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In re C.A.T.

Supreme Court of Montana

October 31, 2017

IN THE MATTER OF: C.A.T., A Youth in Need of Care.

          Submitted on Briefs: September 27, 2017

         APPEAL FROM: District Court of the Eleventh Judicial District, In and For the County of Flathead, Cause No. DN 17-001(D) Honorable Dan Wilson, Presiding Judge.

          For Appellant: Meri Althauser, Montana Legal Justice, PLLC, Missoula, Montana

          For Appellee: Timothy C. Fox, Montana Attorney General, Tammy A. Hinderman, Assistant Attorney General, Helena, Montana Ed Corrigan, Flathead County Attorney, Anne Lawrence, Deputy County Attorney, Kalispell, Montana


          James Jeremiah Shea 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 D.T. ("Father") appeals the findings of fact, conclusions of law, and order of the Eleventh Judicial District Court, Flathead County, terminating his parental rights to his eight-year-old daughter, C.A.T. We address whether the District Court abused its discretion in terminating Father's parental rights. We affirm.

         ¶3 Father has a criminal history dating back decades and has been convicted of eight felonies, including theft, burglary, and drug possession. While Father was on parole for a felony conviction out of Lewis and Clark County in 2009, C.A.T. was born. The record is unclear as to when C.A.T.'s birth mother ended her involvement in C.A.T.'s life, but Father parented C.A.T. until 2010, when he surrendered to his parole officer and was admitted to an in-patient drug treatment program for nine months.

         ¶4 Following the treatment program, Father was transferred to the Butte Prerelease Center for an additional six months. While there, Father would pick up C.A.T. and spend time with her every day. After Father was released in 2012, he regained physical custody of C.A.T. and married B.T. ("Stepmother"). On August 2, 2013, Father was charged with one count of felony burglary in Flathead County. At the time charges were filed, Father, Stepmother, and C.A.T. were living in Tennessee. After being extradited to Montana, Father pled guilty to felony burglary on October 10, 2014. He was originally sentenced to twenty years in Montana State Prison; however, the Sentence Review Division amended the sentence to twenty years with twelve years suspended.

         ¶5 In April 2014, the Tennessee Department of Children's Services took over care of C.A.T. due to Father's incarceration and her birth mother's unknown whereabouts. On August 18, 2015, a Tennessee court awarded Stepmother full legal and physical custody of C.A.T., and sometime thereafter the two relocated to Montana. Since then, C.A.T. has had no more direct contact with Father.

         ¶6 On August 10, 2016, Stepmother contacted the Montana Department of Health and Human Services (DPHHS), indicating that she wanted to give up custody of C.A.T. because she could no longer care for her. C.A.T. was placed in foster care, and DPHHS implemented a protective services plan. Though initially involved, Stepmother eventually disengaged with DPHHS. DPHHS did not inform Father that C.A.T. was placed in foster care. Father learned this fact from Stepmother's grandmother, after which he contacted DPHHS.

         ¶7 On January 4, 2017, the Flathead County attorney, on behalf of DPHHS, petitioned for emergency protective services and termination of any legal parent-child relationship between C.A.T. and her birth mother, Stepmother, and Father. DPHHS alleged that C.A.T.'s birth mother, Stepmother, and Father abandoned C.A.T., therefore, DPHHS should not have to provide reunification services, and all parental rights should be terminated.

         ¶8 At the January 20, 2017 pre-hearing conference, Father was not present but was represented by counsel. At DPHHS's request, the District Court postponed the matter to give DPHHS time to serve Stepmother and C.A.T.'s birth mother by publication. The District Court held a hearing on the petition on February 24, 2017, during which DPHHS Child Protection Specialist Supervisor (CPSS) Melissa Cichosz ("Cichosz") and Father testified.

         ¶9 On March 3, 2017, the District Court issued an order determining that C.A.T. was abandoned and, due to this abandonment, C.A.T. was a youth in need of care (YINC). The District Court terminated the parental rights of C.A.T.'s birth mother, Stepmother, and Father and granted ...

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