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In re Involuntary Termination of Parental Rights J.R.E.

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

September 3, 2019


          Appeal from the Order Entered September 11, 2018 In the Court of Common Pleas of Dauphin County Orphans' Court at No(s): 22-AD-2018

          BEFORE: BOWES, J., OLSON, J., and STABILE, J.


          OLSON, J.

         Appellant, D.E. (Mother), appeals pro se from an order entered on September 11, 2018 in the Orphans' Court Division of the Court of Common Pleas of Dauphin County that involuntarily terminated her parental rights to J.R.E. (hereinafter Child). We reverse.

         Mother and B.J. (Father) are the biological parents of Child, who was born in November, 2006 in Florida. Following Child's birth, Mother assumed custody of Child and Father returned to Pennsylvania. Child resided with Mother without incident for approximately six months.

         In May 2007, when Child was approximately six months old, Mother transported Child to a local hospital in Florida where he presented with hemorrhaging in the eyes and swelling of the brain. Doctors believed Child's injuries were consistent with shaken baby syndrome. Mother admitted to Florida authorities that her paramour, T.B., caused the injuries to Child. Because Child was diagnosed with shaken baby syndrome and only Mother and T.B. served as his caretakers, Florida officials determined that Child was at great risk of harm if he continued to reside with Mother. Consequently, Child was removed from Mother's custody.

         Eventually, Mother received permission to have unsupervised visits with Child on weekends, with a goal of reunification, provided that a safety plan would be implemented. Court records from Florida show that Mother enjoyed unsupervised visitation with Child from January 2008 through mid-March 2008 and that overnight visitation commenced on March 14, 2008. Mother's visitation program proceeded well until April 28, 2008 when, during an unannounced visit, a Florida guardian ad litem discovered an unapproved person (believed to be Child's abuser) in Mother's home during one of her visitation periods with Child.

         After this incident, Child was placed into Father's custody in Pennsylvania on August 8, 2008. From that date until the present, Child has been under the care and custody of Father and his wife, K.J. Child believes that K.J., his step-mother, is his biological mother.

         In the years since Father acquired custody, Mother has had only sporadic contact with Father and enjoyed only indirect contact with Child. Mother occasionally communicated with Father by telephone and through social media and has infrequently forwarded packages containing clothing for Child. Father, however, has not cooperated with Mother's efforts to contact Child. Instead, he has declined her telephone calls and rejected her packages. When he allowed Child to keep some of the items sent by Mother, he did not inform Child who forwarded the gifts.

         Presently, Mother holds a full-time job in Florida as a surgical technician and is engaged to be married. She also has two younger children who understand that Mother has a child from a prior relationship.

         In February 2017, Mother purchased airfare from Florida to Pennsylvania in the hope that Father would permit Child to meet his biological mother. Upon arrival, however, Father barred any contact between Child and Mother.

         On March 13, 2017, Mother filed a complaint seeking custody of Child and seeking Child's enrollment in counseling aimed at developing and implementing a plan for reunification with Child. Mother filed a petition for modification of custody on September 20, 2017. Mother's custody action against Father remains pending at this time.

         Father filed the instant petition to involuntarily terminate Mother's parental rights to Child pursuant to 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 2511(a) on March 1, 2018.[1]Mother filed a responsive pleading on July 2, 2018 opposing termination. After a continuance, the trial court convened a hearing on Father's termination petition on June 20, 2018. Father and Mother testified at the hearing. In addition, an attorney-guardian ad litem (GAL) appointed to represent Child testified. The GAL recommended that Mother's parental rights be terminated since Child did not know of Mother's existence and since reunification would not be in Child's best interest. The trial court adopted the GAL's recommendation and determined that Father met his burden of proof under 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 2511(a)(1). In addition, the court found that termination of Mother's parental rights would be in Child's best interest under 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 5328(a), which identifies the relevant statutory factors governing an award of custody. Mother's timely appeal followed.

         In reviewing an appeal from an order terminating parental rights, we adhere to the following standard:

[A]ppellate courts must apply an abuse of discretion standard when considering a trial court's determination of a petition for termination of parental rights. As in dependency cases, our standard of review requires an appellate court to accept the findings of fact and credibility determinations of the trial court if they are supported by the record. In re: R.J.T., 9 A.3d 1179, 1190 (Pa. 2010). If the factual findings are supported, appellate courts review to determine if the trial court made an error of law or abused its discretion. Id.; R.I.S., 36 A.3d 567, 572 (Pa. 2011) (plurality opinion)]. As has been often stated, an abuse of discretion does not result merely because the reviewing court might have reached a different conclusion. Id.; see also Samuel Bassett v. Kia Motors America, Inc., 34 A.3d 1, 51 (Pa. 2011); Christianson v. Ely, 838 A.2d 630, 634 (Pa. 2003). Instead, a decision may be reversed for an abuse of discretion only upon demonstration of manifest unreasonableness, partiality, prejudice, bias, or ill-will. Id.
As we discussed in R.J.T., there are clear reasons for applying an abuse of discretion standard of review in these cases. We observed that, unlike trial courts, appellate courts are not equipped to make the fact-specific determinations on a cold record, where the trial judges are observing the parties during the relevant hearing and often presiding over numerous other hearings regarding the child and parents. R.J.T., 9 A.3d at 1190. Therefore, even where the facts could support an opposite result, as is often the case in dependency and termination cases, an appellate court must resist the urge to second guess the trial court and impose its own credibility determinations and judgment; instead we must defer to the trial judges so long as the factual findings ...

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