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Hegi v. Arkansas Department of Human Services

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division IV

January 23, 2019

SIERRA HEGI APPELLANT
v.
ARKANSAS DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES AND MINOR CHILD APPELLEES

          APPEAL FROM THE FAULKNER COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT [NO. 23JV-17-14] HONORABLE DAVID M. CLARK, JUDGE.

          Tina Bowers Lee, Arkansas Public Defender Commission, for appellant.

          Andrew Firth, Office of Chief Counsel, for appellee.

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

          RITA W. GRUBER, Chief Judge.

         Sierra Hegi appeals from the Faulkner County Circuit Court's order terminating her parental rights to her son, KD, born January 5, 2017. On appeal, she challenges both the circuit court's findings of statutory grounds and its best-interest determination. We affirm.

         This case began on January 7, 2017, when the Arkansas Department of Human Services (DHS) took an emergency hold on two-day-old KD due to abuse, neglect, and parental unfitness. Specifically, the affidavit attached to the petition for emergency custody described environmental issues and concerns that Hegi did not "have the cognitive ability to care for the infant and meet the infant's needs." On February 21, 2017, the court adjudicated KD dependent-neglected, specifically finding the following:

The home showed no signs of being prepared for a newborn baby to reside there; did not have working utilities other than water in one bathroom; was in a state of environmental neglect including dog feces covering the floor in the home. Additionally, the mother appeared to lack the mental capacity to properly feed for and care for a newborn child. Additionally, the mother was observed by DHS at supervised visitation after the juvenile was taken into care and the mother could not demonstrate the ability to properly care for the juvenile without DHS providing guidance.

         The court set the goal as reunification with a concurrent goal of relative placement. The court ordered Hegi to submit to a psychological exam and follow the recommendations; participate in counseling; complete parenting classes and demonstrate improved, appropriate parenting skills after completion; obtain and maintain stable and appropriate housing and employment; maintain a clean, safe home; demonstrate the ability to protect the child and keep him safe; and attend all medical appointments set up for the child when notified by DHS.

         Hegi received a psychological evaluation on March 14, 2017, which showed that she was in the mid-intellectual-deficit range. In her interview, Hegi told the evaluator that her son was removed from her custody for neglect because he was not eating. She said that he would not eat "fast enough . . . [and] acted like he wasn't hungry." She also said that he had gained weight since being in DHS custody and she was unaware how they got him to eat. Hegi reported to the evaluator that she occasionally heard voices in her head. Hegi's mother, with whom Hegi lived when KD was taken, said that Hegi was slow and had anxiety but that she "desire[d] to be right." She said that Hegi did not drive but that she helped around the house by washing dishes and sorting whites and colors for the laundry. The evaluation stated that Hegi would have "moderate difficulty" with independent parenting, would need "a good deal of support and assistance" in any parenting, and "did not present with the capability to effectively parent." Specifically, the evaluation cited her lowered capability to manage stress, the potential for decompensation when under stress, and her lowered intellectual development.

         Shortly after the adjudication hearing, KD was hospitalized for RSV and pneumonia and remained there for a month. Doctors discovered that KD suffered from a condition that made swallowing difficult, and he was fitted with a "G-tube" port that allowed him to receive nutrition directly from a tube into his stomach. Hegi was given training through Arkansas Children's Hospital on how to operate the G-tube as well as hands-on participation with KD's foster parents while feeding KD.

         The case proceeded and Hegi complied with the case plan by completing parenting classes, completing medical training, attending visitations, attending counseling, and remedying the environmental issues by finding new and appropriate housing. The court did note in the review order on August 22, 2017, that there had been issues with KD's feeding tube after unsupervised visitation. The court held a permanency-planning hearing on December 19, 2017, and found that DHS had made reasonable efforts to provide services towards the permanency plan of reunification and that Hegi had complied with the case plan and made "much" progress toward alleviating the causes of removal. The court continued the goal of reunification but found KD could not be returned to Hegi's custody because she continued to be unable to properly feed him.

         On April 13, 2018, DHS filed a petition to terminate Hegi's parental rights.[1] DHS pleaded the failure-to-remedy ground, alleging that KD had been removed from Hegi's custody for environmental issues and because Hegi lacked the cognitive ability to provide for KD's basic needs. DHS contended that one of the primary issues during the pendency of the case was whether Hegi would be cognitively capable of using KD's G-tube and ensuring that his basic health and nutritional needs would be met. DHS stated that in spite of numerous services, classes, encouragement, support, and training having been offered to Hegi, she had not progressed to a point where KD could safely be placed in her custody. DHS alleged that using the feeding tube required an ability to constantly reassess the situation, adapt quickly to any changes, and recall and process information in order to address those changes. It alleged that although Hegi had put forth a good effort, the same concerns that existed at the time KD came into DHS custody-regarding Hegi's cognitive ability to meet KD's need-still existed; Hegi's level of functioning was not likely to change; and none of the services had adequately remedied the cause of removal.

         The court held a termination hearing on May 29, 2018. Cheryl Taylor, Hegi's DHS caseworker, testified that KD had been placed in foster care in part because Hegi was not able to feed him correctly with a bottle. She testified that Hegi had been compliant but that despite the services and training, she could not "accomplish" and "master" KD's feeding tube. She also testified that KD had numerous regular medical appointments including occupational and physical therapy, speech therapy, and a nutritionist. She testified that Hegi had lacked the mental capacity to properly feed her newborn, which brought him into DHS custody, and that she continued to lack the ability to properly care for him without guidance. She testified that she did not know of any other services DHS could provide to help Ms. Hegi with ...


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