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Tag: reasonable efforts

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. – 2021 UT App 57, Ineffective Assistance, Reasonable Efforts

ttps://www.utcourts.gov/opinions/appopin/In%20re%20A.H…20210528_20190846_57.pdf 

In re A.H. – 2021 UT App 57 

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS 

STATE OF UTAHIN THE INTEREST OF A.H. AND N.H., PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE. 

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

Opinion 

No. 20190846-CA 

Filed May 28, 2021 

Third District Juvenile Court, Salt Lake Department 

The Honorable Mark W. May 

No. 1148287 

Colleen K. Coebergh, Attorney for Appellant 

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

Martha Pierce and Dixie Jackson, Guardians ad Litem 

JUDGE JILL M. POHLMAN authored this Opinion, in which 
JUDGES DAVID N. MORTENSEN and DIANA HAGEN concurred. 

POHLMAN, Judge: 

¶1 K.H. (Father) appeals the juvenile court’s termination of his parental rights as to A.H. and N.H., raising three arguments. First, Father contends that he was denied his right to effective assistance of counsel. Second, he contends that the juvenile court erred in finding that the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) provided reasonable efforts toward reunification. Third, he contends that the juvenile court’s reasoning and reliance on the ground of unfitness in terminating his rights was flawed. We affirm. 

BACKGROUND1  

¶2 Father and R.R. (Mother) have three young children together: four-year-old A.H., two-year-old N.H., and an infant, Am.H., who was born during the course of these proceedings. This appeal concerns only Father’s parental rights as to the older children, A.H. and N.H. (collectively, the Children). Mother’s parental rights are not at issue in this appeal, and we mention her only when relevant and necessary for context. 

The Initial Verified Child Welfare Petition 

¶3 Father and Mother’s relationship was “off and on, volatile and abusive.” After reports of drug use in the home and an incident of domestic violence in August 2017, the Children were taken into protective custody and placed with foster parents. Soon afterward, the juvenile court ordered Mother and Father not to have contact with each other. In October 2017, the court held Father’s adjudication hearing and disposition hearing on the same day. The court concluded that Father neglected the Children, that they should remain in the custody of DCFS, and that the primary goal for the Children was reunification with their parents with a secondary goal of adoption. 

¶4 After this hearing, the court also entered findings of fact, including findings about the August 2017 domestic violence incident. Specifically, the court found that Father arrived at the home to find Mother doing drugs. Mother then pulled a knife on Father, and Father twisted her arm to get the knife away before leaving. The Children were present during the incident and were frightened.2 

¶5 At the disposition hearing, the juvenile court also addressed the reunification service plan with regard to Father. At that time, a separate plan had not yet been created for Father, but it was explained to him that the requirements of Mother’s plan also applied to him. Father confirmed that he had “gone over all the requirements of the service plan,” and the court found that Father understood them. 

The Period of Reunification Services 

¶6 Beginning in October 2017, a separate service plan created just for Father required, among other things, Father to submit to random drug testing, complete a substance abuse evaluation and a domestic violence assessment, complete a parenting class, participate in weekly supervised visitation with the Children, provide financially for the Children, and maintain a stable and healthy living environment for them. By the December 2017 review hearing, Father had completed the domestic violence assessment but had not called in to drug test. At the next review hearing in February 2018—six months after the Children were removed—Father had attended domestic violence treatment, but he had failed to take all the requested drug tests, had tested positive for THC3 on some drug tests, and had not attended drug treatment. Although at both hearings DCFS and the guardian ad litem (the GAL) asked to schedule a permanency hearing based on Father’s and Mother’s failure to fully engage in services, the juvenile court denied those requests. 

¶7 By the final review hearing in May 2018—nine months after removal—Father was taking domestic violence classes and had been more consistent in calling in to determine whether he should submit to a drug test. But he was still missing some calls and tests and was still testing positive for THC. Additionally, Father had been verbally aggressive with a DCFS caseworker after a visit had to be canceled because he arrived too late. As a result, the court ordered Father to participate in anger management classes. 

