In the Matter of AH, LM, & JM

In the Matter of AH, LM, & JM, 2015 MT 75 (March 10, 2015) (McKinnon, J.) (5-0, affirmed)

Issue: (1) Whether Mother’s due process rights were violated by delays in holding the show cause, adjudicatory and dispositional hearings; and (2) whether the district court erred in finding that Mother failed to complete her treatment plan and that the condition rendering her unfit to parent was unlikely to change in a reasonable time.

Short Answer: (1) No, and (2) no.

Affirmed

Facts: Mother has three children, JM (2006 – father is TT), LM (2009 – father is AA) and AH (2010 – father is FH). DPHHS received several reports of bruises and bite marks on the children in July 2011. It removed the children from Mother’s care in August 2011. A show cause hearing was held in December 2011 after the Department moved for two continuances. The district court adjudicated the children youths in need of care and granted emergency protective services and temporary legal custody. The dispositional hearing was set for February 2012. Mother did not object.

In September 2012, the Department asked for a 6-month extension of temporary legal custody to allow Mother more time to work on her treatment plan, and said it would move to terminate Mother’s parental rights if she did not make substantial progress in 2-3 months. Mother did not object to the extension, but the district court granted the extension for only 90 days.

In December 2012, Mother moved for an order returning the children to her care. In January 2013, the Department moved to terminate her parental rights. The district court held a hearing in January 2013, and took testimony from a Department specialist, treating counselor, and the children’s pediatrician, as well as a woman who provided foster care to JM and LM for about 15 months. The district court found more time was required for Mother to work on her issues before it could “feel comfortable with reunification,” and said it would need to hear from Mother’s therapist about her progress.

After a hearing on the Department’s petition in April 2013, at which Mother’s therapist and others testified, the court allowed Mother additional time to complete the counseling portion of her treatment plan. On May 1, 2013, temporary legal custody was extended for 6 months.

In June 2013, Mother was charged with felony possession of drugs, and in August 2013 she tested positive for marijuana. Mother had a two-day supervised visit with the children in September 2013 but skipped a visit scheduled for October 2013.

Procedural Posture & Holding: The Department filed a second petition to terminate Mother’s parental right, and the court held hearings in early 2014. The district court found that Mother was unable and unwilling to acknowledge the abuse her children had suffered, or the needs of her children, and terminated her parental rights. Mother appeals, and the Supreme Court affirms.

Reasoning: (1) A district court may protect a child’s best interests despite procedural errors. Given that the proceedings went on for 2.5 years, it appears unlikely that expediting the process by three months would have led to a substantially different outcome. Despite delays, Mother had ample opportunity to engage in counseling, with little demonstrable result. The Court’s review of the record as a whole makes clear that Mother’s due process rights were not violated.

(2) The evidence supports a finding that Mother did not complete her treatment plan. Moreover, “Mother remained steadfastly committed to a course of denial and avoidance.” ¶ 38. The court did not err in finding her condition was unlikely to change within a reasonable time.