IN RE: INVOLUNTARY TERMINATION OF PARENTAL RIGHTS J.R.E., A MINOR APPEAL OF: D.E., MOTHER
from the Order Entered September 11, 2018 In the Court of
Common Pleas of Dauphin County Orphans' Court at No(s):
BEFORE: BOWES, J., OLSON, J., and STABILE, J.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.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.
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.
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 ...