¶8 The court held a permanency hearing in August 2018— twelve months after removal. At this point, Mother was making progress and had the Children in a trial home placement. For his part, Father was also doing well, and he had begun attending drug and alcohol treatment, domestic violence treatment, and anger management classes. By the parties’ agreement, the court found that there had been substantial compliance with the treatment plan, reunification was likely within ninety days, and continued services were in the Children’s best interests. Thus, the court extended reunification services for another three months. 

¶9 In November 2018—fifteen months after removal—the juvenile court held a second permanency hearing, during which it considered the GAL’s motion to terminate the trial home placement and reunification services. Things had “not gone well” for Mother; she had a positive drug test, missed taking the Children to doctor appointments, and had been kicked out of her in-patient treatment center. Father had “done better”; he had completed his substance abuse treatment and was close to finishing his domestic violence classes. But he had missed call-ins for his drug tests until mid-September 2018 and had not completed a psychological exam. Although DCFS discussed placing the Children with Father, he was “decidedly non-committal” and refused to allow DCFS to inspect his home. When asked who would watch the Children while he worked, he answered, “I’ve never thought about it, I don’t know.” And although he was asked in October 2018 to create a plan for how he would handle daycare, work, and medical appointments, he still had not submitted a plan before the second permanency hearing. The Children were returned to foster care, while DCFS, Mother, and Father asked for reunification services to be extended again. But the juvenile court found that even though there had been “substantial progress by both parents, there was not clear and convincing evidence that reunification was probable within 90 days.” Accordingly, the court terminated reunification services and changed the Children’s permanency goal to adoption. 

¶10 Shortly afterward, Mother and Father’s newborn, Am.H., was placed in DCFS custody in a separate child welfare case. Even though reunification services were terminated with respect to A.H. and N.H., nearly the same services were ordered and in place for Am.H.’s case. 

The Petition to Terminate Parental Rights and the Termination Trial 

¶11 DCFS petitioned to terminate Mother’s and Father’s parental rights as to A.H. and N.H. Father then changed attorneys, and Father’s new counsel represented him during the ten-day trial before the juvenile court. 

¶12 To his credit, Father continued to improve and “largely rehabilitated himself” in the time between the second permanency hearing and trial. Nevertheless, the juvenile court found that Father’s “lackadaisical approach to services and the length of time that it took him to achieve substantial rehabilitation [had a] destructive effect [on] his parent/child relationship,” and the court ultimately terminated Father’s parental rights as to the Children. 

¶13 After trial, the juvenile court issued a seventy-nine-page written decision and made extensive findings regarding Father’s efforts and reunification services. Regarding drug testing, the court found that Father tested positive ten times for THC, repeatedly failed to call in to determine if he should test, and provided excuses about his failures to call in that were not credible. Even when the caseworker and the court “constantly reminded” him to submit to drug tests, Father “purposely refused.” Instead, Father decided “to test only when he wanted,” which effectively “deprived the Court of the ability to determine if he was using drugs other than marijuana” because, in the court’s experience, sophisticated drug users know how to time drug tests so that the tests “only reveal[] marijuana use but not other substances.” The court found that Father’s first clean drug test was nine months after the Children’s removal and that Father did not consistently call in to be tested until mid-September 2018. Thus, by the second permanency hearing, Father had complied with this aspect of the service plan for only two months. The court noted, however, that he had been clean since services were terminated. As for the required substance abuse evaluation, the court found that Father completed that portion of the service plan. 

¶14 Father had mixed results on other requirements in the service plan. He had not finished the domestic violence assessment before the second permanency hearing but did finish before trial. Regarding the anger management classes, Father completed that requirement of the service plan, yet he “continue[d] to have outbursts after he completed treatment.” Concerning the psychological evaluation, Father had not completed it before the second permanency hearing.4 Father managed to do so before trial, but it was unknown whether Father had participated in the recommended therapy. 

¶15 As for the required parenting class, Father completed it, but “it did not have the desired effect.” He was “not able to sufficiently improve his parenting abilities in relation to” A.H. and N.H., and he was not in compliance with this requirement by the second permanency hearing in November 2018. 

