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Bridges v. Arkansas Department of Human Services

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division II

January 30, 2019

LESLEY BRIDGES APPELLANT
v.
ARKANSAS DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES AND MINOR CHILD APPELLEES

          APPEAL FROM THE SALINE COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT [NO. 63JV-16-353] HONORABLE GARY ARNOLD, JUDGE.

          Leah Lanford, 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.

          N. MARK KLAPPENBACH, JUDGE.

         Appellant Lesley Bridges appeals the June 20, 2018 order of the Saline County Circuit Court that terminated her parental rights to her three-year-old son, LL. Bridges does not challenge the circuit court's finding that there were statutory grounds on which to terminate her parental rights. On appeal, Bridges challenges the circuit court's finding that termination of her parental rights is in LL's best interest, specifically contesting that there was potential harm to LL if returned to his mother's custody. Bridges asserts that the circuit court clearly erred and that the termination order must be reversed. We affirm.

         We review termination-of-parental-rights orders de novo but will not reverse the circuit court's findings of fact unless they are clearly erroneous. Harjo v. Ark. Dep't of Human Servs., 2018 Ark.App. 268, 548 S.W.3d 865. A finding is clearly erroneous when, although there is evidence to support it, the appellate court is left on the entire evidence with the firm conviction that a mistake has been committed. Id. We must also defer to the superior position of the circuit court to weigh the credibility of the witnesses. Ewasiuk v. Ark. Dep't of Human Servs., 2018 Ark.App. 59, 540 S.W.3d 318. On appellate review, this court gives a high degree of deference to the circuit court, which is in a far superior position to observe the parties before it. Id. Termination of parental rights is an extreme remedy and in derogation of the natural rights of parents, but parental rights will not be enforced to the detriment or destruction of the health and well-being of the child. Id.

         Pursuant to Arkansas Code Annotated section 9-27-341(b)(3) (Repl. 2017), an order forever terminating parental rights shall be based on a finding by clear and convincing evidence that it is in the best interest of the juvenile, including consideration of the likelihood that the juvenile will be adopted if the termination petition is granted and the potential harm, specifically addressing the effect on the health and safety of the child, caused by returning the child to the custody of the parent. The order must also find by clear and convincing evidence one or more grounds. Ark. Code Ann. § 9-27-341(b)(3)(B).

         The purpose of the termination-of-parental-rights statute, Ark. Code Ann. § 9-27-341(a)(3), is to provide permanency in a juvenile's life in all instances in which the return of a juvenile to the family home is contrary to the juvenile's health, safety, or welfare, and it appears from the evidence that a return to the family home cannot be accomplished in a reasonable period of time, as viewed from the juvenile's perspective. Even full compliance with the case plan is not determinative; the issue is whether the parent has become a stable, safe parent able to care for his or her child. Blasingame v. Ark. Dep't of Human Servs., 2018 Ark.App. 71, 542 S.W.3d 873. A parent's past behavior is often a good indicator of future behavior. Ewasiuk, supra.

         In this case, the circuit court found that there were multiple statutory grounds on which to terminate the mother's parental rights. Appellant does not contest the sufficiency of the evidence of statutory grounds. The circuit court also found that it was in LL's best interest to terminate parental rights. Under the umbrella of the child's best interest, the circuit court specifically considered that LL was "highly adoptable" with hundreds of families interested in adopting LL or a child sharing his characteristics. Appellant does not contest whether there was sufficient consideration of LL's adoptability.

         The other factor that must be considered when deciding what is in the child's best interest is whether the child would be subjected to potential harm if returned to his parents. Appellant asserts on appeal that the circuit court clearly erred in its best-interest finding because of a lack of potential harm to LL if returned to his mother. In sum, appellant contends that she complied with the case-plan requirements, that she had appropriately cared for her son during unsupervised visitations, that she eventually admitted she needed drug treatment, and that she was doing well ever since she embraced treatment and sobriety. We disagree that she has demonstrated clear error in the circuit court's best-interest finding.

         A more amplified recitation of the evidence is necessary to explain our decision. In November 2016, the Department of Human Services (DHS) sought emergency custody of LL, who was then eighteen months old, based on severe injuries that his two-month-old sibling JL had suffered. Appellant took JL to the emergency room, but this was apparently several hours after JL had been injured. The history of injury did not match JL's conditions, so DHS was notified. JL died from his extensive brain injuries. The father was arrested, ultimately convicted of murder, and sentenced to prison.

         In March 2017, appellant stipulated that LL was dependent-neglected, in part due to the delay in seeking medical treatment for JL. Appellant was given a case plan and ordered to complete certain services. In June 2017, appellant was deemed compliant with her case plan, having maintained stable housing and employment, having participated in counseling, and having had successful unsupervised visitation. After a review hearing in September 2017, the circuit court found that appellant had continued her pattern of compliance with the case plan.

         A permanency-planning hearing was conducted in November 2017. At that time, the circuit court was encouraged by appellant's compliance but remained concerned about her emotional stability, which affected her ability to properly protect LL from harm. Appellant's ...


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