IN THE INTEREST OF: I.F., A MINOR APPEAL OF: R.M., MOTHER IN THE INTEREST OF: S.F. APPEAL OF: R.M.
Appeal from the Order Entered September 14, 2012 In the Court of Common Pleas of Lancaster County Juvenile Division at No: CP-36-DP-0000011-2012, CP-36-DP-0000012-2012
BEFORE: FORD ELLIOTT, P.J.E., WECHT, J., and COLVILLE, J. [*]
In these consolidated appeals,  R.M. ("Mother") appeals, pro se,  from the September 14, 2012 order of the Court of Common Pleas of Lancaster County, which adjudicated dependent her daughter, S.F., and her son, I.F., ("Children"), respectively ten and three years old at the time of the hearing.
The Lancaster County Children and Youth Social Service Agency (the "Agency") filed a Petition for Temporary Custody for each child on January 25, 2012, alleging that both were dependent pursuant to the Juvenile Act, 42 Pa.C.S. § 6302(1). In an order entered on February 17, 2012, the trial court designated Berndetta Jensen to serve as the court-appointed special advocate ("CASA") for Children. The trial court heard testimony on April 12, May 24, and June 21, 2012. The trial court issued an initial permanency review order on June 21, 2012. Testimony resumed on August 30, 2012, and was completed the following day, after which the trial court adjudicated Children dependent by an order docketed on September 14, 2012.
Based upon our review of the record, we find substantial evidence to support the trial court's factual account of this case, from which we derive the following narrative. We note initially that the trial court found that Mother was not a credible witness:
[T]he [c]ourt observed that Mother was, at times, less than candid in her testimony, that Mother tends to be manipulative both on the stand and in her daily life practices, and that Mother was consistently evasive under cross-examination. For instance, Mother testified that she is physically able to do anything needed to parent an energetic two year old boy. Yet, she has successfully claimed that she is disabled and presently she is supported by Supplemental Security Income.
Trial Court Opinion ("T.C.O."), 11/13/2012, at 33-34.
S.F. was born in Iraq to Mother and O.R. ("Father"). As of January 2012, the family had been in the United States for four years, having immigrated with the assistance of the Church World Service after insurgents killed their older daughter in retaliation for Father's employment as an interpreter for the United States armed forces. The family settled into a home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, provided rent-free by their landlord, I.K. I.F. was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I.F.'s twin brother died shortly after birth.
After the parties suffered marital difficulties, Father departed the marital residence in October or November 2011. When Father moved out, he declared that he divorced Mother in accordance with Islamic custom. At that time, Father left Mother in charge of Children.
At 9:23 a.m on January 25, 2012, the Agency received a call indicating that a young child had been left home alone. At approximately 10:00 a.m., a Lancaster City police officer received a call that there was a child left unattended at Mother's residence. Upon arrival, the police observed I.F. through a window, lying face-down in a hammock-type chair. The officers knocked on the door. When no one answered, the officers forcibly entered the home. They found no one home except I.F., who had a rope that was tied around his waist and then to a piece of furniture. A chair wedged the front door shut, and two vacuum cleaners blocked the door to the basement. A neighbor gave Mother's mobile phone number to the police. An officer called, but received no answer. Mother returned home at approximately 11:30 a.m, more than two hours after the Agency received the initial call.
The police officers called an ambulance because they did not think that I.F. was breathing properly. He was taken to a hospital emergency room. Alexis Palmer, the Agency caseworker assigned to the family, went to the emergency room and took custody of I.F. after the hospital determined that he was uninjured.
When Mother returned home, she explained to the police officer that she left I.F. alone because she needed to obtain groceries for him and had no one to watch him. She indicated that she did not bring I.F. with her to the church food bank she visited to procure the groceries because he suffered from asthma, and she was concerned that the cold temperatures would aggravate his condition. Mother had no food with her when she arrived at her home. Mother said that there was rat poison placed in the home, and that she restrained I.F. to prevent him from eating it. Mother also explained that there were rats and roaches in the apartment, and that she believed tethering him would protect him from contact with the vermin. Mother admitted to the officers that she was unable to care for Children properly.
