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Matthew H. v. State, Department of Health & Social Services

Supreme Court of Alaska

June 2, 2017

MATTHEW H., Appellant,

         Appeal from the Superior Court of the State of Alaska, No. 4FA-13-00042 CN, Fourth Judicial District, Fairbanks, Michael A. MacDonald, Judge.

          J. Adam Bartlett, Anchorage, for Appellant.

          Laura Fox, Assistant Attorney General, Anchorage, and Jahna Lindemuth, Attorney General, Juneau, for Appellee.

          Before: Stowers, Chief Justice, Winfree, Maassen, and Bolger, Justices. [Carney, Justice, not participating.]


          MAASSEN, Justice.


         The superior court terminated a father's parental rights to his daughter. He appeals the superior court's finding that he failed to remedy the conduct and conditions that placed his child in need of aid, arguing that he cleaned up the family home, obtained a commercial driver's license and a job, and passed drug tests during the pendency of the case. He also argues that the superior court deprived him of his right to self-representation when it denied his motion to allow his appointed counsel to withdraw shortly before the termination trial.

         We conclude that the superior court did not clearly err in finding that the father did not remedy the mental health issues that were "the root cause" of his inability to safely parent his daughter. We also conclude that it was not an abuse of discretion to deny the father's motion to allow his attorney to withdraw. We therefore affirm the superior court's judgment.


         A. Facts

         Matthew H. is the father of Henrietta H. and the stepfather of Greta W.[1]Before the Office of Children's Services (OCS) became involved in their lives, Matthew, Henrietta, Greta, and the children's mother, Miriam S., lived together in a one-room cabin. The cabin lacked electricity, plumbing, and a water source and, according to Henrietta and Greta, was not always heated in the winter. Rabbits, chickens, dogs, and a cat shared the family's living quarters. The cabin and its yard and driveway were littered with garbage, including old appliances and nonfunctional vehicles.

         OCS removed 7-year-old Henrietta and 13-year-old Greta from the home in May 2013 following a report that they were being exposed to the manufacture and use of methamphetamine. The two girls were "severely underweight"; they reported not having enough food at home and occasionally having to forage for food at waste transfer sites, and they tended to hoard food after their removal.

         Neither child was enrolled in school. Matthew and Miriam testified that it was too hard to get the children to a bus stop, although the local school district had offered a stipend to help them pay for gas. The parents claimed to have home-schooled the girls, but both were "extremely far behind academically."

         Except for a single emergency room visit, neither child had visited a doctor or dentist in the six years the family had lived in Alaska. Henrietta had not received any shots since she was an infant. Both girls had scars from untreated burns from the stove, and Henrietta had a large untreated burn on her foot from stepping in a pot of boiling water. Henrietta had significant tooth decay, requiring the extraction of nine teeth within three months of her removal from the home. She also had an untreated scratch on her cornea; after removal she was prescribed glasses with the hope of avoiding a permanent loss of vision. Both girls also "had untreated counseling and mental health needs, " and a psychotherapist found them to be "extremely traumatized."

         Both Henrietta and Greta also tested positive for methamphetamine and exhibited withdrawal symptoms. They reported that Matthew and Miriam manufactured and used methamphetamine, and they "were able to describe how methamphetamine is made and used."

         Henrietta reported witnessing domestic violence between Matthew and Miriam and between Matthew and Greta; Matthew admitted to domestic violence between himself and Miriam. After her removal from the home Henrietta worried that Matthew might hurt Miriam since she was no longer there "to protect" her mother.

         With the girls in its custody, OCS struggled to develop a relationship with Matthew, who was "suspicious" and "hostile." A psychotherapist diagnosed him with an anxiety disorder, possible psychotic disorder, and antisocial personality disorder with paranoid and narcissistic traits. He was also diagnosed with methamphetamine abuse and marijuana dependence, though he only admits to marijuana use, and his drug tests during OCS's involvement were negative for methamphetamine. Matthew did not engage in substance abuse ...

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