¶16 One month earlier, in October 2018, Father began Parent Child Connections Interactive Therapy (PCCIT), which is designed to “support the development of healthier child-parent interactions and improve attachment patterns overall.” During PCCIT, Father acknowledged that he “felt like he did not have a lot of skills to handle [A.H.],” who has disabilities. A PCCIT therapist also observed that Father “did not have a close relationship with [N.H.].” Overall, Father attended five PCCIT sessions. A PCCIT therapist observed that N.H. showed “fear and hesitation towards” Father and that although in later sessions N.H. started going to Father earlier in the session, “her reunions with [Father] still highlight[ed] significant anxiety.” The therapist also observed that Father “had to work to set limits with [A.H.] and often tends to just give [A.H.] what he wants and allows him to be aggressive” but that Father had improved in the last two sessions. The PCCIT sessions stopped in November 2018 because the court ended reunification services and changed the Children’s goal to adoption. Even though Father wanted to continue PCCIT and pay for it himself, the court denied that request because it was inconsistent with the goal of adoption. And although PCCIT could have been started earlier, a PCCIT therapist testified at trial that even if Father “had been given the full amount of time to complete PCCIT[,] she did not think therapy would have been successful because [Father] made minimal progress in the time he had.” 

¶17 With one exception, Father regularly attended his weekly supervised visits with the Children. The visits were “troubling,” however, because Father persisted in bringing toys and food even when asked not to do so. The toys and food interfered with creating a “normal” setting for the evaluators to observe the parent/child interaction and led the Children to view Father “as a party dad or a type of Santa—one who comes with toys and gifts.” While Father complied with the requirement to attend visits, he showed a “lack of progress” and never “progressed to unsupervised visits.” 

¶18 In terms of the requirement to provide financially for the Children, the court found that Father had “paid nothing in child support” since the court became involved in the matter and that he owed a total of $11,841.75 in back payments. At the same time, Father testified that he had $7,000 in savings and owned his mortgaged home. The court further found that Father works three jobs and had the ability to pay child support. Father told the court that he would pay child support if the Children were returned to him, but the court found that this statement showed that Father “fundamentally misunderstands the concept of child support.” Because Father “has purposely avoided his obligation,” the court found that Father did not comply with this portion of the service plan “at any time.” 

¶19 As for Father’s housing situation, the court found that at the time of the second permanency hearing, Father “did not have a stable and healthy living environment for his Children.” Multiple times, Father “purposely refused” to allow DCFS to inspect his home until after services were terminated. By the end of December 2018, however, his home was deemed suitable for children. 

¶20 At trial, Father testified that he contacted the Office of Child Protection Ombudsman (the Ombudsman) in December 2018 to express concerns over how DCFS had handled his case. The Ombudsman issued a letter in which it “largely validated [Father’s] concerns,” and in his defense, Father presented the Ombudsman’s opinion to support his position that DCFS did not provide reasonable services to him. But the court found that the Ombudsman did not speak with Father’s caseworkers and supervisors and did not review all the relevant documentation. The court thus had “serious concerns about the quality of the investigation done by [the Ombudsman].” In written detail, the court discredited much of the Ombudsman’s opinion, finding instead that DCFS provided adequate support to Father. 

¶21 Notably, in rejecting the Ombudsman’s opinion, the court found that Father “did not take reunification services seriously for nearly a year.” According to the court, Father “knew what was expected” of him, yet he “showed little interest in reunification until he realized too late that [Mother] was not going to have the [C]hildren returned to her.” Indeed, “[c]ajoling by the caseworker at visits and by the Court at review hearings appeared to have little effect.” And even when DCFS “made a push to return” the Children to Father in the fall of 2018, Father “showed little interest” in reunification. The court further found that “[b]y his own fault, not [DCFS’s], [Father] chose to rely on [Mother] to get the [C]hildren back,” and thus he “just took a lackadaisical approach to completing services on time” and “did not seriously engage in services in a timely fashion.” Ultimately, the court found that DCFS “made a fair and honest attempt to provide services to [Father] and the services provided to [Father] were reasonable.” 

