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I.T. v. Department of Children and Families

Florida Court of Appeals, Third District

June 26, 2019

I.T., the Mother, Appellant,
v.
Department of Children and Families, et al., Appellees.

         Not final until disposition of timely filed motion for rehearing.

          An appeal from the Circuit Court for Miami-Dade County No. 15-16216, Rosa C. Figarola, Judge.

          Law Office of Richard F. Joyce, P.A., and Richard F. Joyce, for appellant.

          Karla Perkins, for appellee the Department of Children and Families; Thomasina Moore, and Laura J. Lee (Tallahassee), for appellee the Guardian ad Litem Program.

          Before SCALES, HENDON, and MILLER, JJ.

          MILLER, J.

         The mother, I.T., challenges two final judgments, contending that the Department of Children and Families ("the Department") failed to present clear and convincing evidence to support the termination of her parental rights as to four of her five children, N.S., C.S., D.M.T., and I.A.V. We agree and reverse.[1]

         FACTS

         After a sibling was discovered with a bruise on her face, N.S., C.S., and D.M.T. were sheltered.[2] The Department alleged the mother struck the sibling, causing the bruise on the child, and further alleged that the child was engaging in a pattern of absenteeism from school and exhibiting poor academic performance. Further investigation revealed that the mother had left her children in the care of relatives and friends on a periodic basis.

         N.S., C.S., and D.M.T. were placed in the custody of relatives and, on May 16, 2016, were adjudicated dependent, pursuant to a consent decree. The mother was offered a case plan with a stated primary goal of reunification. The case plan required that the mother attend parenting classes, instruction for non-offending parents of sexually abused children, [3] substance abuse treatment, [4] trauma-informed individual therapy, dyadic therapy, and visitation, and maintain stable housing and employment. The court accepted the case plan, and ordered the mother to undergo a psychological evaluation to address her specific treatment needs. Shortly thereafter, the mother became pregnant with I.A.V. Immediately after I.A.V. was born, she too was sheltered, based upon a finding of probable cause that she was at risk of harm due to the purported abuse of her sibling. I.A.V. was placed in medical foster care and was also adjudicated dependent.

         In October 2016, the mother submitted to the court-ordered psychological evaluation. The evaluating psychologist, Michael DiTomasso, Ph.D., diagnosed her with low intellectual functioning and possible bipolar disorder, although she was asymptomatic. Relying upon past behavioral patterns and developmental challenges, the psychologist further indicated her prognosis for responding to services was "low."

          The mother began experiencing financial problems and sought to pay a reduced amount for the court-ordered therapy. The trial court entered an order requiring a "sliding scale" for payment and the completion of a "fee agreement."

         With the exception of some dyadic therapy sessions, the mother saw through all designated treatment. In early 2017, in recognition of the mother's progress in complying with the assigned therapy, the trial court converted her therapeutic visitation with the children to supervised visitation.[5] By the end of the same year, the mother had duly attended forty-eight individual therapy sessions and exhibited improvement after undergoing several dyadic therapy sessions. On all accounts, she was successfully progressing with her required case plan.

         In 2018, the mother lost her employment and was served with an eviction notice. Despite reasonable efforts, she was unable to obtain local employment that was sufficiently remunerative to allow her to satisfy monthly rent for a housing unit that would accommodate the children. She initially concealed her dire financial situation from the Department, but eventually requested assistance. Her case manager did not make temporary emergency arrangements, but instead provided her with a list of homeless shelters. Upon inquiry at the shelters, she was informed the shelters were at full capacity. The mother expended efforts to exercise court-ordered supervised visitation, however, the geographic placement of the children, along with restrictions on telephonic contact and hours of visitation, imposed by the caregivers, impeded consistent contact.

         Without informing the children, the mother relocated to North Carolina, and began working for a division of Goodwill Industries International, Inc.[6] The ensuing wages she earned were woefully insufficient to propel her above the federal poverty level. After less than two months, she again relocated, this time to Kentucky, to accept an employment offer at Amazon. There, she would earn a significantly higher salary. The mother moved into the home of her brother and sister-in-law and began paying an affordable rent. In Kentucky, the mother's attempts at maintaining telephonic ...


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