FROM THE PULASKI COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT, ELEVENTH DIVISION [NO.
60JV-14-1676] HONORABLE PATRICIA ANN JAMES, JUDGE
Bowers Lee, Arkansas Public Defender Commission, for
Goff, Office of Chief Counsel, for appellant.
Chrestman Group, PLLC, by: Keith L. Chrestman, attorney ad
litem for minor children.
D. VAUGHT, Judge
Montana Guthrey appeals the Pulaski County Circuit
Court's order terminating her parental rights to her four
minor children. Guthrey challenges the sufficiency of the
evidence supporting the circuit court's findings as to
the statutory grounds for termination and as to the
children's best interest. We agree that the evidence was
legally insufficient to support the circuit court's
findings, and we therefore reverse.
Guthrey's four young children were removed from her
custody and placed in the care of the Arkansas Department of
Human Services (DHS) in December 2014, following
Guthrey's arrest as the result of a traffic stop during
which police found drugs and drug paraphernalia in a car
driven by Guthrey's boyfriend, Kirk Childers, and in
which Guthrey and two of her children were passengers.
Guthrey told the police that she and her four children lived
with her brother and sister-in-law. Upon investigation as to
whether the home was an appropriate place for the children to
remain while Guthrey was incarcerated, Guthrey's
sister-in-law failed a drug test, and all four children were
taken into DHS custody.
February 18, 2015, the circuit court adjudicated
Guthrey's four children dependent-neglected based on a
stipulation of parental unfitness and neglect because Guthrey
had been arrested and had tested positive for benzodiazepines
and PCP at the time of her arrest. The case goal was set as
reunification and the case was placed in the court's
"Zero to Three" program that allowed for more
frequent review hearings and additional services. During
several subsequent Zero to Three review hearings, the court
noted Guthrey's progress in working the case plan. By
March 11, 2015, she had successfully completed her
psychological evaluation and was granted additional
visitation with her children. In April, the court stated that
Guthrey was compliant with the case plan and was "making
great progress." In June, Guthrey was compliant and was
receiving outpatient drug treatment and counseling, was
attending AA/NA support group meetings, had passed all drug
screens, had maintained a clean and appropriate home, and was
abiding by all court orders. However, the June order noted
that "there have been some bumps in the road"
without specifying the problems.
those "bumps in the road" may have been a reference
to the fact that Guthrey was pregnant, which was first noted
by the court the following month in the July review order.
The court stated that it would give her "one more [Zero
to Three] review, with the caveat that reunification may not
remain the goal" and stated that "if today were
permanency planning, there is no doubt what the next hearing
would be." The court stated that Guthrey had
"squandered seven months" of the case and that her
priority had not been her children. The court expressed
disapproval of her pregnancy, stating, "[Guthrey] cannot
handle the four children she has, and she is adding another
child into this mix with a father who will be in prison,
" referring to Kirk Childers. The court admonished
Guthrey, stating that "[m]en [are] the worst choice this
court repeatedly sees; they are always the same man in a
different skin, and they are never appropriate and never
August hearing, the court entered an order stating that
Guthrey had "done a lot of positive things on her drug
treatment, " but that she had more work to do. The court
explained that it was willing to give Guthrey additional time
and support at the upcoming permanency-planning hearing. It
also modified the visitation schedule to allow for biweekly
home visits, including Saturday visits of up to five hours.
As part of this order, the court stated that "there
shall be no men in her home; no one but family . . . shall be
in the home for visits."
November, the court held a permanency-planning hearing at
which Guthrey's caseworker praised the progress she had
made in overcoming her drug addiction. The court's
permanency-planning order required Guthrey to continue
working the case plan and receiving services, but it changed
the case goal from reunification to termination and adoption.
Again, the court recognized that Guthrey had maintained
stable and appropriate housing and employment, had completed
most services, had not tested positive for any drugs, had
consistent visits with her children, and had gotten her
driver's license reinstated. Her caseworker requested
that the court give her three more months to work toward
reunification and expressed the opinion that the children
were ready to be reunified with their mother.
evidence also revealed that Guthrey was in a new relationship
with a disabled veteran she had met in AA/NA who was also a
recovering alcoholic. She had ended her relationship with
Kirk Childers when he went to prison, Mr. Childers had
voluntarily relinquished his parental rights to their child,
and he was no longer a part of her life. She admitted that
the man she was now seeing had been in her home during the
pendency of the case, noting one evening she had friends over
for a game night and he had come to get a lawnmower. However,
there was evidence that his car had been seen at
Guthrey's home late into the night when no one else was
there. This was when the children were not present, and
Guthrey stated that he had never been around her children and
would not be around them if they were returned to her.
also testified that, as part of her twelve-step program, she
was working on improving her "character defects, "
and she listed honesty as something her sponsor was helping
her work on. She admitted that, approximately a year prior,
when she first began working the case plan, she had falsely
stated that she was regularly attending AA/NA meetings that
she was not attending. She said that she was "still
continuing my rehab" at the time. She also acknowledged
that, although she had been ordered to attend three AA/NA
meetings per week, there had been a time during the course of
the case that she could manage to attend only one per week,
due to working two jobs and completing all other
court-ordered services. Finally, she acknowledged that the
results of her psychological evaluation indicated that she
needed to address "decision making" and "poor