¶22 The juvenile court recognized that while Father had “limited general parenting skills with young children,” he was “doing better”; he had “a steady job, an appropriate home and is drug free.” In fact, by the end of trial, Father had the infant, Am.H., in a trial home placement. The court saw that Father was “developing further skills at managing and appropriately responding to his children.” Yet the court observed that “providing daily care of three young children would be a significant challenge,” especially considering A.H.’s disabilities. When Father was given special training on how to deal with A.H., he “did not seem to learn or progress in his understanding.” The Children did not have an attachment to Father, and even though Father had some positive interactions with the Children, those interactions were “more about drinking, eating, and playing with toys,” not “a need by the children for affection or connection (physical or emotional) with” Father. 

¶23 Significantly, with respect to N.H., the court found that during the time it took Father to improve himself, “the parent-child relationship was severely damaged.” N.H. was never in Father’s custody before she was removed, and thus “no parent/child relationship ever existed” between them. Further, the court found that no relationship between Father and N.H. “developed over the course of the case” and that N.H. “has never viewed [Father] as a caregiver or parent and she is apprehensive in his presence.” The court concluded that Father’s present parenting ability did not help him with regard to N.H. and his “lackadaisical approach to services deprived him of the opportunity to form a meaningful parent/child bond” with N.H. 

¶24 With respect to A.H., the court found that while Father and A.H. had a parent/child relationship before A.H.’s removal, “that relationship has drastically changed” in the two years since then. For example, A.H. was excited to see Father at visits but his excitement was “more about drinking, eating, and playing,” and when the visits ended, A.H. did not initiate hugs with Father or whine for Father not to leave. Instead, A.H. would run to his foster parents. The court found that A.H.’s relationship with his foster parents “has transformed into the only meaningful attachment relationship that he has” and that removing A.H. from them would present “a danger of [A.H.] suffering from Reactive Attachment Disorder.” The court concluded that the duration of A.H.’s removal and the length of time that “it took [Father] to substantially rehabilitate himself had a significant destructive effect on their parent/child relationship”; thus, Father’s “present parenting ability [did] not overcome the destructive effects of his past actions/inactions.” 

¶25 Additionally, the court made findings about Mother and Father’s relationship, which it viewed as “concerning” and “troubling.” The court found that Mother and Father “largely ignored” the court’s no-contact order, and Father stated in April 2019 that they were living together. It also noted that while Mother and Father tried at trial “to downplay the amount of domestic violence that had occurred between them,” they were “quite upfront” in evaluations “about the significant role domestic violence had played in their relationship.” It further found that Father “has problems setting boundaries with [Mother],” that he had “chosen to remain” with Mother, and that “[a]s a couple they cannot properly raise [the Children].” The court noted that it had returned custody of Am.H. to Father, not Mother, and that if Father “reunites” with Mother, Am.H.’s “custody situation could change.” 

¶26 In conclusion, the juvenile court found five grounds for terminating Father’s parental rights as to A.H. and N.H. See Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-507(1)(b)–(f) (LexisNexis 2018).5 The court also found that terminating Father’s parental rights was in the Children’s best interests. See id. § 78A-6-503(12). It added that termination “would also prevent the substantial likelihood of continued neglect if the [C]hildren were returned to the parents.” It also found that the Children “view the foster parents as their caretakers and providers,” not Father and Mother, and that the foster parents are “ready and willing to adopt” the Children. Furthermore, the court found that terminating Father’s parental rights was “strictly necessary” and in the Children’s best interests so that their foster parents could adopt them. See id. § 78A-6-507(1). 

¶27 Accordingly, the juvenile court entered an order terminating Father’s parental rights as to A.H. and N.H.6 Father appeals. 

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW 

¶28 Now represented by different counsel on appeal, Father raises three main issues. First, Father asserts that his trial counsel rendered constitutionally ineffective assistance in various ways. “An ineffective assistance of counsel claim raised for the first time on appeal presents a question of law.” In re S.S., 2015 UT App 230, ¶ 20, 360 P.3d 16 (cleaned up). 

¶29 Second, Father asserts that the juvenile court erred in finding that DCFS provided 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 (cleaned up). 

