Court of Appeals of Ohio, Fourth District, Athens
IN THE MATTER OF: A.M., Adjudicated Abused and Dependent Child, E.D., Adjudicated Dependent Child.
A. Lavelle, Athens, Ohio, for appellant-mother.
L. Meade, Columbus, Ohio, for appellant-father.
J. Blackburn, Athens County Prosecuting Attorney, and Merry
M. Saunders, Athens County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney,
Athens, Ohio, for appellee.
DECISION AND JUDGMENT ENTRY
HOOVER, PRESIDING JUDGE
K.M., the children's biological mother, appeals the trial
court's judgments that awarded Athens County Children
Services ("the agency") permanent custody of
seven-year-old A.M. and three-year-old E.D. J.C., A.M.'s
biological father, appeals the trial court's judgment
that awarded the agency permanent custody of A.M. For the
reasons that follow, we affirm the trial court's
In May 2016, six-and-one-half-year-old A.M. reported to a
teacher that her mother's live-in boyfriend, G.D.,
sexually abused her "100s of times." The agency
subsequently sought and obtained emergency temporary custody
of A.M. and her younger brother, E.D. The agency additionally
filed separate complaints that alleged A.M. and E.D. are
abused, neglected, and dependent children. The agency
requested the court to grant it temporary custody of the
The trial court later adjudicated A.M. abused and dependent
and adjudicated E.D. dependent. The court dismissed the
remaining allegations contained in the complaints. The court
also placed the children in the agency's temporary
custody. The court further found that the agency used
reasonable efforts to prevent the children's continued
removal from the home but that the mother's decision to
continue living with G.D., the perpetrator, made
The agency developed a case plan for the family. The case
plan indicated that the mother would need to change the
following behavior in order to reduce risk to the children:
(1) "learn new discipline techniques and
strategies"; (2) "learn protective parenting
capacities to prevent future abuse/neglect of her
children"; and (3) "work with a mental health
provider to learn about sexual abuse, her own protective
capacities and the effects of this type of abuse." The
case plan required the mother to work with a parent mentor,
engage with Help Me Grow and any other service providers
regarding E.D.'s development,  regularly visit the
children, and undergo counseling in order to understand
A.M.'s sexual victimization.
The case plan indicated that A.M.'s father, J.C., needs
to develop a father-daughter relationship with A.M., obtain
safe and stable independent housing, obtain a source of
income to provide for A.M.'s basic needs, and learn new
parenting techniques and strategies for a child that has
experienced sexual abuse. The case plan required J.C. to
regularly visit A.M., work with a parent mentor, and engage
with Integrated Services to obtain housing, counseling, and
case management needs.
On April 7, 2017, the agency filed a motion to modify the
disposition to permanent custody. The agency asserted that
the children cannot be placed with their parents within a
reasonable time or should not be placed with their parents.
The agency alleged that the mother has not made progress in
addressing the sexual abuse that A.M. suffered and has not
acknowledged that G.D. sexually abused A.M. The agency
further asserted that even though the mother claims that she
no longer shares a relationship with G.D., the two recently
were spotted together at a grocery store and were observed
leaving the store in the same vehicle. The agency argued that
the mother's failure to address A.M.'s sexual abuse
and to admit that G.D. was the perpetrator illustrates that
she cannot adequately protect her children. The agency
claimed that returning the children to their mother would not
be safe when the mother refuses to believe that her paramour
could have perpetrated sexual abuse against A.M.
The agency additionally asserted that A.M. cannot be placed
with her father within a reasonable time or should not be
placed with him. The agency alleged that her father is not an
appropriate placement due to his mental health issues and his
lack of appropriate housing for A.M.
At the permanent custody hearing, Nickie Webb, A.M.'s
mental health counselor, testified that she sees A.M.
approximately once per week. Webb explained that although
A.M. has done well in foster care, A.M. is anxious about the
children services case and would like to return home to her
mother. Webb stated that A.M. enjoys visiting with her
father, but A.M. has not mentioned a desire to live with her
father. Webb related that A.M. definitely does not want to
see G.D. and is "angry with him."
Webb indicated that A.M. has expressed concern that the
agency's involvement is "her fault" as a result
of reporting G.D.'s sexual abuse. Webb thus explained
that A.M. should be placed in an environment with a caregiver
who will reinforce that A.M. is not to blame for her
family's children services involvement and who will
validate A.M.'s feelings. She additionally related that
A.M. might be afraid to report any future instances of abuse
if A.M. felt that her mother did not believe her first
report, or if she thought that her disclosure might lead to
another removal from her home.
