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[U] In re L. V. G.S.

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

February 12, 2014

IN RE: L. V. G.S., A/K/A L.G.-S, A MINOR
v.
IN RE: S.R.W., A MINOR APPEAL OF: S.R.G. APPEAL OF: S.R.G.

NON-PRECEDENTIAL DECISION

Appeal from the Order of July 8, 2013 In the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County Orphans' Court at No(s): TPR 118 OF 2012, TPR 119 OF 2012

BEFORE: PANELLA, OLSON and WECHT, JJ.

MEMORANDUM

OLSON, J.

S.R.G. ("Mother") appeals from two separate orders entered on July 8, 2013, granting petitions filed by the Allegheny County Office of Children, Youth and Families ("CYF") to involuntarily terminate her parental rights pursuant to 23 Pa.C.S.A. §§ 2511(a)(2), (a)(5), (a)(8) and (b) to her two female children, L.V.G.S., a/k/a L.G.-S. (born in April 2010) and S.R.G. (born in August 2006) (collectively referred to as "Children"). We affirm.[1]

The factual and procedural history, as gleaned from the certified record and trial court opinions, [2] is as follows. On June 18, 2010, CYF received complaints that Mother was abusing drugs, neglecting Children, and dealing with domestic violence issues in the household. On February 8, 2011, CYF received reports of sexual maltreatment of the Children. It was alleged that Mother allowed a known sexual predator to watch the older child. CYF instituted a safety plan that Mother failed to follow. Subsequently, CYF received a report of physical abuse regarding the older child, wherein it was alleged that Children's maternal grandmother put a belt around the child's neck, threatened to kill her, and then left both Children unattended in a hospital waiting room. On February 24, 2011, CYF removed Children from Mother's home and placed in them in foster care.

In March 2011, CYF provided Mother with a family service plan (FSP). Mother admitted to mental health, drug, and alcohol issues. The FSP provided that Mother, inter alia, maintain contact with CYF and service providers, maintain healthy and safe living conditions, obtain drug and alcohol treatment, and undergo a mental health evaluation. Subsequently, CYF expanded the goals of the FSP to include parenting and domestic violence classes and for Mother to maintain a stable relationship with Children.

On September 4, 2012, CYF filed petitions for involuntary termination of Mother's parental rights to Children. The trial court held a hearing on May 24, 2013. On July 8, 2013, the trial court entered orders involuntarily terminating Mother's parental rights to Children. This timely appeal resulted.[3]

On appeal, Mother raises the following issues for our review:
1. Is the trial court's finding a grounds for involuntary termination of [Mother's] parental rights under 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 2511(a)(2), § 2511(a)(5) and § 2511(a)(8) proven by a showing of clear and convincing evidence?
2. Is the trial court's finding that termination of parental rights serves the developmental, physical and emotional needs and welfare of the Children [] proved by clear and convincing evidence as required by 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 2511(b)?

Mother's Brief at 8 (superfluous capitalization omitted). Our standard of review regarding the termination of parental rights is well-established:

In cases involving termination of parental rights, our scope of review is broad. All of the evidence, as well as the trial court's factual and legal determinations, are to be considered. However, 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. Moreover, this Court will affirm a termination of parental rights if competent evidence supports the trial court's findings, even if the record could support an opposite result.

In re S.D.T., Jr., 934 A.2d 703, 705–706 (Pa.Super. 2007) (internal citations omitted).

The termination of parental rights is controlled by the Adoption Act.[4]In re Adoption of R.J.S., 901 A.2d 502, 507 (Pa.Super. 2006). The party seeking termination of parental rights has the burden of proving, by clear and convincing evidence, that sufficient grounds for termination exist. In re T.F., 847 A.2d 738, 742 (Pa.Super. 2004) (citations and quotation omitted). "The standard of clear and convincing evidence means testimony that is so clear, direct, weighty, and convincing as to enable the trier of fact to come to a clear conviction, without hesitation, of the truth of the precise facts in issue." In re J.D.W.M., 810 A.2d 688, 690 (Pa.Super. 2002) (quotation omitted).

This Court "need only agree with the [trial court's] decision as to any one subsection [of section 2511(a)] in order to affirm the termination of parental rights." In re B.L.W., 843 A.2d 380, 384 (Pa.Super. 2004) (en banc). Accordingly, for the purpose of our review, we will focus on the termination of Mother's parental rights pursuant to 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 2511(a)(8). The relevant statutory provisions state, in pertinent part:

§ 2511. Grounds for involuntary termination
(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:
(8) The child has been removed from the care of the parent by the court or under a voluntary agreement with an agency, 12 months or more have elapsed from the date of removal or placement, the conditions which led to the removal or placement of the child continue to exist and termination of parental rights would best serve the needs and welfare of the child.
(b) Other considerations.—[…] With respect to any petition filed pursuant to subsection (a)(1), (6) or (8), the court shall not consider any efforts by the parent to remedy the conditions described therein which are first initiated subsequent to the giving of notice of the filing of the petition.

