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Tag: sexual abuse

2024 UT App 52 – In re A.S. – child neglect, photographing genitals

2024 UT App 52 – In re A.S.

 

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF A.S. AND J.S.,

PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE. V.S., Appellant, v. STATE OF UTAH, Appellee.

Opinion No. 20230338-CA Filed April 11, 2024 Third District Juvenile Court, Summit Department

The Honorable Elizabeth M. Knight No. 1214949

Julie J. Nelson and Alexandra Mareschal, Attorneys for Appellant

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

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

JUDGE RYAN D. TENNEY authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES DAVID N. MORTENSEN and JOHN D. LUTHY concurred.

TENNEY, Judge:

¶1        On the basis of a set of stipulated facts, the juvenile court adjudicated A.S. and J.S. as being neglected as to V.S. (Mother). Mother now challenges that adjudication on appeal, arguing that the stipulated facts did not support the neglect adjudication. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm.

BACKGROUND
Initial Proceedings

¶2        This is a child welfare case concerning two children: A.S., who was 16 years old at the time of this appeal, and J.S., who was 9 years old. A.S. and J.S. (collectively, the Children) are the biological children of Mother and J.S. (Father).[1] Mother and Father divorced in March 2018, and they’ve had an “ongoing” and “contentious” custody dispute in district court ever since.

¶3        In August 2022, the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) filed a petition for protective supervision services, alleging that the Children were “abused, neglected, or dependent children” pursuant to Utah Code section 80-1-102. The petition alleged a range of conduct to support this—most of it by Mother, though with one allegation relating to Father. This appeal is brought by Mother, so we’ll focus on the allegations, proceedings, and rulings relating to her.[2]

¶4        On March 10, 2023, DCFS filed an amended petition relating to Mother, and the amended petition realleged some (but not all) of the allegations from the original petition. Based on the amended set of allegations, DCFS again alleged that the Children were abused, neglected, or dependent. That same day, the juvenile court held a “merged pretrial and adjudication hearing” relating to Mother, and Mother was represented by counsel at that hearing. Mother acknowledged under oath that she understood that she had a right to a trial, that DCFS bore the burden of proving the allegations against her by clear and convincing evidence, and that she had the right to present evidence in her defense. Mother then waived her right to a trial, affirmatively admitted to a specified list of the allegations from the amended petition, and, pursuant to rule 34(e) of the Utah Rules of Juvenile Procedure, “neither admitted nor denied” certain other specified allegations from the amended petition.

¶5        On the basis of Mother’s affirmative admissions and the allegations deemed to be true by virtue of her rule 34(e) response, the juvenile court later issued a ruling that found a list of facts to be “true by clear and convincing evidence.” We now recount those facts here, with any quotations being drawn directly from the court’s precise verbiage.[3]

The Stipulated Facts

¶6        Since filing for divorce, Mother has sought four protective orders against Father: one in 2016, one in 2020, and two in 2022. Also, Child Protective Services (CPS) has received twelve reports accusing Father of neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence-related child abuse, and other miscellaneous complaints which were not child welfare related. “All but one of these reports were either unaccepted because they did not meet CPS minimum requirements for investigation or unsupported because there was inadequate evidence to support the allegation after the matter was investigated.” Only two of the twelve reports affirmatively identified Mother as the person who made the report, and though a touch unclear, a third suggested that she was likely the reporter.

¶7        Sometime in 2020, certain pictures were taken of J.S. at Wasatch Pediatrics. These pictures showed “mild inflammation” of J.S.’s “inner labia,” “mild peri-anal erythema,” and a “superficial linear abrasion in the crease of [her] right thigh and perineum.” In August 2020 and again in April 2022, Mother shared medical records with DCFS that included those photographs, and she did so in both instances “as part of an abuse investigation.” In April 2022, Mother “forwarded all communications with DCFS to the Ombudsmen’s office at [its] request,” again including these photographs.

¶8        In June 2022, Mother also “began documenting pictures of [J.S.’s] stool under the medical advice of” a gastroenterology specialist (Specialist) who was treating J.S. “for a chronic gastrointestinal issue.”

¶9        On June 28, 2022, Mother took photographs of “bruises on [J.S.’s] knee, leg, and abdomen.” One of these photographs was “taken in the bathtub when [J.S.] was naked,” but J.S.’s “genitalia were not visible in the picture,” and the other photographs taken on this occasion “were taken when [J.S.] was clothed.”

¶10      Based on Mother’s concerns about these bruises and about “additional vaginal redness,” Mother took J.S. to the Redstone Clinic on June 30, 2022. A medical professional at the clinic “took pictures of the bruises and vaginal and anal redness” and then instructed Mother to take J.S. to the Emergency Department at Primary Children’s Hospital. In an effort to avoid a further genital exam, a doctor at the hospital accessed and viewed the photographs that had been taken at the Redstone Clinic. While at the hospital, Mother also spoke to the Safe and Healthy Families Clinic over the phone. Mother was advised to call the clinic back during normal clinic hours.

¶11 The next day, a doctor (Doctor) at the Safe and Healthy Families Clinic “indicated that the pattern of bruising [was] unusual and that in the absence of a history of accidental injury, inflicted injury, or physical abuse, the bruises would be a reasonable concern,” but Doctor further opined “that sexual abuse of a child is most often recognized when a child makes a disclosure.” Doctor also said that “constipation . . . is a common manifestation of childhood stress and only rarely associated with sexual abuse.” As to the vaginal redness in question, Doctor said that it was “not an indicator of sexual contact,” “particularly with swimming and warm weather.” Doctor saw “no reason to have specific concern for sexual abuse in this case,” and Doctor did not believe that J.S.’s symptoms met “the threshold for suspected abuse or neglect.” Doctor therefore “did not make a report to either DCFS or law enforcement,” and she saw “no need for follow up in the Safe and Healthy Families Clinic based on” the information that had been provided to her.

¶12 That same day, Mother spoke with an officer from the Summit County Sheriff’s Office, again “reporting the bruises and vaginal and anal redness.” When the officer offered to come to the home and take “pictures of the bruising,” Mother declined. Instead, she sent him the pictures that she had taken of the bruising on J.S.’s knee, leg, and abdomen.

¶13 Sometime later that day, Mother called the Safe and Healthy Families Clinic. A nurse (Nurse) received a page regarding the call. Before calling Mother back, Nurse contacted DCFS and was informed “that there had been several calls over the last few years, but all of them were closed unsupported.” DCFS also informed Nurse that Mother had texted photos to DCFS and a detective. After receiving this information, Nurse called Mother. During that conversation, Mother “requested that Safe and Healthy Families conduct a forensic examination and take photographs of [J.S.’s] genitals due to a request from law enforcement.” The juvenile court’s subsequent finding recounts the following about what happened next:

According to [Nurse], the mother told her that she had taken photographs of [J.S.’s] genitals before and after she went to see her father on the advice of a pelvic floor physical therapist. [Nurse] asked the mother three times for the name of the physician that advised her to take photographs and the mother refused to provide it. [Nurse] states that the mother eventually reported that she was documenting what [J.S.’s] genitals looked like before and after parent-time with her father. The mother indicates that she felt pressured and interrogated and was unable to provide the name of [Specialist] to [Nurse]. Mother states that she had trouble communicating with [Nurse] and was unable to explain everything.

The court’s findings also note that “[n]o one has received” the “before and after” photographs described in the conversation Mother had with Nurse.

¶14      Doctor later shared her professional opinion that “she would have substantial concerns about repeated photography” of a child’s genitals. In Doctor’s view, children are “told repeatedly that these are private parts of our body,” but because children would understand that photographs are “usually show[n] to all sorts of people,” repeated photographing of genitals would undermine this messaging. Doctor also expressed her view that subjecting a child to “multiple forensic exams” would improperly “normalize[] certain amounts of touching and manipulation of the genital region.”

¶15 With respect to Mother, “[m]ultiple police reports and DCFS records indicate that [Mother] may be difficult to understand.” It is “documented” that Mother has “POTS (post orthostatic tachycardia syndrome) which causes forgetfulness and trouble focusing (brain fog) making it difficult for [Mother] to think and speak clearly under stress.”[4]

The Neglect Adjudication

¶16      Based on the stipulated facts, the juvenile court found that the Children “are neglected as to [Mother], as it is lack of proper parental care to subject a child to having her genitals photographed before and after visits with [Father], as well as sending other photographs to various agencies.” The juvenile court then ordered that “[c]ustody and guardianship shall continue with the parents with protective supervision services with DCFS,” and Mother was also ordered to “comply with the requirements of the DCFS service plan.” Mother now appeals that ruling.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶17 The juvenile court ruled that Mother neglected the Children by (i) taking “before and after” photographs of J.S.’s genitals, as well as (ii) “sending other photographs” to various agencies. As explained below, we need consider only the court’s conclusions relating to the “before and after” photographs. With respect to those, Mother raises two challenges: first, Mother challenges the finding that she actually took the photographs; and second, Mother argues that even if she did, this did not constitute neglect. Although Mother’s first challenge is to a factual finding, that finding was based on stipulated facts. When “the facts are stipulated, we review the conclusions drawn by the juvenile court for correctness.” In re K.T., 2023 UT App 5, ¶ 7, 524 P.3d 1003 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 528 P.3d 327 (Utah 2023). We also review the court’s interpretation of the neglect statute for correctness. See In re M.S., 2023 UT App 74, ¶ 23, 533 P.3d 859 (holding that the determination of “whether the statutory criteria for neglect have been met” is “primarily a law-like endeavor” that is accordingly reviewed for correctness) (quotation simplified).

ANALYSIS

¶18      The juvenile court concluded the Children are neglected as to Mother because “it is a lack of proper parental care to subject a child to having her genitals photographed before and after visits with [Father], as well as sending other photographs to various agencies.” Because we determine that the “before and after” photographs alone are enough to support the neglect adjudication, we need not consider whether Mother also neglected the Children by sending the photographs to “various agencies.”[5]

¶19      Mother makes two arguments relating to the “before and after” photographs: first, she argues that there was not clear and convincing evidence that she actually took them; and second, she argues that even if she did take the photographs, this did not constitute neglect.

