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In re L.N.

Supreme Court of West Virginia

June 19, 2017

In re: L.N.

         Wood County 15-JA-40


         Petitioner Father J.N., by counsel Eric K. Powell, appeals the Circuit Court of Wood County's February 8, 2017, order terminating his parental rights to L.N.[1] The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources ("DHHR"), by counsel Lee Niezgoda, filed a response in support of the circuit court's order. The guardian ad litem ("guardian"), Debra L. Steed, filed a response on behalf of the child in support of the circuit court's order. Petitioner filed a reply. On appeal, petitioner argues that the circuit court erred in denying his motion to withdraw his stipulation at adjudication and in adjudicating him of abusing and neglecting the child.[2]

         This Court has considered the parties' briefs and the record on appeal. The facts and legal arguments are adequately presented, and the decisional process would not be significantly aided by oral argument. Upon consideration of the standard of review, the briefs, and the record presented, the Court finds no substantial question of law and no prejudicial error. For these reasons, a memorandum decision affirming the circuit court's order is appropriate under Rule 21 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure.

         In March of 2015, the DHHR filed an abuse and neglect petition that alleged the mother, L.N., abused the child by virtue of her substance abuse. The petition specifically alleged that the mother engaged in intravenous drug use and operated a methamphetamine laboratory in the home. At the time of the petition's filing, petitioner had not resided in the home since May of 2014, when he was arrested and charged with manufacturing and delivering heroin. Petitioner remained incarcerated on those charges after pleading guilty in an unrelated criminal proceeding. The initial petition made no allegations against petitioner.

         In November of 2015, the DHHR filed an amended petition to include allegations that petitioner failed to provide the child with appropriate shelter, supervision, financial or emotional support, medical assistance, educational direction, and clothing during the preceding six months. The DHHR further alleged that petitioner permitted the mother to have custody of the child despite his knowledge of her substance abuse.

         The circuit court held an adjudicatory hearing in August of 2016, during which petitioner admitted that he had not had physical contact with the child since 2014, and that he had been sentenced to an additional year of incarceration for a related offense. The circuit court then continued the matter until November of 2016, at which point petitioner indicated that he wished to stipulate to the allegations against him. At the hearing, the DHHR indicated that it could no longer recommend an improvement period for petitioner because the child had been in foster care for the preceding nineteen months. Petitioner acknowledged the DHHR's new position and indicated that he still wished to enter his stipulation on the record. The circuit court ultimately accepted petitioner's stipulation and adjudicated him as having abused and neglected the child.

         Later that month, petitioner filed a motion to withdraw his stipulation. The circuit court then held a dispositional hearing in December of 2016. During the hearing, the circuit court denied petitioner's motion to withdraw his stipulation. The circuit court also denied petitioner's oral motion for an additional improvement period. Ultimately, the circuit court terminated petitioner's parental rights.[3] It is from the dispositional order that petitioner appeals.

The Court has previously established the following standard of review:
"Although conclusions of law reached by a circuit court are subject to de novo review, when an action, such as an abuse and neglect case, is tried upon the facts without a jury, the circuit court shall make a determination based upon the evidence and shall make findings of fact and conclusions of law as to whether such child is abused or neglected. These findings shall not be set aside by a reviewing court unless clearly erroneous. A finding is clearly erroneous when, although there is evidence to support the finding, the reviewing court on the entire evidence is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed. However, a reviewing court may not overturn a finding simply because it would have decided the case differently, and it must affirm a finding if the circuit court's account of the evidence is plausible in light of the record viewed in its entirety." Syl. Pt. 1, In Interest of Tiffany Marie S., 196 W.Va. 223, 470 S.E.2d 177 (1996).

Syl. Pt. 1, In re Cecil T., 228 W.Va. 89, 717 S.E.2d 873 (2011). Upon our review, the Court finds no error in the proceedings below.

         First, petitioner argues that the circuit court erred in denying his motion to withdraw his stipulation because it failed to properly question him as to the content and consequences of the stipulation. According to petitioner, the circuit court failed to inform him of the following before accepting his stipulation: (1) that the DHHR would be relieved of any further burden of proof; (2) that petitioner could be adjudicated solely based on the stipulation; and (3) that he was waiving his right to appeal adjudication below. Petitioner further argues that he was only informed that the DHHR would oppose an improvement period minutes before he entered his stipulation. As such, petitioner argues that the stipulation was unreliable and, accordingly, that the stipulation failed to conform with the applicable rules. The Court, however, finds no error in regard to the circuit court's acceptance of petitioner's stipulated adjudication because the requirements of Rule 26 of the Rules of Procedure for Child Abuse and Neglect Proceedings were satisfied.

         According to Rule 26(b),

[b]efore accepting a stipulated or uncontested adjudication, the court shall determine that the parties understand the content and consequences of the admission or stipulation, the parties voluntarily consent, and that the stipulation or uncontested adjudication meets the purposes of these rules and controlling statute and is in the best interests of the child.

         In questioning petitioner as to the voluntariness of his stipulation, the circuit court specifically inquired as to whether petitioner "enter[ed] into this voluntarily of your own free will after having discussed the stipulation as well as your rights with your attorney[, ]" to which petitioner responded affirmatively. Petitioner also indicated that he was not forced, coerced, threatened, or otherwise induced into entering the stipulation. On the contrary, petitioner confirmed that he discussed not only the stipulation with his attorney, but also discussed "other avenues that [he] may pursue . . . ." Moreover, it was made clear to petitioner that the DHHR was no longer in a position to support an improvement period for him, given the length of time the child had been in foster care. The record reflects a lengthy discussion of this fact, in addition to the circuit court specifically questioning petitioner as to whether he understood that his stipulation was "not being offered in exchange for [him] to get an improvement ...

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