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Tag: preponderance of the evidence

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

In re A.S.G.-R. – 2023 UT App 126

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

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

A PERSON UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

G.R.,

Appellant,

v.

STATE OF UTAH AND E.G.,

Appellees.

Opinion No. 20220645-CA

Filed October 19, 2023

Fourth District Juvenile Court, Provo Department

The Honorable D. Scott Davis

No. 1196726

Alexandra Mareschal and Julie J. Nelson,

Attorneys for Appellant

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

Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee State of Utah

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

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

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

concurred.

HARRIS, Judge:

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

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

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

BACKGROUND[1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

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

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

ANALYSIS

I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II

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

A

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

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

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

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

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

1

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

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

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

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

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

2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

¶64 Affirmed.

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

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

2023 UT App 5

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

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

A PERSON UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

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

Opinion

No. 20210553-CA

Filed January 20, 2023

Third District Juvenile Court, Summit Department

The Honorable Elizabeth M. Knight No. 1190244

Gregory W. Stevens, Attorney for Appellant

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

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

CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, Judge:

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

BACKGROUND

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

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

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

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

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

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

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

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

ANALYSIS

I.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II.

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

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

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

III.

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Higley v. Buhler – 2019 UT App 96 – civil stalking injunction

Higley v. Buhler – 2019 UT App 96

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

JEDEDIAH WELLS HIGLEY, Appellee,
v.
BRYAN DEAN BUHLER,Appellant.

Per Curiam Opinion No. 20180925-CA

Filed June 6, 2019
First District Court, Logan Department
The Honorable Brian G. Cannell
No. 180100393

Glen R. Thomas, Attorney for Appellant Jedediah Wells Higley, Appellee Pro Se
Before JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME, KATE APPLEBY, and DIANA HAGEN.

PER CURIAM:

¶1        Bryan Dean Buhler appeals a permanent civil stalking injunction entered against him in favor of Jedediah Wells Higley. We affirm.

¶2        “On appeal, when a trial court has made findings of fact to support a civil stalking injunction, we will recite the facts in a light most favorable to the trial court’s findings.” Carson v. Barnes, 2016 UT App 214, ¶ 2 n.1, 385 P.3d 744 (quotation simplified).

¶3        On September 28, 2018, Higley requested an ex parte civil stalking injunction against Buhler. Higley listed three stalking events in which Buhler allegedly drove by Higley’s house a number of times on August 16, 2018, September 6, 2018, and September 22, 2018. The request contained allegations regarding Buhler’s earlier alleged assault of Higley, listing a pending assault case involving Higley and Buhler with a court case number. Higley also attached two police reports. One described a call to police about alleged harassment on August 16, 2018. The other police report described the investigation of the alleged assault and demonstrated that the investigation culminated in Buhler’s arrest for assaulting Higley.

¶4        Buhler requested a hearing after the entry of the temporary civil stalking injunction. See Utah Code Ann. § 77-3a­-101(6) (LexisNexis 2017). At the hearing, Buhler conceded that there was a fight on July 7, 2018, between Higley and Buhler and that Higley’s injuries required medical attention. But Buhler challenged the credibility of Higley’s account of the events that led to the fight. Buhler also did not directly dispute that he drove by Higley’s residence on one or more of the dates alleged in the request for a civil stalking injunction and flipped him off.

¶5        Higley testified and also presented the testimony of his mother, who lived next door to him and had seen Buhler drive by her as she was walking and flip her off. Higley’s adult sister testified that she also encountered Buhler, that she heard him refer to her as a “bitch,” and that he flipped her off as he drove away. Higley stated that his family felt threatened, unsafe, and uneasy. They were concerned that they did not know what Buhler was “capable of anymore.”

¶6        Buhler argued that his conduct could not meet the definition of stalking, claiming that flipping someone off is “protected speech” that cannot constitute an act of stalking unless it is accompanied “with fighting words or some sort of threat.” The court inquired about considering the gesture in the context of the fight between the two men. Buhler argued that the events were “so remote in time and place . . . and not even related to the same people. The flipping off would have to put them under some sort of emotional distress, which they didn’t offer any testimony to that effect.”[1] Buhler also argued that there was no proof of significant mental or psychological suffering and that there were credibility issues with Higley’s account.

¶7 The court refocused the parties on the statutory requirements for a civil stalking injunction. In response to the court, Buhler conceded that the fight occurred, that Higley was harmed, and that he had to go to the hospital for treatment. The court then asked Higley about the allegations in the request for a civil stalking injunction “that there were multiple events in which Mr. Buhler drove by your place of residence. . . . How many times did he go by your place where you see him going by and he gave you the finger?” Higley responded that he saw Buhler do this “three or four times” after the July 7 fight, “like a day or two after he got out of jail from being released from the initial arrest for this, . . . a day or two after that.” These three or four additional events after the fight caused him to be in fear of harm. The court inquired whether Buhler wished to reexamine Higley, and his counsel declined.

