weight of the evidence, and on that basis we reverse.

¶39 In its written decision, the juvenile court set forth several reasons for its conclusion that termination of Parents’ rights was strictly necessary to promote the Subject Children’s best interest.[10] We discuss those reasons, in turn. Although the topics that the juvenile court focused on are certainly appropriate topics to consider when examining best interest, we conclude that the facts underlying those topics—in this case—do not support a determination that termination was strictly necessary to promote the best interest of the Subject Children.

¶40 The court began its best-interest examination by discussing the ages of the Subject Children and, relatedly, the fact that the bonds between the Subject Children and their siblings had deteriorated. The Subject Children are, as noted, the youngest of the seven Children and were very young—A.H. was two-and-ahalf years old, and L.H. was eight months old—when they were first removed from the family home. The juvenile court noted that, as a result, they “did not have the opportunity to live with their parents for as long as their older siblings” and “had a very short time to be with their older siblings.” These facts are unquestionably true, and one of the consequences of these facts is that the Subject Children had less-developed bonds with Parents and with their siblings than the other Children did. But this will almost always be true when children are removed from their homes as newborns or toddlers, and courts must be careful not to overemphasize the significance of the deterioration of familial bonds—particularly sibling bonds—when that deterioration is the result of court-ordered removal from the home at an early age. See, e.g.In re N.M., 186 A.3d 998, 1014 n.30 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2018) (vacating an order terminating parental rights in part because the lower court’s decisions during the case had been “designed to affect the bond between” the parents and the child “so that termination would be the natural outcome of the proceedings”).

¶41 The facts of this case present an interesting case study. The next-oldest of the Children was born in April 2013, and is less than two years older than A.H. He was only four years old at the time of the first removal, and yet the juvenile court determined that it would not be in his best interest for Parents’ rights to be terminated. Many of the differences—especially in terms of the strength of the sibling bonds—between the Subject Children’s situation and that of their barely-older brother are largely the result of decisions made by DCFS and the court during the pendency of these proceedings. In a situation like this, a court must be careful not to ascribe too much weight to circumstances that are of the court’s own making.

¶42 We do not doubt the juvenile court’s finding that, by the time of trial, the bonds between the Subject Children and the other Children were not as strong as the bonds between the five oldest Children. We take at face value the court’s statement that the Subject Children, at the time of trial, had “little beyond a biological connection” to their older siblings. But even the biological connection between siblings matters. The connection between siblings is, for many people, the longest-lasting connection they will have in life. Indeed, “the importance of sibling relationships is well recognized by . . . courts and social science scholars,” because “a sibling relationship can be an independent emotionally supporting factor for children in ways quite distinctive from other relationships, and there are benefits and experiences that a child reaps from a relationship with his or her brother(s) or sister(s) which truly cannot be derived from any other.” In re D.C., 4 A.3d 1004, 1012 (N.J. 2010) (quotation simplified); see also Aaron Edward Brown, He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother: The Need for a Statutory Enabling of Sibling Visitation, 27 B.U. Pub. Int. L.J. 1, 5 (2018) (noting that “[t]oday’s children are more likely to grow up with a sibling than a father,” and that “[t]he sibling relationship is generally regarded to be the longest relationship a person will have because the relationship will typically last longer than a relationship with a parent or spouse”). Such bonds are often especially important “to children who experience chaotic circumstances” like abuse or neglect, because “in such circumstances, they learn very early to depend on and cooperate with each other to cope with their common problems.” In re D.C., 4 A.3d at 1013 (quotation simplified); see also In re Welfare of Child of G.R., No. A17-0995, 2017 WL 5661606, at *5 (Minn. Ct. App. Nov. 27, 2017) (“The sibling relationship is especially important for a young child with an unstable family structure as these siblings can provide secure emotional attachment, nurturing, and solace.”). Indeed, trial testimony from the DCFS caseworkers mirrored these sentiments, with the caseworkers stating that “children should stay together” and that placing siblings together “is understood under most circumstances . . . to be beneficial to the kids.”

¶43 And there is nothing in the record before us that indicates significant trouble among the sibling ranks. To the contrary, by all accounts the Children are quite loyal to one another, as best exemplified by their collective reaction—outrage—to being removed from the family home, and from each other, a second time in 2019. The juvenile court referred to them as a “large and unruly group,” but that description would seem to fit almost any group of seven siblings. The court also appeared concerned about “significant sibling rivalr[ies]” among some of the older Children but, again, we would be surprised to find a seven-member sibling group that didn’t have significant sibling rivalries. The court also offered its view that “[t]he older boys cannot be depended upon to protect” the Subject Children, but we think that’s an unfair expectation, as the court itself noted. And there are no allegations (for example, of intra-sibling abuse) about or among this sibling group that would counsel against keeping the group together.

¶44 We are also troubled, under the unusual circumstances of this case, by the fact that the deterioration of the Subject Children’s bonds with their siblings was due, in not-insignificant part, to the way this case was litigated, even apart from the removal and placement decisions. Notably, DCFS did not take any systematic steps to facilitate visitation between the three (and sometimes four) sibling groups that were placed in different homes, but instead “left that mostly up to [the] foster parents.”[11] In particular, DCFS did not allow the Subject Children to visit Grandparents with the rest of the Children during the summer of 2020. And Grandmother offered her perception that it had been difficult to get Foster Mother to facilitate telephonic or virtual visits between the older siblings and the Subject Children during the older siblings’ summer 2020 visit. Under these circumstances, it is no wonder that the Subject Children’s bond with their siblings began to wane. It is intuitive that relationships can become more distant without meaningful contact. To at least some degree, the deterioration of the sibling bonds is attributable to DCFS’s (and the various foster parents’) actions in failing to facilitate regular sibling visitation.

¶45 In addition, DCFS’s delay in starting the ICPC process appears to have also played a role in the way this case turned out. In July 2019, the juvenile court ordered that “an ICPC” be conducted to explore the possibility of placing the Children with Grandparents in New Mexico. But DCFS—perhaps intentionally, according to one of the caseworkers—delayed acting upon the court’s ICPC order for nearly four months, until late October 2019. Delays in obtaining ICPC reports are not necessarily uncommon, and can be just an unfortunate part of the process of communicating between agencies of different states. But such delays are troubling when they are attributable to a state agency’s refusal to even get the process started, despite a court order requiring it to do so. Although DCFS could not have known it at the time, its failure to timely initiate the ICPC process may have mattered more in this case than in others, because of the eventual emergence, in early 2020, of the COVID-19 pandemic.

¶46 Recall that, in the fall of 2019 and early 2020, after DCFS filed its termination petition, all parties were on the same page: they were working toward placing the Children—all of them— with Grandparents in New Mexico. Indeed, it was “highly anticipated by all parties that the results of the ICPC [would] resolve all issues pending before the Court.” But before a placement with Grandparents could happen, the ICPC report needed to be completed, and the parties twice stipulated to continuances of the termination trial specifically so that the ICPC report could be finished, and so that they could “ensure [that] the Grandparents kn[ew] what they [were] getting into.” These continuances resulted in the trial being rescheduled for late March 2020, which in turn resulted in the trial being postponed again because of the emergence of the pandemic. The ICPC report was not completed until October 2020, and by then, the Subject Children had been with Foster Family for more than a year and had begun to develop meaningful bonds there. Under these circumstances, it is hard not to wonder what might have happened if DCFS had begun the ICPC process in July 2019, as it had been ordered to do.[12]

¶47 Next, the court—appropriately—discussed at some length the Subject Children’s bond with Foster Family. There is no doubt that Foster Family is an appropriate adoptive placement, and that Foster Parents are doing a wonderful job caring for the Subject Children. The court made unchallenged findings in this regard, noting that Foster Parents are the ones “who care for them on a daily basis, feed them, hug them, and put them to bed,” and that, from the Subject Children’s point of view, Foster Parents “are their parents.” We do not minimize the significance of these findings. They are important, and are a necessary condition to any adoption-related termination of parental rights. After all, if an adoptive placement is not working out, an adoption into that placement is very unlikely to be finalized.

¶48 But while the existence of an acceptable adoptive placement is a necessary condition to any adoption-related termination, it is not a sufficient one. At some level, we certainly understand the impulse to want to leave children in—and perhaps make permanent—a putative adoptive placement in which the children are thriving. And we recognize—as the juvenile court observed here—that taking a child out of a loving adoptive placement in order to reunite the child with family can be detrimental to the child, at least in the short term. But in order to terminate parental rights to facilitate an adoption, a court must have before it more than just a loving and functional adoptive placement from which it would be emotionally difficult to remove the child. Termination of parental rights must be “strictly necessary to promote the . . . welfare and best interest” of the children in question. See In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 76, 472 P.3d 827. And in order to reach that conclusion, a court must do more than make a finding about the acceptability of the adoptive placement—it must examine potential options, short of termination, that might also further the best interest of the children in question. Id. ¶¶ 66–67. In particular, and especially in light of our legislature’s guidance that families should be kept together whenever possible, see Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-104(8), (12), courts must investigate kinship placement possibilities, including options for permanent guardianship. And if one of those placements turns out to be an option that can promote the child’s best interest “just as well,” then it is by definition not “strictly necessary” to terminate the parent’s rights. See In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶¶ 66–67.

¶49 Moreover, in this context courts must keep in mind the “clear and convincing” evidentiary standard. See In re G.D., 2021 UT 19, ¶ 44, 491 P.3d 867. If there exists a completely appropriate kinship placement through which the family can remain intact, the “strictly necessary” showing becomes significantly more difficult to make. We stop well short of holding that, where an acceptable kinship placement exists, it can never be strictly necessary to terminate a parent’s rights. But in such cases, the proponent of termination must show, by clear and convincing evidence, that the adoptive placement is materially better for the children than the kinship placement is. After all, if the two placements can each “equally protect[] and benefit[]” the child’s best interest, then by definition there does not exist clear and convincing evidence in favor of terminating a parent’s rights. See In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 66. And in this case, the necessary showing was not made.

¶50 Perhaps most significantly, there is not a hint of any evidence in the record before us that placement with Grandparents is flawed. The ICPC report (finally) came back clean; that report raised no concerns with regard to Grandparents, and concluded that their home would be an appropriate placement for the Children. The five older siblings had a lengthy visit with Grandparents in the summer of 2020, and all went well. And just before trial, the parties stipulated that the five oldest

Children should be placed with Grandparents on a long-term basis, subject to a permanent custody and guardianship arrangement. The court approved this stipulation, agreeing with the parties “that a permanent custody and guardianship arrangement” would serve the best interest of the five oldest Children. It even found that Grandparents are “certainly appropriate caregivers.” And on appeal, all parties agree that Grandparents are acceptable and loving caregivers; no party has even attempted to take issue with Grandparents’ ability to provide a loving and stable home for the Children. There is no dispute that Grandparents have the capacity and ability, from a financial standpoint as well as otherwise, to care for all seven Children, and stand ready and willing to do so, regardless of whether that takes the form of an adoption or a permanent guardianship arrangement.

¶51 The juvenile court opted to go in a different direction, primarily for three related reasons. First, it emphasized how “detrimental” and “destabilizing” it would be for the Subject Children to be removed from Foster Family. Second, the court emphasized that the Subject Children need stability and permanency, and determined that adoption—as opposed to guardianship—could best provide that stability. Third, the court expressed concern that, absent an adoption, Parents might attempt—at some later point in time—to get back into the lives of the Subject Children, and perhaps even “regain custody,” an eventuality the court believed would “pose a risk to” the Subject Children. In our view, these stated reasons do not constitute clear and convincing reasons to terminate Parents’ rights.

¶52 With regard to permanency and stability, our supreme court has recently clarified that the mere fact that adoptions—as a category—provide more permanency and stability than guardianships do is not enough to satisfy the statutory “strictly necessary” standard. See In re J.A.L., 2022 UT 12, ¶ 24, 506 P.3d 606. In that case, the court held that the lower court fell into legal error in concluding that [a guardianship option] would not provide the “same degree of permanency as an adoption.” That is not the question under our law. A permanent guardianship by definition does not offer the same degree of permanency as an adoption. And there is always some risk that the permanent guardianship could come to an end, or be affected by visitation by the parent. If these categorical concerns were enough, termination and adoption would be strictly necessary across the board. But such categorical analysis is not in line with the statutory standard.

Id. The court then noted that, as part of the “strictly necessary” analysis, a court “must assess whether a permanent guardianship can equally protect and benefit the children in the case before it.” Id. ¶ 25 (quotation simplified). The court made clear that the statutory requirements were “not met by the categorical concern that a permanent guardianship is not as stable or permanent as an adoption,” and instead “require[] analysis of the particularized circumstances of the case before the court.” Id.

¶53 As applied here, this recent guidance renders insufficient—and more or less beside the point—the juvenile court’s apparent belief that an adoption was better than a guardianship simply because it was more permanent and more stable. All adoptions are at least somewhat more permanent than guardianships, and therefore that conclusion, standing alone, is not enough to constitute clear and convincing evidence supporting termination. It is certainly appropriate for courts in termination cases to discuss the potential need for permanency and stability. But in doing so, and when selecting an adoptive option over a guardianship option, a court in a termination case must articulate case-specific reasons why the added layer of permanency that adoptions offer is important and why adoption would better serve the best interest of the children in question than the guardianship option would.

¶54 The court’s concern about the possibility of Parents reentering the Children’s lives is, on this record, not an adequate case-specific reason. As an initial matter, it—like the lack of permanency—is a feature of the entire category of guardianships. It will always be true that, in a guardianship, a parent retains what the juvenile court here referred to as “residual rights,” while in an adoption the parent’s rights are terminated forever. This kind of categorical concern is not enough to constitute clear and convincing evidence in support of termination.

¶55 Moreover, we question whether—in many cases, including this one—a parent’s desire to re-engage in their child’s life should be viewed as negatively as the juvenile court appeared to view it. Here, we return to the statutory guidance offered by our legislature: that “family life should be strengthened and preserved” “[w]herever possible,” and that it is usually “in the best interest and welfare of a child to be raised under the care and supervision of the child’s natural parents.” See Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-104(8), (12). We note our own observation that, “[i]n many cases, children will benefit from having more people—rather than fewer—in their lives who love them and care about them.” See In re B.T.B., 2018 UT App 157, ¶ 55, 436 P.3d 206, aff’d, 2020 UT 60, 472 P.3d 827. And we acknowledge Parents’ point that a parent whose child has been placed in a permanent guardianship arrangement in a child welfare proceeding has no independent right to petition to change or dissolve the guardianship. See Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-357(3)(d) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022). Only the guardian has that right. See id. And there is no evidence, in this record, that Grandparents will be particularly susceptible to inappropriate pressure from Parents to seek a change in the terms of any guardianship arrangement. In addition, there is no evidence that, if the Subject Children were placed into a guardianship with Grandparents, it would be harmful to them for Parents to retain the possibility of maintaining some form of contact with them (as they have with regard to the other Children), as supervised by court order and by Grandparents acting as guardians.[13] In other words, the juvenile court did not emphasize any case-specific issues that make us especially concerned about the possibility of Parents attempting to re-enter the Children’s lives at some point in the future.

¶56 We are thus left with the court’s concern—shared by the Subject Children’s therapists—about the disruption in the Subject Children’s lives that would be caused by removing them from Foster Family and placing them with Grandparents, alongside their siblings. This is of course a legitimate concern, and one that courts should take into account in situations like this. If and when the Subject Children are ever placed into a guardianship with Grandparents, and taken from Foster Family, that will no doubt be traumatic for them, at least in the short term. We acknowledge the validity of such concerns, and do not intend to minimize them. But in this case, focusing too much on this more-present possibility of emotional trauma risks minimizing the longer-term emotional trauma that permanent severance of the sibling bonds will likely someday trigger. In this specific and unique situation, the juvenile court’s discussion of potential emotional trauma associated with removal from Foster Family does not constitute clear and convincing evidence supporting termination.

