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Wright v. State, Department of Health & Human Services

Superior Court of Maine, Kennebec

August 14, 2014

RACHEL WRIGHT and JARED MORRISON, Petitioners,
v.
STATE OF MAINE, DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES, Respondent

ORDER ON RULE 80(C) APPEAL

Michaela Murphy, Superior Court Justice.

Before the Court are Jared Morrison's and Rachel Wright's (collectively, the " Parents") Rule 80C Petitions seeking review of the December 19, 2013 decision by the Department of Health and Human Services (" DHHS") upholding DHHS's substantiation finding for abuse and neglect by the Parents of Bryce Morrison (" B.M."), born on July 6, 2010. The Parents argue that DHHS's decision is arbitrary and capricious and not supported by substantial evidence or the entire record.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Jared Morrison and Rachel Wright are the parents of Bryce Morrison who resides with them and who is now four years old. (Mother's R. Ex. C at 2.) On October 3, 2011, DHHS received an anonymous report that the Parents' home was observed to be in a state of extreme uncleanliness and disarray and had " an overwhelming odor of cat urine, cat feces on the floors, bagged and loose garbage on the floors, " etc . (Mother's R. Ex. C at 3.) The referent, an EMS worker responding to a 911 call regarding a concern that B.M. had swallowed a penny, further reported having observed numerous small items among the trash and debris that B.M. could easily have grasped and indigested. (Mother's R. Ex. C at 3.) The referent also reported that B.M.'s face, hair, and clothing were unclean and unkempt. (Mother's R. Ex. C at 3.)

DHHS's investigation into the above allegations resulted in a determination of " unsubstantiated" [1] as the assigned caseworker found the home to be in a safe condition. (Mother's R. Ex. C at 3.) It was confirmed that the Parents' family members had cleaned the home the day prior to the caseworker's arrival. (Mother's R. Ex. C at 3.)

On March 26, 2012, DHHS received another anonymous report form a different source regarding the condition of the Parents' home, which was said to be dirty once again. (Mother's R. Ex. C at 3.) On March 26, 2012, DHHS's caseworker made an unannounced visit to the Parents' home at approximately 10:45 a.m. and observed hazards including garbage, fecal matter, vomit, cleaning chemicals, sharp objects, and coin-sized objects littering the floor of the residence and/or within easy reach of an infant or toddler, consistent with the referent's report. (Mother's R. Ex. C at 3.) The caseworker also observed that B.M. had dirt and dried food on his face, hands and clothing. (Mother's R. Ex. C at 3.) During the caseworker's visit, only one of the Parents, Jared Morrison, was home. (Mother's R. Ex. C at 3.) During her interview of Jared Morrison, the caseworker discovered that B.M. would be left alone and unsupervised in his room from 10:00 p.m. until 10:30 or 11:00 a.m. in the following morning when Mr. Morrison would generally wake up and that B.M. would be awake for one to two hours before Mr. Morrison. (Mother's R. Ex. C at 3.)

DHHS's caseworker arranged a safety plan for B.M. to stay with another family member until the cleanliness and safety concerns could be corrected. (Mother's R. Ex. C at 4.) She also contacted Ms. Wright and discussed her concerns based on the home visit and details of the safety plan. (Mother's R. Ex. C at 4.)

From March 28, 2012 to April 17, 2012, DHHS's caseworker interviewed a number of witnesses with knowledge of B.M.'s care and condition of the Parents' house, including William Darling, B.M.'s maternal great-uncle, with whom B.M. was arranged to stay in accordance with the safety plan, Erin Devoid, B.M.'s daycare provider, Dr. Mariscot, B.M.'s physician, Patricia Morrison, B.M.'s paternal grandmother, Thomas Morrison, paternal grandfather, Jessica Morrison, B.M.'s paternal aunt, and Andy Seymour, the Parents' housekeeper. (Mother's R. Ex. C at 4-5.) For the most part, the interviewees expressed concerns for B.M.'s cleanliness and confirmed that the Parents' home was maintained in an unsanitary and hazardous condition and that B.M. was regularly left unsupervised in his room. (Mother's R. Ex. C at 4-5.)

On April 24, 2012, DHHS sent a decision letter to the Parents informing them that DHHS substantiated them for abuse and neglect pursuant to 10-148 C.M.R. Ch. 201. (Mother's R. Ex. HO-1.) The Parents requested a " paper review" of the DHHS's substantiation decision pursuant to 10-148 C.M.R. Ch. 201, § VIII(A).[2] (Mother's R. Ex. HO-1.) On July 11, 2012, DHHS sent a letter to the Parents notifying them that the paper review resulted in a decision to uphold the original substantiation determination. (Mother's R. Ex. HO-1.)

Pursuant to 10-148 C.M.R. Ch. 201, § VIII(B), on August 12, 2013, at the Parents' request, the matter was presented for review at an Administrative Hearing to determine whether DHHS was correct when it found that the Parents subjected B.M. to abuse or neglect or failed to protect B.M. from abuse or neglect. (Mother's R. Ex. HO-1.) After a contested evidentiary hearing, the Hearing Officer issued a Recommended Decision dated October 25, 2013 stating that " a preponderance of the evidence in this case supports that [the Parents] subjected B.M. to abuse or neglect, or failed to protect B.M. from abuse or neglect, as those are defined by 22 M.R.S. § 4002(1)." [3] (Mother's R. Ex. C at 16.) The Hearing Officer also recommended that the Commissioner sustain DHHS's determination that abuse and neglect occurred. On December 19, 2013, the Commissioner adopted the Hearing Officer's findings of fact and accepted his recommended decision. It is from the December 19, 2013 decision that the Parents have taken this appeal.[4]

STANDARD OF REVIEW

The court must affirm agency decisions unless it finds an abuse of discretion, error of law, or findings unsupported by substantial evidence from the record.[5] Thacker v. Konover Dev. Corp ., 2003 ME 30, ¶ 14, 818 A.2d 1013 (citation and quotation marks omitted). The petitioner bears the burden of proving that " no competent evidence supports the [agency's] decision and that the record compels a contrary conclusion." Bischoff v. Maine State Ret. Sys ., 661 A.2d 167, 170 (Me. 1995) (citation omitted). " Judges may not substitute their judgment for that of the agency merely because the evidence could give rise to more than one result." Gulick v. Bd. of Envtl. Prot ., 452 A.2d 1202, 1209 (Me. 1982) (citation omitted). Rather, the court will defer to administrative conclusions when based on evidence that " a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. (citation and quotation omitted).

To substantiate a parent for abuse or neglect in this case, DHHS must find by a preponderance of the evidence that the parent acted, or failed to act, in a manner constituting a threat to the child's health or welfare by physical, mental or emotional injury or impairment, deprived the child of essential needs, or failed to protect the child from these harms. Kane v. Comm'r of Dep't of Health ...


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