Court of Appeals of Missouri, Southern District, First Division
IN THE INTEREST OF A.F.W.
C.B.W., Respondent. M.D.H., Appellant,
FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF NEWTON COUNTY Honorable James
W. LYNCH, J.
("Father") appeals from the judgment in an adoption
proceeding terminating his parental rights to his daughter,
A.F.W. ("Child"), on the statutory grounds of
abandonment, neglect, failure to rectify, and parental
unfitness. See section 211.447.5(1)-(3),
He raises seven points on appeal challenging the trial
court's factual findings in support of each of those
statutory grounds for termination. Finding no merit in
Father's first two points related to the abandonment
ground and that resolution of those points is dispositive of
this appeal, we affirm the trial court's judgment.
Factual and Procedural Background
was born in July of 2012. As part of a September 23, 2013
paternity decree, S.M.W. ("Mother") was awarded
legal and physical custody of Child and Father was assigned a
child support obligation, which was ultimately garnished from
his monthly Social Security disability checks. From her birth
until August of 2015, Father was not involved in Child's
2, 2015, Child was discovered walking unsupervised down a
street and was taken into protective custody. The
Children's Division of the State of Missouri's
Department of Social Services contacted Father, who allowed a
visit by a case worker in his home on August 19, 2015. Father
then participated in a family support team meeting on August
26, 2015. Father refused to enter into a social service plan,
although one was made available to him. Thereafter, Father
did not return phone calls from the Children's Division
and ceased all engagement for over 14 months until November
10, 2016. During this period of time, Child was in foster
care with C.W.B. ("Respondent"), and on August 15,
2016, a permanency order was entered changing the case goal
from reunification to termination of parental rights and
and almost three months after the case goal had changed to
termination of parental rights and adoption, on November 10,
2016, Father responded to a letter from Ms. Katie Groce, a
foster care case manager, and, thereafter, maintained some
engagement with the Children's Division regarding Child.
On December 8, 2016, Respondent filed her petition to
terminate Father's and Mother's parental rights and
to transfer the custody of and adopt Child.
March 26, 2017, before trial on Respondent's petition,
Father and Child met for the first time as part of a
supervised visitation. During their visitation, Father was
unable to meaningfully engage with Child without the
assistance of Ms. Karla Bunch, who then served as Child's
counselor. Child later expressed to Ms. Bunch that she did
not want to see Father because she was afraid of being taken
away from Respondent. Child had no bond or emotional
attachment to Father.
received a parenting psychological evaluation on May 25,
2017. Dr. Blake Webster, who conducted the evaluation,
diagnosed Father with schizo affective disorder. Based upon
this diagnosis and a parenting assessment, Dr. Webster opined
that Father did not have the ability to act as the sole
caretaker for a child.
trial was held on Respondent's petition on June 30, 3017,
during which Respondent and Father presented
evidence. The trial court ultimately granted
Respondent's petition, concluding the evidence supported
the statutory termination grounds of abandonment, neglect,
failure to rectify, and parental unfitness and that
termination was in Child's best interests.
abandonment, the trial court found that Father
"demonstrated an intent to abandon [Child]";
"[F]ather made no meaningful effort to visit or
communicate with [Child] from the time of [Child]'s birth
until [Child] came into foster care in July of 2015";
the only evidence of support was child support payments
garnished from Father's Social Security disability checks
and that this "was not a voluntary act by the [F]ather,
and thus does not demonstrate any intent by the [F]ather to
maintain a relationship with [Child]"; "[F]ather
met with the caseworker a few times immediately upon [Child]
entering foster care, [but] the Court gives no weight to said
period of limited interest in [Child]"; "[F]ather
has maintained contact with his caseworker since November
2016, and made efforts to comply with a social service plan,
[but] said efforts have come largely after the filing of the
Petition for Adoption of [Child], and the Court gives said
efforts little weight"; and "said efforts and
contributions made by [Father] since November of 2016 [were]
token." The trial court concluded that
"[F]ather, without good cause, left [Child] without any
provision for parental support and without making
arrangements to visit or communicate with [Child], although
able to do so, and has willfully abandoned [Child]."
Principles of Review
Termination of parental rights (TPR) is a two-step process.
First, a trial court must find by clear, cogent, and
convincing evidence at least one § 211.447 ground for
termination. Adoption of C.M.B.R., 332 S.W.3d 793,
815 (Mo. banc 2011).[ This "clear, cogent, and
convincing" standard is said to be met if the scales
instantly tilt toward termination when the factfinder weighs
the evidence pro and con. Id. at 815.
An appellate court reviews whether clear, cogent, and
convincing evidence supports termination under Murphy v.
Carron, 536 S.W.2d 30 (Mo. banc 1976).
C.M.B.R., 332 S.W.3d at 815. "Therefore, the
trial court's judgment will be affirmed unless there is
no substantial evidence to support it, it is against the
weight of the evidence, or it erroneously declares or applies
the law." Id. (citing Murphy, 536
S.W.2d at 32). Only one statutory termination ground is
needed to sustain the judgment. Id. at 816 n.17.
In re Interest of Z.L.G., 531 S.W.3d 653, 655-56
(Mo.App. 2017). "'Conflicting evidence will be
reviewed in the light most favorable to the trial court's
judgment. Appellate courts will defer to the trial
court's credibility assessments. When the evidence poses
two reasonable but different inferences, this Court is
obligated to defer to the trial court's assessment of the
evidence.'" In re Interest of J.P.B., 509
S.W.3d 84, 90 (Mo. banc 2017) (quoting J.A.R. v.
D.G.R., 426 S.W.3d 624, 626 (Mo. banc 2014)).
In reviewing questions of fact, the reviewing court is to
recognize that the circuit court is free to disbelieve any,
all, or none of the evidence, and it is not the reviewing
appellate court's role to re-evaluate the evidence
through its own perspective. The trial court receives
deference on factual issues because it is in a better
position not only to judge the credibility of the witnesses
and the persons directly, but also ...