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In re L.M.

Court of Appeals of Iowa

April 3, 2019

IN THE INTEREST OF L.M., D.M., and M.M., Minor Children, J.E., Mother of L.M. and D.M., Appellant, J.M., Father, Appellant.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Lee (North) County, Ty Rogers, District Associate Judge.

         A mother appeals the termination of her parental rights to two children; a father appeals the termination of his rights to three children. AFFIRMED ON BOTH APPEALS.

          Alicia M. Stuekerjuergen of Stuekerjuergen Law Firm, PLC, West Point, for appellant mother.

          William Monroe, Burlington, for appellant father.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Anagha Dixit, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee State.

          Heidi Van Winkle, Burlington, guardian ad litem for minor children.

          Considered by Potterfield, P.J., and Tabor and Bower, JJ.

          TABOR, JUDGE.

         The juvenile court terminated the parental relationships of three children: seven-year-old M.M., four-year-old L.M., and two-year-old D.M. In separate appeals, Jennifer, the mother of L.M. and D.M., and James, the father of all three children, seek to reverse the termination order.[1] Jennifer argues (1) the State failed to offer clear and convincing evidence the younger children could not be presently returned to her care; (2) termination was not in the children's best interests; and (3) termination will be detrimental to the children because of their close relationship with her. Both parents contend the court did not hold the State to the requirement of making reasonable efforts toward reunification.

         After independently reviewing the record, we reach the same conclusion as the juvenile court.[2] Jennifer and James have allowed their children to become mired in "a predictable cycle of removal, return, deterioration of parental behavior, and subsequent removal of the children." The cycle has been hard on the children, causing them to "struggle behaviorally" and leaving them with the "uncertainty of not knowing" what will happen in their lives. The State proved grounds for termination and made reasonable efforts to reunify the family. See Iowa Code § 232.116(1)(f), (h) (2018). Despite a strong bond with their biological parents, the children will benefit from breaking out of the cycle of removal and moving toward adoption. See Iowa Code § 232.116(2), (3)(c). Accordingly, we affirm the termination order.

         I. Facts and Prior Proceedings

         This family drew the attention of the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS) as far back as December 2014 because Jennifer and James were using methamphetamine while caring for M.M. and L.M. The DHS offered the family voluntary services. But continued concerns of substance abuse prompted the juvenile court to adjudicate M.M. and L.M. as children in need of assistance (CINA) in September 2015 and to approve their removal from parental care in December 2015. D.M. was born in March 2016. The juvenile court ordered M.M. and L.M. to remain as CINA, but returned them to their parents' care in November 2016.

         The return was short-lived. The strained relationship between Jennifer and James led them to voluntarily send the children back to the home of foster parents Paul and Candice. In January 2017, Jennifer and the children moved in with her mother. Continued concern about the parents' drug use prompted another removal of the children in February 2017. All three children have stayed with foster parents Paul and Candice since that time.

         In the spring of 2017, both parents were incarcerated-Jennifer at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville for drug charges and James at the Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility for driving while barred. James was released to a halfway house in Burlington in late October 2017. While there, James obtained employment and resumed visitation with the children. Jennifer also moved to a half-way house in Ottumwa in December 2017, where she started participating in substance-abuse treatment. In its November 2017 permanency order, the juvenile court decided termination was not in the children's best interests and agreed to continued placement of the children for an additional six months to allow the parents time to comply with services after their release from prison. The court set review for April 2018.

         In May 2018, the juvenile court issued a "Permanency Planning Hearing Order." The order recounted testimony that the children were very bonded to their foster parents but also expressed love for Jennifer and James. The court expressed concern for the ability of both Jennifer and James to show sustained periods of testing negative for controlled substances. In addition, the court shared the DHS expectation that Jennifer and James engage in "relationship counseling" given the volatile history of their ...

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