¶57 For all of these reasons, we conclude that the juvenile court’s best-interest determination was against the clear weight of the evidence presented at trial. The State failed to prove, by clear and convincing evidence, that termination of Parents’ rights to Subject Children was strictly necessary, especially given the presence of another available and acceptable option—permanent guardianship with Grandparents, alongside their five siblings— that would not require permanent severance of familial bonds and that would serve the Subject Children’s best interest at least as well as adoption. See In re G.D., 2021 UT 19, ¶ 75 (“[W]hen two placement options would equally benefit a child, the strictlynecessary requirement operates as a preference for a placement option that does not necessitate termination over an option that does.”). Under the unique circumstances of this case, termination of Parents’ rights is not strictly necessary to promote the Subject Children’s best interest.

CONCLUSION

¶58 Accordingly, we reverse the juvenile court’s order of termination, and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. We offer a reminder that best-interest determinations are to be conducted in present-tense fashion, as of the date of the trial or hearing convened to consider the matter. See In re Z.C.W., 2021 UT App 98, ¶ 14, 500 P.3d 94. Our holding today is that, based on the evidence presented at trial in October

2020, termination of Parents’ rights was not strictly necessary to promote the Subject Children’s best interest. On remand, the juvenile court should re-assess best interest. If nothing has materially changed since October 2020, then we expect the court to enter orders designed to work (perhaps quite gradually, in the court’s discretion) toward integration of the Subject Children into a placement with Grandparents, alongside their siblings. But if there is evidence that matters have materially changed since October 2020, the court may need to consider that evidence in some fashion, see id. ¶ 15, and re-assess best interest based on the situation at the time of the hearing.

 

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

[2] In this opinion, for ease of reference, we refer to E.H.’s paternal grandparents as “Grandparents,” and we refer to them individually as “Grandmother” and “Grandfather,” even though any biological relationship exists only with E.H. and not with the other six Children.

 

[3] L.H. was removed from the home for a one-month period during this time, again because of concerns that he was malnourished and “failing to thrive.”

[4] These arrangements were a bit fluid during this period—at one point, the oldest four Children were combined into one placement, and the fifth-oldest was placed with Foster Family along with the Subject Children. However, the mother of the Foster Family testified at trial that, after a while, the fifth child often got upset at how his younger siblings were becoming so attached to Foster Family, and so she eventually asked that he be placed elsewhere.

 

[5] The abbreviation “ICPC” refers to the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children, an interstate agreement that has been adopted by all fifty states. See Utah Code Ann. § 62A-4a-701 (LexisNexis 2018). The ICPC allows child welfare agencies from different states to more easily cooperate regarding placement of children across state lines.

 

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

[7] The facts recited in this paragraph regarding Parents’ communications with their various attorneys are not in the record, but are included in the materials submitted on appeal in support of Parents’ claim of ineffective assistance of counsel.

[8] Parents also raise other issues, including an assertion that Private Counsel rendered deficient performance that prejudiced them at the termination trial. Although we acknowledge the strength of Parents’ assertion that Private Counsel rendered ineffective assistance, and discuss in passing the problems they had with him, we need not reach the merits of that claim or any of their other claims because we reverse on the merits of their main claim.

[9] A court’s consideration of the importance of sibling relationships is arguably even more important in the termination/adoption context than it is in the child custody context, simply because of the permanency of termination and adoption. When split custody is ordered in a domestic case, the children will not live together all the time, but their overarching family relationship remains intact; they will remain siblings and, depending on visitation schedules, they will likely see each other several times each month. But when—as in this case—siblings are separated for purposes of adoption, the familial bonds, including the sibling bonds, are more permanently affected.

[10] Parents assert that the juvenile court erred by limiting its best interest inquiry to the Subject Children, rather than considering whether termination of Parents’ rights to the Subject Children was in the best interest of all the Children. Although we are far from persuaded by Parents’ assertion, we need not further concern ourselves with it, because for purposes of our analysis we assume, without deciding, that the juvenile court properly focused on the Subject Children when conducting the best-interest inquiry. Even assuming the propriety of that more limited focus, we nevertheless find the court’s ultimate best-interest determination unsupported by clear and convincing evidence.

[11] DCFS’s actions in this regard were arguably contrary to statute. See Utah Code Ann. § 62A-4a-205(12)(a) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022) (stating that DCFS must “incorporate reasonable efforts to . . . provide sibling visitation when siblings are separated due to foster care or adoptive placement”); see also id. § 80-3307(12)(a) (requiring DCFS to “incorporate into the child and family plan reasonable efforts to provide sibling visitation if . . . siblings are separated due to foster care or adoptive placement”).

[12] The juvenile court addressed this issue in its written ruling, and downplayed the significance of the delayed ICPC report. It expressed its view that, even if DCFS had timely requested the ICPC report, the case would not have come out differently. First, it assumed that the ICPC process would have taken a year to complete even if the report had been requested in July 2019. We wonder about that, and in particular wonder whether any of the delays in completing the ICPC report were due to the emergence of the pandemic. But more to the point, the court indicated that it would have made the same termination decision in July 2020 as it made in October 2020. However, the court does not account for the fact that all parties to the case, including DCFS, were on the same page at least as late as March 12, 2020, and anticipated placing all the Children with Grandparents as soon as the ICPC report came back. Had the ICPC report come back significantly earlier, while the parties were still in agreement, things almost certainly would have been different. We doubt that the juvenile court would have rejected the parties’ stipulation on that point, just as it did not reject the parties’ October 2020 stipulation regarding the five oldest Children.

[13] Indeed, concerns about Parents potentially getting back into the lives of the Subject Children appear especially overblown under the facts of this case, given the fact that the juvenile court approved the stipulation for a permanent guardianship arrangement for the other five Children. The court does not convincingly explain why it is concerned for the Subject Children and not the others, stating only that the potential for the Parents to “regain custody . . . might not be devastating for the older children, but it will certainly be devastating to” the Subject Children. Presumably, this is a reference to the fact that the Subject Children are younger and have less of a pre-existing relationship with Parents and the other Children, an aspect of this case that we have already discussed.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

In Re K.T. 2023 UT App 5 – Substantiation of Child Abuse

2023 UT App 5

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF K.T.,

A PERSON UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

J.K., Appellant, v. STATE OF UTAH, Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20210553-CA

Filed January 20, 2023

Third District Juvenile Court, Summit Department

The Honorable Elizabeth M. Knight No. 1190244

Gregory W. Stevens, Attorney for Appellant

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

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

CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, Judge:

¶1 Appellant J.K. (Mother) appeals the juvenile court’s order substantiating several database findings of abuse entered by the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS). We affirm.

BACKGROUND

¶2      In August 2020, the State filed with the juvenile court a Verified Petition for Protective Supervision requesting the court to find Mother’s son, K.T., “abused, neglected and/or dependent and to grant protective supervision of [K.T.] to DCFS.” The petition alleged that DCFS had on three separate occasions previously supported findings of abuse of K.T. against Mother.[1] In addition to the request for protective supervision of K.T., the petition requested that the juvenile court enter an order “[s]ubstantiating[2] the DCFS supported finding(s) pursuant to Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-323,” now recodified at Utah Code section 80-3-404.[3]

¶3 In March 2021, following discussions with Mother, the State filed with the juvenile court an Amended Verified Petition for Protective Supervision. The amended petition again asked the court to find K.T. “neglected and/or dependent and to grant protective supervision of [K.T.] to DCFS,” but it eliminated the prior request that the court find K.T. to be “abused.” The amended petition repeated the original petition’s request that the court enter a finding “[s]ubstantiating the DCFS supported finding(s) pursuant to Utah Code” section 80-3-404.

¶4 The parties thereafter appeared before the juvenile court to adjudicate the amended petition. At the outset of the hearing, the State indicated it had reached an agreement with Mother to submit the amended petition “for [a] finding of neglect” and requested, without objection, that “the issue of substantiating the DCFS supported findings” be “set over.” Thereafter, Mother admitted many of the allegations of the amended petition. But pursuant to rule 34(e) of the Utah Rules of Juvenile Procedure, she declined to either admit or deny the allegations that DCFS had previously supported findings of abuse by Mother against K.T.[4] The parties then presented argument. The State argued for a finding of neglect, while Mother argued for a finding of dependency. After the hearing, the court entered a finding of neglect[5] and granted “[p]rotective supervision of [K.T.] . . . to DCFS.”[6] The court “reserve[d] the issue of substantiating the DCFS supported findings for the next hearing.”

¶5 In June 2021, the case came before the juvenile court for a disposition hearing, during which the State requested that the court address the substantiation issue. The court entertained argument and took the matter under advisement. It thereafter entered a written order substantiating the three DCFS supported findings of abuse by Mother contained in both the original and amended petitions. Specifically, it substantiated the supported findings that K.T. had suffered emotional abuse, physical abuse, and chronic emotional abuse.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶6 Mother now appeals the juvenile court’s order substantiating the DCFS supported findings of abuse and raises three issues for our review. The first two issues present questions as to the statutory authority of the juvenile court. Mother first argues the juvenile court exceeded its statutory authority to substantiate the DCFS findings of abuse because the amended petition alleged only neglect or dependency and the court had adjudicated only a finding of neglect. “Questions of jurisdiction and statutory interpretation are questions of law that we review for correctness, giving no particular deference to lower court decisions.” In re B.B.G., 2007 UT App 149, ¶ 4, 160 P.3d 9.

¶7 In a similar vein, Mother next argues the State and the juvenile court were bound by the stipulation of the parties to submit the amended petition only for “a finding of neglect.” When “the facts [are] stipulated, we review the conclusions drawn by the juvenile court for correctness.” In re B.T., 2009 UT App 182, ¶ 5, 214 P.3d 881 (quotation simplified).

¶8 Lastly, Mother alternatively argues her trial counsel was ineffective for not advising her that the juvenile court could deviate from its legal adjudication of neglect and later substantiate for abuse. “An ineffective assistance of counsel claim raised for the first time on appeal presents a question of law.” State v. Clark, 2004 UT 25, ¶ 6, 89 P.3d 162.

ANALYSIS

I.

¶9 We turn first to Mother’s argument that the juvenile court exceeded its statutory authority in substantiating the DCFS findings for abuse because the amended petition alleged only neglect or dependency and the court had adjudicated K.T. as neglected. We are unpersuaded by this argument because it conflates the State’s request that the court adjudicate K.T. as neglected with its independent request that the court substantiate the DCFS supported findings of abuse. The State’s request to adjudicate K.T. as neglected so as to bring the child within the jurisdiction of the court and under the protective supervision of DCFS was separate from its request that the court substantiate DCFS’s finding that K.T. had suffered a severe type of child abuse. As explained below, the juvenile court had independent statutory authority to adjudicate both issues.

¶10 In Utah, proceedings concerning abuse, neglect, and dependency are governed by Chapter 3 of the Utah Juvenile Code (the UJC). Pursuant to Chapter 3, “any interested person may file an abuse, neglect, or dependency petition” in the juvenile court. Utah Code Ann. § 80-3-201(1) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022). Among other things, the petition must include “a concise statement of facts, separately stated, to support the conclusion that the child upon whose behalf the abuse, neglect, or dependency petition is brought is abused, neglected, or dependent.” Id. § 80-3-201(4)(a). After the petition is filed, the court may, upon making specific findings, “order that the child be removed from the child’s home or otherwise taken into protective custody.” Id. § 80-3-204(2). If the court so orders, a shelter hearing must then be held to determine whether continued removal and placement of the child in DCFS’s temporary custody are necessary. See id. § 80-3-301.

¶11 After the shelter hearing, the juvenile court conducts an adjudication hearing. See id. § 80-3-401. An adjudication is a determination of the merits of the State’s petition of abuse, neglect, or dependency. “If, at the adjudication hearing, the juvenile court finds, by clear and convincing evidence, that the allegations contained in the abuse, neglect, or dependency petition are true, the juvenile court shall conduct a dispositional hearing.” Id. § 80-3-402(1); see also In re S.A.K., 2003 UT App 87, ¶ 14, 67 P.3d 1037 (“In child welfare proceedings, if the petition’s allegations of neglect, abuse, or dependency are found to be true in the adjudication hearing, those findings provide the basis for determining the consequences in the disposition hearing.”). “The dispositional hearing may be held on the same date as the adjudication hearing . . . .” Utah Code Ann. § 80-3-402(2). Dispositions available after adjudication include, among other things, vesting custody of an abused, neglected, or dependent minor in DCFS or any other appropriate person. Id. § 80-3405(2)(a)(i). Thus, an adjudication of abuse, neglect, or dependency brings the child and family within the juvenile court’s jurisdiction.

¶12 A separate chapter of the UJC addresses child welfare services. Chapter 2 creates DCFS and establishes its statutory authority and responsibilities. Among these is its responsibility to investigate reports that a child is abused, neglected, or dependent and to enter findings at the conclusion of its investigations. See id. § 80-2-701. A “supported” finding by DCFS is based on evidence available at the completion of an investigation indicating that “there is a reasonable basis to conclude that abuse, neglect, or dependency occurred.” Id. § 80-1-102(89). Chapter 2 requires that DCFS notify alleged perpetrators of supported findings and establishes a procedure for challenging such findings. Id. §§ 80-2707, -708. In cases involving a supported finding of a severe type of child abuse, the statute also gives DCFS authority to file a petition in the juvenile court seeking substantiation of a supported finding. Id. § 80-2-708(1)(c).

¶13 Part 10 of Chapter 2 governs DCFS’s record-keeping responsibilities. DCFS uses a database known as the Management Information System to track child welfare and protective services cases. See id. § 80-2-1001(3), (4). DCFS uses a subset of that system known as the Licensing Information System (the LIS) to track cases for licensing purposes. See id. § 80-2-1002(1)(a)(i). In cases involving a severe type of child abuse or neglect, DCFS enters supported findings into the LIS and the alleged perpetrator thereafter “may be disqualified from adopting a child, receiving state funds as a child care provider, or being licensed by DCFS, a human services program, a child care provider or program, or a covered health care facility.” State v. A.C., 2022 UT App 121, ¶ 3, 521 P.3d 186 (quotation simplified).

¶14 All these statutes were in play in these proceedings. On three separate occasions prior to the State’s filing of the petition, DCFS had investigated Mother for abuse of K.T. Following each of its three investigations, DCFS had supported a finding of abuse of K.T. against Mother. One of those supported findings was of “chronic emotional abuse” of K.T., which falls within the statutory definition of a “severe type of child abuse” under Utah Code section 80-1-102(78)(a)(i)(A) that then must be entered into the LIS.

¶15 The amended petition removed the request that the juvenile court adjudicate K.T. as abused. Instead, it requested that the court adjudicate K.T. as neglected. But the amended petition also recited DCFS’s history with K.T., stating that DCFS had previously supported findings of abuse against Mother, and requested that the court substantiate these supported findings of abuse. Adjudicating both requests for relief fell squarely within the juvenile court’s express statutory authority. Indeed, Mother identifies no statutory provision limiting the court’s authority to substantiate DCFS findings of abuse based on the outcome of the State’s independent request to adjudicate the status of an allegedly abused, neglected, or dependent child.

¶16 Mother’s argument that the juvenile court’s substantiation decision must be consistent with its adjudication decision in a related petition for abuse, neglect, or dependency is also inconsistent with the burdens of proof dictated by the UJC. While the juvenile court may adjudicate a minor as abused, neglected, or dependent based only on clear and convincing evidence, it can substantiate a DCFS finding based on a mere preponderance of the evidence. Compare Utah Code Ann. § 80-1-102(87), with id. § 80-3-402(1). These different standards give rise to the distinct possibility that a juvenile court could decline to adjudicate a minor as abused, while still substantiating a DCFS finding of abuse based on the lower burden of proof.

¶17 Despite the absence of a statutory provision linking the outcome of the amended petition to the outcome of a request for substantiation, Mother argues the juvenile court’s ruling on the neglect petition ended the court proceedings, “leaving no question open for further judicial action.” (Quoting In re M.W., 2000 UT 79, ¶ 25, 12 P.3d 80.) But this argument is directly contrary to the statutory language. Utah Code section 80-3-404 addresses the responsibility of the juvenile court to adjudicate DCFS supported findings of severe child abuse or neglect and their inclusion in or removal from the LIS. Upon the filing of “an abuse, neglect or dependency petition . . . that informs the juvenile court that [DCFS] has made a supported finding that an individual committed a severe type of child abuse or neglect, the juvenile court shall . . . make a finding of substantiated, unsubstantiated, or without merit” and include the finding in a written order. Utah Code Ann. § 80-3-404(1) (emphasis added). This provision also allows joinder of proceedings for adjudication of supported findings of severe abuse or neglect with those that do not constitute severe abuse. Id. § 80-3-404(3). And it does not limit the juvenile court’s ability to substantiate findings of severe abuse to those cases in which the court has granted a petition to adjudicate a child as abused. In short, the juvenile court was required to rule on the State’s substantiation request.[7]

II.

