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IN RE E.H.

October 1, 1998

IN RE E.H. G.H., APPELLANT.


APPEAL FROM THE SUPERIOR COURT, ANN O'REGAN KEARY, J. [718 A2d Page 163]

Before Wagner, Chief Judge, and Schwelb and Farrell, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Schwelb, Associate Judge.

On October 4, 1996, following a fact-finding hearing, a Superior Court judge found that respondent E.H., who was then almost three years old, was a neglected child. The judge's decision was based on the mental illness of E.H.'s mother, G.H., and on the consequences for E.H. of the mother's bizarre beliefs and conduct. On appeal, the mother contends that the finding of neglect was not supported by the evidence, and that the court intruded inappropriately on G.H.'s right to raise her daughter.

The case is a troubling one, for the evidence shows beyond doubt that G.H. loves E.H., that she has tried hard to be a good mother, that she has conscientiously attended [718 A2d Page 164]

to most of her daughter's material needs, and that she has not intentionally neglected E.H. or purposely done her harm. The trial judge nevertheless found, on the basis of substantial expert testimony and other evidence, that E.H. has special needs, and that in light of the mother's psychological disorder and the conduct to which that condition has led, the early intervention of public authorities was required to protect the daughter's well-being.

We conclude that the judge's dispositive findings were not clearly erroneous and that there was no error of law. Accordingly, we affirm.

I.

THE TRIAL COURT PROCEEDINGS

A. General background.

E.H. was born on December 17, 1993. Her parents were not married, and E.H.'s father, M.U., did not live with G.H. For the first two years of her life, E.H. resided with her mother.

On December 7, 1995, Diane Nguyen, a social worker then employed by the Department of Human Services (DHS), filed a petition in the trial court alleging that E.H. was a neglected child, in that she was without proper parental care and supervision, see D.C.Code § 16-2301(9)(B) (1997), and in that her mother was unable to discharge her parental responsibilities on account of mental incapacity, see D.C.Code § 16-2301(9)(C). On January 16, 1996, following an initial hearing on the petition, E.H. was placed with her father under the protective supervision of the court. E.H. has lived with her father since that time, and that placement was continued in effect following the fact-finding hearing. The mother has had unsupervised visitation rights.

B. The mother's mental illness.

The trial judge found, on the basis of essentially undisputed evidence, that the mother suffers from a "delusionary disorder, persecutory type." This diagnosis was confirmed by the District's expert witnesses *fn1 and by the mother's experts *fn1 as well. *fn1 The mother had been admitted to St. Elizabeths Hospital for this affliction for a month during the autumn of 1994.

For purposes of the present case, the principal expression of the mother's delusionary disorder was her steadfast belief that there were toxic fumes in her apartment and that these fumes were endangering her daughter's health and her own health as well. The mother reported these fumes on a number of occasions to the police and to the fire department, but no public agency confirmed the presence of fumes. *fn2

When the DHS social worker, Ms. Nguyen, was unable to detect any fumes in the apartment, the mother reported that she (the mother) and her daughter were the only persons who could smell them. *fn3 Although she was offered the opportunity to move to a different apartment, G.H. declined to do so. She stated that there had also been toxic fumes in her previous residence, and that the fumes would probably follow her if she moved. The mother testified that new pipes had been installed under her sink while she was at St. Elizabeths Hospital, and that some of the fumes were coming into the apartment through these pipes. At various times she assigned blame for the fumes to her brother and to her landlord, to the occupants of units [718 A2d Page 165]

above and below hers, and to unknown conspirators.

G.H. attributed remarkable effects to the toxic fumes. According to Dr. Missar, the District's psychiatric expert, the mother told him that the fumes

were putting her daughter into a deep sleep from which she was difficult to awaken.

She stated that they also clouded her ears, her hearing, her own hearing. She stated that she would put baking soda on her daughter's mouth in an attempt to revive her when she could not awaken her *fn4 and . . . she made several statements about the incident that seemed to me to be peculiar and possibly bizarre in terms of animals dying in her apartment, particularly cockroaches that died standing up, that were reportedly killed very quickly by these toxic fumes. And Ms. H. also commented that her family did not believe her.

The mother's preoccupation with toxic fumes was not the only manifestation of her delusionary condition. She was of the opinion that the other members of her family were ganging up on her and plotting to destroy her. *fn5 The mother claimed that on one occasion she had been poisoned at her brother's house and that her daughter had ingested the poison while breastfeeding. She also alleged that E.H.'s father had attempted to drug or poison her (G.H.) by putting something in her drink. According to Ms. Nguyen, the mother did not permit E.H. to play with other children because the other children were making fun of her. *fn5

G.H.'s apartment was tested for fumes, and E.H. was tested for lead poisoning and neurological disorders, all with negative results. The trial judge found, on the basis of substantial evidence, that the mother's beliefs about toxic fumes and about her persecution by others were the product of the mother's delusions.

C. The effects on the daughter of the mother's delusions.

The evidence at the fact-finding hearing revealed that the mother's obsession with imaginary toxic fumes had significant consequences for her daughter. This was of particular concern because, according to her pediatrician, E.H. was suffering from serious developmental delays, and she was substantially behind other children of her age in her understanding, communication, and language skills.

On several evenings during 1994, the mother, who lived in a sixth floor apartment, brought E.H. on to the balcony in order to escape the fumes. Mother and daughter then spent the night on the balcony. At the time, E.H. was approximately seven months old. This situation troubled Ms. Nguyen, who apprehended that the child might move and slip between the balcony's bars. The mother insisted that E.H. was too young to wander off, but she assured Ms. Nguyen that she would not have her daughter sleep on the balcony again.

The mother also testified that "it was hard to have a daily routine with the things that were going on in the apartment." *fn6 She stated that her daughter "missed out a lot of her life because she was unconscious a lot of times." According to the mother,

[t]here was no consistency. Sometimes we'd get up and only be up for like a couple of hours or so before something would come in and put her in a sleep state. . . . Sometimes something was in her[e] keeping us up [at night]. She was running around like it was ...


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