I. There Was Sufficient Evidence to Support the Court’s
Conclusion that Mother Took These Photographs.

¶20 Mother first argues that there was not “clear and convincing evidence that Mother took photos of [J.S.’s] genitals before and after visits with Father.” We disagree.[6]

¶21 At an adjudication trial, the juvenile court must determine whether “the allegations contained in the abuse, neglect, or dependency petition are true” by “clear and convincing evidence.” Utah Code § 80-3-402(1). “Clear and convincing evidence is an intermediate standard of proof that implies something more than the usual requirement” of a preponderance of the evidence and “something less than proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” In re K.K., 2023 UT App 13, ¶ 22, 525 P.3d 519 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 531 P.3d 731 (Utah 2023). As noted, because the juvenile court made this finding on the basis of stipulated facts, we afford no deference to its conclusion that DCFS had satisfied the clear and convincing evidence standard. But even so, we conclude that this standard was satisfied.

¶22      The clearest indication that Mother took these photographs is the stipulated finding that Mother told Nurse that she took these photographs. The law has of course long recognized that admissions from a party can carry substantial evidentiary weight. As a result, once Mother told Nurse that she took these photographs, the court had a solid evidentiary basis for concluding that she had indeed taken them.

¶23      In a footnote of her brief, Mother nevertheless argues that the court should not have credited this admission. As an initial matter, Mother points out that “[n]o one has received” these particular photographs. And this seems to be true. But again, Mother told Nurse that she had taken them. From this, even without the actual photographs, the juvenile court could take Mother at her word and find that she had taken them.

¶24 More significantly, Mother suggests that her seeming admission was actually the product of a misunderstanding. As noted, the stipulated facts include that “Mother state[d] that she had trouble communicating with [Nurse] and was unable to explain everything.” They also include that “[m]ultiple police reports and DCFS records indicate that [Mother] may be difficult to understand,” and that it is “documented” that Mother has “POTS (post orthostatic tachycardia syndrome),” a condition that “causes forgetfulness and trouble focusing (brain fog) making it difficult for [Mother] to think and speak clearly under stress.” But even accounting for these facts, the juvenile court could still take Mother’s admissions to Nurse at face value. This is so for several reasons.

¶25      The first is the specificity of Nurse’s account. Nurse didn’t say that Mother had made a passing or unclear comment to this effect. Rather, Nurse recalled Mother telling her that “she had taken photographs of [J.S.’s] genitals before and after she went to see [Father] on the advice of a pelvic floor physical therapist.” On its own, the specificity of Nurse’s account belies the suggestion that Nurse had simply misunderstood Mother.

¶26 Second, Mother seems to have reiterated her initial admission as the conversation with Nurse continued. According to Nurse, after Mother made her initial comment about taking these photographs, Nurse “asked [Mother] three times for the name of the physician” who had recommended taking them, but Mother “refused to provide it.” If Mother had not meant to say that she was taking “before and after” photographs of J.S.’s genitals (or, instead, if she hadn’t said it at all and Nurse had misheard her), Nurse’s repeated questioning about which doctor had asked for the photographs would have given Mother the opportunity to clarify that she had misspoken (or that she had been misunderstood) and that she hadn’t actually taken these photographs. But this wasn’t Mother’s response.

¶27      Instead, Nurse claimed that as the conversation continued, Mother “eventually reported that she was documenting what [J.S.’s] genitals looked like before and after parent-time with [Father].” Nurse’s statement that Mother “eventually” told Nurse that she was “documenting” the condition of her daughter’s genitals indicates that Mother reiterated that she had indeed taken them. And the fact that Mother then added the detail that she was “documenting” the “before and after” look of her daughter’s genitals functioned as her explanation for why she thought this was appropriate to do.

¶28      Finally, there’s no place in either the court’s ruling or even in the record as a whole where Mother has ever denied taking these photographs. Even when confronted with a specific allegation from DCFS about an instance in which a witness said that Mother admitted to taking them, Mother chose to respond with a non-admission/non-denial pursuant to rule 34(e).

¶29 Thus, the evidence before the juvenile court was that Mother had told Nurse that she had taken these photographs, that even with the benefits of further conversation and even subsequent litigation, Mother never retracted that admission, and that Mother had instead chosen to justify taking them. In light of all this, we see no basis for overturning the court’s implicit finding that Mother personally took these photographs.

II. The “Before and After” Photographs Were Enough to Establish Neglect.

¶30      “Neglect is statutorily defined,” and it “can be proved in any one of several ways.” In re G.H., 2023 UT App 132, ¶ 28, 540 P.3d 631; see also Utah Code § 80-1-102(58)(a). The juvenile court here concluded that Mother’s actions constituted neglect because “it is a lack of proper parental care to subject a child to having her genitals photographed before and after visits with [Father].” This was an apparent reference to Utah Code section 80-1-102(58)(a)(ii), which defines neglect as “action or inaction causing . . . lack of proper parental care of a child by reason of the fault or habits of the parent.”

¶31      In her brief, Mother points out that the legislature has not further defined the phrase “lack of proper parental care.” Drawing on various textual, structural, and even constitutional sources, Mother now asks us to take the opportunity to fill in the gap and provide further definition of what this phrase means. While we need not create a definitive one-size-fits all definition, we do agree with Mother on a few broad points that inform our analysis below.

¶32      First, the word “proper” is commonly understood to refer to something that is “marked by suitability, rightness, or appropriateness.”[7] Second and similarly, we think the phrase “proper parental care” would naturally incorporate notions of reasonableness. (After all, conduct that’s appropriate would likely be reasonable, and the converse would also be true.) In this vein, we note that Black’s Law Dictionary links the term “proper care” to notions of “reasonable care” that are commonly used in negligence cases, and Black’s defines “reasonable care” as “the degree of care that a prudent and competent person engaged in the same line of business or endeavor would exercise under similar circumstances.” Care, Black’s Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019). Third, because the statutory phrase at issue turns on notions of “proper parental care,” the relevant inquiry is appropriately focused on what would be proper (with all that the word entails) “under similar circumstances”—meaning, in the particular parenting circumstance at issue. And finally, we agree with Mother that, in light of the fundamental and constitutional rights that are associated with parenting, the neglect standard should not be applied to conduct that falls within an ordinary range of permissible parenting.

¶33      With those principles in mind, we think the contours of this phrase can then capably be fleshed out in the same way that most other phrases from constitutions or statutes are fleshed out— through the ordinary process of common law development. And while there doesn’t appear to be a Utah case that has comprehensively defined this phrase, the parameters of what constitutes neglect have been explored and applied in a number of cases. Among others, we note the following:

·         In In re G.H., we held that the neglect standard was satisfied where the mother “did not attend to the children’s basic health and welfare needs, such as feeding and bathing them, changing their diapers regularly, and obtaining medical care for them when they were sick,” where the mother “did not behave in a manner consistent with parenting a child,” and where the mother “would refuse to care for them when asked by the family members with whom she was living.” 2023 UT App 132, ¶¶ 29–31, 540 P.3d 631 (quotation simplified).

·         In In re K.K., we held that the neglect standard was satisfied based on the mother’s “inaction in failing to protect the children from exposure to domestic violence and prioritizing her toxic relationship” with the father. 2023 UT App 14, ¶ 12, 525 P.3d 526 (quotation simplified).

·         In In re K.D.N., we upheld a neglect determination that was based on “the lack of food,” the “profound lack of parenting skills,” and the presence of “violence” and “chaos” within the home. 2013 UT App 298, ¶ 11, 318 P.3d 768 (quotation simplified).

·         In In re D.T., we held that the neglect standard was satisfied based on the mother’s “admitted relapse” on illegal drugs, “her frequent absences, inconsistent housing, lack of stability, and other behaviors.” 2013 UT App 169, ¶ 5, 309 P.3d 248 (quotation simplified).

·         And in In re N.M., we held that “sufficient evidence support[ed] the juvenile court’s determination that the father “neglected [his child] by engaging in domestic violence.” 2013 UT App 151, ¶ 3, 305 P.3d 194.

In these and other cases, we held that the neglect standard was satisfied, not because of a failure of best-practices parenting, but instead because the behavior in question fell outside acceptable norms of proper parenting. To again use the phrase that we recently used in In re G.H., such cases involve a parent who simply “did not behave in a manner consistent with parenting a child.” 2023 UT App 132, ¶ 30.

¶34      So viewed, we agree with the juvenile court’s conclusion here that Mother’s behavior likewise reflected a “lack of proper parental care.” Utah Code § 80-1-102(58)(a)(ii). Again, while DCFS alleged that Mother had neglected the Children based on a number of things (including her excessive reporting of abuse, as well as her decision to submit the photographs taken by doctors to law enforcement and medical professionals), the conduct at issue in the court’s ruling was Mother taking photographs of a minor’s genitals “before and after parent-time” with Father, as well as Mother’s explanation that she was doing so to “document[] what” J.S.’s “genitals looked like before and after parent-time with” him.

¶35      The juvenile court had before it a statement from Doctor that she had “substantial concerns” about the “repeated photography” of a child’s genitals. Doctor opined that such behavior can be damaging to a child, in part, because it can undermine the messaging that children receive about the privacy relating to their genitals. Doctor’s concerns seem well-founded.

¶36 Moreover, we also note that the photographs in question here were taken by a parent who was in the midst of an “ongoing” and “contentious” custody dispute. By taking photographs of her young child’s genitals “before and after” that child’s visits with her father, Mother wasn’t just potentially desensitizing her daughter to photography of her genitals, but Mother was also communicating to her daughter that she should be concerned that Father was sexually abusing her or at least was likely to do so. This, too, carries obvious potential for harm, both to the child and to her relationship with Father.

¶37      We recognize, of course, that contextual questions such as the ones presented here can and often do turn on even small factual differences. And to be very clear, we don’t mean to suggest that a parent (even one who is involved in a contentious custody dispute) must sit idly by if the parent has a good-faith basis for suspecting that a child is being abused. As illustrated by our survey of the relevant cases above, children should always be protected, and on that front, their parents are indeed the first line of defense.

