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Tag: parental rights

What Good Parents Need to Know About Child Custody Disputes with an Evil Parent

You hear and read on attorney websites stuff like, “Navigating child custody arrangements during divorce can be challenging.” That’s not the half of it. Child custody disputes with an evil parent are nastier and harder (and orders of magnitude more expensive) than most parents expect or can even imagine. I’m not exaggerating. I am really not exaggerating. Really, I am not exaggerating. Here are some crucial tips to consider for a smoother process.

  • If there is no valid child custody order issued by a court, the police cannot help you “enforce” your “child custody rights”. This is because you have no right to control what the other parent does with the children when it comes to exercising custody. The other parent can deny your requests to spend time with the children. He/she can even deny your requests to call the children on the phone or chat with them over video.

 

o   Even if there is a court order that clearly identifies the child custody and parent-time orders, it’s only as good as the will of the courts and the police to enforce it. Many police departments will either outright refuse to assist you in enforcing the order or will act as if “I can’t understand what the order means, so I can’t help you.”

  • Defend your reputation, your good name, and your parental fitness with everything you have.

o   Courts are afraid of making a mistake when they issue child custody and parent-time orders. Evil parents exploit this fear by accusing innocent, loving parents of terrible traits and acts, so that the court will “protect” the children from them by awarding custody to the other parent and/or restricting parent-time. Mere accusations—if they’re scary enough and skillfully spun—can be enough to force a court’s hand.

o   What kinds of accusations? Abuse! Abuse! Abuse! Physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and substance abuse are the most “successful”.

o   If you are accused wrongfully, defend yourself with everything you have. Point out the dearth of support for the allegations. If you can, get overwhelming amounts of proof in your favor. Live as perfect life as you possibly can. Be as perfect a parent as you can. Sure, it’s unfair unrealistic, but don’t expect the court to be sympathetic with you (especially if you’re a father). Don’t give the court any way to take the path of least resistance, to act “out of an abundance of caution,” or to indulge “better safe than sorry” thinking.

  • Document everything pertaining to the child custody and parent-time awards. Gather as much proof as you possibly can in support of your parental fitness, of your efforts to be there for your children, to spend time with them, to take care of them (feed them, bathe and clothe them, help with homework, play with them, exemplify good morals and values, etc.), so that the court cannot deny your requests without looking biased, ignorant, and/or incompetent.

o   Know what factors the court must consider when making the child custody and parent-time awards, then ensure you satisfy every single one of them beautifully (and if you cannot satisfy them all, explain why, and why that should not disqualify you from being awarded as much custody and parent-time as is in the best interest of the children

  • Here are the factors considered in Utah:
  • In a nutshell: the child’s needs and the parent’s ability to meet them
  • In total:

Utah Code § 30-3-10

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

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

–          physical needs;

–          emotional needs;

–          educational needs;

–          medical needs; and

–          any special needs;

–          the parent’s capacity and willingness to function as a parent, including:

–          parenting skills;

–          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

–          ability to provide personal care rather than surrogate care;

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

–          the emotional stability of the parent;

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

–          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;

–          the parent’s reasons for having relinquished custody or parent-time in the past;

–          duration and depth of desire for custody or parent-time;

–          the parent’s religious compatibility with the child;

–          the parent’s financial responsibility;

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

–          who has been the primary caretaker of the child;

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

–          the relative benefit of keeping siblings together;

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

–          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

–          any other factor the court finds relevant.

Utah Code § 30-3-10.2 (when seeking a joint custody award, and “joint custody” does not necessarily mean “equal time”; in Utah means that a parent exercises no less than 111 overnights with the children annually)

–          whether the physical, psychological, and emotional needs and development of the child will benefit from joint legal custody or joint physical custody or both;

–          the ability of the parents to give first priority to the welfare of the child and reach shared decisions in the child’s best interest;

–          co-parenting skills, including:

–          ability to appropriately communicate with the other parent;

–          ability to encourage the sharing of love and affection; and

–          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

–          whether both parents participated in raising the child before the divorce;

–          the geographical proximity of the homes of the parents;

–          the preference of the child if the child is of sufficient age and capacity to reason so as to form an intelligent preference as to joint legal custody or joint physical custody or both;

–          the maturity of the parents and their willingness and ability to protect the child from conflict that may arise between the parents;

–          the past and present ability of the parents to cooperate with each other and make decisions jointly; and

–          any other factor the court finds relevant.

 

Utah Code Section 30-3-34 (this is for determining parent-time, but the factors are equally relevant to the child custody award)

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

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

–          the distance between the residency of the child and the noncustodial parent;

–          a credible allegation of child abuse has been made;

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

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

–          the preference of the child if the court determines the child is of sufficient maturity;

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

–          shared interests between the child and the noncustodial parent;

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

–          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;

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

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

–          the parent-time schedule of siblings;

–          the lack of reasonable alternatives to the needs of a nursing child; and

–          any other criteria the court determines relevant to the best interests of the child.

Utah Code Section 30-3-35.2 (when seeking an award of equal physical custody)

–          A court may order the equal parent-time schedule described in this section if the court determines that:

–          the equal parent-time schedule is in the child’s best interest;

–          each parent has been actively involved in the child’s life; and

–          each parent can effectively facilitate the equal parent-time schedule.

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

–          each parent’s demonstrated responsibility in caring for the child;

–          each parent’s involvement in child care;

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

–          each parent’s assistance with the child’s homework;

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

–          each parent’s bond with the child; and

–          any other factor the court considers relevant.

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

–          the geographic distance between the residence of each parent and the distance between each residence and the child’s school;

–          each parent’s ability to assist with the child’s after school care;

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

–          the flexibility of each parent’s employment or other schedule;

–          each parent’s ability to provide appropriate playtime with the child;

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

–          physical facilities of each parent’s residence; and

–          any other factor the court considers relevant.

o   Be a class act at all times in your dealings with the other parent, no matter how much mud is slung and no matter how uncooperative antagonistic the other parent is. All the goodwill you’ve built up over a lifetime can be discounted and dismissed in an instant with just one angry outburst (no matter how much the other parent had it coming)

o   You do not build yourself up as a parent by tearing or trying to tear the other parent down. Be as honestly complimentary of the other parent as you can. No, don’t deny serious defects and faults, but unless the other parent is truly a monster, don’t try to paint the other parent as one—it’s not only evil, but it can backfire.

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

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

In re H.M. – 2023 UT App 122

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

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

PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

G.B.,

Appellant,

v.

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20220774-CA

Filed October 13, 2023

First District Juvenile Court, Logan Department

The Honorable Kirk M. Morgan

No. 1187751

Julie J. Nelson and Alexandra Mareschal,

Attorneys for Appellant

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

Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee State of Utah

Jonathan P. Thomas, Attorney for Father

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

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

TENNEY, Judge:

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

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

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

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

BACKGROUND

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

Allegations of Abuse from 2015 Through 2020[1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Protective Supervision Services Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mother’s Allegations Against Father Resume

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Termination Proceedings

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

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

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

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

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

Trial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Termination Decision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

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

¶63      This court applies “differing standards of review to findings of fact, conclusions of law, and determinations of mixed questions of law and fact.” In re E.R., 2021 UT 36, ¶ 14, 496 P.3d 58. “A best interest determination involves neither a pure finding of fact nor an abstract conclusion of law. This is a mixed determination of law and fact—in which the abstract law is applied to a given set of facts.” Id. ¶ 17. “The juvenile court’s decision can be overturned only if it either failed to consider all of the facts or considered all of the facts and its decision was nonetheless against the clear weight of the evidence.” Id. ¶ 31 (quotation simplified).[2]

ANALYSIS

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

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

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

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

  1. Present-Tense Best Interest of the Children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

¶85      But again, a “juvenile court’s decision can be overturned only if it either failed to consider all of the facts or considered all of the facts and its decision was nonetheless against the clear weight of the evidence.” In re E.R., 2021 UT 36, ¶ 31, 496 P.3d 58 (quotation simplified). Here:

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

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

  1. Supervised Visitation

¶87      A court may only terminate a parent’s rights if it finds that termination is in the child’s best interest and that “termination of parental rights, from the child’s point of view, is strictly necessary.” Utah Code § 80-4-301(1). “The strictly necessary language is designed to ensure that the court pause long enough to thoughtfully consider the range of available options that could promote the child’s welfare and best interest.” In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 69. “If the child can be equally protected and benefited by an option other than termination, termination is not strictly necessary” and “the court cannot order the parent’s rights terminated.” Id. ¶ 66. Moreover, when a juvenile court is presented with a readily apparent non-termination option, the court must “state, on the record, its reasons for rejecting feasible alternatives.” In re K.Y., 2022 UT App 149, ¶ 43 (quotation simplified). This “leaves no room for implicit rejection.” Id. (quotation simplified).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III. Mother’s Additional Arguments

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

  1. Adoption

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

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

  1. “Piling On”

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

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

  1. Mandatory Reporting

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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John v. John – 2023 UT App 103

John v. John – 2023 UT App 103

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

LUCAS ALLEN JOHN,

Appellee,

v.

CASSANDRA KATHLEEN JOHN,

Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20210506-CA

Filed September 14, 2023

Third District Court, Salt Lake Department

The Honorable Su Chon

Commission Joanna Sagers

No. 164904953

Benjamin K. Lusty, Attorney for Appellant Mary Deiss Brown, Attorney for Appellee

JUDGE JOHN D. LUTHY authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and RYAN D. TENNEY concurred.

LUTHY, Judge:

¶1        In Lucas Allen and Cassandra Kathleen John’s divorce decree, the district court gave Lucas[1] sole legal and physical custody of the parties’ daughter, Child. The decree gave Cassandra once-a-week virtual parent-time and in-person parent-time as often “as the parties agree, or as recommended by the reunification therapist.” The court ordered that Cassandra’s virtual parent-time “not be . . . monitored” but that her in-person parent-time be “subject to line-of-sight supervision.” The court then outlined a “reunification” plan, with the goal of Cassandra’s eventual transition to unsupervised parent-time with Child.

¶2        Cassandra contends that the district court erred by ordering supervised in-person parent-time without making the statutorily required finding of “evidence that [Child] would be subject to physical or emotional harm or child abuse . . . from [Cassandra] if left unsupervised with [her].” Utah Code § 30-3-34.5(1).[2] Cassandra also forwards multiple arguments in support of the assertion that the court erred by failing to provide, as required by statute, “specific goals and expectations” for her to meet “before unsupervised parent-time may be granted.” Id. § 30-3-34.5(5). We conclude that the district court made an adequate finding of evidence that Child would be subject to physical or emotional harm from Cassandra if left unsupervised with her, and we conclude that each of Cassandra’s arguments regarding specific goals and expectations is either mistaken or unpreserved. We therefore affirm.

BACKGROUND

¶3        Lucas and Cassandra married in March 2014. Child was born in September of that year. Cassandra had “engaged in drug use over the years,” and “even though [Cassandra] was a stay-at-home mom,” Lucas “hired a baby-sitter to take care of [Child] . . . because of [Cassandra’s] drug use” and because “he feared for [Child’s] safety.”

¶4        Soon after Child was born, Cassandra became pregnant with the parties’ second child. When the second child was born, the baby “had substances in her system,” “indicat[ing] that [Cassandra had been] engaging in activities that were potentially harmful to the . . . child.” This child died shortly after her birth.[3]

¶5        The parties separated around May 2016, and Cassandra moved in with her boyfriend later that year. In August 2016, Lucas petitioned for divorce. The next month, he moved for temporary orders to grant him sole legal and physical custody of Child. He also requested that Cassandra’s visitation time with Child be supervised and that Cassandra be ordered to submit to drug testing.

¶6        Around this time, Lucas and Cassandra were together “at a local restaurant” when Cassandra “took [Child], put her in the front seat of [a] truck without any car seat or any appropriate child restraints and then drove off,” hitting Lucas with the truck in the process. A temporary protective order was entered against Cassandra because she had attempted to run Lucas over with her truck and abscond with Child. A hearing on the protective order was held in October 2016, at which the commissioner recommended dismissal of the protective order,[4] entry of a mutual restraining order, and the granting to Cassandra of “unsupervised parent time . . . with no overnights.”

¶7        On December 8, 2016, a hearing was held on Lucas’s Motion for Temporary Orders. Following the hearing, the court entered mutual restraining and no-contact orders against the parties, awarded Lucas temporary sole legal and physical custody of Child, and directed Cassandra to “submit to a hair follicle [drug] test before 5:00 p.m.” that day. The court gave Cassandra parent-time “with . . . no overnights” and provisionally ordered that it be “facilitated” by a particular family friend. The court further instructed that if Cassandra’s drug test came back positive, Lucas’s attorney was to “call the court to schedule a telephone conference to determine the status moving forward.”

¶8        Cassandra’s hair follicle drug test came back positive for both cocaine and marijuana, and another hearing was held on December 20, 2016. Following that hearing, the court ordered that Cassandra’s parent-time be subject to line-of-sight supervision and that Cassandra complete another drug test by January 9, 2017.

¶9        On January 9, 2017, Cassandra submitted an “unofficial” drug test showing negative results for a collection taken that day. At a review hearing on January 30, 2017, however, the commissioner was “concern[ed]” because the results of the January 9 unofficial test were “drastically different” than the results of the test on December 8, 2016. The commissioner therefore directed Cassandra to complete another drug test that day. The commissioner also ordered “continue[d] . . . supervised parent time, status quo,” and set a review hearing for February 13, 2017.

¶10 Cassandra’s drug test on January 30, 2017, came back positive for marijuana, and following the February 13 review hearing, the court ordered “expanded supervised parent-time” with “no overnight visits.” It also ordered Cassandra to submit to a urinalysis by March 8, 2017, and it set another review hearing for March 13, 2017.

¶11 Cassandra took the required test before the March 13 review hearing, but she failed to submit the results. Her counsel (Counsel) nevertheless proffered at the hearing that the test had come back “positive for THC.” The court ordered that Cassandra’s parent-time remain subject to “direct line-of-sight” supervision “with no overnight visits.”

¶12 “At some point”—likely during April 2017—Cassandra “moved to Idaho for several months.” After a “stint in Louisiana,” she then moved to Iowa and lived there with a boyfriend. Once she had left Utah, Cassandra did not request any review hearings or make any attempt to exercise in-person parent-time with Child. As a result, she was “around [Child] physically on [only] three occasions” between January 2017 and June 2021.

¶13      Eventually, in March 2021, after compromise negotiations proved only minimally successful, the court held a bench trial on the parties’ outstanding issues. At the time of trial, Child was six years old.

¶14      Following trial, the court held a hearing to orally announce its rulings. To Cassandra’s credit, the court found that she was “trying to make some changes in her life,” including engaging in “therapy to resolve anger, trauma, and substance abuse” issues, and that she “appear[ed] to be improving.” But the court found that Cassandra still “lack[ed] . . . maturity in her decision-making processes,” “consider[ed] her own needs first and primary over [Child]’s,” and might not be “completely emotionally stable.” The court also found that Cassandra had engaged in “instances of violence” in the past (including the one that led to the temporary protective order noted above). And it found that Cassandra’s failures to “give[] first priority to [Child]’s welfare” were due to her “history with drug abuse.” Based on the foregoing findings, the court awarded Lucas sole legal and physical custody of Child.

¶15 The court then granted Cassandra supervised in-person parent-time at a frequency to be determined by a therapist and unsupervised virtual parent-time at least once per week. The court said that it thought there ought to be “some sort of ramping up” of supervised in-person visits and that a therapist should “come up with a schedule” for those visits after talking with Child, Cassandra, and Lucas to “see what’s appropriate.” The court further explained, “I expect that the therapist will come up with so many overnights so that [Cassandra] can practice with all of those things, and then once she’s completed the therapist’s plan, then I would say that the standard relocation statute would then become effective.” Counsel then asked whether “at that point”—i.e., when Cassandra had completed the therapist’s plan—“supervision would no longer be required.” The court responded, “I don’t know, Counsel,” “because there’s . . . some ongoing drug issues . . . and we don’t have any evidence . . . that she would have clean tests.”

¶16      Counsel then asked if the court was going to make findings as to whether Child “would be in danger if she were with [Cassandra unsupervised].” In response, the court said:

[G]iven that [Cassandra]’s not complied with the Court orders, it’s not clear to me whether or not she’s a danger to [Child] still. She hasn’t completed the drug tests, et cetera, so given her noncompliance with the Court’s prior temporary orders, she potentially could still be a danger; but given also that she hasn’t been around [Child] physically except for three times, I just think that’s problematic.[5]

¶17      Counsel then said, “So . . . [a]fter two things occur, if I understand correctly, then [Cassandra]’s parent time will be according to [section] 30-3-37 and unsupervised.” He listed “one, the completion of the ramp up period as recommended by the therapist; and two, . . . submitting to the Court a clean drug test.” He asked, “Is that accurate?” The court responded that it could not “say that [Cassandra]’s going to go immediately to unsupervised [visitation] after the ramp up” because the court might “need some more information at that point.”

¶18 Counsel then informed the court, “My understanding, your Honor, is that the Court needs to provide specific criteria that [Cassandra] needs to meet . . . in order to have supervision dismissed.” The court replied, “I . . . don’t know what the therapist is going to say, Counsel. So I think it’s a little bit speculative. . . . What I’m going to have to see is what the therapist recommends, and then I can give you some further instructions at that point.” It added, “But yes, we do need her to have clean drug tests . . . .” Then the court, Counsel, and Lucas’s attorney discussed what the drug test requirements would be.

