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In re L.H.

Supreme Court of Iowa

November 17, 2017

IN THE INTEREST OF L.H., Minor Child, R.H., Father, Appellant,

         On review from the Iowa Court of Appeals.

         Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Muscatine County, Gary P. Strausser, District Associate Judge.

         The State and a child's guardian ad litem seek further review of a court of appeals decision that reversed the adjudication of a child as a child in need of assistance. DECISION OF COURT OF APPEALS VACATED; DISTRICT COURT JUDGMENT AFFIRMED.

          Mark J. Neary of Neary Law Office, Muscatine, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Mary A. Triick (until withdrawal) and Kathryn K. Lang, Assistant Attorneys General, for appellee.

          Sara Strain Linder of Bray & Klockau, P.L.C., Iowa City, guardian ad litem, for minor child.

          ZAGER, Justice.

         This further review requires us to determine whether a father's physical abuse against other family members, and his history of domestic violence, without physical abuse against the child, supports an adjudication of the child as one in need of assistance. The juvenile court determined that the parent is "imminently likely to abuse or neglect the child" and that the child "is imminently likely to suffer harmful effects" due to a "failure of the child's parent . . . to exercise a reasonable degree of care in supervising the child." See Iowa Code § 232.2(6)(b), (c)(2) (2016). The court of appeals reversed the juvenile court adjudication of the child as a child in need of assistance, finding the father's physical abuse towards other family members did not establish that the child was at risk of imminent harm. We granted the State and guardian ad litem's application for further review. In our de novo review, we conclude the record supports the juvenile court adjudication of the child as a child in need of assistance. We therefore vacate the decision of the court of appeals and affirm the judgment of the juvenile court.

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

         Danielle is the mother of ten-year-old A.D., four-year-old G.G., and two-year-old L.H. Each child has a different father, but Danielle is currently involved with the father of L.H., Ryan. Danielle and Ryan have been in a relationship for approximately three years and have resided together intermittently during this time. In June 2016, the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS) became involved following an alleged incident of physical abuse in which Ryan grabbed A.D. by the neck and slammed him up against a wall after Ryan became upset with A.D. for locking the bathroom door. Danielle did not observe the assault. However, she could hear yelling and then observed A.D. on the floor crying and holding his head. Following the incident, Danielle called 911 and took A.D. to the hospital. The treating physician diagnosed A.D. with a subdural hematoma. L.H. did not witness this event.

         At the time of the alleged incident, Danielle and the children resided with her father in Atalissa during the week. However, Danielle and the children spent most weekends with Ryan at his residence in Davenport. At no time during this period were Danielle and Ryan separated. Following this incident, DHS took follow-up measures to investigate the abuse allegation and the safety of all of Danielle's children. As part of these efforts, DHS spoke with Danielle at length about her relationship with Ryan. Danielle reported that Ryan had grabbed A.D. by the neck once before and had done things that "scare" them in the past. She noted that Ryan has anger issues that she has spoken to him about and that Ryan agreed he needed help to address his anger issues. However, Ryan never took any action to resolve those anger issues. After its investigation, DHS determined the incident was a founded case of child abuse with Ryan as the perpetrator.

         Danielle also reported that Ryan has a history of domestic violence. On May 7, 2015, Danielle had to go to the hospital after Ryan kicked her in the head. Additionally, during a family safety, risk, and permanency visit with Danielle in December 2016, a social worker observed "extreme bruising on [Danielle's] face, " including broken blood vessels in her right eye, two black eyes, and bruises along her forehead and cheeks. Danielle told the social worker that her black eyes were the result of a snowball and that her facial bruising occurred when she tripped over a toy and hit a door. The social worker also noticed a bump on L.H.'s head, which Danielle said occurred when L.H. fell off a chair. The social worker noted "severe concerns for the presence of domestic violence in the home." Danielle later acknowledged at the adjudicatory hearing for L.H. that she reported domestic violence in her relationship with Ryan in both 2015 and 2016.

         In addition to Ryan's history of domestic violence with Danielle, the DHS social history report on L.H. shows Ryan also has a history of domestic violence in previous relationships with other women. Ryan has been the subject of two protective orders with two former partners. In 2007, he was named the perpetrator of abuse of one of his other children when he struck the child's mother hard enough that she fell while holding the child. Specifically, that mother reported Ryan had been drinking and driving with the child in the car. When they returned home, the mother went into the bathroom and Ryan kicked in the door to assault the mother. The mother reported that Ryan assaulted her three other times.

         Throughout the DHS investigation into the safety of L.H., Ryan was noncooperative. The family's assigned service provider testified that she made multiple attempts to contact Ryan, but she was unable to reach him. Ryan refused to even talk with DHS and did not participate in any discussions regarding a safety plan for L.H. Ryan refused to cooperate with the preparation of the social history for L.H., even after being ordered by the court to appear and answer questions. Ryan refused to answer any questions related to the social history prepared for L.H. when given the opportunity in court. Ryan was not part of any safety plan implemented by DHS for the protection of L.H., and he did not participate in any services offered by DHS.

         As the DHS investigation progressed, Danielle also became less cooperative. She refused to allow DHS to meet alone with the children unless the meetings were court-ordered. She also began to qualify and modify her earlier statements about the incident between A.D. and Ryan. Danielle testified that she thought perhaps A.D. had just "fallen backwards into the door." The guardian ad litem noted Danielle's lack of cooperation appeared influenced by Ryan. For example, within thirty minutes of the child protective worker's ...

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