¶38 If a parent has suspicions that a child is being sexually abused, the parent should of course do something to protect the child, and as indicated, a failure to do anything may well constitute neglect in its own right. Among other things, a parent might respond by reaching out to medical, law enforcement, or other trained professionals, and such professionals may well be involved in documenting any observed abuse. But unlike some of the other photographs at issue in this case, the particular photographs in question here weren’t taken by professionals or in response to their recommendation, nor were they taken by Mother to document visible genital trauma.[8] Rather, according to the explanation that Mother “eventually” gave to Nurse during their conversation, Mother was trying to “document[] what [J.S.’s] genitals looked like before and after parent-time with her father.” It was on this basis that the juvenile court concluded that the neglect standard had been satisfied.

¶39      We have no need to determine whether it would ever be within the bounds of “proper parental care” for a parent to take photographs of a young child’s genitals without first involving trained professionals. And we note here too that, in addition to the suspected abuse scenario, there may be situations where such photography is in response to something more benign (such as diaper rash on an infant), and such contextual differences would likely place such photographs on different analytical footing. For purposes of this appeal, however, we simply conclude that it falls outside the realm of “proper parental care” for a parent to take photographs of a child’s genitals “before and after” visits with the other parent for “documentation” purposes. On this basis, we affirm the juvenile court’s conclusion that Mother neglected the Children.[9]

CONCLUSION

¶40      We agree with the juvenile court’s conclusion that, without something more, it constitutes a “lack of proper parental care,” Utah Code § 80-1-102(58)(a)(ii), for a parent to take photographs of a child’s genitals “before and after” visits with the other parent for “documentation” purposes. We affirm the adjudication of the juvenile court on that basis.

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[1] Mother and Father also have another child who was not a minor during the proceedings in question.

[2] For background purposes only, we note that the juvenile court held a “merged pretrial, adjudication, and partial disposition hearing” relating to the one allegation made against Father. At the close of that hearing, the court concluded that the Children were “dependent children . . . in that they were without proper care through no fault of [Father].” Father was ordered to comply with protective supervision services through DCFS as a result. Father has not appealed that ruling.

[3] The parties in this case have all referred to these facts as “stipulated facts.” As indicated, however, Mother affirmatively admitted to certain facts, but for others, she invoked rule 34(e) of the Utah Rules of Juvenile Procedure and neither admitted nor denied them. Under that rule, when a party “declin[es] to admit or deny the allegations,” the “[a]llegations not specifically denied . . . shall be deemed true.” Id. Thus, in a technical sense, the facts the court relied on pursuant to rule 34(e) might not actually be “stipulated” (because Mother didn’t affirmatively agree to all of them), but by force of law, they might as well be. For ease of reference, we’ll follow the lead of the parties and refer to the court’s findings collectively as “stipulated facts.”

[4] Though the findings at issue don’t specifically draw the link, DCFS’s original petition in this case alleged that Mother has a “traumatic brain injury because a car hit her in December 2020,” and the juvenile court also included this finding in an order that it entered with respect to Father elsewhere in this litigation.

[5] The court found that Mother took photographs of J.S.’s genitals, but there’s no finding that she took similar photographs of A.S.’s genitals. Even so, the court found that both the Children are neglected. On appeal, Mother has not argued that this potential distinction provides a basis for reversing the adjudication as to A.S., and we therefore do not consider whether this is so.

[6] The juvenile court did not explicitly find that Mother personally took these photographs. Rather, in this portion of the ruling, the court stated that it is a “lack of proper parental care to subject a child to having her genitals photographed before and after visits with [Father].” “Unstated findings can be implied,” however, “if it is reasonable to assume that the trial court actually considered the controverted evidence and necessarily made a finding to resolve the controversy, but simply failed to record the factual determination it made.” Fish v. Fish, 2016 UT App 125, ¶ 22, 379 P.3d 882 (quotation simplified). Here, we conclude that the juvenile court did make an unstated finding that Mother took these photographs. As discussed in more detail below, Nurse claimed that Mother admitted to taking them. And of note, no one has claimed that anyone else took these particular photographs. Thus, when the court ruled that Mother had “subject[ed] a child to having her genitals photographed before and after visits with [Father],” the clear (and, indeed, only) implication that can be reasonably drawn from this record and the court’s ruling is that the court implicitly found that Mother took these photographs.

[7] Proper, Merriam-Webster Dictionary, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/proper [https://perma.cc/YGY2-MJXP].

[8] In contrast, the juvenile court noted that the photographs taken in 2020 showed “inflammation” of the labia and a small “abrasion” near the groin, while the 2022 photographs showed “vaginal and anal redness.”

[9] Mother also makes some allusion to the stipulated facts relating to certain photographs that she was taking on the advice of Specialist. It’s unclear from the briefing whether Mother means to assert this as something of an “advice of doctor” defense to this neglect allegation. See Utah Code § 80-1-102(58)(b)(ii) (stating that neglect “does not include . . . a health care decision made for a child by the child’s parent or guardian, unless the state or other party to a proceeding shows, by clear and convincing evidence, that the health care decision is not reasonable and informed”). In any event, those stipulated findings reflect that Specialist worked at a gastroenterology clinic, that Specialist was treating J.S. for “a chronic gastrointestinal issue,” and that Mother had been “documenting pictures of [J.S.’s] stool” in conjunction with that treatment. Mother has not specifically asserted that, in conjunction with this gastroenterology treatment, Specialist also told her to take photographs of her daughter’s genitals, much less that Specialist instructed her to “document[] what [J.S.’s] genitals looked like before and after parent-time with [Father].” We accordingly see no basis from this record to overturn the neglect finding on this potential ground.

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2024 UT App 40 – State v. Heward – plea agreement, ineffective assistance

2024 UT App 40 – State v. Heward

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS, STATE OF UTAH, Appellee, v. BENJAMIN LEE HEWARD, Appellant.

Opinion No. 20221055-CA Filed March 28, 2024 Fourth District Court, Provo Department

The Honorable Robert A. Lund No. 201400462

Scott F. Garrett and Jessica Griffin Anderson, Attorneys for Appellant

Sean D. Reyes and Andrew F. Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee

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

MORTENSEN, Judge:

¶1        Benjamin Lee Heward pled guilty to two charges of aggravated sexual abuse of his two minor daughters. As part of his plea agreement, the State and the victims promised to “affirmatively recommend” a prison sentence of two concurrent terms of six years to life. At sentencing, the prosecutor argued against probation and recommended a sentence of six years to life, but the two victims testified they were having second thoughts about the arguably lenient sentence, a change that the prosecutor attempted to explain. Ultimately, the court followed the recommendation of Adult Probation and Parole (AP&P), sentencing Heward to fifteen years to life on each count, with the sentences to run concurrently. Heward now maintains that the prosecutor breached the plea agreement when he made statements about probation and the feelings of the victims, and he asserts that the district court should have acted sua sponte to remedy the situation. Heward also asserts that his attorney rendered ineffective assistance in failing to object to the prosecutor’s comments. We reject Heward’s claims of error and therefore affirm.

BACKGROUND

¶2          Heward was charged with ten counts of aggravated sexual abuse of a child and one count of rape of a child for the admitted abuse he inflicted on his two minor daughters over a number of years. Heward pled guilty to two of the aggravated sexual abuse charges: (1) rubbing his clothed genitals over the clothed genitals of his older daughter in an act of simulated sexual intercourse and (2) rubbing his younger daughter’s genitals skin to skin with his hand.

¶3          As part of the plea, the State agreed to dismiss the rape charge and the other eight aggravated sexual abuse charges. In addition, the plea agreement indicated that the “State and the victims” would “affirmatively recommend” a prison sentence of six years to life and lifetime sex-offender registration. In contrast, AP&P recommended that Heward be sentenced to fifteen years to life on each count.[1]

¶4          At sentencing, the prosecutor stated, “I know that based on . . . Heward’s statement and the recommendation from his sex offender treatment therapist he’s going to be asking for probation.” The prosecutor acknowledged there was a “very, very narrow exception” to the mandatory imprisonment required for aggravated sexual abuse of a child. See Utah Code § 76-5-404.3(7) (stating that imprisonment is mandatory). That exception allows a court to “suspend execution of sentence and consider probation to a residential sexual abuse treatment center only if,” along with numerous other conditions, the perpetrator’s offense “did not cause the child victim severe psychological harm.” Id. § 76-5­406.5(1)(b). To this point, the prosecutor argued,

Heward needs to show it’s in the best interest of the public and specifically the child victims that the Court should sentence him to probation instead. He can’t show that, Judge. He needs to show that these offenses did not cause the child victim severe psychological harm. He cannot show that, Judge. It’s clear based on the victim impact statements from both [of Heward’s daughters] that they are suffering severe psychological harm, continued psychological harm for what their father did to them.

¶5          The prosecutor then emphasized that Heward’s abuse would make it “extremely difficult” for his victims to have a “sense of peace” and that they were “going to be affected” for “the rest of their lives” because Heward “used them as sexual objects.” The prosecutor also pointed out that certain sex offenses involving children in Heward’s juvenile record indicated that he represented a danger to the community. The prosecutor concluded by saying, “He’s going to tell the Court right now that he should be granted probation because he’s not a threat to the community. The Court should disregard that.”

¶6          The prosecutor then gave Heward’s victims time to speak. The older daughter stated that Heward’s abuse had a “devastating impact” on her life, that she was “still suffering from his actions,” and that she was “always having to look over [her] shoulder making sure he’s not around” her. This daughter, after recounting the “painful memories” and her continuing trauma, stated that Heward was “being shown undue mercy . . . with a plea agreement.” She also noted that Heward had violated protective orders “[a]gain and again” and even at the sentencing hearing, he had “force[d]” and “manipulated” her and her sister “into an embrace with him.”

¶7          The younger daughter also spoke. She said that as a result of the abuse, she struggled with depression and anxiety. She shared that she continued to “feel uncomfortable leaving [her] room” because she was afraid that she would “get raped and sexually assaulted again.” She further revealed that whenever someone touches her “unexpectedly,” she is “startled” and “can physically feel it all happening again.”

¶8          After Heward’s victims finished speaking, the prosecutor expressed that he wanted “to talk about what the State’s recommendation [was] going to be.” He explained that “[i]n speaking with the victims through plea negotiations,” their “minimums were 6 to life” and “lifetime sex offender” registration. Then the following exchange took place:

Prosecutor: I spoke with [the victims] this morning, if they still feel the same way, understanding that I’m bound to the recommendation of 6 to life, that I thought it was important for the Court to know where the victims stand today. I asked them how they still felt about the 6 to life. They told me—

Court: May I say, . . . you bound yourself to 6 to life?