¶18 Next, Mother argues the State and juvenile court were bound by the facts and legal conclusions contained in the amended petition to which the parties had stipulated. Mother reasons that because the parties had stipulated to a finding of neglect, the juvenile court could not substantiate DCFS’s supported findings of abuse.

¶19 Mother’s argument is inconsistent with both the language of the amended petition and the course of the proceedings before the juvenile court. At the hearing on the amended petition, the State informed the court that the State and Mother had agreed to submit the matter to the court for a “finding of neglect” and that they “would ask also the Court to reserve the issue of substantiating the DCFS supporting findings at this point in time and set that over for disposition.” In connection therewith, Mother agreed to admit the allegations of the amended petition except those in paragraphs 5 and 6. Paragraph 5 alleged DCFS’s history with the family, including DCFS’s supported findings of abuse. Paragraph 6 alleged additional facts supporting the conclusion that K.T. was neglected or dependent.

¶20 Although Mother declined to admit the allegations of paragraphs 5 and 6, she did not deny them. Instead, she proceeded pursuant to rule 34(e) of the Utah Rules of Juvenile Procedure by neither admitting nor denying them. But as the juvenile court expressly informed Mother at the hearing, Mother’s decision not to deny those allegations had legal significance since “[a]llegations not specifically denied by a respondent shall be deemed true.” See Utah R. Juv. P. 34(e). The court was therefore free to base its decision on all the allegations of the amended petition, including those in paragraph 6 regarding DCFS’s supported findings of abuse. Because the parties’ stipulation was not inconsistent with the court’s ruling, it did not err.

III.

¶21 Lastly, we turn to Mother’s argument that her trial counsel was ineffective for not advising her that the juvenile court could deviate from its adjudication of neglect and substantiate DCFS’s findings of abuse for entry into the LIS. To prevail on an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, Mother must show that counsel’s performance was deficient and that this deficient performance prejudiced her defense. See In re C.M.R., 2020 UT App 114, ¶ 19, 473 P.3d 184. A reviewing court must “indulge in a strong presumption that counsel’s conduct fell within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance, and that under the circumstances, the challenged action might be considered sound trial strategy.” State v. J.A.L., 2011 UT 27, ¶ 25, 262 P.3d 1 (quotation simplified).

¶22 After indulging these presumptions, we are unable to conclude that counsel’s performance was deficient because there are many sound reasons why Mother’s decision to settle the petition with a finding of neglect, while allowing the juvenile court to resolve the substantiation issue, was sound strategy. The petition sought a finding that K.T. had been abused, and it was possible, if not likely, that proceeding to trial on the original petition could have resulted in both an adjudication of abuse and a substantiation of the abuse claims against Mother. The fact that Mother now regrets her decision to settle does not lead to the conclusion that counsel performed deficiently. Mother appeared before the juvenile court, and the court explained her rights and questioned her about the voluntariness of her decision. Nothing in the record suggests that Mother’s decision to settle was the result of ineffective assistance of counsel.

CONCLUSION

¶23 The juvenile court acted well within its statutory authority in substantiating DCFS’s findings of child abuse, and the court was entitled to consider all the allegations of the amended petition when determining whether to substantiate that finding. Mother has not demonstrated how her decision to settle was the result of ineffective assistance of counsel. Accordingly, we affirm.

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

 

[1] As relevant here, “abuse” is defined as “nonaccidental harm of a child” or “threatened harm of a child.” Utah Code Ann. § 80-1102(1)(a)(i) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022). “‘Supported’ means a finding by [DCFS] based on the evidence available at the completion of an investigation, and separate consideration of each allegation made or identified during the investigation, that there is a reasonable basis to conclude that abuse, neglect, or dependency occurred.” Id. § 80-1-102(89).

[2] “‘Substantiated’ or ‘substantiation’ means a judicial finding based on a preponderance of the evidence, and separate consideration of each allegation made or identified in the case, that abuse, neglect, or dependency occurred.” Id. § 80-1-102(87).

[3] The statutory provisions of Title 78A of the Utah Code that were in effect at the time of the juvenile court proceedings have since been renumbered and recodified as part of the Utah Juvenile Code, which is now found in Title 80 of the Utah Code. Because the provisions relevant to our analysis have not been substantively amended, we cite the recodified version for convenience.

[4] Under rule 34(e) of the Utah Rules of Juvenile Procedure, “[a] respondent may answer by admitting or denying the specific allegations of the petition, or by declining to admit or deny the allegations. Allegations not specifically denied by a respondent shall be deemed true.” Utah R. Juv. P. 34(e).

Here, the juvenile court took great care to ensure that Mother understood the consequences of not denying these allegations. The court informed Mother that it was “going to find [the allegations] to be true, even though [she was] not admitting nor denying [them].” When Mother indicated she did not understand, the court took a break to allow Mother to confer with her counsel. Following the break, the court confirmed that Mother had ample opportunity to discuss the issue with counsel and understood what was happening with respect to the allegations at issue.

[5] Although the juvenile court entered a finding of neglect pursuant to the stipulation of the parties, it indicated the evidence was also sufficient to support a finding of abuse.

[6] Even though the court placed K.T. under the protective supervision of DCFS, K.T. remained in his father’s custody.

[7] Mother also argues the juvenile court erred by not ruling on the State’s substantiation request at the time it adjudicated the petition for neglect. But Mother did not preserve this argument below. When the State raised the substantiation request at the adjudication hearing and asked that it be continued to a later hearing, Mother did not object.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

If your life partner has a low IQ, is divorce an option?

Yes, but not for the reason you may think.

In the age of no-fault divorce, you don’t really need to persuade the court to grant you a divorce. Divorce is essentially available on demand. Your spouse’s IQ need not have anything to do with it.

Some people think “no-fault divorce” means that “you can’t divorce me if I’m not at fault.” Not true.

No-fault divorce means that if you want to get a divorce, you don’t have to prove, as the reason for seeking a divorce, that your spouse has committed some kind of fault entitling you to a divorce. All you have to do is claim that there are “irreconcilable differences” between you and your spouse that have caused an irreparable breakdown in the marriage.

Before no-fault divorce was made the law in every state in the United States of America, one could not obtain a divorce unless his/her spouse had committed a “marital fault”. What constitutes marital fault? Each state has its own list, but generally speaking, marital fault includes:

  • adultery
  • impotency of the respondent at the time of marriage
  • cruelty
  • abandonment, desertion, neglect (failure of the spouse to provide necessary financial/temporal support)
  • insanity or severe mental illness
  • certain criminal convictions (usually a felony or those resulting in long-term imprisonment)
  • alcohol and drug abuse
  • contracting a “loathsome disease” (i.e., a sexually transmitted disease)

With no-fault divorce the law now, fault on the part of your need not exist to qualify you to file for divorce

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

https://www.quora.com/If-your-life-partner-has-a-low-IQ-is-divorce-an-option/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

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

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Can I legally stop talking to my dad if he has custody (I live with my mom full time, but he’s still legally my parent as well)?

This is a good question because it deals with an issue that the law either has not addressed or cannot effectively address. 

First, is there any legally permissible and practicable way to force a child to talk with a parent? I don’t see how a parent whose child refuses to speak to him/her could compel that child through the legal process to speak with or otherwise communicate with that parent. Now, of course, if a parent and his/her lawyer wanted to get really creative about this problem, I can imagine that the parent and lawyer might dream up some kind of civil lawsuit against the child for the negligent or intentional infliction of emotional distress or some other such nonsense, but in the end, I don’t see how one could use the legal system to compel a child to speak with or communicate with a parent if that child refuses to do so. 

This does not mean, however, that a parent is powerless in dealing with a recalcitrant child. While a parent cannot neglect or physically or emotionally abuse a child in an effort to compel the child to speak with or otherwise communicate with that parent, there’s certainly nothing wrong with taking legal and reasonable disciplinary action against the child. Grounding, privilege restrictions and removal, even corporal punishment (yes, it’s legal in many jurisdictions) are options available to a parent, and they may work. For a parent to stride every other option, these are measures a parent can try and they may be worth trying under appropriate circumstances. 

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

https://www.quora.com/Can-I-legally-stop-talking-to-my-dad-if-he-has-custody-I-live-with-my-mom-full-time-but-he-s-still-legally-my-parent-as-well/answer/Eric-Johnson-311  

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

I know a friend on TikTok who has abusive parents. How can I report or get him help?

I know a friend on TikTok who has a lot of severe PTSD and trauma due to several incidents, and he also has abusive parents. How can I report him to child support and get help for him? 

Do you know this only from what you have witnessed through your friend’s TikTok videos? If so, you may want to approach what your TikTok friend claims with a healthy dose of skepticism. Many people seeking large followings on social media tell sensational stories to attract attention (clickbait). 

The reason I suggest you proceed with caution is because once a parent is reported to the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) and/or Child Protective Services (CPS) and/or the police, even if a parent or parents is/are later determined to be innocent of the accusations made against him/her/them, a stigma attaches that in many cases dogs the parent(s) for the rest of their lives. Friends and neighbors shun them, they may lose their positions as coaches and youth Sunday school teachers, they may even lose their jobs—all simply because a vindictive or bored or attention-seeking child reckless made unfounded allegations against his/her parent(s). 

If you know for a fact that a child is being abused (or you have very, very good evidence that it is more likely than not that the child is being abused or in danger of being abused), then you can (and likely should) report your observations or reasonable suspicions to DCFS, CPS, and/or the police. 

Here are some links to help you understand the child abuse and neglect reporting process in the jurisdiction where I practice family law (Utah): 

Here is what Utah’s Child Protective Services website states: 

If you suspect child abuse or neglect is occurring please call our 24/7 hotline at 1-855-323-3237 or contact your local law enforcement agency. 

Utah law requires any person who has reason to believe that a child has been subjected to abuse, neglect, or dependency to immediately notify the nearest office of Child and Family Services, a peace officer, or a law enforcement agency. Abuse, neglect, or dependency of a child can be physical, emotional, or sexual. 

Click here to learn more about the process of reporting child abuse and neglect to CPS and under what circumstances investigations are opened. 

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

https://www.quora.com/I-know-a-friend-on-TikTok-who-has-a-lot-of-severe-PTSD-and-trauma-due-to-several-incidents-and-he-also-has-abusive-parents-How-can-I-report-him-to-child-support-and-get-help-for-him/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

What happens after an affair when you have kids?

What happens after an affair when you have kids?

I’ll answer as if this question were asked in the belief that the affair will have a profound effect upon child custody, child support, and/or alimony.

If you’ve had an extramarital affair, it generally won’t do your divorce case any favors, won’t win you any sympathizers.

But will it generally result in you being “punished” by the divorce court? The answer to that question is, in my experience as a divorce lawyer: probably not (unless your affair could be shown to have done your spouse and kids egregious financial, physical, or emotional harm) and/or you were a serial, unrepentant adulterer/adulteress).

Child custody: in the jurisdiction where I practice divorce law (Utah), it has been my experience that extramarital affairs are rarely seen as rendering a parent “unfit” to exercise sole or joint custody of his/her children.

While the court is required to consider “the past conduct and demonstrated moral character of the parent” (Utah Code § 30-3-10(2)(d)) in making its child custody evaluation and award, usually the court will reason that an adulterous parent is not inherently any worse as a parent than one who is not.

If the affair cause the parent to spend excessive time away from the children, caused the parent to neglect the children, or if the children’s knowledge of the affair caused the children serious psychological or emotional harm and/or the children distrust or hate a parent because of the affair, then it’s not really the affair that is the problem itself, but the effects of the extramarital affair.

Child support: I have never seen an extramarital affair cited as a reason for awarding more or less child support had the child support payor not committed adultery.

Alimony: in Utah (where I practice divorce law), adultery can affect the alimony award, but will not automatically have an effect on the alimony award. Here is what the Utah Code contains:

(b) The court may consider the fault of the parties in determining whether to award alimony and the terms of the alimony.

(c) “Fault” means any of the following wrongful conduct during the marriage that substantially contributed to the breakup of the marriage relationship:

(i) engaging in sexual relations with an individual other than the party’s spouse[.]

(See Utah Code § 30-3-5(9)(c))

What does this mean? The Utah Supreme Court construed that section of the Utah Code in the case of Gardner v. Gardner (2019 UT 61, 452 P.3d 1134 (Supreme Court of Utah 2019)):

¶ 26 As with harm in a negligence case, a “great number of events” may have contributed to a divorce. In fact, we have previously recognized “that it is seldom, perhaps never, that there is any wholly guilty or wholly innocent party to a divorce action.” So in almost all divorce cases, it could be argued that each spouse contributed in some way to the breakup of the marriage. But some causes are clearly more substantial, or significant, than others. So even though it may be impossible to state with certainty a sole, or even the first, cause leading to the breakup of the marriage, it will certainly be possible in many cases for a court to determine the significant or important causes of the divorce.

¶ 27 Accordingly, we conclude that “substantially contributed” to the breakup of the marriage is conduct that was a significant or an important cause of the divorce. Under this definition, conduct need not be the sole, or even the most important, cause for it to substantially contribute to a divorce. So when an important or significant cause falls into a category of conduct specifically identified in section 30-3-5(8), courts are authorized to consider it in an alimony determination, even if the at-fault party can point to other potential causes of the divorce.

*****

¶ 53 Section 30-3-5(8)(a) requires district courts to consider the financial situations of both spouses as part of its alimony determination. Additionally, section 30-3-5(8)(e) urges district courts to “look to the standard of living, existing at the time of separation, in determining alimony in accordance with Subsection (8)(a),” and section 30-3-5(8)(f) provides that the “court may … attempt to equalize the parties’ respective standards of living.” Together these provisions codify the default rules that an alimony award should be crafted to “provide support for the [receiving spouse] as nearly as possible at the standard of living [he or] she enjoyed during marriage,” and, “to the extent possible,” to “equalize the parties’ respective standards of living.”

¶ 54 As we have explained, these default rules tend to further the court’s aim of achieving “a fair, just, and equitable result between the parties” because they typically put the parties in the best possible position to “reconstruct their [separate] lives on a happy and useful basis.” So the economic factors, and the general aim of placing the parties in the same position they enjoyed during the marriage, stand as an important starting point in any alimony determination.

¶ 55 But section 30-3-5(8) also provides courts the flexibility and discretion to depart from these default rules in certain situations where fairness demands. For example, in addition to the economic factors listed in section 30-3-5(8)(a), section 30-3-5(8)(b) also authorizes courts to consider “the fault of the parties in determining whether to award alimony and the terms of the alimony.” So the statute expressly provides district courts with the discretion to consider fault in determining whether to award alimony, as well as in determining the terms—the amount and length—of the alimony award.

¶ 56 Section 30–3–5 also provides guidance for how a court may adjust the amount and length of an alimony award in the event the court determines that one spouse’s fault necessitates a departure from the default economic alimony factors. For example, although section 30-3-5(8)(e) urges district courts as “a general rule,” to “look to the standard of living, existing at the time of separation,” it also instructs courts to “consider all relevant facts and equitable principles,” and grants courts “discretion” to “base alimony on the standard of living that existed at the time of trial.” When section 30-3-5(8)(e) is read together with section 30-3-5(8)(b)’s fault provision, it is clear that where a court determines that one spouse’s fault would make it inequitable to maintain both parties at the standard of living enjoyed during the marriage, the court has the discretion to lower the award to an amount sufficient to sustain the at-fault spouse at a reasonable standard of living post-marriage, rather than the standard of living the couple enjoyed during the marriage.

¶ 57 Similarly, section 30-3-5(8)(f) authorizes courts to depart from default alimony awards where fault contributed to the break-up of the marriage. It instructs courts to “attempt to equalize the parties’ respective standards of living.” But it also notes that courts should do so only “under appropriate circumstances.” So once again, when this provision is read together with section 30-3-5(8)(b)’s fault provision, it is clear that courts need not attempt to equalize the parties’ respective standards of living where one spouse’s fault would make equalization inappropriate.

