Court of Appeals of Missouri, Eastern District, First Division
S.S.S., L.W.V. & M.T.S-V., Respondents,
from the Circuit Court of the City of St. Louis 1422-JU00675
Honorable David C. Mason.
P. Page, Judge.
father, C.V.S. ("Father"), appeals from a decree of
adoption in favor of biological mother, M.T.S.-V.
("Mother") and her husband, L.W.V.
("Step-Father"). We reverse and remand with
2007, Mother and Father,  both approximately 18 years-old, began
a romantic relationship while residing in the State of
California. In April 2009, as a result of this relationship,
S.S.S. ("Daughter") was born. At her birth, Father
was identified on Daughter's birth certificate as her
approximately February 2010, Mother terminated her romantic
relationship with Father and immediately relocated with
Daughter to St. Louis, nearly 1700 miles east, where they
continue to reside. Father remained in California and
currently resides near the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area.
married Step-Father in December 2013. Mother, Daughter, and
Step-Father began and continue to live together as a family
unit. Then, on December 23, 2014, Mother and Step-Father
filed a Petition for Termination of Parental Rights and for
Adoption ("Petition") in the Circuit Court of the
City of St. Louis. The Petition alleged Father had willfully
abandoned and willfully neglected Daughter for a period of at
least six months prior to the filing of the Petition,
pursuant to Chapter 453. Father denied the
uncontroverted evidence presented at trial reflects that in
the six months prior to December 23, 2014, Father traveled
from California to St. Louis, three or four different times,
to visit with Daughter. During each weekend-long trip to St.
Louis, Father visited with Daughter between three and five
hours each day. Mother required Father's visits with
Daughter be closely supervised in a public location.
Moreover, over the course of the same six-month period, it
was not disputed that Father called Daughter on the telephone
at least three times a week. Additionally, Mother testified
that Father loves Daughter, and Daughter loves Father.
the evidence adduced during trial revealed Father, personally
or through his mother ("Grandmother"), provided
financial support to Mother for their Daughter. From June 23,
2014 to December 23, 2014, Mother received at least
$1600 in financial support from Father or Grandmother.
Several times throughout her testimony, Mother characterizes
this financial support as child support.
the filing of the Petition, an investigation as to the
suitability of the adoptive home was conducted and a guardian
ad litem ("GAL") was appointed. Both
recommended the proposed adoption would serve Daughter's
best interest. Ultimately, the trial court concurred
and found, inter alia, Father had both willfully
abandoned and willfully neglected Daughter for a period of at
least six months immediately prior to the filing of the
Petition and found it was in the best interest of Daughter
the adoption be approved ("Judgment").
now appeals. Additional facts will be provided as needed
throughout our analysis of the points presented by
advances two points on appeal. In both points, Father
contends the trial court erred in terminating Father's
parental rights because there existed no substantial evidence
to support the Judgment and the Judgment was against the
in his first point on appeal, Father maintains Mother and
Step-Father failed to prove by clear, cogent, and convincing
evidence Father willfully abandoned Daughter for a period of
at least six months prior to the filing of the Petition.
Similarly, in his second point on appeal, Father avers Mother
and Step-Father failed to prove by clear, cogent, and
convincing evidence Father willfully neglected Daughter for a
period of at least six months prior to the filing of the
Petition. We agree.
court reviews the judgment of the trial court under the
standard of review applicable to any other court-tried case.
The judgment will be affirmed unless it is not supported by
substantial evidence, it is against the weight of the
evidence, or it erroneously declares or applies the law.
Murphy v. Carron, 536 S.W.2d 30, 32 (Mo. banc 1976).
We will defer to the trial court's determination of
credibility, and we review the evidence and permissible
inferences in the light most favorable to the trial
court's judgment. G.E.R. v. B.R., 441 S.W.3d
190, 195 (Mo. App. W.D. 2014). "The judgment will be
reversed only if this court is left with a firm belief that
the order is wrong." Id.
court is cognizant of our limited scope of review; however,
our confidence in the trial court's Judgment is gravely
diminished because in adjudicating this matter, the trial
court elected to adopt, verbatim, the Proposed
Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law submitted by Mother
and Step-Father. In re K.A.W., 133 S.W.3d 1, 12 (Mo.
banc 2004) ("[W]hen reviewing a trial court's
termination of parental rights, appellate courts must examine
the trial court's findings of fact and conclusions of law
practice may not be erroneous, per se, but our
appellate courts have repeatedly chastised our trial courts
for adopting, verbatim, proposed judgments. Neal v.
Neal, 281 S.W.3d 330, 337 (Mo. App. E.D. 2009).
"[W]hen a court adopts in its entirety the proposed
findings of fact and conclusions of law of one of the
parties, there may be a problem with the appearance . . .
[because t]he judiciary is not and should not be a
rubber-stamp for anyone." State v. Griffin, 848
S.W.2d 464, 471 (Mo. banc 1993); see also Brinkley v.
Brinkley, 725 S.W.2d 910, 911 n.2 (Mo. App. E.D. 1987)
("Even the most conscientious advocate cannot reasonably
be expected to prepare a document which would reflect
precisely the trial court's view of the evidence.").
these grave concerns, we heed our standard of review and
afford the Judgment of the trial court the requisite
deference. The Judgment of the trial court explicitly found
the testimony and evidence of Father not to be credible and
the testimonies and evidence of Mother and Step-Father to be
credible. Thus, this court grants all reasonable inferences
in favor of the Judgment. In re Adoption of K.L.G.,
639 S.W.2d 619, 623 (Mo. App. S.D. 1982) ("[T]his court
must give due regard to ...