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Geouge v. Traylor

Court of Appeals of Virginia

December 27, 2017



          Anne L. Roddy (FloranceGordonBrown, on brief), for appellant.

          Colleen M. Quinn (Kati K. Dean; Rick Friedman; M. Brooke Teefey, Guardian ad litem for the minor child; Locke & Quinn, PLC; Friedman Law Firm, P.C., on brief), for appellees.

          Present: Judges Chafin, Russell and AtLee Argued at Richmond, Virginia



         In this consolidated appeal, Jocelyn Lee Geouge, biological mother of L.T., challenges two orders of the Powhatan County Circuit Court relating to the placement of L.T. by the child's biological father, Jason Traylor, with Dustin and Tiffany Griffith ("appellees")[1] for their adoption of L.T. Geouge contends the first order erred in ruling, among other things, that the Indian Child Welfare Act ("ICWA" or "the Act") did not apply to the proceedings, that Geouge withheld her consent to the placement and adoption of L.T. contrary to the child's best interests, and that legal and physical custody of L.T. would be granted to appellees. Geouge further appeals the subsequent final order of adoption granting appellees' petition for adoption of L.T. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.


         Because the circuit court heard evidence ore tenus, its factual findings are "entitled to the same weight accorded a jury verdict[] and . . . will not be disturbed on appeal unless plainly wrong or without evidence to support" them. Bristol Dep't of Soc. Servs. v. Welch, 64 Va.App. 34, 44, 764 S.E.2d 284, 289 (2014) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Moreover, we review the facts in the light most favorable to appellees, granting them all reasonable inferences that can be drawn from the evidence, because they were the prevailing parties below. See Farley v. Farley, 9 Va.App. 326, 328, 387 S.E.2d 794, 795 (1990). Thus, we must disregard any evidence that conflicts with appellees' evidence. See Garst v. Obenchain, 196 Va. 664, 668, 85 S.E.2d 207, 210 (1955).

         So viewed, the evidence establishes that Geouge is the biological mother of L.T., the child who is the subject of this appeal, and four older children, three of whom she shares with Traylor. Geouge was convicted of prescription fraud in late 2013, resulting in a three-year suspended sentence. In March 2014, Geouge again was convicted of prescription fraud. Geouge was sentenced to five years incarceration in the Department of Corrections, with all five years suspended for ten years, conditioned on good behavior. Geouge subsequently was convicted of breaking and entering, several counts of larceny, and illegal possession of drugs, and in February 2015, was sentenced to a total of ten years and sixty months, but the sentencing court suspended all but one year and three months and granted credit for time served. On February 18, 2015, the corrections medical unit informed Geouge was pregnant.

         After her release, in June 2015, Geouge was convicted of obtaining drugs using a false name and identify theft to defraud. The court imposed a prison sentence, but suspended all but six months of that sentence.

         Based on these convictions, in June 2015, Geouge was found to be in violation of the terms of her suspended sentences. The sentencing court imposed portions of the suspended sentences associated with her prior convictions, but resuspended all but six months of the sentences. In light of her high-risk pregnancy, Geouge was placed on house arrest in July 2015, but she failed a drug screen in September and was reincarcerated, with a release date set for late January 2017.

         On October 17, 2015, while serving her sentence, Geouge gave birth to L.T. Although the Fluvanna Department of Social Services ("DSS" or "the Department") had tried to work with Geouge to find an appropriate placement prior to L.T.'s birth, when L.T. was discharged from the hospital on October 20, 2015, she had no placement. As a result, L.T. was temporarily entrusted to the Department, who then placed her in a foster home. On October 23, 2015, Traylor informed the Department that he was willing to take the child and raise her with her brothers; he relayed plans that he had made, including his purchases of infant supplies. Because Traylor lived in Powhatan County, the case was transferred to its DSS. Powhatan DSS performed a background check, and, on October 28, 2015, L.T. was released to Traylor. The same day, Traylor unilaterally transferred physical custody of L.T. to appellees.

