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In re A. F.

Court of Appeals of Georgia, First Division

June 22, 2018

IN THE INTEREST OF A. F. et al., CHILDREN.

          BARNES, P. J., ELLINGTON, P.J., and MCMILLIAN, J.

          BARNES, PRESIDING JUDGE.

         The mother of A. L. C. B. F. ("A. F."), C. M. J. F. ("C. F."), and A. K. W. F., appeals from the order of the trial court terminating her parental rights.[1] On appeal, she contends that the evidence was insufficient to support the termination. Upon our review, and finding insufficient evidence demonstrating that continued dependency will cause or is likely to cause the children serious physical, mental, emotional, or moral harm, we reverse.

On appeal from an order terminating parental rights, we review the evidence in the light most favorable to the juvenile court's judgment in order to determine whether any rational trier of fact could have found by clear and convincing evidence that the natural parent's rights to custody have been lost. We neither weigh evidence nor determine witness credibility, but defer to the juvenile court's findings of fact and affirm unless the appellate standard is not met.

(Citation and punctuation omitted). In re U. G., 291 Ga.App. 404, 404 (662 S.E.2d 190) (2008).

         So viewed, the evidence demonstrates that, at the time of the termination hearing, A. L. C. B. F. was four-and-a-half years old; C. M. J. F. was three-and-a-half years old, and A. K. W. F. was one-and-a-half years old.[2] Andrew Walker is the biological father of A. K. W. F.[3] The location of A. L. C. B. F. and C. M. J. F.'s putative biological father is unknown, and the legal father, the mother's husband, by request, was excused from the proceedings.

         On June 9, 2015, upon the filing of a complaint alleging dependency, and the entry of a dependancy removal order, A. L. C. B. F. and C. M. J. F. were taken into the custody of the Whitfield County Division of Family and Children Services ("DFCS") On June 10, 2015, the trial court entered a preliminary protective order placing temporary custody of the two children with DFACS. According to the order, there was probable cause to believe that the children were dependant because the mother was unemployed, did not have a stable environment for the children, and there was a history of domestic violence, including a recent physical altercation between the mother and her current boyfriend during which she had threatened to "harm herself with a razor." Thereafter, on June 15, 2015, DFACS filed a petition of dependency alleging that the two children were dependent because the "children have been abused or neglected and are in need of protection of the court" given the mother's unemployment, lack of stable home environment and violent relationship with Walker, the father of her unborn child.

         Subsequently, the juvenile court entered an order of dependency as to the two children. According to that order, the children were dependant "due to being homeless, and without food, clothing and shelter." The order noted the mother's frequent moves and that she had been staying week-to-week in different motels; at one point, there was no food in her residence; and she was seen searching through trash cans for food at a gas station. The order also noted the mother's history of abusive relationships with men and the children witnessing the abuse.

         The mother's ensuing reunification case plan required, among other things, that she maintain stable housing for six consecutive months, maintain visitation with the children, pay child support, participate in parenting classes, comply with random drug screenings, and comply with psychological referral for parental fitness and domestic violence assessments. After a case plan judicial review and permanency planning hearing, on September 9, 2015 the trial court entered an order detailing the mother's progress, including that, although she was still unemployed, she was visiting the children, had enrolled in parenting classes, and had all negative drug screenings. At the time, the mother was living with Walker at his grandmother's house.

         After a March 2, 2016 permanency hearing, the trial court found that the mother had completed her psychological evaluation and continued to have clean drug screenings. She was also working, had housing and was paying child support. A. K. W. F., who was born on November 30, 2015, was living with the mother, and the mother was allowed limited, but unsupervised visitation with A. F. and C. F. However, the trial court found that before the children could be reunited with the mother, additional elements of the case plan needed to be completed, including mental health treatment.

         On March 30, 2016, the mother visited DFACS and reported that the previous night, she and Walker had an altercation and she was "fearful for her safety." She said that Walker "hit her frequently," and was advised to get a Temporary Protective Order ("TPO") to have Walker removed from the lease. DFACS scheduled an appointment for the mother to meet with the District Attorney's office to take out the TPO, but she did not show up. However, Walker was arrested and charged with family violence, and his probation was revoked. On May 25, 2016, after Walker was released from jail and discovered hiding in the mother's home, A. K. W. F. was taken into DFACS custody.

         The trial court's order after a subsequent August 8, 2016 permanency hearing revealed that, although the mother had achieved certain of her case plan goals, her housing was uncertain because she lived in a mobile home that was leased to Walker. The trial court "strongly cautioned" the mother about continued contact with Walker because of their "domestic violence issues." The mother had been referred for mental health treatments, and had participated in vocational rehabilitation and applied for Social Security disability.

         On January 9, 2017, DFCS filed a petition to terminate the mother's parental rights, alleging that termination was in the children's best interest because she: could not maintain stable housing, employment, or transportation; had a history of abusive relationships and did not protect the children from the effects of the abuse; and was intellectually and emotionally incapable of safely parenting the children.

         Hearings on the termination petition was held on April 10, 2017 and April 20, 2017. A case manager with DFACS testified that the mother had a long history of instability with housing, income and relationships, and that her involvement with DFACS started in February 2013. At that time, DFACS received a report that the mother was living with A. F. in an abandoned house in Columbus, Georgia, and a family support case was opened the next month because the mother was homeless. DFACS received a report in August 2013 that the family was homeless and that the mother was observed striking one of her children while in a hospital emergency room. In February ...


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