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In re N.S.

Supreme Court of West Virginia

June 15, 2018

In re N.S.

          Braxton County 17-JA-24

          MEMORANDUM DECISION

         Petitioner Father G.S., by counsel David Karickhoff, appeals the Circuit Court of Braxton County's January 12, 2018, order terminating his parental rights to N.S.[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"), Mary Elizabeth Snead, filed a response on behalf of the child also in support of the circuit court's order. On appeal, petitioner argues that the circuit court erred in terminating his parental rights without first granting him an improvement period.

         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 July of 2017, the DHHR filed a child abuse and neglect petition against petitioner and the mother. The DHHR alleged that, upon arriving to petitioner's home in order to investigate a report of domestic violence, law enforcement officers found a large amount of drug paraphernalia in the home. Specifically, the officers found methamphetamine, a smoking device, "snort tubes" in a pile of the child's crayons, and large knives in the child's bedroom with her toys. Petitioner was arrested and charged with child neglect creating risk of injury.

         The circuit court held an adjudicatory hearing in September of 2017. After hearing evidence, the circuit court found that petitioner abused illegal controlled substances while the child was in his care, custody, and control, and failed to protect the child due to his substance abuse. The circuit court adjudicated petitioner as an abusing parent and granted him supervised visitation with the child subject to him providing negative drug screens.

         Petitioner filed a motion for a post-adjudicatory improvement period shortly thereafter, and the circuit court held a hearing on the matter in October of 2017. At the conclusion of the hearing, the circuit court stated that it would take petitioner's motion under advisement, noting that its decision would be dependent upon petitioner's entering an inpatient drug treatment program.

         In December of 2017, the circuit court held a dispositional hearing. Petitioner failed to attend but was represented by counsel. It was reported that petitioner had not enrolled in an inpatient drug treatment program as previously directed. The circuit court continued the hearing, which was reconvened in January of 2018. At the conclusion of the hearing, the circuit court found that petitioner failed to enter an inpatient drug treatment program, comply with drug screens, and prove that he would comply with the terms and conditions of an improvement period. The circuit court also found that there was no reasonable likelihood that petitioner could correct the conditions of abuse and neglect and that termination was necessary for the child's welfare. Ultimately, the circuit court denied petitioner's request for an improvement period and terminated his parental rights. It is from the January 12, 2018, dispositional order that petitioner appeals.[2]

         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).

         On appeal, petitioner argues that the circuit court erred in terminating his parental rights without first granting him an improvement period. Specifically, petitioner argues that the circuit court should have granted him the opportunity to participate in services to correct the conditions of abuse because he had never been involved in child abuse and neglect proceedings prior to the underlying proceedings. We disagree. The decision to grant or deny an improvement period rests in the sound discretion of the circuit court. See In re M.M., 236 W.Va. 108, 115, 778 S.E.2d 338, 345 (2015) ("West Virginia law allows the circuit court discretion in deciding whether to grant a parent an improvement period."); Syl. Pt. 6, in part, In re Katie S., 198 W.Va. 79, 479 S.E.2d 589 (1996) ("It is within the court's discretion to grant an improvement period within the applicable statutory requirements."). We have also held that a parent's "entitlement to an improvement period is conditioned upon the ability of the [parent] to demonstrate 'by clear and convincing evidence, that the [parent] is likely to fully participate in the improvement period. . . .'" In re Charity H., 215 W.Va. 208, 215, 599 S.E.2d 631, 638 (2004).

         Petitioner failed to demonstrate that he was likely to fully participate in an improvement period. He requested a post-adjudicatory improvement period and was informed that the circuit court's decision to grant him the same was contingent upon his entering an inpatient drug treatment program. However, petitioner subsequently failed to comply with this order and failed to attend his dispositional hearing. The hearing was continued, providing petitioner with more time to comply, but he failed to do so. Further, petitioner also failed to comply with requests to provide drug screens, and he tested positive for controlled substances on the few occasions he did comply. As such, petitioner did not show that he was likely to fully participate in an improvement period and the circuit court did not err in denying him the same.

         Moreover, the circuit court did not err in terminating petitioner's parental rights. West Virginia Code § 49-4-604(b)(6) provides that circuit courts are to terminate parental rights upon findings that there is "no reasonable likelihood that the conditions of neglect or abuse can be substantially corrected in the near future" and that termination is necessary for the child's welfare. Pursuant to West Virginia Code § 49-4-604(c)(3), a situation in which there is no reasonable likelihood that the conditions of abuse or neglect can be substantially corrected include one in which

[t]he abusing parent . . . [has] not responded to or followed through with a reasonable family case plan or other rehabilitative efforts of social, medical, mental health or other rehabilitative agencies designed to reduce or prevent the abuse or neglect of the child, as evidenced by the continuation or insubstantial ...

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