¶30 Third, Father asserts that the juvenile court erred in terminating his parental rights on the ground of unfitness. “The ultimate conclusion that a parent is unfit or that other grounds for termination have been established is a legal question, but such decisions rely heavily on the juvenile court’s assessment and weighing of the facts in any given case.” In re J.M., 2020 UT App 52, ¶ 22, 463 P.3d 66 (cleaned up). We thus “afford a high degree of deference to a juvenile court’s decision with regard to the existence of statutory grounds, and overturn it only 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.” Id. (cleaned up). Further, “when a foundation for the juvenile court’s decision exists in the evidence, an appellate court may not engage in a reweighing of the evidence.” Id. (cleaned up). 

ANALYSIS 

¶31 To terminate parental rights, the juvenile court must make two separate findings by clear and convincing evidence. See In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 46, 472 P.3d 827; see also Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-506(3) (LexisNexis 2018); In re C.Z., 2021 UT App 28, ¶¶ 17–18, 484 P.3d 431. “First, it must find grounds for termination under Utah Code section 78A-6-507.” In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 46 (cleaned up). Clear and convincing evidence establishing “any one” of the enumerated statutory grounds for termination is sufficient to fulfill the first finding for termination. See Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-507(1) (LexisNexis 2018); see also In re J.M., 2020 UT App 52, ¶ 30, 463 P.3d 66; In re F.C. III, 2003 UT App 397, ¶ 6, 81 P.3d 790. Second, the court “must find that termination of the parent’s rights is in the best interests of the child.” In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 46 (cleaned up); see also Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-503(12) (LexisNexis 2018). As part of the best-interests inquiry, “a court must specifically address whether termination is strictly necessary to promote the child’s welfare and best interest.” In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 76; see also Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-507(1). Additionally, when “the court has directed [DCFS] to provide reunification services to a parent, the court must find that [DCFS] made reasonable efforts to provide those services before the court may terminate the parent’s rights.” Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-507(3)(a). 

¶32 The juvenile court in this case found five separate grounds to terminate Father’s parental rights: (1) “the parent has neglected . . . the child,” id. § 78A-6-507(1)(b); (2) “the parent is unfit or incompetent,” id. § 78A-6-507(1)(c); (3) “the child is being cared for in an out-of-home placement under the supervision of the court or [DCFS] . . . [and] the parent has substantially neglected, wilfully refused, or has been unable or unwilling to remedy the circumstances that cause the child to be in an out-of-home placement; and . . . there is a substantial likelihood that the parent will not be capable of exercising proper and effective parental care in the near future,” id. § 78A-6-507(1)(d); (4) “failure of parental adjustment,” id. § 78A-6-507(1)(e), which means that the parent has been “unable or unwilling within a reasonable time to substantially correct the circumstances, conduct, or conditions that led to placement of their child outside of their home, notwithstanding reasonable and appropriate efforts made by [DCFS] to return the child to that home,” id. § 78A-6-502(2); and (5) “only token efforts have been made by the parent . . . to support . . . the child,” id. § 78A-6-507(1)(f). The juvenile court also found that terminating Father’s parental rights was strictly necessary and in the Children’s best interests. Father does not challenge the court’s decision regarding the Children’s best interests. 

¶33 We now turn to Father’s arguments regarding ineffective assistance of counsel, reasonable efforts at reunification, and grounds for termination. 

  1. Ineffective Assistance

¶34 Father first contends that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance in four respects. First, he argues that trial counsel misunderstood that the initial adjudication was not being relitigated at trial and thus employed a flawed trial strategy aimed at the domestic violence incident underlying the initial adjudication. See supra ¶¶ 3–4. Second, Father argues that trial counsel “devoted a significant portion of the trial” urging the juvenile court to rely on the Ombudsman’s opinion, which was ultimately discredited. Third, Father argues that trial counsel misunderstood or was unaware of the applicable law, process, and court rules, including the burden of proof, and he further claims that trial counsel erroneously believed proving a justification for the domestic violence incident would mitigate the harm to the Children. Fourth, Father argues that trial counsel introduced or emphasized harmful evidence, including that Father had $7,000 in savings and had paid his own attorney fees and that Father had physically disciplined his older child several years earlier. 

