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In re R.A.

Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia

September 13, 2019

In re R.A.

          Randolph County 2018-JA-154

          MEMORANDUM DECISION

         Petitioner Mother S.A., by counsel J. Brent Easton, appeals the Circuit Court of Randolph County's March 8, 2019, order terminating her parental rights to R.A.[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, Heather M. Weese, filed a response on behalf of the child in support of the circuit court's order. On appeal, petitioner argues that the circuit court erred in terminating her parental rights instead of granting her a less-restrictive disposition.

         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 2018, the DHHR filed an abuse and neglect petition against the parents due, in part, to a prior involuntary termination of the parents' parental rights to older children.[2]According to the DHHR, the prior involuntary termination of parental rights was based on the fact that the parents provided alcohol to two teenage girls, one of them the parents' child, A.A.[3]The DHHR further alleged that the prior involuntary termination was based upon the parents' failure to address their children's developmental delays, in addition to lengthy and unreasonable delays in obtaining two important surgeries for a child to address serious medical conditions- pneumonia and a kidney infection. According to the petition, "[t]he lengthy postponements of the surger[ies] resulted in further, significant developmental delays." According to the petition, when the DHHR investigated the birth of R.A., petitioner informed the DHHR that she was "unaware as to why she lost the rights to her [older] children" and that "she was treated unfairly and could not recall why her rights were terminated." The father similarly indicated that "he did not understand why [Child Protective Services] was at the hospital and trying to remove his child." According to the petition, the father "stated that he was treated unfairly and [did] not understand why his rights were terminated" in regard to the older children. The petition further indicated that the father is a registered sex offender. Ultimately, the DHHR alleged that the parents failed to remedy the circumstances that led to the prior involuntary termination of their parental rights to older children, especially in light of the fact that "at the time of the parents' termination in 2017 . . . they had not accepted responsibility for their deficiencies in parenting." The petition alleged that the parents continued to deny responsibility or acknowledge any wrongdoing. The parents later waived their preliminary hearings.

         In January of 2019, petitioner stipulated to abusing and neglecting the child based on the prior involuntary termination of her parental rights to the older children. Accordingly, the circuit court adjudicated petitioner of abuse and neglect and set the matter for disposition.

         In March of 2019, the circuit court held a dispositional hearing. Prior to the hearing, both parents moved for improvement periods. Both the DHHR and the guardian opposed the motions. During the hearing, the parents both testified and disputed the basis for the prior involuntary termination of their parental rights.[4] The parents also presented testimony from additional witnesses regarding their fitness to parent the child, including testimony from A.A., who had reached the age of majority.[5]

         In its dispositional order, the circuit court specifically found that the "prior termination of [the parents'] parental rights [was based on] . . . medical neglect[, ] . . . inappropriate sexual conduct with the older child and her friend, and serving alcohol to the older child and her friend." The circuit court went on to find that "[b]oth parents failed to accept responsibility for or acknowledge these parental deficiencies during the prior abuse and neglect matter" and that "[o]utside of [the father's] testimony today that they should have sought medical treatment for the younger child sooner, both parents continue to fail to accept responsibility for the abuse they were adjudicated upon in 2016." Given the parents' refusal to accept responsibility for the conditions that led to the prior involuntary termination of their parental rights and the fact that they failed to substantially correct those conditions, the circuit court found that the child's best interests necessitated termination of their parental rights. The circuit court further found that the failure to acknowledge the parental deficiencies resulted in a situation in which there was no reasonable likelihood the conditions of abuse and neglect could be substantially corrected in the near future. As such, the circuit court terminated petitioner's parental rights.[6] 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). On appeal, we find no error in the proceedings below.

         In support of her lone assignment of error, petitioner argues that she was entitled to a less-restrictive disposition because she established a substantial change in circumstances since the prior termination of her parental rights and that she was likely to fully participate in an improvement period. We note, however, that neither of these assertions has a basis in the evidence, especially considering the circuit court's findings regarding petitioner's failure to acknowledge the conditions of abuse and neglect that led to the prior involuntary termination of her parental rights to her older children.

         On appeal, petitioner does not challenge the circuit court's finding that, other than the father's testimony that the parents should have sought medical treatment for one of the older children sooner, "both parents continue to fail to accept responsibility for the abuse they were adjudicated upon in 2016." Indeed, the record is clear that petitioner continues to disregard her abuse of the older children, as evidenced by her belief that she corrected the conditions of abuse and neglect from the prior proceeding because the couple maintained suitable housing with running water and electricity, maintained an automobile, and had stable income through the father's employment. Petitioner fails to recognize that none of these issues is in any way related to the basis for the prior termination of her parental rights to older children.

         In regard to a failure to accept responsibility for abuse and neglect, this Court has held as follows:

[i]n order to remedy the abuse and/or neglect problem, the problem must first be acknowledged. Failure 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 ...

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