Monday, February 1, 2016

Connecting The Dots

In re JC, 2016 VT 9

By Elizabeth Kruska

SCOV ventures back into the wilds of juvie-land with this opinion. Here are the important people: Mom, Dad, KP, JC, and TF. JC is Mom’s child. TF is the child of Mom and Dad. KP is Dad’s child. All three kids, at the time of this case, were under the age of seven. They all live together in what is described as sort of a chaotic household. That’s probably for lots of reasons, but I’m guessing having 60% of a household in first grade or less is a contributing factor.

DCF filed a CHINS petition on JC and TF. There was a separate CHINS case with respect to KP, but that’s not the focus of this particular opinion. DCF got a report from a Head Start provider who came to do a home visit. The report said that Mom was stressed and agitated during some visits, and was cruel to KP. She said she wanted to paddle KP until she bled. She talked about not giving KP something to drink for days because KP was “stealing food from the refrigerator.” In short, things were not good with Mom and KP.

So, based on these observations, there was a CHINS petition filed with respect to the other kids in the home. There was a trial with testimony, and at the end the judge found that JC and TF were in need of care and supervision. The trial judge based its findings in part on Mom’s treatment of KP, and concluded that her treatment of KP led to a risk of harm to the other two children. There was also other evidence of Mom’s overall state of being stressed out and overwhelmed with the kids. There was also evidence that Dad had some substance abuse struggles; it doesn’t appear, though, that Dad was a big factor in the findings in this case. There was testimony about Mom putting JC on the couch, and doing it too forcefully.

Mom appealed, saying that the evidence didn’t support a CHINS finding for JC and TF.

SCOV disagreed. First of all, it’s a high threshold for SCOV to disturb a trial court’s findings. Second, there’s some established case law that indicates treatment of one child can be used to make conclusions about treatment of another child. Such information about one child might be relevant to another child.

SCOV points out that the point of a CHINS proceeding is to make a determination about the well-being of the child. A child does not have to be actually harmed for a CHINS finding (because we, as a society are not monsters and don’t want to wait for little kids to get hurt by adults before helping the kids), there can be a finding of a risk of harm. SCOV finds that the trial court felt there was more than just the mistreatment of KP to back up the findings. So, SCOV affirms.

Justice Robinson dissents. She doesn’t think the majority misstated the law; on the contrary, she feels that the findings by the trial court didn’t support the conclusion. Her position would be that it would be better to send the case back to the trial court so the judge there could make further findings.

Justice Robinson totally agrees that findings relative to one child could be used to make inferences about another child. But she’s also pretty clear that each case has to be done on a case-by-case basis. That is, you can’t just say, “well, mistreatment of Child A means mistreatment of Child B, per se.” Because, there are times where something happens with one child that just isn’t relevant to the other. She cites In re: B.R., a case from a couple years ago, where the court found exactly that.

Justice Robinson also points out that the trial court’s findings seemed to focus a whole lot on specific mistreatment of KP, and issues specific to KP as a human that weren’t present with respect to the other children. Justice Robinson sees that there are dots, but they’re just not connected. She also points out that the other facts in the record about Mom’s mental state and about a single instance of Mom pushing JC onto a sofa, wouldn’t be enough, on their own, to sustain a CHINS finding.

So, although the record could support a CHINS finding, Justice Robinson felt the trial court’s factual findings weren’t enough, and would remand for further findings.