The superior court denied a petition to terminate the parental rights of Melanie Lewis
II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS
A. Facts and Proceedings in the 1999 Termination Trial
This case involves the termination of Lewis's parental rights to her two daughters: Teresa and Kelly.
In July 1997 the state petitioned for and received temporary custody under the statutes governing children in need of aid (CINA) and the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA).
The state then petitioned to terminate the parental rights of both Arnold Hanson and Lewis in 1999. They were adjudicated Children in Need of Aid in both the July 1997 temporary custody determination and the 1999 termination of parental rights decision for a number of reasons.
Teresa and Kelly were found to be children in need of aid under AS 47.10.011(11).
The children were also found to be children in need of aid under AS 47.10.011(10) because Lewis's habitual use of intoxicants impaired her ability to parent.
The children were also found to be CINA under AS 47.10.011(8)(B)(iii) because their repeated exposure to domestic violence placed them at substantial risk of mental injury.
The children were also found to be CINA under AS 47.10.011(9) because of neglect by Hanson and Lewis.
After Teresa and Kelly were placed with their foster parent, Lewis continued to exhibit problematic behavior for a relatively short period of time. At one point Lewis and Hanson cashed an agency check, meant to provide for the cost of a trip to visit their children, in order to buy alcohol. Additionally, the children suffered from serious regression after visits by Lewis and Hanson in December 1997 and April 1998. By mid-1998 Lewis made some improvements in her ability to care for Teresa and Kelly by ending her relationship with Hanson, stopping her use of alcohol, and beginning a relationship with Ron Lewis, a stable man who does not drink.
In 1999, based on the above facts, the superior court terminated the parental rights of Hanson, a decision that this court affirmed in A.H. v. State.
Nonetheless, the superior court held that the state failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, as required for the termination of parental rights under the ICWA,
B. Facts and Proceedings Between the 1999 Termination Trial and the Current Trial
Between the 1999 termination trial and this proceeding, Lewis made significant progress. The superior court found that she was "clean and sober" for the additional two-year period between the 1999 termination proceeding and the current action. She also maintained a stable marriage with Ron Lewis, her new husband, free of the domestic violence that endangered the children during her marriage to Hanson. Her mental health improved to the point where she was not being actively treated by JAMI and her conservatorship was terminated. Lewis visited her children on four occasions between August 2000 and October 2001 and fulfilled the requirements of her DFYS case plan. Additionally, the social worker's visits, including at least one unannounced visit, revealed a clean apartment with no evidence of alcohol use or domestic violence.
Teresa and Kelly have lived with their current foster mother in Sitka since December 1997. According to Dr. Sheila Clarson, a child psychologist who conducted an assessment of the children's interactions with their mother, grandmother, and foster mother, the children have developed significant attachments to their foster mother during the more than four years in which they have lived with her. Dr. Clarson also testified that severing these bonds between the children and their foster mother would be traumatic and might lead to a number of psychological and developmental problems.
Despite Lewis's substantial progress since the 1999 trial in which the superior court found that there was insufficient evidence to terminate her parental rights, the state filed a second petition to terminate Lewis's parental rights in July 2001. Following trial held on October 29-31, 2001 the superior court again found, based upon the above evidence,
III. STANDARD OF REVIEW
We uphold the superior court's factual findings unless they are clearly erroneous.
Whether the superior court's "findings comport with the requirements of ICWA involves a question of law and will be reviewed de novo."
A. The Superior Court Did Not Err by Not Considering the Likelihood that Granting Custody to Melanie Lewis Would Cause Severe Harm to Teresa and Kelly by Breaking Their Bonds with Their Foster Mother.
The state argues that the superior court erred by not considering the potential harm that breaking the bond between the children and their foster mother would cause Teresa and Kelly. The state bases this argument on ICWA § 1912(f),
The superior court considered the children's attachment to the foster mother in determining that termination of Lewis's parental rights would be in the children's best interests under the preponderance of the evidence
B. The Superior Court Did Not Err in Holding that the Evidence Did Not Prove Beyond a Reasonable Doubt that the Children Would Likely Be Seriously Harmed by Lewis's Continued Custody over Them.
The state argues that returning the children to Lewis's custody will likely be harmful beyond a reasonable doubt because Lewis has failed to remedy some of her damaging conduct, is incapable of remedying other damaging conduct, and that the severing of the children's bond with the foster mother will be emotionally damaging. Put another way, the state contends that it has met its "burden to show beyond a reasonable doubt that failure to terminate parental rights is likely to result in serious emotional or physical harm to the children."
