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In re I.J.

March 23, 2009

IN RE: I.J.
APPEAL OF: DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES



Appeal from the Order entered September 18, 2007, Court of Common Pleas, Philadelphia County, Family Division at Nos. D#2795-05-10; J#377285, July Term, 2007 - 90000.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Donohue, J.

BEFORE: BENDER, DONOHUE and FREEDBERG, JJ.

OPINION

¶ 1 The Philadelphia Department of Human Services ("DHS") appeals from the order of court dated September 18, 2007 denying its Petition for Goal Change to Adoption and Involuntary Termination of Parental Rights of S.M. ("Mother") and D.J. ("Father"), the parents of I.J.*fn1 For the reasons that follow, we reverse and remand for further proceedings consistent with this decision.

¶ 2 DHS's involvement with Mother began in 2004 in connection with her two older children. At the time of I.J.'s birth on September 30, 2005, Mother had voluntarily placed her oldest child with a relative, and her second oldest child, L.M., had been adjudicated dependent and was living with a foster family. Upon I.J.'s birth, DHS filed a petition for a restraining order to have her immediately placed in foster care, alleging that Mother could not care for I.J. because of physical limitations, mental health issues,*fn2 and an inability to care for her other two children. DHS's petition also alleged that Father was unable to care for I.J., although the substance of those allegations is not clear from the record because the copy of the petition contained in the record is illegible.

¶ 3 The trial court granted the restraining order on October 3, 2005 and I.J. was placed in a foster home. On November 4, 2005, the trial court granted DHS' petition for dependency for I.J. A few weeks before the dependency adjudication for I.J., DHS created a Family Service Plan ("FSP") which outlined goals for Mother to meet regarding both I.J. and L.M.*fn3 These goals were to (1) learn and understand age-appropriate behavior and expectations for children; (2) provide adequate and safe living conditions; (3) stabilize mental health issues; (4) maintain regular visitation; (5) and to attend Family School with L.M. This FSP did not include goals for Father, although DHS subsequently revised it to assign him the same goals as those of Mother, except that Father was also required to submit to a medical evaluation for a seizure condition. Through individual service plans ("ISPs"), DHS further required Mother to obtain employment and create a monthly budget and Father to obtain employment.

¶ 4 On December 13, 2005, the trial court held a dependency review hearing, at which time it decided to continue I.J.'s commitment in foster care. On June 28, 2007, DHS filed its petition to terminate parental rights, and the trial court held evidentiary hearings on the petition on July 10, 2007 and September 14, 2007. DHS presented the testimony of DHS social worker Yolanda Holmes, VOA social worker Tiffany MacIntosh, and Family Support Services social worker Clareatha McNealy. DHS also admitted into evidence a biopsychological evaluation of Mother by Ruth Kanost, Ph.D., a psychological parenting evaluation of Mother by Dr. Kathryn Woods, and a psychological evaluation of Father by Stephen Miksic, Ph.D. Mother and Father testified on their own behalves.

¶ 5 On September 18, 2007, the trial court entered an order denying DHS' petition. The trial court found that Mother and Father had demonstrated their intent to cultivate a relationship with I.J., that they had remedied or made progress in remedying some of the conditions that resulted in I.J.'s adjudication of dependency, and that as a result it was not in I.J.'s best interests to terminate the parental rights of Mother and Father at the present time. Trial Court Opinion, 4/29/08, at 25, 28, 32. This appeal followed, in which DHS contends that the trial court erred in not finding that competent and uncontradicted evidence established the statutory grounds for termination of parental rights pursuant to 23 Pa.C.S.A. §2511.

¶ 6 We begin with our standard of review. In cases involving termination of parental rights: our standard of review is limited to determining whether the order of the trial court is supported by competent evidence, and whether the trial court gave adequate consideration to the effect of such a decree on the welfare of the child. We have always been deferential to the trial court as the fact finder, as the determiner of the credibility of witnesses, and as the sole and final arbiter of all conflicts in the evidence.

In re S.D.T., Jr., 934 A.2d 703, 705-06 (Pa. Super. 2007).

¶ 7 Before filing a petition for the termination of a parent's rights, the Commonwealth is required to make reasonable efforts to promote reunification between a child and her parents. In re: Adoption of R.J.S., 901 A.2d 502, 507 (Pa. Super. 2006). The Commonwealth's obligation in this regard is not indefinite, however, because in addition to the parents' interests the Commonwealth must also respect the child's right to a stable, safe, and healthy environment. Id.; In re: Adoption of M.E.P., 825 A.2d 1266, 1276 (Pa. Super. 2003). When reasonable efforts at reunification have failed, then the child welfare agency must work towards terminating parental rights and placing the child with adoptive parents. In re G.P.-R, 851 A.2d 967, 976 (Pa. Super. 2004) (citing In re B.L.L., 787 A.2d 1007, 1016 (Pa. Super. 2001)). As we have repeatedly acknowledged, "[a] child's life simply cannot be put on hold in the hope that the parent will summon the ability to handle the responsibilities of parenting." M.E.P., 825 A.2d at 1276; R.J.S., 901 A.2d at 507.

¶ 8 Termination of parental rights is governed by statute. 23 Pa.C.S.A. §2511. For purposes of this appeal, the statute provides in relevant part as follows:

(a) General rule.-- The rights of a parent in regard to a child may be terminated after a petition filed on any of the following grounds:

(1) The parent by conduct continuing for a period of at least six months immediately preceding the filing of the petition either has evidenced a settled purpose of relinquishing parental claim to a child ...


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