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In re T.S.M.

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

July 22, 2013


SUBMITTED: June 5, 2013

Appeal from the Order of the Superior Court entered January 23, 2013 at No. 193 WDA 2012, affirming the Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, entered January 12, 2012 at Nos. TPR 188 of 2010, CYS 187 of 2010, 196WDA 2012PR 191 of 2010, 197WDA 2012, CYS 189 of 2010, 198WDA 2012, TPR 190 of 2010.




We granted review in this case involving petitions for termination of parental rights for five siblings to consider how trial courts should weigh the existence of "pathological" emotional bonds between parents and children. This family of seven children, the five youngest of whom are before the Court, epitomizes the problem of foster care drift, as the family has been involved with the Allegheny County Office of Children, Youth, & Family Services ("CYF") for nearly a decade, and each child has had between six and thirteen foster placements. As a result, the children have been denied necessary permanency, and most are experiencing significant psychological and behavioral problems. This case exemplifies the challenges facing the foster care system when children have understandably strong, even if unhealthy, bonds to biological parents who have proven incapable of parenting. Courts must determine whether the trauma caused by breaking that bond is outweighed by the benefit of moving the child toward a permanent home. After exhaustive review and consideration, we conclude that severing the parental bond best serves the needs and welfare of these children and accordingly reverse the decisions of the courts below denying the petitions for termination of parental rights and remand for further proceedings not inconsistent with this decision.

T.M. ("Mother") has seven children: a daughter Tad. M., currently fourteen, a son Tam. M., currently thirteen, male twins, Ti. M. and Tai. M., who turn twelve this summer, a son Ty. M., currently ten, a son N.M., who turns eight this summer, and a son Tae. M., currently six.[1] CYF became involved with the family in 2001. In February 2002, the oldest four children were removed from Mother's care and placed with the maternal grandmother.[2] The removal followed a life-threatening injury to then-six month old Tai. M., requiring emergency neurosurgery. While Mother claimed the injury resulted from a fall off of a bed, the treating doctors concluded that the injury was inconsistent with a fall. By August 2003, the children were reunited with Mother, and the case seemingly closed in May 2004.

In May 2006, a dependency petition was filed relating to Ty. M., with a dependency hearing scheduled for August 2006. From information contained in the termination of parental rights petitions, Ty. M. apparently had a large scratch and bump on his forehead and bites on his face. In July 2006, the then-youngest child, one-year-old N. M., was taken to the emergency room after nearly drowning while Tad. M., who was then seven, bathed him. On July 19, 2006, the court removed the six children from Mother's care and placed them with the maternal grandparents. When Tae. M. was born in November 2006, he was placed in a foster home upon discharge from the hospital.[3] By the summer of 2007, the six children in the maternal grandmother's custody were removed and placed in foster homes. The oldest child, daughter Tad. M., then eight years old, was returned to Mother's care prior to November 2007, while the other six remained in foster care.

The current trial judge first became involved in the case in April, 2008. At that point, the court found that Mother was making substantial progress toward her FSP goals. The court ordered that daughter Tad. M. remain in Mother's custody; twins Tai. M. and Ti. M. be reunited with Mother; but Tam. M., Ty. M., N. M., and Tae. M. remain in foster care. In July of 2008, the placements remained the same, despite the fact that four of the children had been in foster care for well over fifteen of the prior twenty-two months.[4] In August 2008, the children's placement remained the same, except the court returned Tam. M. and Tae. M. to Mother's custody. In January 2009, two days prior to a scheduled review hearing, the children in Mother's care were removed after "the children disclosed that Mother whoops them with belts and hangers, smokes weed and [they] had witnessed Mother and paramour having sexual relations." Tr. Ct. Op., 5/7/12, at 4 (internal quotations omitted) ("Tr. Ct. Op.").

In February 2009, CYF and the children's Guardian Ad Litem ("GAL") filed a petition to change the children's permanency goal from reunification to adoption. After two hearings, the trial court denied the petition in March 2009, based upon the psychologist, Dr. Cathy Sigmund's testimony regarding a "strong family bond and attachment" and her request for additional information before making recommendations for permanency goals. Tr. Ct. Op. at 7. The court asserted that a goal change was "against the weight of the existing evidence as to best interests of the children in that the children had no meaningful relationship with any adult other than their mother, they were living with total strangers, and most significantly, they were clearly bonded as a family." Tr. Ct. Op. at 7. The GAL appealed the decision to the Superior Court. While the appeal was pending, the trial court regularly reviewed the children's cases, determining that continued out-of-home placement was necessary, and ordering CYF to employ Family Finding and Family Group Decision Making[5] for all seven children in 2009.[6]

