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In re Jah-Nell B.

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

June 17, 2015

In re Jah-nell B

Page 785

Providence County Family Court. (02-2163-6). Associate Justice Howard I. Lipsey.

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

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

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


Page 786

Paul A. Suttell, Chief Justice

The respondent, Clifton Barr, appeals from a decree entered in Family Court terminating his parental rights to his son, Jah-nell. This case came before the Supreme Court 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 parties' written and oral submissions and reviewing the record, we conclude that cause has not been shown and that this case may be decided without further briefing or argument. For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we affirm the decree of the Family Court.


Facts and Procedural History

Jah-nell and his family came to the attention of the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) in April 2009 when the DCYF hotline received a call concerning his mother's " unstable" behavior. In particular, there were allegations that Jah-nell's mother had hit another person's child. Due to safety concerns, DCYF formally opened a case and assigned a social caseworker, Aleida Mohammed, to the family on April 24, 2009.

On May 19, 2009, a Family Court justice ordered the removal of Jah-nell who was then living with his mother. Jah-nell was placed in the care and custody of DCYF and then situated in a nonrelative foster home. At the outset of this case, respondent was identified as the biological father of Jah-nell. The respondent came into court on September 2, 2009, and admitted to allegations of neglect. At that time, he was incarcerated at the Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI). From Jah-nell's birth in January of 2008 until the time of trial in May and June of 2013, respondent had spent nearly two of the five years of his son's young life in prison.

On January 30, 2012, DCYF filed a petition in Family Court seeking to terminate the parental rights (TPR) of both Jah-nell's mother and father. The TPR petition alleged, in wording substantially similar to the statutory language in G.L. 1956 § 15-7-7(a)(3), that:

" The child has been placed in the legal custody of the Department of Children, Youth and Families for at least twelve (12) months; and the parents were offered or received services to correct the situation which led to the child being placed and provided further that there is not a substantial probability that the child will be able to return safely to the

Page 787

parents' care within a reasonable period of time considering the child's age and the need for a permanent home."

A trial in Family Court was held over six days in May and June of 2013, during which extensive trial testimony was provided by twelve witnesses.[1]

Ms. Mohammed testified as to the circumstances present that gave rise to serious concerns regarding the safety and well-being of Jah-nell and his siblings. In particular, she testified that her trepidation stemmed from the actions of the child's mother and concerns about " [i]nappropriate parenting, substance abuse, domestic violence, unstable mental health, [and] putting the needs of her boyfriend before her children." With respect to respondent, Ms. Mohammed testified that visits between Jah-nell and respondent at the ACI were ordered by the Family Court. She stated that respondent did not request any visits until October 2009. He completed two visits with his son--one on October 20, 2009 and one on November 30, 2009. At the October visit, Ms. Mohammed was present and observed that Jah-nell " did not know who [respondent] was." Nevertheless, on cross-examination, Ms. Mohammed testified that respondent " tried his very best to get [Jah-nell] to interact with him [and] to play" with him during the first visit. She explained that she did not set up additional visits for respondent at the time because he had told her " that he was going to be released in December or January, so he would wait for his next visit for when he was released." Ms. Mohammed testified that she called the ACI in January, but was informed that " [respondent] was in disciplinary and was not allowed to have visitation at the time."

The respondent was released from the ACI in March 2010. Following his release, Ms. Mohammed received a call from him and scheduled a visit for him with Jah-nell on March 24, 2010. The visits between respondent and Jah-nell were intended to occur on a biweekly, or once every other week, basis. However, Ms. Mohammed detailed in her testimony the numerous occasions on which these visits did not take place. She testified that respondent canceled visits on May 7, May 21, and July 30, 2010, and failed to show up for a scheduled visit on September 22, 2010. Ms. Mohammed described the reason that respondent offered for not attending the last scheduled visit as " housing problems." More specifically, she indicated that he was not " getting along with [the] roommate" with whom he had been court-ordered to live. She testified that, even though respondent had been ordered to live at an address in Woonsocket as " part of his probation parole [sic]," he instead had moved in with his girlfriend. On September 29, 2010, Ms. Mohammed received a phone call from respondent's girlfriend, after which Ms. Mohammed requested a bureau of criminal investigation (BCI) check on respondent. The BCI check notified her that respondent was again incarcerated at the ACI. Ms. Mohammed testified that she believed he was incarcerated from September 2010 until March 2011 and that at no point during that time period did he contact her to request visits with Jah-nell.[2]

Page 788

Visitations were re-established after respondent's release from the ACI, but Ms. Mohammed described them as " sporadic," stating that: " [h]e would be consistent and then disappear, and then he would call back and said [sic] that he left town for a couple of months and then he would start up again." After respondent failed to make contact in December 2012, she determined that he had been incarcerated again.

In accordance with departmental procedures, Ms. Mohammed prepared three case plans for respondent with a goal of reunifying him with Jah-nell. The first case plan prepared for respondent was dated May 17, 2010; the second plan was dated January 1, 2011; and the third plan was dated October 13, 2011. The core objectives provided in respondent's case plans included: " Complete a parent-child evaluation, maintain employment so he could save money to obtain a two-bedroom apartment for he [sic] and his son, complete a substance-abuse evaluation, cooperate with conditions of parole and probation, [and] complete services with Early Intervention." She further testified that in October 2011 respondent eventually completed a ...

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