¶ 58 Therefore, under the plain language of section 30-3-5(8), courts have discretion to depart from the default economic rules where one party’s fault makes it appropriate to do so. Because the district court determined that Ms. Gardner’s conduct qualified as fault under the statute, the court was authorized to depart from the default alimony rules by reducing Ms. Gardner’s alimony award by some amount.

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

https://www.quora.com/What-happens-after-an-affair-when-you-have-kids/answer/Eric-Johnson-311?prompt_topic_bio=1

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

How do courts view mothers who abandon their family during a divorce?

How does the court view mothers that abandon their family during a divorce?

Generally, with disbelief, at first. Why? A few reasons.

One, to its credit, our culture still holds the concept and institution of motherhood in high esteem, so most people (and judges are people) believe that mothers are good, devoted caregivers. Most mothers are just that. So it is not easy to accept what our senses are conveying when a mother behaves contrary to our cultural expectations. We tend to see mothers as we want to see them, not as they always are.

Two, few bad mothers are honest with the court about being bad mothers. So the false face that most bad mothers present to the court is (primarily, but not solely, because of point number one) not only hard to detect as false, but easily accepted or acceptable as genuine.

  • One way bad mothers divert attention from their faults and misconduct is by blaming the fathers for those faults and misdeeds. Just as we tend to put mothers on a pedestal in our culture, we unfairly tend to see and treat many fathers as second-class parents. The feeling is like, “Yeah, they are important to a child’s upbringing, I guess, but they aren’t as vital and important to a child’s development as a mother, so we give dads less of the benefit of the doubt.” This is so wrong for so many reasons, but nevertheless it happens so often.
    • If kids are abused or neglected, bad mothers blame the guiltless fathers with a high rate of success in court. For example: violence perpetrated by men can be more severe than violence perpetrated by women, so if a child is a victim of domestic violence, it’s easy to assume Dad is the perpetrator (interestingly, FBI statistics show women commit just as much, if not more, domestic violence than men). If Dad has a full-time job, it’s easy to presume that Mom is the full-time caregiver, not a lazy slob who drinks herself numb every day and lets the kids run amok until Dad gets home to restore order and attend to the children’s need.

Three, even when a bad mother’s defects are unavoidably and undeniably exposed, many courts possess surprisingly great supplies of sympathy and forgiveness that they would rarely or not so readily extend to a father. It so often gets framed like this, for example: a mother who abuses drugs or alcohol is a victim whose substance abuse is a cry for help. A father who abuses drugs is a narcissist who lacks self-discipline. A mother with crippling mental health issues is deserving of our concern and rehabilitation. A father with crippling mental health issues is a danger against which the children need protection. I’ve personally witnessed many cases where mom was abusive and/or neglectful and dad was not, yet mom was awarded primary physical custody of the children because the court felt so strongly that the kids “need their mother,” that somehow mom had earned the right to be the custodial parent by virtue of being a woman, and that mom could and would overcome her shortcomings (not because there was credible evidence that she can and wanted to overcome those shortcomings, but because the court had to make such a finding to justify the award of custody to the worse of the two parents).

To be clear, I am not telling you that courts cannot identify bad mothers or that they cannot or will not shield children from bad mothers. Many people—moms and dads alike—when discovered for the mediocre, even dangerous, parents they are, are not awarded child custody and/or are subject to supervision around their children. It can and does happen. But that is not what discussed here. In response to the question of which parent among mothers and fathers gets undeserved breaks more in divorce cases, it is mothers hands down. Now you know some of the main reasons why.

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

https://www.quora.com/How-does-the-court-view-mothers-that-abandon-their-family-during-a-divorce/answer/Eric-Johnson-311?prompt_topic_bio=1

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

In re C.M.R. 2020 UT App 114 – abuse, ineffective assistance of counsel

2020 UT App 114
https://www.utcourts.gov/opinions/appopin/In%20re%20C.M.R…20200806_20190808_114.pdf
THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF
C.M.R., B.T.R., P.J.R., F.S., AND O.S.,
PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

C.S., Appellant,
v.
STATE OF UTAH, Appellee.

Opinion
No. 20190808-CA
Filed August 6, 2020

Sixth District Juvenile Court, Manti Department
The Honorable Brody Keisel
No. 1097000

Emily Adams, Freyja Johnson, and Cherise M.
Bacalski, 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 GREGORY K. ORME and RYAN M. HARRIS concurred, with opinions.

CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, Judge:

¶1 C.S. (Mother) appeals the juvenile court’s order adjudicating abuse, neglect, and dependency. Mother argues that the court erred in concluding that she abused her children without also making an express finding of harm. Alternatively, Mother asserts that her counsel (Trial Counsel) rendered ineffective assistance in advising her to enter admissions to the petition without adequate investigation. We affirm in part and remand for a limited evidentiary hearing.

BACKGROUND

¶2        The Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) filed a petition in July 2019 seeking protective supervision of Mother’s five children (collectively, the Children). Based on information DCFS received from several referents, the petition alleged that the Children were abused, neglected, and dependent. Specifically, the petition asserted that Mother did not provide the Children with adequate nutrition and supervision; the Children lived in an unsanitary and unsafe home; Mother punished the Children with a hammer, fork, belt, and stick; Mother was unwilling to work with DCFS to address her lack of parenting skills, which exacerbated the Children’s behavioral issues and led to contentious and inconsistent visitation; and finally, Mother had recently been arrested. With regard to one child, the petition alleged that, while in the waiting room of a family counseling center, a witness observed,

Mother grabbed [the child] by the back-collar area of his shirt in such a manner that it restricted his ability to breathe and caused him to choke. Mother shoved his face into the corner with force and told him he needed to think about what he had done. [The child] told Mother he was having difficulty breathing and that Mother was hurting him. Despite [the child’s] statements Mother did not let up on his shirt or the forcing of his face into the corner.[1]

¶3        The juvenile court appointed Trial Counsel to represent Mother, and the parties reached a mediated agreement in response to the petition.[2] At the adjudication hearing held by the court following mediation, the State indicated that Mother would enter a plea responding to the allegations in the petition pursuant to rule 34(e) of the Utah Rules of Juvenile Procedure. See Utah R. Juv. P. 34(e) (“A respondent may answer by admitting or denying the specific allegations of the petition, or by declining to admit or deny the allegations. Allegations not specifically denied by a respondent shall be deemed true.”).

¶4        The juvenile court explained that under rule 34(e), a parent who does not specifically deny the State’s allegations essentially enters a “no-contest” plea in which that parent neither admits nor denies an allegation, but such an answer under the rule is treated “as if it were an admission.” The court further explained that each parent enjoyed “the right to deny the allegations,” in which case the matter would go to trial and the State would bear “the burden of proving the allegations in the . . . petition by . . . clear and convincing evidence.” Mother stated that she understood the consequences of not specifically denying the allegations in the petition under rule 34(e), namely, that she would be giving up her right to contest the allegations contained in the petition and that her right to appeal would be limited. Mother further explicitly confirmed that she was not under the influence of any drugs, alcohol, or medication during the hearing; that she was thinking clearly; and that she had not been forced, threatened, or promised anything to respond in a particular way to the allegations in the petition.

¶5        The juvenile court also asked Mother if she understood that by not denying the allegations under rule 34(e), she gave the court “authority to enter orders that would affect [her]. This could include orders for custody, visitation, child support, treatment requirements and parental rights.” The court informed Mother that if she “wanted more time” to ponder her decision, it would “be happy” to accommodate her. Mother assured the court that she was ready to proceed, and she invoked rule 34(e) with respect to the paragraphs of the petition that detailed the abuse and neglect suffered by the Children. The court then accepted Mother’s rule 34(e) admissions.

¶6        After a recess, the court reconvened. Mother and Trial Counsel immediately informed the court that there was an apparent conflict stemming from Trial Counsel’s representation of Mother’s former brother-in-law in a different case. Mother made a motion to withdraw her rule 34(e) admissions and set the matter for trial. The State opposed the motion. The guardian ad litem also opposed withdrawal, pointing out that by conducting an extensive “colloquy of rights,” the court ensured that Mother had made “a very knowing and voluntary admission to the facts.” Trial Counsel responded that Mother had realized, after talking to Trial Counsel during the recess, that the rule 34(e) plea would be taken “as an admission.” Trial Counsel also revealed that Mother had attempted to alert Trial Counsel to the potential conflict by writing a note to her during the hearing.

¶7        The court denied Mother’s oral motion to withdraw her plea, but it granted Mother leave to file a written motion to withdraw within thirty days, reasoning that Mother might determine that it was “okay” to accept the plea “after some more consideration as to what a [rule 34(e) plea] means.” However, the court noted that it was “very careful” during the colloquy to confirm that Mother knew what she was doing and was acting voluntarily. With regard to the conflict of interest, the court asked Trial Counsel, “Other than the technical relationship, was there anything in your representation that was awry or that you look back on and say well I may have advised her differently had I . . . known of the conflict . . . ?” Trial Counsel responded that her advice “would be the same,” pointing out that the conflict did not influence her because, at the time she rendered her advice, she did not know Mother and Mother’s ex-brother-in-law were, at one time, related. The court stated that even in the presence of the conflict, it did not observe anything “per se deficient in the way” Trial Counsel represented Mother. Mother agreed that there was nothing “specifically” wrong “in the way [Trial Counsel] represented” her in court but that she sought new counsel merely “because of the relationship that exists.” The court granted Trial Counsel’s motion to withdraw and appointed substitute counsel (Conflict Counsel), who entered an appearance for Mother approximately a month after the adjudication hearing.

¶8        About three weeks after the hearing, based on Mother’s rule 34(e) admissions, the juvenile court entered an adjudication order that deemed the allegations in the petition to be true and found the Children to be abused, neglected, and dependent. The court made no express finding that the Children had been harmed, but it did include in its written decision a detailed account of the incident in which Mother choked one of the Children by the shirt collar at a counseling session and stated that its findings of abuse, neglect, and dependency were based on, among other things, that incident. The court ordered that a Child and Family Service Plan (the Plan) be prepared for the family and each child, set a primary permanency goal of reunification, and ordered DCFS to provide reunification services to Mother. The court’s adjudication findings were used to generate the Plan, which required Mother to take those steps necessary to provide a home where the Children would be safe, nurtured, loved, and protected from any form of abuse or neglect. See Utah Code Ann. § 62A-4a-205(8)(d) (LexisNexis Supp. 2019) (“[C]hild and family plans shall address problems that . . . keep a child in placement . . . .”). The Plan also recommended that Mother continue to receive therapy, with a particular emphasis on developing parenting skills and developing a more positive view toward the Children. While the Plan addressed abuse in general terms, it did not mention any specific incident of abuse or set forth specific requirements to address the abuse.

¶9        Ultimately, Mother never filed a written motion to withdraw her rule 34(e) admissions. However, in the course of investigating the case, Conflict Counsel discovered allegedly exculpatory evidence that Mother now asserts demonstrates that she received ineffective assistance of counsel leading up to and during the adjudication hearing. Specifically, Conflict Counsel obtained a statement from the Children’s babysitter, various police reports, and footage from a police body camera that Mother asserts Trial Counsel “would have found had she investigated” and that would have “negated Mother’s most damning pleas” under rule 34(e). Mother appealed the court’s adjudication order and subsequently filed a motion under rule 23B of the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure seeking remand to the juvenile court to consider her claim of ineffective assistance. This court denied that motion but instructed Mother to address the need for remand in her appellate brief in accordance with In re S.H., 2007 UT App 8, 155 P.3d 109.[3]

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶10      Mother first asserts that the juvenile court erred when it failed to make an express finding of harm before it concluded that the facts to which Mother admitted in her rule 34(e) plea met the statutory requirements of abuse. Because Mother did not preserve this issue below, she seeks review under the plain error doctrine. To establish plain error, Mother must show 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.” In re J.C., 2016 UT App 10, ¶ 12, 366 P.3d 867 (quotation simplified). “If any one of these requirements is not met, plain error is not established.” State v. Johnson, 2017 UT 76, ¶ 20, 416 P.3d 443 (quotation simplified).

¶11 Mother also asks this court to determine whether Trial Counsel rendered ineffective assistance when she advised Mother to enter rule 34(e) admissions without adequately investigating the facts of the abuse allegations. “An ineffective assistance of counsel claim raised for the first time on appeal presents a question of law.” In re S.S., 2015 UT App 230, ¶ 20, 360 P.3d 16 (quotation simplified).

ANALYSIS

I. Error of the Juvenile Court

¶12 Mother first asserts that the juvenile court erred when it found that she had abused the Children without making a “subsidiary finding that the abuse had caused the [Children] harm.” To prevail on a claim of “plain error,” Mother “must establish that (i) an error exists; (ii) the error should have been obvious to the juvenile court; and (iii) the error is harmful.” See In re T.M., 2003 UT App 191, ¶ 26, 73 P.3d 959 (quotation simplified). Under the circumstances of this case, Mother cannot establish that the court erred in finding that Mother abused at least one of the Children and therefore cannot establish that the court would have ordered a different child and family service plan or reached different conclusions about the primary permanency goal even if it had not found that Mother abused the Children with household items and caused them harm.

¶13      The juvenile court found that the Children were “abused, neglected, and dependent” and, in its adjudication order, included reference to allegations that Mother punished the Children with “a fork, a belt, a stick, and other items” and that Mother collared one child and caused him to choke. Mother argues that simply stating that she punished the Children with objects and collared one child did not adequately support the court’s finding of abuse. Instead, she contends that the juvenile court was required to enter findings detailing the specific harm she caused the Children, given that the definition of “abuse” of a child under Utah law includes “nonaccidental harm” and “threatened harm.”[4] See Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-105(1)(a)(i) (LexisNexis Supp. 2019). And “harm” includes “physical or developmental injury or damage.” Id. § 78A-6-105(28).

¶14 As support for her assertion that the juvenile court committed an obvious error, Mother cites In re K.T., 2017 UT 44, 424 P.3d 91, for the proposition that the court’s order was insufficient and should have contained detailed findings of what harm Mother’s actions caused the Children. Id. ¶ 9 (“To find abuse under Utah law, a court must find harm.”). But In re K.T. does not require a court to make a specific finding of harm, labeled as such. Rather, it “allow[s] the juvenile court to infer harm” based on the evidence presented. Id. ¶ 14. Here, the facts Mother admitted at the adjudication hearing, see Utah R. Juv. P. 34(e), were sufficient for the court to find that at least one of the Children was harmed by Mother’s abusive behavior: While at a family counseling center, a witness observed Mother grab one child by the shirt collar with such force as to “restrict[] his ability to breathe and cause[] him to choke” as she forced his face into a corner. Mother continued to restrain the child even when the child told Mother that she was “hurting him” and that “he was having difficulty breathing.” The “evidence of the effects” of Mother’s actions allowed the juvenile court “to conclude that the [child] had been harmed.” See In re K.T., 2017 UT 44, ¶ 14. The child informed Mother not only that she was hurting him but also that he was having trouble breathing and showing signs of choking. At the very least, we can infer a finding of harm from the juvenile court’s determination that Mother’s action “restricted [the child’s] ability to breathe and caused him to choke.” See Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-109(1)(f)(ii) (LexisNexis 2017) (“‘Serious physical injury’ includes . . . any impediment of the breathing or the circulation of blood by application of pressure to the neck, throat, or chest, or by the obstruction of the nose or mouth, that is likely to produce a loss of consciousness . . . .”); see also State v. Stettina, 635 P.2d 75, 78 (Utah 1981) (“[M]aking it difficult [for a victim] to breathe . . . could reasonably place [a] victim in apprehension of bodily harm.”).

¶15 Though Mother has submitted additional non-record evidence intended to challenge some of the other incidents of abuse described in the court’s written decision, Mother has not offered much of a defense against the shirt-collar incident. She asserts only that the witness who reported the incident did not have a clear view of the events because Mother’s body was between the witness and the child. But Mother has not alleged that the incident did not occur or that it did not result in the child choking.[5] Accordingly, the juvenile court had before it clear and convincing evidence that established that Mother abused one of the Children and that the abuse caused that child harm.