¶19      Counsel later asked, “Your Honor, what would be the time line and/or process for setting up what sounds like is a . . . review hearing on how we are going to . . . establish the criteria for having supervision lifted?” The court asked Lucas’s attorney if she “want[ed] to respond,” saying, “[Counsel] wants criteria on how to remove supervision.” Lucas’s attorney explained that she did not think there was “enough information . . . to anticipate . . . the factors that [the court was] going to have to consider” and that it seemed reasonable to “notice up a hearing after [the parties got] a lot of these things going[] and have enough information to go ahead.” But the court indicated that it was “not going to notice up a hearing at [that] point.” It directed the parties to “get the therapist on board first, and . . . to do that within three weeks,” then to get “the drug test filed.” The court said, “[A]fter I’ve reviewed these things[,] . . . I’d like to make sure that Cassandra is complying with everything, and that she’s able to do what she needs to do.” It further stated, “So I would like to do that as quickly as possible, [Counsel], but I don’t know how long of a period it’s going to take because it will also depend on whether or not your client is able to do everything that’s required. I hope that she does.”

¶20      Counsel then, again, stated his interpretation of the process the court was explaining:

[I]t sounds like . . . you’re saying that there’s a two-step process. That we won’t be able to arrive at the criteria for . . . when supervision will be lifted until [Cassandra] has complied with everything the therapist has said and filed clean drug tests. Then we can come back to have a hearing to determine what the criteria are for supervision to be lifted; is that accurate?

¶21 At that point, the court turned to Lucas’s attorney and asked whether she “[had] any objection” to the process Counsel had just summarized or whether she thought that supervision “should be lifted” as soon as Cassandra “completes the criteria” the court had already identified. She said that she thought “there might be concerns” even after Cassandra completes reunification therapy, although she did not “know what they would be.” The court then said, “Let’s just get through the therapy portion, and then I want to see what the reports are. . . . It could be likely that if she’s successful with all of th[e] things [the therapist recommends] that the Court will lift supervision at that time.”

¶22      Counsel once again spoke, seeking “to clarify” certain matters by asking, “[I]f after [Cassandra] has met with the therapist and complied with the therapist, the therapist recommends that supervision be lifted, . . . then would the Court accept that recommendation . . . or do we still need to meet to determine criteria for if and how supervision would be lifted?” The court replied that it “[did not] know the answer to that yet,” saying, “[B]ut let’s go through that, and if the therapist recommends it, if we need to have a discussion with the therapist present, then we might need to do that, okay? Because I might . . . have some questions.”

¶23      Counsel then asked the court to order that the therapist be an Association for Family and Conciliation Courts therapist, and the court agreed. Then the court said, “If there’s no other questions, I do need to get to my next hearing.” Counsel initially replied that he had “[n]o other questions” but then said, “Last question, your Honor. . . . [I]s the review hearing going to be . . . before you or the Commissioner?” The court answered that the review hearing would be before the court.

¶24      The court concluded the hearing and memorialized its oral rulings into written Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law and a Decree of Divorce. Cassandra appeals.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶25      On appeal, Cassandra contends that the district court erred in two ways when it ordered supervised parent-time. First, she argues that the order of supervised parent-time was legally inappropriate under Utah Code section 30-3-34.5(1) because the court “did not find that Cassandra poses a present threat of harm” to Child. Second, she argues that the order of supervised parent-time was legally inappropriate under Utah Code section 30-3-34.5(5) because the court did not “provide specific goals and expectations for Cassandra to meet” in order to be granted unsupervised parent-time. “We generally will not disturb the district court’s parent-time determination absent a showing that the court has abused its discretion. However, we review the district court’s interpretation of a statute for correctness. Likewise, we review the legal adequacy of findings of fact for correctness as a question of law.” Lay v. Lay, 2018 UT App 137, ¶ 4, 427 P.3d 1221 (cleaned up).

ANALYSIS

  1. Adequacy of the District Court’s Findings in Support of
    Supervised Parent-Time

¶26      Cassandra argues that the district court erred in ordering supervised parent-time because it did not make the finding that the Utah Code mandates as a prerequisite to supervised parent-time. The pertinent portion of the relevant provision reads as follows:

When necessary to protect a child and no less restrictive means is reasonably available . . . , a court may order supervised parent-time if the court finds evidence that the child would be subject to physical or emotional harm or child abuse, as described in Sections 76-5-109, 76-5-109.2, 76-5-109.3, and 76-5­114, from the noncustodial parent if left unsupervised with the noncustodial parent.

Utah Code § 30-3-34.5(1).

¶27 As an initial matter, we agree with Cassandra’s assertion that this statute means that the court must find a current risk of harm to the child from unsupervised parent-time, “rather than merely [a] past or historic risk of harm.” (Emphasis added.) To require “evidence that the child would be subject to . . . harm or . . . abuse . . . if left unsupervised with the noncustodial parent,” id. (emphasis added), is to require evidence of harm or abuse during a potential situation that would occur, if at all, in the future.[6] Thus, before ordering supervised parent-time, a court must find that there is evidence that harm or abuse could occur in the future, not merely that harm or abuse, or a risk of harm or abuse, occurred or was present in the past.

¶28      That is not to say that the existence of harm, or a risk of harm, from a noncustodial parent in the past has no bearing on whether there is a risk of harm from that parent in the future. Evidence that harmful or potentially harmful circumstances from the past have recurred or have not substantially abated could certainly be probative of whether there is a risk of harm in the future.

¶29      Moreover, a court need not find that the child definitely would be subjected to harm or abuse if left unsupervised with the noncustodial parent. Rather, a court is required to find only “evidence that the child would be subject to . . . harm or . . . abuse” if left alone with the noncustodial parent. Id. (emphasis added). For this reason, we, like Cassandra, conclude that a finding of a presently existing threat or risk of harm or abuse is sufficient to support supervised parent-time under section 30-3-34.5(1).

¶30      However, we disagree with Cassandra that “the district court did not find that [she] presently poses a threat of harm to [Child] if she were [to be left] unsupervised with [Child].”

¶31      Cassandra’s argument here is a challenge to the adequacy of the district court’s findings, not to the sufficiency of the evidence.[7] When we assess the adequacy of findings, “we review the [trial court’s] written and oral findings of fact together to determine if they are [adequate] to support the trial court’s rulings.” Stonehocker v. Stonehocker, 2008 UT App 11, ¶ 17, 176 P.3d 476. See generally Utah R. Civ. P. 52(a)(1) (“The findings . . . may be stated in writing or orally following the close of the evidence.”). This is particularly true when “the written findings are incomplete, inadequate, or ambiguous.” Bill Nay & Sons Excavating v. Neeley Constr. Co., 677 P.2d 1120, 1121 (Utah 1984). In those instances, the written findings “may be elaborated [on] or interpreted (in respects not inconsistent therewith) by reference to the trial court’s . . . oral explanation of the decision.” Id. This is one of those instances.

¶32      Cassandra supports her argument that the court failed to make the requisite finding by pointing to only one statement from the district court’s written findings: “[I]t is not clear whether [Cassandra] is still a danger to [Child].” But the court orally supplied additional findings and reasoning. When asked if it was going to make findings as to whether “[Child] would be in danger if she were with [Cassandra],” the court replied, “[G]iven that [Cassandra has] not complied with the Court orders, it’s not clear to me whether or not she’s a danger to [Child] still. She hasn’t completed the drug tests, et cetera, so given her noncompliance with the Court’s prior temporary orders, she potentially could still be a danger . . . .” (Emphasis added.) The court then added that it also found it “problematic” that Cassandra “[had]n’t been around [Child] physically except for three times” during the preceding four-plus years. Because Counsel, in posing the question, employed the phrase “[Child] would be in danger if she were with [Cassandra]” to summarize the requirement of a current threat of harm or abuse, we take the court’s responsive statement that Cassandra “potentially could still be a danger” to Child to be a finding of a current threat of physical or emotional harm to Child if Child were to be left unsupervised with Cassandra.[8]

¶3        Our reading of the court’s answer to Counsel’s question is bolstered by the fact that it came on the heels of additional findings that Cassandra still “lack[ed] . . . maturity in her decision-making processes,” that Cassandra still “consider[ed] her own needs first and primary over [Child]’s,” that Cassandra still might not be “completely emotionally stable,” and that Cassandra’s failures to “give[] first priority to [Child]’s welfare” were linked to her “history with drug abuse.” When the court’s response to Counsel’s question is viewed in the context of these and other findings, its import is unmistakable: Cassandra has a history of drug abuse, which, without objection, merited supervised parent-time in the past; since supervised parent-time was instituted, Cassandra has failed to provide a negative drug test; six-year-old Child has been in Cassandra’s physical presence only three times over the course of four-plus years; and Cassandra remains immature, potentially emotionally unstable, and self-centered in relation to Child; accordingly, Cassandra “potentially could still be a danger” to Child in the present. This finding is adequate to support the court’s order of supervised parent-time.[9]

  1. The District Court’s Provision of Specific Goals and Expectations to Discontinue Supervised Parent-Time

¶34 When a court orders supervised parent-time, it must “provide specific goals and expectations for the noncustodial parent to accomplish before unsupervised parent-time may be granted.” Utah Code § 30-3-34.5(5). Cassandra’s initial brief on appeal states at least two, and perhaps three, independent arguments to support her assertion that the district court did not comply with section 30-3-34.5(5). We disagree with her first argument, and we conclude that her second possible argument and her third argument are unpreserved.

¶35      Cassandra’s first argument regarding the district court’s compliance with section 30-3-34.5(5) is that the court’s orders “are silent on the question of what conditions Cassandra must meet prior to [the] lifting of supervised parent time” and that, because of this purported silence, “the district court erred.” Cassandra is mistaken, however.

¶36      After Counsel informed the court of his understanding that the court “need[ed] to provide specific criteria that [Cassandra] needs to meet . . . in order to have supervision dismissed,” the court said that it “need[ed] her to have clean drug tests” and also directed the parties to “get [a] therapist on board . . . within three weeks.” Moreover, Cassandra acknowledges that the court ordered her to complete reunification therapy. The court repeated these requirements multiple times. Plainly, the court provided three specific goals or expectations for Cassandra to meet before unsupervised parent-time would be granted: (1) Cassandra needed to provide clean drug tests in connection with her supervised visitation; (2) Cassandra needed to work with Lucas to identify a therapist within three weeks; and (3) Cassandra needed to complete reunification therapy as determined by the therapist. Thus, Cassandra’s first argument fails.

¶37      Next, Cassandra asserts that the district court did not comply with Utah Code section 30-3-34.5(5) because the court did not say that “completion of reunification therapy . . . [was] a condition precedent to lifting supervised parent time.”[10] What Cassandra means by this assertion is not clear. If what she means is that completion of reunification therapy is not a condition the court expected her to meet before supervision would be lifted, this is merely a restatement of Cassandra’s first argument and Cassandra is simply mistaken, as we have explained. On the other hand, if what she means is that to comply with section 30-3-34.5(5), a court must identify at the time it orders supervised parent-time comprehensive list of the things the parent must do to receive a guarantee that supervision will be lifted, she did not preserve this potential issue for our review.

¶38      “In order to preserve an issue for appeal,” the appellant must have “presented [it] to the trial court in such a way that the trial court ha[d] an opportunity to rule on that issue.” 438 Main St. v. Easy Heat, Inc., 2004 UT 72, ¶ 51, 99 P.3d 801 (cleaned up). “For a trial court to be afforded an opportunity to correct [an asserted] error (1) the issue must be raised in a timely fashion, (2) the issue must be specifically raised, and (3) the challenging party must introduce supporting evidence or relevant legal authority.” Id. (cleaned up). As to the second of these requirements, “an objection must at least be raised to a level of consciousness such that the trial court can consider it.” State v. Cruz, 2005 UT 45, ¶ 33, 122 P.3d 543 (cleaned up).

¶39      Here, Counsel indicated to the district court that his “understanding” was “that the Court needs to provide specific criteria that [Cassandra] needs to meet . . . in order to have supervision dismissed.” The court then identified or reiterated three specific criteria for Cassandra to meet, as we have explained. Counsel then repeated, over the course of a lengthy discussion, essentially the same question three times. First, he asked, “[W]hat would be the time line and/or process for setting up what sounds like is a . . . review hearing on how we are going to . . . establish the criteria for having supervision lifted?” The second time he described “a two-step process” in which the parties “won’t be able to arrive at the criteria for” lifting supervision “until [Cassandra] has complied with everything the therapist has said and filed clean drug tests” and they then “come back to have a hearing to determine what the criteria are for supervision to be lifted.” He asked the court, “[I]s that accurate?” Finally, “to clarify,” he asked a third time whether—“after [Cassandra] has met with the therapist and complied with the therapist”—if “the therapist recommends that supervision be lifted, . . . would the Court accept that recommendation . . . or do we still need to meet to determine criteria for if and how supervision would be lifted?” Each of these questions came after the court had iterated or reiterated specific initial expectations for Cassandra to meet to have supervision lifted. In that context, each of Counsel’s foregoing questions can be fairly understood as an attempt to clarify when or whether additional expectations would be set, not as an objection to the fact that the court had not identified a comprehensive set of expectations at the outset.

¶40      Indeed, after the second of the foregoing questions from Counsel, the court turned to Lucas’s attorney and asked if she objected to the process Counsel had just summarized. This clearly indicates that the court did not understand Counsel’s question to be an objection but rather an attempt at clarification. Thereafter, Counsel emphasized the notion that he was attempting to gain clarity rather than objecting when he explicitly prefaced the third of his questions by stating that he was seeking “to clarify.” Then, after the court reiterated for the third time its initial expectation— for Cassandra to “go through” therapy—it said, “If there’s no other questions, I do need to get to my next hearing.” Cassandra’s counsel responded not by objecting but by saying: “Last question, your Honor. . . . [Ills the review hearing going to be . . . before you or the Commissioner?”

¶41      Given the foregoing, we conclude that even if Counsel was trying to raise an objection to the fact that the district court had not provided a comprehensive set of expectations for Cassandra to meet in order to have supervision of her parent-time lifted, he did not raise that objection to a level of consciousness in the mind of the court such that the court could consider it. Accordingly, this potential issue was not preserved for our review. See Cruz, 2005 UT 45, ¶ 33; State v. Olsen, 860 P.2d 332, 336 (Utah 1993) (“A party who fails to make a clear and timely objection waives the right to raise the issue at the appellate level.” (cleaned up)).

¶42 Finally, Cassandra argues that the expectation that she complete reunification therapy as determined by a therapist before she is allowed unsupervised parent-time violates section 30-3-34.5(5) because that section “does not allow the district court to delegate the [setting of conditions for the lifting of supervision] to a therapist.” Again, she did not raise this issue below. Because it is unpreserved, we do not address it. See True v. Utah Dep’t of Transp., 2018 UT App 86, ¶ 32, 427 P.3d 338 (stating that “an argument based upon an entirely distinct legal theory is a new claim or issue and must be separately preserved” (cleaned up)).

CONCLUSION

¶43 The district court made an adequate finding that Cassandra posed a present risk of harm to Child if Child were to be left unsupervised with her. Additionally, Cassandra’s first argument in support of a conclusion that the district court failed to comply with Utah Code section 30-3-34.5(5) by not providing specific goals and expectations for Cassandra to meet before being granted unsupervised parent-time is mistaken, and her other arguments in support of that conclusion were unpreserved. We therefore affirm.

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

2023 UT App 95

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

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

A PERSON UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

A.M.,

Appellant,

v.

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20220624-CA

Filed August 24, 2023

Second District Juvenile Court, Ogden Department

The Honorable Jeffrey J. Noland

No. 1140984

Emily Adams, Sara Pfrommer, and Hannah K.

Leavitt-Howell, Attorneys for Appellant

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

Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

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

 

CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, Judge:

 

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

BACKGROUND[1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

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

¶19      Second, Mother argues the juvenile court erred when it concluded that termination of her parental rights was strictly necessary. “We review deferentially a lower court’s best-interest determination and will overturn it only if it either failed to consider all of the facts or considered all of the facts and its decision was nonetheless against the clear weight of the evidence.” In re J.J.W., 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 18, 520 P.3d 38 (quotation simplified).

ANALYSIS

I. Reunification Services

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II. Strictly Necessary

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

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

¶34      When evaluating whether termination is strictly necessary,

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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


[1] “We recite the facts in the light most favorable to the juvenile court findings.” In re S.T., 2022 UT App 130, n.2, 521 P.3d 887 (quotation simplified).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[9] In a related vein, Mother also asserts the juvenile court’s decision was conclusory because the court focused only on negative testimony and overlooked the positive testimony of several of Mother’s therapists. But this position ignores that “Lilt is the role of the juvenile court, not this court, to assess the weight and credibility of expert witnesses and to choose among their testimonies.” In re G.V., 916 P.2d 918, 920 (Utah Ct. App. 1996) (per curiam). As such, we decline to reweigh the evidence.

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

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

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

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The Father of My Child Told Me He Can Unilaterally Give Up His Parental Rights. Can He? He Thinks This Way He Will Get Out of Child Support. Can He Do This?

There is more than one question to answer here.

First, does a parent have the unilateral power simply to “give up” his or her parental rights (and accompanying obligations)? No. The only way to terminate a parent’s parental rights and obligations is by court order after a petition to terminate that parent’s parental rights has been filed and granted.

Can a parent have his/her parental rights terminated? Yes. By court order after a petition to terminate that parent’s parental rights has been filed (either by that parent himself or herself) and granted by the court.

