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In re J.W.

Supreme Court of Montana

July 23, 2013

IN THE MATTER OF: J.W., A Youth in Need of Care.

Submitted on Briefs: June 12, 2013

APPEAL FROM: District Court of the Sixth Judicial District, In and For the County of Park, Cause No. DN 12-10 Honorable William Nels Swandal, Presiding Judge COUNSEL OF RECORD:

For Appellant: Lucy W. Hansen; Hansen Law Practice; Missoula, Montana

For Appellee: Timothy C. Fox, Montana Attorney General; Kathryn F. Schulz, Assistant Attorney General; Helena, Montana, Brett D. Linneweber, Park County Attorney; Kathleen Carrick, Deputy County Attorney; Livingston, Montana.

OPINION

Jim Rice, Justice.

¶1 A.L. appeals from the Order of the Sixth Judicial District Court, Park County, terminating her parental rights to five-year-old J.W. We affirm, and address the issues:

¶2 1. Did the District Court err by failing to conduct a stand-alone hearing on whether the Department should be required to make reasonable efforts to reunify Mother and J.W.?

¶3 2. Did the District Court commit reversible error by failing to conduct a permanency plan hearing?

¶4 3. Did the District Court err by concluding that the circumstances surrounding

Mother's prior terminations in Colorado were relevant to her parenting of J.W.?

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

¶5 A.L. (Mother) and C.W. (Father) are the biological parents of J.W., a girl. On December 24, 2012, the District Court terminated Mother's parental rights to J.W. because it determined that Mother's unfit parenting behavior had not changed since a Colorado court had terminated her rights to two other children. Mother argues that her previously unfit parenting in Colorado should not provide a basis for terminating her parental rights to J.W. because she has changed.

Termination of Mother's Parental Rights to A.K.M.H. and Q.D.J.W.

¶6 Mother is the biological mother of four children born from 1996 to 2008: Aus. L. (1996), A.K.M.H. (2002), Q.D.J.W. (2005), and J.W. (2008). In 2005, Mother and Father were living together in Colorado. Following a domestic violence incident between Mother and Father, the Clear Creek County Department of Human Services (CCDHS) instituted a child-abuse investigation regarding Mother's three children (J.W. was not yet born). The investigation determined that Mother had a history of violence with her domestic partners, used dangerous drugs, and had prior involvement with child protective services in Washington and Idaho. In an attempt to remedy her parenting problems, CCDHS instituted a treatment plan to which Mother agreed. The plan required Mother to, among other things, maintain a clean and sober lifestyle, complete a drug and alcohol evaluation, attend to the medical and mental health needs of her children, stay violence free, and generally be able to parent her children. People ex rel. A.J.L., 243 P.3d 244, 247 (Colo. 2010). Mother failed to comply with the treatment plan: she continued to use drugs and tested positive for methamphetamine several times between October 2006 and March 2007. In May 2007, against the advice of the CCDHS treatment team, Mother moved to Montana, leaving A.K.M.H. and Q.D.J.W. behind. Mother told CCDHS that she was moving "to get away from [Father] and because she did not trust the CCDHS treatment team." People ex rel. A.J.L., 243 P.3d at 247. Truth be told, however, Mother and Father were living together in Livingston, Montana. Mother continued to lie to CCDHS caseworkers about not living with Father because their violent relationship was a primary reason CCDHS was seeking removal of A.K.D.H. and Q.D.J.W.

¶7 In January and February 2009, a Colorado trial court held a three-day trial, which Mother attended, on CCDHS's petition to terminate Mother's parental rights to A.K.M.H. and Q.D.J.W. (Aus. L. was not subject to this proceeding). Based on the testimony, the court terminated Mother's rights because she was "unfit as a parent and unlikely to change within a reasonable period of time":

At trial, the People produced substantial evidence and elicited testimony from witnesses supporting its contention that mother continues to deny the severity of abuse she inflicted on [A.K.M.H. and Q.D.J.W.]. They also produced evidence and elicited testimony from witnesses showing that mother's inability or unwillingness to acknowledge the abuse and its impact on her children placed a substantial roadblock between mother and her ability to safely and effectively parent [A.K.M.H. and Q.D.J.W.]. While on the stand, at trial, mother admitted to abusing her oldest son [Aus. L.], but denied that she ever physically abused [A.K.M.H. and Q.D.J.W.] or withheld food from them.
Contrary to mother's testimony, . . . the trial court found that mother left the children without supervision and food; mother and [Father] physically disciplined the children with belts, spoons, and hands; mother confined the children to a dark closet for long periods of time; and the children witnessed domestic violence between mother and [Father].

People ex rel. A.J.L., 243 P.3d at 248-49.

Termination of Mother's Parental Rights to ...


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