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S.S.S. v. C.V.S.

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Eastern District, First Division

January 31, 2017

S.S.S., L.W.V. & M.T.S-V., Respondents,
v.
C.V.S., Appellant.

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of the City of St. Louis 1422-JU00675 Honorable David C. Mason.

          Lisa P. Page, Judge.

         Biological 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 instructions.

         BACKGROUND

         In 2007, Mother and Father, [1] 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 father.

         In 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.

         Mother 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 same.[2]

         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.

         Likewise, 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.

         After 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").

         Father now appeals. Additional facts will be provided as needed throughout our analysis of the points presented by Father's appeal.

         DISCUSSION

         Father 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 evidence.[3]

         Specifically, 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.

         Standard of Review

         This 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.

         Analysis

         This 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 closely.").

         This 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.").

         Notwithstanding 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 ...


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