¶35 “To prevail on an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, [Father] must show that (1) ‘counsel’s performance was deficient’ and (2) this ‘deficient performance prejudiced the defense.’” See In re C.M.R., 2020 UT App 114, ¶ 19, 473 P.3d 184 (quoting Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984)); see also In re E.H., 880 P.2d 11, 13 (Utah Ct. App. 1994) (stating that parents are entitled to effective assistance of counsel in child welfare proceedings and adopting “the Strickland test to determine a claim for ineffective assistance of counsel in proceedings involving termination of parental rights”). “Because failure to establish either prong of the [Strickland] test is fatal to an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, we are free to address [Father’s] claims under either prong.” See In re C.M.R., 2020 UT App 114, ¶ 19 (cleaned up). 

¶36 Father has identified some questionable decisions on trial counsel’s part. But even if trial counsel did perform deficiently, we resolve Father’s ineffective assistance claims on the prejudice prong. 

¶37 To establish prejudice, Father “must ‘demonstrate a reasonable probability that the outcome of [his] case would have been different absent counsel’s error. A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome of the proceeding.’” See id. ¶ 21 (quoting State v. Scott, 2020 UT 13, ¶ 43, 462 P.3d 350). In evaluating the likelihood of a different result, we “consider the totality of the evidence before the judge,” bearing in mind that “[s]ome errors will have had a pervasive effect on the inferences to be drawn from the evidence, altering the entire evidentiary picture, and some will have had an isolated, trivial effect.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 695–96. 

¶38 Father has not carried his burden of demonstrating prejudice. “To establish ineffective assistance of counsel in parental rights termination proceedings, it is imperative that a parent demonstrate deficient performance and prejudice for each ground justifying termination.” In re B.H., 2003 UT App 160U, para. 4. Thus, because the juvenile court found five statutory grounds warranting the termination of Father’s parental rights, Father must explain why the court’s finding on each ground likely would have been different but for trial counsel’s alleged deficient performance. See Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-507(1) (LexisNexis 2018) (stating that the court may terminate parental rights upon finding “any one” ground for termination). He has not even attempted to do so. 

¶39 Instead, Father generally asserts that trial counsel’s tactics “detracted from the fact that [Father] had done everything necessary to cure the domestic violence situation found in the initial adjudication” and that trial counsel “set the stage” for the court to believe Father “doesn’t get it,” because the defense cast blame on Mother for the domestic violence incident. (Cleaned up.) But the juvenile court acknowledged that Father “spent a lot of time presenting evidence” of his continued work on services up to the time of trial, and the court gave Father credit for his progress, finding that he had “largely rehabilitated himself” by the time of trial. And apart from trial counsel’s arguments, the court had other evidence that Father did not progress in important ways. For example, the court found “the initial parenting class was not successful, even according to [Father],” and Father’s visits with the Children never progressed to unsupervised visits. What’s more, the court found that Father did not seriously engage in services in a timely manner. Father’s delay was especially problematic in this case because it had a significant destructive effect on his parent-child relationship with A.H. and prevented him from developing any parent-child relationship with N.H. 

¶40 Referring to the approximately twelve-month timeframe after a child’s removal during which a parent must show progress in changing the conduct or condition that required the removal, the court explained the importance of “removing the child from the legal limbo of State custody as soon as possible so as to provide that child with a permanent and stable home.” (Quoting In re M.L., 965 P.2d 551, 560 (Utah Ct. App. 1998).) The court further recognized the connection between “a parent’s inaction over a long period of time” and “the deterioration of the parent-child relationship during that time period.” (Quoting In re M.L., 965 P.2d at 560.) The court’s approach was consistent with Utah caselaw, which directs that “the weight which a juvenile court must give any present ability evidence is necessarily dependent on the amount of time during which the parent displayed an unwillingness or inability to improve his or her conduct and on any destructive effect the parent’s past conduct or the parent’s delay in rectifying the conduct has had on the parent’s ability to resume a parent-child relationship with the child.” See In re B.R., 2007 UT 82, ¶ 13, 171 P.3d 435 (cleaned up). In this case, even if trial counsel had done more to emphasize Father’s rehabilitation or less to emphasize Father’s rationalization of the domestic violence incident, it is unlikely that the juvenile court would have changed its view regarding the destruction of the parent-child relationships. See Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-507(1)(e); In re M.L., 965 P.2d at 561–62 (instructing that in considering a failure of parental adjustment, the court must weigh a parent’s present ability evidence “in light of the parent’s past conduct and its debilitating effect on the parent-child relationship”). 