Does the termination of parental rights (not to be confused with merely the desire or intent to have one’s parental rights terminated) also terminate a parent’s obligations to support that child? Yes.

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

(8) The father of my child told me he is giving up his parental rights. He thinks this way he will get out of child support. Can he do this? – Quora

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In Re L.L.B. – 2023 UT App 66 – Termination of Parental Rights Reversed

In re L.L.B. – 2023 UT App 66

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

IN THE INTEREST OF L.L.B.,

A PERSON UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

C.B. AND H.B.,

Appellees,

v.

J.B.,

Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20210942-CA

Filed June 15, 2023

Eighth District Court, Vernal Department

The Honorable Clark A. McClellan

No. 182800015

Emily Adams, Sara Pfrommer, Melissa Jo Townsend,

and Freyja Johnson, Attorneys for Appellant

Michael D. Harrington and Cameron M. Beech,

Attorneys for Appellees

  1. Erin Bradley Rawlings, Guardian ad Litem

JUDGE AMY J. OLIVER authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES RYAN M. HARRIS and RYAN D. TENNEY concurred.

OLIVER, Judge:

¶1 C.B. (Mother) and H.B. (Stepfather) filed a petition seeking termination of J.B.’s (Father) parental rights to L.L.B. (Child) and adoption by Stepfather. After a one-day bench trial, the district court found four statutory grounds for termination. The court also concluded it was in Child’s best interest to terminate Father’s parental rights and that doing so was strictly necessary so Child could be adopted by Stepfather. Father appeals the district court’s conclusion that termination of his parental rights was in Child’s best interest, arguing it was not supported by clear and convincing evidence. We agree with Father that the evidence was insufficient and, therefore, reverse the district court’s ruling terminating Father’s parental rights.

BACKGROUND

¶2        Child was born in September 2009. Less than a week after her birth, Father relapsed on controlled substances and left Child and Mother. Shortly thereafter, Child and Mother moved from the Salt Lake City area to Vernal, Utah. In the months after Mother and Child moved to Vernal, Father saw Child twice—in December 2009 and in April 2010.

¶3        In April 2010, Mother and Father entered into a stipulated agreement of paternity. The decree awarded primary physical custody and sole legal custody to Mother with Father awarded parent-time. It also permitted Mother to request that Father submit to random urinalysis drug testing up to eighteen times a year.

¶4        For several years Father consistently exercised his rights to parent-time. Because Mother lived in Vernal with Stepfather, whom she married in 2013, and Father lived in Salt Lake City, the parties met in Fruitland, Utah to exchange Child. In July 2015, however, Mother and Father got into an argument during an exchange and Child immediately returned to Vernal with Mother and Stepfather. Mother testified that the same month as the confrontation in Fruitland, Child and Father were involved in a four-wheeler accident. For the next several weeks, Mother refused to permit Child to spend parent-time with Father because she was concerned Father had been drinking at the time of the accident. Parent-time resumed after Father sought an order to show cause in the paternity matter.[1] Beginning in April 2016, the parent-time was supervised by Father’s mother because Mother was concerned that Father was using drugs and alcohol around Child.

¶5        In August 2016, Mother and Father discussed the possibility of Father voluntarily relinquishing his parental rights. Mother testified Father was “on the fence” about the idea, and Father admitted he considered it for approximately two months. However, the parties were unable to reach a voluntary agreement. In 2018, Mother and Stepfather filed a Petition for Adoption/Termination of Parental Rights in district court. The petition listed the following grounds supporting the termination of Father’s parental rights: (1) Father abandoned Child, (2) Father neglected Child, (3) Father was an unfit parent, and (4) Father made only token efforts to be a fit parent. Father filed a handwritten response opposing the petition and later filed a counseled answer.

¶6        The district court held a one-day bench trial on November 5, 2021. Mother, Father’s ex-girlfriend (Ex-Girlfriend), Father’s mother, Father’s brother, and Father testified. A guardian ad litem (the GAL) appointed by the district court represented Child.

¶7        Mother’s testimony centered on Father’s lengthy absences from Child’s life, his history of failing to provide financial support for Child, and his past substance abuse. She testified that in February 2017, she asked Father to take a drug test, but he refused. In the months after that refusal, Father attempted to contact Child only twice—once in May 2017 and once more in December 2017. Nearly a year passed until Mother heard from Father again. As to Father’s history of supporting Child, evidence was presented that he made court-ordered child-support payments from 2010 through 2016, but the payments were not for the full amounts ordered. From 2017 forward, Father’s child-support payments totaled seventy-two dollars, and as of September 1, 2021, he was $51,011.25 in arrears. Mother testified that Father had never followed through with his many promises to pay child support, refrain from using drugs and alcohol, and re-establish a relationship with Child. She also testified he had never been involved in Child’s education. Mother admitted, however, that since the termination petition was filed, she had not responded to Father’s requests to see Child and had not told Child about the requests.

¶8        Ex-Girlfriend testified that she and Father dated from 2009 until 2016. She described his alcohol consumption during that period as progressing from weekends to daily. Ex-Girlfriend also testified that Father told her either in 2015 or 2016 that he was using crack cocaine and she found illegal substances in their home and car in 2016. She also confirmed Father was drinking the day he and Child were involved in the four-wheeler accident in July 2015. Ex-Girlfriend testified she now communicates with Father only to discuss matters concerning their daughter, Child’s half-sister (Half-Sister). According to Ex-Girlfriend, Father spends parent-time with Half-Sister and has “a strong relationship” with her. She also testified that Child and Half-Sister have a good relationship that is facilitated and encouraged by her and Mother.

¶9        Father’s mother testified about Father’s relationship with Half-Sister, describing it as a “great relationship” and calling him “a wonderful father.” She testified that she tries to stay in contact with Child, but recently has had difficulty getting responses from Mother. According to Father’s mother, Father’s family last saw Child at a family reunion in the summer of 2020. She stated that Father had substance abuse issues “off and on” from 2009 through 2019 but she was not aware of any substance abuse since 2019.

¶10      Father’s brother testified that “since [Father] put his life back together,” Father has been an “incredible father” and an “incredible uncle.” He also testified about the family reunion, stating Child attended the reunion and he saw her interact with Father. He stated they “spent a lot of time together and had a lot of fun.”

¶11      Father testified he saw Child “a lot” during the first five years of her life and had a good relationship with her. Thereafter, he saw Child off-and-on until August 2016, after which time he did not see her again until 2020 at the family reunion. He admitted their interactions at the reunion were “a little awkward at first” but testified they “ended up having a blast.” He testified he admitted to Child during the reunion that he had not been the best parent and apologized. According to Father, Child responded well to his apology and gave him a hug. Father testified he had not seen Child since the reunion, although he had written letters to Mother, sent a gift, and emailed Child.

¶12      Father admitted he had relapsed on controlled substances three or four times between 2009 and 2019, but testified he has been clean and sober since he went to jail in January 2019. Father testified he participated in drug court after a term of incarceration, calling it “awesome” and “one of the best things” he ever did. As part of drug court, he participated in outpatient treatment, community service, and drug testing. He testified he now works with at-risk children as a boxing coach and was now paying child support.

¶13 The GAL stated Child does not have a relationship with Father because he “wasted that relationship and allowed it to shrivel by his absence and his lack of effort to nourish it.” The GAL described Stepfather as “an excellent father” to Child and stated the two have “a great bond” and “a very close relationship.”

¶14 The district court entered detailed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law on December 3, 2021. The court concluded four statutory grounds for termination existed and the bulk of its ruling addressed those grounds. The court found Father abandoned Child by failing to maintain contact with her, neglected Child by not paying child support, and made only token efforts to support Child or communicate with her. Although the court found that Father was “a fit and proper parent” at the time of the hearing, it nevertheless concluded Father was unfit or incompetent for purposes of the statutory grounds for termination because he was unfit and incompetent for much of Child’s life.

¶15      The district court’s best-interest analysis was considerably shorter than its analysis of the statutory grounds for termination. The court identified and examined three factors: (1) whether another person was available to step into the parental role, (2) whether there was evidence Child had been harmed by her relationship with Father, and (3) whether Father’s extended family was a positive influence in Child’s life. Based on that analysis, the court ruled as follows: “The Child desires and deserves to have [a] healthy, stable family relationship with the person that has been and acts as her father figure. The Child’s interest will best be served if the adoption is allowed to move forward. . . . Because the adoption cannot occur without the termination of Father’s parental rights, the Court finds by clear and convincing evidence that it is ‘strictly necessary’ that Father’s rights be terminated.”

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶16 Father challenges the district court’s conclusion that termination of his parental rights was in Child’s best interest. “Whether a parent’s rights should be terminated presents a mixed question of law and fact.” In re B.R., 2007 UT 82, ¶ 12, 171 P.3d 435. A lower court’s best-interest ruling is reviewed deferentially but “we will not only consider whether any relevant facts have been left out but assess whether the . . . court’s determination that the clear and convincing standard had been met goes against the clear weight of the evidence.” In re G.D., 2021 UT 19, ¶ 73, 491 P.3d 867 (cleaned up).

ANALYSIS

¶17 A court must make two findings before terminating a parent-child relationship:

First, a trial court must find that one or more of the statutory grounds for termination are present. . . . Second, a trial court must find that termination of the parent’s rights is in the best interests of the child. . . . The trial court must make both of these findings not merely by a preponderance of the evidence, but by clear and convincing evidence and the burden of proof rests with the petitioner.

In re B.T.B. (BTB I), 2018 UT App 157, ¶ 13, 436 P.3d 206, aff’d, 2020 UT 60, 472 P.3d 827 (cleaned up). “A court may . . . terminate parental rights only when it concludes that a different option is in the child’s best interest and that termination is strictly necessary to facilitate that option.” In re B.T.B. (BTB II), 2020 UT 60, ¶ 66, 472 P.3d 827.

¶18 Mother and Stepfather argue that a district court is not required to undertake the strictly necessary part of the analysis when a petition is filed under the Adoption Act rather than the Termination of Parental Rights Act. Compare Utah Code § 78B-6-112(5)(e) (“The district court may terminate an individual’s parental rights in a child if . . . the individual’s parental rights are terminated on grounds described in Title 80, Chapter 4, Termination and Restoration of Parental Rights, and termination is in the best interests of the child.”), with Utah Code § 80-4-301(1) (“[I]f the juvenile court finds termination of parental rights, from the child’s point of view, is strictly necessary, the juvenile court may terminate all parental rights with respect to the parent . . . .”) (formerly codified at § 78A-06-507(1)). But we need not address Mother and Stepfather’s argument, because even without considering the strictly necessary part of the best-interest analysis dictated by the Termination of Parental Rights Act, we conclude, below, that there is not clear and convincing evidence supporting the district court’s conclusion that termination of Father’s parental rights was in Child’s best interest.

¶19 Father first argues the court erred in finding he was an unfit or incompetent parent as a ground for termination because, in his view, the statute requires a finding based on current ability rather than past conduct, and the court found him to be a fit parent at the time of the trial. But Father concedes that three other statutory grounds for termination exist. Because the finding of just one statutory ground for termination is sufficient, it is unnecessary to address Father’s argument as to the fitness ground. See id. § 80-4-301(1); In re S.M., 2017 UT App 108, ¶ 4, 400 P.3d 1201 (per curiam) (“[T]he finding of a single ground will support termination of parental rights.”).

¶20      Father next argues that Mother and Stepfather—the parties seeking termination of his parental rights—failed to present clear and convincing evidence that termination of his parental rights was in Child’s best interest. See BTB II, 2020 UT 60, ¶ 52. He does not challenge any of the district court’s findings as clearly erroneous, but asserts that those findings and the evidence underpinning them do not support the court’s ruling. In Father’s view, the only support for the district court’s ruling was Mother’s testimony that Stepfather and Child love and care for each other and the report of the GAL stating that Child (1) was not comfortable around Father, (2) had a close relationship with Stepfather, and (3) wanted to be adopted by Stepfather.

¶21 The best-interest inquiry “is intended as a holistic examination of all of the relevant circumstances that might affect a child’s situation.” Id. ¶ 29 (cleaned up). The lower court must consider the “physical, intellectual, social, moral, and educational training and general welfare and happiness of the child.” BTB I, 2018 UT App 157, ¶ 47 (cleaned up). The analysis is undertaken from the child’s point of view. BTB II, 2020 UT 60, ¶ 64. In making the best-interest determination in this matter, the district court analyzed whether there was (1) another person available to step into the parental role, (2) evidence Child had been harmed by the relationship with Father, and (3) a positive role that Father’s extended family played in Child’s life. After considering these three factors,[2] the district court concluded that termination of Father’s parental rights and adoption by Stepfather was in Child’s best interest because she “desires and deserves to have a healthy, stable family relationship with the person that has been and acts as her father figure.” But the record does not contain clear and convincing evidence supporting this conclusion that termination of Father’s parental rights was in Child’s best interest.

¶22      As to whether another person was available to step into the parent role, the district court detailed evidence showing Child loves Stepfather and Stepfather has been a positive presence in Child’s life for many years. It was undisputed that Child has lived with Mother and Stepfather since 2013. The GAL told the district court that Child “is consistent in her desire to be adopted” by Stepfather, has a close relationship with him, and does not view Father as a father figure. The court found Child wants to be adopted by Stepfather and the two have an excellent relationship. But there was no evidence that this relationship will not continue if Father’s rights are not terminated and the adoption does not occur.

¶23 Mother and Stepfather suggest that “failing to terminate Father’s parental rights so that Stepfather can adopt inherently leaves the Child’s relationship with Stepfather, and possibly the Child’s siblings and extended family, vulnerable to termination at any time by . . . Mother’s death.” But such a concern is present in many termination cases, and it does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that termination of a parent’s rights is in the child’s best interest. As our supreme court has explained, “categorical concerns” about the lack of permanence of an option other than adoption are not enough, otherwise “termination and adoption would be strictly necessary across the board.” In re J.A.L., 2022 UT 12, ¶ 24, 506 P.3d 606.

¶24      When considering whether Child had been harmed by the relationship with Father, the court found that Child does not have a relationship with Father and noted Child has expressed some concern for her safety when she is with him. There was no finding, however, that Father’s presence in her life has affirmatively harmed Child. The GAL told the court that Child does not have a comfortable relationship with Father and “there’s a certain level of fear.” But the GAL did not explain or expound on the root of this fear. Further, there was no finding detailing how Child’s life was negatively affected or disrupted by Father’s attempts to exercise his parental rights. There is evidence Father has emailed Child a handful of times since the termination petition was filed, but there was no testimony or other evidence that these emails had any negative effect on Child’s general welfare or happiness.[3] Father also sent communications to Mother asking for an opportunity to meet with Child, but Mother testified she did not respond and did not put Father in contact with Child because Child would not be receptive. Mother’s testimony, however, did not discuss the effects Father’s past attempts at reconciliation had on Child or provide an explanation of why she believed Child would not want to see Father. In short, there is no evidence showing Father’s presence in Child’s life has a negative effect on her happiness and well-being.

¶25 Regarding Child’s relationship with Father’s extended family, the court found that Child has had a relationship with Father’s mother for all her life and the relationship is important to Child. There was also evidence that Child has a strong bond with Half-Sister. Several witnesses testified about Child’s attendance at Father’s family reunion in the summer of 2020. Mother testified that Child called her and was “begging to stay with her cousins.” Father’s brother testified there was some initial awkwardness between Child and Father at the reunion “but they spent a lot of time together and had a lot of fun.” The district court described the weekend as a “huge success” and “enjoyable and successful.” Based on this evidence, the district court found that Child currently has positive and beneficial relationships with Father’s extended family, including Half-Sister and Father’s mother.

¶26 The district court found that Child’s relationships with Father’s extended family would be adversely affected to some extent if Father’s parental rights were terminated and Child was adopted by Stepfather, and then it purported to compare those effects to the benefits Child would glean from a relationship with Stepfather and his family. But there was no evidence presented identifying those benefits or explaining how Child’s ability to maintain relationships with Stepfather and his family would be negatively affected if she was not adopted.

¶27      Despite the district court’s statement that termination was in Child’s best interest because she deserves to have a healthy and stable family relationship, the court made no finding that Child’s current living situation was not healthy and stable. Nor did the court make any finding that her living situation will change in any way if she is not adopted. See BTB I, 2018 UT App 157, ¶ 56. (“[T]he absence of any proposed change in the child’s custody or living situation is a factor that may weigh against termination in some cases . . . .”).

¶28      In sum, the evidence on which the district court relied does not clearly and convincingly demonstrate that termination of Father’s parental rights was in Child’s best interest.

¶29 Other evidence before the district court further undermines, rather than supports, the district court’s ruling that termination of Father’s parental rights was in Child’s best interest. Most obvious and significant is the court’s finding that “Father is presently fit and capable as a parent.” This finding was based on evidence that Father was clean and sober at the time of the termination trial and had been for more than two years. See In re B.R., 2007 UT 82, ¶ 13, 171 P.3d 435 (“In termination cases, the . . . court must weigh a parent’s past conduct with her present abilities.”). Father testified he has made many attempts to communicate with Child since his release from incarceration in 2019 and many of those communications were introduced at trial.

¶30 As we have explained, “in making its best-interest determination, . . . especially in cases (like this one) initiated by private petition, it is important for courts to carefully assess a parent’s efforts to improve and, if the court remains unpersuaded that the parent’s situation has sufficiently changed for the better, to specifically set forth reasons why it remains unpersuaded.” In re J.J.W., 2022 UT App 116, ¶ 30, 520 P.3d 38 (cleaned up). But the district court wasn’t unpersuaded that Father had improved his situation for the better. To the contrary, it was persuaded that Father had successfully addressed his problems with controlled substances and found that “Father is presently fit and capable as a parent.”

