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In re R.D.M.

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Eastern District, Fourth Division

June 4, 2019

IN THE INTEREST OF: R.D.M.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of the City of St. Louis Honorable Robin Ransom

          KURT S. ODENWALD, PRESIDING JUDGE

         Introduction

         Ronald Mottley ("Father") appeals from the trial court's judgment terminating his parental rights over R.D.M. ("Child"). In his sole point on appeal, Father argues that the trial court erred in terminating his parental rights because Father did not voluntarily or intentionally relinquish custody of or contact with Child. Because we find Father abandoned Child under Section 211.447.5, [1] the trial court did not err in terminating Father's parental rights over Child. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the trial court.

         Factual and Procedural History

         In 2016, the United States charged Father, a repeat offender, with the crime of felon in possession of a firearm. Father pleaded guilty and was sentenced to thirty-eight months in prison followed by two years of supervised release. Father anticipated release from prison on August 16, 2018. At that time, Father intended to live in a halfway house in St. Louis and then to reside with his sister. Father is Child's acknowledged and biological parent.

         On August 2, 2016, the Children's Division of the Missouri Department of Social Services (the "Children's Division") took legal custody of Child-two years old at the time- after Child's mother left Child and Child's sibling alone for eight days without adult supervision. Between 2016 and 2018, Child and Child's sibling relocated multiple times within the foster-care system. Child indicated to the Children's Division worker that she had no emotional connection with Father.

         The Children's Division sent Father three written letters explaining his rights as a parent, and detailing how to contact Child and the Children's Division during his incarceration. With each letter, the Children's Division included at least one self-addressed envelope for Father's return response.[2] Although Child was in foster care over two years, Father only wrote her one letter. In the attached letter to the Children's Division, Father expressed his desire to keep Child and suggested splitting Child from her sibling. Father also provided the Children's Division with his mother's and sister's contact information for possible foster placement for Child. While in prison, Father completed a parenting class and a release-preparation program.

         Through no fault of Father, the paternity testing of Child took almost one year to complete. During that time Father expressed a desire for a personal visit with Child. The Children's Division did not facilitate visitation due to the incomplete paternity testing. Father did not formally request a visit with Child; he merely stated in the letter he wrote to the Children's Division that he would love to talk to Child or see her.

         The State petitioned the trial court to terminate both Father's and Child's mother's parental rights on November 17, 2017.[3] On April 26, 2018, the trial court held a hearing for termination of Father's parental rights. At the termination hearing, Father testified that he spoke with Child through family members and told the Children's Division of these conversations. Father stated that he earned approximately forty dollars per month in prison through various employment opportunities. During this time, Father admittedly did not provide Child with monetary support, clothing, food, or gifts. Father maintained that he stopped receiving the Children's Division's letters containing self-addressed envelopes after he was transferred to federal prison and thus experienced trouble in contacting Child.

         The trial court terminated Father's parental rights, finding that Father had abandoned Child. See Sections 211.444 RSMo (2016), 211.447.5(1). Specifically, the trial court found that Father had only sent one letter to Child and failed to provide Child with any gifts, clothing, food, financial support, or other supplies to provide for Child even though Father reported some income. Further, the trial court determined that Father's testimony was not believable regarding his alleged phone communication with Child. The trial court noted Father's desire to be Child's parent but found this desire did not overcome the abandonment finding. Further, the trial court remarked that Father failed to demonstrate that he has a relationship with Child or the ability, within the near future, to perform the duties of Child's parent. Father now appeals.

         Point on Appeal

         In his sole point on appeal, Father argues that the trial court erred in terminating his parental rights because the record does not support that Father's contact with Child ended voluntarily; thus, Father claims he did not abandon Child.

         Standard ...


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