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In re Max M.

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

June 4, 2015

In re Max M

Page 186

Kent County Family Court. (12-4079-1). Associate Justice Sandra A. Lanni.

For Petitioner: Karen A. Clark, Department of Children Youth and Families; Jennifer J. Kelly, Court Appointed Special Advocate.

For Respondent: Catherine Gibran, Office of the Public Defender.

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


Page 187

William P. Robinson III, Justice

On August 21, 2014, a Family Court decree entered which terminated the parental rights of the respondent father, Eric M.,[1] with respect to his son, Max M. On appeal, Eric argues that the record lacks clear and convincing proof of: (1) his unfitness as a parent; and (2) the reasonable efforts of the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) to reunify Eric with his son. This case came before the Supreme Court for oral argument pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised in this appeal should not be summarily decided. After considering 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 this appeal may be decided without further briefing or argument. For

Page 188

the reasons set forth in this opinion, we affirm the judgment of the Family Court.


Facts and Travel

On September 13, 2013, DCYF filed a petition to terminate the parental rights of Eric with respect to his son, Max (born in August of 2011).[2] In its petition, DCYF alleged the following grounds for the termination of Eric's parental rights: (1) Max had been placed in the legal custody of DCYF " for at least twelve (12) months * * * [without] a substantial probability that the child [would] be able to return safely to [Eric's] care within a reasonable period of time" pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 15-7-7(a)(3); and (2) Eric's abandonment or desertion of Max pursuant to § 15-7-7(a)(4).

A trial was held before a justice of the Family Court on May 5 and May 12, 2014, during which the trial justice heard testimony from the following witnesses: Cheryl Csisar, a DCYF caseworker who was assigned to Max's case; Eric; and Susan Carlson, a DCYF casework supervisor who supervised both Cheryl Csisar and her predecessor, Nicole Guglielmetti. We summarize below the salient aspects of that testimony.


The Testimony of Cheryl Csisar

Cheryl Csisar testified as a witness for DCYF. She stated that she became responsible for Max's case in June of 2013, after Nicole Guglielmetti, the original caseworker, departed.

Ms. Csisar described in her testimony how Max came to be placed with DCYF. She stated that, in May of 2012, DCYF was notified about " child care concerns" with respect to Max because his mother, Amanda, was " abusing heroin * * * [and] leaving [Max] with relatives for extended periods of time and not providing for his care." Ms. Csisar further testified that, at the same time, Eric was " unable to care for his son as well because he was already serving time at the [Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI)] for breaking and entering * * *." [3] She testified that, on May 23, 2012, Max was placed in foster care with his maternal aunt and uncle and that he had remained in their care since that time.

Ms. Csisar next testified that her predecessor at DCYF, Nicole Guglielmetti, had created two case plans for Eric, each with the goal of reunification. Ms. Csisar further testified that, in July of 2013, soon after she took over Max's case and approximately a month after Eric's release from the ACI (in June of 2013), she created a third case plan for Eric in pursuit of the same goal. It was Ms. Csisar's testimony that the just-referenced case plan contained expectations that Eric develop parenting skills, attend substance abuse

Page 189

treatment programs, address anger management issues, obtain housing, and refrain from " any and all" illegal activities. She added, however, that she was unable to take any further steps with Eric in terms of executing that case plan because she and Eric " had several discussions about the case planning, and [Eric] felt because he completed some programs at the ACI that he didn't need to do any further case planning upon his release * * *." Ms. Csisar specifically stated: " [Eric] had informed me that he completed a parenting program at the ACI * * * and he said he also attended an anger management group * * *."

With respect to the anger management program in which Eric participated at the ACI, Ms. Csisar stated that " anybody could go to a group." She added that she would " still need a therapist, a qualified professional[,] to tell [her that Eric had] learned something and mastered some skill and ability to cope in life." Similarly, with respect to the parenting program in which Eric participated at the ACI, she testified that the course was not sufficient; she stated: " [Eric] has to be able to demonstrate * * * change, and I never saw during my visits with him and his son [that he demonstrated] any parenting abilities. So he would have needed much more than just that class that he attended." In addition, Ms. Csisar testified that Eric told her that " when the child comes home to his care * * * his wife [(whose parental rights had been terminated)] and his family members would take care of the child; that he didn't feel like he was going to be the primary caretaker."

With respect to Eric's efforts in connection with other aspects of the case plan, Ms. Csisar testified that, while the home in which Eric lived would be " suitable" for a child to reside in, Eric's wife Amanda (Max's mother), who also lived in the home, would not be " an appropriate caretaker for Max," in light of the fact that her parental rights to the child had been terminated. Later in her testimony, Ms. Csisar acknowledged that, because Amanda lived in the home, the housing situation would not in fact be adequate for Max. Furthermore, Ms. Csisar testified that, when she visited, in March of 2014, the home where Eric lived with his wife and grandmother, " [e]verything really felt stone cold; " she further stated that " there was no heat * * * or hot water" available in the home.

It was also Ms. Csisar's testimony that, since Eric's release from the ACI in June of 2013, he " had the opportunity to visit with his son weekly[.]" However, it was her further testimony that, from the time of Eric's release from the ACI until the time of the trial, which took place in May of 2014 (a time period of eleven months), there had been a total of five visits between Eric and Max, all of which took place at McDonald's fast-food restaurants.[4] The last visit between Eric and his son was in January of 2014. Ms. Csisar added that Eric had never requested that the frequency or the one-hour length of the visits be increased, nor had he ever requested make-up visits. Moreover, when asked whether she knew why Eric had not seen Max since January of 2014, Ms. Csisar referenced the fact that she would " call and * * * call [Eric] and his phone gets shut off, and the voicemail is never set up." Ms. Csisar added that then she would try calling the house phone number and that she would " call there and leave messages to his wife and his grandmother," but that she would never receive a response from Eric.

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Ms. Csisar testified that, during visits between Eric and his son, she observed that Max " really doesn't know [Eric]; " she added that Max " sometimes cries when he has to get out of the van and leave his foster mother [Max's maternal aunt]." She added that, although she did recall that Eric gave Max " a gift and * * * a game, a toy or something" and that he fed Max during their visits, she had also noted that, when Max would " fuss[]," Eric would get " flustered; " she further commented that " he doesn't know what to do." Ms. Csisar testified that Eric " looked very uncomfortable, like he [did not] know what he [was] doing, how to care for [Max] * * *." Ms. Csisar also stated that, during ...

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