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In re L.J.

Court of Appeals of Iowa

November 6, 2019

IN THE INTEREST OF L.J., Minor Child, L.J., Mother, Appellant.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Rachael E. Seymour, District Associate Judge.

         A mother appeals the order terminating her parental rights to her daughter.

          Emily DeRonde of DeRonde Law Firm, PLLC, Johnston, for appellant mother.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Gretchen Witte Kraemer, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee State.

          Kathryn Miller of Juvenile Public Defender, Des Moines, attorney and guardian ad litem for minor child.

          Considered by Doyle, P.J., and Tabor and Schumacher, JJ.

          TABOR, JUDGE.

         Four-year-old L.J.'s infant brother, C.J., died after their mother gave him an overdose of Benadryl in January 2018. The family was living in room 207 of the Motel Relax when the mother found C.J. unresponsive. L.J. and her older sister were sleeping on cots in the room when police responded to their mother's 911 call. The State charged the mother with child endangerment and obtained a no-contact order preventing the mother from interacting with her daughters. More than one year after the State removed L.J. from her mother's care, the child continued to have nightmares about her brother's death.

         Sixteen months after removal, the juvenile court terminated the mother's parental relationship with L.J.[1] The mother appeals that termination order, contesting the statutory grounds under Iowa Code section 232.116(1) (2019), the best-interests determination under section 232.116(2), and the Court's decision to not apply the permissive factor in section 232.116(3)(c). She also claims the State did not make reasonable efforts to reunite her with L.J. Like the juvenile court, we see the mother's pattern of neglect as blocking her path to reunification with L.J. After our independent review of the record, we affirm the termination of parental rights.[2]

         I. Facts and Prior Proceedings

         With her two daughters in tow and nine months pregnant with C.J., the mother moved from Alabama to Iowa in the summer of 2017. She did so in violation of an Alabama court order placing custody of the older daughter with her father. The mother alleges the father had a history of assaulting her. At the time of her move, Alabama child protection workers were investigating the mother for leaving four-year-old L.J. home alone. The mother minimized the incident, claiming she went to the store to get milk while L.J. was asleep in bed. About the same time, the mother sent her two teenaged sons to live with their father in Tennessee, though they had not been in his care before.

         In Iowa, the mother stayed with relatives before moving into a motel with her three children. In mid-January 2018, police arrived at the motel to investigate an assault against the mother by her paramour. The paramour admitted strangling the mother while she was holding six-month-old C.J. in the motel hallway. Police arrested the paramour, and the mother obtained a no-contact order.[3]

         About a week later, police and paramedics returned to the motel to find a lifeless infant in the room with the mother and her two daughters. The room was littered with dirty clothes and garbage; liquor and medicine bottles were accessible to the children. At the scene, the mother said C.J. was sleeping in her bed when she awoke in the early morning hours to find him not breathing. But others in the motel told police that after midnight they had seen and heard the mother in another room in the motel, a floor away from the room where her children slept. The mother told emergency responders she had not given the baby any drugs. She later admitted giving him a "little bit of Benadryl" because he was fussy. An autopsy revealed the baby had "acute diphenhydramine intoxication." The toxicology report described diphenhydramine as "a sedating over-the-counter medication." In connection with C.J.'s death, the State charged the mother with felony child endangerment. She pleaded guilty to a lesser-included aggravated misdemeanor. The sentencing order prohibited the mother from having contact with her daughters.

         Not surprisingly, C.J.'s death shattered this already fragile family. After the mother faced criminal charges, the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS) removed L.J. from her care. The juvenile court adjudicated L.J. as a child in need of assistance (CINA) in May 2018. The next month, in a dispositional order, the court noted L.J. "displayed behavioral issues while in shelter which made her difficult to place, and has suffered the trauma of the death of a sibling, separation from another sibling and separation from her mother in the last five months." ...

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