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Easter v. Arkansas Department of Human Services

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division II

May 2, 2018



          Leah Lanford, Arkansas Public Defender Commission, for appellant.

          Mary Goff, Office of Chief Counsel, for appellee.

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

          DAVID M. GLOVER, Judge

         Cakoshia Easter appeals from the termination of her parental rights to her four children-KC1, JC1, JC2, and KC2. She contends the trial court clearly erred in finding termination was in the children's best interest and that statutory grounds were proved to support the termination. We affirm.

         DHS took emergency custody of Easter's four children on December 8, 2015, because there was suspected child abuse in connection with the broken leg of one of the children. The accompanying affidavit explained in part that the child stated his father hurt him, and that Easter corrected the child stating that the father had tried to help him. The children were subsequently adjudicated dependent-neglected. The trial court found the explanations concerning the child's broken leg were unsatisfactory. In addition, Easter tested positive for THC. The goal of the case was reunification, but after nineteen months, DHS filed its petition to terminate Easter's rights. Following a hearing, the trial court granted the petition, finding it was in the children's best interest and that DHS had proved three statutory grounds ("failure to remedy, " "subsequent factors, " and "aggravated circumstances"). The father's parental rights were also terminated, but he is not involved in this appeal.

         At the termination hearing, Quiana McGhee, the family-service-worker supervisor, testified she had been working on this case since March 2016; the case was opened when the children were removed in December 2015; one of the children had an unexplained broken leg; and there had been an earlier open protective-services case. She testified Easter tested positive for marijuana on January 25, 2017, after starting a trial placement with the children on January 6. She stated that earlier one of Easter's children had tested positive for illegal substances at birth on March 1, 2015, and that one of the children had four large scratches on his face on February 12, 2015. Easter's case plan included a psychological evaluation, counseling, a drug assessment, obtaining employment and suitable housing, and parenting classes. McGhee described Easter's performance under the case plan as "up and down"; initially, she had done everything she needed to do; but later she had used drugs, even though she denied doing so; she lost one job but got another; and lost her housing and was living with relatives. She explained Easter had not completed her treatment and had tested positive for drugs, i.e., methamphetamine, again in March; and she had continued to test positive for alcohol even though she had been told not to be around or to use drugs or alcohol.

         McGhee stated Easter had attended inpatient treatment; Easter started after care but did not complete it; and she had not adhered to mental-health counseling. McGhee could think of no other services that could be offered to achieve reunification, and she could not say Easter had made significant measurable progress under the case plan or worked diligently toward reunification. She recommended termination.

         Loren Beck, counselor for outpatient services with Southwest Arkansas Counseling Mental Health Center, testified as an expert in substance-abuse counseling and treatment. She stated she was familiar with Easter's chart and the clinical services provided to her but not with Easter. She explained that Easter's assessment found she was not capable of maintaining abstinence on her own; she would need further treatment after her inpatient stay; she did not complete treatment; abstinence was the focus; and alcohol was considered a drug. She testified it would be a concern to her in treating a patient if they stopped testing positive for street drugs but started testing positive for alcohol because it was a replacement, demonstrating poor coping mechanisms. She stated it was never acceptable to her agency for an addict to use any mind-altering substance, but acknowledged moderation-management-therapeutic techniques exist and none of those techniques were used on Easter.

         Cakoshia Easter testified she was currently employed at Burger King and explained she had stopped working at Tyson in January because of a broken finger. She acknowledged testing positive for THC in January 2017, but denied smoking or ingesting it. She stated she was riding in a car with others, heading to Tyson for a meeting, and she got a second-hand high. She acknowledged telling the court that she was still employed at Tyson at that time, but that she was actually going back for a meeting to see if she could get her job back-she thought she was still employed. She denied using methamphetamine and testified someone might have slipped it into her drink when she had her first positive alcohol test. She still denied using it even though the lab confirmed methamphetamine. She remembered the court ordering her to refrain from using alcohol, but she acknowledged she continued to use it. She remembered the substance-abuse counselors telling her the importance of not using alcohol, but she still chose to do so.

         Easter stated her belief that she had substantially completed the case plan but acknowledged she did not complete the outpatient treatment. She testified: she was living with her grandmother; she sometimes stays with her uncle; she anticipates getting her own home soon; she barely brings home $200, after child-support is taken out; she is on a waiting list for housing aid; she completed parenting classes and the 35-day inpatient treatment at River Ridge; and she visits her children every Monday.

         In appeals involving the termination of parental rights, our standard of review is de novo. Johnson v. Arkansas Dep't of Human Servs., 2018 Ark.App. 221___, S.W.3d___. DHS must prove allegations by clear and convincing evidence, or proof that will produce in the fact finder a firm conviction that the allegation has been established. Cotton v. Arkansas Dep't of Human Servs., 2012 Ark.App. 455, 422 S.W.3d 130. The appellate inquiry is whether the trial court's finding that the disputed fact was proven by clear and convincing evidence is clearly erroneous. Johnson, supra. We will not reverse unless the trial court's findings are clearly erroneous, giving due regard to the court's opportunity to judge the credibility of the witnesses. Cotton, supra. A finding is clearly erroneous when, although there is evidence to support it, on the entire evidence, we are left with a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made. Id. The termination of parental rights is an extreme remedy and in derogation of the natural rights of parents. Johnson, supra. Accordingly, the rights of natural parents are not to be passed over lightly; however, parental rights will not be enforced to the detriment or destruction of the health and well-being of the child. Id.

         The termination of parental rights is a two-step process requiring a determination that the parent is unfit and that termination is in the best interest of the child. Id. The first step requires proof of one or more statutory grounds for termination; the second step, the best-interest analysis, includes consideration of the likelihood that the juvenile will be adopted and of the potential harm caused by ...

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