Prosecutor: Yes, sir, that is the State’s recommendation.

Court: Okay, . . . you need to be very careful you don’t say anything now that could be you trying to argue against that deal. So be circumspect in your comments.

Prosecutor: Judge, I’m not arguing that it should be anything else. I think the Court should be fully informed about where the victims are. The victims aren’t party to this agreement, but victims do have a right to be heard, and that can be through their own statements or through that of the prosecutor. They felt like they were manipulated by the defendant to feel sorry for him, and the Court did hear those statements today. They felt manipulated, and that’s why they wanted 6 to life. That’s the reason for the plea offer that was given, Judge. The State is still bound and still recommending 6 to life.

¶9          Heward’s attorney (Counsel) then spoke about mitigating factors that the court should consider in sentencing. Counsel agreed with the State that Heward “probably [was] not qualified” for the “statutory exception that allows for probation.” Counsel then concluded, “We would concur with the recommendation of the two concurrent 6 years. That’s what we’ve all agreed to, and that’s what I’d recommend.”

¶10 Other witnesses, including Heward’s mother and his therapist, spoke about various mitigating factors. And Heward himself spoke, stating that he was “not asking for probation.”

¶11        The court was not persuaded by the recitation of mitigating factors:

[I]t evidences a higher level of depravity when the victims are your biological children, and this conduct went on for years. . . . [T]hat’s also an aggravating circumstance. It’s an aggravating circumstance that you violated the protective order.

Frankly, based on the information that’s before me, it seems to me that you’ve minimized the conduct that you’ve been involved in. I’d be more inclined to accept the versions that [your daughters] provide in terms of what happened.

Based on all of that, I’m going to follow the AP&P recommendation. I don’t think that I have the discretion to sentence you to less than 15 years in prison. That’s the sentence of the Court. You’ll be sentenced to [two concurrent terms] of 15 years to life in the Utah State Prison.

¶12        Heward appeals.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶13        Heward first argues that the “prosecutor breached the plea agreement by failing to affirmatively recommend a prison sentence of six years to life and by implying the State regretted entering into the plea agreement.” Heward acknowledges that this claim was not preserved and asks that it be reviewed under both plain error and ineffective assistance of counsel. See State v. Shaffer, 2010 UT App 240, ¶ 9, 239 P.3d 285 (recognizing that an unpreserved alleged breach may be reviewed for plain error and ineffective assistance of counsel). To demonstrate plain error, Heward “must show that: (i) an error exists; (ii) the error should have been obvious to the trial court; and (iii) absent the error, there is a reasonable likelihood of a more favorable outcome.” State v. Samul, 2018 UT App 177, ¶ 10, 436 P.3d 298 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 432 P.3d 1233 (Utah 2018). And “when a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel is raised for the first time on appeal, there is no lower court ruling to review and we must decide whether the defendant was deprived of the effective assistance of counsel as a matter of law.” Id. ¶ 11 (cleaned up).

ANALYSIS
I. Plain Error

¶14 Heward complains that the prosecutor breached the plea agreement in two separate but related ways. First, Heward argues that the prosecutor failed to “affirmatively recommend” the prison sentence of six years to life as indicated in the plea agreement. Second, Heward argues that the prosecutor then “compounded” the breach by bringing up the victims’ apparent change of heart about the plea agreement, implying that the State regretted entering the plea agreement. And Heward asserts that the district court “should have been aware of the errors the prosecutor made.” In such cases, our court has focused on whether a prosecutor’s statements were egregious enough to require a district court to act sua sponte to remedy the situation. See State v. Hummel, 2017 UT 19, ¶ 119, 393 P.3d 314 (“[N]one of [the prosecutor’s] statements was so egregiously false or misleading that the judge had an obligation to intervene by raising an objection sua sponte.”); State v. Hosman, 2021 UT App 103, ¶ 38, 496 P.3d 1162 (questioning whether a prosecutor’s statements were so egregious that it constituted plain error for the court to fail to intervene sua sponte to remedy the harm), cert. denied, 502 P.3d 270 (Utah 2021).

¶15 To succeed on this claim, Heward “must prove that the State actually breached the plea agreement, that the breach should have been obvious to the district court, and that had the district court recognized and remedied the breach, there is a reasonable likelihood that [his] sentence would have been more favorable.” State v. Gray, 2016 UT App 87, ¶ 15, 372 P.3d 715, cert. denied, 379 P.3d 1185 (Utah 2016). And “if any one of these requirements is not met, plain error is not established.” Id. (cleaned up).

¶16        “[W]hen a plea rests in any significant degree on a promise or agreement of the prosecutor, so that it can be said to be part of the inducement or consideration, such promise must be fulfilled.” Santobello v. New York, 404 U.S. 257, 262 (1971); accord State v. Lindsey, 2014 UT App 288, ¶ 16, 340 P.3d 176. Accordingly, a “plea agreement is breached when the State fails to act in accord with its promise.” State v. Samulski, 2016 UT App 226, ¶ 13, 387 P.3d 595, cert. denied, 390 P.3d 725 (Utah 2017). However, “when a defendant alleges that the State violated a plea agreement by making inappropriate statements at sentencing, as [Heward] does here, we consider the prosecutor’s statements in the context of the entire hearing.” Gray, 2016 UT App 87, ¶ 16 (cleaned up).

  1. Affirmative Recommendation

¶17        Heward argues that the prosecutor failed to “affirmatively recommend” the prison sentence of six years to life agreed to in the plea. The gist of Heward’s argument is that “[i]n order to affirmatively recommend a sentence of six years to life, the prosecutor was required to make an effort to position the recommendation as one that is ‘in the interests of justice.’” (Quoting Utah Code § 76-5-404.3(4)(b).) Heward asserts that, instead, the prosecutor “utterly failed to make an argument or present the judge with any information that a sentence of six years to life was in the interests of justice.” Heward complains that the prosecutor “focused solely” on the limited discretion of the judge, certain aggravating factors (namely, the psychological harm suffered by the victims, Heward’s juvenile record, and Heward’s alleged violation of a protective order), and the victims’ alleged withdrawal of support for the plea agreement. “By emphasizing only aggravating factors in his argument,” Heward asserts, “the prosecutor failed to affirmatively recommend a sentence of six years to life,” resulting in “a clear breach.” We are not persuaded that any breach, let alone a clear one, occurred when the prosecutor highlighted these factors.

¶18        First, the prosecutor’s statements about aggravating factors were made not in reference to the plea agreement but in the context of arguing that Heward should not be offered probation under the limited statutory exception to mandatory imprisonment. By pointing to the severe psychological harm inflicted on the victims and Heward’s juvenile record, the prosecutor was explicitly arguing that Heward was not eligible for probation under the statute. And Heward’s violation of the protective order was also mentioned in the context of denying probation—specifically that Heward should start serving his sentence immediately. As the State points out, the prosecutor’s remarks about the protective order violations “weren’t about what Heward’s sentence should be, but when he should begin to serve it.” Arguing against probation and for immediate incarceration— even if it necessarily required the prosecutor to reference some aggravating factors relevant to other aspects of Heward’s sentencing—was consistent with the State’s recommendation of six years to life. After all, the plea agreement made it perfectly clear that the State would “affirmatively recommend” a prison term, a recommendation that obviously entitled the prosecutor to argue—even forcefully—against probation by highlighting specific reasons Heward did not qualify for probation.

¶19 Second, and more to the point, an “affirmative recommendation” does not require any particular measure of enthusiasm for an agreed-upon sentencing recommendation. While a prosecutor may not “undermine” a promised sentencing recommendation by expressing “personal reservations at the sentencing hearing,” the “prosecutor has no responsibility to make such recommendations enthusiastically.” State v. Shaffer, 2010 UT App 240, ¶ 26, 239 P.3d 285 (cleaned up); see also Gray, 2016 UT App 87, ¶ 18 (“[The prosecutor] described the circumstances of the crimes to underscore [the absence of mitigating factors], and at the conclusion of this discussion, he accurately, if not enthusiastically, described the recommendation the State had agreed to make for concurrent sentences . . . . [This] context supported a reasonable interpretation that comported with . . . the State’s obligations under the plea agreement.”).

¶20 Notably, the plea agreement does not contain any provisions regarding how the State was to fulfill its promise to “affirmatively recommend” the six-years-to-life sentence. It offers no guidance on how enthusiastically or forcefully the prosecutor had to argue in favor of the agreement. Nor does it indicate, as Heward argues on appeal that it should, any kind of obligation on the part of the prosecutor to highlight mitigating factors. And while it is true that the prosecutor did not approach the recommendation with gusto, it is even more clear that the prosecutor did affirmatively recommend the agreed-upon sentence two distinct times. The prosecutor explicitly declared that six years to life “is the State’s recommendation.” (Emphasis added.) And when cautioned by the court to “be circumspect” in his comments to avoid saying “anything” that “could be . . . trying to argue against that deal,” the prosecutor clarified that he was “not arguing that it should be anything else” and that the “State is still bound and still recommending 6 to life.” (Emphasis added.)

¶21 Moreover, these recommendations were “affirmative” in that the prosecutor did more than merely submit the matter without any argument against the defense’s recommendation; to the contrary, the State expressed its affirmative assent to the prison term agreed upon in the plea agreement. See State v. Samul, 2018 UT App 177, ¶¶ 13–17, 436 P.3d 298 (distinguishing between situations in which a plea agreement merely “secured the State’s promise not to oppose” the defense’s recommendation and situations in which a plea agreement requires the State to “affirmatively argue for” a particular sentence), cert. denied, 432 P.3d 1233 (Utah 2018). In this case, the prosecutor made an effort to positively express the State’s assent to the term of six years to life by declaring that the term “is the State’s recommendation.” (Emphasis added.) That the assent was expressed without great enthusiasm does not diminish that it was in the affirmative.

¶22 Thus, the prosecutor’s statements, especially when taken as a whole, represent a consistently unambiguous affirmation at sentencing that the State stood behind its recommendation of six years to life. We perceive no breach of the plea agreement in the manner in which the prosecutor recommended a six-years-to-life prison sentence.