         On October 29, 2015, Powhatan DSS conducted a family partnership meeting to assist the family in identifying needs and services. Traylor was present, and Geouge participated via telephone. Geouge's aunt and grandmother and social workers from Powhatan and Fluvanna DSS and the Department of Corrections also participated. Geouge's addiction to pain medications was discussed. Despite appellees already having physical custody of L.T., Traylor represented that the prior night with L.T. had gone well and noted the availability of his family support system going forward. An action plan was adopted by which L.T. was to remain with Traylor, who was to remain in contact with Geouge, and visitation with Geouge was to be considered once L.T. had been issued a social security number.

         On November 2, 2015, Powhatan DSS performed a follow-up visit at Traylor's home to ascertain what services, if any, he might need. L.T. was not at the home; Traylor indicated that she was temporarily at a friend's house to allow him to sort out issues with the other children before she returned to the home. Traylor declined any services.

         Later in November 2015, Traylor, joined by appellees, filed in the Powhatan County Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court ("JDR court") a "Petition to Accept Consent for Adoption and Transfer Custody" whereby he requested the court to accept his consent for adoption, "accept the consent of [birth mother] or otherwise address her parental rights[, ] and transfer custody of [L.T.] to the [adoptive parents, appellees, ] to be responsible for the care of the child until such time as . . . the Final Order of Adoption is entered."

         On December 4, 2015, Geouge, pro se, filed a petition in the JDR court requesting that custody of L.T. be transferred to Geouge's mother or cousin. She further petitioned the court for visitation with her child. On the petitions, Geouge noted L.T.'s race as "Caucasian/Native American." L.T.'s maternal grandmother also filed a petition for visitation. Because Geouge was incarcerated, a guardian ad litem was appointed to represent her.[2] A separate guardian was appointed to represent L.T.'s interests.

         On January 27, 2016, the JDR court heard Geouge's petition for legal custody and visitation of L.T. Geouge sought weekly visitation to occur at the prison. By order dated March 9, 2016, the JDR court denied the petition. This order was not appealed.

         On March 18, 2016, appellees filed in the JDR court a petition for custody and visitation of L.T. On May 16, 2016, Geouge filed a motion to dismiss appellees' petition for custody, asserting that appellees lacked standing and already had custody.

         The JDR court conducted a hearing on June 1, 2016, and entered its order on July 6, 2016. The JDR court denied Geouge's motion to dismiss, found that the ICWA and the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act did not apply, [3] and accepted Traylor's consent. The JDR court further found that Geouge was objecting to the adoption contrary to L.T.'s best interests and waived the requirement that she consent. The court awarded custody of the child to appellees, "pursuant to their [p]etitions filed under Virginia Code [§] 63.2-1230, et seq."

         On July 13, 2016, Geouge appealed the JDR court's ruling to the circuit court for a trial de novo. Trial was set for December 15, 2016, but by motion filed September 27, 2016, Geouge sought to continue the matter until after her release from prison in January, "so that she may fully participate in her opposition to the petition." Appellees objected to a continuance, and a hearing on the motion was held on November 8, 2016. Geouge enumerated several ways in which her life circumstances would be changed upon her release from incarceration, including procurement of a driver's license, securing of housing, access to assets, and greater ability to find employment. In denying the motion, the court noted from the bench that Geouge "can present evidence of what her plan is when she gets out, and I can hear that and make a decision based on that. . . . I don't think this case can be dragged on indefinitely to see how [Geouge] does." By order dated the same day, the circuit court denied Geouge's motion to continue. On December 6, 2016, Geouge filed another motion to continue based on appellees' alleged failure to comply with discovery rules; the motion was withdrawn upon the parties reaching an agreement on the discovery issues.

         On December 12, 2016, Geouge filed a motion to stay the proceedings, claiming that Geouge's father was of Native American descent. She asserted that a stay was needed "to ensure compliance with the [Indian Child Welfare Act], if it applies" to allow for "sufficient time for appropriate Notice to the Tribes, as well as sufficient time for mother to investigate her ancestry to determine [her] status." Appellees opposed the stay.

         The matter proceeded to trial in the circuit court on December 15, 2016. At the outset of trial, Geouge raised the issue of the potential application of ICWA, asserting that Geouge's father was "known by the family to be of Cherokee descent, " but making no representation that either he or Geouge were members of a federally recognized Cherokee tribe. Dorothy Wilkins, who had shared a home with Geouge's father when they were growing up, later testified that the family believed that he was of Native American descent. Geouge's aunt, her father's sister, also testified that she understood from her parents that they were of Cherokee descent. Without objection, appellees provided the court with a copy of the Federal Register listing the three federally recognized Cherokee tribes and information regarding the requirements for membership in those tribes. The child's guardian ad litem concurred with Geouge's request for a continuance/stay, citing the potential for an overturning of the adoption in the future should a tribe determine the child is a member.

