Where a mother made significant progress to maintain her sobriety after her children were placed in foster care, but she held approximately 10 different jobs over a two-year period and was unable to demonstrate her ability to maintain a permanent and stable household, her parental rights were properly terminated.
Meghan Johnson and William Ramey are the parents of three children. In April 2016, Johnson contacted the Loudoun County Department of Family Services, or DFS, because the family was homeless. The children were placed in temporary care for three weeks as a DFS caseworker, Debbie Bennett, helped Johnson find a place to live.
On July 9, 2016, a police officer discovered drug paraphernalia at the apartment. A DFS caseworker created a safety plan in which Johnson agreed not to allow Ramey in the home, but he was there when Bennett visited the apartment on Aug. 3, 2016. The family was evicted in August 2016, and DFS arranged another three-week placement for the children. When Johnson and Ramey did not return by the end of the placement, the Loudoun County Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court, entered an emergency removal order placing the children in foster care.
In February 2017, Johnson was evaluated by a substance abuse services supervisor who recommended that she complete an outpatient program. On Feb. 14, 2017, Johnson attended the first meeting of a 14-week program but did not return. After testing positive for cocaine in March 2017, she began another session on May 23, 2017 and attended eight of the 14 meetings.
On May 31, 2017, Johnson met with a therapist at the Laurel Center Intervention for Domestic and Sexual Violence. She did not appear for any of the three scheduled follow-up appointments. In September 2017, Johnson was evicted from another apartment for failing to pay rent and tested positive for cocaine.
In March 2018, Johnson entered the ARK, a sober-living home in West Virginia. On March 16, 2018, DFS filed petitions in JDR court for termination of Johnson and Ramey’s residual parental rights and for a permanency planning hearing with the goal of adoption. Following a hearing on April 12, 2018, the JDR court entered orders terminating both parents’ residual parental rights and approving the permanency plan. Johnson appealed to the Loudoun County Circuit Court. In May 2018, Johnson moved to the Oxford House, a sober-living residence for women and children in West Virginia.
In September 2018, the circuit court conducted a de novo appeal of the JDR court’s ruling and determined that it was in the children’s best interest to terminate mother’s parental rights. This appeal followed.
Contrary to Johnson’s contentions, the circuit court did not disregard her more recent progress. Rather, the court’s findings plainly demonstrate that it considered her recent progress but found it insufficient to establish that she had substantially remedied the conditions that led to the children’s placement in foster care. Although Johnson had maintained sobriety for the nine months preceding the trial, she failed to demonstrate that she could remain sober outside of a sober-living residence. She also failed to complete the other reunification goals identified by DFS such as maintaining stable housing in a suitable environment for children, holding steady employment, and completing domestic violence counseling.
The court’s findings were supported by the evidence. The fact that Johnson had been evicted from two different apartments because she was unable to make rental payments, despite receiving help from DFS and the Laurel Center, supported the court’s conclusion that she could not maintain stable housing. In addition, her inability to hold steady employment was shown by the fact that she held approximately 10 different jobs between the date the children entered foster care in August 2016 and the trial before the circuit court.
Although the court acknowledged that Johnson might continue her progress in the future, the record demonstrated that it was not in the present best interest of the children to wait a significant period of time to find out when, or even if, she would be capable of resuming her responsibilities. As such, the court’s termination decision under Code § 16.1-283(C) was not plainly wrong or without evidence to support it.
Contrary to Johnson’s contentions, the court did not rely exclusively on her failure to use the services of DFS in determining the best interests of the children. While the court considered this factor, it also properly evaluated Johnson’s other efforts to eliminate the conditions leading to the children’s placement in foster care, including the alternative services she chose for herself in West Virginia.
Because the court did not err in terminating mother’s parental rights, it also did not err in approving the permanency goal of adoption.
Johnson v. Loudon County Department of Family Services, Record No. 1616-18-4, May 21, 2019. CAV (O’Brien), from Loudon Cir. Ct. (Irby). Heather S. Miller and Thomas S. Rock for Appellant; Leslie Barnes for Appellee. VLW 019-7-094. 16 pp. Unpublished.