¶8        The district court found that there was a fight between Higley and Buhler that resulted in some level of harm to Higley. The court found that there was an additional witness—Mr. Higley’s mother—who testified that she witnessed “an event of her own being flipped off.” The district court found that Buhler had options other than driving past Higley’s residence to reach the landfill when he needed to go there for purposes of his work. Buhler also could have driven past the Higley residence without taking the additional action of flipping off Higley (or his mother). The district court found that, regardless of any claim of “free speech,” when considered in the context of the July 7, 2018, fight—“where there apparently was significant harm”—the court was required under the stalking statute to address the later instances as acts “where . . . the respondent directly observed or communicated to this petitioner,” and determine whether those actions “would cause a reasonable person to suffer emotional distress or be afraid for that person’s own safety.” The court considered the ensuring actions in “the context of the fight and the resulting harm to Mr. Higley.” Accordingly, the district court concluded that it was “required . . . at this point to confirm the status associated with that civil stalking injunction and have it remain in place.”

¶9        After the court ruled, Buhler’s counsel inquired about potential issues regarding the school where both men had children attending. The court directed the parties to stay away from each other if they were both at the school. Buhler did not object at that time to the inclusion of other family members in the injunction’s coverage.

¶10 Buhler argues that the district court erred in its interpretation and application of the statutory requirements for a civil stalking injunction. We review the “interpretation and application of a statute” for correctness, “affording no deference to the district court’s legal conclusion.” Baird v. Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 16, 322 P.3d 728 (quotation simplified).

¶11 To obtain a civil stalking injunction, a petitioner must establish the elements necessary to meet the definition of stalking in the criminal code. See Utah Code Ann. § 77-3a-101(1).

(2) A person is guilty of stalking who intentionally or knowingly engages in a course of conduct directed at a specific person and knows or should know that the course of conduct would cause a reasonable person:

(a) to fear for the person’s own safety or the safety of a third person; or

(b) to suffer other emotional distress.

Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-106.5(2) (LexisNexis Supp. 2018). A “reasonable person” is defined as “a reasonable person in the victim’s circumstances.” Id. § 76-5-106.5(1)(e). A course of conduct requires “two or more acts directed toward a specific person, including:”

(i) acts in which the actor follows, monitors, observes, photographs, surveils, threatens, or communicates to or about a person, or interferes with a person’s property:

(A) directly, indirectly, or through any third party; and

(B) by any action, method, device, or means.

Id. § 76-5-106.5(1)(b)(i).

¶12 The inclusion of the phrase “in the victim’s circumstances” in the statutory definition of “reasonable person,” “provides for an individualized objective standard.” Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 26 (quotation simplified). “Under this standard, a court must consider the entire context surrounding [respondent’s] conduct.” Id. Thus, a court may consider whether a respondent “had knowledge of a particular vulnerability of the victim and then acted with full knowledge of the victim’s vulnerability.” Id. ¶ 27 (quotation simplified). “Thus even actions that, viewed in isolation, might be insufficient to cause a reasonable person in the same position to fear for his safety can, taken together, cause fear.” Carson v. Barnes, 2016 UT App 214, ¶ 20, 385 P.3d 744 (quotation simplified); see also Meyer v. Aposhian, 2016 UT App 47, ¶ 13, 369 P.3d 1284 (stating a court does not view the incidents in isolation when determining whether a reasonable person in the petitioner’s position would fear for his safety).

¶13 Buhler claims that the evidence was insufficient to establish a course of conduct that constituted stalking. He first claims that flipping someone off is constitutionally protected speech. This specific argument was not presented to the district court for a ruling. In order to preserve an issue for appeal, it “must be specifically raised in a timely manner and must be supported by evidence and relevant legal authority.” See Meyer, 2016 UT App 47, ¶ 26 (quotation simplified). While Buhler argued in the district court that flipping a person off was protected speech unless combined with other “fighting words,” the specific constitutional argument contained in his appellate brief was not presented to the district court and is not preserved for appeal. We do not consider it further.

¶14 Buhler also argues that the court improperly considered irrelevant evidence and that the evidence was otherwise insufficient to establish a course of conduct under the civil stalking injunction statute. In this case, the district court was required to consider the individual circumstances of the petitioner—Higley—and determined that Buhler’s actions constituted a course of conduct. See Utah Code Ann. § 76-5­-106.5(1)(e) (defining a “reasonable person” as “a reasonable person in the victim’s circumstances”). As such, the court properly considered whether repeatedly driving past Higley’s residence within days of Buhler’s release from jail after his arrest for allegedly assaulting Higley would place a reasonable person in Higley’s circumstances in fear for his and his family’s safety. See Carson, 2016 UT App 214, ¶ 21 (stating that the district court did not err in determining that a threshold incident involving a threat with a gun “impacted all future actions” taken by the respondent directed toward the petitioner (quotation simplified)). In addition, the court properly considered the acts directed toward Higley’s mother as corroborating evidence of the course of conduct, as well as Buhler’s contacts with other members of Higley’s family.

¶15 The district court did not err in determining that Higley demonstrated by a preponderance of the evidence that the civil stalking injunction should remain in place. Considered in context, Buhler’s “pattern of behavior ha[d] a cumulative effect that would cause a reasonable person in [the petitioner’s] position to fear for his safety or the safety of his family.” Id. ¶ 25 (quotation simplified). Buhler’s conduct—flipping off Higley and his family members—was conduct that “communicates to or about a person,” see Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-106.5(1)(b)(i), and it was properly considered by the district court in the context of the earlier fight between the two men and other evidence presented to the district court. The court did not err in concluding that the evidence taken as a whole supported continuation of the civil stalking injunction.

¶16      Accordingly, we affirm the decision to enter a permanent civil stalking injunction.

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

[1] This argument is only pertinent if counsel was referring to the actions of flipping off Higley’s mother and sister.

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