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In re Steven D.

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

June 27, 2014

In re Steven D. et al

Page 979

Providence County Family Court. (05-1833-1), (05-1833-2). Associate Justice Howard I. Lipsey.

For DCYF: Karen A. Clark, Department of Children, Youth & Families.

For CASA: Shella R. Katz, Court Appointed Special Advocate.

For Respondents: William J. Delaney, Esq., Susan B. Iannitelli, Esq.

Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.


Page 980

Goldberg, Justice.

This case came before the Supreme Court on May 6, 2014, pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised in this appeal should not summarily be decided. In these consolidated appeals, the respondents, Kathleen D. and Ronald D.[1] (collectively, respondents) appeal from a Family Court decree terminating their parental rights to their two children, Steven D. and Zachary D., for a second time. After a careful review of the record, the memoranda submitted by the parties, and the oral arguments of counsel, we are satisfied that cause has not been shown and that these appeals may be decided at this time. For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we affirm the decree of the Family Court.

Facts and Travel

These consolidated appeals require us to revisit the sad facts of a case with which this Court is well acquainted.[2] In July 2005, the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) filed neglect petitions against Ronald and Kathleen, seeking custody of their two sons: Steven, who was born on September 22, 1997, and Zachary, who was born on November 1, 2000.[3] In re Steven D., 23 A.3d 1138, 1140, 1141 (R.I. 2011). The boys initially were removed from the home when Kathleen was hospitalized and Ronald was unable to care for the children due to his own medical issues. Id. at 1141. Subsequently, the parents admitted to dependency, and the boys were committed to the care, custody, and control of DCYF until further order of the Family Court. Id. at 1142. The boys were later allowed to remain in the home, on the condition that Ronald and Kathleen cooperate with case plans developed for the family, which included that the parents " refrain from using any illegal or intoxicating substances, including alcohol." Id. at 1141. They failed.

In April 2006--eight years ago--the Family Court granted DCYF's motion to remove Steven and Zachary from their parents' home. In re Steven D., 23 A.3d at

Page 981

1143. On September 14, 2007--in accordance with G.L. 1956 § 15-7-7(a)(3)[4]--DCYF filed petitions to terminate Kathleen and Ronald's parental rights to the boys. Id. at 1146. A trial on these petitions culminated in a decree of the Family Court, terminating the respondents' parental rights. Id. at 1153. The decree subsequently was appealed to this Court. A majority of the members of this Court vacated the decree after concluding that (1) DCYF had not made reasonable efforts to reunify Kathleen and the children; (2) the determination that Ronald was an unfit parent was not proven by clear and convincing evidence; and (3) the admission of Kathleen's substance abuse test results into evidence at trial, without a foundation being laid, was in error. Id. at 1161, 1163, 1165.

After this Court issued its opinion on June 29, 2011, new case plans were developed for Ronald and Kathleen. Nothing changed; the parents made no progress and continued their alcoholic lifestyle. On November 28, 2012, DCYF filed new petitions, again requesting that the Family Court terminate both parents' rights to Steven and Zachary. A second trial, spanning ten days, commenced on March 27, 2013, and produced over 1,300 pages of trial transcripts and culminated in a 129-page written decision issued by a second Family Court justice on June 26, 2013, thereby terminating, for a second time, Kathleen and Ronald's parental rights to Steven and Zachary.

In his written decision, the Family Court justice provided a thorough review of all the testimony and exhibits introduced at trial, and made eighty separate findings of fact regarding Ronald's parental unfitness. Specifically, he noted that, after a substance abuse evaluation was performed, Ronald was provided with a substance abuse treatment plan and services to effectuate that plan. However, the trial justice cataloged Ronald's failure to achieve sobriety despite the numerous referrals for treatment at various service providers. The trial justice found that Ronald consistently denied that he had a problem with alcohol, denied that he needed help, and refused to acknowledge that his behavioral choices impacted the children. In support of this finding, the trial justice itemized ...

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