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Rodgers v. Rodgers

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division IV

September 28, 2016

REANNA RODGERS APPELLANT
v.
DESTINY RODGERS APPELLEE

         APPEAL FROM THE GARLAND COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT, [NO. PR-2014-531-IV] HONORABLE MARCIA R. HEARNSBERGER, JUDGE

          Taylor & Taylor Law Firm, P.A., by: Andrew M. Taylor and Tasha C. Taylor, for appellant.

          Steve Westerfield, for appellee.

          CLIFF HOOFMAN, Judge

         This is a stepparent adoption case. The natural mother is appealing from the trial court's order granting the adoption petition of the children's stepmother. The trial court found that appellant Reanna Rodgers's consent to the adoption was not required because the petitioner, appellee Destiny Rodgers, proved that Reanna had failed, for a period of at least one year and without justifiable cause, to communicate with her children or to provide for their care and support as required by law or court order. Reanna argues on appeal that the trial court clearly erred in making these findings, necessitating reversal of the order of adoption. We hold that the trial court did not clearly err, and we therefore affirm the trial court's order of adoption.

         The facts are not in material dispute. Chris Rodgers and appellant Reanna Rodgers were married in 2002 and divorced in 2011, wherein the parents were given joint custody of their four children, who were born between 2004 and 2010.[1] The divorce case was filed in Garland County Circuit Court, domestic relations division, DR2011-740-IV.

         In May 2013, Chris remarried to appellee Destiny Rodgers. In August 2013, Chris was awarded temporary custody of the children pursuant to an ex parte order; Chris had alleged that Reanna was on drugs and neglectful as a parent. During the September 4, 2013, hearing in that case, Reanna appeared pro se, and she submitted to a urine drug test. She tested positive for methamphetamine and amphetamines. She lost joint custody, and her rights of visitation were suspended. The trial judge stated in the hearing that "I mean she is not to have any visitation at all with these children." The trial judge warned Chris that if he permitted Reanna any visitation, she would hold Chris in contempt of court. The trial judge told Reanna that "when you decide that your children are more important to you than methamphetamine, then you can certainly come back and you can ask the Court to reverse this ruling and the Court will certainly look at it. But until that day happens, then there's not going to be even visitation with your children." The trial judge emphasized that "the Court considers this a temporary order" and that "you can come back in with your attorney and we'll look at this again." The trial judge told Reanna that she could come back to court "any time." The trial judge ordered Reanna to fill out an Affidavit of Financial Means.

         The September 6, 2013 "Amended Temporary Order" gave Chris sole custody of the children and recited that Reanna "should not be entitled to any visitation at this time, " that Reanna "shall complete an affidavit of financial means and file same in this case file, " that "no child support shall be ordered from [Reanna] at this time, " that Reanna was required to submit to a hair-follicle drug test by separate order, and that Reanna "may petition this court for a review of the issue of child custody, or child visitation, at such time as [Reanna] can pass a drug screen."

         On October 17, 2013, and on April 19, 2014, Reanna filed two separate drug test results showing that she was negative for methamphetamine and other controlled substances. She later admitted that she relapsed on drugs after the October 2013 test and did not ever receive drug treatment; she later claimed, however, to have been drug free since approximately December 2013.

         On September 19, 2014, appellee Destiny Rodgers petitioned to adopt the children, who had been living with her and Chris. The case was filed in Garland County Circuit Court, probate division, PR-2014-531-IV. Chris joined the petition and consented to his children being adopted by his wife Destiny. In the petition, Destiny alleged that Reanna's consent was not required because Reanna had failed, for a period of more than one year, without justifiable cause, (1) to provide for the care and support of the children in any meaningful fashion or (2) to communicate with or maintain any significant contact with the children. The petition accused Reanna of failing "to even contact or message the children on birthdays or at Christmas." Destiny alleged that this was all that the applicable statute required, so Destiny sought the adoption without the mother's consent and sought to terminate Reanna's parental rights to these children. On October 7, 2014, Reanna, represented by counsel, responded by filing a general denial of the adoption petition allegations. The matter was assigned to the same trial judge who had presided over the divorce proceedings. Later in October 2014, subsequent to the filing of the petition to adopt, Reanna filed a petition with the trial court in the domestic-relations proceeding to reconsider her rights to visitation or custody.

