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Gibson v. Department of Services for Children

Supreme Court of Delaware

November 16, 2017

KAREN GIBSON, Respondent Below, Appellant,
v.
DEPARTMENT OF SERVICES FOR CHILDREN AND THEIR FAMILIES and MATTHEW BARNES, and MICHELLE BARNES, Petitioners Below, Appellees.

          Submitted: October 11, 2017

         Court Below: Family Court of the State of Delaware File No. CN15-03033 Petition No. 16-13203 File No. CN15-02126 16-09-07TN Petition Nos. 15-07560 16-27360 File No. CN15-0212116-09-06TN Petition Nos. 15-07539 16-27619

          Before Valihura, Vaughn, and Traynor, Justices.

          ORDER

          James T. Vaughn, Jr. Justice.

         On this 16th day of November 2017, upon consideration of the parties' briefs and the record on appeal, it appears that:

         (1) Appellant, Karen Gibson[1], appeals from a Family Court order granting permanent guardianship of one of her children to the child's paternal grandparents and terminating her parental rights in two other children. She makes two claims on appeal. She contends: (1) the Family Court erred in concluding by clear and convincing evidence that the permanent guardianship and termination of her parental rights was in the best interest of the children; and (2) the Family Court erred in concluding by clear and convincing evidence that she failed to plan for the needs of the children.

         (2) Karen Gibson is the mother of Sandy G., born November 16, 2009, and Ivy R. and Israel R. ("Twins"), born August 25, 2012.[2] The children were removed from their mother's care on March 20, 2015, when the Department of Services for Children, Youth and Their Families ("DSCYF") filed for and received temporary custody of all three children.

         (3) DSCYF was contacted on March 18, 2015, regarding concerns of medical neglect of the Twins and physical abuse of Sandy. A decision making meeting was held the same day. The Twin's physician, Deborah Consolini, M.D., expressed concerns about the medical wellbeing of the Twins. The Twins were born premature with developmental complications causing them to spend the first two years of their lives in a hospital setting. The Twins were discharged to Gibson's care in 2014 but Dr. Consolini found they were not attending scheduled medical appointments and not making developmental progress. All three children resided with Gibson and Mr. R in a garage like structure on the maternal grandparent's property. Gibson agreed to a safety plan under which the children would move into the maternal grandparent's main home and Gibson would take the Twin's to all medical appointments.

         (4) On March 19, 2015, a DSCYF worker met with Sandy at her daycare regarding physical abuse allegations, and Sandy was taken to A.I. DuPont Hospital to be examined. She presented with bruising to her forehead, arms and legs, including a bruise to her inner right thigh resembling a belt buckle, which Sandy indicated were inflicted by Mr. R. The following day DSCYF visited the maternal grandparent's home and found that Gibson had not moved the children into the main home as required by her safety plan. DSCYF's emergency custody petition was filed and granted by the Family Court that day.

         (5) On March 25, 2015, a Preliminary Protective Hearing was held. Gibson was present but Mr. R was not. The Family Court heard evidence regarding the medical neglect of the Twins and allegations of the physical abuse of Sandy by Mr. R. The Family Court found probable cause existed that the children were dependent and found it in their best interest to remain in DSCYF custody.

         (6) On April 22, 2015, an Adjudicatory Hearing was held. Gibson was present but Mr. R was not. His whereabouts were unknown but DSCYF suspected he was living in Philadelphia. Gibson denied knowing his whereabouts or speaking to him since the children entered DSCYF's custody. Gibson stipulated to a finding of dependency. In addition, Gibson entered into a case plan which included: obtaining and maintaining stable housing and income; completing a parent education course; completing mental health and substance abuse evaluations and any recommended treatment; completing domestic violence and anger management courses; attending the children's medical appointments; and attending visitation with the children.

         (7) On May 19, 2015, a Dispositional Hearing was held. Gibson was present but Mr. R was not. His location was not known and a warrant had been issued for his arrest relating to Sandy's abuse. Gibson stipulated to a finding of dependency. Gibson's DSCYF treatment worker testified that she provided Gibson information on Section 8 housing options, contact information for domestic violence counseling and anger management programs, and referred her to psychological and substance abuse evaluations. On this date, the paternal grandparents filed a Petition for Permanent Guardianship of Sandy.

         (8) On September 24, 2015, a Review Hearing was held. Gibson and Mr. R were present. Mr. R had been arrested in Philadelphia for second degree assault of Sandy and endangering the welfare of a child. At the time of this hearing he was incarcerated pending trial. Gibson was living at a home in Philadelphia with relatives of Mr. R but she denied knowing his whereabouts before his arrest. Gibson's DSCYF treatment worker told the Family Court that Gibson had attended a case planning meeting on July 15, 2015, but failed to attend the next scheduled meeting on September 22, 2015. DSCYF presented evidence that Gibson was still residing in Philadelphia. The Family Court found the children remained dependent by a preponderance of the evidence.