23 Pa.C.S.A. § 2511(a)(8) and (b).

When considering a termination petition, the trial court must initially focus on the conduct of the parent, and determine whether statutory grounds for termination under Section 2511(a) are met. In re Adoption of R.J.S., 901 A.2d at 508. Subsection (a)(8) requires clear and convincing proof "(1) that the child has been removed from the care of the parent for at least twelve (12) months; (2) that the conditions which had led to the removal or placement of the child still exist; and (3) that termination of parental rights would best serve the needs and welfare of the child." Id. at 511. In a Section 2511(a)(8) analysis, the focus is solely on whether the conditions which led to the child's initial placement continue to exist. "Termination under Section 2511(a)(8) does not require the court to evaluate a parent's current willingness or ability to remedy the conditions that initially caused placement or the availability or efficacy of Agency services." In re Z.P., 994 A.2d 1108, 1118 (Pa.Super. 2010) (emphasis added) (citations omitted). This Court has explained:

We recognize that the application of Section (a)(8) may seem harsh when the parent has begun to make progress toward resolving the problems that had led to removal of her children. … However, by allowing for termination when the conditions that led to removal of a child continue to exist after a year, the statute implicitly recognizes that a child's life cannot be held in abeyance while a parent attempts to attain the maturity necessary to assume parenting responsibilities. The court cannot and will not subordinate indefinitely a child's need for permanence and stability to a parent's claims of progress and hope for the future. Indeed, we work under statutory and case law that contemplates only a short period of time, to wit eighteen (18) months, in which to complete the process of either reunification or adoption for a child who has been placed in foster care.

In re Adoption of R.J.S., 901 A.2d at 513 (emphasis in original) (citations omitted). "A parent is required to exert a sincere and genuine effort to maintain a parent-child relationship; the parent must use all available resources to preserve the parental relationship and must exercise reasonable firmness in resisting obstacles placed in the path of maintaining the parent-child relationship." In re C.M.S., 832 A.2d 457, 462 (Pa.Super. 2003) (internal quotation omitted).

Furthermore, "we are instructed that we may not consider any effort by the parent to remedy the conditions described in subsection[](a)(8) if that remedy was initiated after the parent was given notice that the termination petition had been filed." In re Z.P., 994 A.2d at 1121 (citation omitted); 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 2511(b). Further, this evidentiary limitation applies to the entire termination analysis. Id. The court, however, may consider post-petition efforts if the efforts were initiated before the filing of the termination petition and continued after the petition date. Id.

In this case, Children were removed from Mother's care and custody for more than one year. Children were removed from Mother on February 24, 2011. CYS filed its petitions to terminate Mother's parental rights on September 4, 2012. Thus, the first requirement of Section 2511(a)(8) was clearly satisfied.

Next, we examine whether the conditions that led to the removal of Children continue to exist. Initially we note, on appeal, Mother concedes that she "has not completed all of her [FSP] [g]oals at this time" but argues she "has made progress toward all of those [g]oals." Mother's Brief at 18.

She avers "the conditions which led to removal, although not completely remedied, have been remedied to a certain extent and will continue to be remedied within a reasonable amount of time." Id. at 21 (emphasis added). As stated above, the trial court is required to focus solely on whether the conditions that led to the child's initial placement continue to exist, not to evaluate Mother's willingness or ability to remedy the conditions. In re Z.P., supra. The court cannot and will not subordinate indefinitely a child's need for permanence and stability to a parent's claims of progress and hope for the future. In re Adoption of R.J.S., supra. By Mother's own admission, the conditions that led to Children's removal have not been completely remedied and, hence, continue to exist.

Moreover, the trial court specifically found that such conditions continue to exist. Here, the conditions that led to the Children's removal included, inter alia, Mother's lack of safe housing, drug and alcohol abuse, and mental health issues. At the termination hearing, Mother, two caseworkers, and a licensed psychologist testified.

With regard to housing, Mother testified at the May 24, 2013 hearing that she was living with her mother, but had filled out an application through the housing authority approximately "a month and a half" before the hearing, was accepted into a program, and was set to move "within a month." N.T., 5/24/2013, at 86. As already established, CYF filed the termination petitions on September 4, 2012. Accordingly, all of Mother's housing efforts took place after CYF filed the petitions and the trial court was not able to consider them. In re Z.P., supra. In addition, Mother admitted that she was living with her mother. Children were removed from Mother's custody, because, at least in part, it was alleged that maternal grandmother was physically abusive towards Children and left them unattended.

Next, with regard to remedying drug and alcohol issues, both CYF caseworkers testified that Mother was not compliant with drug screening from February 2012 through December 2012, missing 15 of 16 scheduled appointments. N.T., 5/24/2013, at 18-19, 35. Mother flatly denied having a drug or alcohol problem at the time of the hearing. Id. at 87. She acknowledged that she did not attend all of her scheduled drug screenings, citing transportation issues. Id. at 88. Mother simply did not exercise reasonable firmness in resisting obstacles placed in the path of maintaining the parent-child relationship. In re C.M.S., supra. Mother has not resolved her drug and alcohol issues, a condition that led to Children's removal.

