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Norris v. Arkansas Department of Human Services

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division II

November 28, 2018



          Tabitha McNulty, Arkansas Public Defender Commission, for appellant.

          Callie Corbyn, Office of Chief Counsel, for appellee.

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

          PHILLIP T. WHITEAKER, Judge

         William Norris appeals the order of the Faulkner County Circuit Court that terminated his parental rights to his daughter, A.F. Norris challenges both the statutory grounds supporting the decision to terminate his parental rights and the potential-harm finding that informed the court's best-interest conclusion. We find no error and affirm.

         I. Background and Procedural History

         A.F. was born in October 2016 with methamphetamine in her system. The Arkansas Department of Human Services (DHS) filed a petition for emergency custody and dependency-neglect removing A.F. from the custody of her mother, Jessica McCoy.[1] At the time of A.F.'s birth, Jessica was married to Joshua McCoy; therefore, both Jessica and Joshua were named as A.F.'s legal parents on the petition although A.F.'s biological father was unknown at the time.[2] The court entered an ex parte order for emergency custody, a probable-cause order, and in November 2016, an adjudication order finding A.F. dependent-neglected. In the adjudication order, the court noted that it accepted the parties' stipulation that the allegations in the ex parte petition and accompanying affidavit were true and stating as well that this was a "Garrett's Law" case. The adjudication order reflected that the parties were Jessica McCoy as the mother, Joshua McCoy as the legal father, and Zachery Free as the putative father. Norris was not a party at the time of adjudication.

         In February 2017, the circuit court, acting on information that Norris might be A.F.'s biological father, issued an order for DNA testing to determine parentage. The DNA test revealed that Norris is A.F.'s biological father. Accordingly, by order entered on May 9, 2017, the court added Norris as a party, ordered Norris to comply with the case plan and court orders, and ordered DHS to conduct a home study on Norris and his mother. By this time, A.F. was seven months old.

         After being determined to be A.F.'s biological father, Norris was also permitted to begin visitation with her, and he participated in the review-hearing process, attending a review hearing in July 2017. The court's subsequent review order noted that Norris had visited with A.F. for two hours on March 28 and two hours on May 24. In addition to his participation with visitation, the court found that Norris was employed and had partially complied with the case plan. Because Norris tested positive for THC, the court ordered Norris to submit to a drug-and-alcohol assessment. The court further ordered him to take steps to resolve issues with his driver's license, complete the paperwork necessary to complete his home study, and comply with the case plan and court orders. DHS was concomitantly ordered to complete the home study, arrange Norris's drug-and-alcohol assessment, and provide him assistance with transportation. The court determined that the goal of reunification was still appropriate for A.F., but the concurrent goal of adoption was also appropriate.

         At a permanency-planning hearing in October 2017, the court determined that the goal of the case should be adoption because "neither parent has made significant measurable progress that would justify continuing with [the] goal [of reunification]." With respect to Norris, the court found that he had failed to comply with the case plan and court orders in that he had failed to maintain meaningful contact with DHS; he had failed to complete the paperwork to have a home study performed on his residence; and he had visited with A.F. only three times since March of that year. The court did allow Norris to continue having visitation, although it changed the goal of the case to adoption.

         DHS filed its petition for termination of parental rights as to Norris and the McCoys in November 2017.[3] As to Norris, DHS pled five separate grounds for termination.[4] After a hearing on the petition, the circuit court found that DHS had proved the statutory grounds necessary for termination. Specifically, the court found that DHS had proved three grounds: the "twelve-month failure to support or communicate" ground, abandonment, and aggravated circumstances by abandonment. The court also found, based on the caseworker's testimony that A.F.'s foster parents wished to adopt her, that A.F. was adoptable. Finally, the court found that Norris's "lack of involvement and visitation with [A.F.] demonstrate[s] how [A.F.] would be at risk of potential harm if returned" to Norris. The circuit court entered an order and a subsequent amended order terminating Norris's parental rights.[5] Norris filed a timely notice of appeal, and he now challenges the circuit court's findings regarding the statutory grounds and the potential-harm prong of its best-interest analysis.

         II. Standard of Review

         On appeal, we review termination-of-parental-rights cases de novo but will not reverse the circuit court's ruling unless its findings are clearly erroneous. Dade v. Ark. Dep't of Human Servs., 2016 Ark.App. 443, 503 S.W.3d 96. 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. In determining whether a finding is clearly erroneous, we have noted that in matters involving the welfare of young children, we ...

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