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In re Petition of D.R.M.

Court of Appeals of The District of Columbia

December 20, 2018

In re Petition of D.R.M.; T.M.S., Appellant.

          Argued September 27, 2017

          Appeals from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (ADA-70-15, ADA-71-15, ADA-72-15) (Hon. Sean C. Staples, Magistrate Judge) (Hon. Yvonne Williams, Associate Judge)

          Leslie J. Susskind for appellant.

          Sabine Browne for appellees A.S., M.S., and T.S.

          Rhodalyn Primes Okoroma, Assistant Attorney General, with whom Karl A. Racine, Attorney General for the District of Columbia, Todd S. Kim, then Solicitor General, and Loren L. AliKhan, then Deputy Solicitor General, were on the brief, for appellee District of Columbia.

          N. Kate Deshler Gould, guardian ad litem, filed a statement in lieu of a brief in support of appellee D.R.M.

          Before Blackburne-Rigsby, Chief Judge, and Glickman and Thompson, Associate Judges.

          Blackburne-Rigsby, Chief Judge

         Appellant T.M.S. appeals the Superior Court's order terminating her parental rights over her three biological daughters, A.S., M.S., and T.S., and granting the adoption petition of the children's foster parent, appellee D.R.M. T.M.S. broadly argues that the magistrate judge, in his order, which the associate judge affirmed, erred in (1) finding that she was unfit to parent her children, and (2) finding that D.R.M.'s petition for adoption was in the best interests of her children. The trial court's decision that T.M.S. was unfit to parent her children and that adoption is in the best interests of the children is supported by clear and convincing evidence in the record. We affirm.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         The record demonstrates that on January 28, 2012, Metropolitan Police Department ("MPD") officers found ten-year-old A.S., nine-year-old M.S., and four-year-old T.S., home alone. "[T]he home had minimal electricity, no gas, was infested with mice, and had minimal food and no hot water." The children reported to the officers that T.M.S. had left the "home early that morning and had not returned by evening." Upon removal, the girls were placed at St. Ann's Infant and Maternity Home until February 29, 2012, when they were placed together in a foster care home. On April 25, 2012, T.M.S. stipulated to the adjudication of neglect of her three daughters, admitting that "she suffered from a mental illness that impacted her ability to parent" her children, "and that her failure to receive treatment, the condition of her home and her leaving the children unattended provided a basis for the Court to find neglect pursuant to D.C. Code [§§] 16-2301 (9)(A)(ii) and (iii) [(2012 Repl.)]." As a result, the three children were put into the care of the Child and Family Services Agency ("CFSA"). On September 9, 2013, T.M.S. and the children's biological father, R.L.A., [1] were granted supervised visitation rights. On December 20, 2014, the girls were placed into D.R.M.'s home.

         Following the children's removal from T.M.S.'s home, the trial court ordered her to undergo a mental health evaluation and participate in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy ("CBT") and weekly drug tests. Following a psychiatric evaluation of T.M.S., McClendon Center psychiatrist, Dr. Steven Steury, diagnosed T.M.S. with "Adjustment [D]isorder, mixed depression [and], mixed depressed mood," and prescribed her Zoloft. T.M.S.'s treating therapist Korey Puckett, who has been treating T.M.S. using CBT, testified that T.M.S.'s symptoms include "maladaptive thoughts," "crying spells[, ] and repressed feelings," which cause her to "have a heightened suspicion" of others and assume others are trying to hurt her. The record indicates that the paramount concern of Dr. Steury and Mr. Puckett is that T.M.S.'s mental illness causes "poor [behavior] choice[s]," which prevent her from putting the best interests of her children above what she wants for her children. On June 5, 2013, the permanency goal was changed from reunification to adoption.

         A. The Termination of Parental Rights ("TPR") and Adoption Hearing

         The TPR and adoption hearing was held on October 15, 16, 23 and 28, 2015, before Magistrate Judge Staples. Although none of the three children testified at trial, the trial court admitted statements that they made to their counselor, James Sean Delehant, regarding their wishes for adoption and future relationship with T.M.S. All three children expressed their desire to be adopted by D.R.M., exhibited a clear understanding of the meaning of adoption, and understood "that they may lose all contact with [T.M.S.]" should they be adopted. The trial court took judicial notice that A.S., who was fourteen years old at the time, consented to the adoption, after A.S. signed and submitted to the court a consent form indicating her desire to be adopted by D.R.M. See D.C. Code § 16-304 (b)(1) (2012 Repl.).

         At the hearing, the court heard a great deal of testimony about T.M.S.'s struggles with mental illness and her lack of progress in ameliorating the conditions that led to her children's removal.[2] The court also heard quite a bit of testimony about the children's mental, emotional, and developmental struggles and their progress throughout their time following their removal from T.M.S.'s care. The court relied primarily on the testimony of six key witnesses: the foster mother, D.R.M.; the social worker, Christine Dogger; the expert witness, Dr. Seth King; the counselor, Mr. Delehant; the birth mother, T.M.S.; and the birth mother's therapist, Mr. Puckett.[3]

         B. The Magistrate Judge's Ruling and the Associate Judge's Affirmance on Review

         In detailed findings of fact and conclusions of law based on the aforementioned testimony, the trial court concluded that T.M.S. was unfit to parent the girls. See D.C. Code §§ 16-304 (e) and -2353 (b) (2012 Repl.).[4] Therefore, the trial court concluded that T.M.S. withheld her consent to adoption contrary to the children's best interests. Finally, the trial court concluded that adoption by D.R.M. was in the children's best interests, and T.M.S.'s consent was therefore waived.

         The trial court noted that T.M.S. "deeply loves her children," but that she, nonetheless, was not fit to parent the children "due to her long-term, ongoing unresolved mental health issues, refusal to admit to the neglectful conditions that her children were living in, and lack of stable housing." The trial court further reasoned that T.M.S. cancelled several scheduled visits with the children over the years. During several of the visits that T.M.S. attended, she exhibited a variety of irrational emotional states, which upset and agitated the children. Additionally, she continued to bring large amounts of food and unhealthy snacks to visits with the children, notwithstanding that two of the three children struggled with obesity, which greatly impacted their health and wellbeing. Finally, the trial court did not find ...

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