¶16 With regard to the other allegations of abuse involving Mother punishing the “Children with a fork, a belt, a stick, and other items,” however, the juvenile court did not infer, let alone articulate, a finding of harm related to any of those incidents. This lack of articulating a finding of harm is problematic. See In re K.T., 2017 UT 44, ¶ 15 (stating that a finding that a parent “hit a child with another object” did not necessarily include an inference of harm, because the strike could have been delivered “lightly so that it did not cause” harm).

¶17      But even if we assume the court’s findings of abuse with regard to the household items are incomplete, Mother cannot show that she was prejudiced by the court’s error, because we have determined that evidence of the shirt-collar incident, standing alone, fully supported the court’s abuse finding with regard to one of the Children, and on appeal Mother has not contested the court’s neglect and dependency determination with regard to any of the Children. In this case, Mother cannot show a reasonable likelihood of a different outcome at the adjudication hearing even if the juvenile court had not included the household abuse facts in the adjudication order at all or if it had determined that no abuse occurred during the household incidents. Even in that event, the Plan would have been the same, and the primary permanency goal entered by the court would still have been reunification. Accordingly, we cannot conclude that the juvenile court committed plain error, and we therefore affirm the court’s adjudication order.

II. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

¶18      Mother also claims that Trial Counsel provided ineffective assistance in failing to conduct an adequate investigation into the facts of the abuse allegations against her. Specifically, Mother asserts that if Trial Counsel had investigated the State’s allegations of abuse more diligently, Trial Counsel would have discovered exculpatory evidence that would have refuted the allegations of abuse involving punishment using household items, including a hammer, fork, belt, and stick. Thus, Mother asserts that Trial Counsel performed deficiently in advising her to enter admissions pursuant to rule 34(e) of the Utah Rules of Juvenile Procedure without first undertaking a sufficient investigation to uncover this exculpatory evidence.

¶19 To prevail on an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, Mother must show that (1) “counsel’s performance was deficient” and (2) this “deficient performance prejudiced the defense.” Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984); see also In re E.H., 880 P.2d 11, 13 (Utah Ct. App. 1994) (stating that parents are entitled to effective assistance of counsel in child welfare proceedings and adopting “the Strickland test to determine a claim for ineffective assistance of counsel in proceedings involving termination of parental rights”). “Because failure to establish either prong of the test is fatal to an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, we are free to address [Mother’s] claims under either prong.” See Honie v. State, 2014 UT 19, ¶ 31, 342 P.3d 182.

¶20      To show that Trial Counsel performed deficiently, Mother must overcome the strong presumption that Trial Counsel rendered adequate assistance by persuading the court that “considering all the circumstances, counsel’s acts or omissions were objectively unreasonable.” State v. Scott, 2020 UT 13, ¶ 36, 462 P.3d 350. In other words, Mother must show that her “counsel rendered a deficient performance in some demonstrable manner, and that counsel’s performance fell below an objective standard of reasonable professional judgment.” See State v. Martinez, 2020 UT App 69, ¶ 29, 464 P.3d 1170 (quotation simplified), petition for cert. filed, July 20, 2020 (No. 20200556).

¶21 To establish prejudice, Mother must “demonstrate a reasonable probability that the outcome of . . . her case would have been different absent counsel’s error. A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome of the proceeding.” Scott, 2020 UT 13, ¶ 43 (quotation simplified).

¶22 Because the juvenile court’s adjudication findings regarding allegations of abuse involving punishment using household items have two distinct applications, our examination of Mother’s ineffective assistance claim is necessarily bifurcated with respect to the imminent use (namely, the court’s disposition and the formulation of the Plan) and prospective impact (namely, possible impact on this child welfare proceeding and in the future) of the court’s findings of abuse. Even if we assume that Trial Counsel performed deficiently in failing to fully investigate the facts supporting the allegations of abuse with household items, we are confident Mother was not prejudiced by the inclusion of those findings with regard to the development of and the requirements contained in the Plan. However, if Trial Counsel did fail to fully investigate the facts supporting the allegations of abuse and therefore performed deficiently in advising Mother to enter the rule 34(e) admissions, we are concerned that inclusion of those findings of abuse with household items in the adjudication order might prospectively prejudice Mother in her effort to successfully reunite with the Children in the future. Because this court does not consider new evidence on appeal, see Utah R. App. P. 11(a) (“The original papers and exhibits filed in the trial court . . . shall constitute the record on appeal in all cases.”), we must remand for an evidentiary hearing and direct the juvenile court to make factual findings regarding whether Trial Counsel performed deficiently by not fully investigating the allegations of abuse, and if so, whether Mother was prejudiced by following the advice of counsel to enter admissions rather than deny the allegations in the petition. We address the immediate and prospective application of the findings in turn.

A. Application of Disputed Facts to the Court’s Disposition and to the Plan

¶23 For the purpose of analyzing the effect of the juvenile court’s adjudication and disposition, we assume, without deciding, that Trial Counsel performed deficiently in failing to investigate, resulting in Mother’s rule 34(e) admissions and the court’s finding that Mother abused the Children with certain household objects. However, as discussed above, even if all the facts surrounding abuse involving household objects are excluded (i.e., all abuse allegations except the shirt-collar incident), Mother was not prejudiced by the court’s consideration of this evidence at the adjudication hearing, because the exclusion of these putative facts would not have changed the court’s reunification goal or changed the Plan itself. Although Mother concedes that there was a basis for the finding of neglect against her, she argues that if she “just had a neglect finding—based on the findings of an unclean home and inadequate lunches—[her] future with [the Children] would be much less precarious.”[6]

¶24 But Mother’s evaluation is unpersuasive in several respects because it looks primarily to the long-term effects of the inclusion of disputed facts—an issue we address below, see infra ¶¶ 28–32—and does not focus on whether the disputed facts had an impact on the court’s adjudication decision (for instance, on the court’s disposition or on the requirements of the Plan). And the juvenile court’s findings regarding the shirt-collar incident and other neglect which dictated the Plan’s requirements are well-supported. Our analysis of the Plan suggests that the disputed abuse facts had little to no impact on its provisions. The Plan primarily focuses on interventions necessary to assist Mother in acquiring parenting and life skills so that she will be able to provide an environment in which the Children can be safe, loved, nurtured, and protected. The Plan also focuses on the need for Mother to continue personal therapy and to resolve the pending legal issues she faces. Indeed, the Plan explicitly states that Mother does not appear to be “an inherently violent or antisocial individual.” Rather, the Plan characterizes her as lacking “the parenting skills needed to effectively manage [the Children’s] emotional and behavioral issues.”

¶25 Mother also downplays the finding of rather serious abuse related to the shirt-collar incident. Those provisions of the Plan that require Mother to provide an environment free from physical abuse could certainly have been necessitated by this incident alone. See Utah Code Ann. § 62A-4a-205(8)(h) (LexisNexis Supp. 2019) (“[A] child and family plan may only include requirements that . . . address findings made by the court . . . .”) As addressed above, Mother has not offered much of a defense against this abuse allegation other than asserting that the witness who reported the incident did not have a clear view of the incident because Mother’s body was between the witness and the child. Nowhere does Mother challenge that the incident occurred or that it resulted in the child choking. And because the finding of abuse related to the shirt-collar incident was considered in crafting the appropriate child and family service plan for this family to address the problems and needs of the whole family, Mother cannot show that the Plan would have differed or that the court would have entered a different disposition had the court’s adjudication order not contained findings regarding the other incidents of abuse.

¶26 Finally, the juvenile court rightly did not overlook that this family has had a history of DCFS involvement for nearly a decade. Four prior investigations were closed because DCFS was unable to locate the family. Two recent situations giving rise to DCFS intervention with this family were supported by administrative findings of non-supervision and emotional abuse involving two of the Children. The juvenile court was well aware of this history and recounted this involvement in the findings of its adjudication order.

¶27 In short, given the above circumstances, Mother was not prejudiced with respect to the immediate result of the adjudication as it pertains to the court’s disposition and to the development of the Plan.

B. Prospective Effects of the Disputed Facts

¶28 As to the continued impact of the adjudication order’s abuse findings involving household items, however, we determine that Mother may well be prejudiced if those disputed facts are considered in whether Mother successfully complies with the requirements of the Plan and on any prospective application of that information. That is, the findings of abuse in the adjudication order create a benchmark for everything that happens in this child welfare case, and they will form the basis for whether Mother is able to comply with the requirements of the Plan going forward and whether she can be reunited with the Children. Thus, those particular abuse findings will continue to follow her throughout the pendency of this case and in any future case.[7]

¶29      In the order denying her rule 23B motion, this court told Mother, “[N]othing in this order shall be construed as precluding [Mother] from addressing the need for remand or raising further argument under In re S.H., 2007 UT App 8, 155 P.3d 109, in [her] brief.” Pursuant to our direction, Mother attached extra-record evidence to her appellate brief suggesting that the Children’s reports of the abuse, especially with regard to the use of household items, may have been exaggerated, if not false.

¶30 In In re S.H., a mother raised a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, arguing that her attorney stipulated to allegations without the mother being present and without her consent. 2007 UT App 8, ¶ 10. On learning of her attorney’s conduct, the mother challenged the unauthorized admissions by filing an affidavit detailing a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel in conjunction with her petition for appeal. Id. ¶ 15. This court reasoned that because the admissions stipulated by her attorney likely prejudiced the mother, remand was necessary. Id. ¶¶ 16–20. Because “the procedural rules for child welfare appeals clearly contemplate claims for ineffective assistance of counsel,” “we remand[ed] to the juvenile court for an evidentiary hearing and direct[ed] the juvenile court to make factual findings regarding [the mother’s] ineffective assistance of counsel claim.” Id. ¶ 16; see also Utah R. App. P. 55(b) (explaining that claims of ineffective assistance of counsel should be raised on appeal in juvenile cases).

¶31 Here, Mother contends that Trial Counsel “performed deficiently and unreasonably when she did not investigate the case.” To that end, Mother has attached extra-record evidence uncovered by Conflict Counsel to her appellate brief. This evidence includes (1) a statement from a babysitter that may exonerate Mother, (2) police reports from February 2019 in which all the Children but one denied abuse by Mother, and (3) a transcript of the conversation recorded by a police body camera at the time of Mother’s arrest that Mother contends shows the Children were removed from her care not for abuse but because a DCFS worker thought Mother was “psycho.” If this evidence proves credible and was reasonably available before Trial Counsel advised Mother to enter admissions to the alleged abuse involving household items, it could support a determination that Mother received ineffective assistance because such information might undermine the propriety of Trial Counsel’s advice that Mother not contest the factual findings presented by the State.

¶32 Because we do not consider extra-record evidence on appeal, “the juvenile court is in a far better position to evaluate the evidence than an appellate court.” In re K.B., 2017 UT App 210, ¶ 14, 407 P.3d 1084 (quotation simplified). We thus remand to the juvenile court to conduct the procedure outlined in In re S.H. to make a determination of whether deficient performance on the part of Trial Counsel induced Mother to enter the disputed admissions under rule 34(e). And “while we do not conclude that Mother’s counsel was ineffective, we note that should the juvenile court find that Mother’s counsel failed to” adequately investigate the case and wrongly advised Mother to enter a rule 34(e) plea to the petition rather than contest the allegations, then such failures may well require the juvenile court to issue a revised adjudication order as it pertains to the factual findings on the alleged abuse involving household items. See In re S.H., 2007 UT App 8, ¶ 17.

CONCLUSION

¶33      We conclude that Mother was not prejudiced by any error of the juvenile court in not entering specific findings of harm or any deficiency by Trial Counsel insofar as it concerns the court’s disposition and formulation of the Plan. However, because Mother may be prejudiced in her ability to comply with the Plan and because extra-record evidence indicates that Trial Counsel may have failed to adequately investigate the allegations in the petition, we remand to the juvenile court to conduct an evidentiary hearing regarding Mother’s allegations of ineffective assistance with regard to the findings of fact in the adjudication order related to abuse involving household items.

¶34      Affirmed in part and remanded.

HARRIS, Judge (concurring):

¶35 I concur in the lead opinion without reservation. I write separately to expand on the lead opinion’s observation, see supra note 3, that rule 23B of the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure does not apply in child welfare cases, and to wonder aloud about the extent to which our opinion in In re S.H., 2007 UT App 8, 155 P.3d 109, is in conflict with the text of rule 1 of the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure. That rule states, in no uncertain terms, that “Rules 9 and 23B do not apply” in child welfare proceedings. See Utah R. App. P. 1(f). Rule 23B, of course, is the rule that creates a procedure by which litigants can seek leave to submit extra-record material in support of an appellate claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. See State v. Litherland, 2000 UT 76, ¶¶ 13–14, 12 P.3d 92 (stating that rule 23B “was specifically designed to address” “the dilemma created by an inadequate record of counsel’s ineffectiveness”). On its face, the language of rule 1(f) makes plain that our appellate rules afford no mechanism, in child welfare cases, for appellate litigants to introduce extra-record evidence in support of claims that their trial counsel was ineffective; there is at least an implication that, under the rules, such litigants may use only record evidence to support those claims.[8]

¶36 Despite the language of rule 1(f), which was in effect at the time, see Utah R. App. P. 1(f) (2006), our opinion in In re S.H. went ahead and allowed a party to obtain a rule 23B-like remand so that the juvenile court could consider certain extra-record evidence, including an affidavit, that the litigant filed for the first time on appeal. See 2007 UT App 8, ¶¶ 15–16. We stated that, “[b]y not allowing [the litigant] to submit record evidence regarding her ineffective assistance of counsel claim, we would effectively deny [the litigant’s] right to raise that claim.” Id. ¶ 16. We did not explain our authority for taking action in apparent contravention of rule, and we did not set forth any parameters (such as the deadlines and procedures set out in the actual text of rule 23B) advising litigants about how to go about availing themselves of the newly-announced procedural mechanism.

¶37      Since In re S.H. was decided, we have treated that opinion as creating a procedural mechanism, akin to rule 23B but not exactly like rule 23B, that allows litigants in child welfare proceedings to submit extra-record evidence in support of appellate claims of ineffective assistance. Typical is the order we issued earlier in this case, denying Mother’s rule 23B motion (because the rule does not apply) but allowing her to do essentially the same thing rule 23B would have allowed her to do, if it applied, by advising her to proceed pursuant to In re S.H.

¶38    I take no issue with the majority’s application of In re S.H. in this case, because it is our precedent, and no party to this case has asked us to reexamine it. See State v. Legg, 2018 UT 12, ¶ 11, 417 P.3d 592 (“Stare decisis mandates that one panel of the court of appeals defer to the decision of a prior panel.”). But it certainly appears to me as though In re S.H. might merit reexamination in an appropriate case where, after full briefing and argument, we might analyze whether that case is in harmony with our rules of appellate procedure and, if not, whether there exists a valid basis—for instance, through inherent judicial power, as Judge Orme suggests, see infra ¶ 41—for our court to create such a mechanism on its own.

ORME, Judge (concurring):

¶39 I concur in the lead opinion. I write separately to offer a counterpoint to Judge Harris’s concurring opinion, in which he questions the basis on which we have remanded cases such as this one to vindicate a parent’s right to the effective assistance of counsel.