  1. Implication of Regret

¶23 Heward next argues that in informing the court that the two victims apparently no longer supported the sentence of six years to life, the State breached the plea agreement by implying that it regretted entering it.

¶24 A prosecutor who “promises to recommend a certain sentence and does so” does not breach the bargain “by also bringing all relevant facts to the attention of the court, so long as the statements are neutral and do not imply that the information makes the State regret entering into the plea agreement.” Shaffer, 2010 UT App 240, ¶ 26 (cleaned up). The feelings of victims do not inherently reflect the position of the State, and victims are not authorized to communicate the State’s recommendations. Therefore, by sharing the victims’ feelings, the prosecutor was making a neutral statement, one that did not reflect the State’s position or recommendation. See id. ¶ 32 (“By repeating the victim’s statement, the prosecutor did not undermine the State’s recommendation or imply that the State regretted that recommendation.”). Thus, bringing to the court’s attention that the support of Heward’s victims for the plea agreement had perhaps waned does not imply that the State regretted entering the plea.

¶25        It is also important to note that the prosecutor made these comments immediately after Heward’s victims made statements that could admittedly cut against the sentence of six years to life. The older daughter seemed to explicitly oppose the plea agreement, saying that Heward was “being shown undue mercy . . . with a plea agreement.” And the younger daughter, while not overtly criticizing the plea agreement, described in detail how Heward’s abuse caused her to feel “numb,” depressed, anxious, “suicidal,” “unclean and dirty,” and untrusting. She further stated that she continued to have “very vivid nightmares and flashbacks” in which she could “physically feel his hands” on her. She also said, “I will never be able to forget how it felt when . . . Heward did the things he did to me. I’m afraid that wherever I go I will see him and he will hurt me in some type of way.” And she concluded by saying, “I want . . . Heward to learn from his actions, and I want him to know how badly he affected me . . . .” Given the graphic descriptions both victims provided of the ongoing harm they suffered, it certainly would not be a stretch to conclude that the victims thought Heward was being treated too leniently by the terms of the plea agreement.[2]

¶26 It was against this backdrop that the prosecutor spoke. As the State points out, the victims’ apparent “about-face on the plea agreement demanded an explanation” because the “court may have been confused by the disparity between the victims’ statements at sentencing and the plea agreement.” After all, the plea agreement stated that the “State and victims will affirmatively recommend” a sentence of six years to life. But after the victims spoke, the court could have easily concluded that the victims were no longer on board. It is in this milieu that the prosecutor assured the court that in “speaking with the victims through plea negotiations,” their “minimums were 6 to life” and “lifetime sex offender registry” and that was the offer the State gave Heward. Then the prosecutor explained that the victims had “wanted 6 to life” because “they felt manipulated” by Heward. We have made clear that a prosecutor conveying the views of the victim does not “undermine” or breach a plea agreement. Here, if anything, the prosecutor’s statements about how the victims felt represented an attempt to salvage the plea agreement after the victims’ statements could be taken as militating against it. And it was well within the prosecutor’s duty to assist the victims in making their views known. See State v. Casey, 2002 UT 29, ¶ 29, 44 P.3d 756 (“Prosecutors must assist victims in exercising their right to be heard at plea hearings and provide them with clear explanations regarding such proceedings.” (cleaned up)). The prosecutor appeared to be making the best of a delicate situation by juggling the interests of the various parties involved while trying to also honor the promises made in the plea agreement.

¶27        In sum, Heward’s complaint of plain error fails because the prosecutor did not breach the plea agreement at all, let alone commit a breach so obvious as to require the district court to intervene without an objection.

  1. Ineffective Assistance

¶28 Heward argues that Counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to object to the prosecutor’s alleged breach of the plea agreement.

¶29 To show ineffective assistance of counsel, Heward must prove that Counsel performed deficiently and that he suffered prejudice as a result. See Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984). “Because failure to establish either prong of the test is fatal to an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, we are free to address [Heward’s claim] under either prong.” Honie v. State, 2014 UT 19, ¶ 31, 342 P.3d 182. Since we conclude, for two reasons, that Counsel did not perform deficiently, we limit our analysis to the deficiency prong. We give “trial counsel wide latitude in making tactical decisions and will not question such decisions unless there is no reasonable basis supporting them.” State v. Heyen, 2020 UT App 147, ¶ 18, 477 P.3d 23 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 485 P.3d 943 (Utah 2021). So, to prevail on Strickland’s first prong, Heward “must overcome the strong presumption that trial counsel rendered adequate assistance and exercised reasonable professional judgment by persuading the court that there was no conceivable tactical basis for counsel’s actions.” State v. Samul, 2018 UT App 177, ¶ 15, 436 P.3d 298 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 432 P.3d 1233 (Utah 2018).

¶30 First, any objection would have been unlikely to succeed because, as we have explained above, it was far from clear that the prosecutor breached the plea agreement. See State v. Burdick, 2014 UT App 34, ¶ 34, 320 P.3d 55 (“It is well settled that counsel’s performance at trial is not deficient if counsel refrains from making futile objections, motions, or requests.” (cleaned up)), cert. denied, 329 P.3d 36 (Utah 2014). Under these circumstances, a reasonable attorney could have concluded that the prosecutor had made the required “affirmative recommendation” and had therefore not breached the plea agreement at all. See Samul, 2018 UT App 177, ¶ 16 (“Here, we can easily conceive of a reasoned basis for counsel’s decision not to object to the State’s remarks at sentencing: counsel may have believed that the State was accurately describing the terms of the plea agreement.”).

¶31        Second, even if we assume, for purposes of the discussion, that Counsel actually believed, in the moment, that the prosecutor’s sentencing remarks constituted a breach of the plea agreement, Counsel nevertheless had a solid strategic reason not to object to the prosecutor’s statements, namely, an objection could jeopardize the plea agreement and he very much wanted it to remain on the table owing to the favorable terms it offered Heward. Through the plea agreement, Heward would serve time for only two of his eleven charges—ten counts of aggravated sexual abuse of a child and one count of rape of a child. If Counsel had been successful in objecting that the prosecutor breached the plea agreement, one of two results would have likely happened. At its discretion, the district court could have ordered “either specific performance of the plea agreement or withdrawal of the guilty plea.” State v. Smit, 2004 UT App 222, ¶ 17, 95 P.3d 1203. If the court had ordered specific performance, the State would then have to reiterate that it was honoring the promises made in the plea agreement. But it would have been more likely (had a breach occurred) that the court would have allowed Heward to withdraw his plea—something he would be reluctant to do since the probability of getting an equally favorable offer later would be slim in light of the victims’ apparent reservations about the existing plea agreement. Competent counsel could easily conclude that the risk of objecting was simply too great considering the minimal benefit and likely downside. At the very least, competent counsel could have reasoned that there was no benefit in objecting because the existing agreement was the best Heward was going to receive. So, Counsel’s best course of action was to express Heward’s concurrence with the six-years-to-life sentence and hope that the court would agree.

¶32        Accordingly, Heward’s ineffective assistance claim fails because Counsel had sound strategic reasons for not lodging an objection to the prosecutor’s statements at sentencing.

CONCLUSION

¶33        Heward fails to establish that the district court plainly erred where he has not shown that the plea agreement was breached, much less obviously so. He has also failed to show that Counsel provided ineffective assistance in not objecting to the prosecutor’s statements.

¶34 Affirmed.

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


[1] For context, a court imposing a sentence for aggravated sexual abuse of a child may deviate downward from the presumptive upper range of fifteen years to life if the “court finds that a lesser term . . . is in the interests of justice.” See Utah Code § 76-5-404.3(4). The available lesser terms are ten years to life and six years to life. See id.

[2] In his reply brief, Heward explicitly states that he “does not object to the prosecutor facilitating the victims’ statements to the trial court.” Moreover, Heward does not claim in any way that the victims speaking up against the low-range sentence was a breach of the plea agreement, even where the plea agreement stated the victims would “affirmatively recommend” a sentence of six years to life along with the State.

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Have You Heard That Fathers Defeat Mothers’ Claims of DV and Child Abuse by Claiming Parental Alienation?

We all know the aphorism, “If it looks/sounds to good to be true, it probably is [not true].” This also means, however, that if it looks/sounds too 𝙗𝙖𝙙 to be true, it probably is [not true] too.

Can we all agree that the following claim looks, on its face, too bad to be true?:

A George Washington University Law School article shows that mothers are statistically up to 90% more likely to lose custody of their children when they go on record about abuse. Abusive fathers, who claim parental alienation are almost always granted custody.

So, is the claim true?

I found the article: Child Custody Outcomes in Cases Involving Parental Alienation and Abuse Allegations, by Joan S. Meier George Washington University Law School.

Here is what that article actually claims (this is not the entire article, of course, and I have my doubts about the methodology and the resulting accuracy of the claims themselves, but I digress):

Spoiler alert: the article does not make any “women lose custody 90% of the time when they report abuse” claim.

Quotations directly from the article itself:

“Focusing on cases where it was determined that mothers started with possession of the children, and alleged some type of abuse by the father, the data show mothers losing custody in 26% (284/1111) of cases.”

*****

It is also notable that when mothers report mixed types of child abuse (sexual and physical) their custody losses skyrocket (from under 30% (39/135) up to 50%)(11/22).

*****

• When Fathers cross-claim alienation, courts are more than twice as likely to disbelieve Mothers’ claims of (any) abuse than if fathers made no alienation claim; and

• When Fathers cross-claim alienation, courts are almost 4 (3.9) times more likely to disbelieve Mothers’ claims of child abuse than if fathers made no alienation claim.

*****

As the chart indicates, when fathers claim alienation, the rate at which mothers lose custody shoots up from over 25% to over 50%. That is, fathers’ alienation claims roughly double mothers’ rates of losing custody. When courts credit the alienation claim, rates of maternal losses of custody increase more drastically:

Mothers’ Custody Losses When Courts Credit Fathers’ Alienation Claims

Type of Abuse Alleged Mother Lost Custody:

DV (domestic violence): 60% (15/25)
CPA (child physical abuse): 59% (10/17)
CSA (child sexual abuse): 68% (13/19)
DVCh (domestic violence and child physical abuse): 79% (19/24)
CACSA (child physical abuse and child sexual abuse): 100% (6/6)
Any abuse: 73% (60/82)

*****

“AKA” cases: those in which a court viewed a mother as alienating in her behavior but did not use the term “alienation.”