Finally, with regard to Mother's mental health issues, one of the CYF caseworkers testified that early in the case Mother stated she had a history of mental health concerns, specifically, schizophrenia. N.T., 5/24/2013, at 9. Mother informed the licensed psychologist assigned to this case that she had auditory hallucinations and Mother was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. Id. at 50. In June 2011, Mother was admitted to Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic. Id. at 16-17. After discharge in August 2011, she was assigned a mental health case manager and a visiting nurse. Id. Initially, Mother was cooperative, but by December 2011 or January 2012, she asked her mental health case manager to leave, did not maintain her therapy sessions, and missed appointments with her nurse. Id. at 16. Mother indicated that she was currently in mental health treatment at Mercy Behavioral Health, but had not informed her CYF caseworker. Id. at 86-87. When the trial court inquired as to when Mother resumed mental health treatment, she stated it had been two weeks. Id. at 91. Mother clearly did not follow through with handling her mental health issues during the year prior to the filing of CYF's termination petitions and only resumed treatment after the filings. Hence, Mother's mental health concerns remain.

Although Mother contends that she has been working toward improving her situation in life and the conditions that led to Children's removal, there is no indication as to when Mother will be able to care for Children on her own. Mother argues that she is working on completing most of the requirements of her FSP, but the foregoing establishes she has not completed any of the three aforementioned conditions -- Mother's lack of safe housing, drug and alcohol abuse, and mental health issues. Over a year has passed, the trial court determined the conditions that led to Children's removal remained, and the record supports the trial court's determination.

Finally, with regard to the best interests and welfare of Children, the licensed psychologist testified that she conducted interactive evaluations of Children with both their foster mother and Mother. Mother's "parenting had significantly deteriorated, as had the [C]hildren's responsiveness toward her." Id. at 55. The licensed psychologist testified that Children did not seem to be Mother's priority, Mother was distracted on her cellular phone, did not intervene when the Children were hitting each other and eating food off the floor, and Mother left early. Id. at 55-56. Whereas, the foster mother "was very encouraging towards" and "consistently engaging" with Children. Id. at 57. The psychologist testified that she "believe[d] it would be in [Children's] best psychological interest to remain in their current home permanently through adoption." Id. She further stated that there would be no negative impact on Children, because she "did not observe them to exhibit having their primary bonding toward" Mother. Id. at 57-58. We find this evidence clearly established the best interest of Children required termination of Mother's parental rights. Thus, for all of the foregoing reasons, we find no abuse of discretion in involuntarily terminating Mother's parental rights under Section 2511(a)(8).

In her second issue on appeal, Mother contends that the trial court "erred in its finding that CYF proved by clear and convincing evidence that [t]ermination of [her] [p]arental [r]ights best meets the needs and welfare of the Children as set forth in 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 2511(b)."[5] Mother's Brief at 23.

(b) Other considerations.--The court in terminating the rights of a parent shall give primary consideration to the developmental, physical and emotional needs and welfare of the child. The rights of a parent shall not be terminated solely on the basis of environmental factors such as inadequate housing, furnishings, income, clothing and medical care if found to be beyond the control of the parent. […]

23 Pa.C.S.A. § 2511(b).

In reviewing the evidence in support of termination under Section 2511(b), we consider whether the termination of parental rights would best serve the developmental, physical and emotional needs and welfare of the child. See In re C.M.S., 884 A.2d at 1286-1287. "Intangibles such as love, comfort, security, and stability are involved in the inquiry into the needs and welfare of the child." Id. at 1287 (citation omitted). The court must also discern the nature and status of the parent-child bond, with utmost attention to the effect of permanently severing that bond with the child. See id. This Court has observed that no bond worth preserving is formed between a child and a natural parent where the child has been in foster care for most of the child's life, and the resulting bond is attenuated. In re K.Z.S., 946 A.2d 753, 764 (Pa.Super. 2008).

In this case, CYS removed Children from Mother's home at an early age. The youngest child was less than a year old; her sibling was four-years-old. They had been in foster care for well over two years. Children had been in foster care for much or most of their lives, thus, the bond between them and Mother was attenuated. Moreover, as previously mentioned, CYF presented the testimony of a licensed psychologist. She opined that Children were primarily bonded to their foster mother and that there would be no negative impact on them if Mother's bond was severed. Thus, we conclude CYF presented clear evidence that termination of Mother's parental rights would best serve the developmental, physical and emotional needs and welfare of Children pursuant to Section 2511(b).

Accordingly, after a careful review, we affirm the orders terminating Mother's parental rights to Children on the basis of Section 2511(a)(8) and (b).

Orders affirmed.

Judgment Entered.


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