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Bunch v. Arkansas Department of Human Services and Minor Children

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Divisions I, IV

June 7, 2017

HAYLEE MONIQUE BUNCH APPELLANT
v.
ARKANSAS DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES AND MINOR CHILDREN APPELLEES

         APPEAL FROM THE MARION COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT [NO. 45JV-15-7] HONORABLE DEANNA S. LAYTON, JUDGE

          Leah Lanford, Arkansas Public Defender Commission, for appellant.

          Andrew Firth, Office of Chief Counsel, for appellee. Chrestman Group, PLLC, by: Keith L. Chrestman, attorney ad litem for minor children.

          KENNETH S. HIXSON, Judge

         Appellant Haylee Bunch appeals from the termination of her parental rights to her eight-year-old daughter, J.B., and seven-year-old son, C.B.[1] On appeal, Haylee challenges the sufficiency of the evidence, arguing that the trial court clearly erred in finding that termination of her parental rights was in the best interest of the children. We agree, and we reverse and remand.

         We review termination-of-parental-rights cases de novo. Dunn v. Ark. Dep't of Human Servs., 2016 Ark.App. 34, 480 S.W.3d 186. At least one statutory ground must exist, in addition to a finding that it is in the child's best interest to terminate parental rights; these must be proved by clear and convincing evidence. Ark. Code Ann. § 9-27-341(b)(3) (Repl. 2015); M.T. v. Ark. Dep't of Human Servs., 58 Ark.App. 302, 952 S.W.2d 177 (1997). Clear and convincing evidence is that degree of proof that will produce in the factfinder a firm conviction as to the allegation sought to be established. Dunn, supra. The purpose of terminating a parent's rights to his or her children is to provide permanency in the child's life when returning the juvenile to the family home is contrary to the child's health, safety, or welfare, and it appears that a return to the family home cannot be accomplished in a reasonable period of time as viewed from the juvenile's perspective. Ark. Code Ann. § 9-27-341(a)(3). A heavy burden is placed on a party seeking termination because termination of parental rights is an extreme remedy in derogation of the natural rights of the parents. Grant v. Ark. Dep't of Human Servs., 2010 Ark.App. 636, 378 S.W.3d 277. We will not reverse a termination order unless the trial court's findings were clearly erroneous. Meriweather v. Ark. Dep't of Human Servs., 98 Ark.App. 328, 255 S.W.3d 505 (2007). A finding is clearly erroneous when, although there is evidence to support it, the reviewing court on the entire evidence is left with a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made. Yarborough v. Ark. Dep't of Human Servs., 96 Ark.App. 247, 240 S.W.3d 626 (2006).

         In April 2015 the two children were living with their parents, Haylee Bunch and Catlin Bridges, in Flippin. On April 13, 2015, appellee Arkansas Department of Human Services (DHS) filed a petition for emergency custody of the children. Attached to the petition was an affidavit of a family-service worker stating that DHS had taken an emergency hold of the children after the police had gone to the residence on a domestic-disturbance call and found the front window and door broken. The police informed the DHS worker that both Haylee and Catlin were being arrested for domestic battery and endangering the welfare of a minor, leaving the children without a caretaker. On April 14, 2015, the trial court entered an order for emergency custody. After a very brief stay in a foster home, the children were placed in the custody of their maternal grandmother, Monica Bunch, where they remained throughout the case.

         The trial court entered a probable-cause order on May 26, 2015, and an adjudication order on July 9, 2015. The adjudication order set the goal of the case as reunification with the concurrent goal of relative placement. On January 12, 2016, the trial court entered a review order wherein both parents were ordered to attend counseling and anger-management classes, submit to random drug screens, avail themselves of employment services, and obtain appropriate housing. In addition, the parents were afforded visitation with the children a minimum of two times per week for two hours per visit.

         On April 22, 2016, the trial court entered a permanency-planning order. In that order, the trial court found that both parents had complied with the case plan, and specifically that Haylee had completed counseling, assessments, random drug screens, and employment. The permanency-planning order set the case goal as placing the children in the custody of a parent within a time frame consistent with the juveniles' developmental needs, but no later than three months from the date of the permanency-planning hearing. The trial court also authorized a concurrent plan to obtain permanent custody with a fit and willing relative, stating that Monica Bunch may be named as permanent custodian in a separate proceeding should the need arise.

         On September 23, 2016, the trial court entered a fifteen-month review order changing the goal of the case to termination of parental rights and adoption. In that order, the trial court found that although the parents had partially complied with the case plan, they were living with a friend, they were not in a position to have custody returned to them, and there was no compelling reason to continue reunification services. The trial court noted that both parents were involved in an altercation in April 2016, which resulted in the police being called and Catlin being arrested. Haylee had admitted to using marijuana that day.

         DHS filed a petition to terminate parental rights, and after a hearing, [2] the trial court entered an order terminating both parents' parental rights on November 10, 2016. The trial court found clear and convincing evidence of the following grounds under Ark. Code Ann. § 9-27-341(b)(3)(B):

(i) (a) That a juvenile has been adjudicated by the court to be dependent-neglected and has continued to be out of the custody of the parent for twelve (12) months and, despite a meaningful effort by the department to rehabilitate the parent and correct the conditions that caused removal, those conditions have not been remedied by the parent.
(vii) (a) That other factors or issues arose subsequent to the filing of the original petition for dependency-neglect that demonstrate that placement of the juvenile in the custody of the parent is contrary to the juvenile's health, safety, or welfare and that, despite the offer of appropriate family services, the parent has manifested the incapacity or indifference to remedy the subsequent issues or factors or rehabilitate the parent's circumstances that prevent the placement of the juvenile in the custody of the parent.

         The trial court further found by clear and convincing evidence that termination of parental rights was in the children's best interest, and the court specifically considered the likelihood that the children would be adopted, as well as the potential harm of returning them to the custody of their parents as required by Ark. Code Ann. § 9-27-341(b)(3)(A)(i) & (ii). In reaching its decision, the trial court relied specifically on the ...


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