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Parnell v. Arkansas Department of Human Services

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division IV

December 13, 2017

MELISSA PARNELL AND RODNEY D. LASTER APPELLANTS
v.
ARKANSAS DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES AND MINOR CHILDREN APPELLEES

         APPEAL FROM THE MISSISSIPPI COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT, OSCEOLA DISTRICT [NO. 47OJV-15-2] HONORABLE RALPH WILSON, JR., JUDGE

          Tabitha McNulty, Arkansas Public Defender Commission, for appellant Melissa Parnell.

          Dusti Standridge, for appellant Rodney Laster.

          Mary Goff, Office of Chief Counsel, for appellee.

          Chrestman Group, PLLC, by: Keith L. Chrestman, attorney ad litem for minor children.

          BART F. VIRDEN, Judge

         The Mississippi County Circuit Court terminated the parental rights of appellants Rodney Laster and Melissa Parnell to their four children, J.L. (1) (DOB: 1-25-2011) and triplets, J.L. (2), J.L. (3), and A.L. (DOB: 6-28-2015). The parents bring separate appeals from the order terminating their rights. Laster argues that (1) the trial court lost subject-matter jurisdiction to adjudicate J.L. (1) dependent-neglected when it failed to comply with mandatory statutory time frames, (2) the trial court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to terminate his parental rights to the triplets because they were never adjudicated dependent-neglected, (3) termination was not proved by clear and convincing evidence where the Arkansas Department of Human Services (DHS) failed to offer him any services, (4) the trial court erred in terminating his parental rights because no grounds were proved, and (5) the trial court erred in finding that termination was in the children's best interest, specifically, there was no risk for potential harm. Parnell joins Laster's first two points on appeal, and she likewise argues that grounds were not proved against her. We affirm the termination of parental rights as to both parents.

         I. Procedural History

         On February 4, 2015, DHS filed a petition for emergency custody and dependency-neglect as to J.L. (1). In an affidavit attached to the petition, family-service worker Laquanta Lewis stated that on February 2 someone had called the child-abuse hotline to report that J.L. (1) had been sexually abused by Laster. When Parnell took J.L. (1) to a hospital emergency room for an examination, she was arrested for having violated a no-contact order that was in place between her and Laster. Law enforcement could not locate Laster to arrest him for the same violation. Because J.L. (1) was left with no caregiver, DHS took a seventy-two-hour hold on the child. A second affidavit was filed by Investigator Katherine Chlapecka with the Arkansas State Police Crimes Against Children Division. She attested that she interviewed J.L. (1) at the hospital on February 2, 2015, and that he told her that Laster had touched his penis and buttocks.

         An ex parte order for emergency custody was entered on February 4, 2015. On February 5, 2015, the trial court found that probable cause existed for issuance of the emergency order. The trial court noted that DHS had been involved with the family since 2004, ordered DHS to develop an appropriate case plan, and scheduled an adjudication hearing for April 16, 2015. The hearing was continued for good cause until June 15, 2015.

          The hearing was, again, continued for good cause until August 26, 2015, with the explanation that Parnell was unavailable because she was on medical bed rest. The parties did not object to the continuances.

         On August 10, 2015, DHS filed a petition for emergency custody and dependency-neglect as to the triplets, who had been born at the end of June. An affidavit was attached to the petition in which family-service worker Greg Watson attested that the triplets had been taken into custody based on a true finding of failure to protect as to Parnell and a true finding of sexual abuse as to Laster. The affidavit noted that J.L. (1) was in foster care and that there was a substantial risk of harm if the triplets were placed with Parnell. The affidavit indicated that there had been numerous previous calls to the child-abuse hotline with Parnell as the alleged offender and that an older child of Parnell's, T.P., was currently in the permanent custody of his great-grandmother. The affidavit further noted that Laster had had no contact with the triplets as he had been incarcerated. On August 11, 2015, an ex parte order for emergency custody as to the triplets was entered, and the trial court later found probable cause for issuance of the emergency order.

         On December 14, 2015, a review order was entered as to all four children. The trial court found that DHS had made reasonable efforts to provide family services and that Parnell had maintained stable housing and income, had completed parenting classes, had watched "The Clock is Ticking" video, and had completed a drug-and-alcohol assessment.

          The trial court nevertheless found that returning the children to their parents' custody was contrary to their welfare and therefore continued custody with DHS.[1]

         On June 24, 2016, an adjudication order was entered listing all four children in the caption. The order indicated that the cause had been presented to the court for adjudication on August 26, 2015. The following language appears in the order:

The Court finds by a preponderance of the evidence that the juvenile is dependent-neglected as defined in the Arkansas Juvenile Code and that the allegations in the petition are true and correct, specifically, the Court finds the juvenile was [sic] failure to protect and risk of harm, as to the mother, as the Court finds that [J.L. (1)] was sexually abused, probably by his father, on or about February 2, 2015, based on the testimony of Nurse Practitioner, Dawn McPike, the mother, and the CACD witness. The Court defers and reserves the sexual abuse and sexual abuse finding as to the father pending the STD results. The [Court] finds based on the testimony that the father is a registered sex offender and the mother knew of that fact and that she knew of the No Contact Order out of Poinsett County regarding the father.

         On June 29, 2016, a permanency-planning order was entered. The trial court found the following:

The Court finds that the mother has complied with the Court Orders however the mother has continued to remain in a relationship with Rodney Laster's father and there is concern with her choices in men, who she allows in her home. The Court finds that the putative father has not complied with the case plan in that he has not: The father is currently incarcerated, and will be until May, 2017 as well as having a true finding for sexual abuse.

         The trial court determined that it was in the best interest of all four children to terminate parental rights and set the goal of adoption.

         On July 20, 2016, DHS filed a petition for termination of parental rights, alleging grounds under Ark. Code Ann. § 9-27-341(b)(3)(B)(i)(a) (twelve months out of the custody of the parent and failure to remedy conditions that caused removal), Ark. Code Ann. § 9-27-341(b)(3)(B)(i)(b) (twelve months out of the noncustodial parent's home and failure to correct conditions that prevent child from safely being placed in parent's home), Ark. Code Ann. § 9-27-341(b)(3)(B)(ii)(a) (willful failure to provide significant material support or to maintain meaningful contact), Ark. Code Ann. § 9-27-341(b)(3)(B)(vi)(a) (sexual abuse of a juvenile or sibling perpetrated by the parent), Ark. Code Ann. § 9-27-341(b)(3)(B)(viii)(a) (sentenced in a criminal proceeding for a substantial period of the juvenile's life), and Ark. Code Ann. § 9-27-341(b)(3)(B)(ix)(a)(3)(B)(i) (aggravated circumstances: juvenile has been sexually abused and little likelihood that services will result in reunification). A termination hearing was scheduled for September 23, 2016, but was continued multiple times until it was finally held on February 24, 2017. The parents, again, did not object to the continuances.

         II. Hearing Testimony

         Sylvia Ware, a family-service-worker supervisor for DHS, testified that Parnell had completed all services, had regularly visited her children, and had done everything she had been asked to do. Ware stated that, despite Parnell's compliance, she was unable to recommend placement with her because of Parnell's decision-making in dating two sex offenders: first, Laster, and then a man named Adrian Williams. She said that Parnell had obtained stable housing only in the last ...


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