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Jacbos v. Division of Family Services

Supreme Court of Delaware

February 25, 2019

ETHAN A. JACBOS, II, [1] Respondent Below, Appellant,
v.
DIVISION OF FAMILY SERVICES, Petitioner Below, Appellee, and OFFICE OF THE CHILD ADVOCATE, Appellee.

          Submitted: December 5, 2018

          Court Below: Family Court of the State of Delaware File No. 18-03-5TK, Petition No. 18-06555

          Before VALIHURA, SEITZ, and TRAYNOR, Justices.

          ORDER

          Gary F. Traynor, Justice

         (1) This is an appeal from the Family Court's order of July 11, 2018, terminating the parental rights of Ethan Jacbos ("Father") in his three-year-old son, Conrad.[2] The parental rights of Conrad's mother were terminated in the same order and are not at issue in this appeal.

         (2) Father's counsel has filed a no-merit brief and a motion to withdraw under Rule 26.1(c). Counsel asserts that he made a conscientious review of the record and found no arguable claim to raise on appeal. Father disagrees with his counsel's position and has supplemented the brief with a written submission raising claims for our consideration. Counsel for the Division of Family Services and for Conrad's court-appointed special advocate have responded to the Rule 26.1(c) brief as supplemented and have moved to affirm the Family Court's judgment.

         (3) On December 30, 2016, the Division of Family Services ("DFS") was granted temporary legal custody of Conrad on an emergency basis on the grounds that Conrad's mother was unable to care for him and Father was incarcerated. With the filing of DFS's dependency and neglect petition on January 2, 2017, the mandated hearings ensued.[3] At each of the hearings, the Family Court found that Conrad was a dependent child and that it was in his best interests to remain in DFS's care and custody. The court also found that DFS had made reasonable efforts to reunify the family.

         (4) Father has been incarcerated for all but the first four months of Conrad's life, serving a four-year unsuspended prison sentence imposed in 2015 for the fourth-degree rape of Father's fourteen-year-old second cousin. When released from his Level V incarceration later this year, Father will serve six months of Level IV work release followed by probation.

         (5) In March 2017, DFS filed a motion under 13 Del. C. § 1103(d) asking to be released from having to provide reunification services to Father.[4] The motion was granted. In November 2017, DFS filed a motion to change the permanency goal from reunification to termination for purposes of adoption. That motion was granted as well. DFS then filed a petition to terminate Father's and Conrad's mother's parental rights. The Family Court held an evidentiary hearing on June 25, 2018.

         (6) At the conclusion of the hearing, the Family Court Judge advised the parties that the court's written decision would issue within thirty days, adding that "there will be no mystery about it, the evidence is clear and convincing that both mother and father have failed to meet the duties that they have as parents and have failed to plan adequately for this child and for unification with the child."[5]

         (7) On appellate review of a termination of parental rights, we are required to consider the facts and the law as well as the inferences and deductions made by the Family Court.[6] We review legal rulings de novo.[7] If the Family Court has correctly applied the law, our review is limited to abuse of discretion.[8] We conduct a limited review of the factual findings of the Family Court to assure that they are sufficiently supported by the record and are not clearly wrong.[9]

         (8) In Delaware, the termination of parental rights is based on a two-step statutory analysis.[10] First, the Family Court must determine whether there is a statutory basis for termination under 13 Del. C. § 1103.[11] If the Family Court finds a statutory basis for termination, the court must determine, under 13 Del. C. § 772, whether severing parental rights is in the best interests of the child.[12] It is incumbent on the petitioner-DFS in this case-to prove by clear and convincing evidence that there is a statutory basis for termination and that the best-interests analysis favors termination.[13]

         (9) In its July 11, 2018 decision, the Family Court found more than one statutory basis for terminating Father's parental rights. First, the court found that Father's 2015 fourth-degree rape conviction of a child served as a basis for termination under § 1103 (a)(4), which provides that parental rights may be terminated when "the respondent has been found by a court of competent jurisdiction to have . . . [c]ommitted a felony level offense against the person, as described within subchapter II of Chapter 5 of Title 11, in which the victim was a child."[14] Fourth-degree rape, a violation of 11 Del. C. § 770, is delineated as a sexual offense in subpart D of subchapter II of Chapter 5 of Title 11. Moreover, the same conviction served as a basis for the Family Court's termination of Father's parental rights under § 1103(a)(7), which provides that parental rights may be terminated when "[t]he parent has subjected a child to . . . sexual abuse."[15]

         (10) As a third basis for terminating Father's parental rights, the Family Court found that DFS had proved by clear and convincing evidence that Father was unable or had failed "to plan adequately for [Conrad's] physical needs or mental and emotional health and development" under § 1103(a)(5).[16] When the statutory basis for termination is failure to plan, there must be proof of at least one additional statutory condition[17] and proof that DFS made bona fide reasonable efforts to preserve the family unit, [18] unless the agency was released from that obligation as in this case.[19] In this case, the Family Court found proof of more than one additional statutory condition, including that: (i) Conrad had been in the custody of DFS for over one year; (ii) Father was incapable of discharging his parental responsibilities because of his extended incarceration; (iii) Father was not able to assume promptly legal and physical custody of Conrad and to pay for his support; and (iv) failure to terminate Father's parental ...


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