¶41 Father also suggests that his trial counsel’s performance was prejudicial because trial counsel elicited testimony about Father’s financial condition and Father’s earlier physical discipline of another child that “then served as grounds for termination.” But even without the testimony elicited by Father’s counsel about Father’s finances, the State introduced evidence that Father was employed yet had paid no child support since the time the Children were taken into DCFS custody. Thus, Father’s testimony may not have been helpful, but Father has not shown that without it the court was reasonably likely to find that Father had made more than token efforts to financially support the Children. See Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-507(1)(f).7 As to Father’s physical discipline of another child, the court made a finding that this incident had occurred seven years earlier. But this finding does not appear to have played a significant role in the court’s decisions regarding the grounds for termination. The court did not mention it again and instead repeatedly emphasized the destructive effect Father’s neglect and inaction had on the Children. Given the totality of the circumstances, it is not reasonably likely that the court would have viewed Father and his relationship with the Children any differently had counsel not introduced these two pieces of evidence. 

¶42 Additionally, our own review of the record indicates that Father was not prejudiced by his trial counsel’s performance. The court understood and analyzed the facts, most of which are unchallenged on appeal. In a detailed written decision, the court carefully applied the correct law and was not misled by any confusion that trial counsel may have had. Despite Father’s strides, the court still had numerous concerns about Father, and its decision to terminate Father’s parental rights was driven largely by Father’s own untimely efforts to engage in services. 

¶43 Indeed, termination for failure of parental adjustment is well supported in the evidence. Citing Utah Code section 78A-6-507(1)(e), the court found that Father was “unable or unwilling within a reasonable time to substantially correct the circumstances, conduct or conditions that led to the placement of [the Children] outside of” his home. Although DCFS provided reasonable and appropriate reunification services to Father, Father did not take the various services seriously for almost a year. See infra ¶¶ 46–49. For example, Father did not comply with the drug-testing requirement for more than eleven months—around two months before the second permanency hearing. He also “purposely refused” multiple times to allow DCFS to inspect his home until after services were terminated. And even when DCFS “made a push to return” the Children to Father, he “showed little interest” in the attempts to reunify. Cf. In re C.Z., 2021 UT App 28, ¶ 24 (affirming the juvenile court’s conclusion that “the father’s efforts were far too little far too late” (cleaned up)). Importantly, Father’s delay caused damage to his parent-child relationships with both of the Children. 

¶44 Furthermore, Father largely ignored the court’s no-contact order with Mother, and he had “chosen to remain” in a volatile relationship with her—a relationship that involved domestic violence. Given that the Children were removed after a domestic violence incident, Father’s refusal to distance himself from Mother showed his unwillingness to correct the circumstances that led to the Children’s removal. Cf. id. ¶¶ 25–26 (“The father’s choice to remain involved with the mother—whether romantically or as a co-parent—placed the child at continued risk.”). In light of this strong evidence that Father exhibited a failure of parental adjustment, we conclude that it is unlikely that trial counsel’s performance had any impact on the court’s findings or conclusion on this ground for termination. In other words, even if counsel had performed more effectively in the ways Father identifies, it is not reasonably likely that the court would not have found at least one ground upon which to base its termination of Father’s parental rights. 

¶45 In short, our confidence in the outcome of this case is not undermined by any of trial counsel’s perceived shortcomings. Father’s claims of ineffective assistance are therefore unavailing. 

  1. Reunification Efforts

¶46 Next, Father contends that DCFS did not provide reasonable reunification services to him and that the juvenile court erred in finding to the contrary. Father asserts that despite knowing he needed help with his parenting skills given A.H.’s disabilities and N.H.’s attachment issues, DCFS did not provide additional support “until it was too late.” In particular, Father points out that the PCCIT sessions began during an extension period for reunification services and only one month before the second permanency hearing, at which the court terminated services. He further argues that DCFS’s efforts were unreasonable because its delay in providing PCCIT until he was “up against the permanency deadline” limited his success in the time allotted and “virtually assured termination of reunification services.” 