In February 2010, [7] the Superior Court reversed the decision of the trial court concluding that "there can be no purpose served by continuing to work to reunite the family." In re: N.M., No. 520-523 WDA 2009, unpublished memorandum at 30 (Pa. Super. Feb. 19, 2010). The Superior Court took notice of the numerous foster care and group home placements for the children, the provision of at least ten services to Mother to assist her in achieving her FSP goals, noting that "all of the services expressed concern about Mother's non-compliance and ability to safely supervise and care for all seven of her Children." Id. at 13-14. The court listed a litany of occasions when the children were in Mother's custody and she failed or refused to obtain necessary education, medical, and mental health care for them, which was especially concerning given that several of them suffered from mental health disorders. The court also noted Mother's continued drug use, including several missed tests and two positive tests preceding the goal change hearing. The court also addressed a then-recent report that Mother's paramour was being investigated for sexually abusing Tad. M. The Superior Court recognized that a bond existed between the children and Mother, but opined that "the bond between a parent and a child is only one factor to consider . . . in making a decision regarding a goal change." Id. at 27. It further noted that the parent-child relationship may be "destructive and therefore not in the child's best interest." Id. Accordingly, the Superior Court reversed the trial court's denial of goal change, and the permanency goals were changed to adoption in the spring of 2010.

In August 2010, CYF filed termination petitions under 23 Pa.C.S. § 2511(a)(1), (2), (5), (8), and (b)[8] relating to all seven children, for which we will only discuss the five children before this Court.[9] As to all of the children, CYF alleged that Mother failed to comply with her FSP goals in that she had not completed her drug and alcohol, anger management, and mental health treatments. CYF asserted that, while Mother obtained housing, safety issues still remained because Mother allowed certain individuals access to the house. CYF also maintained that Mother had not worked cooperatively with the in-home services. It additionally expressed concern that Mother continued to deny having physically abused the children despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Additionally, CYF alleged that Mother had not been fully cooperative with the children's medical and mental health treatment and educational appointments.

Turning to the individualized information, the petition for termination of parental rights of Tai. M., filed in August, 2010, alleged that he came into the care of CYF in July 2006, days after his fifth birthday, and was adjudicated dependent in August 2006. He had been out of Mother's care since then with the exception of nine months between April 2008 and January 2009. CYF asserted that Tai. M. "continually had difficulty while in [M]other's care due to her refusal to accept wrap around services."[10] Tai. M. Termination of Parental Rights Petition ("TPR Petition") at ¶ 7. The petition also averred that Tai. M. acted out sexually in Mother's care and that Tai. M. alleged that she and her paramour hit the children with belts, smoked marijuana, and allowed the children to have alcohol. Tai. M. also claimed to have regularly witnessed his mother and her paramour having sex.

CYF also filed a petition for termination regarding Tai. M.'s twin, Ti. M., alleging that he too came into the care of CYF in July 2006, was adjudicated dependent in August 2006, and had been out of Mother's care since then with the exception of nine months between April 2008 and January 2009. The petition indicated that Ti. M. "had difficulty while in [M]other's care due to her refusal to accept wrap around services." Ti. M. TPR Petition at ¶ 7. Additionally, it maintained that he acted out sexually in her care and that the children asserted that she and her paramour hit them with belts, smoked marijuana and had sex regularly in their presence.

The August 2010 petition for termination of Ty. M.'s parental rights asserted that he was removed from Mother in July 2006 after he presented with a large scratch and bump on his forehead and bites on his face and after N. M.'s near drowning. He was adjudicated dependent in August 2006. He had not been returned since his initial removal. CYF later submitted a Report of Intention to Adopt by Ty. M.'s foster mother.

CYF also filed a petition for termination for N. M., emphasizing that he was removed from Mother's care in July 2006, and had not been returned to her care since. He was adjudicated dependent in August 2006. Additionally, the record includes a Report of Intention to Adopt by N. M.'s foster mother.

Finally, CYF filed an August 2010 termination petition for Tae. M., recounting that he was placed in foster care at birth because Mother tested positive for marijuana when Tae. M. was born, had not received pre-natal care until a month prior to the birth, and was not in compliance with her FSP goals related to Mother's other children. He was adjudicated dependent in April 2007. He had been out of Mother's care for his entire life other than a period of five months from August 2008-January 2009, and during that brief period of time CYF received reports that he, at age two, was found on the street without an adult. CYF additionally submitted a Report of Intention to Adopt by Tae. M.'s foster mother.[11]

As discussed below, the court did not hold hearings on these Petitions for Termination of Parental Rights until April 2011.[12] In the interim, the court issued a permanency review order in October 2010, in which it found that Mother had made "moderate progress" toward her FSP goals.[13] The court emphasized that the psychologist, Dr. Patricia Pepe, did not recommend a goal change to adoption because successful adoption placement was unlikely given the magnitude of the children's psychological and behavioral issues.[14]

While the termination petitions were pending, the trial court issued orders for the children to attend Family Group Decision Making Conferences and mandated additional Christmas and birthday visits with Mother. During one visit, Mother apparently forced the oldest child to call Mother's paramour, the child's alleged sexual abuser, which the psychologist found to ...

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