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Welvaert v. Arkansas Department of Human Services

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division IV

October 4, 2017



          Brett D. Watson, Attorney at Law, PLLC, by: Brett D. Watson, for appellant.

          Jerald A. Sharum, Office of Chief Counsel, for appellee.


         Appellant, Thomas Welvaert, appeals the Conway County Circuit Court's termination of his parental rights to his daughter, A.W. We find no merit in his arguments and affirm.

         On May 15, 2016, A.W. and her sibling were removed from their mother's care. Ultimately, the mother executed consent to the termination of her parental rights to both children, and the other child's father executed consent to the termination of parental rights to that child. This case deals solely with Welvaert's parental rights to A.W.

         Welvaert was incarcerated in Texas throughout the case. On August 2, 2016, DHS filed a petition to terminate parental rights alleging that Welvaert had been sentenced in a criminal proceeding to a period of time which would constitute a substantial period of the child's life. Ark. Code Ann. § 9-27-341(b)(3)(B)(viii)(a) (Repl. 2015). At the hearing, Welvaert was not present but was represented by counsel. His attorney stated that, although they had communicated by mail, he had not been able to talk to Welvaert via telephone until the previous evening. However, when the court asked if there was "any reason we can't go ahead with this hearing, " Welvaert's counsel said, "No."

         In the earlier adjudication order, the court found that both juveniles had been subjected to neglect and aggravated circumstances, in part due to the court's finding that Welvaert was incarcerated and would not be released until 2030. The evidence at the termination hearing revealed that he was serving a twenty-five- or thirty-year sentence for child sexual abuse and that the earliest Welvaert could potentially be released would be 2021.

         An Arkansas Department of Human Services (DHS) caseworker testified that A.W. was in therapeutic foster care but was adoptable. Thomas Gamble testified that he is Welvaert's stepbrother and that he was interested in adopting A.W. However, he had not completed a required home study, had a criminal history, and admitted that he did not have a bond with the child. He also testified that his father and his stepmother (Welvaert's mother) had previously had their rights terminated to other children and had been convicted of child endangerment. Gamble stated that Welvaert should never be around minors and would not have any access to A.W. should she be placed in Gamble's custody.

         The court terminated Welvaert's parental rights to A.W. based on the findings that he had been sentenced to a period of incarceration that constituted a substantial portion of the child's life and that termination was in the child's best interest. On appeal, Welvaert does not challenge those findings but argues that his due-process rights were violated because he was not able to meaningfully participate in the termination hearing.

         Before addressing the merits of Welvaert's appeal, we must address an alleged deficiency in his notice of appeal. In A.W.'s brief, counsel notes that "the notice of appeal has only one signature, " in violation of Arkansas Supreme Court Rule 6-9(b)(1)(B). In his reply, Welvaert notes that the signature on the notice of appeal is his, although it is located on the line designated for his counsel's signature. His attorney failed to sign the notice of appeal. Welvaert's counsel confessed error in a motion for rule on clerk, which the Arkansas Supreme Court granted. Therefore, the case is properly before us.

         Termination-of-parental-rights cases are reviewed de novo. Hune v. Ark. Dep't of Human Servs., 2010 Ark.App. 543. Grounds for termination of parental rights must be proved by clear and convincing evidence, which is that degree of proof that will produce in the finder of fact a firm conviction of the allegation sought to be established. Hughes v. Ark. Dep't of Human Servs., 2010 Ark.App. 526. The appellate inquiry is whether the trial court's finding that the disputed fact was proved by clear and convincing evidence is clearly erroneous. J.T. v. Ark. Dep't of Human Servs., 329 Ark. 243, 248, 947 S.W.2d 761, 763 (1997). 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. Id., 947 S.W.2d at 763. In resolving the clearly erroneous question, we give due regard to the opportunity of the trial court to judge the credibility of witnesses. Camarillo-Cox v. Ark. Dep't of Human Servs., 360 Ark. 340, 352, 201 S.W.3d 391, 399 (2005). Termination of parental rights is an extreme remedy and in derogation of a parent's natural rights; however, parental rights will not be enforced to the detriment or destruction of the health and well-being of the child. Meriweather v. Ark. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 98 Ark.App. 328, 331, 255 S.W.3d 505, 507 (2007).

         Welvaert acknowledges that inmates do not have a right to attend civil hearings. Vogel v. Ark. Dep't of Human Servs., 2015 Ark.App. 671, at 9-10, 476 S.W.3d 825, 830-31. Citing Vogel, he notes that a parent's absence from a termination hearing comports with due process only if he or she is represented by counsel who makes evidentiary objections, cross-examines witnesses, presents testimony from the parent that could influence the outcome of the proceedings, and makes arguments on the parent's behalf. Vogel, 2015 Ark.App. 671, at 10- 11, 476 S.W.3d at 830-31; see also Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745, 752-54 (1982) (recognizing that parents whose rights the government seeks to terminate must be given due process under the Fourteenth Amendment). Welvaert argues that his attorney failed to make evidentiary objections or otherwise adequately represent him at the hearing, which resulted in a due-process violation under Vogel when combined with his absence from the proceedings.

         Because Welvaert never raised this issue below, he acknowledges that it is barred from appellate review unless we conclude that it falls within one of the "extremely rare" exceptions to the contemporaneous-objection rule outlined in Wicks v. State, 270 Ark. 781, 785, 606 S.W.2d 366, 369 (1980); specifically, that Welvaert's counsel's deficiencies constituted "[a]n error that's so flagrant and egregious that the trial court should've, on its own motion, taken steps to remedy it." Baker v. Ark. Dep't ...

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