¶31 The Utah legislature “has made clear that, as a matter of state policy, the default position is that it is in the best interest and welfare of a child to be raised under the care and supervision of the child’s natural parents.” BTB II, 2020 UT 60, ¶ 65 (cleaned up). The district court’s order contains no analysis of why it was in the best interest of Child to terminate the parental rights of a fit and capable Father in order to be adopted by Stepfather.

¶32 The record also indicates Father currently considers Child’s needs when he makes decisions on her behalf. For example, the district court’s order contains details surrounding Child’s desire to participate in a religious ceremony with Mother, Stepfather, and their other children. The court found that Father was at first reluctant to consent to Child’s participation but relented when he learned Child strongly desired to participate.

¶33      Nearly all the evidence presented at trial was offered in support of the statutory grounds for termination—not the best-interest inquiry. Although the district court was free to consider the evidence supporting the statutory grounds for termination when conducting the best-interest analysis, almost none of that evidence focused on Child’s “physical, intellectual, social, moral, and educational training and general welfare and happiness” as required under the holistic approach. BTB I, 2018 UT App 157, ¶ 47 (cleaned up). And, as explained above, the evidence that did address Child’s best interest largely countered, rather than supported, the conclusion that termination of Father’s parental rights was in her best interest.

¶34      Thus, we are convinced the district court’s conclusion that termination of Father’s parental rights was in Child’s best interest goes against the clear weight of the evidence.

CONCLUSION

¶35      Because the district court’s ruling that termination of Father’s parental rights was in Child’s best interest goes against the clear weight of the evidence, we reverse and remand with instruction to vacate the order terminating Father’s parental rights.

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

[1] Mother testified she permitted Child to spend time with Father after he sought court intervention because she was afraid she “would get put in jail for not allowing the visitations.”

[2] It is unclear why the district court focused exclusively on these three particular factors. Under the required holistic approach, there is no exhaustive list of relevant factors and no one factor deemed relevant by a court is determinative on the question of a child’s best interest. See In re J.P., 2021 UT App 134, ¶ 14, 502 P.3d 1247 (“While courts have identified factors relevant to the best-interest determination, the list is non-exhaustive.”); In re G.J.C., 2016 UT App 147, ¶ 24, 379 P.3d 58 (setting out a non-exhaustive list of factors a court may consider), abrogated on other grounds by In re B.T.B., 2018 UT App 157, 436 P.3d 206, aff’d, 2020 UT 60, 472 P.3d 827.

[3] Child responded to only one of Father’s emails. On September 2, 2020, she sent an email simply stating, “Love you.”

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

2023 UT 11 – In re C.D.S. and W.E.S

IN THE SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF UTAH

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

persons under eighteen years of age.

A.S.,

Petitioner,

v.

STATE OF UTAH,

Respondent.

No. 20220580

Heard February 10, 2023

Filed June 8, 2023

On Certiorari to the Utah Court of Appeals

Eighth District Juvenile, Uintah County

The Honorable Ryan B. Evershed

Nos. 1178352, 1184710

Utah Court of Appeals, Salt Lake

No. 20220100

Attorneys:

K. Andrew Fitzgerald, Moab, for petitioner,

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

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

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

and W.E.S.

ASSOCIATE CHIEF JUSTICE PEARCE authored the opinion of the Court,

in which CHIEF JUSTICE DURRANT, JUSTICE PETERSEN,

JUSTICE POHLMAN, and JUDGE CORNISH joined.

Having recused herself, JUSTICE HAGEN does not participate herein;

DISTRICT COURT JUDGE RITA M. CORNISH sat.

 

ASSOCIATE CHIEF JUSTICE PEARCE, opinion of the Court:

INTRODUCTION

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

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

BACKGROUND

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

STANDARD OF REVIEW

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

ANALYSIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

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

 

[1] Chester and Winnie are pseudonyms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2023 UT App 55 – In re F.C.G.

2023 UT App 55 – In re F.C.G.

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

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

A PERSON UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

L.C.G.,

Appellant,

v.

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellee.

Per Curiam Opinion

No. 20221129-CA

Filed May 25, 2023

Third District Juvenile Court, Salt Lake Department

The Honorable Monica Diaz

No. 1205462

Julie J. Nelson Attorney for Appellant

Sean D. Reyes and John M. Peterson,

Attorneys for Appellee

Martha Pierce Guardian ad Litem

Before JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME,

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

PER CURIAM:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Can a Parent Who Signed Over Their Legal Rights Show Up at School Functions for the Child? Is There Anything That Can Be Done if They Keep Coming to Things Like Sports and Award Ceremonies?

I cannot answer this question as to what law applies in all jurisdictions, as I am not licensed to practice law in all jurisdictions, but I will be happy to answer this question according to the law as it applies in the state of Utah, where I practice divorce and family law:

First, we have to distinguish between a parent whose parental rights have been legally terminated and a parent who believes he or she has relinquished his/her parental rights when in fact his or her parental rights are not legally terminated. There are many parents who believe that they have “signed over their legal rights” when in fact whatever they signed had no such legally binding or enforceable effect. In Utah, you cannot simply declare yourself no longer to be a parent. You cannot sign an agreement giving custody of your children to someone else without that agreement being incorporated into an order of the court.

So, assuming that your parental rights were properly and legally terminated by the order of a court with jurisdiction to do so, the question is now whether the termination of your parental rights prevents you from showing up at your biological (but no longer your legal) child’s school functions, sporting events, award ceremonies, and the like.

If the event is open to the public, then you would have every right to go attend that school function as a member of the public, not by virtue of your status as a parent (because you are no longer legally that child’s parent).

But if the event involving your biological child were not open to the public and who can and cannot attend were left to the choice of the child’s legal parents or guardians, then the legal parents or guardians could bar you from the event and there is nothing that you could do to prevent that. And if you tried to attend an event involving a child that was not open to the public, and you were told you were not welcome at the event but still tried to attend or refuse to leave, you could be trespassed from the event and potentially charged with various crimes, including trespass, disturbing the peace, and disorderly conduct, to name a few.

 

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

(16) Eric Johnson’s answer to Can a parent who signed over their legal rights show up at school functions for the child? Is there anything that can be done if they keep coming to things like sports and award ceremonies? – Quora

 

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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)).

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

2022 UT App 114

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF

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

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

Opinion

Nos. 20210353-CA and

20210354-CA

Filed October 6, 2022

Fourth District Juvenile Court, Provo Department

The Honorable Suchada P. Bazzelle No. 1145453

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

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

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

Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

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

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

HARRIS, Judge:

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

BACKGROUND

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

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

ANALYSIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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If Parents Are Divorced or Separated, Can the Parent With Full Custody of the Child Prevent the Other Parent From Seeing the Child, Even if That Parent Is Paying Child Support?

Unless:

  • there is a statute or court order that permits it; or
  • this kind of statute or court order could be the kind that permits the temporary denial of contact with the child on the grounds that it is necessary to protect a child from abuse or neglect;
  • this kind of statute or court order could be the kind that permits the temporary denial of contact with the child on the grounds that the other parent is suspected of engaging is engaging in activity that places the child at risk of harm (such as substance abuse, criminal behavior, severe mental illness, etc.);
  • the other parent was never (often referred to as the “noncustodial parent”) was never awarded any visitation (also know as “parent-time”) rights in the first place,

then no, the parent awarded sole (sometimes referred to colloquially as “full”) custody of the child cannot legally and lawfully prevent the other parent from contact with their minor child.

The fact that the noncustodial parent is paying child support likely makes it even harder to justify interfering with that parent’s visitation/parent-time, rights, if he/she has them.

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

https://www.quora.com/If-parents-are-divorced-or-separated-can-the-parent-with-full-custody-of-the-child-prevent-the-other-parent-from-seeing-the-child-even-if-that-parent-is-paying-child-support/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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How can I make sure father won’t gain custody?

My husband cheated on me and we’re getting a divorce. He begged me not to take his children away, but I want him to suffer. How can I make sure that he won’t gain custody or even visitation rights? 

Surely you jest. Right? 

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

https://www.quora.com/My-husband-cheated-on-me-and-were-getting-a-divorce-He-begged-me-not-to-take-his-children-away-but-I-want-him-to-suffer-How-can-I-make-sure-that-he-wont-gain-custody-or-even-visitation-rights/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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How does someone take custody of a child after winning custody?

When someone wins custody of a child, does the child come to the courthouse to be taken by whoever is awarded custody or do they go to the home of the child to take them? How does this usually go? 

Thank you for asking this question. It is a basic question that many parents have and yet very few are willing to ask for fear of looking ignorant. Questions and asked our questions unanswered, and you’ve asked a very basic but very important question that deserves to be answered clearly and fully. 

  1. A court can issue an order that the parties meet at the courthouse with the child and physically transfer custody of the child from one party to the next at the courthouse.
  2. Rarely is it necessary for a court to issue an order that the parties meet at the courthouse with the child and physically transfer custody of the child from one party to the next. For example, if there is a dispute between two opposing parties (Party A vs. Party B) over custody of a child, and if the child is already in the custody of Party A when the court awards custody, then there will be no need for an order directing one party to turn the child over to the other party. 
  3. In most child custody cases long before the child custody award is made, a temporary order (or order pendente lite) has been issued by the court awarding custody to one of the parties. After all, the child needs to be cared for and have a place to live while the litigation is pending, which is why these temporary custody orders are made. So if the party to whom temporary custody was awarded wins permanent custody, there will be no need for any kind of transfer of custody of the child from one party to the other.

But if the party who was awarded temporary custody of the child is not awarded permanent custody of the child after the trial, usually what happens is the losing party will comply with the court’s order to turn custody over of the child to the prevailing party. Fortunately, in most custody disputes, the losing party is gracious in defeat and — even though perhaps heartbroken or bitterly angry over the outcome — will comply voluntarily with the court orders and in turn the child over to the prevailing party without incident. The way that works is the court may (and often will): 

  • order the losing party (in whose physical custody of the child was before trial) to have the child ready for the prevailing party to pick up the child at the losing party’s house at a set date and time.  
  • order the losing party to bring the child to the prevailing party’s house at a set date and time. 
  • order that the child be brought to a third party’s home (a relative or mutual family friend) or workplace (often a social worker) to spare the losing party from breaking down in grief or anger in front of the child or to help generally ease the transition from the losing party to the prevailing party. 

If the court is concerned that a verbal and/or physical altercation might arise if custody is exchanged at the losing party’s house or if the losing party were ordered to bring the child to the prevailing party’s house, the court may order the parties to exchange custody of the child at a police station, so that the police can keep the peace and make an arrest if either or both parties become unruly. 

If the court is concerned that the losing party might try to abscond with the child before the prevailing party can take custody of the child, then the court may order the police or the deputy sheriff to accompany the losing party to the losing party’s home to ensure that the child is not kidnapped or concealed or absconded with before the prevailing party can take custody of the child. 

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

https://www.quora.com/When-someone-wins-custody-of-a-child-does-the-child-come-to-the-courthouse-to-be-taken-by-whoever-is-awarded-custody-or-do-they-go-to-the-home-of-the-child-to-take-them-How-does-this-usually-go/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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In re J.P. – 2021 UT App 134 – termination of parental rights

In re J.P. – 2021 UT App 134

2021 UT App 134

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF J.P. AND T.P., PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

T.L.,
Appellant,
v.
STATE OF UTAH,
Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20210185-CA

Filed December 9, 2021

Fifth District Juvenile Court, Cedar City Department

The Honorable Troy A. Little

No. 1170183

Colleen K. Coebergh, Attorney for Appellant

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

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

JUDGE RYAN M. HARRIS authored this Opinion, in which
JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and JILL M. POHLMAN concurred.

HARRIS, Judge:

¶1        After a two-day evidentiary hearing, the juvenile court terminated T.L.’s (Mother) parental rights regarding her two children, J.P. and T.P. (collectively, the Children). Mother now appeals, asserting that the court erred by concluding that termination of her parental rights was strictly necessary and in the Children’s best interest. We affirm.

BACKGROUND

¶2        While married to her husband (Father), Mother had two children: J.P., a son born in 2013, and T.P., a daughter born in 2016. Mother described J.P. as “difficult to manage because he is autistic,” and stated that he has a history of “aggressive and violent behavior,” which he sometimes expressed toward T.P. Mother’s marriage was “good at first,” but Father eventually became violent and abusive toward both Mother and J.P., and was arrested on one occasion for domestic violence. In 2018, Mother went to live with her parents, taking the Children with her.

¶3        A few months later, J.P. sustained a black eye after Mother’s father (Grandfather) threw a laundry basket at him. Grandfather “has a history of dangerous behavior” and was once arrested and convicted of attempted aggravated assault after discharging a firearm in the presence of the Children during a family dispute. After investigating the laundry basket incident, the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) made a supported finding of physical abuse against Grandfather and asked Mother to stop living with her parents; DCFS recommended that she stay at a women’s shelter with the Children, and Mother complied.

¶4        During the stay at the shelter, DCFS again became involved after other residents of the shelter reported that Mother was physically abusing the Children and throwing their meals in the trash as a form of punishment. Following an investigation of these incidents, DCFS made a supported finding of physical abuse against Mother and took the Children into protective custody. The juvenile court later determined that the Children were abused and neglected, and set reunification with Mother as the primary permanency goal.

¶5        The Children were initially placed together with the same foster family. During this time, the foster parents reported that J.P. was “physically aggressive, daily, toward[]” T.P. But in some ways, the Children did better in their new environment: T.P. was “excelling” and J.P. showed improvement after weekly therapy, although he continued to sometimes “act[] out aggressively.”

¶6 During this same time period, Mother worked toward reunification by attending therapy and parenting courses, and by securing employment. In recognition of this progress, some nine months after their removal the Children were returned to Mother’s custody for a trial home placement. But Mother still lived with her family, including Grandfather, and for various reasons the home placement failed; this time, DCFS removed the Children “due to concerns of environmental neglect, ongoing insufficient hygiene . . . , and suspicion of sexual reactiveness.”

¶7        Following the failure of the trial home placement, the State and a guardian ad litem (the GAL) appointed to represent the Children’s interests asked the juvenile court to change the permanency goal from reunification to adoption. The court granted that request and terminated reunification services; shortly thereafter, the State filed a petition to terminate Mother’s parental rights to the Children.[1]

¶8        Meanwhile, J.P. was continuing to act aggressively toward T.P. and others, and DCFS eventually found it necessary to separate the Children, and place them with different foster families, in order to protect T.P. Some time later, Mother expressed “concern” about the separation to the juvenile court, but the court allowed it, crediting the GAL’s account that J.P.’s behavior improved after the Children were separated.

¶9        The case proceeded to trial on the State’s petition to terminate Mother’s parental rights. During trial, the State called eight witnesses in support of its case, including Mother, all the foster parents, certain DCFS caseworkers, and a peer parent advisor. In addition, the GAL addressed the court and proffered certain statements made by the Children. During closing argument, Mother’s attorney did not contest the fact that statutory grounds existed for termination of Mother’s parental rights, and acknowledged that “maybe returning the [Children] to [Mother’s familial] home was not the best idea.” Mother’s attorney also recognized that J.P. had, at times, been violent and aggressive toward T.P., and agreed with the State that “these kids could not be together” in foster care. But Mother’s attorney argued that, nevertheless, termination of Mother’s parental rights was not in the Children’s best interest, which he argued could best be served by returning them, together, to Mother’s care. However, at no point did counsel argue, as an alternative to termination, that the court should grant permanent custody and guardianship to relatives or foster families.

¶10 After trial, the court issued a detailed written ruling terminating Mother’s parental rights. The court found that six statutory grounds for termination existed, including abuse and neglect. And the court concluded that it was in the Children’s best interest for Mother’s parental rights to be terminated.

¶11 As part of its best-interest analysis, the court considered whether termination of Mother’s parental rights was “strictly necessary,” and it assessed whether other feasible options, short of termination, existed that would adequately address the situation, but ultimately concluded that termination was strictly necessary. The court noted that, at trial, it had been presented with only two options: terminating Mother’s parental rights, or returning the Children to Mother’s care. Nonetheless, the court proceeded to consider other potential options; in particular, the court examined at length whether a permanent guardianship with a relative or with a foster family would be appropriate.

With regard to a kinship placement, the court noted that the only known relatives were Mother’s family members, including Grandfather, who all lived in the same household, and the court concluded that, in light of the situation, including Grandfather’s history of violence, such a placement would be inappropriate. And with regard to long-term guardianships with foster families, the court offered its view that such arrangements tend to work well only “where the child has a healthy relationship with both the guardian and the parent” and “the guardian and parent are willing to work together to preserve that parent-child relationship.” In this case, the foster families had “little to no relationship” with Mother. The court also noted that the Children were “very young,” and concluded that “[t]hey both need stability and permanency” that could best be found in an adoption arrangement rather than in a guardianship arrangement. After an extensive analysis, the court determined that neither a kinship placement nor a long-term guardianship with foster families was an appropriate option in this case, and that adoption following termination of parental rights was the option most in keeping with the Children’s best interest. Based on those findings and conclusions, the court terminated Mother’s parental rights.

