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In re I.T.

Supreme Court of West Virginia

May 24, 2019

In re I.T. And In re H.S.

          Marion County 17-JA-170, 17-JA-171

          MEMORANDUM DECISION

         Petitioner Mother A.S., by counsel Clarissa M. Banks, appeals the Circuit Court of Marion County's November 9, 2018, order terminating her parental rights to I.T. and the November 26, 2018, order terminating her parental rights to H.S.[1] The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources ("DHHR"), by counsel S.L. Evans, filed a response in support of the circuit court's order. The guardian ad litem for I.T. ("guardian for I.T."), Frances C. Whiteman, filed a response on behalf of that child in support of the circuit court's order. The guardian ad litem for H.S. ("guardian for H.S."), Rebecca L. Tate, filed a response on behalf of that child in support of the circuit court's order. On appeal, petitioner argues that the circuit court erred in terminating her parental rights rather than imposing a less-restrictive dispositional alternative.

         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 December of 2017, the DHHR filed a child abuse and neglect petition alleging that petitioner's husband, J.S., sexually abused petitioner's daughter, I.T. The DHHR alleged that petitioner and I.T.'s non-abusing father, B.T., shared custody of I.T. Further, the DHHR alleged that H.S., petitioner and J.S.'s biological child, lived in their home as well. At that time, the DHHR made no allegations against petitioner, as J.S. agreed to leave the home following the filing of the petition. The circuit court ordered petitioner and B.T. to cooperate with the DHHR and allow the DHHR to make announced and unannounced visits to their homes.

         Thereafter, the DHHR filed an amended petition against petitioner alleging she failed to protect H.S. from J.S. "by allowing [him] to reside in the home with [her.]" The DHHR alleged the parents inflicted "mental and emotional abuse . . . by their actions leading to [H.S.] hiding under her bed to avoid [Child Protective Services] workers." The DHHR alleged that J.S.'s presence in the home at the time was in direct contravention to a voluntary protection plan petitioner executed at the beginning of the proceedings. Petitioner waived her preliminary hearing.

         The circuit court held six adjudicatory hearings over seven months in 2018. I.T., age twelve, testified. The circuit court found her testimony was "strong and matter of fact regarding particular experiences to which she was subjected. [I.T.] was able to describe, in detail, the manner in which she had been touched and period of time during which such conduct happened." The circuit court found that, although the evidence was unclear as to exactly how many times J.S. touched I.T., the description was sufficient to indicate that I.T. "experienced this touching in her genital area" on "many occasions." The forensic psychologist who performed an assessment on I.T. testified that the child's testimony was consistent with their initial session together and the child's forensic interview. The circuit court found that the psychologist "stated that [I.T.] was a child of average intelligence and her actions and statements were consistent with a child that had been a victim of sexual assault." A nurse also testified regarding I.T.'s statements during a physical examination. The circuit court found that testimony "further shows that [I.T.] has been consistent in her allegations, and has not changed or recanted the allegations made against [J.S.]."

         A sheriff's deputy testified that he accompanied two Child Protective Service ("CPS") workers to petitioner's home in March of 2018. The deputy testified that petitioner and J.S. were in the home. Further, J.S. stated that they were the only individuals in the home and that H.S. was at a relative's home. The deputy explained that, while following petitioner to a back bedroom, he heard a noise and discovered H.S. underneath a bed. The deputy explained that she began crying as he assisted her out from underneath the bed. The deputy further testified that the parents became "highly agitated" and that J.S. was handcuffed for officer safety. Both petitioner and J.S. were cited for obstruction. The CPS workers corroborated the deputy's testimony. Further, the CPS workers agreed that petitioner was told not to allow J.S. to have contact with H.S., which petitioner later denied.

         Petitioner testified in defense of J.S, stating she did not believe that he sexually abused I.T. Petitioner testified, "I don't believe these things, plain and simple. That's just how it is. I don't believe this at all. I can only tell you . . . how they've interacted with each other. I'm telling you this, I don't believe this happened." The circuit court found that petitioner disregarded the voluntary protection plan as alleged in the amended petition. Thus, the circuit court perceived that petitioner was biased in favor of J.S. and her testimony "did little to detract from the testimony" of I.T. and the forensic psychologist. Finally, J.S. testified and denied the allegations that he sexually abused I.T.

          Ultimately, the circuit court found "that there [was] clear and convincing evidence that [I.T.] suffered sexual abuse by [J.S.] while in the custody of [petitioner] . . . and another child residing in the home was [H.S.]" Accordingly, the circuit court found that H.S. was also at risk of abuse under West Virginia Code § 49-1-201.[2] Further, the circuit court found that petitioner allowed H.S. to have contact with J.S. and, therefore, violated the voluntary protection plan. The circuit court adjudicated petitioner as an abusing parent and the children as abused children. Further, the circuit court found that H.S. had "separate interests from [I.T.]" and appointed H.S. a separate guardian ad litem.

         The circuit court held the final dispositional hearing in October of 2018, and the DHHR presented testimony from CPS workers that petitioner continued to believe that I.T. was not sexually abused by J.S. The CPS workers testified that petitioner was not offered services due to her continued denial of abuse. Petitioner then testified that she had separated from J.S. and now believed that he sexually abused I.T. However, petitioner admitted that she never informed the DHHR of this change. Further, petitioner admitted that she did not seek services to remedy the conditions of abuse and neglect on her own.

         Ultimately, the circuit court found that petitioner "never expressed her change of heart [regarding I.T.'s statements that she was sexually abused] to anyone and she was unable to articulate the reasons she now believes her daughter." The circuit court found that petitioner's testimony was not credible and noted this Court's prior holding that

[f]ailure to acknowledge the existence of the problem, i.e., the truth of the basic allegation pertaining to the alleged abuse and neglect or the perpetrator of said abuse and neglect, results in making the problem untreatable and in making an improvement period an exercise in futility at the child's expense.

In re Timber M., 231 W.Va. 44, 55, 743 S.E.2d 352, 363 (2013) (quoting In re: Charity H., 215 W.Va. 208, 217, 599 S.E.2d 631, 640 (2004)). Consequently, the circuit court terminated petitioner's parental rights finding that it was in the children's best interests. It is from the circuit court's November 9, 2018, dispositional order regarding I.T. and its ...


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