FROM THE PULASKI COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT, TENTH DIVISION [NO.
60JV-16-319] HONORABLE JOYCE WILLIAMS WARREN, JUDGE
Firth, Office of Chief Counsel, for appellee.
Tabitha McNulty, Arkansas Public Defender Commission, for
BRANDON J. HARRISON, Judge.
Arkansas Department of Human Services (DHS) appeals an order
of the Pulaski County Circuit Court that dismissed DHS's
petition for dependency-neglect and closed the case. DHS
argues that the circuit court clearly erred and that Tomisha
Lewis's children are dependent-neglected as a result of
neglect and parental unfitness. We affirm.
March 2016, DHS filed a petition for emergency custody of
three-year-old Z.L., one-year-old L.L., and one-month-old
T.U. The accompanying affidavit explained that Tomisha Lewis
and T.U.'s father, Tony Ussery, had a heated argument on
the staircase outside Ussery's apartment and that the
baby, who was strapped in a car seat, inadvertently fell down
the stairs. According to one of the responding police
officers, the car seat was "turned over on the ground
covered in dirt and gravel while the parents were still
arguing and fighting." The baby was taken to Arkansas
Children's Hospital to be examined, and the other two
children, who were in a car nearby, were seen at the hosptial
as a precaution. Both parents were arrested for domestic
battery and child endangerment. The affidavit noted that
Lewis did not have a permanent residence and stayed with her
grandmother, her cousin, or Ussery. The affidavit also noted
that Lewis had initally given the police a false name
"in hopes that her children would not go into DHS
custody." The affidavit expressed concern that T.U.
could have been severely injured and that "the children
were inadequately supervised as well as left without a
caregiver upon the arrest of the mother and father." The
Pulaski County Circuit Court issued an ex parte order for
emergency custody and, on March 9, found probable cause to
continue DHS's custody of the children. The order set an
adjudication hearing for April 6.
date, the following testimony was presented. Little Rock
Police Officer Stephen Lichti testified that on 1 March 2016,
at approximately 5:00 a.m., he responded to calls reporting a
loud disturbance between a male and a female in the parking
lot of an apartment complex. As Lichti turned the corner into
the parking lot, he could hear yelling and screaming and
observed two people (Lewis and Ussery) at the top of a steep
stairwell landing. He rushed up the stairs and physically
separated the two, but Lewis continued to charge at Ussery.
Lichti saw the baby in the carrier at the base of the stairs,
sitting out in the rain; Lichti's partner attended to the
baby while he dealt with the parents. According to Lichti,
Lewis was more interested in fighting than checking on her
baby. Lewis reported to him that she had attempted to leave
the baby with Ussery, which is what caused the scuffle:
"She took him [the baby] upstairs, knocked on the door,
and I guess he [Ussery] opened the door and ran with the
child downstairs and put him on the car as she was leaving.
She turned around and brought him back up in the landing at
the top, and that's where the-the fight occurred."
Lichti also said again that the baby was in the rain, that it
was a cold night, and that the baby "had gravel, dust,
and dirt on his forehead and kind of in his face area."
Lichti explained that Ussery was very intoxicated and that
Lewis knew he was intoxicated, because they had spent most of
the night together. Ussery reported to Lichti that he
[Ussery] heard a loud banging on his door; looked out and saw
the carrier sitting outside and Lewis running back to her
car; that he grabbed the baby, ran downstairs, and put the
baby on her car; and that Lewis grabbed the baby and ran back
upstairs, and they proceeded to fight on the landing.
testified that she had been residing at Dorcas House for
about a week and that the children could stay there with her.
She also said she was currently not working, under the rules
of Dorcas House, but would be able to return to her previous
employment. She explained that on the night of the
altercation, she and Ussery had been out together and T.U.
was with them. At approximately 3:00 a.m., they went to pick
up her other two children, who were sleeping at her
cousin's house. They all returned to Ussery's
apartment, but when they pulled into the parking lot, Ussery
said he did not want her and the children to stay there. He
told them to leave, Lewis got upset, and she told him that he
was going to keep his child (the baby).
As he went up, I went up behind him. He hurried up and closed
the door. I was knocking light at first and he wouldn't
open the door so, you know, I began to knock harder; your
son, get your son, your son is out here. He came to the door,
opened the door. As he opened the door, I, you know, started
walking back to the car. He came down, brought him down. I
was in the process-after he was getting him in the car, I got
back out and bringing him back to him; no, you're going
to get your son. . . . We made it to the top of the stairs
and when I gave him to him, you know, I turned around, like,
whatever, I'm fixing to go. . . . He say, you take him .
. . he set him down. It's just like I said once before,
the car seat, it was too big to set on the stairs. . . .
[T]he car seat went down.
to Lewis, the carrier was sitting right side up and had not
flipped. She said that T.U.'s car seat being knocked down
the stairs was "one of the scariest moments of my life,
" that she physically "charged at" Ussery in
reaction to the fall, and that it was "more so of a
tussle than a fight." She also said that during this
time, her other two children were asleep in the car. She
claimed that she and Ussery were going down the stairs when
the police arrived.
cross-examination, Lewis said that she wasn't really
going to leave the baby with Ussery and that she was just
angry. She acknowledged that she did not immediately check on
the baby when he fell but said that she could see him and
"he was setting [sic] there and he was perfectly
okay." She also admitted, as we have mentioned, that she
lied to the police officers about her name because she did
not want her kids to "go to DHS."
asked the court to find the children dependent-neglected as a
result of neglect and parental unfitness. Lewis's
attorney argued that Lewis had "responded poorly"
but that this was not a case of dependency-neglect. The ad
litem argued that Lewis had put her emotional needs before
those of her children and urged the court to find
court announced it was dismissing the petition, stating,
"This is an accident, unfortunate accident. These things
happen in a short period of time. I find mom is completely
credible. I find mom more credible than the police officer[.]
. . . I believe her, she wasn't going to leave the baby.
She's trying to make a point." The court also stated
that there was "nothing wrong with being out all night
long with your children" and that Lewis had
"learned from this situation." The court entered a
written order finding that "DHS failed to meet its
burden of proof that the juveniles are
dependent-neglected." The court ordered the children
returned to Lewis's custody and closed the case. DHS
dependent-neglected juvenile is one at substantial risk of
serious harm as the result of, among other things,
abandonment, abuse, or neglect. See Ark. Code Ann.
§ 9-27-303(18)(A)(i), (ii), and (v) (Repl. 2015).
Dependency-neglect allegations must be proved by a
preponderance of the evidence. Ark. Code Ann. §
9-27-325(h)(2)(B). The standard of review is de novo, but we,
giving due deference to the circuit court's superior
position to observe the parties and judge the credibility of
the witnesses, will not reverse the circuit court's
ruling in a dependency-neglect case unless the ruling was
clearly erroneous or clearly against the preponderance of the
evidence. Churchill v. Ark. Dep't of Human
Servs., 2012 Ark.App. 530, 423 S.W.3d 637. A finding is
clearly erroneous when, although there is ...