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶12 Mother now appeals from that order, and challenges the juvenile court’s ruling that termination of her parental rights was strictly necessary and in the Children’s best interest. “Whether the juvenile court correctly concluded there was no feasible alternative to terminating Mother’s . . . parental rights is a mixed question of fact and law,” and “we review the juvenile court’s findings of fact for clear error and its conclusions of law for correctness, affording the court some discretion in applying the law to the facts.” See In re G.D., 2021 UT 19, ¶ 37, 491 P.3d 867 (quotation simplified); see also In re J.M., 2020 UT App 52, ¶ 24, 463 P.3d 66 (“We afford a juvenile court’s best-interest decision a high degree of deference, reversing only for clear error, which we find when the result is against the clear weight of the evidence or leaves us with a firm and definite conviction that a mistake has been made . . . .” (quotation simplified)).

ANALYSIS

¶13 A court may terminate parental rights only after making two necessary findings. In re N.K., 2020 UT App 26, ¶ 21, 461 P.3d 1116. First, the court must find, by clear and convincing evidence, that at least one statutory ground for termination exists. See In re T.E., 2011 UT 51, ¶ 17, 266 P.3d 739; see also Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-301(1) (LexisNexis Supp. 2021). “Second, the court must find that termination of the parent’s rights is in the best interest[] of the child.” In re N.K., 2020 UT App 26, ¶ 21 (quotation simplified); see also Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-104(12) (LexisNexis Supp. 2021).

¶14      The best interest of the child is “of paramount importance in determining whether termination of parental rights shall be ordered.” Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-104(12)(a). Because any number of factors can have bearing on the child, the best-interest inquiry is a broad-ranging, “holistic examination of all the relevant circumstances that might affect a child’s situation.” In re H.F., 2019 UT App 204, ¶ 14, 455 P.3d 1098 (quotation simplified). And this requires evaluating “the unique and specific conditions” experienced by the child, from the child’s perspective. In re J.M., 2020 UT App 52, ¶ 37, 463 P.3d 66. While courts have identified factors relevant to the best-interest determination, the list is non-exhaustive. See id. (“The breadth of this subjective assessment based on the totality of the circumstances surrounding the child has never been diminished . . . .” (quotation simplified)); see also In re H.F., 2019 UT App 204, ¶ 14 (listing possible factors to consider in evaluating a child’s best interest).

¶15 In addition, our legislature has directed that parental rights may be terminated only when that outcome is “strictly necessary” from “the child’s point of view.” See Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-301(1); see also id. § 80-4-104(12)(b). Our supreme court has interpreted this instruction as requiring that termination “be strictly necessary to promote the child’s best interest,” and has held that the “strictly necessary” inquiry is to be conducted “as part of” the best-interest inquiry. In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶¶ 60, 76, 472 P.3d 827. Termination is “strictly necessary” only when, after exploring possible placements for the child, the juvenile court concludes that no “other feasible options exist that could address the specific problems or issues facing the family, short of imposing the ultimate remedy of terminating the parent’s rights.” Id. ¶ 67 (quotation simplified). “If the child can be equally protected and benefited by an option other than termination, termination is not strictly necessary.” Id. ¶ 66.

¶16 In this case, after finding that six different statutory grounds for termination existed and that termination was in the Children’s best interest, the juvenile court terminated Mother’s parental rights. As noted, this case is not about the statutory grounds for termination—Mother did not contest the presence of statutory grounds at trial, and does not appeal the court’s findings in that regard. But Mother does challenge the court’s conclusion that termination of her parental rights was in the Children’s best interest and, in so doing, asks us to consider two issues. First, Mother argues that the court, in evaluating best interest, failed to adequately consider the customary preference for keeping siblings together, and failed to consider the impact that termination would have on the sibling bond.[2] Second, Mother takes issue with the court’s conclusion that terminating her rights was strictly necessary to promote the Children’s best interest; specifically, she contends the court did not adequately address whether permanent guardianship with nonrelatives presented a viable option. We discuss each argument in turn.

¶17 Among the many “factors involved in a best-interest[] determination” is consideration of whether to “keep[] siblings together.” See In re O.C., 2005 UT App 563, ¶ 22, 127 P.3d 1286 (quotation simplified); cf. Utah Code Ann. § 80-3-409(3)(b) (LexisNexis Supp. 2021) (stating that, in making permanency decisions, juvenile courts should “attempt to keep the minor’s sibling group together” where “practicable” and where that outcome is “in accordance with the best interest of the minor”). Mother contends that the court “did not appropriately weigh and consider the negative impact that termination of parental rights of the mother had on the sibling bond.” We disagree.

¶18 In making its best-interest determination, the juvenile court quite clearly evaluated the impact termination would have on the Children’s sibling relationship. In its findings, the court found it “necessary to address” the fact that the Children were “not placed together in the same adoptive home,” and noted at the outset of its analysis the general preference for the “sibling group [to] stay together.” But the court also noted that “this is a particularly unique situation wherein [J.P.] has a history of aggressive and violent behavior toward[] [T.P.],” and would “direct his anger at [T.P.] by hitting, kicking, and biting her.” The court referenced testimony by caseworkers, foster parents, and a mental health evaluator who had each “witnessed [J.P.’s] aggression” toward T.P., and the court referred to J.P.’s aggression as a “safety risk” to T.P. And in particular, the court addressed Mother’s argument that she could do better than the foster parents had done in this regard, offering its view that Mother “seem[ed] unaware of the severity of [J.P.’s] aggression” toward T.P. and that Mother was “minimizing” J.P.’s aggressive behavior. After considering the evidence, the court expressly found that “it is not practicable and it is not in the Children’s best interest to keep” them together.

¶19 In light of these detailed findings and conclusions, it is simply not accurate to suggest that the juvenile court did not consider the “sibling bond” factor as part of its best-interest analysis. The court clearly did consider it. Mother’s complaint, properly viewed, is not that the court did not consider the issue; rather, Mother’s dissatisfaction lies with the weight the court gave her perspective, and with the court’s ultimate conclusion. We have often stated that “it is not within our purview to engage in a reweighing of the evidence” heard by a court following a trial, even in cases in which “the evidence could also have supported” an alternative outcome. See Shuman v. Shuman, 2017 UT App 192, ¶¶ 9–10, 406 P.3d 258 (quotation simplified). Where a juvenile court has analyzed an issue following an evidentiary hearing, and has made factual findings and legal conclusions that are supported by the evidence and the law, we will not overturn those findings and conclusions, even if a different judge might have weighed the evidence in a different way. See In re B.R., 2007 UT 82, ¶ 12, 171 P.3d 435 (stating that, when a “foundation for” a juvenile court’s “decision exists in the evidence, an appellate court may not engage in a reweighing of the evidence”); see also In re J.E.G., 2020 UT App 94, ¶ 24, 468 P.3d 1048 (“Given the factfinder’s advantaged position in observing the witnesses firsthand, it is the factfinder’s responsibility, not the appellate court’s, to weigh [the] evidence and make a determination of fact.” (quotation simplified)). Here, the court’s analysis regarding the importance of the Children’s sibling bond was supported by the evidence presented at trial, and we will not engage in a reweighing of that evidence on appeal. On that basis, we reject Mother’s argument that the juvenile court, in evaluating best interest, failed to adequately consider and weigh the “sibling bond” factor.

¶20      Next, Mother asserts that the juvenile court, as part of its “strictly necessary” assessment, “did not appropriately consider permanent custody and guardianship” of the Children with nonrelatives. We reject this argument for similar reasons: the court did in fact consider this issue, and Mother’s disagreement with the court’s conclusion is not grounds for reversal.

¶21      In this case, the juvenile court devoted eight paragraphs of its analysis to this issue, despite the fact that Mother, at trial, did not specifically ask the court to assess permanent guardianship options with nonrelatives.[3] The court noted, at the outset of its analysis, that the “only options presented at trial from the parties were to terminate Mother’s parental rights or return the Children” to Mother. But despite the fact that the parties did not advance other alternatives, the court explored them anyway. In particular, the court noted that, “another option, short of termination,” was to place the Children in a permanent guardianship with a relative. In this regard, the court noted that “DCFS made diligent efforts to locate possible” kinship placements, but did so “without success,” because “the only known kin” were Mother’s relatives, including Grandfather, who all lived together in the same household, a placement that had already proved itself inappropriate. Accordingly, the court concluded that a permanent guardianship with a relative “is not an option in this case.”

¶22 The court then proceeded to assess whether a long-term guardianship with a nonrelative was a viable option. The court noted that “the obvious choice” for such a placement “would be a possible guardianship placement with the current” foster families. But the court offered its view that long-term guardianship arrangements are “typically only in a child’s best interest where the guardians and the parent have a working, relatively healthy relationship” in which they are both “willing to work together to preserve [the] parent-child relationship,” and “where the child has a healthy relationship with both the guardian and the parent.” The court also opined that long-term guardianships work best with older children who have “the developmental maturity to recognize the guardian in their role and the parent in their role,” and “can distinguish between the two.” The court found that none of these conditions were present here: the foster families had “little to no relationship whatsoever with Mother,” and the Children were “still very young” and needed “stability and permanency” and “a family they can call their own without further changes.” Accordingly, the court concluded that a long-term guardianship with a nonrelative did “not promote [the Children’s] best interest or welfare,” and that “[h]aving a permanent family unit [would] meet their best interest far better than a guardianship.”

¶23      In light of the thorough treatment the juvenile court gave the issue, Mother’s complaint that the court “did not appropriately consider” permanent guardianship options is unavailing. In this context as well, Mother is simply dissatisfied with the manner in which the juvenile court weighed the evidence and, as noted, this complaint has no traction on appeal. See In re B.R., 2007 UT 82, ¶ 12; cf. State v. Littlejohn, 2021 UT App 73, ¶ 28, 496 P.3d 726 (stating that, where “it is apparent . . . that [the court] did consider the information” the appellant claimed it did not consider, the appellant’s complaint was merely “that the court failed to give that information the weight [the appellant] believes it should have been given,” and concluding that this “argument simply has no traction on appeal”). On this basis, we reject Mother’s argument that the court failed to adequately consider potential long-term guardianship options with nonrelatives.

CONCLUSION

¶24 The juvenile court appropriately considered whether to keep the Children together, and whether long-term guardianship options existed short of termination. For the reasons stated, we reject Mother’s challenges to the juvenile court’s best-interest determination, and affirm the court’s order of termination.

——————————————————

[1] The State’s petition also asked the court to terminate Father’s parental rights, which the court eventually did. Father’s parental rights are not at issue in this appeal.

[2] The State asserts that Mother did not properly preserve this argument for appellate review. The State’s contention is not particularly persuasive. Indeed, at trial, although acknowledging that the Children needed to be separated if they remained in foster care, Mother’s attorney argued that the Children could be kept together if they were returned to Mother’s care, and advanced this as a reason not to terminate. But we need not discuss preservation further here because, in this case, the issue “can easily be resolved in favor of the party asserting that the claim was not preserved,” and therefore we elect to simply address the claim on its merits. See State v. Kitches, 2021 UT App 24, ¶ 28, 484 P.3d 415.

[3] For this reason, the State argues that Mother did not preserve this issue for our review. We acknowledge the State’s point that a litigant, if it wants a court to afford specific relief, should ask for that relief directly. But as the State acknowledges, “Utah law places an affirmative onus” on juvenile courts to “consider reasonable alternatives to termination.” (Citing In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 74, 472 P.3d 827.) In this situation, juvenile courts have an independent obligation, imposed by statute, to assess whether termination is strictly necessary. See In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 74 (explaining that the juvenile court is “require[d] . . . to find, on the record, that no other option can achieve the same welfare and best interest for the child”); see also Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-301(1) (LexisNexis Supp. 2021). While the court’s assessment in this regard is of course guided by the parties’ arguments and specific requests for relief, a juvenile court must always make a finding, prior to terminating a parent’s rights, that termination is strictly necessary to promote the child’s best interest. In this case, we commend the juvenile court for its thorough analysis of the issue, even in the absence of any specific request by Mother for imposition of a long-term guardianship with nonrelatives.

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In re J.P. – 2021 UT App 134 – termination of parental rights

2021 UT App 134 

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS 

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF J.P. AND T.P., PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE. 

T.L.,
Appellant,
v.
STATE OF UTAH,
Appellee. 

Opinion 

No. 20210185-CA 

Filed December 9, 2021 

Fifth District Juvenile Court, Cedar City Department 

The Honorable Troy A. Little 

No. 1170183 

Colleen K. Coebergh, Attorney for Appellant 

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

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem 

JUDGE RYAN M. HARRIS authored this Opinion, in which
JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and JILL M. POHLMAN concurred. 

HARRIS, Judge: 

¶1 After a two-day evidentiary hearing, the juvenile court terminated T.L.’s (Mother) parental rights regarding her two children, J.P. and T.P. (collectively, the Children). Mother now appeals, asserting that the court erred by concluding that termination of her parental rights was strictly necessary and in the Children’s best interest. We affirm. 

BACKGROUND 

¶2 While married to her husband (Father), Mother had two children: J.P., a son born in 2013, and T.P., a daughter born in 2016. Mother described J.P. as “difficult to manage because he is autistic,” and stated that he has a history of “aggressive and violent behavior,” which he sometimes expressed toward T.P. Mother’s marriage was “good at first,” but Father eventually became violent and abusive toward both Mother and J.P., and was arrested on one occasion for domestic violence. In 2018, Mother went to live with her parents, taking the Children with her. 

¶3 A few months later, J.P. sustained a black eye after Mother’s father (Grandfather) threw a laundry basket at him. Grandfather “has a history of dangerous behavior” and was once arrested and convicted of attempted aggravated assault after discharging a firearm in the presence of the Children during a family dispute. After investigating the laundry basket incident, the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) made a supported finding of physical abuse against Grandfather and asked Mother to stop living with her parents; DCFS recommended that she stay at a women’s shelter with the Children, and Mother complied. 

¶4 During the stay at the shelter, DCFS again became involved after other residents of the shelter reported that Mother was physically abusing the Children and throwing their meals in the trash as a form of punishment. Following an investigation of these incidents, DCFS made a supported finding of physical abuse against Mother and took the Children into protective custody. The juvenile court later determined that the Children were abused and neglected, and set reunification with Mother as the primary permanency goal. 

¶5 The Children were initially placed together with the same foster family. During this time, the foster parents reported that J.P. was “physically aggressive, daily, toward[]” T.P. But in some ways, the Children did better in their new environment: T.P. was “excelling” and J.P. showed improvement after weekly therapy, although he continued to sometimes “act[] out aggressively.” 

¶6 During this same time period, Mother worked toward reunification by attending therapy and parenting courses, and by securing employment. In recognition of this progress, some nine months after their removal the Children were returned to Mother’s custody for a trial home placement. But Mother still lived with her family, including Grandfather, and for various reasons the home placement failed; this time, DCFS removed the Children “due to concerns of environmental neglect, ongoing insufficient hygiene . . . , and suspicion of sexual reactiveness.” 

¶7 Following the failure of the trial home placement, the State and a guardian ad litem (the GAL) appointed to represent the Children’s interests asked the juvenile court to change the permanency goal from reunification to adoption. The court granted that request and terminated reunification services; shortly thereafter, the State filed a petition to terminate Mother’s parental rights to the Children.1  

¶8 Meanwhile, J.P. was continuing to act aggressively toward T.P. and others, and DCFS eventually found it necessary to separate the Children, and place them with different foster families, in order to protect T.P. Some time later, Mother expressed “concern” about the separation to the juvenile court, but the court allowed it, crediting the GAL’s account that J.P.’s behavior improved after the Children were separated. 

¶9 The case proceeded to trial on the State’s petition to terminate Mother’s parental rights. During trial, the State called eight witnesses in support of its case, including Mother, all the foster parents, certain DCFS caseworkers, and a peer parent advisor. In addition, the GAL addressed the court and proffered certain statements made by the Children. During closing argument, Mother’s attorney did not contest the fact that statutory grounds existed for termination of Mother’s parental rights, and acknowledged that “maybe returning the [Children] to [Mother’s familial] home was not the best idea.” Mother’s attorney also recognized that J.P. had, at times, been violent and aggressive toward T.P., and agreed with the State that “these kids could not be together” in foster care. But Mother’s attorney argued that, nevertheless, termination of Mother’s parental rights was not in the Children’s best interest, which he argued could best be served by returning them, together, to Mother’s care. However, at no point did counsel argue, as an alternative to termination, that the court should grant permanent custody and guardianship to relatives or foster families. 

¶10 After trial, the court issued a detailed written ruling terminating Mother’s parental rights. The court found that six statutory grounds for termination existed, including abuse and neglect. And the court concluded that it was in the Children’s best interest for Mother’s parental rights to be terminated. 

¶11 As part of its best-interest analysis, the court considered whether termination of Mother’s parental rights was “strictly necessary,” and it assessed whether other feasible options, short of termination, existed that would adequately address the situation, but ultimately concluded that termination was strictly necessary. The court noted that, at trial, it had been presented with only two options: terminating Mother’s parental rights, or returning the Children to Mother’s care. Nonetheless, the court proceeded to consider other potential options; in particular, the court examined at length whether a permanent guardianship with a relative or with a foster family would be appropriate. 