         At the May 2015 hearing, the following testimony was taken. Reanna, who remarried in October 2014 and who now had a five-month-old son, agreed that in the year between September 2013 and September 2014, she had not communicated with or provided support to the children, but she believed that she was justified in those failures due to the trial court's prior order suspending her visitation and not ordering her to pay any child support. She testified that she tried to send money to Chris, although she was still not working, but not until after the petition to adopt was filed, and both times Chris returned the money. Before that time, Reanna said she did not have the means to provide support, even if parents have a general duty under Arkansas law to provide support regardless of any support order. She said that she believed she had been instructed not to have any contact with the children in the order suspending her visitation, and so she abided the trial court's order until she could afford to hire an attorney. Reanna was unaware that there were free attorneys, so she thought she had to save money to hire a lawyer, although she had filed two clean drug screens in the domestic-relations proceedings. Reanna explained that she had been drug free for quite some time. She said she had filed a petition to acquire visitation in the divorce case, but it had not yet been heard. She was willing to be slowly reincorporated into the children's lives and to attend to any therapy. Reanna testified that her "lifestyle today is completely different than it was when I lost custody of the children. . . a hundred percent better than it was." She said that she did try to deliver a present to one of the children's school one time, but she feared getting in trouble for doing what she was not supposed to do. "I obeyed Judge Hearnsberger's ruling of not seeing them and I would do anything I can to see them now."

         Chris testified that he wanted his wife to adopt the four children, and he complained that Reanna did not file a petition for visitation until after the petition to adopt had been filed. He admittedly rejected Reanna's recent attempts to provide child support. He said that he had heard nothing at all from Reanna since he was given full custody, testifying that:

During that year after I got custody, I have all of my calendars right there of every day since then of no contact. All the dates of all the football games, no contact. All the birthdays, no contact, no cards. I have not received any contact from Reanna. My parents have not received contact. My wife. My in-laws have not received contact. She did not attend any school activities. I have [a] record. She did not attend any athletic activities. We did not receive birthday cards. Anything. We just had birthdays. . . . I have not heard anything from Reanna at all. I mean nothing. Nothing. Since the last day I saw her in Court. . . . Destiny and I were married on May 11, 2013. Since September 2013, Destiny and I have performed all the parental duties. My wife and I have provided for the financial support of the children . . . I can see her house from our house. And in that whole time frame no birthday cards, no Christmas presents left on the door, no letters. Nothing. No contact. From where she lives she can see where I and the children live. . . . Church is a public place they can come to. All the school events are public. They're not banned from coming to a football game or anything like that. . . . [Since moving in October 2014] I am two miles away from Reanna's house. . . . Even though I had custody and she had no visitation, she could have appealed a long time ago. She could've appealed a long time ago to the Court even after she was clean or got clean a long-I mean nothing. I wouldn't even be able to come to Court if she would've tried. I would have nothing. If she would've tried to be a mom, we wouldn't be here petitioning for adoption.

         Destiny testified to her desire to adopt the children, noting that Reanna could have petitioned for visitation in the year prior to her filing for adoption if she wanted to see her children. Destiny testified:

Reanna had no contact. We waited and waited, and as a mom, I prayed and believed that one day their mom was going to get things together and be a mom, but that didn't happen, and I want consistency and stability for my kids. . . . I did see the September 2013 Order. It said Reanna could petition for visitation and review of custody. She did not do that within the year after the hearing. Not once, nothing. I was waiting for that to happen. As a mom you want to see that happen for your kids, biological or not, but it never happened. I did not receive any frantic calls from her or letters or a letter from a lawyer in her behalf saying she wanted to see the kids. There was no contact. No letters, no emails, no texts, no phone calls, nothing. When the children's birthdays would roll around there was nothing. I even would check Facebook to see if maybe there was a post, a happy birthday, and nothing.

         Destiny said that she and Chris did everything as parents for the children and that they called her "Mom."

         Reanna's husband Michael Eller said that Reanna had been clean for about a year and a half. He said they talked about Reanna filing a petition for visitation with the children but that Reanna did not have the money to hire an attorney. Reanna's mother said that it took them a year to save the money to hire the attorney that Reanna presently had. Reanna's mother was against adoption and wanted to facilitate the children having visitation with Reanna.

         The trial judge stated in open court that this case "needs a lot of thought before the decision is made, " so she took the matter under advisement. Approximately two weeks later, on June 5, 2015, Judge Hearnsberger issued a letter ruling. Therein, the trial court found that since the entry of the temporary order denying her visitation in September 2013:

[Reanna] had no contact whatsoever with her children, their father or their stepmother. She failed to help them financially even though she was not required to pay child support through an order of the Court. She made no phone calls to the children or their father about their well-being. She sent no birthday or Christmas cards or letters or e-mails to her ...

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