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In re A. B.

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Second Division

May 25, 2018

IN THE INTEREST OF A. B. et al., children.

          MILLER, P. J., ANDREWS and BROWN, JJ.

          Miller, Presiding Judge.

         Anita Wright appeals from the juvenile court's order terminating her parental rights to her eight children, arguing that the juvenile court erred by (1) permitting the most recent case manager, rather than the previous one, to testify at the termination hearing, (2) finding that there was current dependency, (3) finding that the dependency was likely to continue, (4) finding that the continued dependency was likely to cause harm to the children, and (5) denying her motion for a new trial.[1] After a thorough review of the record, we conclude that the juvenile court properly terminated the mother's parental rights with respect to three of the children, but not as to the other five, because there was no evidence addressing the likelihood of continued harm stemming from the dependency for the remaining five children. Accordingly, we affirm the termination order as to the two oldest children and the youngest, but must reverse as to the other five children.

         On appeal from a juvenile court's decision to terminate parental rights, we review the evidence in the light most favorable to the juvenile court's ruling and determine whether any rational trier of fact could have found by clear and convincing evidence that the parent's rights should be terminated. In the Interest of C. S., 319 Ga.App. 138, 139 (735 S.E.2d 140) (2015). Nonetheless,

this deferential standard of review is tempered by the fact that there is no judicial determination which has more drastic significance than that of permanently severing a natural parent-child relationship. It must be scrutinized deliberately and exercised most cautiously. The right to raise one's children is a fiercely guarded right in our society and law, and a right that should be infringed upon only under the most compelling circumstances.

(Footnote omitted.) In the Interest of E. G. L. B., 342 Ga.App. 839, 840 (805 S.E.2d 285) (2017).

         So viewed, the evidence shows that on August 14, 2014, the Georgia Department of Family and Children's Services ("DFCS") took Wright's eight children, ranging in age from five days old to twelve years old, into custody after learning that the family was living in an abandoned apartment with no running water or electricity. The children lacked medical and dental care and were not attending school. Additionally, the family had limited food and water, there was trash piled up around the apartment, and there had been instances of violence in the home. Based on those living conditions, DFCS filed a dependency petition and an amended dependency petition, alleging that the children lacked parental care or control, the father was using marijuana, and there had been acts of family violence and verbal abuse in the home, especially against the two oldest children.

         The juvenile court found the children dependent and in need of the court's protection as a result of the allegations of abuse and neglect. This finding was never appealed The juvenile court noted the emotional and physical abuse alleged by the two oldest children and that the newborn child had to be hospitalized immediately for hypothermia upon being taken into custody Thereafter, DFCS set up a case plan with the goal of reunification for the parents The juvenile court adopted the case plan, concurrent with reunification and guardianship, which required the mother to do the following: (1) complete a parental fitness/psychological evaluation; (2) obtain and maintain stable housing; (3) obtain and maintain a source of income; (4) sign a release of information; (5) attend all hearings; (6) notify DFCS of any changes of address, phone numbers or jobs within 48 hours; and (7) contact DFCS to schedule appointments to discuss her progress. The two oldest children required trauma assessments, and the remaining children were to be assessed for various therapies. The children were placed in several different foster homes and given sibling visitation. The parents were given visitation with all of the children.

         In September 2014, all of the children underwent assessments at Bagley Youth Development. The oldest child's trauma assessment showed that she suffered from PTSD as a result of abuse and neglect. The oldest child revealed that she suffered beatings with a stick, a belt, and a metal pole. She further witnessed the abuse of her siblings and other domestic violence.

         The trauma assessment of the second oldest child reported that she also had been the victim of physical abuse and had witnessed the abuse of her siblings along with domestic violence in the home. She was frightened of her parents, but also missed them. She suffered from depression, anxiety, and symptoms of PTSD.

         Between October 2014 and April 2015, the mother made some progress on her goals, but had yet to obtain the necessary income and housing.[2] At a hearing on April 30, 2015, the oldest child's therapist testified that the child disclosed that her parents were physically and mentally abusive, she had been "parentified, "[3] she had nightmares about returning home, and she no longer wished to visit her parents. The therapist testified that the child was diagnosed with PTSD and continued contact with her mother was detrimental to her. Additionally, the therapist testified that the other children had been exposed to the parents' violent behavior. Further, the children's case manager testified that she had observed at least five visits with the parents and that the two oldest children and one of the middle children cried and said they were afraid to go home.

         Following this hearing, in 2015, the juvenile court suspended visitation between the two oldest children and the parents. Later that year, DFCS changed the case plan from reunification to adoption. During a permanency hearing in December 2015, the juvenile court noted that the parents had not completed family therapy or the necessary bonding assessments, and that the mother had ceased her individual therapy.

         In March of 2016, DFCS filed for termination of the parents' rights, alleging that the children were dependent, that the dependency would continue and cause harm, and that the parents had not completed their reunification case plan.

         A court appointed special advocate ("CASA") submitted a report in June 2016, finding that the two oldest children did not wish to see their parents and hoped to be adopted. The third oldest child wanted to return to her parents, and the remaining children were too young to express a preference. The CASA recommended that the children remain in their current foster placement with the long-term goal of adoption.

         In July 2016, the parents were indicted for cruelty to children, aggravated assault, family violence battery, and terroristic threats. As a condition of bond, the parents were barred from having any of the minor children live with them.

         At the subsequent termination hearing, the oldest child testified that she did not want to return to her biological parents and that she wanted to be adopted by her foster parent. She stated that her parents had beaten her from the time she was five years old, that she was consistently responsible for parenting her younger siblings, and that she would be beaten if the younger children did anything wrong. Her parents usually struck her with a belt, but on one occasion they used a stick. Additionally, her mother called her names and threatened her with a knife. She was not allowed to leave the house or go to school, but was not home schooled either. She did not believe her parents could change, despite progress on their case plans, because she had seen prior instances in which they resorted to their old behavior once supervision ceased.

         The second oldest child's therapist testified that the child experienced PTSD and persistent depressive disorder with anxious distress as a result of the physical and verbal abuse she and her siblings suffered. She noted that the child had been parentified, either by her parents or by her older sister, and that if she made a mistake while in charge of the younger children, she would be abused. She testified that the child wanted to be adopted, in part because she was afraid that if she were returned to her parents, she would be punished for speaking out about the abuse. The therapist noted that the child's condition had improved with therapy, and she recommended that the child be adopted given the severity of her PTSD and the trauma she suffered.

         The eight-year-old daughter testified that she wanted to visit her parents, but would want to live with them if they had a better home than they did before. The seven-year-old girl and six-year-old boy both testified that they wanted to return to their parents. The remaining children did not testify.

         DFCS case manager Aliandrise Johnson testified, over the mother's objection, that she was the current case manager for the children, and that she based much of her testimony on the other reports and documents from previous case managers. She reported that the mother had not completed individual counseling, the parents had not paid any child support, and she could not verify the mother's income.[4] She explained that she had visited the parents' home, but there were no beds, clothes, or toys for the children. ...

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