LINCOLN — Over the course of a year, the Omaha father turned his life around.
He divorced his troubled wife. Took GED classes. Got a permanent address. Attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings consistently.
Completed anger management classes. Participated in a parenting group. Took parenting classes. Attended scheduled meetings. Worked with child welfare workers. And ended twice-weekly visitations with his toddler son Damien by buckling him into his car seat, kissing him goodbye and telling him he loved him.
But the child welfare case manager called it “too little, too late.”
She recommended ending his parental rights because of his history of domestic violence and because he lost parental rights to two children before.
The Nebraska Court of Appeals disagreed.
The court ruled Tuesday that the father, identified only as Jerry S., should keep his rights to his youngest child. The court said ending his rights was not in Damien's best interest.
“This evidence shows that Jerry has made some mistakes as Damien's father,” the ruling said. “Jerry's commendable parenting progress, however, largely overshadows these mistakes.”
The appeals court ruling reversed a December decision by Douglas County Juvenile Judge Elizabeth Crnkovich.
The new ruling did not address what should happen with Damien, who has been in foster care since September 2011, when he was 4 months old. Damien's mother has relinquished her parental rights.
Now 2˝, Damien lives with people who hope to adopt him, said Brenda Beadle, chief deputy Douglas County attorney.
She said prosecutors plan to appeal the Tuesday decision to the Nebraska Supreme Court.
“We feel like this was a case that was an appropriate termination,” Beadle said.
She acknowledged that Jerry S. had taken some positive steps but said “there were a lot of things he didn't do.” He also has a history that justifies ending his parental rights, she said.
But Susanne Dempsey-Cook, who represents Jerry S., said her client hopes to work toward having Damien placed with him.
In the meantime, she said, he is looking forward to resuming the visitations that had been suspended during the 10 months of the appeal process.
“He is fully committed to his child and prepared to parent him,” Dempsey-Cook said, adding that the ruling could encourage other parents who are trying to make changes.
“Maybe they'll be given some hope that if they turn things around, they'll be able to parent their children, or at least subsequent children,” she said.
Damien, born in May 2011, is the youngest child of Jerry S. and his now ex-wife, Jessica S.
The couple had their parental rights to two older children terminated in December 2010.
According to the court record, Jessica S. had been struggling with bipolar disorder and was not taking her medication but was using marijuana, and Jerry and Jessica's relationship involved “extreme domestic violence.”
Despite the terminations, Damien initially went home to live with Jessica.
He entered foster care after state workers determined that he was not safe with his mother, who had gone from living with an abusive boyfriend to living with a friend who was involved with the child welfare system.
Meanwhile, Jerry S. was just getting out of jail for having assaulted Jessica in March 2011 while she was pregnant.
He contacted state workers in July 2012, seeking visitation with Damien. To qualify for visitation, Jerry moved to a new residence because his roommate in the previous one did not pass a background check.
By November, when the juvenile court heard testimony about the petition to terminate Jerry's parental rights, witnesses told about the changes he had been making in his life.
Witnesses also testified about his interest and involvement in the parenting classes and the successes of his visitation time with Damien. The appeals court pointed to those steps in deciding against terminating the father's parental rights.
While saying that the prior neglect of Damien's siblings was relevant, the court said that “one's history does not alone determine his future.” It also noted the “severe consequences of finally and completely severing a child from the parent.”