Jack Nelson Jones Professional Association
October 14-20, 2019
Amanda Easter v. Arkansas Department of Human Services and Minor Children 2019 Ark. App. 441, Oct. 2, 2019
This case arises on appeal from the Conway County Circuit Court Honorable Terry Sullivan, presiding. It involved the appeal by Appellant Amanda Easter (Easter) from the Feb. 4, 2019 order terminating her parental rights to her children. Easter challenged the circuit court’s findings on statutory grounds for termination and best interest of the children. The Court of Appeals found no error and affirmed the decision.
Easter is the mother of KY (born 7/26/2016) and twins HE and NE (born 9/05/2012). HE and NE’s legal father gave consent to termination. KY’s father was not a party to this appeal. This was not the first contact the Arkansas Department of Human Services (DHS) had had with this family. In 2014, the twins spent six months in foster care due to environmental neglect and inadequate supervision resulting from Easter’s use of methamphetamine.
On June 5, 2017, DHS exercised an emergency hold on the children and filed a petition for emergency custody and dependency-neglect two days later. DHS initiated an investigation into the welfare of the children after receiving information from a caller to its hotline that the children were being left alone while Easter “runs around the trailer park high on methamphetamine” and that two of the children had feeding tubes and were not being fed properly. The social worker who responded to the call determined that the children could not safely remain in the home because Easter tested positive for methamphetamine and appeared to be under the influence. The circuit court entered an ex parte order of emergency custody on June 7. On June 9, the circuit court held a probable-cause hearing, and it found that probable cause existed for the children to remain in the DHS’s custody.
At the adjudication hearing conducted on July 27, the court found the children dependent-neglected after Easter stipulated that the children had not been adequately supervised due to her drug use. (The same findings of the 2014 matter). Nonetheless the circuit court established a goal of reunification. Easter was ordered to comply with the standard welfare orders of the DHS that, among other things, ordered her to submit to random drug screens, attend and complete parenting classes, obtain and maintain stable and appropriate housing and gainful employment, attend counseling, and submit to a drug-and-alcohol assessment.
At a review hearing on Oct. 26, the circuit court found that Easter had complied with the case plan but noted that she had not maintained steady housing or employment. The goal of the case continued to be reunification. Feb. 1, 2018 a review hearing was held wherein the court found that Easter had “substantially complied” with the case plan and the court’s orders. The court noted specifically that she had submitted to a psychological evaluation as well as a drug-and-alcohol assessment but that she had elected to wait for inpatient treatment because the facility had a policy that prohibited romantic partners from being in the program simultaneously. Easter’s boyfriend at the time, John Yard, was in the program but had recently left it prematurely. The order stated that they were no longer a couple. However, Easter still did not have stable employment or housing. The goal of the case continued to be reunification, with DHS continuing to provide services.
At a permanency-planning hearing held on May 24, the goal of the case continued to be reunification, and the court found that Easter was substantially complying with the case plan. Specifically, the court found that Easter was compliant with counseling, so it gave her an additional three months to work toward reunification.
Easter still had not gotten with the program fully at the fifteen-month review hearing, and the circuit court changed the goal of the case to adoption with termination of parental rights. The circuit court found that Easter had only partially complied with the case plan and that she was employed but still did not have a suitable home for the children. The court specifically found she had lived in multiple residences during the pendency of the case and that she had not been compliant with her counseling.
In response to the change in goal, DHS filed a petition for termination on Oct. 16 alleging: (1) A twelve month failure to comply with the Court’s orders, (2) subsequent factors, and (3) aggravated circumstances – little likelihood of successful reunification despite a reasonable offer of services. DHS also alleged that termination was in the children’s best interest.
At the termination hearing on Jan. 17, 2019, the family service worker assigned to the case, testified that Easter had completed inpatient drug treatment and was maintaining sobriety but was still minimally compliant with the court’s orders. As of November, Ryan said Easter had attended four of thirteen counseling sessions. Ryan stated that Easter’s instability in employment and in housing was a major problem. Throughout the case, it was always Easter moving in with somebody else. She was currently living with her boyfriend but had lived with his mother, and then his father. At one point, they lived with Britton’s mother and then moved in with Britton’s father. Ryan opined that she did not consider Britton to be an appropriate person for the children to come home to; she noted that his employment was inconsistent like Easter’s. Lastly, she mentioned the children’s medical issues. When the children first went into foster care, KY, who was eleven months old, could not sit up and was on a feeding tube; the four-year-old twins were malnourished, one having a feeding tube as well, and were not yet potty-trained. the family service worker also noted KY’s hair- follicle test was positive for methamphetamine when she came into care. After being in foster care, KY was walking, the twins were fully potty trained, and none of the children had feeding tubes.
