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In re of R.M.

Court of Appeals of Iowa

April 5, 2017

IN THE INTEREST OF R.M. and E.P., Minor children, T.P., Mother, Appellant.

         Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Linn County, Susan F. Flaherty, Associate Juvenile Judge.

         Mother appeals from an order terminating her parental rights pursuant to Iowa Code chapter 232 (2016). AFFIRMED.

          Deborah M. Skelton, Walford, for appellant mother.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Tabitha J. Gardner, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee State.

          Jeannine L. Roberts, Cedar Rapids, guardian ad litem for minor children.

          Considered by Mullins, P.J., and Bower and McDonald, JJ.

          MCDONALD, JUDGE.

         Tara appeals from an order terminating her parental rights in her children, R.M. and E.P., pursuant to Iowa Code section 232.116(1)(h) (2016). Tara contends the State failed to prove the statutory ground authorizing the termination of her parental rights and the termination of her parental rights is not in the best interests of the children.

         We review proceedings terminating parental rights de novo. See In re A.M., 843 N.W.2d 100, 110 (Iowa 2014). The statutory framework is well established. Pursuant to section 232.116(1), the State must prove a statutory ground authorizing the termination of a parent's rights. See In re P.L., 778 N.W.2d 33, 39 (Iowa 2010). Section 232.116(1) sets forth the harms the legislature has determined to be of sufficient concern to justify the breakup of the family unit. Second, pursuant to section 232.116(2), the State must prove termination of parental rights is in the best interest of the child. See id. Third, if the State has proved both the existence of statutory harm and termination of a parent's rights is in the best interest of the child, the juvenile court must consider whether any countervailing considerations set forth in section 232.116(3) should nonetheless preclude termination of parental rights. See id. These countervailing considerations are permissive, not mandatory. See A.M., 843 N.W.2d at 113. "The court has discretion, based on the unique circumstances of each case and the best interests of the child, whether to apply the factors in this section to save the parent-child relationship." In re D.S., 806 N.W.2d 458, 475 (Iowa Ct. App. 2011).

          The State has the burden to prove its case by clear and convincing evidence. See Iowa Code § 232.96. "Clear and convincing evidence is more than a preponderance of the evidence and less than evidence beyond a reasonable doubt." In re L.G., 532 N.W.2d 478, 481 (Iowa Ct. App. 1995). "It is the highest evidentiary burden in civil cases." In re M.S., 889 N.W.2d 675, 679 (Iowa Ct. App. 2016). "It means there must be no serious or substantial doubt about the correctness of a particular conclusion drawn from the evidence." Id. This significant burden is imposed on the State to minimize the risk of an erroneous deprivation of the parent's fundamental liberty interest in raising his or her child. See Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745, 759 (1982). We therefore cannot rubber stamp what has come before; it is our task to ensure the State has come forth with the quantum and quality of evidence necessary to prove each of the elements of its case. See id. at 769.

         We turn to the facts of this case. The family came to the attention of the Iowa Department of Human Services (IDHS) following R.M.'s birth in 2013. The hospital staff perceived Tara to have cognitive and functional impairment and was concerned about Tara's ability to care for the child. Hospital staff requested IDHS make an assessment to determine whether to initiate assistance proceedings. A social worker conducted an interview and assessment with Tara in the hospital. Tara agreed to the initiation of assistance proceedings and the receipt of services. Tara was allowed to leave the hospital with R.M. in her care subject to the protective supervision of IDHS. Tara subsequently stipulated R.M. was a child in need of assistance within the meaning of chapter 232.

          The mother received a great number and variety of services in support of her and the child, including psychological and intelligence testing. The intelligence tests confirmed Tara has significant cognitive and functional impairment. Her IQ is 60, placing her in the bottom 0.4 percentile of all adults. Her overall level of adaptive functioning is in the bottom 1% of the population. Her capacity for commonsense judgment was found to be particularly poor, again at the bottom 1% of the population. Her cognitive and functional impairment prevents her from planning and from being able to assess the needs of others.

         In October 2014, IDHS concluded Tara could not safely care for R.M. There were numerous incidents supporting the conclusion. Of greatest import was the fact R.M. was observed to have numerous, unexplained bruises and scrapes. Many of the bruises and scrapes were on the child's forehead, cheeks, legs, and buttocks. R.M. was removed from Tara's care and placed in foster family care. Following R.M.'s placement in foster family care, her injuries were notably reduced.

         E.P. was born in January 2015, and he was immediately removed from Tara's ...


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