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In re Alexandria C.

Supreme Court of Maine

December 22, 2016


          Argued: October 27, 2016

          Verne E. Paradie, Jr., Esq. (orally), Paradie, Sherman, Walker & Worden, Lewiston, for appellant mother

          Janet T. Mills, Attorney General, and Meghan Szylvian, Asst. Atty. Gen. (orally), Office of the Attorney General, Augusta, for appellee Department of Health and Human Services


          SAUFLEY, C.J.

         [¶1] The mothers parental rights to Alexandria C. were terminated by a judgment of the District Court (Skowhegan, Benson, J.) on June 8, 2015, after police discovered that the mother had taken a series of shocking, graphic, and abusive photographs of her daughter, and the mother declined to participate in any way in reunifying with the child.[1] We affirmed the judgment. In re AC, Mem-15-106 (Dec. 22, 2015). The mother then filed a motion for relief from judgment, alleging the ineffective assistance of counsel. She now appeals the courts denial of that motion. Because the mother failed to meet her burden to prove that her trial counsel was ineffective, we affirm the judgment. We take this opportunity to clarify the emerging process for post-judgment review of judgments terminating parental rights.

         I. BACKGROUND

         [¶2] The petition for termination in this case was unusual in that Alexandrias father is well able to care for her, and she is safely placed with her father where she has made "progress ... emotionally, mentally, physically, and academically in his care." Ordinarily, there would be no need to permanently terminate the mothers rights to her child. Unfortunately, the mothers obsession, since at least May of 2008, "with the belief that the father... is a mortal danger to [Alexandria]" has resulted in her unwillingness or inability to allow Alexandria to be raised in peace by her father. The termination court summarized an extensive history of litigation by the mother in which she alleged abuse by the father in three protection from abuse matters, the parents divorce, and in post-divorce motions. The court further noted that there was never a finding of abuse in any of these matters.

         [¶3] We affirmed the termination of the mothers parental rights because, as the guardian ad litem recognized, the mothers litigiousness would in all likelihood lead her immediately "back to court attempting to amend [any] parental rights and responsibilities order." Her litigious approach to the ancillary family matter proceedings, along with her obstinate unwillingness to participate in any services designed to allow her to normalize her relationship with her daughter, necessitated the unusual action by the Department of Health and Human Services seeking to have her parental rights permanently terminated.

         [¶4] The child protective proceeding originated when the police discovered the mothers graphic photographs of Alexandria. The court granted a preliminary child protection order on the same day. When the mother contested the preliminary order two weeks later, the court (Fowle, J.) found that Alexandria was at immediate risk of serious harm and granted custody of Alexandria to her father. After a hearing in which the court made a finding of jeopardy as to the mother, including an aggravating factor, the Department filed a petition to terminate the mothers parental rights.

         [¶5] The court (Benson, J.) then held a hearing on the termination petition and considered the testimony of the mother and the Department caseworker, reports of a GAL, and orders that were entered in prior family and protection from abuse matters. The court found that the mother "has not gained any appreciation for the gravity and the harm" caused by her "outrageous and disgusting conduct, " and that she remained a "considerable and significant threat" to Alexandria. Further finding that termination was in Alexandrias best interest, the court entered a judgment terminating the mothers parental rights.

         [¶6] The mother appealed, arguing that there was insufficient evidence to support the courts findings. See In re AC, Mem 15-106 (Dec. 22, 2015). We affirmed the courts judgment terminating the mothers parental rights on December 22, 2015. Id. While the mothers appeal was pending, on October 29, 2015, we published an opinion in a different child protection proceeding in which we announced the procedural requirements and standards that apply to claims of ineffective assistance of counsel in cases for termination of parental rights. In re M.P., 2015 ME 138, 126 A.3d 718.

         [¶7] Relying on the process announced in that case, on January 8, 2016, seventeen days after we affirmed the judgment terminating her parental rights, the mother filed a motion for relief from judgment. See M.R. Civ. P. 60(b). She argued that her trial counsel had rendered ineffective assistance. She did not file the required sworn affidavit identifying the basis for her claim. See In re M.P., 2015 ME 138, ¶ 21, 126 A.3d 718.

         [¶8] Despite the missing affidavit and the questions regarding timing, the court acted cautiously and allowed the mother to proceed promptly to hearing to challenge her counsels representation. The mother and her former attorney testified at the hearing. At the conclusion of the hearing, the court recited the following factual findings from the bench, which are supported by record evidence. During the termination proceeding, the mother was rigid and unwilling to consider any resolution that would allow contact between Alexandria and the father. The mother threw "roadblocks" in the way of meeting with her attorney, would not provide releases for her attorney to meet with her medical providers, and declined to provide witnesses. The mothers trial counsel thoroughly ...

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