Easter testified and provided the address where she was living. She said she had the home in her possession since August 2018 but had yet make repairs necessary for the children to live there but was moving in as the hearing went on. She said she was employed, worked thirty-six to forty-eight hours per week, and had been employed at the same place since July 2018. She acknowledged she had to take a two-month medical leave but noted that she had returned to the same position. Easter said she missed counseling sessions but blamed it on medical leave. She said her medical leave also affected her ability to get housing sooner because she had to use her housing money to pay bills while not working, which required her to live with other people until she secured her current home. Easter also testified that she and Britton would be clean if tested for drugs, that Britton had a job pouring concrete, and that they had sufficient funds between the two of them to maintain the home. She acknowledged that she was $4000 behind in court ordered child support. Britton’s testimony was the same.
The circuit court entered an order terminating Easter’s parental rights on all three grounds alleged in DHS’ petition. In addition, the court made its best-interest finding, including its consideration of the adoptability of the children and the potential harm if they were returned to Easter’s care, all of which supported the termination of parental rights. Easter now appeals the circuit court’s order terminating her parental rights.
On appeal, the Court of Appeals first noted that termination-of-parental-rights cases are reviewed de novo, for clear error, and a finding is clearly erroneous only when, although there is evidence to support it, the reviewing court on the entire evidence is left with a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made. A court may order termination of parental rights if it finds clear and convincing evidence to support one or more statutory grounds listed in the Juvenile Code. Moreover, it observed that proof of only one statutory ground is sufficient to terminate parental rights. The subsequent-factors ground provides that termination is appropriate when other factors or issues arose subsequent to the filing of the original petition for dependency-neglect that demonstrate that placement of the juvenile in the custody of the parent is contrary to the juvenile’s health, safety, or welfare and that, despite the offer of appropriate family services, the parent has manifested the incapacity or indifference to remedy the subsequent issues or factors or rehabilitate the parent’s circumstances that prevent the placement of the juvenile in the custody of the parents.
Easter argued that the court clearly erred in terminating her parental rights pursuant to the subsequent-factors ground. The Court of Appeals (“Court”) disagreed, finding that while Easter maintained her sobriety, she failed to follow the circuit court’s other orders. The Court found that, throughout the case, Easter failed to show that she could maintain stability in housing and employment, which was by itself was enough to support the termination on the subsequent-factors ground. During the entirety of the case, Easter never progressed enough to have even one unsupervised visitation with her children. Easter did not get a job until a year into the case; consequently, she did not get her own home until August. However, at the January termination hearing, she testified that the home was only “90 percent” ready. The Court noted that her lack of urgency supported a finding of indifference to remedying subsequent factors despite appropriate family services being offered. The caseworker reached out to Easter the day before the hearing to visit the home, but Easter told her they were not all the way moved in even at that point. Because only one statutory ground must be proved to support termination of parental rights, the Court did not address the other statutory grounds found by the circuit court.
In making a best-interest determination, the Court noted that the circuit court was required to consider two factors: (1) the likelihood that the child would be adopted and (2) the potential harm to the child if custody was returned to a parent. On appeal, Easter did not challenge the adoptability finding, so the Court considered only the potential-harm finding. In assessing this factor, the circuit court was not required to find that actual harm would ensue if the child was returned to the parent or to affirmatively identify a potential harm. The Court observed that past history and behavior of a parent was likely to portend future behavior, and Easter’s instability was sufficient to support the court’s potential-harm finding. The Court observed that, despite twenty months of DHS services, Easter could not maintain employment sufficient to support her and her children, nor was she able to obtain proper living quarters for them.
Accordingly, the Court found that the judgment of the circuit court was not in clear error in terminating Easter’s parental rights and affirmed the decision.