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Riggs v. Arkansas Department of Human Services

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division I

April 3, 2019

NICOLE RIGGS APPELLANT
v.
ARKANSAS DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES AND MINOR CHILDREN APPELLEES

          APPEAL FROM THE FAULKNER COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT [NO. 23JV-17-131] HONORABLE DAVID M. CLARK, JUDGE

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

          One brief only.

          RAYMOND R. ABRAMSON, JUDGE

         Appellant Nicole Riggs appeals a Faulkner County Circuit Court order terminating her parental rights to her children, B.S. and M.S. Pursuant to Linker-Flores v. Arkansas Department of Human Services, 359 Ark. 131, 194 S.W.3d 739 (2004), and Arkansas Supreme Court Rule 6-9(i) (2018), Riggs's counsel has filed a motion to withdraw and a no-merit brief asserting that there are no issues of arguable merit to support an appeal. The clerk of our court sent copies of the brief and the motion to withdraw to Riggs's last-known address, informing her of her right to file pro se points for reversal pursuant to Rule 6-9(i)(3). The packet was returned, marked "unclaimed-unable to forward-return to sender." Riggs has not filed any pro se points for reversal. We affirm the termination of parental rights and grant counsel's motion to withdraw.

         This case began when the Arkansas Department of Human Services (DHS) exercised an emergency hold on Riggs's children on April 27, 2017. In its petition for emergency custody and dependency-neglect, DHS stated that the children were dependent-neglected as a result of abuse or parental unfitness. But in the attached affidavit, a DHS family-service worker stated that the hold was taken because of Riggs's substance abuse, environmental neglect, parental unfitness, and neglect. The circuit court entered an ex parte order for emergency custody on May 1, 2017, with an amended order entered on May 3, 2017.

         The circuit court held a probable-cause hearing on May 3, 2017, and a week later, it entered an order finding that probable cause existed at the time of the removal and continued to exist, such that the children should remain in the custody of DHS. In this order, the circuit court also noted that Riggs and the children had membership in, or were descendants of, an Indian tribe--specifically, that Riggs was a member of the Cherokee Tribe.

         On June 20, 2017, the circuit court held an adjudication hearing and entered an adjudication-and-disposition order that same day. This order reflected that there was a representative from the Cherokee Tribe present, and the circuit court adjudicated the children dependent-neglected due to parental drug use resulting in parental unfitness and environmental neglect. Riggs was ordered to, among other things, submit to a psychological evaluation, participate in counseling as recommended by a therapist, refrain from illegal drug use, submit to a drug-and-alcohol assessment, complete parenting classes, and obtain and maintain stable housing and employment. The circuit court set the goal of the case as reunification with a concurrent goal of adoption.

         A review order was entered on September 19, 2017, following a hearing that same day. Therein, the circuit court found that Riggs had substantially complied with the court orders and case plan. The goal of the case continued as reunification as did the concurrent goal of adoption. The order indicated that a member of the Cherokee Tribe was again present at the hearing.

         A second review hearing was held on December 19, 2017, and an order was entered that day. The order reflected that the representative from the Cherokee Tribe was excused at his request. The circuit court continued the goal of reunification with a concurrent goal of adoption and found that Riggs had substantially complied with the case plan and court orders and had made much progress toward alleviating or mitigating the cause of the children's removal.

         On February 27, 2018, the circuit court held another review hearing and entered an order that same day. In the order, the circuit court continued the concurrent goals, although it found that Riggs had failed to comply with the case plan and court orders, as she had been arrested on new felony drug charges and was incarcerated. However, the circuit court did acknowledge that Riggs had made some progress toward alleviating the cause of the children's removal.

         The circuit court held a permanency-planning hearing on April 17, 2018, and entered an order changing the goal of the case to adoption after finding the goal of reunification was no longer appropriate. The circuit court stopped visitation because of Riggs's incarceration and inability to have visitation in a "meaningful matter" but ordered visitation could resume if either parent was released. The court also found that Riggs failed to comply with the court orders or case plan as she remained incarcerated on various drug and firearms charges. For the first time, the court found that Riggs had made no progress toward mitigating or alleviating the cause of the removal. DHS filed a petition seeking to terminate the parental rights of Riggs and Michael Soda, the father of the two children.[1] As to Riggs, DHS alleged the following grounds: failure to remedy, subsequent factors, and aggravated circumstances. DHS further maintained that termination of parental rights was in the best interest of the children.

         On August 14, 2018, the circuit court held a hearing on DHS's termination petition. After hearing all the evidence, the circuit court granted DHS's petition to terminate Riggs's parental rights on all three grounds pled. An order was entered on September 6, and Riggs timely filed her notice of appeal on September 27.

         Because Riggs is a member of the Cherokee Tribe, and both juveniles are eligible for membership in the tribe, this case is governed by the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). The ICWA requires a higher evidentiary standard in cases involving the termination of parental rights than those set forth in Arkansas Code Annotated section 9-27-341(b)(3). See 25 U.S.C. §§ 1901 et seq. According to the ICWA, the party seeking to terminate parental rights shall satisfy the court that active efforts have been made to provide remedial services and rehabilitative programs designed to prevent the breakup of the Indian family and that these efforts have proved unsuccessful. 25 U.S.C. § 1912(d). Moreover, no termination of parental rights may be ordered in such proceeding in the absence of a determination, supported by evidence ...


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