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In re L.L.S.

Court of Appeals of Ohio, Eleventh District, Portage

September 5, 2017

IN RE: L.L.S.

         Appeal from the Portage County Court of Common Pleas, Juvenile Division, Case No. 2015JCC 00234.

          Thomas Grist, (For Appellant, Tiffany L. Spencer, Mother).

          Victor V. Vigluicci, Portage County Prosecutor, and Brandon J. Wheeler, Assistant Prosecutor, (For Appellee, Portage County Department of Job and Family Services).

          Richard C. Lombardi, Suite B, Ravenna, (Guardian ad litem).

          OPINION

          CYNTHIA WESTCOTT RICE, P.J.

         {¶1} Appellant, Tiffany L. Spencer ("Mother"), appeals from the September 29, 2016 judgment of the Portage County Court of Common Pleas, Juvenile Division, ordering that her child, L.L.S., be placed in the legal custody of Kevin and Lora Labbe ("the Labbes"). Finding no reversible error, we affirm.

         {¶2} Mother is the biological mother of L.L.S., d.o.b. March 21, 2005, and L.M.L., d.o.b. March 7, 2007 (collectively "minor children").[1] This appeal, Case No. 2016-P-0068, involves L.L.S. Mother's companion appeal, Case No. 2016-P-0069, involves L.M.L. Mother's arguments in both appeals are the same. The biological father of the minor children is Ronald Lemin ("Father"). Father is not a named party in either appeal.

         {¶3} On March 24, 2015, the minor children were removed from Mother's care, custody, and control after the Portage County Drug Task Force found a methamphetamine lab in the garage of their residence.[2] The next day, appellee, Portage County Department of Job and Family Services ("PCDJFS"), filed complaints alleging that the minor children were abused, neglected, and dependent.[3]

         {¶4} Attorney Richard C. Lombardi ("GAL") was appointed as guardian ad litem and attorney for the minor children. The juvenile court also appointed separate counsel for Mother.

         {¶5} A shelter care hearing was subsequently held. The minor children were placed in the interim pre-dispositional custody of PCDJFS. On May 14, 2015, the minor children were found to be dependent.

         {¶6} A dispositional hearing was held on June 16, 2015. A case plan was agreed to and adopted. The minor children were placed in the temporary custody of PCDJFS.

         {¶7} In September 2015, Mother and Father filed motions for legal custody. However, both Mother and Father withdrew those motions later that year.

         {¶8} On December 14, 2015, the GAL filed a report indicating the following: he met with the parties at various times; he met and interviewed the minor children; he met and interviewed the maternal grandmother; he met, interviewed, and inspected the home of Mark and Brenda Wakefield ("the Wakefields"), the minor children's maternal uncle and aunt; he spoke with psychologists and counselors and reviewed reports; he met with Mother and Father; he attended Family Team Meetings; he interviewed the Labbes, who are good family friends with Mother and have a very good relationship with the minor children, who have stayed at their home frequently and are a potential placement for L.L.S.; and recommended granting legal custody of L.M.L. to the Wakefields.

         {¶9} In addition, a December 14, 2015 case review reveals Mother scored an "8" on the risk re-assessment scale of abuse/neglect regarding her parenting of the minor children, i.e., an actual risk level of "high."

         {¶10} Following a monthly home visit by the caseworker and GAL, on March 2, 2016, PCDJFS filed a motion for adoption of permanency plan, to grant legal custody of L.L.S. to the Labbes (non-relatives) and L.M.L. to the Wakefields (relatives). As Mother was not in agreement with the plan, she filed another motion for legal custody on March 10, 2016. A week later, PCDJFS filed a motion for change of custody (regarding L.L.S. from the temporary custody of PCDJFS to the legal custody of the Labbes) and to terminate the case. The Wakefields filed a motion for legal custody of L.M.L.

         {¶11} On March 18, 2016, a semiannual administrative review was filed. That review revealed the following: Mother was not consistent with counseling; Mother and Father lack financial support for the minor children; Mother and Father have placed the minor children in unsafe situations and circumstances; Mother continues to make poor choices for herself and for the minor children; the minor children have been exposed to unsafe, unstable, and harmful environments; the minor children were directly exposed to being in the presence of a documented unsafe individual (Mother's boyfriend); and Mother lacks stable housing and has moved three times since the minor children were removed.

         {¶12} On May 12, 2016, the GAL filed a report indicating the following: Mother was reported, and did not deny, to be purchasing large amounts of Sudafed, a key component of manufacturing methamphetamine; Mother had been charged shortly before the raid at issue for obstructing official business and complicity to commit theft; the family residence was in disarray; the minor children were upset and crying; clothes and mattresses were scattered all over the floor; Mother continues to deny there was a meth lab in their garage; since Mother's oldest child was born in 2005, Mother had moved approximately 20 times; and Mother's last residence is a "dump" filled with the stench of dog manure. The GAL recommended that it is in the minor children's best interest to be placed into the legal custody of their respective placements with L.M.L. remaining with the Wakefields and L.L.S. remaining with the Labbes.

         {¶13} A change of custody hearing was held on May 17, 2016. Prior to the start of the hearing, Mother, who was represented by counsel, requested that the court appoint separate counsel for the minor children. The GAL advised the court he did not believe that a conflict existed in his dual roles. The court agreed and denied Mother's oral motion.

         {¶14} At the hearing, testimony was taken from the following: Alexandria Bevere, a social worker with PCDJFS; Mother; the Wakefields; and Lora Labbe. Under Mother's care, the minor children had hygiene issues, had behavioral problems, and performed poorly in school. After L.M.L.'s placement with the Wakefields and L.L.S.'s placement with the Labbes, the minor children no longer have hygiene issues; their behavioral problems were rectified; their skills have dramatically increased; they receive good grades in school; and are now involved in extracurricular activities. Since the removal of the minor children from Mother's care, both children have thrived personally, socially, and academically. Both the Wakefields and the Labbes provide the minor children with stable, consistent, and nurturing environments. The minor children have bonded with their respective custodians. The Wakefields and the Labbes are open to Mother improving her relationship with the minor children and support Mother's recovery efforts. L.M.L. advised the GAL she wants to reside with the Wakefields. L.L.S. has told the GAL she wants to reside with Mother or the Labbes. L.L.S. made statements about wanting to live with Mother because she was scared of hurting Mother's feelings.

         {¶15} In his May 20, 2016 decision, the magistrate recommended granting legal custody of L.L.S. to the Labbes and L.M.L. to the Wakefields.[4] Mother filed objections to the magistrate's decision on June 2, 2016. PCDJFS filed responses.

         {¶16} Following a hearing, on September 29, 2016, the juvenile court overruled Mother's objections and adopted the magistrate's decision. The court ordered that it is in the minor children's best interest for L.L.S. to be placed in the legal custody of the Labbes and for L.M.L. to be placed in the legal custody of the Wakefields. Mother filed timely appeals and raises the following two assignments of error:[5]

         {¶17} "[1.] The Trial Court erred, and abused its discretion, when it affirmed the Magistrate's Decision to award legal custody of minor children L.L.S. and L.M.L. to parties other than Appellant.

         {¶18} "[2.] The Trial Court abused its discretion in not granting Appellant's motion to appoint new counsel for the minor child L.L.S."

         {¶19} In her first assignment of error, Mother argues the juvenile court abused its discretion in adopting the magistrate's decision and awarding legal custody of L.L.S. to the Labbes and L.M.L. to the Wakefields. Although this appeal only involves L.L.S., this ...


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