         In denying the stay, the circuit court determined that under ICWA, "the child must be a member of a federally recognized tribe, or the child must be eligible for membership and be the child of a member." The court then found that Geouge had "conceded that those requirements have not been met, because there's not proof that the child is a member or that the mother is a member." The court noted that "[i]t's just some vague assertion that there might be some Indian ancestry" and stated that "the burden of proof is on [Geouge] to show that ICWA does apply."

         After denying the stay, the court proceeded to address whether Geouge was withholding her consent to the adoption contrary to the best interests of L.T. The parties presented evidence over two days.

         Appellee Mrs. Griffith testified that she became aware of L.T. through her pastor. She noted that L.T. was eleven days old when she and her husband assumed custody of her, but that Traylor did not formally consent to the adoption until seven to ten days later. She denied making any payments to Traylor. She stated Geouge first attempted to call appellees in December 2015, but they were out of town. Geouge next reached out in January 2016, and again in April 2016, having about a twenty-minute phone conversation each time. Mrs. Griffith also testified regarding written correspondence, including her sending Geouge photographs of L.T. in March 2016. More pictures and an update were sent in November just after L.T.'s first birthday. With respect to bringing L.T. to the correctional facility to visit Geouge, Mrs. Griffith asserted her belief that the JDR court order denying Geouge's visitation petition prohibited such visitation.

         Mrs. Griffith testified about taking L.T. to regular doctors' appointments and commented that the child is "a very happy and healthy baby." She further described their usual activities, including playing cook, reading, taking walks, and occasional play dates. She also commented on the efforts she had made to allow interaction with Geouge's mother and to foster a continuing relationship between L.T., Traylor, and L.T.'s brothers. Citing consideration of the best interests of L.T., she neither agreed to nor ruled out potential interaction between L.T. and Geouge in the future.

         Traylor testified that he began his relationship with Geouge in 2006 and had custody of three sons that he shares with Geouge. He stated that he initially had planned on parenting L.T., but realized he would not be capable when also raising the other children. He noted behavioral issues with them, especially the eldest who had been admitted to a psychiatric facility.

         Traylor lived with Geouge until she was incarcerated. He testified to observing fentanyl patches, empty pill capsules, and liquor at the residence. He commented on the condition of Geouge's mother's house when they resided there, noting that it had rotted wood, missing bricks, and mold. He acknowledged that he could not say whether there had been improvements made after he moved out.

         Traylor described incidents of rage by Geouge, in which she yelled, swore, spat, and threw things, even when children were present. He stated that she once hit him in the back of his head with a skateboard and that "she did come after me with a knife on a few occasions." Traylor also asserted that Geouge inappropriately consumed cough syrup and had pawned some of the children's toys.

         Jeremiah Geouge, Geouge's ex-husband, also testified. They married in 1998 and separated five to six years later. They divorced in 2014 while Geouge was incarcerated. Together they had a son, born March 27, 2001, who is autistic. Geouge had custody of the son until July 2014 when custody was transferred to the ex-husband. Geouge was awarded visitation. According to the ex-husband, Geouge attempted to maintain regular communication with their son. The ex-husband testified that, minus some violent episodes, he thought Geouge was a good parent.

         Appellees called several witnesses to testify to their observations of Geouge's drug use and parenting. Katie Bredemeier, a friend through Geouge's ex-husband, testified to Geouge's attempt to use her name to procure oxycodone and Geouge's unlawful acquisition of her daughter's drugs. Bredemeier testified that prior to her drug problem, which began in 2013-14, Geouge took good care of her sons. Bredemeier said she had been approached about taking care of L.T., but was only interested if it would lead to full adoption.

         Lori Guthrie, who had known Geouge for sixteen years, acknowledged that she had given Geouge prescription drugs in the past. She relayed an incident regarding a neighbor whose daughter's medications went missing after Geouge had used the bathroom. Guthrie had been asked to take L.T., but could not due to her own family issues.

