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In re S.R.D.

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

October 9, 2013



Appeal from the Order October 17, 2012 in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, Orphans' Court at No(s): TPR 149 of 2011

Appeal from the Order October 25, 2012 in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, Orphans' Court at No(s): TPR 150 of 2011




S.R.D., Jr., a minor born in March 2010, through his court-appointed guardian ad litem (GAL), appeals from the order of October 17, 2012, which denied the petition filed by the Allegheny County Office of Children, Youth, and Families (CYF) to terminate the parental rights of M.J. (Mother) and S.D. (Father). C.J.S., a minor born in June 2008, through his court-appointed GAL, appeals from the order of October 25, 2012, which denied the petition filed by CYF to terminate the parental rights of Mother. We affirm.

Mother and J.S.[1] are the biological parents of C.J.S. Mother and Father are the biological parents of S.R.D., Jr. On the day after S.R.D., Jr.'s birth, CYF became involved with this family because Mother and S.R.D., Jr. both tested positive for marijuana. CYF created a safety plan after an initial assessment. At that time, Mother was residing with family members.

On May 5, 2010, Mother entered treatment, but did not complete that program successfully, and was discharged on May 20, 2010 due to non-attendance. Mother then entered another treatment program on June 15, 2010, but did not complete that program successfully either and was discharged on July 7, 2010, again due to non-attendance.

On July 16, 2010, CYF investigated an anonymous report that Mother had disciplined C.J.S. (who was then two) by choking him.[2] Both children were placed with members of Father's family, specifically in the home of T.C. On July 23, 2010, Mother attempted to take the children from that home, which led to the children being adjudicated dependent by the trial court. On July 28, 2010, the court conducted a shelter hearing, and formally placed children with T.C. Both children were adjudicated dependent on August 23, 2010 and remained in the care of T.C., until she informed the trial court she could no longer care for the children. The children were then placed with T.B., a member of Mother's family, on September 10, 2010.

On September 13, 2010, the trial court conducted another shelter hearing and both children were returned to Mother, who was living in Debra House, a structured residential facility for homeless women and their children. The trial court ordered that CYF was to obtain emergency custody authorization if Mother left Debra House prematurely. Furthermore, Father was not to have contact with children until he was assessed by CYF.

On September 27, 2010, Debra House reported to CYF that Mother and children had not returned from a weekend pass. After learning that Mother and children were with Father, CYF obtained emergency custody and placed Children in an Auberle foster home with V.F.

On November 22, 2011, CYF petitioned to terminate Mother's and J.S.'s parental rights to C.J.S. pursuant to 23 Pa.C.S. §§ 2511(a)(1), (2), (5), (8), and (b). On the same day, CYF filed petitions to terminate Mother's and Father's parental rights to S.R.D., Jr., pursuant to 23 Pa.C.S. §§ 2511(a)(1), (2), (5), (8), and (b). Hearings were conducted on August 22, 2012 and October 17, 2012.[3] At that point in time, children were still in the pre-adoptive home of V.F.

At the hearing, the CYF caseworker testified that, inter alia, Mother was at most moderately compliant with her family service plan goals and Father was minimally compliant with his. They never progressed beyond supervised visitation. Although Mother obtained stable housing as of January 2012, she had still not made progress toward resolving her mental health or drug issues. Father had also made little progress with his mental health and drug issues.

At the close of the hearing on October 17, 2012, the trial court granted CYF's petition to terminate J.S.'s parental rights to C.J.S. N.T., 10/27/2012, at 91. As to the other petitions filed by CYF to terminate Mother's parental rights to the children, and Father's parental rights to S.R.D., Jr., the trial court denied those petitions concluding that CYF did not present clear and convincing evidence that the conditions that led to the placement of the children could not be remedied by the parents within a reasonable timeframe.

On the same day, the trial court conducted a permanency review hearing, which it summarized as follows.

On October 17, 2012, the [trial] court noted with concern that [V.F.] stated to Auberle caseworker, Heidi Perfetta that [V.F.] wanted [S.R.D., Jr.] removed from her home if Mother's rights were not terminated on that date. Most importantly, [the trial court] was shocked that [V.F.] who had been represented as a pre-adoptive resource by the agency for two (2) years, would put her own emotional need for finality over the needs of two very small children. Therefore, [the trial court] was faced with the options of another stranger caring for the children or returning the children immediately to their Mother's care.
Despite the testimony of the foster care worker that [V.F.] stated, "…that if the boys were not going to be adopted, then she was done. She had had enough, " [the trial court] hoped that [V.F.] would reconsider her demand. It was the hope of [the trial court] that upon reconsideration, that [V.F.] would understand the potential emotional effect on the children of an immediate removal. Unfortunately, [V.F.] continued to demand the immediate removal of [S.R.D., Jr.] and [C.J.S.], and the children were placed with their Mother on October 17, 2012. Mother was only four (4) weeks post-partum and had a newborn child S. (DOB 9/17/12) in her care for only thirty-one (31) days.

Trial Court Opinion, 5/24/2013, at 2-3 (citations omitted).

The GAL filed timely notices of appeal from the orders denying the termination of parental rights along with concise statements of matters complained of on appeal pursuant to Pa.R.A.P. 1925(a)(2)(i).[4] On December 12, 2012, the trial court filed opinions addressing issues related to its decision denying the termination of parental rights.

