In re Interest of Trenity D. and Surenity D.

Caselaw Number
Filed On

SUMMARY: Juvenile court did not abuse its discretion in qualifying the DHHS assessment worker as an expert where the worker had 4 ½ years of experience working with families. In addition, adjudication was proper where there was evidence of the mother’s history of drug abuse. 

The State of Nebraska filed a petition on April 25, 2013 alleging that Trenity and Surenity were lacking proper parental care by reason of the faults or habits of their mother, Andrea, due to Andrea’s use of alcohol and controlled substances, history of mental health issues, and failure to provide the children with appropriate housing and proper parental care. At the adjudication hearing held September 26, 2013, there was evidence that Andrea tested positive for amphetamines upon being admitted to the hospital while in labor with Surenity. Andrea claimed she had not used drugs in over a year, but may have tested positive due to accidentally drinking water laced with methamphetamines or giving a man who had previously taken methamphetamines oral sex at a party two days earlier. A DHHS initial assessment worker, Angie Morehead, testified that she visited Andrea’s home and found it in disarray, including medications and lighters within reach of Trenity. At the time Trenity was 15 months old. After Andrea’s attorney objected to Morehead giving her opinion as to whether Trenity and Surenity would be at risk of harm if returned to Andrea’s care, the juvenile court judge qualified Morehead as an expert. Morehead testified she was basing her opinion on information obtained during her investigation, such as the conditions of the home and Andrea’s drug use, and that she had extensive training and experience with determining risk of harm. Morehead testified that, in her opinion, Trenity and Surenity would be at risk of harm if returned to Andrea’s care. On October 1, 2013, the juvenile court adjudicated the children and found that it would be contrary to the health and safety of the children to be returned to the home.

The Nebraska Court of Appeals affirmed the adjudication. The court found that the judge did not abuse its discretion in qualifying Morehead as an expert because, given Morehead’s experience, background, ongoing training, and experience with investigating cases, she possessed specialized knowledge regarding the risk of harm assessment. In addition, the State proved by a preponderance of the evidence that there was a definite risk of future harm to the children. Though there was no actual physical harm to the children, Andrea’s use of alcohol and/or controlled substances placed the children at risk.