With regard to a kinship placement, the court noted that the only known relatives were Mother’s family members, including Grandfather, who all lived in the same household, and the court concluded that, in light of the situation, including Grandfather’s history of violence, such a placement would be inappropriate. And with regard to long-term guardianships with foster families, the court offered its view that such arrangements tend to work well only “where the child has a healthy relationship with both the guardian and the parent” and “the guardian and parent are willing to work together to preserve that parent-child relationship.” In this case, the foster families had “little to no relationship” with Mother. The court also noted that the Children were “very young,” and concluded that “[t]hey both need stability and permanency” that could best be found in an adoption arrangement rather than in a guardianship arrangement. After an extensive analysis, the court determined that neither a kinship placement nor a long-term guardianship with foster families was an appropriate option in this case, and that adoption following termination of parental rights was the option most in keeping with the Children’s best interest. Based on those findings and conclusions, the court terminated Mother’s parental rights. 

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW 

¶12 Mother now appeals from that order, and challenges the juvenile court’s ruling that termination of her parental rights was strictly necessary and in the Children’s best interest. “Whether the juvenile court correctly concluded there was no feasible alternative to terminating Mother’s . . . parental rights is a mixed question of fact and law,” and “we review the juvenile court’s findings of fact for clear error and its conclusions of law for correctness, affording the court some discretion in applying the law to the facts.” See In re G.D., 2021 UT 19, ¶ 37, 491 P.3d 867 (quotation simplified); see also In re J.M., 2020 UT App 52, ¶ 24, 463 P.3d 66 (“We afford a juvenile court’s best-interest decision a high degree of deference, reversing only for clear error, which we find when the result is against the clear weight of the evidence or leaves us with a firm and definite conviction that a mistake has been made . . . .” (quotation simplified)). 

ANALYSIS 

¶13 A court may terminate parental rights only after making two necessary findings. In re N.K., 2020 UT App 26, ¶ 21, 461 P.3d 1116. First, the court must find, by clear and convincing evidence, that at least one statutory ground for termination exists. See In re T.E., 2011 UT 51, ¶ 17, 266 P.3d 739; see also Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-301(1) (LexisNexis Supp. 2021). “Second, the court must find that termination of the parent’s rights is in the best interest[] of the child.” In re N.K., 2020 UT App 26, ¶ 21 (quotation simplified); see also Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-104(12) (LexisNexis Supp. 2021). 

¶14 The best interest of the child is “of paramount importance in determining whether termination of parental rights shall be ordered.” Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-104(12)(a). Because any number of factors can have bearing on the child, the best-interest inquiry is a broad-ranging, “holistic examination of all the relevant circumstances that might affect a child’s situation.” In re H.F., 2019 UT App 204, ¶ 14, 455 P.3d 1098 (quotation simplified). And this requires evaluating “the unique and specific conditions” experienced by the child, from the child’s perspective. In re J.M., 2020 UT App 52, ¶ 37, 463 P.3d 66. While courts have identified factors relevant to the best-interest determination, the list is non-exhaustive. See id. (“The breadth of this subjective assessment based on the totality of the circumstances surrounding the child has never been diminished . . . .” (quotation simplified)); see also In re H.F., 2019 UT App 204, ¶ 14 (listing possible factors to consider in evaluating a child’s best interest). 

¶15 In addition, our legislature has directed that parental rights may be terminated only when that outcome is “strictly necessary” from “the child’s point of view.” See Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-301(1); see also id. § 80-4-104(12)(b). Our supreme court has interpreted this instruction as requiring that termination “be strictly necessary to promote the child’s best interest,” and has held that the “strictly necessary” inquiry is to be conducted “as part of” the best-interest inquiry. In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶¶ 60, 76, 472 P.3d 827. Termination is “strictly necessary” only when, after exploring possible placements for the child, the juvenile court concludes that no “other feasible options exist that could address the specific problems or issues facing the family, short of imposing the ultimate remedy of terminating the parent’s rights.” Id. ¶ 67 (quotation simplified). “If the child can be equally protected and benefited by an option other than termination, termination is not strictly necessary.” Id. ¶ 66. 

¶16 In this case, after finding that six different statutory grounds for termination existed and that termination was in the Children’s best interest, the juvenile court terminated Mother’s parental rights. As noted, this case is not about the statutory grounds for termination—Mother did not contest the presence of statutory grounds at trial, and does not appeal the court’s findings in that regard. But Mother does challenge the court’s conclusion that termination of her parental rights was in the Children’s best interest and, in so doing, asks us to consider two issues. First, Mother argues that the court, in evaluating best interest, failed to adequately consider the customary preference for keeping siblings together, and failed to consider the impact that termination would have on the sibling bond.2 Second, Mother takes issue with the court’s conclusion that terminating her rights was strictly necessary to promote the Children’s best interest; specifically, she contends the court did not adequately address whether permanent guardianship with nonrelatives presented a viable option. We discuss each argument in turn. 

¶17 Among the many “factors involved in a best-interest[] determination” is consideration of whether to “keep[] siblings together.” See In re O.C., 2005 UT App 563, ¶ 22, 127 P.3d 1286 (quotation simplified); cf. Utah Code Ann. § 80-3-409(3)(b) (LexisNexis Supp. 2021) (stating that, in making permanency decisions, juvenile courts should “attempt to keep the minor’s sibling group together” where “practicable” and where that outcome is “in accordance with the best interest of the minor”). Mother contends that the court “did not appropriately weigh and consider the negative impact that termination of parental rights of the mother had on the sibling bond.” We disagree. 

¶18 In making its best-interest determination, the juvenile court quite clearly evaluated the impact termination would have on the Children’s sibling relationship. In its findings, the court found it “necessary to address” the fact that the Children were “not placed together in the same adoptive home,” and noted at the outset of its analysis the general preference for the “sibling group [to] stay together.” But the court also noted that “this is a particularly unique situation wherein [J.P.] has a history of aggressive and violent behavior toward[] [T.P.],” and would “direct his anger at [T.P.] by hitting, kicking, and biting her.” The court referenced testimony by caseworkers, foster parents, and a mental health evaluator who had each “witnessed [J.P.’s] aggression” toward T.P., and the court referred to J.P.’s aggression as a “safety risk” to T.P. And in particular, the court addressed Mother’s argument that she could do better than the foster parents had done in this regard, offering its view that Mother “seem[ed] unaware of the severity of [J.P.’s] aggression” toward T.P. and that Mother was “minimizing” J.P.’s aggressive behavior. After considering the evidence, the court expressly found that “it is not practicable and it is not in the Children’s best interest to keep” them together. 

¶19 In light of these detailed findings and conclusions, it is simply not accurate to suggest that the juvenile court did not consider the “sibling bond” factor as part of its best-interest analysis. The court clearly did consider it. Mother’s complaint, properly viewed, is not that the court did not consider the issue; rather, Mother’s dissatisfaction lies with the weight the court gave her perspective, and with the court’s ultimate conclusion. We have often stated that “it is not within our purview to engage in a reweighing of the evidence” heard by a court following a trial, even in cases in which “the evidence could also have supported” an alternative outcome. See Shuman v. Shuman, 2017 UT App 192, ¶¶ 9–10, 406 P.3d 258 (quotation simplified). Where a juvenile court has analyzed an issue following an evidentiary hearing, and has made factual findings and legal conclusions that are supported by the evidence and the law, we will not overturn those findings and conclusions, even if a different judge might have weighed the evidence in a different way. See In re B.R., 2007 UT 82, ¶ 12, 171 P.3d 435 (stating that, when a “foundation for” a juvenile court’s “decision exists in the evidence, an appellate court may not engage in a reweighing of the evidence”); see also In re J.E.G., 2020 UT App 94, ¶ 24, 468 P.3d 1048 (“Given the factfinder’s advantaged position in observing the witnesses firsthand, it is the factfinder’s responsibility, not the appellate court’s, to weigh [the] evidence and make a determination of fact.” (quotation simplified)). Here, the court’s analysis regarding the importance of the Children’s sibling bond was supported by the evidence presented at trial, and we will not engage in a reweighing of that evidence on appeal. On that basis, we reject Mother’s argument that the juvenile court, in evaluating best interest, failed to adequately consider and weigh the “sibling bond” factor. 

¶20 Next, Mother asserts that the juvenile court, as part of its “strictly necessary” assessment, “did not appropriately consider permanent custody and guardianship” of the Children with nonrelatives. We reject this argument for similar reasons: the court did in fact consider this issue, and Mother’s disagreement with the court’s conclusion is not grounds for reversal. 

¶21 In this case, the juvenile court devoted eight paragraphs of its analysis to this issue, despite the fact that Mother, at trial, did not specifically ask the court to assess permanent guardianship options with nonrelatives.3 The court noted, at the outset of its analysis, that the “only options presented at trial from the parties were to terminate Mother’s parental rights or return the Children” to Mother. But despite the fact that the parties did not advance other alternatives, the court explored them anyway. In particular, the court noted that, “another option, short of termination,” was to place the Children in a permanent guardianship with a relative. In this regard, the court noted that “DCFS made diligent efforts to locate possible” kinship placements, but did so “without success,” because “the only known kin” were Mother’s relatives, including Grandfather, who all lived together in the same household, a placement that had already proved itself inappropriate. Accordingly, the court concluded that a permanent guardianship with a relative “is not an option in this case.” 

¶22 The court then proceeded to assess whether a long-term guardianship with a nonrelative was a viable option. The court noted that “the obvious choice” for such a placement “would be a possible guardianship placement with the current” foster families. But the court offered its view that long-term guardianship arrangements are “typically only in a child’s best interest where the guardians and the parent have a working, relatively healthy relationship” in which they are both “willing to work together to preserve [the] parent-child relationship,” and “where the child has a healthy relationship with both the guardian and the parent.” The court also opined that long-term guardianships work best with older children who have “the developmental maturity to recognize the guardian in their role and the parent in their role,” and “can distinguish between the two.” The court found that none of these conditions were present here: the foster families had “little to no relationship whatsoever with Mother,” and the Children were “still very young” and needed “stability and permanency” and “a family they can call their own without further changes.” Accordingly, the court concluded that a long-term guardianship with a nonrelative did “not promote [the Children’s] best interest or welfare,” and that “[h]aving a permanent family unit [would] meet their best interest far better than a guardianship.” 

¶23 In light of the thorough treatment the juvenile court gave the issue, Mother’s complaint that the court “did not appropriately consider” permanent guardianship options is unavailing. In this context as well, Mother is simply dissatisfied with the manner in which the juvenile court weighed the evidence and, as noted, this complaint has no traction on appeal. See In re B.R., 2007 UT 82, ¶ 12; cf. State v. Littlejohn, 2021 UT App 73, ¶ 28, 496 P.3d 726 (stating that, where “it is apparent . . . that [the court] did consider the information” the appellant claimed it did not consider, the appellant’s complaint was merely “that the court failed to give that information the weight [the appellant] believes it should have been given,” and concluding that this “argument simply has no traction on appeal”). On this basis, we reject Mother’s argument that the court failed to adequately consider potential long-term guardianship options with nonrelatives. 

CONCLUSION 

¶24 The juvenile court appropriately considered whether to keep the Children together, and whether long-term guardianship options existed short of termination. For the reasons stated, we reject Mother’s challenges to the juvenile court’s best-interest determination, and affirm the court’s order of termination. 

 

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I have a debit card in my name. Can my parents take it?

I’m assuming that this question comes from someone who is a minor child (i.e., someone who is under the age of 18 and not a legally recognized adult or legally emancipated). 

This is a tough question that depends on the laws of the jurisdiction where each particular minor child is. You’ll need to check the laws in your particular jurisdiction to be sure (even then, there may be no conclusive consensus). 

Generally speaking: 

  • minor children have individual right to own property separately from their parents. 
    • Some parents think that any property a child acquires by purchase or gift is the property of the parent until the child becomes an adult. Some parents think that they own their minor children’s property until the child becomes an adult. This is not true. 
  • It appears to me that most jurisdictions take the position that unless a particular statute or court order provides otherwise, a parent can control his/her minor child’s property. 
    • While parents generally have a right to control and even spend a minor child’s income, parents do not have the right to use a child’s own property (such as a car that the minor child purchased with his/her own money) without that child’s permission.
  • So a parent cannot sell or destroy or drive a minor child’s own car, if the child does not grant the parent permission to sell or destroy or drive the child’s car. The parent can, however, control the child’s use of the child’s own car (for example, the parent could prohibit the child from driving the child’s own car, even if the car was fully licensed and registered and insured).

Unless there are specific laws in your jurisdiction that address this matter, then it appears to me that the general legal principle is: yes, your parent(s) can take your debit card away from you. If your parent(s) take your debit card away from you, they must ensure that they do not lose it, damage it, allow it to be damaged, or destroy it or allow it to be destroyed. 

So if you make your parents aware of the fact that you have a bank account in your own name (not jointly with your parents) into which you deposit your income, and your parents are aware that you have a debit card that you used to access these funds, your parents can take your debit card away from you, if they so choose. 

Of course, as a practical matter, that doesn’t prevent you from getting another debit card (unless your financial institution requires your parent to approve issuance of a a debit card to a minor) that you keep secret from your parents, but if they find out you’ve done that, be prepared for trouble. 

If your parents opened an account in their names (or in the name of one parent or the other) and they arranged to have a debit card issued to you to access those funds, then the account and the debit card are not yours, they belong to your parent(s). In that situation, they can take away the debit card. 

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

https://www.quora.com/I-have-a-debit-card-in-my-name-Can-my-parents-take-it/answer/Eric-Johnson-311  

 

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In re Z.C. W. – 2021 UT App 98 – Utah Court of Appeals

In re Z.C.W. – 2021 UT App 98 

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS 

STATE OF UTAHIN THE INTEREST OF Z.C.W. AND C.C.W., 
PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE. 

R.D., Appellant, v.  C.L.W., Appellee. 

Opinion 

No. 20200039-CA 

Filed September 23, 2021 

Third District Juvenile Court, West Jordan Department 

The Honorable Renee M. Jimenez 

No. 1135445 

Julie J. Nelson and Alexandra Mareschal, Attorneys for Appellant 

Lisa Lokken and Kirstin H. Norman, Attorneys for Appellee 

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem 

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

HARRIS, Judge: 

¶1 This termination-of-parental-rights case—in which R.D. (Mother) seeks to terminate the parental rights of her ex-husband, C.L.W. (Father), regarding their two children, C.C.W. and Z.C.W. (collectively, Children)—comes to us for a second time. In our previous opinion, we reversed the juvenile court’s order dismissing Mother’s petition and remanded the case with instructions for the court to redo its “best-interest” analysis, this time taking into account evidence that it had previously discounted regarding Father’s history of domestic violence toward Mother and another woman. See In re C.C.W., 2019 UT App 34, ¶¶ 19–25, 440 P.3d 749. On remand, the juvenile court reconsidered best interest and this time took into account Father’s history of domestic violence, but it conducted its analysis as of early 2017—the time of the previous trial—and not as of late 2019, when the post-remand proceedings took place. The court denied Mother’s motion to amend her termination petition to include new facts and circumstances that she asserted had occurred after the earlier trial, and the court refused to consider any evidence regarding best interest that had not been placed into the record at the previous trial. After reevaluating best interest as of 2017, this time not compartmentalizing Father’s history of domestic violence, the court again concluded that termination of Father’s parental rights was not in Children’s best interest, and again dismissed Mother’s petition. 

¶2 Mother appeals the dismissal of her petition, but does not raise a substantive challenge to the juvenile court’s new findings and conclusions—that is, Mother does not claim that the findings are unsupported by the evidence presented at the 2017 trial. Instead, Mother’s challenge is procedural: she asserts that the court erred by conducting its post-remand best-interest analysis in light of the evidence available in 2017, and by refusing to consider facts and circumstances arising after 2017 that might have affected its analysis. We agree with Mother, and hold that when we remand a case for a court to reconsider the best-interest question, we generally intend for that renewed inquiry to be conducted in the present tense, and for the effective date of that analysis to be the date of the post-remand proceeding. Accordingly, we vacate the juvenile court’s order of dismissal, and remand for a new best-interest analysis that should be conducted based on the facts and circumstances in existence as of the date the inquiry is made. 

BACKGROUND 

¶3 Many of the salient facts that inform the legal issues in this case are set forth in detail in our previous opinion, see id. ¶¶ 2–12, and we see no need to repeat them here. For present purposes, we include only a brief summary of the pre-remand facts. 

¶4 Mother filed a private petition seeking termination of Father’s parental rights regarding Children and alleged, among other things, that Father had a history of domestic violence toward her and another woman and had been incarcerated twice for such offenses. Id. ¶¶ 2–5. After a trial in early 2017, the juvenile court found that Father had abandoned Children, and that there were therefore statutory grounds for termination, id. ¶ 7, but concluded that it was not in Children’s best interest for Father’s parental rights to be terminated, id. ¶¶ 9–12. The court made factual findings that Father had indeed brutally attacked Mother and had a history of domestic violence, id. ¶ 8 & n.1, but nevertheless concluded that those facts had little bearing on the termination inquiry, because Father had never been violent toward Children, id. ¶ 8. After determining that Mother had not carried her burden on the best-interest inquiry, the juvenile court dismissed Mother’s petition, and Mother appealed. Id. ¶¶ 12–13. 

¶5 On appeal, we concluded that the juvenile court’s best-interest “analysis was materially flawed” because, rather than evaluating the impact Father’s acts of domestic violence could have on Children, the court “completely separate[d] or compartmentalize[d]” Father’s “history of domestic violence toward other adults from the best-interest inquiry.” Id. ¶¶ 15, 19, 22. Accordingly, we vacated the order dismissing Mother’s petition and remanded for the juvenile court to “reconsider[]” its best-interest inquiry. Id. ¶ 25. We directed the court, in conducting its renewed inquiry, to “adequately consider[] all of the proper factors,” including “what effect, if any, Father’s history of domestic violence might have on his efforts to reestablish a relationship with the Children.” Id. 