¶47 “Generally, as long as DCFS has made a fair and serious 

attempt to reunify a parent with a child prior to seeking to terminate parental rights, [DCFS] has complied with its statutory obligation.” In re A.W., 2018 UT App 217, ¶ 29, 437 P.3d 640 (cleaned up). But the process of reunification is recognized as “a two way street which requires commitment on the part of the parents, as well as the availability of services from the State.” In re K.K., 2017 UT App 58, ¶ 5, 397 P.3d 745 (per curiam) (cleaned up). Reunification services ordinarily last twelve months after a child’s removal, but the juvenile court may, under certain conditions, extend services for up to 180 days. Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-314(6)–(7) (LexisNexis 2018). Ultimately, “reasonableness is an objective standard that depends upon a careful consideration of the facts of each individual case,” and the juvenile court thus has “broad discretion in determining whether DCFS made reasonable efforts to reunify” a parent with a child. In re K.K., 2017 UT App 58, ¶ 5 (cleaned up); accord In re A.W., 2018 UT App 217, ¶ 29. 

¶48 Here, DCFS provided numerous services to Father for more than a year, including drug testing, substance abuse treatment, psychological evaluation, domestic violence treatment, anger management classes, parenting classes, and weekly supervised visitation with the Children. The juvenile court extended these services, and it found that Father “actually engaged in the services,” knew what services needed to be completed, and “knew what was expected” of him. Yet Father, by his own fault, “took a lackadaisical approach to completing the services on time because he was relying on [Mother] to get the [C]hildren back.” The caseworker’s “[c]ajoling” at visits had “little effect” on Father. As discussed, DCFS’s provision of services is “a two way street which requires commitment on the part of the parents.” In re K.K., 2017 UT App 58, ¶ 5 (cleaned up). 

But the court found that Father “did not take reunification services seriously for nearly a year.” While DCFS’s provision of various services and attempts to help Father were reasonable, Father bore the responsibility of participating in and completing those services, and it was Father’s “lackadaisical” and belated efforts that fell short. 

¶49 Father also complains that DCFS unreasonably delayed PCCIT, especially when the juvenile court found that the therapy “could have been provided earlier.” But Father overlooks that the court also found that PCCIT “was limited because the initial parenting class was not successful, even according to [Father].” Given Father’s lack of progress in parenting class and his overall lack of timely efforts, we cannot say that DCFS’s services were unreasonable under the circumstances. We thus reject this challenge to the court’s decision. 

III. Grounds for Termination 

¶50 Finally, Father asserts that the juvenile court erred in terminating his parental rights on the ground of unfitness. He suggests that this ground is unsupported by the evidence because he had made significant progress by the time of trial and the court had returned Am.H. to his care. He also claims that the court erroneously deemed him an unfit parent when he merely failed to be a “model parent.” See generally Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-503(4) (LexisNexis 2018) (stating that a parent’s fundamental liberty interest “does not cease to exist simply because a parent may fail to be a model parent”). 

¶51 To the extent that Father pursues a sufficiency of the evidence challenge, he has not carried his burden on appeal. Although he discusses unfitness and mentions neglect, he has not undertaken an analysis of each ground supporting the court’s termination decision. “And we will not reverse a ruling of a lower court that rests on independent alternative grounds where the appellant challenges less than all of those grounds.” In re J.M., 2020 UT App 52, ¶ 30, 463 P.3d 66 (cleaned up). 

¶52 To the extent Father believes that the court terminated his 

rights based solely on his failure to be a model parent, we are not persuaded. The court made detailed findings in support of five grounds for termination, and this case involves much more serious problems than Father’s mere failure to be a model parent. Thus, we reject Father’s challenge to the grounds for termination. 

CONCLUSION 

¶53 Father has not shown that he was prejudiced by his trial counsel’s performance, and we therefore reject his claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. Father also has not established error in the juvenile court’s decisions regarding DCFS’s reasonable efforts and the grounds for termination. Accordingly, we affirm the court’s decision terminating Father’s parental rights as to A.H. and N.H. 

 

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

 

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