State of Utah, in the interest of E.A., N.L., E.L., and J.L., persons under eighteen years of age.
State of Utah, Appellee. S.A., Appellant,
District Juvenile Court, Salt Lake Department The Honorable
Kimberly K. Hornak No. 1106080
Christopher M. Ault and Anthony M. Saunders, Attorneys for
D. Reyes, Carol L.C. Verdoia, and John M. Peterson, Attorneys
Pierce, Guardian ad Litem
Judges David N. Mortensen, Diana Hagen, and Ryan M. Harris.
S.A. (Mother) appeals the juvenile court's order
terminating her parental rights. Mother asserts that the
juvenile court erred in finding multiple grounds for
termination based solely on Mother's failure to complete
the requirements of her service plan. Because the juvenile
court's termination order is inadequate to demonstrate
grounds for termination and the evidence presented at trial
was insufficient to support the juvenile court's
conclusion that termination is warranted, the juvenile
court's order is reversed.
Whether a parent's rights should be terminated is a mixed
question of law and fact. In re B.R., 2007 UT 82,
¶ 12, 171 P.3d 435. The ultimate conclusion that a
parent is unfit or that other grounds for termination have
been established is a legal question, "but such
decisions rely heavily on the juvenile court's assessment
and weighing of the facts in any given case."
Id. Because of the factually intense nature of
parental termination proceedings, "the juvenile
court's decision should be afforded a high degree of
deference." Id. Accordingly, to overturn a
juvenile court's decision, it must be "against the
clear weight of the evidence." Id. "When a
foundation for the [juvenile] court's decision exists in
the evidence, an appellate court may not engage in a
reweighing of the evidence." Id.
"It has long been the law in this state that conclusions
of law must be predicated upon and find support in the
findings of fact[.]" Gillmor v. Wright, 850
P.2d 431, 436 (Utah 1993). "In considering whether to
terminate parental rights-and to permit meaningful appellate
review of the [juvenile] court's ultimate
determination-the [juvenile] court's findings must be
sufficiently detailed and include enough subsidiary facts to
clearly show the evidence upon which they are grounded."
In re adoption of A.M.O., 2014 UT App 171, ¶
19, 332 P.3d 372 (citation and internal quotation marks
omitted). Here, because the juvenile court's findings
"provide no insight into the evidentiary basis" for
its decision, the findings are inadequate. Id.
¶ 22 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).
The juvenile court's termination order consists largely
of a recitation of the procedural history of the case and
prior minute entries from various hearings. Those paragraphs
provide no insight into the evidentiary basis to support
grounds for termination. The procedural recitation shows that
Mother was ordered to participate in therapy multiple times.
But there is no presentation of any underlying evidence to
indicate the reason for the orders or to support the
termination of Mother's parental rights.
The primary focus of the termination order is that Mother did
not comply with her service plan, specifically in failing to
engage meaningfully in individual therapy as required by the
recited prior court orders. However, there are no subsidiary
factual findings regarding Mother's psychological
evaluation, diagnosis, follow-up recommendations, or level of
impairment due to mental health issues. Nor are there any
facts setting out how Mother's mental illness actually
affected the children or impacted Mother's ability to
care for them. In determining whether a parent is unfit, a
juvenile court must consider whether the parent suffers from
a mental illness "that renders the parent unable to care
for the immediate and continuing physical or emotional needs
of the child for extended periods of time." Utah Code
Ann. § 78A-6-508(2)(a) (LexisNexis Supp. 2017). The mere
presence of a mental illness does not, without more, render a
parent unfit. There are no factual findings that support a
determination that Mother's mental illness rendered her
unable to care for her children.
The juvenile court's additional findings of fact
primarily indicate that Mother failed to produce evidence at
trial to support her own claims of pursuing therapy, taking
appropriate medication, and obtaining suitable housing for
her children. "While the petitioner bears the ultimate
burden of proving the grounds for termination by clear and
convincing evidence, once evidence is presented that would
justify termination, the burden shifts to the parent to
persuade the court that the petitioner had not established
grounds for termination by clear and convincing
evidence." In re K.J., 2013 UT App 237, ¶
26, 327 P.3d 1203 (quotation simplified). Accordingly, in
some circumstances, a juvenile court is justified in
requiring a parent to offer evidence, including supporting
documentation. However, in this case, there was not
sufficient evidence presented to shift the burden to Mother.
As a result, the findings about Mother's lack of
documentation to confirm her testimony are insufficient to
support termination of her parental rights.
There may be situations where a court's "findings
could be adequately supported by the evidence but
nevertheless insufficiently detailed to disclose the steps by
which the judge reached his or her conclusions." In
re K.F., 2009 UT 4, ¶ 62, 201 P.3d 985 (citation
and internal quotation marks omitted). The current case is
not one of those situations. The transcript of the
termination of parental rights trial is the primary
evidentiary record before this court. After review of the
transcript, it is apparent that there is a lack of evidence
to support the termination of Mother's parental rights.
The juvenile court has been involved with Mother's case
for more than one year and has had access to more information
regarding Mother's service plan and compliance, including
the service plan, evaluations, comments from parties, and
reports from caseworkers regarding the children's
situation and progress. With that additional information, the
juvenile court may have identified concerns and may have
believed that termination of Mother's parental rights is
warranted. But, an appellate court's "power of
review is strictly limited to the record presented on
appeal." In re adoption of A.M.O., 2014 UT ...