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In re J.J.P.

Court of Appeals of Oklahoma, Division III

December 1, 2017

In the Matter of J.J.P. and J.L.P., Deprived Children:
v.
THE STATE OF OKLAHOMA, Appellee. ERIKA PRUIETT, Appellant, v.

          Mandate Issued: 01/03/2018

         APPEAL FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF OKLAHOMA COUNTY, OKLAHOMA HONORABLE LYDIA Y. GREEN, JUDGE AFFIRMED

          Bill Parker, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Mother/Appellant,

          Ambika Nagasandra, Assistant District Attorney, Oklahoma County, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for The State of Oklahoma/Appellee,

          Jennifer Douglas, Assistant Public Defender, Oklahoma County, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for the Minor Children/Appellee.

          Bay Mitchell, Presiding Judge

         ¶1 Appellant Erika Pruiett ("Mother"), the natural mother of minor children J.J.P., d.o.b. 10/12/2011, and J.L.P., d.o.b. 11/13/2012, (collectively "the Minor Children" or "Children"), appeals the judgment terminating her parental rights following a multi-day jury trial. Because our review of the record demonstrated the State proved its termination case with clear and convincing evidence, we AFFIRM the judgment of the trial court.

         PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         ¶2 Both of the Minor Children were removed from Mother's home in December 2012 when J.L.P., then approximately one-month old, suffered severe injuries. [1] The investigation into these injuries did not reveal who injured the child, but Mother and officials from law enforcement and the Department of Human Services ("DHS") suspected it was Mother's boyfriend at the time. A referral had previously been made to DHS at the time of J.L.P.'s birth due to Mother's statements that she felt like she might harm the child. Mother was later diagnosed with postpartum depression. Following a jury trial, both Children were adjudicated deprived by order entered September 3, 2014. Specifically, the order provided the Children were adjudicated based upon the lack of proper parental care and guardianship, physical abuse, and Mother's mental health. The jury declined to terminate Mother's parental rights at that time.

         ¶3 Following the deprived adjudication, Mother entered into an Individualized Service Plan ("ISP") on October 10, 2014. Mother worked through her plan which included parenting classes and other skills building programs. Mother progressed from supervised visitation, to unsupervised visitation, including extended overnight visits, and eventually to trial reunification which started June 9, 2016. During trial reunification, Mother reported to the permanency planning caseworker, Shelley Hughes, that the Minor Children were jumping on one of their twin beds when the bed slats broke and J.L.P. fell through the slats and hit his face. The fall left a scratch on J.L.P.'s face. This incident occurred sometime in mid-July 2016. During this same period of time, Mother underwent a tonsillectomy. The State's case highlighted Mother's apparent inability to make appropriate plans for the Children during her recovery from surgery. DHS offered to put the Children in respite care with the foster parents they had been with prior to trial reunification, but Mother declined. She told DHS that her sister and father could help with childcare, but neither family member was able to take time off work to help. Testimony was disputed as to whether DHS made it known to Mother that other options to help with childcare may have been available to her during her recovery including daycare. Mother was not employed at this time, so she did not believe DHS subsidized daycare was available to her.

         ¶4 Shortly after the bed incident, Ms. Hughes took J.L.P. to an appointment with his physical therapist where the therapist reported to Ms. Hughes that J.L.P. disclosed that he got the scratch on his face because Mother hit him with her cell phone. [2] Following that disclosure, Ms. Hughes took J.L.P. to The Children's Hospital in Oklahoma City where a pediatric child abuse specialist, Dr. Ryan Brown, examined him. When Dr. Brown asked J.L.P. how he got the scratch, J.L.P. again disclosed that Mother hit him with her cell phone and used Dr. Brown's cell phone to demonstrate. Dr. Brown's physical examination of J.L.P. also revealed that J.L.P. had bruising on the fleshiest part of his buttocks which Dr. Brown testified was consistent with the child being spanked beyond normal discipline. Following his examination, Dr. Brown drafted a memo to DHS which stated he thought the scratch on J.L.P.'s face and bruising to his buttocks were the results of child abuse. J.L.P. was returned to Mother's home, and both of the Minor Children remained in Mother's care at that time.

         ¶5 In response to Dr, Brown's referral, DHS sent a Child Protective Services ("CPS") caseworker, Jasmine Small, to check on both Children. Ms. Small testified at trial that her initial interaction with the family did not reveal any concerns or show that the Minor Children were threatened with immediate harm. DHS did not remove the Children at that time but scheduled forensic interviews. At that point, Mallory Hulsey took over the investigation. Ms. Hulsey was of the opinion that J.L.P's injuries could not have been caused by falling through the bed slats. Ms. Hulsey testified that J.L.P. revealed during his forensic interview that Mother used a brown belt to hit the siblings. She also testified that J.L.P. used profanity not normally used by such young children to describe Mother's disciplinary actions against the siblings. J.L.P. made consistent disclosures to the children's therapist and Ms. Hughes using the same profanity. During his forensic interview, the older sibling, J.J.P., also made similar disclosures using the same profane language and specifically mentioned the brown belt. Following the disclosures by the Children, DHS changed its goal for the family from reunification to termination. On September 20, 2016, the State filed its Third Amended Petition where it sought to terminate Mother's parental rights to both Children based on 10A O.S.Supp. 2015 §§ 1-4-904(B)(5) (failure to correct conditions) and (B)(10) (subsequent abuse). Specifically, the State alleged Mother failed to correct the conditions of lack of appropriate parental care and guardianship, physical abuse, and Mother's mental health.

         ¶6 In addition to the evidence and testimony discussed above, the Children's therapist, Shar'dae Lewis, also testified that both Minor Children made consistent disclosures of physical abuse at the hands of Mother or her father (their grandfather) and also expressed that they were afraid of Mother. Ms. Lewis testified that J.L.P. cried when he made his disclosures and that J.J.P. described being spanked repeatedly. J.J.P. would throw objects and pound his fists while he made these disclosures to Ms. Lewis.

         ¶7 During the course of this case, the trial court also appointed two guardians ad litem ("GAL") to represent the best interests of the Minor Children. At trial one GAL, LeAnne Burnett, testified about her interactions with the Children. Based upon her interactions with the Children and her understanding of their extreme reluctance to continue visitations with Mother after the bed incident and the disclosures of abuse by Mother, Ms. Burnett filed a motion with the trial court to suspend Mother's supervised visitations until a decision was reached on Mother's parental rights. She specifically recounted one instance where she went to visit the Children at the foster parents' home. Previously, all of her visitations with the Minor Children had been at Mother's house. When she arrived at the foster parents' home, J.L.P. greeted her with a statement that he did not ...


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