People in Interest of E.S., 2021 COA 79

In this decision, the Court of Appeals reverses an order terminating father’s parental rights, holding that the department failed to make reasonable efforts because it did not provide father visitation services due to his outstanding warrants. Father’s treatment plan required him to participate in visits once he had resolved his warrants; at the termination hearing, the caseworker testified that he never visited with the children because he had not resolved those warrants and that a department policy prohibited any parent from participating in visits if they had an outstanding warrant.

The Court of Appeals holds that the department’s blanket policy violates § 19-3-208, which requires departments to provide visits as determined necessary and appropriate by individual case plans because it creates a general prohibition on visits without any consideration of children’s health and safety or whether visits are necessary and appropriate under the treatment plan. The Court notes that while its holding does not suggest visits could never be suspended for a parent with an outstanding warrant, a decision to suspend visits must be grounded in a finding that the visits would be detrimental to the health and safety of the child. The Court notably considers the visitation issue even though father failed to raise it before the termination hearing, electing to consider it to avert a miscarriage of justice that would result from its enforcement of a policy barring visitation without consideration of the children’s health or safety. The Court does not resolve whether to apply a clear error or de novo standard of review, determining that under either standard the juvenile court’s decision was erroneous.

The Court of Appeals rejects father’s assertion that his treatment plan was inappropriate because it included a component requiring him to address domestic violence. Father argued that domestic violence was not an issue; however, the Court concludes that the record supports that component of the treatment plan. While there was some question whether father had past domestic violence charges, reports from mother about domestic violence supported the inclusion of domestic violence requirements in the treatment plan.

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