The children's foster mother testified that the children
have lived in her home for a little over one year. She stated
that when A.M. initially entered her care, A.M. lacked
appropriate boundaries with strangers. The foster mother
related that A.M. has since developed more appropriate
boundaries and displays more caution around strangers.
The foster mother explained that when E.D. initially entered
her home, he exhibited a speech delay. Further testing
revealed that E.D. has a rare chromosomal abnormality that
includes speech and cognitive delays. The foster mother
testified that E.D.'s speech has improved since entering
her care. Both children are doing well in her home and are
very pleasant children. The foster mother indicated that A.M.
and E.D. appear bonded to one another and interact like
The children's foster father testified that in early
March 2017, he observed the mother and G.D. together at a
grocery store. He stated that they left the store in the same
ACCS parent mentor and family support worker Jennifer Brooks
testified that she provides parent mentoring services and
also supervises visitations. Brooks explained that she
contacted all three parents involved in the case. She related
that before she could complete a home visit with J.C., he
began sending her inappropriate messages. Brooks stated that
J.C. asked her if she was single and if she wanted to be in a
relationship. Brooks immediately notified her supervisor and
closed the case.
Brooks stated that she started working with the mother and
G.D. around the beginning of August 2016. She explained that
she closed G.D.'s case in January 2017 because he had
completed all tasks listed on the initial referral. Brooks
continues to work with the mother. Brooks related that she
helped the mother with developmental information, parenting
skills, potty training, and protective capacities regarding
A.M. She testified that she discussed A.M.'s sexual abuse
allegations and how to protect A.M. from further abuse.
Brooks indicated that throughout her discussions with the
mother, the mother consistently related that she did not
believe A.M.'s disclosures. Instead, the mother offered
varying explanations for A.M.'s allegations: J.C.
concocted the story and told A.M. to blame G.D. when J.C.
actually was the perpetrator; G.D.'s brother was the
perpetrator; A.M. is malicious and would say things to get
attention or to get G.D. in trouble; A.M. walked in on G.D.
and the mother having sex and may have gotten ideas from
viewing them; A.M. may have seen pornographic movies; and
A.M. is extremely jealous of E.D. and may have made up the
story to get attention. Brooks explained that the
mother's denials have made it impossible to work with the
mother on her protective capacities. Brooks further noted
that the mother and G.D. did not actually separate until the
children had been in the agency's custody for five or six
months and that they informed Brooks multiple times that they
separated only because the agency expected them to do so.
Brooks agreed that the mother generally cooperated with her
and appeared eager to learn. Brooks stated that the mother
"did very well with parent mentoring. She took every
piece of information and she also applied it during
visitation." Brooks told the mother that she is "a
really good mom." Brooks testified that the mother even
asked if parent mentoring services could continue if the
children returned home; and Brooks encouraged the mother to
instead state, "when the kids come home." Brooks
explained that the mother shared her plan to ask her sister
to move into the house so that someone would always be at
home to care for the children.
Despite the mother's parenting skills, the mother still
refused to recognize that G.D. perpetrated sexual abuse upon
A.M. This caused Brooks great concern regarding the
mother's "capacity to protect" the children.
Brooks did not agree with the mother's counsel that the
mother has progressed in her understanding from shock, to
denial regarding the number of occurrences, to acceptance.
Brooks stated she does not believe the mother has "made
progress in that aspect." Brooks related that the mother
did not simply express disbelief at the number of
occurrences, but instead, the mother did not believe that the
incidents even occurred.
Tara Carsey testified that she worked with the family to
develop a case plan to address A.M.'s sexual abuse and
E.D.'s delays. Carsey indicated that the agency had
concerns that the mother continued to live with G.D. for five
or six months after A.M.'s disclosure and the
children's removal. Carsey stated that she discussed the
parties' living situation with the mother and advised the
mother that her chances of having the children returned to
her home would be increased if G.D. did not live in the home.
Carsey related that G.D. moved out of the mother's home
in late October or early November 2016.
Carsey explained that although the mother complied with the
case plan requirements to obtain mental health counseling and
participate in parent mentoring, the mother still did not
believe that G.D. sexually abused A.M. Carsey offered to show
the mother a recording of A.M.'s forensic interview to
which she declined. Carsey indicated that the mother's
denial led her to believe that the mother would not be able
to adequately protect the children from future abusive
Carsey testified that E.D. had speech delays when he first
entered the agency's care and that the mother now
understands E.D.'s issues.
