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IN RE DOM.L.S.

December 31, 1998

IN RE DOM.L.S., D.S., APPELLANT. IN RE DON.L.S., D.S., APPELLANT.


APPEAL FROM THE SUPERIOR COURT, BROOK HEDGE, J. [722 A2d Page 344]

Before Wagner, Chief Judge, and Mack and KING,[fn*] Senior Judges. [fn*] Judge King was an Associate Judge of the court at the time of argument. His status changed to Senior Judge on November 23, 1998.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Wagner, Chief Judge:

In these consolidated cases, D.S. (Ms. S.) appeals from orders of the trial court (1) denying her motion to dismiss a motion to terminate her parental rights of the minor children, Dom.L.S. and Don.L.S., and (2) denying her visitation with the children following an adjudication of neglect until a permanency plan was formulated. Ms. S. argues that the motion to terminate parental rights was filed prematurely under D.C.Code § 16-2354(b) (1997 Repl.) because it was filed less than six months after the disposition hearing, although more than six months after the adjudication of neglect. We hold that the time requirement for the filing of a motion to terminate parental rights under D.C.Code § 16-2354(b) is calculated from the date of adjudication of neglect. Therefore, the motion was timely filed in this case, the statutory criteria having been met otherwise. Since Ms. S.'s parental rights have been terminated pursuant to that motion, her remaining challenge to the denial of visitation is dismissed as moot. *fn1

I.

Dom.L.S. and Don.L.S. were born to D.S. on April 5, 1991 and May 10, 1993 respectively. On April 23, 1993, Ms. S. entered a plea of guilty to second degree murder of her three month old child, V.S., and she was sentenced to a term of incarceration of eight to twenty-four years, which she was serving at the time relevant hereto. On December 9, 1993, Ms. S. entered a stipulation admitting to neglect of her children, Dom.L.S. and Don.L.S., within the meaning of D.C.Code § 16-2301(9)(E). *fn2 A disposition hearing was scheduled for February 7, 1994. At the hearing, the government submitted a disposition report recommending that there be no visitation between Dom.L.S. and Ms. S. and that any visitation with Don.L.S. be under strict supervision. The trial court (Chief Judge Hamilton) denied visitation at that time because it had not been shown sufficiently that the visits would not be injurious to the welfare and well-being of the children. For that reason, the court denied visitation pending the formulation of a permanency plan which addressed Ms. S.'s role with the children.

On June 29, 1994, the guardian ad litem for the children filed a motion to terminate Ms. S.'s parental rights pursuant to D.C.Code § 16-2354. Ms. S. filed a motion to dismiss the motion on the ground that it had been filed less than six months from the date of the disposition bearing and was therefore premature. The trial court (Judge Brook Hedge) denied the motion to dismiss, and Ms. S. appealed (App. Nos. 95-FS-514 & 95-FS-515). In separate appeals, Ms. S. challenged the trial court's order denying her visitation with the children pending development of a permanency plan (App. Nos. 94-FS-258 & 94-FS-326).

II.

Ms. S. argues that the trial court erred in denying her motion to dismiss the motion to [722 A2d Page 345]

terminate her parental rights because it was filed prematurely, and therefore, the court lacked jurisdiction to consider it. D.C.Code § 16-2354(b) provides in pertinent part:

[a] motion for the termination of the parent and child relationship may be filed only when the child who is the subject of the motion has been adjudicated neglected at least six (6) months prior to the filing of the motion and the child is in the court-ordered custody of a department, agency, institution or person other than the parent;

Ms. S. contends that the six month time period provided for in § 16-2354(b) is calculated from the date of the disposition hearing rather than from the date of a stipulation or finding of neglect. The guardian ad litem for the children argues, consistent with the trial court's ruling, that the time for filing the motion under § 16-2354(b) is calculated from the date of the stipulation or trial finding of neglect.

In interpreting any statute, we start first with its plain meaning. J. Parreco & Son v. Rental Hous. Comm'n, 567 A.2d 43, 45 (D.C. 1989). "If the words are clear and unambiguous, we must give effect to [their] plain meaning." Id. The plain language of the statute supports the meaning accorded it by the trial court in this case. The statute expressly uses the date of adjudication of neglect to commence the six month period after which a motion to terminate parental rights may be filed. D.C.Code § 16-2354(b). The ordinary meaning of adjudication is clear. Adjudication is defined as "the determination of a controversy and a pronouncement of a judgment based on evidence presented, implies final judgment of the court or other body deciding the matter, as opposed to a proceeding in which the merits of the cause of action were not reached." BARRON'S LAW DICTIONARY 11 (4th ed. 1996). In BLACK'S LAW DICTIONARY, adjudication is defined as "[t]he legal process of resolving a dispute[;][t]he formal giving or pronouncing of a judgment or decree in a court proceeding; also the judgment or decision given." BLACK'S LAW DICTIONARY 42 (6th ed. 1990). However, an adjudication can be made without resolving all issues in the case; it may involve an interlocutory decision or final resolution of a particular issue. See WEBSTER'S THIRD NEW INTERNATIONAL DICTIONARY (1971).

Here, the statute, by its terms, makes the "adjudication of neglect" a condition precedent to the filing of a motion to terminate parental rights. The statute and applicable court rules differentiate between the factfinding proceeding in which an adjudication of neglect can be made and a dispositional hearing. An adjudication of neglect involves a determination that the parents have engaged in certain specified conduct contrary to the best interest of the child as defined in D.C.Code § 16-2301(9)(A)-(F). *fn3 See In re J.J.Z., 630 A.2d 186, 192 (D.C. 1993). After a factfinding hearing, the trial court determines whether the allegations of neglect have been established. D.C.Code § 16-2317(c)(2); Super. Ct. Neg. R. 4 (governing factfinding hearing). The rules for adjudicating a child neglected include a provision for the parents to stipulate to a finding of neglect, as Ms. S. did in this case. See Super. Ct. Neg. R. 17. In such cases, the parent can stipulate to specific facts which support a finding of neglect. [722 A2d Page 346]

Id. If satisfied that the stipulation was entered into voluntarily and knowingly and that it is sufficient to support a neglect finding, the trial ...


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