¶40 While it is true that In re S.H., 2007 UT App 8, 155 P.3d 109, does not elaborate on the basis for the authority by which we permitted a remand mechanism in child welfare cases, arguably at odds with rule 1(f) of the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure,[9] I do not believe that this is problematic for two reasons—three if one includes the point made in footnote 9. First, parents involved in parental termination proceedings have an unquestioned right to the effective assistance of counsel, see In re E.H., 880 P.2d 11, 13 (Utah Ct. App. 1994), and it seems obvious that to actualize that right in some termination cases, a remand procedure not unlike rule 23B for criminal cases must exist. Otherwise, how could this important issue come before us in cases such as this one, where the record would not allow us to determine whether a parent received the effective assistance of counsel? Because there is a right to the effective assistance of counsel during a parental-rights-termination proceeding, there must be a procedure by which we can assess whether that right was violated when such a claim is asserted and substantiated but the critical information is not part of the record on appeal. Without such a procedure, this “important right would ring hollow in the halls of justice.” Swekel v. City of River Rouge, 119 F.3d 1259, 1262 (6th Cir. 1997). I suspect that this realization, rather than some oversight or laxity in advocacy, explains why neither the Attorney General nor the Office of Guardian ad Litem has, in this case or in any other in the thirteen years since this court issued In re S.H., seen fit to question it.[10]

¶41      Second, although our rules of appellate procedure do not explicitly allow us to remand a termination case to develop a record of counsel’s claimed ineffective assistance, this is not dispositive of our ability to do so. In my view, we can do so in the sound exercise of our inherent power.[11] See United States v. Calandra, 414 U.S. 338, 348 (1974) (describing the exclusionary rule as “a judicially created remedy designed to safeguard Fourth Amendment rights generally through its deterrent effect”). Thus, In re S.H. is best understood as an appropriate exercise of our inherent power to improvise such procedures as may be necessary to resolve important issues such as a parent’s constitutional right to the effective assistance of counsel, and in doing so we avoid burdening parents “with a catch-22 unique to claims of ineffectiveness of trial counsel,” when “counsel’s ineffectiveness may have caused, exacerbated, or contributed to the record deficiencies,” State v. Litherland, 2000 UT 76, ¶ 12, 12 P.3d 92, over which the affected parent had no control.

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

————————————————————

[1] The record contains no identifying information about this witness or information that explains why the witness did not intervene during the encounter between Mother and the child.

[2] In addition to Mother, the two fathers of four of the Children were also involved in the mediation.

[3] Rule 23B (remand for findings necessary to adjudicate an ineffective assistance of counsel claim) does not apply in child welfare matters. See Utah R. App. P. 1(f) (stating that “Rules 9 and 23B do not apply” to child welfare proceedings). The concurring opinions of Judge Harris and Judge Orme address the remand procedure identified in In re S.H. as it intersects with the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure. See infra ¶¶ 35–41.

[4] Utah law requires the juvenile court to conduct a disposition hearing “[i]f, at the adjudication hearing, the court finds, by clear and convincing evidence, that the allegations contained in the petition are true.” Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-311(1) (LexisNexis 2018). As our supreme court stated in In re K.T., 2017 UT 44, 424 P.3d 91,

The clear and convincing standard demands the introduction of evidence that makes “the existence of the disputed facts . . . very highly probable.” [Applying this principle] to the case before the juvenile court, the State needed to present evidence that would allow the court to conclude that it was very highly probable that the children had been harmed.

Id. ¶ 9 n.3 (quotation simplified) (quoting Lovett v. Continental Bank & Trust Co., 286 P.2d 1065, 1067 (Utah 1955)).

[5] Mother asserts that the juvenile court could have considered the collaring incident “as reasonable discipline or appropriate physical restraint that is precluded from the abuse definition.” We find this argument unpersuasive. Restraining a young child in such a way as to choke him cannot be considered reasonable. See Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-109(1)(f)(ii) (LexisNexis 2017) (“‘Serious physical injury’ includes . . . any impediment of the breathing or the circulation of blood by application of pressure to the neck, throat, or chest, or by the obstruction of the nose or mouth, that is likely to produce a loss of consciousness . . . .”); id. § 76-2-401(2) (stating that the defense of justifiable conduct involving reasonable discipline of a minor “is not available if the offense charged involves causing . . . serious physical injury”).

[6] As noted above, Mother does not challenge the findings of neglect or dependency reached by the juvenile court in its adjudication.

[7] We agree with Mother that this case seems to present a situation analogous to an incorrect presentence investigation report (PSI) in the criminal context. A PSI can contain information about a criminal defendant’s family, education, health, criminal record, and employment history and will follow a defendant “through the justice system.” See State v. Irey, 2017 UT App 178, ¶ 5, 405 P.3d 876 (quotation simplified). Though incorrect information contained in a PSI will not necessarily require resentencing if not appropriately corrected, this court will often order limited remand to the district court to resolve any contested information contained in the PSI. See State v. Post, 2015 UT App 162, ¶ 11 n.7, 354 P.3d 810 (“Even where inaccuracies in a PSI do not affect a defendant’s sentence, it is necessary that the defendant’s objections be resolved on the record because the statements in a defendant’s PSI may be utilized in future settings, such as parole hearings.” (quotation simplified)).

[8] The drafters of rule 1(f) did not explain the rationale for making rule 23B inapplicable in child welfare proceedings, and—given that we must base our decisions on the text of the rule, and not on our own notions of what the drafters might have intended, see, e.g., Hughes Gen. Contractors, Inc. v. Utah Labor Comm’n, 2014 UT 3, ¶ 29, 322 P.3d 712 (stating that “the interpretive function for us is not to divine and implement the statutory purpose, broadly defined,” but instead is to “construe its language”)—their unstated rationale is not directly relevant anyway. But it does not take much imagination to envision a reason why the drafters might have wanted to limit child welfare litigants to record evidence in making claims for ineffective assistance: rule 23B remand proceedings often take quite a bit of time, and speed is often at a premium in child welfare cases. See In re K.C., 2015 UT 92, ¶ 27, 362 P.3d 1248 (stating that “[c]hildren have an interest in permanency and stability,” and that “[t]he expeditious resolution of a termination proceeding may well be of paramount importance”).

[9] I do not read as much into rule 1(f) of the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure as Judge Harris does. As concerns rule 23B, it merely states the obvious. Rule 23B is, by its own terms, limited to criminal cases. See Utah R. App. P. 23B(a). Parental-rights-termination cases are not criminal cases. With or without rule 1(f), rule 23B would not apply to termination cases or any other civil proceeding.

[10] 10. It is important to note that before the adoption of rule 23B, when we were confronted with this issue in criminal cases and did not remand the case to have the record developed on the claimed ineffective assistance, we were quick to point out that a defendant had the ability to vindicate his or her right to the effective assistance of counsel through a post-conviction petition. See, e.g., State v. Cummins, 839 P.2d 848, 858–59 (Utah Ct. App. 1992) (“[W]hen the trial record is inadequate to permit a determination that defendant’s case has clearly been prejudiced by defense counsel’s deficient performance at trial, defendant is precluded from raising his ineffective assistance claim on appeal and must seek relief through post-conviction or habeas corpus proceedings.”); State v. Montes, 804 P.2d 543, 546 n.3 (Utah Ct. App. 1991) (“To the extent counsel’s failure to raise these issues might be taken as ineffective assistance, if [the defendant] pursues his claims on habeas corpus, that will be the appropriate time to develop an evidentiary record addressing these issues.”). See also State v. Litherland, 2000 UT 76, ¶ 13, 12 P.3d 92 (“In short, the dilemma of an inadequate record created a regime that tended to channel ineffectiveness claims into the habeas arena, where the defendant faced numerous burdens not present on direct appeal.”). But in the context of parental-rights-termination proceedings, there is no similar avenue, and if we did not have a mechanism to remand to develop the record on direct appeal, parents would have no meaningful remedy by which to vindicate their right to the effective assistance of counsel.

[11] Ultimately, I am not convinced that rule 23B was even necessary to give appellate courts the power in criminal cases to supplement the record on appeal to get to the bottom of a constitutionally based claim such as the ineffective assistance of counsel. In my view, rule 23B came into existence not because such a rule was strictly necessary to create that opportunity but to regularize and refine it by setting standards, deadlines, and procedures governing such remands. And as previously noted, there was not a compelling need for the appellate courts to exercise their inherent authority and improvise such a procedure in the criminal context before rule 23B came into existence because criminal defendants had the opportunity to pursue such claims and develop the necessary evidentiary record in a post-conviction proceeding. But there is no analogous avenue available to parents whose parental rights have been terminated.

Tags: , , ,

Are irreconcilable differences the same as an at-fault divorce?

No.

There are two kind of grounds for divorce: fault and no-fault. Irreconcilable differences are an example of no-fault grounds for divorce.

Before no-fault divorce laws were passed (and every state in the United States of America now allows divorce on a no-fault basis), a husband or wife could not obtain a divorce unless he/she could prove that his or her spouse had committed marital fault.

No, really. I’m not kidding. It got to the point that spouses we didn’t have fault-based grounds for divorce, but wanted a divorce nevertheless, would collude with each other and perjure themselves to commit fraud on the court: the husband or would would agree to claim, falsely that he/she committed adultery (or some other fault), and the other spouse would go along with the sham. Together they would represent to the court that a divorce was warranted on the basis of adultery that never took place, simply so they could get divorce from one another. lawmakers, realizing that this was happening, and realizing that there were many people in need of a divorce who could not qualify under existing laws, responded with the passage of no-fault divorce laws.

Fault-based grounds for divorce are those that allege that your spouse has committed one or more kinds of wrongs that would entitle you to a divorce.

No-fault grounds are those that allege that you don’t need or want to allege that your spouse has done anything wrong such that you are entitled to a divorce; instead, alleging no-fault grounds means that you just want out of the marriage, without having to blame your spouse as an excuse for getting divorced.

Fault-based grounds for divorce can vary from state to state, but generally the “marital faults” that qualify include:

  • impotency of the respondent at the time of marriage;
  • adultery committed by the respondent subsequent to marriage;
  • willful desertion of the petitioner by the respondent for more than one year;
  • willful neglect of the respondent to provide for the petitioner the common necessaries of life;
  • habitual drunkenness of the respondent;
  • conviction of the respondent for a felony;
  • cruel treatment of the petitioner by the respondent to the extent of causing bodily injury or great mental distress to the petitioner;
  • incurable insanity; or
  • when the husband and wife have lived separately under a decree of separate maintenance of any state for three consecutive years without cohabitation.

See Utah Code § 30-3-1(3)

Other historical fault-based grounds for divorce include:

  • existence of a loathsome disease concealed from the other spouse at the time of marriage were contracted afterwards
  • substance abuse other than and/or in addition to alcohol abuse
  • bigamy
  • impotence
  • force or fraud
  • mental illness
  • carnal abandonment (refusing to have a reasonable amount of sexual intercourse with one’s spouse)
  • infertility (particularly if your infertility was known and you concealed the fact before marriage)
  • sexual orientation ( g., you are heterosexual and you discover that your spouse is homosexual)
  • changing religions after marriage or abandoning one’s religious faith after marriage

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

https://www.quora.com/Are-irreconcilable-differences-the-same-as-an-at-fault-divorce/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Can a mother refuse custody of her child, or is that illegal?

Inability to care for a child is not the same as abandoning a child. If a parent (father or mother) were to “refuse custody” of his/her child, that would be abandonment of the child. Neglecting a child is obviously morally wrong. Extremely wrong. Hellishly wrong. It is also (not surprisingly) illegal.

If a pregnant woman were to abort her pregnancy, she would prevent the custody question from arising in the first place. This is also obviously morally wrong. Extremely wrong. Hellishly wrong. It is also legal. So it’s legal to kill a baby in the womb, illegal to abandon a helpless living child—with one major exception for newborn babies (see below).

An alternative to abandonment of a newborn baby is to leave the baby on the proverbial steps of the church or hospital. Some states, in response to tragic cases of live unwanted babies being tossed in trash cans and worse, have passed laws that allow the parents of an unwanted child to “safely relinquish a newborn child at a hospital . . . and retain complete anonymity, so long as the child has not been subject to abuse or neglect.” Here is an example of such a law from Utah, where I practice divorce and family law::

62A-4a-802. Safe relinquishment of a newborn child:

(1) (a) A parent or a parent’s designee may safely relinquish a newborn child at a hospital in accordance with the provisions of this part and retain complete anonymity, so long as the child has not been subject to abuse or neglect.

(b)  Safe relinquishment of a newborn child who has not otherwise been subject to abuse or neglect shall not, in and of itself, constitute neglect as defined in Section 78A-6-105, and the child shall not be considered a neglected child, as defined in Section 78A-6-105, so long as the relinquishment is carried out in substantial compliance with the provisions of this part.

(2) (a) Personnel employed by a hospital shall accept a newborn child that is relinquished pursuant to the provisions of this part, and may presume that the person relinquishing is the child’s parent or the parent’s designee.

(b)  The person receiving the newborn child may request information regarding the parent and newborn child’s medical histories, and identifying information regarding the nonrelinquishing parent of the child.

(c) The division shall provide hospitals with medical history forms and stamped envelopes addressed to the division that a hospital may provide to a person relinquishing a child pursuant to the provisions of this part.

(d)       Personnel employed by a hospital shall:

(i)  provide any necessary medical care to the child and notify the division as soon as possible, but no later than 24 hours after receipt of the child; and

(ii)  prepare a birth certificate or foundling birth certificate if parentage is unknown and file with the Office of Vital Records and Statistics.

(e) A hospital and personnel employed by a hospital are immune from any civil or criminal liability arising from accepting a newborn child if the personnel employed by the hospital substantially comply with the provisions of this part and medical treatment is administered according to standard medical practice.

(3)  The division shall assume care and custody of the child immediately upon notice from the hospital.

(4)       So long as the division determines there is no abuse or neglect of the newborn child, neither the newborn child nor the child’s parents are subject to:

(a) the provisions of Part 2, Child Welfare Services;

(b)  the investigation provisions contained in Section 62A-4a-409; or

(c) the provisions of Title 78A, Chapter 6, Part 3, Abuse, Neglect, and Dependency Proceedings.

(5)       Unless identifying information relating to the nonrelinquishing parent of the newborn child has been provided:

(a) the division shall work with local law enforcement and the Bureau of Criminal Identification within the Department of Public Safety in an effort to ensure that the newborn child has not been identified as a missing child;

(b)  the division shall immediately place or contract for placement of the newborn child in a potential adoptive home and, within 10 days after receipt of the child, file a petition for termination of parental rights in accordance with Title 78A, Chapter 6, Part 5, Termination of Parental Rights Act;

(c) the division shall direct the Office of Vital Records and Statistics to conduct a search for a birth certificate for the child and an Initiation of Proceedings to Establish Paternity Registry for unmarried biological fathers maintained by the Office of Vital Records and Statistics within the Department of Health and provide notice to each potential father identified on the registry. Notice of termination of parental rights proceedings shall be provided in the same manner as is utilized for any other termination proceeding in which the identity of the child’s parents is unknown;

(d)  if no person has affirmatively identified himself or herself within two weeks after notice is complete and established paternity by scientific testing within as expeditious a time frame as practicable, a hearing on the petition for termination of parental rights shall be scheduled; and

(e) if a nonrelinquishing parent is not identified, relinquishment of a newborn child pursuant to the provisions of this part shall be considered grounds for termination of parental rights of both the relinquishing and nonrelinquishing parents under Section 78A-6-507.

(6)  If at any time prior to the adoption, a court finds it is in the best interest of the child, the court shall deny the petition for termination of parental rights.

(7)  The division shall provide for, or contract with a licensed child-placing agency to provide for expeditious adoption of the newborn child.

(8)  So long as the person relinquishing a newborn child is the child’s parent or designee, and there is no abuse or neglect, safe relinquishment of a newborn child in substantial compliance with the provisions of this part is an affirmative defense to any potential criminal liability for abandonment or neglect relating to that relinquishment.

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

https://www.quora.com/Can-a-mother-refuse-custody-of-her-child-or-is-that-illegal/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

Tags: , , , , , ,

In re K.J., 2018 UT App 216 Utah Court of Appeals – termination of parental rights

2018 UT App 216
The Utah Court of Appeals

State of Utah, In the Interest of K.J.,
A Person under Eighteen Years of Age.
J.J.,
Appellant,
AND
C.J.,
Appellant,
v.
STATE OF UTAH,
Appellee.

Opinion Nos. 20170812-CA and 20170814-CA
Filed November 16, 2018

Third District Juvenile Court, Salt Lake Department
The Honorable Susan H. Eisenman
No. 1131478

Sheleigh A. Harding, Attorney for Appellant J.J.
Jordan Putnam, Attorney for Appellant C.J.
Sean D. Reyes, Carol L.C. Verdoia, and John M. Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee
Martha Pierce and Natalia Peterson, Guardian ad Litem

JUDGE MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES RYAN M. HARRIS and DIANA HAGEN concurred.

CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, Judge:

¶1      This case required us to determine whether the State may file a petition seeking termination of parental rights when the child is already subject to ongoing abuse, neglect, and dependency proceedings.[1] We conclude that the plain language of the Juvenile Court Act (the JCA) permits the State to file a termination petition at any time. Accordingly, we affirm the juvenile court’s order terminating C.J.’s (Mother) and J.J’s (Father) parental rights in K.J. (Child).[2]

BACKGROUND

¶2        Mother and Father are the biological parents of Child. At birth, Child tested positive for benzodiazepines, oxycodone, and morphine and remained in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit for eleven days for treatment related to opiate withdrawals.

¶3        Approximately three weeks after Child was born, he was taken into custody by law enforcement, and the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) filed a verified petition alleging that Child was “an abused, neglected, or dependent child.” The juvenile court held a shelter hearing and placed Child in DCFS’s temporary custody. At the adjudication hearing, the parents stipulated to certain factual findings, and the juvenile court adjudicated Child as neglected by Mother and dependent as to Father. The court entered a dispositional order in September 2016, ordering DCFS to provide reunification services to Father but not to Mother who was incarcerated at the time. After Mother’s release, the court ordered her to participate in a substance abuse evaluation and to follow any recommendations from that evaluation. In February 2017, the court determined that reunification services had been successful, transferred permanent custody of Child back to the parents, and terminated its jurisdiction and DCFS’s involvement.

¶4        Five months later, in July 2017, DCFS filed another verified petition alleging that Child was “abused and neglected.” At that time, Mother was again incarcerated. The juvenile court held a shelter hearing and placed Child in DCFS’s temporary custody “for appropriate placement.” The court also appointed counsel for both parents.

¶5        In August 2017, DCFS filed a verified petition seeking termination of both Father’s and Mother’s parental rights. The court scheduled a pretrial hearing and a trial on the termination petition. During the pretrial hearing, the parents moved “for a hearing for reunification services.” DCFS opposed the parents’ motion, asserting that there is no provision for reunification services when DCFS files a termination petition instead of an abuse and neglect petition. The juvenile court stated that it would consider any motions for reunification services “filed in a timely manner.”

¶6        Before trial, Father filed a “Motion to Stay Termination of Rights Petition and Convert Trial Setting to Pretrial Hearing on Underlying Petition.” In his motion, Father requested a stay of the termination petition and argued that DCFS was required to proceed on its abuse and neglect petition, “and only once [the juvenile court] has determined that reunification services are inappropriate should [DCFS] file a termination of rights petition.” He further argued that “[t]he dispositional statute clearly contemplates that there will be a hearing to determine whether reunification services are appropriate” and that, “[b]y moving straight to a petition to terminate parental rights, the State jumps over all of the safeguards and due process given to the family in the dispositional statute.” See generally Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-312 (LexisNexis Supp. 2018) (discussing dispositional hearings and reunification services).

¶7        DCFS objected to Father’s motion, arguing that Father “does not have a constitutional right to reunification” and that his “due process rights will be preserved and protected during the trial” on the termination petition. DCFS further asserted that “[t]here is no provision for reunification [services] to be granted under the Termination of Parental Rights Act.”

¶8        At the beginning of the termination trial, the court addressed and denied Father’s motion to stay. In its written ruling, the court stated that it was not persuaded that Father’s “due process rights are violated by the State pursuing alternative petitions and acting on the more final petition first.” First, the court determined that “there is no recognized substantive due process right that would require the state to either dismiss . . . or proceed on a verified [abuse or neglect adjudication] petition prior to proceeding with a Petition for Termination of Parental Rights.” The court recognized that parents have a “‘fundamental liberty interest in the care, custody, and management of their children’” and that, notwithstanding that interest, “‘a parent shown by clear and convincing evidence to be unfit can be permanently deprived of all parental rights.’” (Quoting In re J.S., 2017 UT App 167, ¶ 7, 405 P.3d 828 (per curiam).) The court observed that requiring the State to forgo “alternative jurisdictional theories would dilute the State’s ‘moral and statutory obligation to step in and protect children when those children are suffering from neglect and abuse.’” (Quoting id.) Thus, the court concluded, “[t]he separate filing does not implicate [Father’s] substantive due process rights.”

¶9        Second, the court concluded that Father was not denied procedural dur process. Specifically, the court observed that the parties had “concede[d] that there is no constitutional or statutory right to reunification services, nor do the presumptions for or against reunification services apply to a verified petition for termination of parental rights.” The court determined that there is “no right to have a petition for adjudication [of abuse or neglect] filed before a petition to terminate parental rights” and that “the State or any party has the discretion to file a termination petition whenever the parties believe there are grounds to terminate parental rights.” The court observed that Father (1) had participated in all of the proceedings since Child’s birth, (2) had received notice of the termination petition, (3) had been appointed counsel “at all stages of the proceeding,” and (4) “had a full and fair opportunity to defend against” the termination petition. The court determined that there was “nothing ‘fundamentally unfair’ about proceeding with a properly filed termination proceeding while a verified petition alleging abuse and neglect remains filed and outstanding.”

¶10      Ultimately, the court terminated both parents’ parental rights. Regarding Mother, the court found that (1) Mother had neglected Child and was an unfit parent because she “habitually and excessively use[d] controlled substances or dangerous drugs that render[ed] her unable to care for [Child]”; (2) Child was being cared for in an out-of-home placement and Mother had “substantially neglected, willfully refused or [was] unable or unwilling to remedy the circumstances that cause[d] [Child] to be in an out-of-home placement[,] and there [was] a substantial likelihood that [she would] not be capable of exercising proper and effective parental care in the near future”; and (3) Mother had experienced a failure of parental adjustment. See Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-507(1)(b), (d), (e) (LexisNexis Supp. 2018); id. § 78A-6-508(2)(c), (d). The court further determined that it was in Child’s best interest to terminate Mother’s parental rights.

¶11      Regarding Father, the court found that (1) Father had neglected Child and was an unfit parent because he “habitually and excessively use[d] controlled substances or dangerous drugs that render[ed] him unable to care for [Child]”; (2) Child was being cared for in an out-of-home placement and Father had “substantially neglected, willfully refused or [was] unable or unwilling to remedy the circumstances that cause[d] [Child] to be in an out-of-home placement[,] and there [was] a substantial likelihood that [he would] not be capable of exercising proper and effective parental care in the near future”; and (3) Father had experienced a failure of parental adjustment. See id.§ 78A-6-507(1)(b), (d), (e); id. § 78A-6-508(2)(c), (d). The court also took judicial notice “of its disposition and review orders related to [Father]” and found that “the services provided to [Father] in 2016 when [Child] was removed the first time were reasonable.” The court further determined that it was in Child’s best interest to terminate Father’s parental rights.

¶12      The parents moved to amend the order terminating their parental rights under rule 59 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. See Utah R. Civ. P. 59(a)(7) (“[A] new trial may be granted to any party on any issue for any of the following reasons: . . . that the verdict or decision is contrary to law or based on an error in law.”). They asserted that the juvenile court’s ruling that the State could proceed on its termination petition instead of the underlying abuse and neglect petition was contrary to this court’s decision in In re S.F., 2012 UT App 10, ¶ 43, 268 P.3d 831. According to the parents, In re S.F. stands for the proposition that, where juvenile court jurisdiction is terminated in an earlier case, the child welfare proceedings must begin anew, which requires a shelter hearing, adjudication, disposition, and a permanency hearing before the State can seek termination of parental rights. Thus, the parents asserted, the State should have been required to “proceed on its underlying verified petition of abuse and neglect prior to proceeding on its termination of rights petition.”

¶13      The juvenile court denied the parents’ motion. The court was not persuaded by the parents’ arguments and disagreed with their reading of In re S.F., concluding that the case held that “when a child is removed after the Court’s jurisdiction is terminated, the filing of a new petition is needed to reanimate the Court’s jurisdiction.” But the court did not read the decision “to limit how the Court’s jurisdiction is reanimated to only custody petitions.” The court determined that “it is clear that that juvenile court act procedures did begin anew in this case,” explaining:

A new petition for custody was filed to take [Child] back into protective custody. A shelter hearing was held and the parents were afforded counsel and a right to be heard. After the shelter hearing but before adjudication of the first petition, the State filed a second petition, this one requesting termination of parental rights. The case proceeded to adjudication: the termination of parental rights petition was adjudicated, and the order terminating parental rights constituted the dispositional order.

(Quotation simplified.) The court further stated that it “had jurisdiction to hear either petition and it determined to hear… the more determinative petition first.”

¶14      Mother and Father appeal.

ISSUE AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶15      Mother and Father contend that their due process rights were violated “when the juvenile court allowed DCFS to proceed on its termination of [parental] rights petition, rather than requiring DCFS to proceed on the underlying abuse/neglect petition.” “Whether a parent has been afforded adequate due process is a question of law, reviewed for correctness.” In re S.F., 2012 UT App 10, ¶ 24, 268 P.3d 831 (quotation simplified). “Likewise, any interpretation of the Juvenile Court Act is a question of law, reviewed for correctness.” Id.

ANALYSIS

¶16      “The right to raise one’s children is a fundamental liberty interest protected by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.” In re X.C.H., 2017 UT App 106, ¶ 14, 400 P.3d 1154 (quotation simplified); see also Utah Code Ann.§ 78A-6-503(1) (LexisNexis Supp. 2018) (“Under both the United States Constitution and the constitution of this state, a parent possesses a fundamental liberty interest in the care, custody, and management of the parent’s child.”). “Accordingly, that right may not be terminated without due process of law.” In re X.C.H., 2017 UT App 106, ¶ 14 (quotation simplified); see also U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1 (“No State shall . . . deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law . . . .”); Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-503(2) (LexisNexis Supp. 2018) (“The court shall provide a fundamentally fair process to a parent if a party moves to terminate parental rights.”).

¶17      Mother and Father contend that the State “should have been required to proceed on the underlying abuse/neglect petition” and that their due process rights were violated when the juvenile court instead allowed the State to proceed on its termination petition. Once the State filed its abuse and neglect petition, the parents contend they then “had a due process right to an adjudication of the abuse, neglect, and/or dependency petition . . . , and to a dispositional hearing [thirty] days later.” They assert that “[t]he dispositional statute clearly contemplates that there will be a hearing to determine whether reunification services are appropriate, and if not, then the case proceeds to a permanency hearing, where a petition to terminate parental rights could be filed.”[3] In other words, the parents contend that, once the State filed its abuse and neglect petition, the parents were thereafter entitled to the full panoply of proceedings set forth in Part 3 of the JCA before the State was permitted to seek termination of either parent’s parental rights.

¶18      “When interpreting a statute, it is axiomatic that [our] primary goal is to give effect to the legislature’s intent in light of the purpose that the statute was meant to achieve.” Monarrez v. Utah Dep’t of Transp., 2016 UT 10, ¶ 11, 368 P.3d 846 (quotation simplified). As Utah courts have often noted, “the best evidence of the legislature’s intent is the plain language of the statute itself.” Id. (quotation simplified). “Our task . . . is to determine the meaning of the text given the relevant context of the statute (including, particularly, the structure and language of the statutory scheme).” Id. (quotation simplified). We therefore “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.” Id. (quotation simplified). Lastly, “we avoid any interpretation which renders parts or words in a statute inoperative or superfluous in order to give effect to every word of a statute.” Id. (quotation simplified).

¶19      We see nothing in the JCA’s plain language prohibiting the State from bringing a termination proceeding while an abuse, neglect, or dependency proceeding is pending in the juvenile court. We first address the statutory language, concluding that the statutes’ language permits the State to file a termination petition at any time during the pendency of an abuse, neglect, or dependency proceeding. We then address the case law upon which the parents rely.

A

¶20      The JCA contains multiple statutory avenues for the termination of parental rights. To begin with, Part 3 of the JCA, governing abuse, neglect, and dependency proceedings, sets out a detailed process by which the State may intervene in the parent-child relationship, work to improve that relationship and the conditions of the family, and seek to terminate a parent’s parental rights if necessary. See generally Utah Code Ann. §§ 78A-6-301 to -324 (LexisNexis Supp. 2018). Pursuant to the JCA, a juvenile court has exclusive original jurisdiction in a proceeding concerning “a child who is an abused child, neglected child, or dependent child.” Id. § 78A-6-103(1)(b).

¶21      Under Part 3, an  abuse,  neglect,  or  dependency proceeding generally begins when, after taking a child into protective custody, the State files a verified petition alleging that the child has been abused, neglected, or is dependent.[4] See id. §§ 78A-6-302, -304. The juvenile court is then required to hold a shelter hearing pursuant to section 78A-6-306 to determine whether continued removal and placement of the child in DCFS’s temporary custody are necessary. See id. § 78A-6-306. The matter then proceeds, and the court holds an adjudication hearing. See id. § 78A-6-311. “If, at the adjudication hearing, the court finds, by clear and convincing evidence, that the allegations contained in the petition are true, it shall conduct a dispositional hearing.” Id. § 78A-6-311(1). At the dispositional stage, the juvenile court has myriad dispositional choices available to it, from protective supervision, to reunification services, to termination of parental rights. See id. §§ 78A-6-117(2), -312(1)–(2). If the court   does not order re unification services, a permanency hearing must be held within thirty days. Id. §§ 78A-6-312(26), -314(1)(b). If, at the permanency hearing, the final plan for the child is to proceed toward termination of parental rights, “the petition for termination of parental rights shall be filed, and a pretrial held, within [forty-five] calendar days after the permanency hearing.” Id. § 78A-6-314(9).

¶22      Notably, section 78A-6-314 provides that nothing in the section pertaining to the permanency hearing and the final permanency plan “may be construed to . . . limit or prohibit the filing of a petition for termination of parental rights by any party, or a hearing on termination of parental rights, at any time prior to a permanency hearing.” Id. § 78A-6-314(11)(c). “This provision clearly contemplates the possibility that if a termination trial is held prior to a permanency hearing and the parent’s rights are terminated, then the parent may never receive a permanency hearing.” In re S.F., 2012 UT App 10, ¶ 53, 268 P.3d 831.

¶23      The State concedes that this process is “the norm” and that, “[i]n child welfare proceedings initiated by the State, it is more typical that the proceedings begin with a petition pursuant to Utah Code [section] 78A-6-304” seeking adjudication of abuse, neglect, or dependency. But while that process may be “the norm,” we agree with the State that “it is not a legal requirement” for this process to occur before terminating parental rights. In other words, while most termination cases begin as abuse, neglect, and dependency cases, a termination proceeding does not necessarily flow from an abuse, neglect, and dependency proceeding. Nor does a termination proceeding depend upon a prior adjudication of abuse or neglect.

¶24      Pursuant to Utah   Code   section   78A-6-103(1)(f), juvenile courts also have exclusive original jurisdiction in proceedings concerning “the termination of the legal parent- child relationship in accordance with Part 5, Termination of Parental Rights Act, including termination of residual parental rights and duties.” Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-103(1)(f) (LexisNexis Supp. 2018).[5] Section 78A-6-504 provides that “[a]ny interested party . . . may file a petition for termination of the parent-child relationship with regard to a child.” Id. 78A-6-504(1). “When termination proceedings are initiated under [the Termination of Parental Rights Act], the [juvenile] court must make two distinct findings supported by clear and convincing evidence before a person’s parental rights can be properly terminated.” In re Adoption of T.H., 2007 UT App 341, ¶ 11, 171 P.3d 480. “First, the court must find that the parent is below some minimum threshold of fitness, such as finding that a parent is unfit or incompetent based on any of the grounds for termination under section 78A-6-507 of the Utah Code.” In re X.C.H., 2017 UT App 106, ¶ 34, 400 P.3d 1154 (quotation simplified); see also Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-507(1) (LexisNexis Supp. 2018) (listing the grounds for termination of parental rights and providing that the finding of a single enumerated ground will support the termination of parental rights). Second, after finding at least one of the enumerated grounds, “the court must find that the best interests and welfare of the child are served by terminating the parents’ parental rights.” In re X.C.H., 2017 UT App 106, ¶ 34 (quotation simplified); see also Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-506(3) (LexisNexis Supp. 2018).