         Traylor's mother, Teresa Traylor, recounted calling the police when Geouge used her name to get prescription drugs from a dentist. She stated that Geouge started as a good mother, but then "things started happening." As the paternal grandmother, she assumed a lot of financial responsibility regarding the three boys. She commented that Geouge was "not a good parent for these children."

         Geouge called numerous witnesses to opine on her positive qualities as a parent. The witnesses included relatives and others in the community. They testified regarding their impressions of her relationships with her other children, her attempts at reforming her troublesome behaviors, and their abilities to serve as a support system for Geouge and her children upon her release from prison.

         Geouge also called multiple officials from the prison to testify. They testified that Geouge was behaving appropriately in prison, seemed eager to correct her past mistakes, expressed her desire to reunite with L.T., was working towards sobriety, and recognized that her actions had led to her current family situation. They testified that Geouge sought out classes, including a parenting class, designed to ease her transition after her release from prison.

         Geouge testified regarding her drug addiction. She said she became addicted to pain medication after a series of back surgeries beginning in 2011. She denied using any substances while pregnant with any of her children and contested the allegations made during Traylor's testimony regarding same. She described the programs she was participating in and detailed what actions she would take upon release, including checking in with her probation officer, continued substance abuse treatment programs, and further payment of her fines and costs. She explained what repairs had been and would be made to the house in which she and the children would live. She articulated how she anticipated the transition for L.T. would proceed, allowing the child to remain with appellees with gradually more time with Geouge, possibly over the course of a year. Geouge acknowledged she had not seen her child since three days after she had been born. On cross-examination, she was questioned regarding outstanding medical bills, of which she had no knowledge, and her potential future employment for which she had not yet applied.

         Dr. William F. Whelan, a clinical psychologist, testified as an expert in attachment issues. He described his methodology and explained the importance to a child of strong, healthy parental attachment. He observed L.T. with appellees in April and in October of 2016. He testified that L.T.'s attachment with appellees was secure and healthy and that there were no high risk or odd behaviors or developmental problems. He specifically opined that

[L.T.'s] interactions in October when we saw them are secure with each [foster] parent, meaning that she does organize herself around them, she automatically makes good use of their help both for exploration and for soothing her distress and her emotions. She automatically gravitates toward them, seeks proximity, maintains contact with them during times of stress. And these are all things that are hallmarks of security in the first year of life.

         With respect to appellees, he commented,

Their caregiving patterns . . . were sensitive to her emotional and behavioral needs, and secure. They were able to scaffold her behavior and exploration in the play room, and during times of distress they did a very nice job in approaching and soothing her, and she responded well to that. So there was a large degree of automatic, moment-to-moment synchronicity in their behaviors and also reciprocity, and those things are also hallmarks of security.

         Dr. Whelan also testified to the potential effects of a change in custody. He stated:

If [L.T.] were to lose her current foster parents, that would almost certainly be a huge loss to her and a huge injury, emotional injury. One of the reasons being is that the relationship is a very physical thing . . . her body, her neurology is used to having them around, knows how to interact with them, and she's organized herself around those people. So if she loses them she's going to sustain a very significant emotional loss and injury.

         He noted that, as a result of such a separation, a child may suffer physical symptoms as well, including vomiting or sleep loss, and, if under protracted distress, loss of concentration and behavioral issues.

         Although he testified that it was his opinion that L.T. was fully attached to appellees, Dr. Whelan conceded that it is possible for a child, after suffering a traumatic loss of attachment, to develop healthy, secure attachments with other caregivers. The new caregiver, however, would need to be a person who

is emotionally healthy and has good abilities in self-reflection, able to think about what's going on inside [L.T.], able to think about what she needs, able to think about her own emotional states and be able to regulate herself well. [The new caregiver would need to be a] person who has a history of success in close emotional relationships, somebody that knows how to repair ups and downs . . . .

         Dr. Whelan had not met with Geouge or assessed her caregiving abilities, but opined that a history of addiction or inability to regulate internal behaviors would raise concerns.

         Rev. Walter Lewis, the priest at the church where appellees have been parishioners for over five years, and Mary Harrison, a fellow parishioner, reported the positive ...

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