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Elliott v. Arkansas Department of Human Services

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division III

October 31, 2018



          Dusti Standridge, for appellant.

          Callie Corbyn, Office of Chief Counsel, for appellee.

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


         Charles Elliott appeals the Columbia County Circuit Court's order terminating his parental rights to his daughter, A.E. (born 4/29/2017). We affirm.

         On May 14, 2017, the Arkansas Department of Human Services (DHS) received a report of child maltreatment resulting in the hospitalization of an infant, then fifteen-day-old A.E. DHS exercised emergency custody over A.E. the same day. The child-maltreatment report stemmed from the fact that newborn A.E. had been taken to the emergency room "covered in rat bites," which were severe. A.E. had approximately seventy-five to one-hundred rat bites all over her body, with most of the bites concentrated on her hands, arms, face, and head. There were "numerous bites on [her] forehead, nose, cheeks, and around [her] eyes." The most prominent injury was a three- to four-centimeter wound on her forehead where her flesh had been removed down to the layer just above her skull. Medical-care providers also observed that the diaper A.E. was wearing at the hospital contained rat droppings. The evidence revealed that the injuries had occurred while A.E. was in the care of her mother (who is not a party to this appeal) and her father, Elliott. Elliott stated that he had been woken up by A.E.'s crying at approximately five-thirty that morning, had discovered her injuries, and saw footprints that he identified as rat footprints. Yet, even though A.E. was severely injured and bleeding, Elliott and the child's mother did not immediately seek medical attention. They waited for more than five hours before taking A.E. to the emergency room.

         The circuit court then held a probable-cause hearing, finding that the child should remain in DHS custody. Elliott appeared at that hearing and was named A.E.'s putative father. The court ordered DHS to provide a referral for DNA testing to establish paternity.

         The court held an adjudication hearing on June 23, 2017, at which time it found that A.E. was dependent-neglected based on her mother's failure to provide the child with a safe home, adequate supervision, necessary medical attention in a timely manner, and protection from neglect. Despite having been properly served, Elliott was not present at the adjudication hearing. The adjudication order was signed on August 2, 2017, but it was not filed until July 25, 2018.

         On September 15, 2017, the court recognized Elliott as A.E.'s biological father based on DNA testing. The court held a review hearing on November 3, 2017, and found that Elliott had contributed to A.E.'s dependency-neglect and was not a fit parent for the purpose of custody or visitation. The court noted that Elliott was incarcerated in the county jail pending felony charges related to the events giving rise to A.E.'s dependency-neglect case. Also on November 3, the court terminated A.E.'s mother's parental rights, and DHS filed a petition for the termination of Elliott's parental rights. The petition alleged that Elliott's parental rights should be terminated based on two statutory grounds: (1) the circuit court had found the juvenile dependent-neglected as a result of neglect or abuse that could endanger her life, pursuant to Arkansas Code Annotated section 9-27-341(b)(3)(B)(vi)(a) (Supp. 2017); and (2) there was little likelihood that services to the family would result in successful reunification, pursuant to Arkansas Code Annotated section 9-27-341(b)(3)(B)(ix)(a)(3)(B).

         On January 5, 2018, the circuit court held a hearing on DHS's petition to terminate Elliott's parental rights. At the hearing, Dr. Karen Farst, who was involved in A.E.'s care at Arkansas Children's Hospital (Children's) and who was recognized as an expert in general pediatric medicine and child-abuse pediatric care, testified to the seriousness of A.E.'s injuries. She stated that when A.E. arrived at Children's, she was in shock, "to the point that she needed life-saving intervention." Dr. Farst testified that A.E. required a blood transfusion, wound care, and specialty care by a plastic surgeon based on the extensive injuries to her face. Dr. Farst also testified that A.E. presented at Children's with a condition called apnea, which occurs when a person stops breathing for a period of time. Dr. Farst explained that apnea will eventually cause a patient's heart to stop, "[s]o if you don't intervene on that, then it's a fatal event." Because of the apnea, A.E. had to have a breathing tube placed in her throat as a life-saving measure. Dr. Farst stated that "had [A.E.] not been taken for professional medical care, she would not have survived." These life-saving measures were necessary due to the severity of A.E.'s injuries, which were explained in detail by Dr. Farst at the termination hearing. Finally, Dr. Farst testified that A.E. could feel pain, vocalized in response to pain, and that the injuries would have taken "a prolonged period of time" to occur, meaning that the baby "definitely felt and responded" audibly to the rat bites while in Elliott's care.

         A DHS caseworker testified to Elliott's many unresolved issues and discussed what services might be available to help him address those issues. For example, she testified that Elliott was currently incarcerated but that if he were somehow released that day, he would still need to find appropriate housing and employment, obtain mental-health treatment, and work a case plan addressing the issues that initially caused the child's removal from his care. The caseworker testified that, even if released that day, Elliott "would not be fit to take custody today." While the caseworker acknowledged that DHS does have the ability to provide services aimed at helping a person secure housing, employment, and mental-health treatment, she did not know of any services that would be currently available to Elliott during his incarceration that would be likely to lead to successful reunification. The caseworker also testified that she believed termination was in A.E.'s best interest because Elliott "remains detained in jail, and he can't have a child in jail," and "[i]f he were released and she was placed in his care, I am saying I believe she would be neglected further." The caseworker also stated that A.E. was highly adoptable and that DHS had numerous families waiting to adopt a child with her characteristics.

         At the close of DHS's case, Elliott's attorney made an oral motion to dismiss the petition for termination of parental rights, arguing only that none of the testimony presented at the hearing linked Elliott to the injuries suffered by the child. In response, DHS argued that exhibit 2, which was before the court, contained Elliott's acknowledgement that the child was in his care at the time of her injuries. The court denied the motion. Elliott did not testify or provide any other evidence.

         The court found that DHS had presented sufficient proof that termination was appropriate under both statutory grounds alleged in the petition and that termination was in the child's best interest because returning A.E. to Elliott's care would expose her to a significant risk of harm and that she has a ...

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