¶6 Soon after remand, Mother filed a motion seeking leave to amend her petition to include additional relevant information. Mother asserted that “significant events, developments and incidents” bearing on Children’s best interest had occurred in the two years since the 2017 trial. Among other things, Mother alleged that, since the trial, Father had committed violent acts against another woman, and that Father’s parole had been revoked due to drug and alcohol use. In addition, Mother asserted that her own situation had changed, alleging that she had remarried and her new spouse now wanted to adopt Children. The guardian ad litem (GAL) assigned to represent Children endorsed Mother’s position. Nevertheless, the juvenile court denied Mother’s motion to amend, explaining that it interpreted our opinion as requiring only a “reconsideration” of its previous ruling. The court declined to consider the new material alleged by Mother in connection with its renewed best-interest analysis, stating that it would “listen to the testimony” presented at the 2017 trial and would “read and consider the various literature cited” in our opinion, after which it would issue a written ruling without further hearing. 

¶7 A few weeks later, the juvenile court issued a written decision setting forth its renewed best-interest analysis. This time, the court did consider Father’s history of domestic violence. The court again noted that there was no evidence that Father had ever “physically abused his biological or stepchildren,” and found that “Mother did not fear Father’s interaction with the Children.” The court also observed that, under the district court order then in effect governing the parties’ divorce proceedings, Father was entitled only to supervised parent-time with Children. The juvenile court concluded that Father was at low risk to commit domestic violence in the presence of Children, and gave several reasons for its conclusion: Father had little contact with Mother; Father had “engaged in mental health services and medication management” and had “developed coping skills”; Father was “remorseful” and “desire[d] to correct his past actions”; and Father “was married with a support system in place.” In the court’s view, this evidence demonstrated that Father had taken “meaningful steps to change his life in order to be reintroduced” to Children. The court also noted that Father was Children’s only “African American father figure,” and that by keeping Father’s parental rights intact, Children could “maintain their legal relationship” with Father’s extended family, including their older half-sister. For these reasons, the court concluded—based on reconsideration of the evidence presented at the 2017 trial— that Mother had not carried her burden of demonstrating, by clear and convincing evidence, that it would be in Children’s best interest for Father’s parental rights to be terminated. On that basis, the court again dismissed Mother’s petition, doing so without considering any evidence regarding events that allegedly occurred between the 2017 trial and the date of the court’s order. 

¶8 Soon after issuance of the juvenile court’s post-remand ruling, Mother and the GAL each asked the court for a “new trial,” contending that the court should “re-open the evidence” because it was “impossible for the court” to properly consider best interest “without considering evidence of events that have occurred in the two and a half years since the trial.” In the documentation supporting her motion, Mother provided additional detail regarding some of the new evidence, asserting that Children’s half-sister had reached adulthood, no longer lived with Father, and had her own independent relationship with Children; that Father had reduced his financial support of Children and let their insurance coverage lapse; and that C.C.W. had recently been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, allegedly heightening the need for stability in his life.1 The court denied these motions, offering its view that it had complied with this court’s instructions by “considering all of the evidence presented” at the 2017 trial, and that Mother’s remedy was either to appeal or to file a new petition for termination of Father’s parental rights. 

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW 

¶9 Mother appeals from the juvenile court’s second dismissal of her termination petition, and raises one issue for our review: whether the juvenile court erred when it conducted its post-remand best-interest inquiry in past-tense fashion, as of 2017, and refused to consider facts and circumstances that allegedly occurred after 2017.2 Both Mother and Father contend that we should review this issue for abuse of discretion. We disagree. The narrow question of whether a post-remand best-interest inquiry should be conducted in past-tense or present-tense fashion presents a procedural legal issue, not a factual issue, and one that we review for correctness.3 See Berman v. Yarbrough, 2011 UT 79, ¶ 12, 267 P.3d 905 (“We review procedural issues for correctness and afford no deference to the lower court’s ruling.”); see also State v. Kragh, 2011 UT App 108, ¶ 9, 255 P.3d 685 (“Procedural issues present questions of law, which we review for correctness.”). The question also involves interpretation of the remand instructions contained in our previous opinion, and no other court is better positioned on that score than we are. See State v. Lopes, 2001 UT 85, ¶¶ 11, 17–19, 34 P.3d 762 (stating that “the issues before us involve legal determinations” that are reviewed “for correctness,” including the “crucial question” of “what we meant when we remanded the case for a new trial” (quotation simplified)). Accordingly, we review the juvenile court’s post-remand procedural decisions for correctness. 

ANALYSIS 

¶10 “[T]he Utah Constitution recognizes and protects the inherent and retained right of a parent to maintain parental ties to his or her child.” In re J.P., 648 P.2d 1364, 1377 (Utah 1982). Indeed, our legislature has “declared that ‘a parent possesses a fundamental liberty interest in the care, custody, and management of the parent’s child.’” In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 24, 472 P.3d 827 (quoting Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-503(1) (LexisNexis 2017), now recodified at id. § 80-4-104(1) (Supp. 2021)). Before severing this important parent-child bond, a court must ensure that the party seeking to terminate a parent’s rights has made a two-part showing by clear and convincing evidence. See In re F.B., 2012 UT App 36, ¶ 2, 271 P.3d 824 (per curiam); see also In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶¶ 44–54. First, the court must find grounds for termination under applicable statutory law. See In re F.B., 2012 UT App 36, ¶ 2; see also Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-301 (LexisNexis Supp. 2021).4 Second, the court “must find that termination of the parent’s rights is in the best interest[] of the child.” In re F.B., 2012 UT App 36, ¶ 2; see also Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-104(12)(a) (stating that the “best interest of the child” is “of paramount importance in determining whether termination of parental rights shall be ordered”). 

¶11 We have explained that the best-interest inquiry “requires courts to examine all of the relevant facts and circumstances surrounding the child’s situation.” In re C.C.W., 2019 UT App 34, ¶ 18, 440 P.3d 749 (quotation simplified). “This analysis should be undertaken from the child’s point of view, not the parent’s.” In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶¶ 63, 64 (quotation simplified). A child’s best interest can be determined only by considering “the physical, mental, or emotional condition and needs of the child.” In re T.E., 2011 UT 51, ¶ 41, 266 P.3d 739 (quoting Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-509 (LexisNexis Supp. 2011), now recodified at id. § 80-4-303 (Supp. 2021)). “[A]ny evidence that is probative of what is in the child’s best interest” may be considered. Id. In sum, the best-interest inquiry is “wide-ranging” and “asks a court to weigh the entirety of circumstances . . . to determine what is in the best interest of the child under all of the circumstances,” In re J.M., 2020 UT App 52, ¶ 35, 463 P.3d 66, with the court’s focus being “firmly fixed on finding the outcome that best secures the child’s well-being,” In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 64. A court may not, simply due to concerns about judicial economy, limit the scope of the best-interest inquiry. See In re J.J.T., 877 P.2d 161, 164 (Utah Ct. App. 1994) (stating that, when considering “the best interest[] of a child, a court must be free from the imposition of artificial constraints that serve merely to advance the cause of judicial economy”). 

¶12 In the context of evaluating the termination of a parent’s rights, we have stressed that “[c]onsiderations regarding a child’s welfare are rarely, if ever, static,” and that often “the child’s environment is constantly evolving.” Id. at 163; see also In re H.J., 1999 UT App 238, ¶ 45, 986 P.2d 115 (stating that a child’s “needs and circumstances can, and do, change rapidly,” and in many cases “the passage of time itself can result in substantially different circumstances” for a child). For these reasons, the best-interest inquiry is generally to be conducted in present-tense fashion, with the effective date of the inquiry being the date of the hearing, trial, or other judicial determination. In a best-interest inquiry, the relevant question is almost always this one: what outcome is in the child’s best interest now? 

¶13 This conclusion is bolstered by the language of the current governing statute. Although this particular language was not in effect at the time the juvenile court entered its post-remand findings, our legislature in 2020 added the following language— as immaterially amended in 2021—to the relevant statute: 

In determining whether termination is in the best interest of the child, and in finding that termination of parental rights, from the child’s point of view, is strictly necessary, the juvenile court shall consider [certain factors, including reunification efforts and kinship placement possibilities]. 

Utah Code Ann. § 80-4-104(12)(b) (emphasis added). This statutory language uses the verb “is,” indicating that the best-interest inquiry is to be undertaken in a present-tense fashion. See Scott v. Scott, 2017 UT 66, ¶ 24, 423 P.3d 1275 (“Typically, we understand ‘is’ as a present tense . . . verb . . . . Accordingly, we assume that the legislature used ‘is’ here as a present-tense verb.” (quotation simplified)); see also W.N. v. S.M., 424 P.3d 483, 490 (Haw. 2018) (concluding that a lower court erred, post-remand, by conducting its custody analysis in past-tense fashion as of the date of the previous trial, and emphasizing that the governing statute’s present-tense locution “requires the court to consider if the person ‘is fit and proper’ to care for the minor child at the time of the contemplated custody award”). 

¶14 In situations where we have remanded a case for a trial court to redo its best-interest analysis, we have sometimes given explicit instructions for courts to do so in present-tense fashion. See, e.g.In re H.F., 2019 UT App 204, ¶ 18 n.6, 455 P.3d 1098 (remanding for a new best-interest analysis, and stating that “any number of circumstances may have changed since trial, and the court should take such changes into account in reconsidering its decision”); Ross v. Ross, 2019 UT App 104, ¶ 20, 447 P.3d 104 (remanding for renewed consideration of a parent’s relocation, including whether such relocation was in the child’s best interest, and stating that, in reconsidering the relocation question, the court “should consider the present circumstances of the parties and the Children and not simply re-litigate the issues as they were at the time of the now-vacated custody order”). In this case, unfortunately, our remand instructions were not quite as explicit. We concluded that “the juvenile court’s best-interest determination was materially flawed,” vacated the court’s order on that basis, and remanded “for proceedings consistent with this opinion,” stating that the court should “reconsider[]” the best-interest question. See In re C.C.W., 2019 UT App 34, ¶ 25. We did not directly instruct the court to undertake that “reconsideration” in a present-tense fashion. In hindsight, we wish we had been more explicit. But our intent was that the court would redo its entire best-interest analysis, this time taking into account the domestic violence evidence, and that it should undertake that analysis in present-tense fashion, evaluating best interest as of the time of the post-remand proceedings. We take this opportunity to clarify that, unless we direct otherwise in a particular case, courts should assume that we intend for post-remand best-interest analyses to be undertaken in a present-tense manner. 

¶15 Post-remand application of a present-tense analysis will not, however, always require a new evidentiary hearing. It may be that, in certain cases, the situation will not have changed at all, and the parties will not have any new evidence to present; in such a situation, given the absence of any new evidence, a present-tense and past-tense analysis will not differ. In other situations, a court may examine the proffered new evidence and conclude that, even assuming the veracity of the new allegations, the court’s analysis would remain unchanged; such analysis is, in its own way, a present-tense analysis, even though no new hearing will be necessary. Cf. In re G.D., 2021 UT 19, ¶¶ 80–82, 491 P.3d 867 (concluding that a lower court appropriately dealt with proffered new evidence in a termination case when it concluded that “none of the [new] evidence would have altered the court’s [previous] decision” (quotation simplified)). In still other situations, the parties may agree that the new allegations, even if material, are not disputed; in those cases, a court would be within its discretion to undertake its present-tense analysis, including consideration of the new undisputed evidence, without holding a new evidentiary hearing. And in many other situations, one or both of the parties may wish to offer new material disputed evidence; in those cases, a court conducting a post-remand best-interest analysis will likely need to hold an evidentiary hearing and make findings regarding the veracity and the materiality of the new allegations, and will need to consider whether additional discovery or other pre-hearing proceedings would be appropriate. See, e.g.W.N., 424 P.3d at 491 (determining that a lower court erred, post-remand, when it failed to hold an evidentiary hearing to consider new disputed factual allegations that “would have directly pertained” to the issue at hand). But regardless of the posture of the particular case, a court conducting a proper post-remand best-interest analysis must—in some manner—consider and appropriately deal with proffered new evidence. 

¶16 With these principles in mind, we now examine the juvenile court’s handling of Mother’s proffered new evidence in this case. As noted above, the court refused to allow Mother to amend her petition to include new allegations, and after issuing its post-remand ruling it denied Mother’s motion for “new trial” in which Mother again asked the court to consider the new allegations.5 The court espoused a narrow interpretation of the remand instructions in our previous opinion, and opted to conduct a “reconsideration” of the evidence that had been presented at the 2017 trial, without any consideration of the new evidence Mother proffered. And the court instructed Mother that the proper avenue to facilitate adjudication of the new allegations was to file an entirely new petition for termination of Father’s parental rights. 

¶17 The juvenile court erred by undertaking its best-interest analysis as of 2017, the date of the previous trial. As discussed above, the court should have undertaken its best-interest analysis in present-tense fashion, as of 2019, the date of the post-remand proceeding. And the court erred by refusing to consider, in some form, the new evidence proffered by Mother. The court made no determination that the proffered evidence was immaterial or inadmissible;6 we offer our own observation that at least some of the proffered evidence—in particular, the allegation that Father has committed additional acts of domestic violence against additional women—if true, appears to be at least potentially material and at odds with some of the court’s post-remand findings. And the court made no effort to ascertain the extent to which the new evidence was disputed. The court needed to consider the new evidence in some fashion, rather than simply relying on previously submitted evidence. 

¶18 Mother could, of course, alternatively file a new termination petition. In such a proceeding, Mother could air all of the new allegations, and would not be barred by res judicata from incorporating into her presentation facts found by the court during the previous proceedings. See In re A.C.M., 2009 UT 30, ¶ 18, 221 P.3d 185 (“We . . . adopt the rule . . . that in child welfare proceedings res judicata does not bar courts from considering both newly discovered facts, whether or not they were knowable at the time of the earlier proceeding, and facts determined in previous termination proceedings when considering a later termination petition.”); see also Hardy v. Hardy, 776 P.2d 917, 922–23 (Utah Ct. App. 1989) (stating that res judicata does not preclude reconsideration of previously admitted evidence because res judicata, in this context, is “subservient to the child’s best interest[]”). But filing a new termination petition would entail some inefficiencies; as Mother pointed out at oral argument before this court, if a new petition were filed the juvenile court would be required to start from scratch, and re-adjudicate the entire case, including the “statutory grounds” portion that is no longer in dispute here. Moreover, the mere fact that Mother has the option of filing another action does not mean that her preferred option is thereby foreclosed. When two valid procedural litigation options exist, it is up to the litigant to choose which one to utilize. See, e.g.Utah Stream Access Coal. v. VR Acquisitions, LLC, 2019 UT 7, ¶ 36, 439 P.3d 593 (“[A] core component of our adversary system [is] the notion that the plaintiff is the master of the complaint. We leave it to the parties to plead claims and defenses in the time and manner designated by our rules.”). A court may not close one door simply because another one exists, even if the court considers the litigant’s preferred option inefficient. See In re J.J.T., 877 P.2d 161, 164 (Utah Ct. App. 1994) (stating that, when considering “the best interest[] of a child, a court must be free from the imposition of artificial constraints that serve merely to advance the cause of judicial economy”); cf. AFA Distrib. Co. v. Pearl Brewing Co., 470 F.2d 1210, 1213 (4th Cir. 1973) (stating that federal courts asked to exercise diversity jurisdiction “cannot close the door to the federal courts merely because [a diversity] case involves a difficult question of state law”). 

CONCLUSION 

¶19 The juvenile court erred by conducting a past-tense—rather than a present-tense—analysis while reconsidering best interest during its post-remand proceedings. The best-interest inquiry is, in most cases, not to be based on a snapshot from the past. Rather, a proper best-interest inquiry requires evaluating all relevant past and present circumstances bearing on a child’s welfare as of the date of the proceeding. Where an appellate court remands a case for a trial court to redo its best-interest analysis, that analysis should generally be conducted as of the date of the post-remand proceedings, and the court must consider, in some fashion, any new evidence proffered by the parties. 

¶20 Accordingly, we vacate the juvenile court’s order dismissing Mother’s petition, and we again remand for the juvenile court to redo its best-interest analysis, this time doing so in a present-tense fashion, and not as of 2017 or as of 2019. We once again express no opinion on the substance of the best-interest question, and emphasize that our opinion should not be construed as urging one outcome or another on remand. 

 

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

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2021 UT 36 – In re E.R.

2021 UT 36 – In re E.R. 

IN THE SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF UTAH    

State of Utah, in the interest of E.R., a person under eighteen years of age  

J.R., Petitioner,  

STATE OF UTAHRespondent.  

No. 20200163  

Heard April 8, 2021  

Filed July 29, 2021    

On Certiorari to the Utah Court of Appeals    

Fourth District, Provo  

The Honorable F. Richards Smith  

No. 1012098  

Attorneys: Margaret P. Lindsay, Provo, for petitioner  

Sean D. Reyes, Att’y Gen., Carol L. C. Verdoia, John M. Peterson, Asst. Att’y Gens., Salt Lake City, for respondent  

Martha Pierce, Salt Lake City, Guardian ad Litem for E.R.    

ASSOCIATE CHIEF JUSTICE LEE authored the opinion of the Court, in which CHIEF JUSTICE DURRANT, JUSTICE HIMONAS, JUSTICE PEARCE, and JUSTICE PETERSEN joined.  

