Submitted On Briefs: June 2, 2015
On the briefs:
Henry I. Shanoski, Esq., Portland, for appellant mother
Janet T. Mills, Attorney General, and Meghan Szylvian, Asst. Atty. Gen., Office of the Attorney General, Augusta, for appellee Department of Health and Human Services
Panel: SAUFLEY, C.J., and ALEXANDER, MEAD, GORMAN, and JABAR, JJ.
[¶1] This appeal requires us to identify a process by which a parent may challenge a judgment terminating parental rights based on ineffective assistance of counsel. The mother of M.P. appeals from a judgment entered in the District Court (Portland, Powers, J.) terminating her parental rights pursuant to 22 M.R.S. § 4055(1) (2014) and denying her motion for relief from judgment pursuant to M.R. Civ. P. 60(b)(6) based on her claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. In addition to challenging the judgment terminating her parental rights, the mother argues that she was denied due process because she was not provided with the effective assistance of counsel and was not allowed to present witnesses' testimony at the hearing on the Rule 60(b)(6) motion. We now address the process to be employed for raising ineffective assistance claims in termination of parental rights matters, adopt a standard modeled after Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), and affirm the judgment.
A. Factual Findings
[¶2] Following a hearing on a petition filed by the Department of Health and Human Services to terminate the mother's parental rights to her daughter, the court found the following facts by clear and convincing evidence, and the findings are supported by competent evidence in the record. See In re Thomas D., 2004 ME 104, ¶ 21, 854 A.2d 195. When M.P. was born in December 2011, personnel at Maine Medical Center contacted the Department regarding the mother's inability to meet the child's basic needs and to remember instructions that were given to her. In January 2012, the Department filed a petition for a child protection order, and M.P. was placed with her mother's aunt.
[¶3] The mother has cognitive limitations and has suffered from anxiety and depression. From March 2012 to October 2012, the mother had visits with M.P. twice a week. During the visits, the mother needed a lot of reminding about how to care for M.P., and she was not consistent in her care.
[¶4] In October 2012, the mother and M.P. entered the Mary's Place residential parenting program. While at Mary's Place from October 2012 to June 2013, the mother struggled to understand M.P.'s developmental needs and to apply the advice that she was given to different situations. The mother had difficultly multi-tasking and there continued to be safety concerns; sometimes the mother would confine M.P. too long in her crib or highchair as a way of accomplishing other tasks without having to worry about her.
[¶5] When the mother left Mary's Place with M.P. after seven months of residential on-site parenting training and treatment, she still needed regular repetition and continued in-home support. Once back in her home, the mother was involved in the Spurwink Family Reunification Program for four to ten hours weekly, and she received ten to twenty hours per week of independent living skills services through Merrymeeting Behavioral Health.
[¶6] During the several months that the mother was involved in the Program, staff had to repeatedly address safety issues with the mother; she needed regular prompting and had trouble supervising M.P., who was by then an active toddler. After a team meeting in August 2013, the Program's staff decided to end its services for the mother and M.P. The team agreed that the mother needed support in a residential care program, which was no longer available. The mother was unable to progress to the parent education part of the Program because of ongoing safety concerns.
[¶7] After the Program ended, M.P. returned to living with her mother's aunt, and biweekly visits resumed with the mother. The mother was still not consistent in her care during visits.
B. Termination Hearing
[¶8] After a year of intensive services, including the residential parenting program at Mary's Place, the Department filed a petition for termination of the mother's parental rights on October 30, 2013. The termination petition asserted that, although the mother had consistently participated in all reunification services, "[h]er intellectual limitations are preventing [her] from having the ability to comprehend, understand and consistently implement the parenting skills, to be pro-active in anticipating safety issues and to manage the ongoing changes related to her child's overall development." The termination hearing was held in February 2014. The Department presented testimony from six witnesses: a psychologist who conducted an evaluation for the Child Abuse and Neglect Evaluation Program,  a social worker from Mary's Place, a case management worker from Mary's Place, a visit supervisor, a case management supervisor with Spurwink's Family ...