Appeal from the District Court of Natrona County The Honorable John C. Brackley, Judge
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hill, Justice.
Before KITE, C.J., and GOLDEN, HILL, VOIGT, and BURKE, JJ.
NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in Pacific Reporter Third. Readers are requested to notify the Clerk of the Supreme Court, Supreme Court Building, Cheyenne, Wyoming 82002, of any typographical or other formal errors so that correction may be made before final publication in the permanent volume.
[¶1] PRG (Father) appeals the district court's order following a jury verdict terminating his parental rights to his four minor children. Father contends that the district court erred when it refused to use his proposed jury verdict form. He also claims that the State of Wyoming, Department of Family Services (DFS) presented insufficient evidence to terminate his parental rights and challenges the district court's denial of his motion for a judgment as a matter of law. We affirm.
[¶2] Father presents three issues for our consideration:
I. Did the district court err in refusing [Father's] proposed Jury Verdict Form requiring the jury to consider the father's fitness in relation to each minor child.
II. Whether the evidence presented was sufficient to allow the [Father's] parental rights to be terminated as to the four minor children at issue.
III. Whether the trial court erred in failing to grant [Father's] Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law in Jury Trials, W.R.C.P. Rule 50(a).
[¶3] Father is the biologic father of six children, two of whom are no longer minors and are not part of this termination action, and four minor children who are the subject of this termination action: KMO, born December 10, 1995; DMO, born December 12, 1997; CMO, born June 5, 1999; and AKO, born September 6, 2001. The children's mother is HJO (Mother).
[¶4] This family has a long history with DFS and the juvenile court. Because this case turns in part upon on an ongoing pattern of neglect, we outline that history in some detail. Additional pertinent details will be reviewed as we address Father's specific arguments. DFS first had contact with the family in March of 1999 when DFS received a referral from the State of Nevada about a family moving to Wyoming and in need of services. At that time, there were four children and Mother was pregnant with Father's fifth child. Mother lived in Seton House in Casper, Wyoming, while Father lived in his van parked out front. DFS was informed that Nevada's Child and Family Services had substantiated allegations of neglect against Mother four times between 1996 and 1999, including physical neglect and medical neglect and lack of supervision. After receiving the intake request from Nevada, Wyoming DFS offered services to the family and implemented a voluntary case plan offering a variety of services.
[¶5] In May of 2001 the children were first placed into the protective custody of the State of Wyoming when Mother reported contemplating suicide by driving off of Casper Mountain with her children in the car. By then, Mother and Father had five children ranging in age nine years to as young as twenty-three months and Mother was pregnant with Father's sixth child. The district attorney filed a neglect petition and the children were placed in foster care. Father was not a placement option because he did not have a place to stay. Mother admitted the allegations of the neglect petition and in July of 2001 the children were returned to her custody, although they remained in the legal custody of DFS.
[¶6] In November of 2002 the children were again placed in protective custody. This time the allegations of neglect were against both Father and Mother. In order to go to work, Father had left his eight-year-old son alone to baby-sit his four younger siblings, including a fourteen-month old baby. The house was in disarray, raising health and safety concerns. At the same time, Mother was being arrested at Walmart for shoplifting, accompanied by her ten-year-old daughter. Subsequently, DFS substantiated allegations of lack of supervision against Father and neglect against Mother, and both parents were placed on the child abuse and neglect central registry.
[¶7] In May of 2003 the children were placed into the protective custody of the State of Wyoming for the third time. In this case, DFS again received a report that Mother's home was unclean and unsafe and that the six children whose ages ranged from eleven years to twenty months old had been left without appropriate supervision. Father was at work and Mother had not returned from an out-of-town trip. DFS substantiated allegations of neglect against both Father and Mother based upon the family history of inadequate and unsafe living conditions, the current condition of the home, and the continued lack of supervision. A neglect petition was filed and the children were again placed in foster care. One component of the case plan required a stable living environment before DFS could return the children home. DFS contracted with LifeNet Services for Father to assist him with obtaining a residence big enough to house his six children; however, Father did not follow through. In addition, Father made it known that it was never his primary goal to be the placement for his children and that he wanted his children to live with Mother. By March of 2004 Mother had her seventh child whose father was MBK (Father #2),*fn1 and Father's six children had returned to Mother's custody. Father was not living in the home when the children returned.
