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In re J. L.

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fifth Division

October 4, 2019




         On February 12, 2016, the Probate Court of Chatham County appointed the uncle of the mother of minor child J. L. to be the temporary guardian of the child. On April 27, 2017, the mother filed a petition to terminate the uncle's temporary guardianship. The uncle filed an objection to termination of the temporary guardianship, and the probate court referred the matter to mediation. After the matter was not resolved by mediation, the probate court transferred the case to the Juvenile Court of Chatham County. The juvenile court held two evidentiary hearings, after which, on June 29, 2018, it entered a final order denying the petition to terminate the temporary guardianship.

         The mother appeals, challenging the sufficiency of the evidence supporting the juvenile court's final order. Because there is sufficient evidence from which a rational trier of fact could find by clear and convincing evidence that the temporary guardianship should not be terminated, we affirm.

         1. Facts.

         On appeal, we view the evidence in the light most favorable to the juvenile court's decision. Holdaway v. Holdaway, 338 Ga.App. 477 (789 S.E.2d 817) (2016); In the Interest of S. P., 336 Ga.App. 488, 489 (1) (784 S.E.2d 846) (2016); Whitehead v. Myers (In the Interest of D. W.), 311 Ga.App. 680 (716 S.E.2d 785) (2011).

         So viewed, the evidence shows that J. L. was born on April 26, 2014. When J. L. was approximately nine months old, the mother became homeless and gave J. L. to her grandfather to care for him. About two weeks later, the grandfather and mother asked the mother's aunt and uncle to take the child. They agreed to take care of J. L. until his mother could find stable employment and housing.

         J. L. has lived with the aunt and uncle since he was ten months old. The aunt and uncle have taken care of all the child's needs during that time. When the aunt and uncle are at work, J. L. is in day care, but otherwise he is with them as part of their family. J. L. has done well in their care, is thriving and happy, and has developed a very strong bond with them.

         The mother has visited J. L. sporadically, seeing him only three or four times per year. After the first hearing in the case, the mother began visiting him once a month but failed to participate in other offered visits by the aunt and uncle, and during one of the visits he told his mother that he was ready to be back with the aunt and uncle because he missed them. She has provided little financial support for J. L., contributing approximately $600 in 2016, but giving no support during other years. The mother has not had steady employment and was unemployed at the time of the first hearing. Two weeks before the second hearing, she began working at a warehouse making $9.00 per hour. The mother admitted that she previously had drug abuse issues, testified that she is on medications for depression and anxiety, and stated that getting therapy for her mental health issues is a requirement for keeping her housing.

         2. Termination of temporary guardianship.

         OCGA § 29-2-8 (b) provides that the juvenile court "shall determine, after notice and hearing, whether a continuation or termination of the temporary guardianship is in the best interest of the minor." (Emphasis supplied.) Under this best interest standard, a temporary guardian who has objected to termination

must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the child will suffer physical or emotional harm if custody were awarded to the biological parent by terminating the temporary guardianship. Once this showing is made, the [temporary guardian] must then show that continuation of the temporary guardianship will best promote the child's welfare and happiness.

Boddie v. Daniels, 288 Ga. 143, 146 (702 S.E.2d 172) (2010) (citation and punctuation omitted). Harm in this context means "either physical harm or significant, long-term emotional harm; it does not mean merely social or economic disadvantages." In the Interest of K. M., 344 Ga.App. 838, 846 (1) (811 S.E.2d 505) (2018) (citation and punctuation omitted). In determining harm, the juvenile court "must consider the factors set forth in Clark v. Wade, [273 Ga. 587');">273 Ga. 587, ] 598-599 (IV) [(544 S.E.2d 99) (2001)]." Boddie, supra. Those factors include:

(1) who are the past and present caretakers of the child; (2) with whom has the child formed psychological bonds and how strong are those bonds; (3) have the competing parties evidenced interest in, and contact with, the child over time; and (4) does the child have unique ...

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