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In re Caleb M.

Supreme Court of Maine

April 6, 2017

IN RE CALEB M. et al.

          Submitted On Briefs: January 19, 2017

         Reporter of Decisions

          Virginia Lee Holt, Esq., Holt Family Law, Saco, 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.


          SAUFLEY, C.J.

         [¶1] More than two and a half years after Caleb M. and Ayden R. were first removed from their mothers care because of her substance abuse and consequent neglect, the mothers parental rights to the children were terminated by a judgment of the District Court (Portland, Eggert, J.). The mother appeals, arguing that the court did not independently exercise its judicial function, that the court improperly relied on the reports of a guardian ad litem (GAL), and that the evidence was insufficient to support the termination of her parental rights. We affirm the judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         [¶2] On November 7, 2013, the Department sought child protection orders on behalf of Caleb M. and Ayden R. due to allegations of neglect caused by the mothers substance abuse.[1] By agreement, on March 3, 2014, the court (Goranites, J.) made a finding of jeopardy against the mother as to each child, based on the mothers exposure of the children to drug use, criminal activity, and unsafe individuals; and her lack of appropriate housing. While these proceedings were pending, the mother gave birth to a daughter who is the subject of a separate child protection proceeding.

         [¶3] Judicial reviews were held on March 3 and September 3, 2014; March 3 and September 9, 2015; and March 8, 2016, and orders were entered by agreement after each of these reviews. Reports of a GAL were admitted in evidence at each of the judicial reviews. The September 9, 2015, and March 8, 2016, judicial reviews were presided over by the same judge (Eggert, J.) who ultimately presided over the termination hearing.

         [¶4] On December 14, 2015, the Department filed a petition to terminate the mothers parental rights to Caleb, and on February 18, 2016, the Department filed a petition to terminate her parental rights to Ayden. In both petitions, the Department alleged that the mother had inconsistently participated in mental health and substance abuse services, and had continued to permit unsafe individuals, including the three fathers of her children, to be present around the children.

         [¶5] The court conducted a hearing on the petitions on May 12 and 16, 2016, during which the court heard testimony from the mother, the mothers and the childrens providers, Department caseworkers, and the GAL. At the conclusion of the hearing, the court sought proposed orders from both the mother and the Department. In a judgment entered on June 2, 2016, in which the court largely adopted the Departments proposed order, the court terminated the mothers parental rights to both children.[2] In a footnote, the court noted that it had used the Departments proposed order "extensively" because "the Departments proposed findings align quite closely with the courts view of the evidence."

         [¶6] In its judgment, the court made the following supported findings by clear and convincing evidence. See In re Hannah S., 2016 ME 32, ¶ 3, 133 A.3d 590. The mother has had a substance abuse problem for several years. She participated in various treatment programs including outpatient, intensive outpatient, and residential programs. Her compliance with these treatment programs was inconsistent, and she was discharged from one program for her failure to make progress. Needles were found in her room at one of the treatment programs.

         [¶7] The mother relapsed on several occasions, and recent drug tests performed by her doctor showed elevated levels of her prescribed medications and indications that she was also using nonprescribed medications. In December 2015, the mother admitted that she overused her prescribed Suboxone. Only two months before her parental rights were terminated, a Department caseworker found needles in her bedside table.

         [¶8] The mother permitted several "unsafe men" to be present with the children. In early 2016, a Department caseworker making an unannounced visit to the mothers home discovered Aydens father hiding in a closet despite the mothers denial that he was there. Aydens father was then arrested on outstanding warrants. In April 2016, a caseworker visiting the mothers home noticed her infant daughters father leaving. When the caseworker asked the mother about needles that were found in a nightstand, she blamed the daughters father and his friend.

         [¶9] Caleb was afraid of returning to live with his mother because he worried that he would be the one who would have had to care for Ayden and their sister. He worried about having enough food to eat, and he regularly checked the cupboards in his foster home to see that there was enough food. Caleb has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, and is on the waiting list for more intensive in-home support, as well as trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy. Calebs therapist believes that returning Caleb to his mothers care would "re-traumatize" him.

         [¶10] The mother did not consistently attend visits with her children. The visit supervisor testified that Caleb seemed to "r[u]n the show" during visits with the mother. When the mother misses visits with Caleb, he becomes very upset. The Department intends to seek an adoptive placement for Caleb.

         [¶11] Ayden has been diagnosed with ADHD. In his foster placement, Ayden thrived on structure and routine. In late 2015, the mother was given the opportunity to have Ayden with her again. He was returned to his mothers ...

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