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Department of Children and Families v. K.W.

Florida Court of Appeals, First District

July 10, 2019

Department of Children and Families and the Guardian ad Litem Program, Appellants,
v.
K.W., Mother of A.C. and C.S., Minor Children, Appellee.

         Not final until disposition of any timely and authorized motion under Fla. R. App. P. 9.330 or 9.331.

          On appeal from the Circuit Court for Leon County. Jonathan Sjostrom, Judge.

          Sarah J. Rumph and Laura Battaglia of Children's Legal Services, Tallahassee, for Appellant Department of Children and Families.

          Thomasina F. Moore, Sara Goldfarb, and Richard Paul Gillis of the Guardian ad Litem Program, Tallahassee, for Appellant the Guardian ad Litem Program.

          Crystal M. Frusciante of Frusciante Law Firm, P.A., Sunrise; Anne Marie Perine, Assistant Regional Conflict Counsel, Tallahassee, for Appellee.

          PER CURIAM.

         In this appeal, the Department of Children and Families (the Department) and the Guardian Ad Litem Program (the GAL) challenge the trial court's denial of the petition to terminate the parental rights (TPR) of the mother, K.W. The appellants argue the trial court's determination that TPR was not in the manifest best interests of the children was not supported by competent, substantial evidence. We agree and reverse.

         In 2017, the Department removed the mother's two young children, A.C. and C.S., from her care due to a suspicious burn on C.S.'s leg. The children were placed with the great-grandmother, B.B. The mother consented to dependency of the children who remained in the great-grandmother's care throughout this case. In 2018, the Department filed a TPR petition as to the mother and the two fathers.[1]

         At the TPR hearing, the evidence supported the trial court's finding there was "no way to dispute" the overwhelming evidence for terminating the mother's parental rights under section 39.806(1)(e)1., Florida Statutes (2018). However, the trial court determined TPR was not in the manifest best interests of the children and denied the petition. The appellants argue that the trial court incorrectly applied the law regarding manifest best interests and its denial must be reversed because it was not supported by competent, substantial evidence. We agree.

         There are three requirements to TPR. First, the Department must prove one of the statutory grounds under section 39.806, Florida Statutes. Second, the Department must show that TPR is in the children's manifest best interests. Third, TPR must meet the least restrictive means test. See J.P. v. Fla. Dep't of Children & Families, 183 So.3d 1198, 1203 (Fla. 1st DCA 2016) (quoting N.L. v. Dep't of Children & Family Servs., 843 So.2d 996, 1000 (Fla. 1st DCA 2003)). The Department's burden of proof is by clear and convincing evidence. W.W. v. Dep't of Children & Families, 218 So.3d 490, 493 (Fla. 1st DCA 2017) (citing A.H. v. Dep't of Children & Families, 144 So.3d 662, 665 (Fla. 1st DCA 2014)). On appeal, the appellate court looks to whether competent, substantial evidence supports the trial court's final judgment, but the appellate court's role is not to reweigh the evidence heard by the trial court. J.P., 183 So.3d at 1203. Reversal of an order denying a TPR petition is appropriate where denial is not supported by competent, substantial evidence and is not in the children's best interests. Dep't of Children & Families v. K.F., 916 So.2d 948, 949 (Fla. 4th DCA 2005) (citing Dep't of Children & Families v. A.D., 904 So.2d 480, 482 (Fla. 1st DCA 2005)).

         We agree with the trial court that clear and convincing evidence supported TPR of the mother's rights under section 39.806(1)(e)1. However, we disagree with the trial court's determination that TPR was not in the children's manifest best interests.

         Manifest best interests are addressed in section 39.810, Florida Statutes (2018), which provides:

In a hearing on a petition for termination of parental rights, the court shall consider the manifest best interests of the child. This consideration shall not include a comparison between the attributes of the parents and those of any persons providing a present or potential placement for the child. For the purpose of determining the manifest best interests of the child, the court shall consider and evaluate all relevant factors[.]

         The statute provides a non-exhaustive list of eleven factors the trial court should consider. The ...


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