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In re K.C.

Court of Appeals of Iowa

May 16, 2018

IN THE INTEREST OF K.C., Minor Child, E.C., Mother, Appellant.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Joseph W. Seidlin, District Associate Judge.

         A mother appeals the juvenile court's termination of her parental rights.

          Elizabeth A. Ryan of Benzoni Law Office, P.L.C., Des Moines, for appellant mother.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Kathryn K. Lang, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee State.

          ConGarry D. Williams of Juvenile Public Defender Office, Des Moines, guardian ad litem for minor child.

          Considered by Danilson, C.J., and Mullins and McDonald, JJ.

          MULLINS, Judge.

         A mother appeals a juvenile court order terminating her parental rights to her minor child, K.C. She contends the State failed to prove the statutory grounds for termination by clear and convincing evidence and to make reasonable efforts to reunify her with her child. She also claims the court erred in failing to apply a statutory exception to termination. She further claims counsel was ineffective for failing to raise the lack-of-reasonable-efforts claim prior to or during the termination hearing.

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings

         K.C. was born in December 2016 and came to the attention of the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS) three weeks later upon allegations the mother was denying K.C. critical care. The mother failed to take the child to a routine weight-check appointment after discharge from the hospital. Three weeks after K.C.'s birth, the mother took the child to the doctor for stomach-related issues. During this appointment, the mother admitted to feeding K.C. adult lactate milk and prune juice. The mother was resistant to the doctor's advice that feeding a newborn inappropriate substances was dangerous. The mother also denied the offer of visiting nursing services due to her house being "too messy." It was also noted by medical staff that, despite the outside temperature of fourteen degrees Fahrenheit, K.C. was only dressed in a onesie with no other layers and with only a thin blanket over the car seat. The mother also admitted during the appointment that she felt she was not able to take care of the child while working and she reported she was waiting for a bus ticket to send the child to her brother in Kansas City.

         DHS commenced its investigation of the allegations of denial of critical care (failure to provide adequate shelter and failure to provide proper supervision) after receiving a report on January 5, 2017. On January 6, a DHS worker went to the mother's identified address. During this encounter the worker noted the mother was holding the child in an unsafe manner. Though she initially acknowledged her identity, after the DHS worker explained his/her concerns and asked for identification to ensure he/she was speaking with K.C.'s mother, the mother closed the door and refused to open it.

         DHS contacted the Des Moines Police Department to assist, as the child's safety had not yet been verified. Due to the medical concerns of the child and the mother's refusal to engage in the assessment process, an emergency removal order was granted and police obtained entry into the house. During the ensuing interview, the mother made statements about being poisoned in jail and claimed "they" were after her, "they" wanted to take her child away from her, and "they" pointed an AK-47 at her while she was in Kansas City.

         DHS reported the child was not clean, had a strong body odor, and had severe cradle cap. K.C. slept in the same bed with her mother, which was soiled and had no bedding. In the mother's home, DHS observed that the floor was littered with trash and debris; the furnace had no cover; spoiled food and trash were located on the table, floor, and in the sink; there were bugs in the air; ceiling tiles, which could contain asbestos, were exposed; and there were gaping holes in the floorboards. The mother lived with K.C.'s maternal grandmother, whose parental rights to K.C.'s mother were terminated when she was a child and who had medical and mental-health issues of her own. K.C. was reportedly left in her grandmother's care on occasion.

         K.C. was subsequently removed from her mother's care and placed into foster care. During further investigation, the mother made additional statements that she was poisoned while in jail and that this was likely the reason for K.C.'s stomach issues. She also refused assistance for shelter referrals. On February 3, DHS completed its investigation and determined both allegations of denial of critical care were founded. The child-abuse-assessment report noted concerns about the mother's mental health, including her display of signs of paranoia and possible hallucinations.

         On February 17, K.C. was adjudicated to be a child in need of assistance (CINA) and remained in the custody of DHS for foster-care placement. On April 21, the court adopted a case permanency plan which provided for a primary permanency goal of reunification. The permanency plan called for the mother to address her mental-health issues, complete a psychiatric evaluation, continue in individual therapy, engage in parenting sessions, follow recommendations of medical providers, and obtain safe and appropriate housing.

         The mother completed a psychiatric evaluation on April 20 and attended a follow-up appointment in July; however, after her diagnosis of unspecified psychosis and a recommendation for medication, she refused the medication and failed to return for follow-up care. Also in July, the mother went to the emergency room with a complaint of shortness of breath; before treatment could be completed, the mother removed her own IV and left. The mother reported to DHS that she believed the emergency room staff was attempting to give her sodium chloride to stop her heart.

         On August 5, the mother was arrested for disorderly conduct after she was found unclothed from the waist down threatening to kill people with a rock. The police report indicates the mother refused to drop the rock despite commands from police and ultimately the police had to physically ...

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