Carsey stated that A.M.'s father J.C. consistently
visited her. However, Carsey also testified that the agency
had concerns with J.C.'s mental health and that A.M.
should not be placed with him. She related that during a home
visit, J.C. exhibited strange behavior. J.C. was not making
sense when he spoke. He talked about how he was being watched
with the cameras on the poles out front and listened to with
the devices that were in the house. J.C. had been admitted to
Appalachian Behavioral Health where he spent about three
weeks. Although J.C. was receiving medication and case
management to work on his social skills, Carsey still had
concerns with J.C.'s cognitive ability and ability to
protect A.M. Carsey further indicated that J.C.'s living
situation was not conducive for a healthy environment for
A.M. J.C. lived in a three-bedroom trailer with his mother,
stepfather, and two adolescents who are in his mother's
Carsey related that in October 2016, the agency determined
that it would seek permanent custody of the children, but the
agency did not actually file its permanent custody motion
until April 2017. Carsey explained that in October 2016, the
agency decided that it would seek permanent custody because
the mother and G.D. had not fully separated and J.C.'s
mental health was a serious concern. Carsey stated that after
the agency decided that it would seek permanent custody, it
continued to provide services to the family, but the agency
did stop reunification efforts.
Carsey ultimately testified that placing the children in the
agency's permanent custody would serve their best
interests. She explained that the children need a safe and
stable home, with people who can keep them safe from abuse
The children's guardian ad litem testified that granting
the agency permanent custody of the children would serve
their best interests. The guardian ad litem agreed that the
mother was not capable of providing the children with a safe
home because of her unwillingness to believe A.M. about being
abused. The guardian ad litem related that the mother would
not be able to adequately protect A.M. from future abuse if
the mother does not believe A.M.'s story. Likewise, the
guardian ad litem did not believe that J.C. could provide
A.M. with a safe, stable home due to his mental health issues
and lack of independent housing.
Michele Papai testified that in late May 2017, the mother was
referred to her for counseling. Papai testified that the
mother appeared to be motivated. Papai explained that the
mother still has "a question in her mind" whether
G.D. was the perpetrator and would like to undergo therapy
with A.M. to resolve the issues. Papai opined that the mother
would be capable of parenting the children and keeping them
safe. Papai testified that they discussed how to keep the
children safe if they returned home. She stated that they
also discussed that G.D. should have no contact with A.M.
Papai believed that the mother possessed an understanding of
how to keep her daughter and her son safe.
The mother testified that she is capable of protecting the
children; and that although A.M.'s disclosure initially
shocked her, she has accepted that A.M. suffered sexual
abuse. She stated:
It was shocking at first. I'm always home so I'm
struggling with the fact of when [G.D.] could have done it,
and how he could have done it with me always being home. But
there is still always the possibility that something did
happen and I just finally come [sic] to accept that even with
me always being home and always being around him.
The mother explained that she was a stay-at-home mother and
could not understand when G.D. could have perpetrated the
abuse. She stated that when she, A.M., E.D., and G.D. lived
together, it was not "even physically possible" for
G.D. and A.M. to have been left alone for the number of times
that A.M. alleged the abuse occurred. The mother related that
G.D. did not have the opportunity to be alone with A.M. She
explained that G.D. worked until 3 or 4 o'clock in the
morning and that A.M. left for school before G.D. woke up.
The mother stated that G.D. left for work at 4:30 pm and A.M.
arrived home from school around 4:00 pm. She testified that
G.D. worked five nights per week "but he even went on
his days off cause they needed more help." The mother
indicated that G.D. "was always at work" and that
he "did not like being at home."
The mother explained that she and G.D. are no longer
romantically involved and that she will not have any contact
with him, except as necessary to maintain G.D.'s
relationship with E.D. The mother stated that she and G.D.
met at a grocery store in March 2017 only to ensure that they
did not duplicate Easter gifts for E.D. The mother further
related that she will "not get with anybody else, "
but instead will "direct all of [her] attention to just
The mother indicated that she will be able to keep the
children safe. She stated that her sister will move into the
home and will be able to watch the children during the
mother's working hours.
