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In re S.S.

Court of Appeals of Iowa

December 18, 2019

IN THE INTEREST OF S.S., Minor Child,
v.
J.S., Father, Respondent-Appellant. B.W., Mother, Petitioner-Appellee,

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Warren County, Kevin Parker, District Associate Judge.

         A father appeals the termination of his parental rights to his minor child under Iowa Code chapter 600A (2017).

          Bridget M. Bott of Bott Law Office, P.L.L.C., West Des Moines, for appellant.

          John H. Judisch of Stuyvesant, Benton & Judisch, Carlisle, for appellee.

          Considered by Bower, C.J., and May and Greer, JJ.

          GREER, JUDGE.

         J.S. appeals the termination of his parental rights to his minor child, S.S. He argues he did not abandon S.S. under Iowa Code section 600A.8(3)(b) (2017) and termination is not in S.S.'s best interests. On our review, we agree with the district court and affirm the termination of J.S.'s parental rights.

         The father acknowledged he "had [a] criminal history prior to meeting" the child's mother, B.W., but he was not incarcerated when S.S. was born in March 2015. The father, mother, and S.S. lived with the paternal grandmother at this time. On April 27, the father tested positive for methamphetamine, which led to the revocation of his probation and incarceration at a federal prison in Missouri. The mother and child did not see him again until his release from prison on or about November 9. He resumed living with the paternal grandmother, the mother, and the child upon his release.

         On or about March 30, 2016, the father was arrested for two counts of theft. He ultimately pleaded guilty to one count of theft in the second degree and was sentenced to a term of incarceration not to exceed five years.[1] After sentencing, the mother and child began visiting him in prison almost every other weekend. The father also called and sent letters to them during this time.

         This pattern of contact continued until early June 2017 when these parents conversed about a "package" containing the drug K2 being sent to the mother. According to the mother, the father insinuated that she should smuggle the package of drugs into prison during a visitation. According to the father, the mother participated in the planning. The mother acknowledged receiving the package, but she claimed she threw the package away before the visit at the prison. In any event, on June 23, the mother and child arrived at the prison to visit the father. Prison officials immediately stopped them, questioned the mother, and searched her vehicle for illegal substances. The mother testified the traumatic experience of the search caused her to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder but that the child remained unaffected by the incident. Yet the mother admitted at the hearing she previously smuggled tobacco into prison during visitations. The father testified the prison sales of tobacco provided income to benefit the family.

         After the June 23 incident, the prison prohibited the father from contacting the mother for thirty days, and from that point she voluntarily ended all visitation and communication with him. He tried to call, but she blocked his number. He also mailed letters and cards to both the mother and child, but she refused to share them with the child.

         On September 20, the mother filed the petition to terminate the father's parental rights under Iowa Code chapter 600A. On August 17 and 31, 2018, the court held a hearing on the matter. On January 16, 2019, the court issued its order finding the father abandoned the child and termination was in the child's best interests. The father appeals.

         We review chapter 600A termination proceedings de novo. In re R.K.B., 572 N.W.2d 600, 601 (Iowa 1998). "Although we are not bound by them, we give weight to the trial court's findings of fact, especially when considering credibility of witnesses." Id. "The primary interest in termination proceedings is the best interests of the child." Id.

         The petitioner must satisfy a two-step process to terminate parental rights under chapter 600A. In re Q.G., 911 N.W.2d 761, 770 (Iowa 2018). First, the petitioner must "show by clear and convincing evidence a threshold event has occurred that opens the door for potential termination of parental rights." Id.; see also Iowa Code § 600A.8. "Once that threshold showing has been made, the petitioner next must show by clear and convincing ...


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