Mothers’ Custody Losses when Found to have Committed AKA

 

Custody Losses by Type of Abuse Alleged

Custody Losses When Abuse was Proven

   
DV  62% (24/39) DV  60% (3/5)
CPA  61% (17/28) CPA  50% (1/2)
CSA  58% (25/43) CSA  –
DVCh  55% (16/29) DVCh  –
CACSA  78% (7/9) CACSA  100% (1/1)
Any  60% (89/148) Any  63% (5/8)

—————————–

The article is definitely food for thought, but clearly does not find that mothers who allege abuse are 90% more likely to lose/not win custody.

Additionally, one of my critiques of the article is this: it does not reveal whether the abuse-alleging mothers who lost/did not win custody was due purely to their alleging abuse or purely because they were found to have engaged in parental alienation or something like it. For example, if these mothers were themselves child abusers or were found to be unfit parents for other reasons (i.e., child neglect, substance abuse, lacking sufficient housing, ability to provide financially, practicing poor hygiene, insufficient bonding, etc.), how many of them would have lost/not won custody anyway? The article does not address this.

But even if the only reason these mothers lost/did not win custody was due to the court finding them to have engaged in parental alienation, would that not be reason enough? Now, I’m not asserting that all cases of actual parental alienation should cause a mother (or father committing alienation) to lose/not win custody (level of severity must be considered), but parental alienation would be, in my professional opinion, sufficient grounds for awarding custody of children to the other parent, assuming the other parent were found, on balance to be 1) sufficiently fit as a parent; and 2) the more fit of the two parents.

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

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What are the child custody factors that judges consider?

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

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

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

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

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

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

             (i) physical needs;

             (ii) emotional needs;

             (iii) educational needs;

             (iv) medical needs; and

             (v) any special needs;

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

             (i) parenting skills;

             (ii) co-parenting skills, including:

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

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

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

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

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

     (e) the emotional stability of the parent;

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

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

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

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

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

     (k) the parent’s financial responsibility;

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

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

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

     (o) the relative benefit of keeping siblings together;

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

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

     (r) any other factor the court finds relevant.

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

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

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

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

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

*****

(6)

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Equal physical custody factors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

         (vii) any other factor the court considers relevant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

         (viii) any other factor the court considers relevant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     (b) The child exchange shall take place:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parent-time factors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

30-3-33.  Advisory guidelines.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     (a) the best interests of the child;

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

     (c) any other factors the court considers material.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     (a) establish a parent-time schedule; or

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     (n) the parent-time schedule of siblings;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In re H.M. – 2023 UT App 122

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

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

PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

G.B.,

Appellant,

v.

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20220774-CA

Filed October 13, 2023

First District Juvenile Court, Logan Department

The Honorable Kirk M. Morgan

No. 1187751

Julie J. Nelson and Alexandra Mareschal,

Attorneys for Appellant

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

Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee State of Utah

Jonathan P. Thomas, Attorney for Father

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

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

TENNEY, Judge:

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

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

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

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

BACKGROUND

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

Allegations of Abuse from 2015 Through 2020[1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Protective Supervision Services Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mother’s Allegations Against Father Resume

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Termination Proceedings

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

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

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

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

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

Trial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Termination Decision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

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

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

ANALYSIS

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

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

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

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

  1. Present-Tense Best Interest of the Children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Supervised Visitation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III. Mother’s Additional Arguments

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

  1. Adoption

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

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

  1. “Piling On”

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

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

  1. Mandatory Reporting

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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2020 UT App 35 – V.M. v. Division of Child and Family Services

2020 UT App 35 THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

V.M., Appellant,
v.
DIVISION OF CHILD AND FAMILY SERVICES, Appellee.

Opinion
No. 20180906-CA
Filed March 5, 2020
Fourth District Juvenile Court, Provo Department
The Honorable Brent H. Bartholomew
No. 1155142
Andrew G. Deiss and John Robinson Jr., Attorneys for Appellant
Sean D. Reyes, Carol L.C. Verdoia, and John M. Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee

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

POHLMAN, Judge:

¶1        V.M. appeals the juvenile court’s order substantiating a finding of the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) that V.M. sexually abused a child. We affirm.

BACKGROUND

¶2        In 2015, a minor child (Child) alleged that V.M., her brother-in-law, sexually abused her. The State charged V.M. with aggravated sexual abuse of a child. The criminal case went to trial and resulted in an acquittal.

¶3        Separately from the criminal case, DCFS conducted an investigation into the allegation against V.M. As a result of that investigation, DCFS made and entered a supported finding against V.M. for sexual abuse of a child. See Utah Code Ann. § 62A-4a-101(41) (LexisNexis 2018) (“‘Supported’ means a finding by the division based on the evidence available at the completion of an investigation that there is a reasonable basis to conclude that abuse, neglect, or dependency occurred.”).

¶4        Although a copy of the agency’s decision was sent to V.M.’s last known address, V.M. never received it. Instead, he discovered it in 2017 when he underwent a background check. He requested an administrative hearing on the matter. After an internal review, DCFS upheld its supported finding of sexual abuse of a child.

¶5        V.M. then initiated the present action in juvenile court, seeking judicial review of DCFS’s decision. See generally id. § 63G-4-402(1)(a)(iii) (2016) (explaining that juvenile courts have jurisdiction over all state agency actions relating to “substantiated findings of abuse or neglect made by the Division of Child and Family Services”); id. § 78A-6-323(1)(a) (2018) (providing that upon the filing of a petition by DCFS “or any interested person” informing the court “that the division has made a supported finding that a person committed a severe type of child abuse or neglect,” the juvenile court shall, among other things, “make a finding of substantiated, unsubstantiated, or without merit”).

¶6        The juvenile court held a two-day trial in September 2018. At the beginning of the trial, DCFS announced its intention to play the video of Child’s forensic interview, and it indicated its understanding that V.M. would play the audio of Child’s testimony at his criminal trial and then Child would testify in the juvenile court. When the juvenile court asked whether that procedure was acceptable, V.M. indicated that it was “fine with [him].” The trial then proceeded in that fashion.

¶7        While the audio of Child’s trial testimony played, V.M. observed that the “quality [of the audio] is a little hard” and offered to provide a transcript for the juvenile court and others to use for “follow[ing] along” with the audio. V.M. then moved to admit the transcript of Child’s trial testimony, and the court granted the motion.

¶8        When Child testified in the juvenile court, she said that she remembered her forensic interview and testifying at V.M.’s criminal trial. When asked whether she remembered the specifics of her statements during the forensic interview, Child responded, “Not the specifics, but like vaguely. I just remember I was just nervous, and I just told everything I knew.” When DCFS asked Child whether she told the truth in the forensic interview and at the criminal trial, Child responded affirmatively. In the juvenile court proceedings, however, Child did not independently testify about the abuse.

¶9        Child’s mother testified, as did an employee of Brigham Young University (BYU) responsible for investigating allegations of sexual misconduct involving students. The employee testified that based on his investigation of V.M., who was a BYU student at the time of the alleged abuse, there was insufficient evidence to find that V.M. had violated BYU’s policies on sexual misconduct and child protection.

¶10      On the second day of trial in juvenile court, V.M. asked to telephone his next witness: the individual (Forensic Interviewer) who conducted the forensic interview of Child. When the court reached Forensic Interviewer by phone, she said that she was unavailable to testify. V.M. then proposed that the court read Forensic Interviewer’s testimony from V.M.’s criminal trial, telling the court, “[E]verything that you need is in the transcript.” The juvenile court admitted the transcript of that testimony into evidence. At V.M.’s request, the court also admitted the transcripts of his ex-wife’s testimony from his criminal trial. Additionally, V.M. played the audio recording of a conversation between Child and her parents. V.M. also asked for and received the admission of a transcript of that conversation; the transcript of Child’s aunt’s testimony at the criminal trial; and two declarations from the aunt, which, V.M. asserted, had bearing on Child’s “reputation for truthfulness.” Finally, V.M. testified before the juvenile court and denied abusing Child.

¶11 After trial, the juvenile court entered a written order. It found, based on a preponderance of the evidence, that when Child was eleven years old and visiting the home of her sister and V.M., V.M. sexually abused Child.[1]

¶12 The juvenile court found that shortly after the abuse, Child’s parents spoke with Child to find out what had happened. The court found that the parents’ inquiry, which they recorded, “was innocently done and did not taint the evidence later presented by [Child].”

¶13      The juvenile court further found that Child’s parents also arranged for Child to talk to a professional experienced in working with victims of sexual abuse. Once or twice before the interview with Forensic Interviewer, Child spoke with the professional because Child was “uneasy about talking about what [V.M.] had done to her.” The juvenile court found that the purpose of these conversations was for “strength and support” and “not for coaching [Child] on what to say” to Forensic Interviewer.

¶14      The juvenile court also found that no one had told Child “what to say” during the forensic interview. The adults in Child’s life “all encouraged [Child] to tell the truth about the incident” with V.M., and the court found that Child did in fact tell the truth.

¶15 Indeed, the juvenile court found that Child’s testimony at the criminal trial and in the forensic interview was “believable and credible.” According to the court, Child was “detailed in her description” of the abuse and she “was certain that [V.M.] was her abuser.” Child had “no motive to accuse” V.M. To the contrary, Child “found it difficult to comprehend that [V.M.] would knowingly touch her inappropriately” and even suggested that V.M. “might have been sleepwalking or not feeling well” when he abused her. The court also found that Child “displayed discomfort” in describing the abuse, did “not blurt out a rehearsed story,” and did not “appear to have been coached on what to say.”

¶16 The court further found that Forensic Interviewer “used proper protocol” in conducting the forensic interview of Child. In so finding, the court relied on the video of the forensic interview and Forensic Interviewer’s testimony given at the criminal trial. The court noted that Forensic Interviewer’s testimony was “credible.”