The mother testified that after she learned about E.D.'s
rare genetic disorder, she researched his condition in order
to learn more about it. She explained that the disorder may
cause heart problems later in life and was the cause of his
On cross-examination, the mother explained that during her
relationship with G.D., G.D. mentioned that he had lost
custody of his daughter. G.D. indicated that the child's
mother physically abused the child and that the agency would
not allow G.D. to obtain custody of his child. The mother was
not alarmed that G.D. had lost custody of his own daughter.
The mother stated that she had difficulty believing that A.M.
suffered sexual abuse as many times as she claimed and denied
that she ever stated that she did not believe A.M. She agreed
that she offered alternate explanations for A.M.'s story.
The agency's counsel asked the mother about her statement
that A.M. and G.D. could not have been alone together, and
the mother explained: "I don't see how it could have
happened * * *, but I did say that there's always that
possibility that something did happen."
J.C. testified that in 2012, he stopped living with K.M. and
A.M. He stated that after he stopped living with A.M., he saw
her "every once in awhile." J.C. indicated that his
visits with A.M. occurred mostly around holidays or her
birthday. J.C. explained that he currently lives with his
mother, stepfather, eleven-year-old niece, and
twelve-year-old nephew. He stated that he gets along well
with his niece and nephew and that A.M. also interacts well
with them. J.C. believes that he, his mother, and stepfather
can provide A.M. with an appropriate home. J.C. related that
the household has sufficient income to provide for A.M.'s
J.C. testified that in the summer of 2016, he spent three
weeks at Appalachian Behavioral Healthcare (ABH). He
explained that he had a nervous breakdown and anxiety and
stress. J.C. related that he was diagnosed with PTSD and
stress syndrome. He indicated that he was prescribed
medication and that he continues to take his medication. J.C.
stated that the medications help him and that he does not
believe that his mental health constitutes a barrier to
parenting A.M. On cross-examination, J.C. stated that he also
was diagnosed with schizophrenia and was prescribed
medication for it.
J.C. explained that after his release from ABH, he started
"equine therapy." He testified that approximately
two to three months after he started the therapy, he learned
that it was the wrong type of counseling for him. J.C.
indicated that he then started seeing a mental health
counselor and meets with her almost every week. J.C.
testified that he has a case manager at Integrated Services
and that they work on housing. J.C. related that he has
applied for HUD housing and plans to eventually move out of
his mother's house.
J.C. stated that he did ask Brooks if she would like to go on
a date and that he has not yet received any parent mentoring
services. He indicated that he did not understand why the
agency failed to refer him to a different parent mentor.
J.C.'s mother, P.W., testified that she and her husband,
along with J.C., could provide a safe and stable permanent
home for A.M. She admitted that she had prior children
services involvement; but she stated that she worked with the
agency and the cases were eventually closed.
The mother's sister, S.M., testified that she intends to
move in with K.M. if the children return home. She stated
that she would be able to help the mother care for the
children. S.M. related her belief that the mother is more
protective of the children than she had been before their
removal and that she is careful about who she allows around
the home. S.M. disputed any assertion that the mother and
G.D. are still romantically involved. She stated that
although they were spotted together at a grocery store in
March 2017, they met only to discuss E.D.'s Easter gifts
and to ensure they did not duplicate gifts.
On August 16, 2017, the trial court granted the agency
permanent custody of the two children. The court found, by
clear and convincing evidence, that permanent custody is in
the children's best interests and that the children
cannot be placed with their parents within a reasonable time
or should not be placed with their parents. The court thus
granted the agency permanent custody of the two children.
The parties timely appealed.
ASSIGNMENTS OF ERROR
K.M. raises two assignments of error:
Assignment of Error:
The trial court's decision terminating parental rights,
[sic] was against the manifest weight of the evidence.
Assignment of Error:
Children services' decision to ask for termination of
parental rights was extremely premature, and failed to
satisfy the "reasonable efforts" requirements
imposed by law.
J.C. raises one assignment of error:
The trial court's ruling to terminate appellant's
parental rights, and grant Athens County Children Services
permanent custody of his daughter, was against the manifest
weight of the evidence.
LAW AND ANALYSIS
The mother's first assignment of error and the
father's sole assignment of error assert that the trial
court's decision to grant the agency permanent custody of
the children is against the manifest weight of the evidence.
Both parents argue that the evidence does not clearly and
convincingly show that placing the children in the
agency's permanent custody is in their best interests.
The parents also tangentially ...