At all times that she had custody of Children, including on January 25, 2012, Mother had access to babysitters through the Lancaster Church of the Brethren. Mother was aware that she should not leave I.F. home alone, as evinced by her calls to Father and her landlord on January 25, 2012, asking them to babysit. Mother could not reach either of them.
The officers tried to talk to Father when he arrived at Mother's home that morning, but he drove off. Father subsequently came to the police station and spoke to one of the responding officers there. Father said that he had concerns for I.F. while in Mother's care.
The police picked S.F. up at school that day and took her to the Agency. Later that day, the Agency caseworker, Ms. Palmer, served Mother with petitions for Agency custody. Mother told Ms. Palmer that she tied I.F. up at the advice of her landlord, I.K. I.K. had recommended on another occasion that Mother tether I.F., and Mother reasoned that she had no choice but to do so on the day of the report.
In connection with these events, Mother was charged with endangering the welfare of a child. Her criminal charge was resolved through the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program; ultimately, Mother completed fifty hours of community service to fulfill her obligation.
Mother maintained that there was nothing wrong with tying I.F. up and leaving him home alone. She indicated that tethering children was a common practice in Iraq, and that she was unaware that it was prohibited in the United States. Mother had tethered S.F. to furniture from time to time in Iraq when S.F. was younger. In the year before January 25, 2012, Mother regularly tethered I.F. when she cleaned and when she did laundry in the basement. However, during the dependency proceedings Mother also testified contrarily that January 25, 2012, was the only time she tethered I.F. S.F. indicated to Ms. Palmer that Mother left both Children home alone on a regular basis. On those occasions, Mother would put food – chicken nuggets or fish sticks – and a container of milk on the counter in the kitchen for Children.
After placement, S.F. told her therapist that she had to be a very careful big sister to her little brother at home to ensure his safety. Mother testified that S.F. never was called upon to provide care for I.F. When S.F. first was placed in foster care, she had "shut down" emotionally. However, in mid-February 2012, S.F. relaxed and increased her engagement with her therapist. S.F. told her therapist that she worried about Mother because she was not in the home to help her.
Around the beginning of March 2012, the therapist noticed that S.F. looked well-rested, whereas, when the therapy first began, she always looked tired. S.F. told the therapist that when S.F. was with Mother, Mother gave S.F. sleep medicine every night that made it hard to wake up in the morning, but that S.F. had not needed to take it since entering foster care. Despite these improvements, beginning in March 2012, S.F. had become guarded as to what she would tell the therapist about her visits with Mother and Father, whom she visited under supervision both individually and together. In April 2012, S.F. indicated that if Mother did not complete her "homework, " including getting rid of a mouse in the home, S.F. would have to stay with foster parents forever. In mid-May 2012, S.F. worried that Mother did not like her. At the time of the hearing on May 24, 2012, S.F. suffered from residual symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder,  but her placement in foster care caused her to feel happy and safe.
I.F. was unable to communicate verbally before the April 12, 2012 hearing; he would only cry. However, by April 12, 2012, I.F. was sleeping through the night, something he did not do when he was first placed with the Agency. Indeed, by April 12, 2012, Children were doing well in foster care. Both sought attention and nurturing from their foster parents.
Mother also entered into therapy, and signed a release for her therapist to disclose information to the Agency on February 1, 2012. However, on March 22, 2012, Mother revoked that release. The Agency therefore was unable to get updates regarding Mother's progress in counseling.
The Agency offered Mother and Father separate supervised visits from the beginning of placement, and they did visit Children separately on one or two occasions. Notably, Mother advised Ms. Palmer that Father previously had been violent toward Mother. However, Mother nonetheless expressed her desire to visit jointly with Father. S.F. indicated that she had witnessed Father hit Mother. Mother acknowledged in her testimony that the police had been called to her home due to her fighting with Father on three or four occasions, but denied that he had ever struck her. However, S.F. indicated that she had witnessed Father strike Mother on at least one occasion.
After the April 12, 2012 hearing, Mother requested separate visits, so that the caseworker would see Mother's interactions with Children. When Mother visited Children alone, she did not pay close attention to I.F. Sometimes, during these visits, S.F. tended to I.F. in lieu of Mother. I.F. was observed attempting to open the door exiting ...