¶17 The juvenile court’s written order also included its conclusions of law. It began by explaining that DCFS had the burden to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that abuse or neglect occurred and that V.M. was substantially responsible for that abuse or neglect. See generally Utah Code Ann. § 62A-4a-1009(5)(a) (LexisNexis 2018). The court gave “little to no weight” to the fact that criminal charges against V.M. ultimately were dismissed and expunged, noting that the preponderance of the evidence standard applicable in the juvenile court proceeding is “lower than the beyond a reasonable doubt evidentiary standard used in the district court’s criminal trial.”

¶18 Similarly, the court gave “little weight” to the BYU investigation because it was “conducted for a different purpose” than the DCFS investigation and because the BYU investigator considered only information provided by V.M. The court noted that it had the “advantage” over the BYU investigator of “hearing directly from and meeting with [Child] through her testimony in court during the juvenile court trial.”

¶19 As a result of its findings of fact and conclusions of law, the juvenile court substantiated DCFS’s finding against V.M. for sexual abuse of a child. See id. § 62A-4a-101(39). The court accordingly dismissed V.M.’s petition. V.M. appeals.

ANALYSIS

¶20 On a petition informing the court “that the division has made a supported finding that a person committed a severe type of child abuse or neglect as defined in Section 62A-4a-1002,” the juvenile court shall, among other things, “make a finding of substantiated, unsubstantiated, or without merit.”[2] Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-323(1)(a) (LexisNexis 2018); see also id. § 63G-4-402 (2016) (explaining that juvenile courts have jurisdiction over all state agency actions relating to “substantiated findings of abuse or neglect made by the Division of Child and Family Services”). During the proceeding on such a petition, the juvenile court reviews DCFS’s finding “by trial de novo,” id. § 63G-4-402(1)(a), and DCFS has “the burden of proving, by a preponderance of the evidence, that abuse, neglect, or dependency occurred and that the alleged perpetrator was substantially responsible for the abuse or neglect that occurred,” id. § 62A-4a-1009(5)(a) (2018).

¶21 The preponderance of the evidence standard generally “requires the proponent of a contested fact to demonstrate that its existence is more likely than not.” Harken Sw. Corp. v. Board of Oil, Gas & Mining, 920 P.2d 1176, 1182 (Utah 1996); see also Alvarado v. Tucker, 268 P.2d 986, 988 (Utah 1954) (defining preponderance of the evidence as the “greater weight of the evidence” in favor of the prevailing party). This standard of proof is lower than the beyond a reasonable doubt standard applicable to criminal defendants. See Egbert v. Nissan N. Am., Inc., 2007 UT 64, ¶ 12, 167 P.3d 1058; In re L.N., 2004 UT App 120, ¶ 8 n.2, 91 P.3d 836.

¶22 On appeal, V.M. contends that the juvenile court committed an error of law in (A) relying on the paper transcript of Child’s testimony from his criminal trial to determine the credibility of Child’s story and (B) relying on the transcript of Forensic Interviewer’s trial testimony to determine that Forensic Interviewer was credible. According to V.M., “it’s black letter law that credibility can only be determined from live testimony” and “[c]redibility simply cannot be determined from a cold transcript.” Because the juvenile court used both transcripts when deciding that Child’s allegations of abuse were substantiated, V.M. asserts that “a single error of law—the court’s mistaken premise that paper transcripts could be used for credibility—infected the [juvenile court’s] entire decision.”

A

¶23 With regard to Child—whose “testimony at trial and the [forensic] interview” the juvenile court found to be “believable and credible”—V.M. contends that because Child “did not tell her story” of the abuse to the juvenile court, the court improperly relied on the transcript of her testimony from V.M.’s criminal trial to find Child credible. V.M. argues that live testimony was essential to the court’s credibility assessment because the court could not assess Child’s credibility without observing her demeanor. We reject V.M.’s argument both because the juvenile court relied on more than just the transcript of Child’s trial testimony and because we do not agree that paper transcripts can never be used in evaluating a witness’s credibility.

¶24 First, to aid its assessment of Child’s credibility, the juvenile court was able to observe Child’s demeanor in a handful of ways. Specifically, the court listened to the audio recording of Child’s trial testimony and it relied on the transcript—at V.M.’s urging—to follow along. By listening to the audio recording, the court could hear Child’s tone of voice and how she responded to questioning, both of which could factor into its assessment of her credibility.[3] The court also watched Child’s forensic interview, and by doing so, it could observe Child’s outward demeanor as she described the abuse. Finally, Child testified before the juvenile court, and although she did not independently testify about the abuse during that testimony, the juvenile court could still take stock of Child’s general characteristics as a witness and compare them with her forensic interview and the transcript of her testimony during the criminal trial. Cf. In re M.A.V., 736 P.2d 1031, 1033 n.1 (Utah Ct. App. 1987) (noting that where a judge had “heard [a witness’s deposition] testimony ‘live’” and “had seen and heard from” the witness at two other hearings, the “court accordingly had more opportunity to take the measure of [the witness] and evaluate his credibility, demeanor, and attitude than would ordinarily occur where a deposition transcript had to be relied upon”).

¶25 Because the court had before it the video of Child’s forensic interview as well as the audio and transcript of Child’s testimony at the criminal trial, a recording of her conversation with her parents, and Child’s in-person testimony,[4] we reject the premise of V.M.’s argument: that the court relied solely on “a cold transcript” in crediting her allegations of abuse.

¶26      Second, we agree with V.M. that the “‘importance of live testimony to a credibility determination is well recognized and longstanding.’” (Quoting Oshodi v. Holder, 729 F.3d 883, 891 (9th Cir. 2013).) It is one of the reasons “credibility determinations are within the province of the district court judge,” who is best positioned to make factual findings based on oral testimony “due to his or her opportunity to view the witnesses firsthand, to assess their demeanor, and to consider their testimonies in the context of the proceedings as a whole.” Meyer v. Aposhian, 2016 UT App 47, ¶ 13, 369 P.3d 1284 (cleaned up); see also Utah R. Civ. P. 52(a)(4) (“Findings of fact, whether based on oral or other evidence, must not be set aside unless clearly erroneous, and the reviewing court must give due regard to the trial court’s opportunity to judge the credibility of the witnesses.”); Henshaw v. Henshaw, 2012 UT App 56, ¶¶ 11–12, 271 P.3d 837 (explaining that trial courts are “better equipped to make credibility determinations based on conflicting oral evidence than an appellate court that has access only to the cold record”).

¶27 Yet V.M. has not persuaded us that black letter law prohibits fact-finders in all circumstances from considering transcripts in making credibility determinations.[5] After all, “factors other than demeanor and inflection go into the decision whether or not to believe a witness.” Anderson v. City of Bessemer City, 470 U.S. 564, 575 (1985). “Documents or objective evidence may contradict the witness’ story; or the story itself may be so internally inconsistent or implausible on its face that a reasonable factfinder would not credit it.” Id.; see also Jackson v. United States, 353 F.2d 862, 866 (D.C. Cir. 1965) (“Credibility involves more than demeanor. It apprehends the overall evaluation of testimony in light of its rationality or internal consistency and the manner in which it hangs together with other evidence.” (cleaned up)); cf. Smith v. Freeman, 902 N.E.2d 1069, 1075 (Ill. 2009) (“It is a common practice for a judge, and even a jury, to make credibility determinations based on transcripts of testimony.”). And as we regularly instruct our juries, factors such as personal interest, bias, knowledge, memory, consistency, and reasonableness can aid a factfinder in the assessment of a witness’s credibility. See Model Utah Jury Instructions 2d CV121 (2018); see also id. CR207.

¶28 Thus, while we readily agree that viewing a witness firsthand is generally a superior way to evaluate his or her credibility, and while we do not question the value of live testimony, we cannot say that fact-finders are necessarily barred from using a cold transcript to evaluate a witness’s credibility in all circumstances. We therefore reject the premise of V.M.’s assertion of error on appeal—that paper transcripts could not be used to judge credibility as a matter of law. And particularly here, where V.M. invited the court to consider Child’s trial testimony,[6] we cannot conclude that the court committed legal error by considering the transcript along with the other evidence to determine that Child’s allegations were credible.

B

¶29 V.M. likewise assails the juvenile court’s reliance on the transcript of Forensic Interviewer’s testimony at his criminal trial. As compared to Child, the juvenile court had less opportunity to view Forensic Interviewer’s demeanor. But it had the transcript of her testimony from the criminal trial, it had the opportunity to view her demeanor by watching the forensic interview she conducted, and it could compare the interview with Forensic Interviewer’s testimony about it. Thus, although the court depended largely on the transcript to assess Forensic Interviewer’s credibility, its assessment was not strictly based on the transcript alone.

¶30 Still, even if the juvenile court had relied only on the transcript to judge Forensic Interviewer’s credibility, that is exactly what V.M. invited the court to do. An alleged error is invited when an appellant encourages the court to take the action he later challenges on appeal, and we will not reverse a court’s decision under such circumstances. See State v. McNeil, 2016 UT 3, ¶ 17, 365 P.3d 699; Pratt v. Nelson, 2007 UT 41, ¶ 17, 164 P.3d 366. When Forensic Interviewer was unable to testify, V.M. suggested that the court read her testimony, including cross-examination, from V.M.’s criminal trial. Though V.M. claims that he “never affirmatively invited the court to use paper transcripts for credibility determinations,” he told the court, without limitation, that “everything that [it] need[s] is in the transcript.” V.M. has not explained what he expected the court to do with Forensic Interviewer’s testimony if not assess her credibility on some level. By introducing the transcript and inviting the court to consider her testimony in evaluating the case, V.M. affirmatively and necessarily led the court to assess Forensic Interviewer’s credibility without personally observing her demeanor. We therefore cannot fault the juvenile court for its use of Forensic Interviewer’s transcript.

¶31      Further, even if V.M. did not invite this alleged error, he has not shown he was harmed by the court’s assessment of Forensic Interviewer’s credibility in the absence of in-person testimony. See Utah R. Civ. P. 61 (“The court at every stage of the proceeding must disregard any error or defect in the proceeding which does not affect the substantial rights of the parties.”); see also Utah R. Juv. P. 2(c) (“In substantiation proceedings, the procedure set forth in U.C.A. 63G-4-402(2) shall apply.”); Utah Code Ann. § 63G-4-402(2)(b) (LexisNexis 2016) (explaining that substantiation proceedings are “governed by the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure”). V.M. states that Forensic Interviewer’s “credibility was never at issue in this case,” and he has not persuasively argued that had the juvenile court observed Forensic Interviewer’s demeanor and live testimony firsthand, its assessment of her credibility and the result of this proceeding would have been any different.