¶25      Mother and Father do not challenge the constitutionality   or statutory procedures set forth under either Part 3 or Part 5 of the JCA independently. Rather, they assert that due process prohibits the State from jumping to a termination proceeding under Part 5, while an adjudication of abuse, neglect, or dependency is proceeding under Part 3. Such a change in course, the parents argue, deprives them of “the safeguards and due process” provided in the adjudication statute. We are not persuaded. The statutes do not prohibit the State from changing course and, as we discuss later, infra ¶¶ 39–42, such a turn does not violate the parents’ due process rights. The plain language of the applicable statutes simply does not prohibit the State from filing a petition seeking termination of parental rights while an abuse, neglect, or dependency proceeding is pending in the juvenile court. Indeed, as previously discussed, section 78A-6-314 provides that nothing in the section relating to the permanency hearing and the final permanency plan “may be construed to . . . limit or prohibit the filing of a petition for termination of parental rights by any party, or a hearing on termination of parental rights, at any time prior to a permanency hearing.” Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-314(11)(c) (LexisNexis Supp. 2018) (emphasis added). Rather, we agree with the State that the plain language of the JCA “allows for a termination petition to be filed at any time [during an abuse, neglect, or dependency proceeding], or even as a stand-alone action.”

¶26      Moreover, the JCA provides that juvenile courts have exclusive original jurisdiction over “a child who is an abused child, neglected child, or dependent child,” as well as “the termination of the legal parent-child relationship in accordance with Part 5, Termination of Parental Rights Act, including termination of residual parental rights and duties.” Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-103(1)(b), (1)(f). Here, DCFS filed a verified petition alleging that Child was “abused and neglected.” The juvenile court held a shelter hearing and placed Child in DCFS’s temporary custody “for appropriate placement.” Before adjudication on the first petition, DCFS filed a second verified petition seeking termination of both Mother’s and Father’s parental rights. The juvenile court had exclusive original jurisdiction over both petitions, and we agree with the juvenile court that the State may elect to proceed with the more final petition first. Indeed, as the juvenile court observed, “[t]o require the State to [forgo] alternative jurisdictional theories would dilute the State’s ‘moral and statutory obligation to step in and protect children when those children are suffering from neglect and abuse.’” (Quoting In re J.S., 2017 UT App 167, ¶ 7, 405 P.3d 828 (per curiam).)

¶27      In sum, where an abuse, neglect, or  dependency  proceeding is pending, nothing in the plain language of the JCA prohibits the State from reasserting jurisdiction by filing another petition seeking termination of parental rights.

B

¶28      Mother and Father direct our attention to In re S.F., 2012   UT App 10, 268 P.3d 831, for the proposition that the State must go through all of the statutory child welfare proceedings under Part 3, once initiated, before proceeding to termination under Part 5. The parents’ reliance on In re S.F. is misplaced.

¶29      There, the father’s children were first placed in DCFS’s protective custody in August 2007, and the juvenile court later adjudicated the children as neglected. Id. ¶ 2. After twelve months of reunification services, the juvenile court found that the father had substantially complied with the treatment plan, and the court returned custody and guardianship of the children to the father “subject to protective supervision by DCFS.” Id. ¶¶ 3–4 (quotation simplified). The court also ordered DCFS to create a new service plan for the father and scheduled a review hearing for a few months later. Id. ¶ 4. Shortly after the father entered into the new service plan, police responded to two separate domestic violence incidents at his home, and in November 2008, DCFS filed a petition seeking to have the children removed from the father’s custody. Id. ¶ 5. The juvenile court placed the children in DCFS’s temporary custody, having determined that removal was necessary and in the children’s best interests. Id. ¶ 7. At the next pretrial hearing, the State filed a petition to terminate the father’s parental rights, id. ¶ 9, and at a subsequent hearing, the court denied further reunification services to the father, see id. ¶¶ 10, 13–14. The case proceeded to a termination trial, and the court ultimately terminated the father’s parental rights. Id. ¶ 16.

¶30      On appeal, the father asserted that the juvenile court failed “to hold statutorily-mandated child welfare proceedings” after his children were removed for the second time and that the juvenile court therefore exceeded its “jurisdiction and violated his due process rights.” See id. ¶ 24. More specifically, he argued that when his children were returned to DCFS’s custody in November 2008, the juvenile court was required “to adjudicate the [c]hildren again in order to obtain jurisdiction over the [c]hildren.” Id.

¶31      This court first determined that,  although  the  juvenile court had returned legal custody of the children to the father in August 2008, the court had retained its dispositional authority over the children as evidenced by the court’s order, which anticipated continued protective supervision by DCFS and required the father to enter into a new service plan. Id. ¶¶ 33, 35. We determined that “as long as the juvenile court does not dismiss the case or terminate jurisdiction, the court retains dispositional authority over the [c]hildren because there has been an initial legal determination that those [c]hildren are abused, neglected, or dependent.” Id. ¶ 34. “In contrast, where the juvenile court makes a ruling incompatible with a continuation of its authority, the court’s jurisdiction ends.” Id. Because the juvenile court “did not affirmatively renounce its jurisdiction or enter any ruling incompatible with its continuing authority,” the juvenile court retained jurisdiction over the children. See id. ¶¶ 35–36.

¶32      Regarding the father’s argument that the juvenile court was required to adjudicate the children as neglected again, this court concluded that the juvenile court was not required to restart the child welfare proceedings in November 2008. Id. ¶ 39. Observing that “the juvenile court did not amend the children’s status as neglected [or] surrender its jurisdiction over the family” in August 2008 when it restored legal custody to the father, we determined that the court retained dispositional authority over the children and could therefore return the children to DCFS’s custody in November 2008. Id. ¶¶ 41, 44. As a result, the court was not required to restart the child welfare proceedings after the children’s second removal. That is, the court was not required to hold a shelter hearing or readjudicate the children as neglected. See id. ¶ 48.

¶33      Relevant to this appeal, this court also observed, in dicta, that under a different set of circumstances—for example, if the father “had abided by the service plan until the court had terminated child supervision services and its jurisdiction, and only then had engaged in domestic violence in front of the [c]hildren”—“the situation would be entirely different.” Id. ¶ 43. We stated that “[i]n such a case, where the court has terminated its jurisdiction, the Juvenile Court Act procedures would begin anew.” Id. (emphasis added). We then set forth a hypothetical sequence of events that would occur in the new proceedings:

After taking the [c]hildren into protective custody, the State would file a petition introducing new allegations of neglect pursuant to Utah Code section 78A-6-304(1)(b). The court would then hold a shelter hearing pursuant to section 78A-6-306, the result of which might be to remove the children and place them in DCFS’s temporary legal custody. After that, the matter would proceed to adjudication.

See id. (quotation simplified).

¶34      The parents assert that In re S.F. demonstrates that “where new grounds for removal occur after termination of jurisdiction” in a previous case, the juvenile court is required to “restart the child welfare proceedings.” Relying on the sequence of events described in In re S.F., the parents assert that they were entitled to “an adjudication of the abuse, neglect, and/or dependency petition . . . , and to a dispositional hearing 30 days later,” at which hearing the juvenile court could have determined whether reunification services were appropriate. See id. ¶ 43. We are not persuaded.

¶35      In In re S.F., this court was concerned with the juvenile court’s jurisdiction over the children, not with setting forth a mandatory sequence of events that must occur in all child welfare proceedings before a party can seek termination of parental rights. Specifically, we observed that “where the court has terminated its jurisdiction, the Juvenile Court Act procedures would begin anew,” which would involve the filing of a new petition. See id. But as the juvenile court in this case correctly observed, In re S.F. does not “limit how the [c]ourt’s jurisdiction is reanimated.” The juvenile court’s jurisdiction may be reanimated with a petition alleging abuse, neglect, or dependency, or with a petition seeking termination of parental rights. Our legislature has given juvenile courts exclusive original jurisdiction over both types of proceedings. See Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-103(1)(b), (1)(f) (LexisNexis Supp. 2018). Here, the juvenile court had jurisdiction over both the State’s abuse and neglect petition and its termination petition. Thus, as previously discussed, the only issue was deciding on which petition to proceed, and the State opted to proceed on the termination petition. As such, the statutory procedures relating to abuse, neglect, and dependency proceedings in Part 3 of the JCA had no bearing on the termination proceedings.

¶36      Our conclusion is supported by this court’s decision in In re A.K., 2012 UT App 232, 285 P.3d 772. In that case, the daughter had been removed from her mother’s custody twice. Id. ¶¶ 3–4. Both times, the daughter was returned to the mother’s custody with protective supervision services. Id. ¶¶ 3, 5. DCFS later filed a joint petition for custody and termination of the mother’s parental rights. Id. ¶¶ 6–7. The juvenile court ordered removal of both the daughter and mother’s infant son (daughter’s third removal and son’s first removal), granted custody to DCFS, and set a discovery schedule for the termination hearing. Id. ¶ 7. The court ultimately terminated the mother’s parental rights. Id. ¶ 10.

¶37      On appeal, the mother asserted that “certain statutory procedures were not followed after the final removal of her children” and that the juvenile court therefore lacked “jurisdiction to hear the State’s petition to terminate her parental rights.” Id. ¶ 11. More specifically, she asserted that the juvenile court “failed to hold a shelter hearing, an adjudication, and a dispositional hearing,” and that the juvenile court was “deprived of jurisdiction by its failure to strictly comply with the statutory procedures for the abuse, neglect, and dependency proceedings.” Id. ¶¶ 15–16.

¶38      This court disagreed, observing that juvenile courts have jurisdiction over proceedings concerning “‘a child who is an abused child, neglected child, or dependent child,’” id. ¶ 16 (quoting Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-103(1)(c) (Supp. 2012)), and that juvenile courts also have a separate statutory basis for jurisdiction in proceedings concerning “‘the termination of the legal parent-child relationship in accordance with Part 5, Termination of Parental Rights Act,’” id. ¶ 17 (quoting Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-103(1)(g) (Supp. 2012)). Consequently, this court concluded that, “[e]ven if the alleged defects deprived the court of jurisdiction over abuse, neglect, and dependency proceedings,” the juvenile court “clearly had jurisdiction over the termination proceedings . . . pursuant to subsection (1)(g).” Id. In other words, any jurisdictional defects in the underlying adjudication were remedied by the termination proceeding, which provided the juvenile court with an independent grant of jurisdiction.[6] See id.  Here, the State initially filed   an   abuse, neglect, or dependency petition. Switching course, the State filed a separate petition seeking termination of Mother’s and Father’s parental rights. The State’s new petition under Part 5 of the JCA called upon a separate grant of jurisdiction given to the juvenile court. Consequently, the State’s abandonment of the Part 3 neglect adjudication proceedings did not impact its ability to proceed to termination of parental rights pursuant to a Part 5 petition. See id.

¶39      Mother and Father do not challenge the statutory procedures set forth under either Part 3 (abuse, neglect, or dependency adjudication) or Part 5 (termination of parental rights) independently. Rather, they assert that due process requires the State to follow through with the dispositional portion of Part 3, once that adjudication process is initiated, before changing course and commencing termination proceedings under Part 5. We have already concluded that the statutes do not prohibit the State from altering course in this way, supra ¶ 25, and we are not persuaded that the State doing so in this case infringed on the parents’ due process rights.

¶40      “Parties to a judicial proceeding are entitled to notice that a particular issue is being considered by a court and must be given an opportunity to present evidence and argument on that issue before decision.” In re M.J., 2011 UT App 398, ¶ 51, 266 P.3d 850 (quotation simplified). “Parties are deprived of due process when they are not properly informed of the nature of a proceeding, or notice is not given sufficiently in advance to allow preparation.” In re A.H., 2004 UT App 39, ¶ 11, 86 P.3d 745. “Judicial and administrative proceedings following the State’s removal of children from their home are no exception to this fundamental principle.” Id. ¶ 12.

¶41      Here, once the State filed its termination petition, the juvenile court scheduled a pretrial hearing on the petition and set a date for the termination trial. See supra ¶ 5. Both parents had proper notice of both hearings and an opportunity to argue their positions at both hearings. See supra ¶¶ 5–8. In addition, each parent was assisted by legal counsel throughout the termination proceedings. See supra ¶ 4. The fact that the parents were ultimately unsuccessful in their arguments does not mean that they did not receive the due process to which they were entitled.

¶42      As a general consideration, we note that  the  State’s  decision regarding which cases should proceed through the statutory abuse, neglect, and dependency proceedings and which cases should proceed directly, or more swiftly, to termination proceedings does seem somewhat arbitrary. But the State’s decisions in that regard fall squarely within its use of executive discretion. “It is not a function of the courts to review the exercise of executive discretion,” see State v. Garcia, 504 P.2d 1015, 1015–16 (Utah 1972), and given the plain language of our current statutory scheme, we cannot conclude that it was a violation of due process for the State and DCFS to deviate from the usual sequence of events in abuse, neglect, and dependency proceedings and to proceed on the termination petition instead.

¶43      The Guardian ad Litem is correct that what the parents seek in this case is “a legislative remedy, not a judicial one.” “The policy of the law in this instance has been set by the legislature, as is its responsibility.” See In re S.L., 1999 UT App 390, ¶ 56, 995 P.2d 17 (Wilkins, J., concurring). That policy allows the State to determine how to proceed in child welfare proceedings. If this is not what the legislature intended, then it should consider amending the relevant portions of the JCA to limit the circumstances under which the State may abandon pending abuse, neglect, and dependency proceedings in favor of termination proceedings.[7]

CONCLUSION

¶44      We conclude that the State was not required to see  its  abuse, neglect, and dependency petition through to its end before the State could file and proceed on a separate termination petition. Both parents had notice of, and a meaningful opportunity to participate in, the termination proceedings, and we therefore conclude that they each received the due process to which they were entitled. Accordingly, we affirm the juvenile court’s termination of Mother’s and Father’s parental rights.

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

[1] Termination of parental rights proceedings are governed by Part 5 of the Juvenile Court Act (the JCA), known as the Termination of Parental Rights Act, See Utah Code Ann. §§ 78A-6-501 to -515 (LexisNexis Supp. 2018). Abuse, neglect, and dependency adjudications, proceed under Part 3 of the JCA, “Abuse, Neglect, and Dependency Proceedings.” See id.§§ 78A-6-301 to -324. Where the applicable statutory provisions remain substantially unchanged or unless noted otherwise, we refer to the current version of the Utah Code for convenience.

[2] The juvenile Court’s termination of Mother’s and Father’s parental rights is the subject of separate appeals. Because both parents’ arguments are the same, we issue a joint opinion resolving both appeals.

[3] Mother and Father concede that “a parent does not have a right to reunification services from the State of Utah.” See generally In re N.R., 967 P.2d 951, 955–56 (Utah Ct. App. 1998) (“Reunification services are a gratuity provided to parents by the Legislature, and [parents] thus have no constitutional right to receive these services.”).

[4] Although “any interested person” may file an abuse, neglect, or dependency petition, for our purposes we refer only to the State. See Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-304(2)(a) (LexisNexis Supp. 2018).

[5] While juvenile courts have exclusive original jurisdiction to consider the termination of the parental rights of parents who are deemed unfit, pursuant to Utah Code section 78B-6-112, a district court has jurisdiction “to terminate parental rights in a child if the party who filed the petition is seeking to terminate parental rights in the child for the purpose of facilitating the adoption of the child.” Utah Code Ann. § 78B-6-112(1) (LexisNexis Supp. 2018).

[6] The mother in In re A.K. also asserted that the alleged procedural defects violated her due process rights. In re A.K., 2012 UT app 232, ¶¶ 12, 18, 285 P.3d 772. However, she failed to “adequately demonstrate[] what the alleged procedural deficiency was or how, under the facts of [the] case, any alleged deficiency violated her due process rights.” Id. ¶ 20. Consequently, she failed to carry her burden of persuasion on her due process claim. Id. ¶ 36.

[7] Regarding the juvenile court’s grounds for termination of the parents’ parental rights, Mother and Father both assert that their “only argument . . . in response to each of the grounds for termination of parental rights [is] that [they were] not afforded an opportunity to correct these problems by the juvenile court in violation of due process.” They concede that “the due process argument is key to the entirety of [their] appeal[].” Because we have concluded that Mother’s and Father’s due process rights were not violated, we need not address the court’s grounds for termination.

Tags: , , , , ,
Click to listen highlighted text!