IN THE INTEREST OF P.S., T.S., and A.S., Minor Children, E.E., Mother, Appellant.
from the Iowa District Court for Palo Alto County, Ann M.
Gales, District Associate Judge.
mother appeals the termination of her parental rights.
A. Johnson of Hemphill Law Office, PLC, Spencer, for
J. Miller, Attorney General, and Meredith L. Lamberti,
Assistant Attorney General, for appellee State.
C. Buske of McMahon, Stowater, Lynch & Laddusaw, Algona,
guardian ad litem for minor children.
Considered by Mullins, P.J., Bower, J., and Vogel, S.J.
MULLINS, PRESIDING JUDGE.
mother appeals the termination of her parental rights to her
children. She challenges the sufficiency of the evidence
supporting the grounds for termination, contends termination
is not in the children's best interests, and requests the
application of a statutory exception to termination. The
mother also argues the State failed to make reasonable
efforts to facilitate reunification, requests additional time
for reunification, and maintains a guardianship should be
established in lieu of termination. The mother further
asserts she received ineffective assistance of counsel.
Background Facts and Proceedings
the mother of three children: A.S., born in 2008; T.S., born
in 2011; and P.S., born in 2012. The children came to the
attention of the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS) in
December 2016 upon information that the mother was using
methamphetamine and marijuana while caring for the children.
During the ensuing investigation, the mother admitted using
marijuana but not while the children were in her care. She
also admitted to using methamphetamine while the children
were present. P.S. tested positive for marijuana and
methamphetamine, T.S. tested positive for methamphetamine,
and A.S. tested negative for all substances. The mother
agreed to voluntarily place the children with relatives; all
three children were ultimately placed with a maternal
uncle. After its investigation, DHS returned a
founded child-abuse assessment against the mother for denial
of critical care. The mother was charged with neglect of a
dependent person and child endangerment. She was released
from jail on bond with pretrial supervision.
March 2017, the mother and father stipulated to the
adjudication of all three children as children in need of
assistance. The court also continued the children's
placement with the maternal uncle. The court ordered the
mother to submit to random drug testing and undergo a
substance-abuse evaluation. The court also ordered
mental-health therapy for the children. The mother completed
an evaluation in March, which recommended extended outpatient
provided supervised visitation for the mother. On multiple
occasions, the mother struggled with her behaviors during the
visits. The mother became defensive when her lack of
supervision of the children was brought to her attention. The
mother complained about the DHS worker on social media. She
also disparaged her brother and his fiancée about
their care of her children and argued and yelled when
returning the children to the maternal uncle's home. This
resulted in the maternal uncle's fiancée wanting
to not have any contact with the mother unless the maternal
uncle was present. There were also reports that the
children's doctor's office forbade the mother from
attending the appointments due to her swearing and being loud
and socially inappropriate while there.
maternal uncle also reported the children were acting out and
struggling with aggression and being "out of
control." It was noted that P.S. was sexually acting out
with the maternal uncle's child. The mother admitted that
at one time she had cared for a friend's child and that
child had "sexually perpetrated" against P.S. and
T.S. In the dispositional order, the court ordered that P.S.
undergo a psychiatric evaluation, which was completed at the
end of May.
July, after the police found the mother passed out in the
driver's seat of a car at a gas station, she was arrested
and charged with operating while intoxicated and possession
of methamphetamine, prescription drugs, and drug
paraphernalia. The mother pled guilty to possession of
methamphetamine and was sentenced to fifty days in jail. The
mother remained in jail until October, when she was released
and placed on house arrest. While in jail, DHS provided
supervised phone calls with the children.
mother entered a substance-abuse treatment program in
November. On November 28, P.S. was placed with the mother on
the condition that if she left or was discharged
unsuccessfully from the treatment program, P.S. would be
removed from her care. The other children visited the mother
at the treatment facility and it was noted that when all
three children were together, they struggled to behave
appropriately, which often overwhelmed the mother when she
had no assistance. On January 3, 2018, the court placed the
other two children with the mother with the same conditions
as P.S. The program provider noted that once all three
children were placed with the mother, her engagement in
treatment decreased and she struggled to balance parenting
with her treatment. The mother admitted that while on an
approved pass, she smoked methamphetamine. After returning
from another approved pass, she refused to drug test until
four days later. She tested positive for methamphetamine. She
also brought an unauthorized cell phone into the facility. On
January 16, facility staff reported the mother slapped one of
the children in the face twice. The program discharged the
mother the following day after she was not able to
successfully complete the program, due to noncompliance and
rule infractions. Due to the mother's discharge, the
children were placed into separate foster homes. DHS provided
February, the mother was jailed due to her unsuccessful
discharge from the treatment program, which constituted a
violation of her pretrial supervision. On February 26, the
district court accepted her guilty plea to one count of child
endangerment and sentenced her to a suspended term of
incarceration not to exceed two years. The court ordered the
mother's release from jail and placed her on probation.
As a condition of her probation, the court ordered the mother
report to a residential treatment facility (RTF) once space
April, during a permanency review hearing, the court modified
the permanency goal from reunification to termination of
parental rights. The court also placed A.S. in the care of
the paternal grandparents after her foster family provided
notice that they could no longer provide A.S. a home. They
had noted that after a visit with the mother, A.S. acted out,
including lying, hiding things, acting distant, and refusing
to listen. After the hearing, the mother was required to
submit to a drug test. Officials noted she had a bottle
sticking out of her pants. When asked what it was, the mother
removed it from her pants and threw it onto the maternal
grandmother's lap, who then covered it up. The bottle,
filled with a urine-colored liquid was handed over to
officials, who notified DHS. The mother's probation
officer was also notified. While waiting to complete the
test, the mother appeared anxious and fidgety. The mother
eventually admitted that she had taken an anxiety pill and
"licked a substance" in another individual's
home. She claimed that she did not purposefully use any
substances. The test was negative.
conducted a home study and approved the paternal grandparents
as a possible placement for the children. DHS, through
interstate compact, also conducted a home study and approved
the mother's cousin as a possible placement. The
mother's cousin lives in Oklahoma.
mother entered an RTF program in early June. On June 20, the
State petitioned to terminate the mother's parental
rights. It sought to terminate the mother's rights
pursuant to Iowa Code section 232.116(1)(b), (e), (f), and
(l) (2018). The court conducted a contested hearing
over the course of five days from June to October 2018. The
court filed its ruling on February 11, 2019, terminating the
mother's parental rights to all three
children. The court terminated the mother's
parental rights to P.S. pursuant to section 232.116(1)(e) and
her rights to A.S. and T.S. pursuant to paragraphs (e) and
(f). As noted, the mother appeals.
Standard of Review
review termination-of-parental-rights proceedings de novo.
In re A.S., 906 N.W.2d 467, 472 (Iowa 2018).
"We are not bound by the juvenile court's findings
of fact, but we do give them weight, especially in assessing
the credibility of witnesses." Id. (quoting
In re A.M., 843 N.W.2d 100, 110 (Iowa 2014)).
"Our primary concern is the best interests of the
child." In re J.E., 723 N.W.2d 793, 798 (Iowa
We use a three-step analysis to review termination of
parental rights. First, we "determine whether any ground
for termination under section 232.116(1) has been
established." If we determine "that a ground for
termination has been established, then we determine whether
the best-interest framework as laid out in section 232.116(2)
supports the termination of parental rights." Finally,
if we conclude the statutory best-interest framework supports
termination, "we consider whether ...