APPEAL FROM THE MADISON COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT [NO. JV-14-70-3 ] HONORABLE STACEY ZIMMERMAN, JUDGE.
Leah Lanford, Arkansas Public Defender Commission, for appellant.
Jerald A. Sharum, Office of Chief Counsel, for appellee.
Chrestman Group, PLLC, by: Keith L. Chrestman, attorney ad litem for minor child.
WAYMOND M. BROWN, Judge.
Appellant Sarha Sisemore appeals the order of the Madison County Circuit Court that gave permanent custody of her daughter, H.S. (born 05-18-14), to Sonia and Miles Yates and closed the dependency-neglect case. Appellant argues that the court erred by awarding the Yateses permanent custody of H.S. because (1) appellant had made significant and measureable progress toward remedying issues that caused the removal of H.S., and the Department of Human Services (DHS), Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), and the attorney ad litem recommended an additional three months to transition H.S. into appellant's home pursuant to Arkansas Code Annotated § 9-27-338(c)(3); and (2) because permanent custody with the Yateses was not in H.S.'s best interest where there were serious questions about the care H.S. was receiving in the Yateses' home and where H.S. would be separated from a "full-blooded sibling." We affirm.
DHS took emergency custody of H.S. on October 26, 2014, after she suffered a skull fracture and retinal hemorrhages while in Jarid's custody. On October 29, 2014, DHS filed a petition for emergency custody and dependency-neglect against appellant and Jarid alleging that H.S. was dependent-neglected as a result of parental unfitness and neglect. An ex parte order placing H.S. in DHS custody was granted and filed on October 29, 2014. A probable-cause order was filed on October 31, 2014, finding that the emergency conditions that had necessitated removal of H.S. continued; H.S. should remain in DHS's custody; and it was contrary to H.S.'s welfare to be returned to her parents. DHS was ordered to develop a case plan and appellant was ordered to do a number of things, including (1) call Toni Johnson weekly, (2) not use illegal drugs/alcohol, (3) submit to random drug screens as requested by DHS, (4) obtain and maintain stable housing and employment adequate enough for appellant and H.S., (5) maintain a clean, safe home for herself and H.S., (6) demonstrate ability to protect H.S. and keep her safe from harm, and (7) follow court orders. The order also allowed certain relatives to sit with H.S. at the hospital if the hospital staff determined that H.S. was well enough for visitors.
The adjudication hearing took place on December 5, 2014. Following the hearing, an order was filed adjudicating H.S. dependent-neglected as a result of abuse, neglect, and parental unfitness. The court found that H.S. was subjected to aggravating circumstances due to the severity of her head injuries. The goal of the case was set for reunification, with a concurrent goal of relative placement. H.S. was placed in the custody of Sonia Yates, and appellant was granted supervised visitation for two hours a week. The court found that appellant had not corrected the conditions which caused removal and had not made substantial progress so that reunification could occur within a reasonable period of time consistent with H.S.'s developmental needs. The court ordered appellant to (1) have a psychological evaluation; (2) participate in individual counseling; and (3) complete thirty hours of infant-parenting class before March 1, 2015, and demonstrate improved, appropriate parenting after completion of the classes and provide proof of completion to her DHS caseworker. The prior orders of the court remained in effect. The court also ordered DHS to make all referrals within ten business days, to provide appellant with transportation if needed, to do a home study on appellant and Jarid when they obtained new housing, and to pay for any family services ordered.
A review order was filed on April 3, 2015, finding that a return to appellant's custody was contrary to H.S.'s welfare. The court found that H.S. should remain in Sonia's custody. The court stated that appellant needed to address her mental-health issues through more counseling and ordered her to participate in another round of individual counseling and twelve more hours of parenting classes. The goal of the case continued to be reunification with a concurrent goal of relative placement. The order reflects that appellant had complied with some of the court orders and the case plan and that she had made some progress toward alleviating or mitigating the cause of H.S.'s removal from the home. However, the court noted that appellant had not maintained stable housing and employment. Appellant's visitation was extended to two more hours on Sunday, with her mother, Denise Gray, supervising it. However, the court stated that any contact between Carlous Gray, appellant's father, and H.S. had to be supervised.
On May 5, 2015, the attorney ad litem, Diane Warren, filed a motion to suspend appellant's supervised Sunday visitations with H.S. In the motion, Warren alleged that H.S. returned from a Sunday visit with a physical mark on her thigh and that appellant's explanation that H.S. received the injury from crawling on the floor was inconsistent with the marks. The court entered an order on May 8, 2015, suspending appellant's Sunday visitations. Appellant filed a response to the motion to suspend visitation and a motion to set aside the order suspending visitation on May 22, 2015. She included pictures of H.S. and of the Yateses' bathtub to support her contention that the allegations of abuse were manufactured by the Yateses and that H.S. should be removed from the Yateses' custody. The court entered an order on May 22, 2015, reinstating appellant's supervised visitation; however, the day was changed from Sunday to Friday.
At the permanency-planning hearing (PPH), DHS, CASA, and the attorney ad litem recommended that appellant be given an additional three months to transition H.S. into appellant's home. Antoinette Johnson, the DHS family service worker, testified that she believed appellant had made significant and measurable progress toward the case-plan goals and that appellant was working diligently toward reunification. She opined that appellant's case should be extended to a fifteen-month PPH. She also recommended that appellant's visitation with H.S. be extended and unsupervised so that H.S. could slowly transition into appellant's home. However, Johnson said that H.S. was "highly bonded" with the Yateses and should be allowed to see them regularly. Johnson admitted that there were a few concerns about appellant: (1) she was still pretty dependent on her family; (2) she was not working, but she had just had a baby; (3) she did not have a driver's license. Johnson stated that she would like to see appellant move toward some more independence.
On cross-examination, Johnson stated that appellant's housing was "appropriate for now." She said that appellant needed additional time to gain the independence needed to take care of two small children, one of whom had special needs. She noted that H.S. had to go to therapies three times a week and that appellant was dependent on Denise for transportation. She conceded that appellant had nothing to do with the injuries sustained by H.S. at the hands of Jarid. She stated H.S. was not returned to appellant once she separated from Jarid because DHS wanted to see a period of stability on the part of appellant. Johnson testified that appellant had not called weekly, as ordered. She also stated that she had no idea if appellant had been on medications and that she was unaware of any medications appellant was taking. Johnson said that appellant's housing was stable but that it was not independent. According to Johnson, DHS would prefer independent housing. She said that appellant had not had stable employment, but that appellant was pregnant throughout the case.
Johnson also said that DHS had some trouble with appellant being able to demonstrate an ability to protect H.S. because there had been some unexplained injuries to H.S.: (1) a handprint on H.S.'s leg, which led to supervised visitations by Denise being stopped; (2) pictures reflecting red marks on H.S.'s back on a couple occasions; (3) a busted lip (broken skin on the lip) and red ear. According to Johnson, these were all injuries reported by Sonia after H.S. returned from visits with appellant. Johnson said that she asked appellant about the injuries but appellant did not know how they happened. She testified that Sonia was currently taking H.S. to therapy three times a week, and that appellant did not participate in those therapies. However, she stated that she would not object to appellant being able to attend the therapy sessions.
On recross-examination, Johnson said that she was unaware that appellant had taken pictures of H.S. on the day Sonia reported the busted lip, ...