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Seth M. v. Arienne M.

Court of Appeals of Arizona, First Division

September 6, 2018

SETH M., Appellant,
v.
ARIENNE M., J.M., E.M., Appellees.

          Appeal from the Superior Court in Navajo County No. S0900SV201700016 The Honorable Michala M. Ruechel, Judge.

          Bearnson & Caldwell, LLC, Cave Creek By Wayne K. Caldwell Counsel for Appellant

          Riggs, Ellsworth & Porter, PLC, Show Low By Michael R. Ellsworth, Joshua G. Crandell Counsel for Appellees

          Judge Jennifer M. Perkins delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Presiding Judge Randall M. Howe and Judge Peter B. Swann joined.

          OPINION

          PERKINS, Judge.

         ¶1 Seth M. ("Father") appeals the termination of his parental rights to the two minor children ("the Children") he has in common with Arienne M. ("Mother"). The juvenile court terminated Father's parental rights to the Children after Mother filed a petition for termination under Arizona Revised Statutes ("A.R.S.") section 8-533(B)(2) and (B)(4) (2018). Father's admitted sexual abuse of his stepdaughter constitutes willful abuse of a child under § 8-533(B)(2), a statutory ground supporting termination of Father's parental rights to the Children. Further, the removal of detriments to the Children, including instability and safety concerns, supports a finding that termination is in the Children's best interests. We thus affirm the juvenile court's termination ruling.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         ¶2 Father and Mother married in 2012 and lived in Utah. Mother's four children from a prior marriage lived with them. The parties had the Children involved in this severance action after they were married.

         ¶3 In January 2016, Father twice climbed into the bed of his twelve-year-old stepdaughter ("Stepdaughter") and rubbed her breasts when he thought she was asleep. Father confessed to abusing Stepdaughter in June 2016, after initially denying it. Soon after, Mother moved with all of her children to Snowflake, Arizona. Father has not seen the Children since that time and has had no contact with the Children since January 2017.

         ¶4 In February 2017, a Utah court convicted Father of sexual abuse of a child, a class 2 felony. Later that year, Mother filed for divorce and filed a petition to terminate Father's rights to the Children. Father then was released from jail on probation, which prohibited him from having contact with any person under the age of eighteen, but this restriction could be lifted at the discretion of Father's probation officer. At the time of termination, Father's probation officer had not approved contact with any minors.

         ¶5 The juvenile court terminated Father's rights on two grounds: first, "Father has neglected or willfully abused a child and this abuse has caused serious emotional injury to the child"; second, "Father has been deprived of civil liberties due to the conviction of a felony which is of such nature as to prove the unfitness of Father to have future custody and control of the [C]hildren." It also found that termination was in the Children's best interests because termination would remove the detriments of instability and safety concerns, and a stepparent adoption would be available to the Children in the foreseeable future, which provides the Children a benefit.

         ¶6 On appeal, Father challenges the statutory grounds for termination. He argues that because Mother did not sufficiently prove emotional harm, there was insufficient evidence to support a finding of abuse and that the crime for which he was convicted is not a type that proves parental unfitness. He also argues that the juvenile court erred in terminating his parental rights because the Children are not immediately adoptable.

         DISCUSSION

         ¶7 The issue before us is whether Father's admitted sexual abuse of Stepdaughter supports a statutory ground for termination based on the plain language of § 8-533(B)(2). "[W]e review de novo legal issues requiring the interpretation and application of A.R.S. § 8-533." Mary Lou C. v. Ariz. Dep't of Econ. Sec,207 Ariz. 43, 47, ΒΆ 9 (App. 2004). We will accept the juvenile court's factual findings supporting the severance ...


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