ASSOCIATE CHIEF JUSTICE LEE, opinion of the Court:  

¶1 This case arises from the termination of a mother’s parental rights. The juvenile court removed E.R. from his mother’s custody in January 2016, after the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) supported a finding of dependency against the mother. The court first set a primary permanency goal of reunification with the mother, with a concurrent goal of permanent custody and guardianship with a relative. After several months of receiving services from DCFS, however, the mother failed to come into substantial compliance with the reunification plan. In November 2016, the juvenile court “terminated reunification services” and “set a primary goal of adoption with a concurrent goal of permanent custody and guardianship.”  

¶2 A year later the state petitioned for termination of the mother’s parental rights. At that point, the court found there were statutory grounds to terminate and determined that it was in E.R.’s best interest to do so. The court concluded that E.R. “has a particular aversion to anything court related” and that he “has a significant need for stability in his placement.” And with that in mind, the court determined that it was “strictly necessary to terminate” the mother’s parental rights to provide E.R. with “true permanency through adoption and so that all court proceedings come to an end.”  

¶3 The mother appealed the termination, asserting that the juvenile court had “exceeded its discretion in terminating her parental rights” and that “termination was not in E.R.’s best interest.” State ex rel. E.R., 2019 UT App 208, ¶ 9, 457 P.3d 389; see UTAH CODE § 78A-6-507 (setting forth grounds for termination and providing that termination is permitted if it is “strictly necessary” “from the child’s point of view”).1 In the mother’s view, the juvenile court had failed to give adequate consideration to reasonable alternatives to termination, as required for the “strictly necessary” inquiry. Id. ¶¶ 10–11; see also In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 76, 472 P.3d 827 (stating that “a court must specifically address whether termination is strictly necessary to promote the child’s welfare and best interest”). And the mother sought reversal on that basis.  

¶4 The court of appeals affirmed the decision of the juvenile court. Applying the standard of review set forth in State ex rel. B.R., 2007 UT 82, ¶ 12, 171 P.3d 435, the court of appeals stated that “the juvenile court’s decision should be afforded a high degree of deference” and concluded that the result could be overturned only if it is “against the clear weight of the evidence” or leaves the appellate court “with a firm and definite conviction that a mistake has been made.” E.R., 2019 UT App 208, ¶ 8 (quoting B.R., 2007 UT 82, ¶ 12). The court determined that the mother had failed to “demonstrate that the juvenile court’s findings were against the clear weight of the evidence.” Id. ¶ 13. It concluded that the juvenile court had “examined the specific circumstances of this case and the individual needs of E.R.” when making its decision and that its best interest determination was adequate. Id. And the court of appeals thus concluded that the “finding that termination was strictly necessary was not against the clear weight of the evidence.” Id. ¶ 15.  

¶5 The mother filed a petition for certiorari, which we granted. Her briefs filed in our court are aimed at challenging the propriety of the standard of review applied by the court of appeals. She first asks us to rule that the deferential standard of review laid out in B.R. applies only to determinations of parental fitness in termination proceedings, not to best interest determinations. If we conclude that B.R. does apply to best interest determinations, she next asserts that the standard is too deferential, and should be replaced with a non-deferential, de novo standard of review.  

¶6 We affirm. First, we hold that the court of appeals correctly applied the B.R. standard of review to the juvenile court’s best interest determination. Second, we reject the mother’s request that we replace the B.R. standard with a de novo standard of review. Third, we acknowledge some points of imprecision and possible confusion in B.R., and clarify that the governing standard is the same deferential standard that applies to any fact-intensive decision of any lower court—such determinations are upheld unless they are against the “clear weight of the evidence.”  

 

¶7 In State ex rel. B.R., this court stated that a juvenile court’s termination decision “should be afforded a high degree of deference.” 2007 UT 82, ¶ 12, 171 P.3d 435. We noted that the question “[w]hether a parent’s rights should be terminated presents a mixed question of law and fact.” Id. And we held that an appellate court may thus overturn the juvenile court’s decision on termination only where it is “against the clear weight of the evidence or leave[s] the appellate court with a firm and definite conviction that a mistake has been made.” Id. (alteration in original, citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Such a decision may be overturned, in other words, “only if it either failed to consider all of the facts or considered all of the facts and its decision was nonetheless against the clear weight of the evidence.” Id.  

¶8 The mother contends that only determinations of parental fitness, and not determinations of a child’s best interest, are reviewed under the standard set forth in B.R.2 She cites language from B.R. stating that “the legal standard of unfitness is the ultimate question.” Id. And she accordingly insists that B.R. concerned only a parental fitness determination, not a best interest determination. See id.  

¶9 This is a misread of our opinion in B.R. Our opinion addressed the larger question of what level of review to apply to a juvenile court’s analysis of “[w]hether a parent’s rights should be terminated.” Id. And parental termination implicates not just parental fitness but also the child’s best interest—a point made clear by subsequent precedent.  

¶10 In State ex rel. A.C.M., we reiterated the B.R. standard and applied it to a juvenile court’s decision to terminate a father’s rights. We thus applied this standard to two questions—to whether the juvenile court had “sufficient grounds to terminate his rights,” and to whether it had failed to consider the child’s “best interests.” 2009 UT 30, ¶ 8, 221 P.3d 185. In considering these questions, we stated that “[w]e afford great deference to the juvenile court’s findings of fact and overturn the result only if the facts are against the clear weight of the evidence.” Id.  

¶11 Our recent decision in In re G.D. is along the same lines. There we stated that “[w]hen reviewing a fact-intensive mixed question of fact and law, such as whether a particular placement serves a child’s best interests, . . . [a]n appellate court must not overturn the trial court’s decision unless it is against the clear weight of the evidence.” In re G.D., 2021 UT 19, ¶ 72 n.46, __ P.3d __.  

¶12 These cases foreclose the mother’s first argument. The standard of review established in B.R. applies to all aspects of the juvenile court’s termination of parental rights determination, and not just to the parental fitness determination. We have routinely applied the standard to both parental fitness and best interest determinations. The court of appeals was thus correct to apply the B.R. standard to the juvenile court’s best interest determination.  

II  

¶13 The mother asserts that the standard we established in B.R. is too deferential for a best interest determination. But the deferential standard established in B.R. is in line with the standard of review we apply to similar fact-intensive decisions. And the mother has not identified a basis for repudiation of this deferential standard in favor of the de novo standard she asks us to apply.  

¶14 The appropriate standard of review for a lower court’s decision is dependent upon the “nature of the issue.” In re Adoption of Baby B., 2012 UT 35, ¶ 42, 308 P.3d 382. We apply differing standards of review to findings of fact, conclusions of law, and determinations of mixed questions of law and fact.  

¶15 Factual determinations are accorded a high degree of deference. This is because “a lower court often has a comparative advantage in its firsthand access to factual evidence.” In re United Effort Plan Trust, 2013 UT 5, ¶ 17, 296 P.3d 742 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). And as factual issues “are unique to each case,” there is “no particular benefit in establishing settled appellate precedent on issues of fact.” Id. (citation omitted). With this in mind, we review determinations of fact with a “highly deferential standard,” overturning the lower court “only when clearly erroneous.” Id. (citation omitted).  

¶16 Our review of conclusions of law is at the other end of the spectrum. We afford “[n]o deference . . . to the lower court’s analysis of abstract legal questions.” Id. ¶ 18 (citation omitted). “[S]ettled appellate precedent is of crucial importance in establishing a clear, uniform body of law.” Id. (citation omitted). And appellate courts have comparative advantages in establishing such precedent. We apply a non-deferential de novo standard to questions of law for that reason.  

¶17 A best interest determination involves neither a pure finding of fact nor an abstract conclusion of law. This is a mixed determination of law and fact—in which the abstract law is applied to a given set of facts.  

¶18 The standard of review for mixed questions “depends on the nature of the issue.” Baby B., 2012 UT 35, ¶ 42. “Law-like mixed questions are reviewed de novo, while fact-like mixed questions are reviewed deferentially.” Sawyer v. Dep’t of Workforce Servs., 2015 UT 33, ¶ 11, 345 P.3d 1253. To determine “whether a mixed question should be deemed law-like or fact-like, we evaluate the ‘marginal costs and benefits’ of conducting either a searching de novo review or a deferential review of a lower tribunal’s resolution of the mixed question.” Id. ¶ 12 (quoting Baby B., 2012 UT 35, ¶ 42).  

¶19 De novo review of mixed questions is appropriate “where a fresh appellate reconsideration of the issues present[s] little downside and significant upside.” Baby B., 2012 UT 35, ¶ 44. Issues that are “law-like” are matters that “lend[] themselves to consistent resolution by uniform precedent.” Id. Appellate courts are in a preferred position on such issues. They can establish a uniform body of precedent establishing “consistent rule[s]” that litigants and lower courts can rely on. Id. And a need to establish such rules cuts against a standard of deference to lower courts.  

¶20 Other mixed questions do “not lend [themselves] to consistent resolution by a uniform body of appellate precedent” because the factual scenarios presented are “so complex and varying that no rule adequately addressing the relevance of all these facts can be spelled out.” Id. ¶¶ 42–43. On these issues, “the trial court is in a superior position” to make a determination and deference is appropriate. Id. ¶ 42.  

¶21 Our cases identify a “cost-benefit” basis for distinguishing “law-like” and “fact-like” mixed determinations through the lens of a three-factor test laid out in State v. Levin. See Sawyer, 2015 UT 33, ¶ 12This test considers:  

(1) the degree of variety and complexity in the facts to which the legal rule is to be applied; (2) the degree to which a trial court’s application of the legal rule relies on facts observed by the trial judge, such as a witness’s appearance and demeanor, relevant to the application of the law that cannot be adequately reflected in the record available to appellate courts; and (3) other policy reasons that weigh for or against granting discretion to trial courts.  

State v. Levin, 2006 UT 50, ¶ 25, 144 P.3d 1096 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).  

¶22 Under this test, a juvenile court’s best interest determination involves a “fact-like” mixed question subject to deferential review. First, this is a “factually intense . . . inquiry” dependent on the unique circumstances and needs of each child. State ex rel. B.R., 2007 UT 82, ¶ 12, 171 P.3d 435. Each case presents its own complexity and variety. And these considerations stand in the way of appellate development of categorical rules in this field.  

¶23 Second, the juvenile court has a superior perspective in light of its view of the demeanor of both parents and children. We have “previously noted that a party’s demeanor” is a factor that “may be probative in a best interest analysis.” State ex rel. T.E., 2011 UT 51, ¶ 44, 266 P.3d 739. Such evidence “may be probative of a parent’s credibility, a parent’s attitude toward his or her child, and a parent’s attitude in fulfilling parental obligations.” Id. And again this cuts in favor of a standard of deferential review.  

¶24 The mother’s principal counter is her assertion that “policy reasons” are sufficient to outweigh the above. She notes that there are “fundamental interests at stake” in a best interest determination. And she cites recent amendments to the Utah Code that in her view indicate that “the standard of review as to whether termination is in the best interest of the child should be rebalanced between juvenile and appellate courts.”  

¶25 We see no basis in the cited authority for an alteration of our longstanding standard of deference to best interest determinations. A parent certainly has a “fundamental right, protected by the Constitution, to sustain his relationship with his child.” In re J.P., 648 P.2d 1364, 1372 (Utah 1982) (citation omitted). But there is no hard-and-fast rule that any and all determinations affecting a party’s fundamental rights are subject to searching de novo review. And in our view the best interest determination is properly subject to deferential review for reasons set forth above.  

¶26 The mother has identified no persuasive ground for her request that we overrule the standard set forth in B.R. She has made little or no effort to justify a reversal of course as a matter of stare decisisSee Eldridge v. Johndrow, 2015 UT 21, ¶ 22, 345 P.3d 553  

(setting forth factors for consideration in deciding whether to overrule our precedent). And we decline her request and reaffirm the standard set forth in B.R. for reasons set forth above.  

III  

¶27 Although we reinforce B.R., we also take this occasion to refine it. We uphold the central standard of deferential review set forth in that opinion. But we acknowledge some potential points of confusion and inconsistency and clarify the standard going forward.  

¶28 The parties’ briefs have highlighted potential problems with the formulation of the standard as stated in B.R. The mother points to clauses in the opinion that purportedly are viewed as effectively insulating juvenile court decisions from effective review on appeal. And even the State concedes that under B.R., “Juvenile Court judges have long been afforded even greater deference than their district court counterparts.”  

¶29 We see the matter differently, but understand that some of the language in B.R. may be contributing to some misunderstanding. At least two sentences in B.R. may be adding to a sense that juvenile court judges are entitled to an extra measure of deference: (a) the statement that a “juvenile court’s decision should be afforded a high degree of deference,” and (b) the assertion that “[w]hen a foundation for the court’s decision exists in the evidence, an appellate court may not engage in a reweighing of the evidence.” State ex rel. B.R., 2007 UT 82, ¶ 12, 171 P.3d 435.  

¶30 We disavow these sentences, and any other “language in B.R.” that could be read to “suggest[] that there is a different standard of review for juvenile courts.” See In re G.D., 2021 UT 19, ¶ 72 n.46, __ P.3d __ (making a parallel point). And we hereby clarify that the deference afforded to the juvenile court is the same level of deference given to all lower court findings of fact and “fact-like” determinations of mixed questions.  

¶31 There is no universal bar on an appellate court “reweighing” evidence considered by the juvenile courts. And the bare existence of any conceivable “foundation for the court’s decision . . . in the evidence” is no trump card foreclosing appellate review. Instead, any “reweighing” or consideration of “foundation” in the evidence must be guided by the operative deferential standard of review: “[T]he juvenile court’s decision [can] be overturned only if it either failed to consider all of the facts or considered all of the facts and its decision was nonetheless against the clear weight of the evidence.” B.R., 2007 UT 82, ¶ 12. (emphasis added).  

¶32 Under this standard, an appellate court should not perform its own independent “reweighing” of the evidence to decide how it would have resolved the matter in the first instance. A measure of deference is owing. But such deference is not absolute. Not every conceivable “foundation” in evidence is a basis for affirmance. The lower court’s decision should be respected unless the court “failed to consider all of the facts” or reached a decision “against the clear weight of the evidence.” Id.  

¶33 We affirm the court of appeals’ decision in this case under this clarified standard. In affirming the juvenile court’s decision terminating the mother’s parental rights, the court of appeals vaguely noted that “due to ‘the factually intense nature’ of a termination decision, ‘the juvenile court’s decision should be afforded a high degree of deference.’” State ex rel. E.R., 2019 UT App 208, ¶ 8, 457 P.3d 389 (quoting B.R., 2007 UT 82, ¶ 12). But it ultimately applied the correct standard of review. And we affirm on that basis.  

¶34 The court of appeals stated that it would overturn the juvenile court’s decision “only if the result is ‘against the clear weight of the evidence’ or leaves us ‘with a firm and definite conviction that a mistake has been made.’” Id. (quoting B.R., 2007 UT 82, ¶ 12). And in affirming the juvenile court’s decision, the court of appeals did not just consider whether any “foundation for the court’s decision exists in the evidence.” B.R., 2007 UT 82, ¶ 12. It also considered the evidence presented to the juvenile court and determined that the mother’s challenges failed to “demonstrate that the juvenile court’s findings were against the clear weight of the evidence.” E.R., 2019 UT App 208, ¶ 13.  

¶35 This was a correct application of the governing standard of review set forth in B.R. And the mother in this case has identified no other basis for reversal. We accordingly affirm the decision of the court of appeals.  

 

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

  

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Do you think it’s fair that Brad Pitt got joint custody of his kids? 

Normally, I do not like to comment on the intersection of pop culture and family law because quite often, what happens in a celebrity divorce or child custody dispute does not arise or get handled the same way as would be the case for those of us who are not celebrities, but because this was a matter of fathers seeking joint custody of his children, and because (based upon the little I have read on the subject) the court did not find Brad Pitt to be an unfit parent, I will comment. 

I will phrase the question this way: is it fair for a parentally fit father to be awarded joint custody of his own children? The answer to this question is obvious. Of course it’s fair. Now just because it’s fair does not mean that every parentally fit father should be awarded joint physical custody of his children. There may be situations where, through no fault of the fathers, it is still determined to be in the child’s best interest that the father not exercise joint physical custody of the child. Granted, I can’t think of a scenario offhand where that would be the case, but the point is that just it’s fair to treat fathers no differently than mothers when it comes to the question of which is the “better” parent to exercise physical custody of children.  

This is a bête noire for me. Although things are getting better for fathers who are trying to remain in their children’s lives following separation and divorce (a generation or two ago, if a father had wanted joint, let alone soul, custody of his children, he did not have a snowballs chance in hell, if mother was also a fit parent; even if he could prove that he was clearly the superior and only fit parent, he still had a real fight on his hands and often came out the loser), there is still a horrible bias against men when awarding custody of children. Those who believe that mothers are inherently superior parents for children of any age (with the exception of a nursing child) are sexists, pure and simple. Do your research. The science doesn’t back the bias. Ask adults who were children of divorce how they felt when they had their time with their father artificially limited to every other weekend and a few holidays. Ask them and their fathers what that did to their relationship. The irreparable damage it caused. Treating fathers as second-class parents is a shameful tragedy that the legal system perpetrates with impunity.  

So when a court awards joint custody to it parents whose children love them both and who want to have a strong relationship with both parents as possible, how could anyone conclude that is in any way unfair? 

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

https://www.quora.com/Do-you-think-it-s-fair-that-Brad-Pitt-got-joint-custody-of-his-kids/answer/Eric-Johnson-311?prompt_topic_bio=1    

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