Much of the state's argument focuses on past conduct that has been sufficiently remedied so that there is at least a reasonable doubt that the conduct will likely cause serious harm to the children in the future. It appears that Lewis might be among those parents who "are capable of changing and overcoming the problems" that made them unfit parents.
The state argues that Lewis is incapable of remedying some of the conduct that poses a threat of harm to her children. Most of these arguments focus on Lewis's continued mental illness, inability to cope with stress, limited intelligence, poor decisionmaking ability, and general lack of basic parenting skills, which the state claims cannot be remedied. This court has previously stated that "while mental illness alone cannot form the basis of a termination order, when `the record links the [parent's] continuing mental illness with his past instances of extreme neglect' there may be a basis for finding that `improper parental conduct [is] likely to continue.'"
In the 1999 termination proceedings the superior court found that Lewis's mental illnesses, poor judgment, poor tolerance for frustration, and inability to cope with the stress in her life posed a risk of physical and mental injury to her children. In the current termination proceedings, the superior court relied on its factual findings from the 1999 trial. The court also relied on new testimony from Drs. Mander and Clarson. The testimony of both doctors, though partially unfavorable to Lewis, left room for doubt as to whether she and her new husband would be able to safely care for the children. When this testimony is considered along with the facts that Lewis's mental health has improved to the point where she is not being actively treated by JAMI and that her conservatorship has been terminated, we must conclude that it was not clear error for the superior court to find that the state had not proven that the children would likely be physically harmed if they were returned to Lewis's custody.
Dr. Mander found that Lewis suffered from mild mental retardation, that this condition impaired her judgment, and that she possibly suffered from a major, undiagnosed mental illness. He also gave a bleak evaluation of Lewis's ability to make extemporaneous decisions. His final conclusion was that "it is extremely unlikely that [Lewis] could function independently as an appropriate parent ... and she is particularly unable to care for special needs children." Nonetheless, Dr. Mander testified that people with Lewis's diagnosed disorders are treatable and that neither the disorder nor the mild mental retardation necessarily rule anyone out as an effective parent. He also found that she has greatly benefitted from terminating her abusive relationship with Arnold Hanson, entering a supportive relationship with Ron Lewis, and her continued sobriety. On cross-examination Dr. Mander said that it was only "more likely than not that some harm would come to the children if they were in [Lewis's] care, under her ... sole supervision." Dr. Mander also qualified his opinion that the children would likely be harmed if Lewis were caring for them by herself by noting the positive influence of Ron, and he ultimately recommended expanded, structured visitation between the children and Lewis.
The state argues that the significant chance that severing the bonds between the children and their foster mother will cause emotional harm, when combined with the above concerns over Lewis's parenting ability, is sufficient to meet the ICWA's high burden of proof. There was certainly ample testimony from Dr. Clarson supporting a conclusion that the children would be harmed by ending that relationship. Dr. Clarson concluded that after a relationship of almost four years, as of her testimony on October 29, 2001, the children saw their foster parents as their psychological parents. She also expressed concern that the children would "experience serious emotional damage if they were removed from their placement" with their foster mother. Dr. Clarson warned that the ending of this relationship would be extremely distressing to the children and would lead to them acting out and then becoming depressed, detached, and unable to succeed at school or maintain peer relationships for a very long period of time. Nonetheless, Dr. Clarson ultimately recommended more contact with Lewis and Lewis's parents and family. Likewise, Dr. Mander recommended increased visitation and some unsupervised visitation between the children and their biological family. Additionally, Dr. Mander testified that professionals can be of assistance in overcoming bonding issues. While this testimony did not constitute an endorsement of granting custody to Lewis, it also was not a recommendation that her parental rights be terminated, something that this court has found instructive in similar cases terminating parental rights under ICWA § 1912(f).
The superior court was correct to draw a careful distinction between the preponderance of the evidence and clear and convincing standards of proof used in non-ICWA proceedings and the beyond a reasonable doubt standard of proof demanded by ICWA § 1912(f). We hold that, because of the improvements in Lewis's ability to care for her children and the doubt raised by the expert testimony of Drs. Mander and Clarson, the superior court was not clearly erroneous in finding that the state failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that granting Lewis custody of the children would "likely result in serious emotional or physical damage to the [children]."
Because the superior court did not err in finding that the state failed to meet the burden of proof demanded by ICWA § 1912(f), we AFFIRM the decision not to terminate Lewis's parental rights.