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Domestic Violence and Termination of Parental Rights

In Re TB, 2022-NCSC-43.

Facts: In January of 2019, Mecklenburg County DSS filed a petition alleging that the minor child in this action was neglected and dependent. They later moved her to foster care. The petition was initiated when police reported a domestic violence incident in the child’s home in early January, in which the father was arrested. When DSS spoke to Father and Mother after the incident, and both admitted to smoking marijuana, Father acknowledged he had mental health needs and that he had been in treatment for domestic violence through NOVA in the past. Mother said that she would have left Father if she had more family support. Father said he was willing to leave the family home. Father then agreed to go to Monarch for mental health assessment, and both parents agreed to submit to random drug screening.

At the time the petition was filed, neither parent had fulfilled their end of the agreement. At a hearing for adjudication, the minor child was adjudicated neglected and dependent. The court ordered Father to avoid domestic disputes, enroll in NOVA for domestic violence classes, attend substance abuse services, and submit to random drug screening. Mother was ordered to attend domestic violence classes, participate in substance abuse services, and work with DSS to find family support. The child was ordered to remain in DSS custody, with visitation at least two times a week.

At a review hearing in May 2019, the court noted some progress with substance abuse, negative tests and completion of classes. However, not much was done on the domestic violence side, and Mother suffered two more incidents of domestic violence. In September 2019, the court held a permanency hearing and further found that domestic violence was an issue. Father had been charged with another act of violence against Mother and was kicked out of the NOVA program. In January 2020, the court again held a hearing and found that neither parent was actively participating with their prior agreements or working with DSS. In February 2020, DSS sought to terminate both parental rights in the minor child, which the court granted. Both parents appealed.

Issue: Did the trial court err by terminating the parents’ parental rights?

Holding: No.

Rationale: Mother challenged the adjudication of neglect and dependency. A neglected juvenile is one whose parent does not provide proper care, supervision, or discipline, or lives in an environment injurious to the welfare of the juvenile. Failure to make progress with a DSS case plan is indicative of future neglect. In this case, the lack of progress was evident: Mother remained in a relationship with her abuser, suffered more abuse at his hands, and did not cooperate with the prosecution of Father for his domestic violence.

Mother also failed to end the relationship with Father, despite the ongoing abuse. Additionally, Mother’s last contact with the minor child was in May of 2019, 18 months prior. Mother did not send gifts or cards to the child. Mother only contacted the foster parents a few times and had not requested a visitation despite the ability to do so. Mother also lived with the child’s maternal grandmother and had no space for a child. Mother indicated that she had no plans to move.

Lessons: This is a case where staying with an abusive partner was held to be an environment injurious to the child. The lack of progress in the parents’ domestic violence issues seemed to show to the court that mother was not taking the DSS plans seriously. Combine that with the fact that she did not contact the child for 18 months and had no suitable living conditions, and it is easy to see why her rights were terminated. What remains to be seen is when enough time has passed to constitute “progress” (or lack thereof). The time that a person takes to escape an abusive relationship varies; will time alone be a determinative factor? At least in this case, it was not just time. Mother was found not credible when she said that the relationship had ended. Mother had other issues with contact and living conditions at the time of the termination hearing. For now at least, time alone is not a factor. Termination proceedings are serious. Please contact a family law specialist if you have questions about these proceedings.