from the Superior Court in Maricopa County The Honorable Cari
A. Harrison, Judge Nos. JS18287 JD30481
of the Court of Appeals, Division One 244 Ariz. 152 (App.
Clark Jones (argued), Law Office of H. Clark Jones, LLC,
Mesa, Attorney for Alma S.
Brnovich, Arizona Attorney General, Dominic E. Draye,
Solicitor General, Nicholas Chapman-Hushek (argued), Toni M.
Valadez, Assistant Attorneys General, Mesa, Attorneys for
Department of Child Safety
JUSTICE LOPEZ authored the opinion of the Court, in which
CHIEF JUSTICE BALES, VICE CHIEF JUSTICE BRUTINEL, and
JUSTICES PELANDER, TIMMER, and GOULD joined. JUSTICE BOLICK
concurred in the result.
This case concerns the inquiry juvenile courts must make to
determine whether parental severance is in the "best
interests of the child" for purposes of A.R.S. §
8-533(B). We hold that courts must consider the totality of
the circumstances existing at the time of the severance
determination, including the child's adoptability and the
Alma S. ("Mother") was involved in a relationship
with Esdras R. ("Father"). I.R. is the biological
child of Mother and Father, and J.R. is Mother's
biological child but not Father's. J.R.'s father
abused Mother during their previous relationship. Father also
routinely abused Mother and both children. Father, in May
2015, severely beat two-month-old I.R. while Mother was at
work. When Mother returned, she failed to take I.R. to the
hospital even though Father was absent for several hours.
Without Father's knowledge, I.R. was finally taken to the
hospital the next day by Mother's sister and cousin.
Hospital staff determined that I.R. had a healing rib
fracture, a right tibia fracture, a possible left femur
fracture (ultimately ruled out), and multiple bruises. The
staff also observed bruises on two-year-old J.R.
The Department of Child Safety ("DCS") subsequently
removed both children from Mother's home, and the
children were determined to be dependent. Over the next
eighteen months, DCS provided Mother and Father with an array
of services, including a parent aide, drug testing, and a
psychological evaluation. Mother's drug testing was
discontinued after she passed consecutive tests. However, the
psychologist who conducted Mother's evaluation diagnosed
her with mood and personality disorders, and multiple
substance abuse disorders in self-reported remission. He
noted Mother's "poor judgment" in choosing
abusive romantic partners and entrusting her children to
someone "significantly unfit" to care for them. He
concluded that Mother was unable to protect herself or the
children from abuse, that she lacked insight into the dangers
posed by abusive partners, that "[m]aintaining a
relationship, even when destructive, becomes more important
than the safety of [her] children," and that her future
parenting prospects were "poor at best."
Mother's DCS case manager agreed, concluding that Mother
was unable to protect the children.
In December 2015, DCS moved to terminate Mother's
parental rights to both children on the ground that she was
unable to protect them from abuse. See §
8-533(B)(2). Following a two-day evidentiary hearing in
November 2016, the juvenile court severed Mother's
parental rights. It inferred that Mother was aware that
Father caused I.R.'s injuries and did not report them or
seek medical care. It also noted that although Mother claimed
to have ended her relationship with Father, he had stated
otherwise to his therapist. The court then determined that
severance was in the best interests of the children because
their current out-of-home placements were meeting their
needs, the children were in an adoptive placement, and both
children would be "considered adoptable if the current
placement was not able to complete the adoption for any
reason." Mother appealed, challenging only the juvenile
court's best-interests finding.
The court of appeals vacated the juvenile court's order,
holding that "the record supporting the court's
best-interests determination is insubstantial." Alma
S. v. Dep't of Child Safety, 244 Ariz. 152, 155
¶ 1 (App. 2017). To terminate Mother's parental
rights, the court reasoned, DCS "must show that there is
a substantial likelihood that the parent will not be capable
of parenting effectively in the near future, not that someone
with better parenting skills may be able to care for the
child." Id. at 162 ¶ 36 (citing
Roberto F. v. Ariz. Dep't of Econ. Sec, 232
Ariz. 45, 53 ¶ 38 n.11 (App. 2013)). According to the
court of appeals, when parent-aide services demonstrate
"a parent's ability to parent the children,"
the parent and children have a bond, and the parent's
living situation is "safe and stable," "the
children's adoptability, household stability, and the
ability of their current placements to meet their needs are
subordinate to the fundamental rights of the parent in
determining best interests, unless severance removes a
detriment caused by the parental relationship."
Id. ¶ 38. Throughout its opinion, the court
stressed the importance of a parent's constitutional
right to raise her children. See, e.g., id. at 157
¶ 11, 158 ¶ 20, 163 ¶ 39.
The court of appeals conducted a detailed analysis of the
evidence presented to the juvenile court. In reaching its
holding, the court rejected the juvenile court's finding
that Mother and Father were still in a relationship,
id. at 158 ¶¶ 16-17, 160 ¶ 27, and
disagreed with the DCS case manager and the
psychologist's conclusion that Mother lacked the ability
to protect the children from abuse, id. at 158
¶¶ 19-20, 160 ¶¶ 25-27. Despite the
court's acknowledgement that the only issue on appeal was
the juvenile court's best-interests determination,
id. at 156 ¶ 7, it found that "it cannot
be inferred from this record that Mother is an unfit
parent," id. at 160 ¶ 24 (emphasis added).
We granted review to clarify the appropriate inquiry for a
best-interests analysis under § 8-533(B) - an issue of
statewide importance. We have jurisdiction under article 6,
section 5(3) of the Arizona Constitution and A.R.S. §
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