CONCLUSION

¶32 V.M. has not shown legal error in the juvenile court’s evaluation of the evidence in this case. Accordingly, we affirm its substantiation of DCFS’s finding against V.M. for sexual abuse of a child.

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

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[1] Because the details of the abuse are not relevant to the issues on appeal, we do not repeat them here.

[2] “‘Substantiated’ or ‘substantiation’ means a judicial finding based on a preponderance of the evidence that abuse or neglect occurred.” Utah Code Ann. § 62A-4a-101(39) (LexisNexis 2018). “Unsubstantiated,” in contrast, “means a judicial finding that there is insufficient evidence to conclude that abuse or neglect occurred.” Id. § 62A-4a-101(44). And “without merit” includes a judicial finding “that the alleged abuse, neglect, or dependency did not occur, or that the alleged perpetrator was not responsible for the abuse, neglect, or dependency.” Id. § 62A-4a-101(46).

[3] V.M. also played for the court an audio recording of Child discussing the abuse with her parents.

[4] V.M. does not challenge the admission of any evidence, including the transcripts or the video. Nor does he complain that the court listened, at his urging, to the audio recording.

[5] 5. To the contrary, Utah law permits the use of transcripts at trial in some scenarios. For instance, the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure allow, under certain conditions, the use of depositions in court proceedings “for any purpose.” Utah R. Civ. P. 32(a)(2), (3); see also id. R. 32(e) (“Except as otherwise directed by the court, a party offering deposition testimony pursuant to this rule may offer it in stenographic or nonstenographic form, but, if in nonstenographic form, the party shall also provide the court with a transcript of the portions so offered.”). And the Utah Rules of Evidence allow, under certain conditions when a witness is unavailable, the admission of testimony that “was given as a witness at a trial, hearing, or lawful deposition.” Utah R. Evid. 804(a), (b)(1) (setting forth when former testimony is not excluded by the rule against hearsay). Neither one of these rules suggests that credibility determinations from such non-live testimony are impossible. Indeed, when V.M. advised the court that he would be seeking to admit transcripts of the criminal trial testimony of his ex-wife and Child’s aunt due to their unavailability, the court noted its ability to assess their credibility through means other than observing their demeanor.

[6] Given that a jury had acquitted V.M. based on the testimony that Child gave at the criminal trial, V.M. may have, for strategic reasons, preferred that the juvenile court consider Child’s trial testimony rather than see Child testify to the details of the abuse in person.

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Smith v. Robinson – 2018 UT 30 – false allegations of sexual abuse

This opinion is subject to revision before final publication in the Pacific Reporter
2018 UT 30
IN THE SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF UTAH

ROCIO SMITH,
Appellant,
v.
KAYELYN ROBINSON,
Appellee.

No. 20160106
Filed July 5, 2018
On Direct Appeal
Fourth District, Spanish Fork
The Honorable M. James Brady
No. 150300034
Attorneys:
Sara Pfrommer, Ronald D. Wilkinson, Nathan S. Shill, Orem, for appellant
James Egan, Stephen W. Owens, Salt Lake City, for appellee
JUSTICE HIMONAS authored the opinion of the court, in which CHIEF JUSTICE DURRANT, ASSOCIATE CHIEF JUSTICE LEE, JUSTICE PEARCE, and JUDGE PETTIT joined.
Due to her retirement, JUSTICE DURHAM did not participate herein; DISTRICT COURT JUDGE KARA PETTIT sat.
JUSTICE PETERSEN became a member of the Court on November 17, 2017, after oral argument in this matter and accordingly did not participate.
JUSTICE HIMONAS, opinion of the Court:

INTRODUCTION

¶ 1 This case presents the question of whether a treating therapist owes a duty of reasonable care to a nonpatient parent when treating that parent’s child for potential allegations of sexual abuse. We answer this question in Mower v. Baird, 2018 UT 29, —P.3d—, a companion case that we also decide today. There, we hold that a treating therapist “owes a duty to a minor patient’s parents to refrain from affirmative acts that recklessly violate the standard of care in a manner that gives rise to false memories or false allegations of sexual abuse committed by the plaintiff nonpatient parent.” Mower, 2018 UT 29, ¶ 114. We remand this case for proceedings consistent with our opinion in Mower.

BACKGROUND

¶ 2 Rocio Smith had two children with her ex-husband, Aaron Smith.[1] Mr. Smith and his new wife (Stepmother) made several allegations that Ms. Smith had sexually abused the children. Mr. Smith filed a petition to terminate Ms. Smith’s parental rights.

¶ 3 After this, Stepmother brought the children to Kayelyn Robinson for therapy and told Ms. Robinson that therapy was being sought because of the alleged sexual abuse. Ms. Robinson improperly relied upon the information provided by Mr. Smith and Stepmother and made allegations that Ms. Smith had sexually abused the children. During treatment, Ms. Robinson also inappropriately acted as a treatment provider and forensic evaluator. Ms. Robinson worked with Mr. Smith and Stepmother to actively advocate against Ms. Smith. Despite Ms. Robinson’s clear conflict of interest, she continued providing therapy to the children.

¶ 4 At one point, the court hearing the custody dispute ordered Ms. Robinson to stop acting as the children’s therapist and to have no further contact with the children. Ms. Robinson blatantly violated this court order. Additionally, Ms. Robinson used somebody else’s key to access the children’s HIPPA-protected records and provided them to the parties, their attorneys, and the court.

¶ 5 As a result of Ms. Robinson’s actions, Ms. Smith lost visitation with her children for several years and “endured personal defamation, lost income and employment, and incurred enormous legal expenses.”[2] Ms. Smith filed suit against Ms. Robinson for malpractice and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

¶ 6 Ms. Robinson filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under rule 12(b)(6) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. Regarding the malpractice claim, the district court framed the question of duty and the categorical basis as “whether a treating therapist who testifies in litigation relying on their negligent formulation of forensic opinions, owes a duty to the party against whom they are testifying.” Using the factors from B.R. ex rel. Jeffs v. West, 2012 UT 11, 275 P.3d 228, the district court concluded that no duty existed for that categorical basis and granted Ms. Robinson’s motion to dismiss the malpractice claim. That decision was largely based upon policy considerations aimed at protecting a witness from liability stemming from his or her testimony. The district court also granted the motion to dismiss Ms. Smith’s negligent infliction of emotional distress claim because Ms. Smith was unable to demonstrate the kind of harm required to sustain a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress.

¶ 7 Ms. Smith appeals the district court’s decision on her malpractice claim but does not appeal the negligent infliction of emotional distress claim. Utah Code section 78A-3-102(3)(j) gives us jurisdiction.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶ 8 “The question of whether a ‘duty’ exists is a question of law . . . .” Weber ex rel. Weber v. Springville City, 725 P.2d 1360, 1363 (Utah 1986) (citation omitted). We review questions of law “under a correctness standard.” St. Benedict’s Dev. Co. v. St. Benedict’s Hosp., 811 P.2d 194, 196 (Utah 1991) (citations omitted).

ANALYSIS

¶ 9 In Mower v. Baird, the companion to this case, we directly address the question of whether a treating therapist owes a nonpatient parent a duty when treating the parent’s child for allegations of sexual abuse by that parent. 2018 UT 29, ¶ 114, —P.3d—. There, we conclude that a treating therapist “owes a duty to a minor patient’s parents to refrain from affirmative acts that recklessly violate the standard of care in a manner that gives rise to false memories or false allegations of sexual abuse committed by the plaintiff nonpatient parent.” Id. This duty not only covers physical or property harm but also severe emotional distress. Id.

¶ 10 In this case, the parties disagree about whether the district court selected the correct categorical basis and, if not, whether it was the result of invited error. The district court ultimately based its holding on a categorical basis that involved treating therapists who testify in litigation. However, Ms. Smith “concedes that a testifying witness owes no duty to the opposing party with respect to the testimony given in court.” (Emphasis omitted). Additionally, Ms. Smith asserts that she “is not suing [Ms. Robinson] for her role as a testifying witness, but rather for her conduct in the treatment of the minor children that preceded her testimony.” Indeed, Ms. Smith’s complaint is void of allegations relating to Ms. Robinson’s testimony in the custody case.

¶ 11 The district court was required to rule in this case without the benefit of our opinion in Mower. In Mower, we announce that treating therapists owe a duty to a nonpatient parent during the therapist’s treatment of the parent’s child for potential sexual abuse by that parent. Id. To the extent that Ms. Smith is alleging harms that stem from Ms. Robinson’s testimony, the duty we announce in Mower would not apply. However, to the extent that Ms. Smith is alleging harms stemming from Ms. Robinson’s treatment of the children, our holding in Mower establishes a duty.[3]

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

1. Because this case is before us on appeal of a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, we, like the district court, take the factual allegations in the complaint as true. See Hudgens v. Prosper, Inc., 2010 UT 68, ¶ 2, 243 P.3d 1275; Brown v. Div. of Water Rights of Dep’t of Nat. Res., 2010 UT 14, ¶ 10, 228 P.3d 747.

2. Not all of these alleged harms are compensable. See Mower v. Baird, 2018 UT 29, ¶ 11 n.3, —P.3d—.

3. Our opinion in Mower extends the treating therapist’s duty to not affirmatively act in a manner that recklessly causes severe emotional distress. Mower, 2018 UT 29, ¶ 114. Although we recognized a path other than the zone of danger for recovery of emotional distress, we did not disturb our other negligent infliction of emotional distress requirements. Id. ¶¶ 77, 81 n.18. And we did not decide whether a cause of action for negligent infliction of emotional distress is necessary to recover those damages. Id. ¶ 113 n.21. The district court granted Ms. Robinson’s motion to dismiss Ms. Smith’s negligent infliction of emotional distress because Ms. Smith was unable to show the type of harm required for a negligent infliction of emotional distress claim. We express no opinion on whether Ms. Smith’s failure to appeal this portion of the district court’s decision precludes her from pursuing recovery under the limited emotional distress duty we announce in Mower. See id. ¶ 114. We leave this decision to the district court in the first instance.

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