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Sawyer v. Department of Services For Children

Supreme Court of Delaware

September 12, 2019

LINDA SAWYER (aka Aarons), [1] Respondent Below- Appellant,

          Submitted: June 19, 2019

          Court Below-Family Court of the State of Delaware File Nos. 18-08-08TN CN08-02835 Petition Nos. 18-24769 17-18676

          Before STRINE, Chief Justice; VALIHURA and TRAYNOR, Justices.



         Upon consideration of the appellant's brief filed under Supreme Court Rule 26.1(c), her attorney's motion to withdraw, the appellee's response and motion to affirm, and the Child's attorney's response, it appears to the Court that:

         (1) This is an appeal from the Family Court's December 5, 2018 order that terminated the parental rights of Linda Sawyer (aka Aarons) ("the Mother") in her son ("the Child").

          (2) The Mother's counsel has filed a no-merit brief and a motion to withdraw under Supreme Court Rule 26.1(c). Counsel asserts that, based on a conscientious review of the record, there are no arguably appealable issues. Counsel informed the Mother of the provisions of Rule 26.1(c), provided her with a copy of his motion to withdraw and the accompanying brief, and informed the Mother of her right to supplement counsel's presentation. Counsel submitted the Mother's concerns as "Appellant's Points" in the brief on appeal. The appellee, the Department of Services for Children, Youth and Their Families/Division of Family Services ("DFS"), and the Child's attorney have responded to the Rule 26.1(c) brief and argue that the Family Court's judgment should be affirmed.

         (3) The Child was born in 2008 and is now eleven years old. In June of 2017, DFS received a report that emergency services had been called to a public park in Wilmington where the first responders found the Mother extremely intoxicated with the Child in her care. The Mother was transported to Christiana Hospital where she was sedated due to her high level of intoxication and combativeness. The Child reported to DFS that his father lived in Wilmington but he was unable to provide any contact information for either his father or any other family member. The Family Court granted ex parte custody of the Child to DFS on June 21, 2017. With the filing of DFS's dependency and neglect petition on June 22, 2017, the mandated hearings ensued.[2]

         (4) At the preliminary protective hearing on June 28, 2017, the Mother stipulated the Child was dependent in her care based on the Mother's unstable housing situation and an acute alcohol dependency that required treatment. The Family Court found that the Child was dependent and that it was in his best interests to remain in DFS's care and custody. The Family Court also found that DFS had made reasonable efforts to prevent the removal of the Child from the home and to reunify the family.[3] The Family Court concluded that placement of the Child in the home of a relative was not appropriate because there were no relatives in Delaware known to be available and willing resources for placement.

         (5) On July 21, 2017, the Family Court held a dispositional hearing. The Child's father did not appear and DFS had been unable to ascertain his current address. DFS had developed and reviewed with the Mother a case plan for reunification with the Child. The Mother's case plan required that she: (i) undergo a substance abuse evaluation; (ii) obtain and maintain housing and financial stability; (iii) undergo a mental health evaluation; (iv) resolve her pending legal matters; and (v) address her experience as a victim of domestic violence. The Mother had disclosed to DFS that she had previously been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and had been inconsistently taking her medications after her Medicaid had been deactivated. The Mother also acknowledged that she recently struggled with alcohol abuse.

         (6) At the time of the dispositional hearing, the Mother was unemployed and living with a friend. DFS did not approve of the home as a residence for the Child or as an acceptable environment for visitation. The Mother had been regularly visiting with the Child on a weekly basis. DFS was exploring the option of placing the Child with his maternal grandmother. Although the maternal grandmother was then residing in a shelter in New York, she planned to move into her own residence and wished to be a resource. The Mother testified that the Child's adult half-sister also lived in New York and the Family Court encouraged DFS to arrange for the two to have regular one-to-one contact via video. The Family Court found DFS had made reasonable efforts to reunify the family.

         (7) On October 23, 2017, the Family Court held a review hearing. DFS had not made an effort to engage the Child's father in the proceedings. The Mother was receiving mental health services through Connections but it was unclear what substance abuse services she was receiving. Although the Mother now lived in a shelter, she remained unemployed and needed to obtain employment to maintain her placement. Since the last hearing, the Mother had received inpatient mental health treatment for roughly ten days reportedly because she was still abusing alcohol and was having suicidal thoughts. The Mother continued to have weekly visits with the Child and had met with a family interventionist the week before the hearing. The Family Court reserved making a finding about reasonable efforts to reunify before DFS made additional efforts to engage the Child's father and to assess what progress, if any, the Mother had made in her recovery.

         (8) The Family Court held another review hearing on February 1, 2018. The Mother had voluntarily attended two days of an intensive outpatient treatment program but had arrived inebriated on the second day. In December 2017, DFS suspended visits after the Mother appeared intoxicated during a visit with the Child and during a therapy session with the Child's therapist. On December 21, 2017, the Mother was admitted to an inpatient program, and her visits with the Child resumed. The Mother had completed the program the day before the review hearing and had been released to Madre House in Felton, where she would receive help with medication management as well as assistance in securing employment and housing. DFS wanted the Mother to focus on maintaining sobriety and achieving mental health stability before addressing the other elements of her case plan. DFS had spoken with potential placement resources-the Child's maternal grandmother and maternal uncle-who had recently relocated from a shelter to stable housing in the Bronx. The Family Court found DFS had made reasonable efforts to reunify the family.

         (9) At the permanency hearing held on April 23, 2018, the Mother had made significant progress on her case plan. She had been sober for approximately five months and was regularly attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. The Mother was working at McDonald's, and she and her fiancé-with whom DFS had no issues or concerns-had obtained housing. The Mother was scheduled to begin parenting classes, was in counseling, and was taking medication to address her mental health issues. Supervised visitation with the Child continued to take place on a weekly basis. Although DFS asked the court to change the goal to concurrent goals of reunification and termination of parental rights/adoption, the Family Court decided that the goal would remain solely reunification. The Family ...

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