         (9) On November 30, 2015, a Second Review Hearing was held with only Gibson present. Mr. R was still incarcerated. Gibson had returned to the maternal grandparent's home. She was living in the upstairs of their main house. Gibson was to notify DSCYF when the children's beds were moved to the main home. DSCYF presented evidence that Gibson had cancelled a case planning meeting scheduled on October 5, 2015, but she had attended an Individualized Education Program meeting for the Twins. The Family Court found the children remained dependent by a preponderance of the evidence.

         (10) On December 21, 2015, Mr. R pled guilty to second degree assault of Sandy and received a term of incarceration. A no-contact order was issued for Sandy.

         (11) On February 11, 2016, the DSCYF Permanency Planning Committee met and recommended a goal change to Termination of Parental Rights ("TPR") and adoption for the Twins. As to Sandy, the Committee recommended a Permanent Guardianship with the paternal grandparents.

         (12) A Third Review Hearing was held on February 22, 2016. Gibson and Mr. R were present along with the Barnes. Gibson's DSCYF treatment worker testified that she spoke with Gibson about the importance of the counseling and treatment programs in her case plan. Gibson advised she planned to attend domestic violence and anger management classes. The Family Court found the children continued to be dependent by a preponderance of the evidence.

         (13) Gibson's DSCYF treatment worker conducted a home assessment of the maternal grandparent's main house in February 2016. DSCYF determined the housing to be appropriate, but Gibson's case plan still had not been completed. DSCYF filed Motions to Change the Goal on May 3, 2016, to reflect the changes agreed upon by the Planning Committee at its February 11, 2016, meeting. The maternal grandmother subsequently filed a Petition for Guardianship of the Twins and the paternal grandparents filed a Petition for Permanent Guardianship of Sandy.

         (14) A Permanency Hearing was held May 16, 2016, at which Gibson and Mr. R were present. The Court granted DSCYF's Motions to Change as to the Twins based on Gibson's failure to complete her case plan and concerns about her ability to protect the children from domestic violence. The Family Court took notice of Gibson's appropriate housing, her attendance at mental health appointments, and her efforts to gain employment, and kept a concurrent goal of reunification for all the children.

         (15) The maternal grandmother's Petition for Guardianship of the Twins was denied on September 16, 2016. The Family Court heard argument on DSCYF's Petitions for TPR for the Twins and the paternal grandparents Permanent Guardianship of Sandy on October 26, 2016 and November 2, 2016. The Family Court found the paternal grandparents were eligible to serve as Sandy's permanent guardians and they established grounds for permanent guardianship by clear and convincing evidence.[3] Further, the Family Court found by clear and convincing evidence that Gibson failed to plan for the children's needs and that DSCYF made reasonable efforts to reunite the family. The Family Court terminated Gibson's parental rights in the Twins based on her failure to plan and the children's best interests.[4]

         (16) First, we agree on the record before us that the Family Court did not err when granting the paternal grandparents' Petition for Permanent Guardianship of Sandy. In granting a permanent guardianship request, a trial judge must find by clear and convincing evidence that one of the statutory grounds for termination of parental rights set forth in 13 Del. C. § 1103(a) has been met.[5] The court then decides whether permanent guardianship is in the best interest of the child.[6] The court must also find that adoption is not possible or appropriate and the proposed guardian is suitable to serve as a guardian.[7] When reviewing whether evidence justifying a termination of parental rights has been established, this Court conducts a "review of the facts and law, as well as the inferences and deductions made by the trial court."[8] "We will not disturb a trial judge's factual findings unless they are clearly erroneous and justice requires that they be overturned."[9] "Moreover, this Court will not substitute its own opinion for the inferences and deductions made by the Trial Judge where those inferences are supported by the record and are the product of an orderly and logical deductive process."[10] Our review is limited to an abuse of discretion when the trial judge has correctly applied the appropriate law.[11]"To the extent that the issues on appeal implicate rulings of law, we conduct a de novo review."[12]

         (17) Here, the trial court granted the paternal grandparents' Petition for Permanent Guardianship of Sandy after conducting a thorough review and providing an explanation of every statutory factor required under 13 Del. C. §2353. The trial court found by clear and convincing evidence that Gibson had failed to meet the 13 Del. C. ยง1103(a) statutory ground requiring her to adequately plan for her children. The trial court found the paternal grandparents' preference ...


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