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Morris v. Arkansas Department of Human Services

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division I

September 25, 2019

TREASURE MORRIS APPELLANT
v.
ARKANSAS DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES AND MINOR CHILDREN APPELLEES

          APPEAL FROM THE FAULKNER COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT [NO. 23JV-17-175] HONORABLE DAVID M. CLARK, JUDGE

          Dusti Standridge, for appellant.

          Andrew Firth, Office of Chief Counsel, for appellee.

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

          N. MARK KLAPPENBACH, JUDGE

         This appeal arises from the circuit court's January 14, 2019 order terminating the parental rights of Treasure Morris to her four-year-old son, TM, and two-year-old son, JM. The children's father, Franklin Morris, also had his parental rights terminated, but he is not a party to this appeal. The children were removed from the home by the Arkansas Department of Human Services (DHS) in June 2017 due to environmental neglect. The circuit court found that after more than a year in which to correct the conditions and demonstrate that she could provide a safe environment for her sons, Morris had failed to do so. The circuit court also found that it was in the best interest of the boys to terminate her parental rights. Morris appeals these findings. We affirm.

         Termination of parental rights is a two-step process requiring a determination that the parent is unfit and that termination is in the best interest of the child. Houseman v. Ark. Dep't of Human Servs., 2016 Ark.App. 227, 491 S.W.3d 153. The first step requires proof of one or more statutory grounds for termination; the second step, the best-interest analysis, includes consideration of the likelihood that the juvenile will be adopted and of the potential harm caused by returning custody of the child to the parent. Id. We review termination-of-parental-rights cases de novo. Id. The grounds for termination of parental rights must be proved by clear and convincing evidence, which is the degree of proof that will produce in the fact-finder a firm conviction regarding the allegation sought to be established. Id. When the burden of proving a disputed fact is by clear and convincing evidence, the appellate inquiry is whether the circuit court's finding that the disputed fact was proved by clear and convincing evidence is clearly erroneous. Id. 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 resolving the clearly erroneous question, the reviewing court defers to the circuit court because of its superior opportunity to observe the parties and to judge the credibility of witnesses. Id.

         The facts in this case are not in material dispute. This appeal concerns the conclusions to be drawn from these facts. From August 2016 (when the younger child JM was born) through April 2017, DHS had an open protective-services case concerning environmental neglect in the home. DHS intervened due to "trash everywhere" including dirty diapers, dog and cat feces, and exposed electrical cords in the home. DHS provided the family services to avoid having to take the boys into custody, but those efforts ultimately did not work.

         DHS checked on the family in June 2017 following a hotline call. DHS found the family home to be in deplorable condition, with piles of trash, dirty diapers, old food, empty cans and bottles, bugs, feces, piles of clothes, and other items covering the floors throughout the house. The refrigerator was filthy. There were cigarette butts and other hazardous items within the children's reach.

         Over the next month, the parents cleaned up the house, so in mid-July 2017, the circuit court permitted the boys to go home for a trial placement. By mid-August 2017, however, the DHS caseworker visited the family and found the home and children in terrible condition. Both boys had bug bites on their bodies; one boy had bruising on his eye and back; the other boy had a rash around his genitals. There was urine and feces in the children's beds, there were exposed electrical cords "all over the place, " and there were piles of things inside and outside the home. The boys were taken back into DHS custody. In September 2017, the boys were found to be dependent-neglected.

         Over the following months, there continued to be environmental issues with the home. Morris was a stay-at-home mother with no job outside the home, and DHS provided the family with services, including homemaker services and chore lists; cash assistance for pest control to address an extreme roach infestation; parenting classes; budgeting assistance; cleaning supplies; and counseling. Despite these services, the parents often permitted the home to be cluttered, filthy, and dangerous to children. The DHS case worker observed feces and urine on the floor; trash, laundry, and dishes throughout the house; and wires, chemicals, tools, and cigarette butts that the children could access. Although there were occasions when the parents would clean up the home, they would inevitably permit the home to go back to a state of squalor unfit for children, regardless of whether DHS conducted planned or surprise visits. The parents did not consistently clean up urine and feces on the floor in the house left by their pets (a cat, a litter of kittens, and a puppy), which was exacerbated by their getting two additional puppies during this open DHS case. The caseworker told the parents over and over not to leave food out for days, not to leave cigarette butts on the table, and not to leave extension cords out in the open, all of which were dangerous because the boys could put those things in their mouths.

         The termination hearing was conducted in December 2018, approximately a year and a half after the boys initially went into DHS's custody. The parents moved to a different home about a month before the termination hearing, and Morris was pregnant with another child. Photographs taken by DHS just days before the termination hearing showed that the home had pet urine and feces in various places on the floor, there was clothing and other items piled up around the house, the stove top was encrusted with what appeared to be food materials, and there was dark mold in and around the refrigerator/freezer.

         The boys were doing well in their foster home, and their foster family was interested in adopting them. JM had a digestive-system disorder that required a strict dietary regimen, and he was in speech therapy and swallow therapy. TM had allergies that were treated with medications. Otherwise, the boys were both happy and thriving in their foster placement.

         The father agreed that the home they had in Conway was messy, that initially things were not acceptable for his boys, and that he and the mother would "go backward and forward" with keeping it clean. He said that they had moved to North Little Rock in November 2018, that they had improved in keeping their home clean and safe, and that the new home they were leasing was a better place. He said ...


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