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In re Child of Vanessa G.

Supreme Court of Maine

December 30, 2019


          Submitted On Briefs: December 17, 2019

          Christopher S. Berryment, Esq., Mexico, for appellant Mother

          Aaron M. Frey, Attorney General, and Zack Paakkonen, Asst. Atty. Gen., Office of the Attorney General, Augusta, for appellee Department of Health and Human Services


          PER CURIAM

         [¶1] Vanessa G. appeals from a judgment of the District Court (Farmington, Dow, J.) terminating her parental rights to her child pursuant to 22 M.R.S. § 4055(1)(A)(1)(a), (B)(2)(a), and (B)(2)(b)(i)-(ii) (2018).[1] She argues that the court erred in finding that she is an unfit parent.[2] We affirm the judgment.

         I. CASE HISTORY

         [¶2] In October 2017, the Department of Health and Human Services filed a petition for a child protection order and preliminary protection order for the mother's newborn child. See 22 M.R.S. §§ 4032, 4034 (2018). The petition primarily alleged that (1) the child was born drug affected due to the mother's drug use during pregnancy, (2) the mother was unwilling or unable to follow an appropriate feeding schedule for the child while at the hospital, and (3) the mother's boyfriend was at the hospital and appeared to be under the influence of drugs. That day, the court [Oram, J.) entered a preliminary protection order, placing the child in the Department's custody. See id. § 4034(2). The mother waived her right to a summary preliminary hearing. See id. § 4034(4).

         [¶3] In January 2018, the court (Carlson, J.) entered an agreed-to jeopardy order. See 22 M.R.S. § 4035 (2018). The court found that the child was in jeopardy based on the mother's "substance abuse, inability to recognize and prioritize the needs of her drug affected newborn, and minimal demonstration of a willingness to follow medical recommendations regarding feedings which could seriously harm [the child]."

         [¶4] In the fifteen months that followed, the Department engaged in reunification efforts with the mother. A persistent obstacle to reunification was the refusal of the mother's boyfriend to engage with the Department. The Department contended that, as long as the mother and the boyfriend were together, the child should not be placed in the mother's custody unless the boyfriend participated in the reunification process.

         [¶5] In a judicial review order dated July 11, 2018, the court stated that the boyfriend "is NOT to be living [with] [the mother] until he engages [with] [the Department]." In a subsequent judicial review order dated December 11, 2018, the court found that "[the mother] continues to live with her boyfriend" even though "[the boyfriend] has a significant criminal history [and] has not engaged with the Department's attempts at engaging him in services to address his issues."

         [¶6] In April 2019, the Department petitioned to terminate the mother's parental rights. See 22 M.R.S. § 4052 (2018). The court held a two-day contested hearing on the termination petition in May 2019. Following the hearing, the court issued a judgment terminating the mother's parental rights to her child. In its written order, [3] the court made the following findings by clear and convincing evidence. See 22 M.R.S. § 4055(1)(B)(2) (2018). Those findings are supported by evidence in the record. See In re Children of Benjamin W., 2019 ME 147, ¶ 5, 216 A.3d 901.

[The mother] has made significant progress in her substance abuse treatment, and the Court gives her credit for that

The remaining area of grave concern is [the mother's] ability to recognize and prioritize the needs of the child

With respect to child contact, [the mother] has not progressed beyond supervised visits with [the child]. Indeed, [the mother] chose to reduce the supervised visits from three-hour visits twice per week to two-hour visits twice per week, largely because [the mother] struggled to spend a full three hours with [the child] during the visits. She rationalizes this choice by saying that visiting with the child in a small room is like punishing the child, and prioritizing the child's needs over her own requires that she cut the visits short
Another failure to recognize and prioritize [the child's] needs was evidenced by [the mother's] delay in acknowledging the risk to [the child] posed by [the mother's boyfriend]. [The mother] has been in a relationship with [the boyfriend] for most of [the child's] life. [The boyfriend] has a troubling history of substance abuse and criminality, and he refuses to engage with the Department. The Department has long made it clear to [the mother] that it is concerned about [her boyfriend]. The Department offered to work with [the boyfriend] if he were to remain part of the picture with [the child]. In light of [the boyfriend's] refusal to work with the Department, [the mother] knew she had to choose between him and [the child]. [The mother] testified that she broke up with [the boyfriend] early in 2019, about fifteen months into the case, which could hardly be considered as a time frame ...

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