[¶8] This case remained open after the children returned home in order to assist the family with continuing issues of safety and the cleanliness of the home, as well as the children's hygiene and tardiness at school. In early 2004, DFS discovered that Mother had developed a friendship with a registered sex offender, Timothy Adams. The DFS social worker warned Mother of this and advised that she was not to have the children around Adams. Nevertheless, Mother continued to allow Adams to have contact with the children in the summer and fall of 2004 at his home and at Mother's home, and she allowed Adams to take her and Father's six-year-old daughter on an overnight trip to Cheyenne. DFS substantiated allegations of abuse against Mother for her part in allowing the children to be exposed to a known sex offender. Father knew of Adams and his sex offender status but did not take any action to remove the children from Mother's home. Adams later was charged with and pleaded guilty to taking indecent liberties with three of Father's children (including his oldest daughter, who is not part of this action). Shortly after disclosing the abuse by Adams, Father's nine-year-old daughter began intentionally pulling her hair out, resulting in a bald spot that was noticed by school personnel. Medical personnel determined that she had a rare condition called Trichotillomania, which is an unhealthy coping mechanism to relieve anxiety and which is primarily caused by extreme stress.
[¶9] Between 2004 and late 2007 the children remained in Mother's custody and DFS had little direct contact with the family. However, in November of 2007 DFS received a report from a school counselor alleging that the oldest daughter was not in school because she was required to stay home and take care of her younger siblings. At that time, the family consisted of nine children who ranged in age from sixteen years to thirteen months, and Mother was pregnant with twins. As part of the ensuing investigation, DFS continued to gather information from various sources and review the past abuse and neglect history of the family. The records and reports had been relatively constant and concerning. School records indicated that the children's hygiene was lacking. They often wore improper clothing for the weather, came to school hungry, and had poor academic performance. The schools had meetings with Mother about various issues including absences and tardiness and the children not being picked up on time. The children who wore prescription glasses habitually did not bring or wear them to school. Father's younger children attended the Child Development Center (CDC), a facility that works with pre-school aged children with speech, physical, and cognitive delays. CDC's description of the younger children was similar to the school reports concerning the school-aged children. During this time frame there were also several police visits to the home for reports of unattended or unsupervised children.
[¶10] In February of 2008, Mother forgot to pick up her four-year-old son from CDC. DFS investigated and substantiated neglect against Mother. DFS then learned that Mother had received an eviction notice from her landlord, Housing Alternatives Incorporated, which provided HUD regulated low-income housing. The eviction was based upon the unclean, unsanitary, and unsafe condition of the home. Prior to the April 1 deadline to vacate the house, Mother's four-year-old son started a fire while playing with a lighter in a basement closet causing $48,000.00 worth of damage. The family was forced to vacate the home immediately.
[¶11] When DFS learned of the fire, the children were placed into protective custody for the fourth time, and the juvenile case culminating in this termination action began. DFS substantiated allegations of neglect against both Mother and Father based upon the conditions of the home as reported by a paramedic who responded to the fire and the growing concerns for the safety of the children due to lack of supervision and ongoing neglect. Mother, Father, and Father #2 stipulated to the adjudication of the children as neglected and the eleven minor children were placed in foster care. At that time, Father lived in a one-bedroom apartment with two roommates, one of whom was a registered sex offender, and his home was not appropriate for his six minor children. The juvenile court ordered a permanency plan for the children of reunification. As part of the reunification plan, the three parents ...