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In re L.M.F.

Supreme Court of Montana

January 24, 2017

IN THE MATTER OF: L.M.F., N.R.F., N.M.F., K.J.F., and K.W.F., Youths in Need of Care.

          Submitted on Briefs: December 28, 2016

         APPEAL FROM: District Court of the Thirteenth Judicial District, In and For the County of Yellowstone, Cause Nos. DN 14-006, DN 14-009, DN 14-131, DN 14-007, and DN 14-008 Honorable Mary Jane Knisely, Presiding Judge

          For Appellant: Tracy Labin Rhodes, Attorney at Law, Missoula, Montana

          For Appellee: Timothy C. Fox, Montana Attorney General, Katie F. Schulz, Assistant Attorney General, Helena, Montana Scott D. Twito, Yellowstone County Attorney, Corbit S. Harrington, Deputy County Attorney, Billings, Montana


          Mike McGrath, Chief Justice

         ¶1 Pursuant to Section I, Paragraph 3(c), Montana Supreme Court Internal Operating Rules, this case is decided by memorandum opinion and shall not be cited and does not serve as precedent. Its case title, cause number, and disposition shall be included in this Court's quarterly list of noncitable cases published in the Pacific Reporter and Montana Reports.

         ¶2 L.F. (Mother) appeals from the May 14, 2016 order terminating her parental rights to her children L.M.F., N.R.F., N.M.F., K.J.F., and K.W.F. We affirm.

         ¶3 In September 2013, the Department of Public Health and Human Services (Department) received reports of concern for Mother's children. To increase Mother's parenting skills the family began home visits with Barb Wood of the Family Support Network. Wood reported the home was chaotic including fighting, joblessness, forced evictions, and homelessness. Mother lacked parenting skills and neglected the children's needs. Due to her continuing crises, she was unable to make progress in her parenting skills. The Department received a report of alleged physical abuse in the home by the father of one of the children in November 2013.[1] Mother began regularly attending mental health counselling and had an initial psychological evaluation. The oldest two children were diagnosed with special needs. Mother appeared to have no real emotional connection with the children.

         ¶4 L.M.F., N.R.F., N.M.F., and K.J.F. were removed from Mother's care on February 11, 2014, after Mother displayed physical violence toward one child after losing her temper. The Department filed a Petition for Emergency Protective Services (EPS), Adjudication as Youths in Need of Care (YINC), and Temporary Legal Custody (TLC). Mother stipulated to the adjudication as YINC at the show cause hearing in March 2014, and the children were adjudicated as such in April 2014. The four cases were consolidated. In March 2014, Mother had a neuropsychological evaluation, which indicated she was mildly impaired though functional, had depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as symptoms consistent with borderline personality disorder. Testimony indicated Mother's mental health and personality disorders created a high risk of harm to the children through violence and neglect.

         ¶5 In June 2014, Mother participated in the creation of and signed a treatment plan, which the District Court approved. Neither Mother nor her counsel objected to the treatment plan. The plan called for Mother to complete significant activities to address her mental health, anger management, and domestic violence issues. It required her to improve her parenting skills, to improve and maintain her parent-child relationships, and to internalize and show progress in those skills. Finally, she was required to provide a safe, stable, and healthy environment for her children. Mother completed psychological exams, violence risk assessments, and parenting assessments.

         ¶6 In October 2014, Mother had a fifth child, K.W.F., who was placed immediately with the Department, adjudicated as a YINC, and TLC was granted. On December 20, 2014, Mother was arrested for partner/family member assault.

         ¶7 The Department was concerned that Mother was not internalizing her treatment, demonstrating sufficient parenting abilities or lifestyle changes, and continued to be unable to understand how her actions and stress influenced her parenting abilities and her children. At a visitation with the children, Mother seemed unable to engage with them. She was defensive, inconsistent, and frustrated with the children and unable to understand the children's needs. However, Mother continued working on her treatment plan through May 2015. TLC was extended multiple times based on Mother's engagement with the Department and her ongoing work with her treatment plan. A status hearing was held in September 2015.

         ¶8 In December 2015, the Department filed for termination of Mother's parental rights to her five children, based on the fact that she had not completed the treatment plan and her inability to "benefit from the services at a level which allows her to safely parent her children." The termination of parental rights hearing concluded after five days of testimony. The District Court terminated Mother's parental rights, finding the treatment plan was appropriate, yet not successful, and that the condition of Mother rendering her unfit was unlikely to change within a reasonable time.

         ¶9 This Court reviews a district court's decision to terminate parental rights for an abuse of discretion. In re T.S., 2013 MT 274, ¶ 21, 372 Mont. 79, 310 P.3d 538. A district court's decision to terminate a parent's rights will not be disturbed on appeal unless there is a mistake of law or a finding of fact not supported by substantial evidence that ...

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