On May 6, 2013, this panel, in a divided memorandum, remanded the case to the trial court for a new opinion in light of permanency orders contained in the certified record indicating that children were returned to the care of Mother and Father. On May 24, 2013 and June 7, 2013, the trial court filed supplemental opinions in response to this Court's memorandum. Meanwhile, the GAL filed a timely application for reargument en banc, which was granted by this Court on June 26, 2013. However, on August 27, 2013, this Court rescinded the order granting reargument en banc and returned the case to this panel for its consideration. This panel then entered an order remanding the case to the trial court to supplement the certified record with any hearings or other documentation upon which it relied in preparation of its May 24, 2013 and June 7, 2013 opinions. The certified record has been returned to us and this case is now ready for disposition.

The standard of review in termination of parental rights cases requires appellate courts to accept the findings of fact and credibility determinations of the trial court if they are supported by the record. If the factual findings are supported, appellate courts review to determine if the trial court made an error of law or abused its discretion. [A] decision may be reversed for an abuse of discretion only upon demonstration of manifest unreasonableness, partiality, prejudice, bias, or ill-will. The trial court's decision, however, should not be reversed merely because the record would support a different result. We have previously emphasized our deference to trial courts that often have first-hand observations of the parties spanning multiple hearings.

In re T.S.M., 71 A.3d 251, 267 (Pa. 2013).

On appeal, the GAL contends the trial court erred in denying the termination of Mother's and Father's parental rights. Specifically, the GAL argues that Mother has not adequately addressed her mental health concerns (GAL's Brief for C.J.S. at 20); that she has tested positive for marijuana use (id. at 21); that Mother has extremely poor parenting skills (id. at 22); and, that she does not have stable housing or employment (id. at 23). As to Father, the GAL contends that he is unable to maintain sobriety and does not have stable housing. (GAL's Brief for S.R.D., Jr. at 30).

The trial court's opinions filed May 24, 2013, and June 7, 2013 addressed these concerns.

In light of the totality of the circumstances, it is in the best interest and welfare of [C.J.S.] that Mother maintains her parental right to [C.J.S.] … [C.J.S.] is living in a safe, nurturing environment with his Mother and siblings, [S.R.D., Jr.] and S. and all of his needs are being met. Mother has made significant progress and has continued to demonstrate her commitment to the well being of [C.J.S.]. Mother tested negative for all substances at three urine screens on November 8, 2012, October 30, 2012, and November 19, 2012. Mother is compliant with all services including Duquesne Family Center, WPIC services and is in compliance with the Family Service Plan. Family Resources and FGDM completed services because there were no longer any issues to be addressed.
CYF requested to close involvement with [C.J.S.] and Mother, although CYF had originally filed the termination of parental rights petition. [The trial court] granted CYF's request on May 13, 2013. Mother has not only demonstrated her cooperation and compliance with these services, but as multiple witnesses testified, Mother displays immediate learning and implementation of good parenting techniques. Mother has a support system in place, and makes positive choices. It continues to be in the child's best interest that CYF's petition for involuntary termination of Mother's parental rights be denied.

Trial Court Opinion, 5/24/2013, at 9.[5]

All of the trial court's conclusions are supported by the record. Subsequent to the termination hearing and returning the children to Mother's care, the trial court conducted permanency review hearings on November 19, 2012, February 11, 2013, and May 13, 2013.

At all three hearings, the trial court heard the testimony of CYF caseworker Haywood El, who visits the home on a weekly basis. At the November 19, 2012 hearing, El testified that Family Resources had been in the home three times a week between October and November 2012. By November 19, 2012, Family Resources had ended services with Mother and Father as they were no longer needed. Family Group Decision-Making was also providing services. By November 19, 2012, they had asked to decrease services to only once per week. By May 13, 2013, Family Group Decision-Making had ending services with the family as the family had successfully completed the program. By May 2013, the only services Mother was receiving were those from Matilda Theis Child Development Center, which works with the children and Mother on "behaviors." N.T., 5/13/2013, at 11.

Mother was in treatment for her mental health issues with both therapy and medication. Due to an emergency room visit, Mother missed her April 2013 appointments, however her medication never lapsed during that period.

The trial court also heard from Laurie Yost from Family Group Decision-Making. She testified that the children have sufficient clothing and furniture, attend preschool and medical appointments, and are up to date on their immunizations. Mother has connected with the Steel Valley Family Center, which would visit the home monthly to continue to provide support. The social worker testified that the only reason she did not end services sooner than May 2013 was because she wanted to be sure that Mother had sufficient community and family supports, which she now has.

Finally, at the May 2013 hearing, the trial court heard testimony from mobile therapist Terry Pentz from the Matilda Theis Child Development Center. Pentz testified that Mother's ability to parent children has increased over time. Furthermore, the children have also improved while in Mother's care. Even when CYF closes the case, she will continue working with the family.

Based on our review, we cannot see how at this point where the children have been in Mother's care continuously since October 17, 2012, and are doing so well that CYF, along with several service providers, have closed involvement with this family, there is any argument to be made by the GAL that the trial court erred in denying the petitions to terminate Mother's and Father's parental rights in October 2012. Accordingly, we affirm the orders of the trial court.

Orders affirmed.

Judge Mundy concurs in result.

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