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Parental Rights Termination and Appeal

In re J.J.H., Supreme Court of North Carolina, No. 430A19, December 18, 2020

 

This is Respondent Mother’s Appeal to the termination of her parental rights.

  • Facts: Guilford County Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) filed petitions alleging that three of the five minor children involved were neglected and dependent juveniles. The remaining two minor children were alleged to be neglected juveniles. The agency reported receiving eleven reports on this family between October 2011 and February 2016. DHHS had substantiated nine of these reports. The reports alleged inadequate supervision. DHHS found that the two-year-old female was taken to the hospital twice for burns to her hands, arms, and buttocks. The five-year-old male received a school suspension for hitting and kicking daycare teachers. The Respondent Mother’s elderly grandmother, who suffered from seizures, reported that the mother had left the children in her care without permission. DHHS found that the respondent-mother left the children alone in the home only supervised by a five-year-old. Reports included the child drawing pictures of sexual acts, explaining human anatomy to classmates, attempting to engage in sexually inappropriate conduct with siblings, and describing acts of sexual abuse by an older cousin, who also acted as an overnight caregiver. The respondent-mother missed multiple medical appointments for one minor child that suffered from a large mass in his nose. The children were returned to school when the respondent mother failed to be present when they arrived home on the bus. DHHS reports noted the home’s utility services were disconnected.

 

DHHS investigated a report of domestic violence between the respondent-mother and the father of two of the minor children that resulted in the respondent-mother’s arrest for assault with a deadly weapon. One of the other minor children reported witnessing physical altercations between the respondent mother and the father of two of the children, and he was aware of drug use and inappropriate sexual activity in the family.

 

During a subsequent DHHS meeting, the respondent-mother became enraged, violently yanked her minor child that suffered from seizures and brain and facial tumors from his caregiver. After leaving and re-entering the building, respondent-mother aggressively approached the social worker resulting in a simple assault and battery charge against the respondent-mother.

 

On November 10, 2016, the court found the children to be neglected and dependent juveniles as alleged in the DHHS petitions. On November 28, 2016, the court found that respondent-mother had begun to comply with the April 2016 case plan relating to income/employment, housing/environmental/basic needs, parenting skills, mental health substance abuse, family relationships/domestic violence, visitation/child support, and had begun participating in supervised visitation. By February 2018, the court found that the respondent-mother’s behavior had not changed even with compliance with the case plan’s aspects. The concerns landing the children in the care of DHHS were still present according to the court, and reunification within six months would not be successful, and that termination of parental rights would be in the children’s best interest. The respondent-mother’s parental rights were terminated in September 2019 based on neglect pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 7B-1111(a)(1). The court determined that the termination was in the children’s best interests.

 

  • Issue: Whether the trial court erred in termination of the Respondent Mother’s parental rights based on neglect and that the termination was in the children’s best interest.

 

  • Holding: No. The trial court did not err in terminating the respondent-mother’s parental rights. This Court held that the record supports the determination that respondent-mother cannot meet the needs of the children, has inadequate plans for the future, and has not demonstrated the ability to plan for obstacles. The respondent-mother has failed to obtain adequate housing sufficient to safely accommodate the special needs and behavior issues of the children, she continues to behave inapproproiately in stressful situations, has failed to comply with visitation program requirements to call a day ahead of visits, and failed to provide a sufficient plan of care for the children.

 

  • Rationale: North Carolina General Statute 7B-1111(a)(1) permits a trial court to terminate parental rights upon a determination that the child was neglected. N.C.G.S. 7B-101(15) defines a neglected child, in pertinent parts, as “one whose parent . . does not provide proper care, discipline, or supervision; . . . or who is not provided necessary medical care; or who is not provided necessary remedial care; or who lives in an environment injurious to the juvenile’s welfare[.]”

 

As a general rule, termination of parental rights requires a showing of neglect at the time of the hearing to terminate. In re D.L.W., 788 S.E.2d 162, 167 (N.C. 2016). If a child has been out of the parent’s care for an extended time, a showing of past and the likelihood of future neglect must be shown. (Id.) In determining future neglect, the trial court must consider all relevant events occurring before or after the prior adjudication of neglect. In re Ballard, 319 S.E.2d 227, 232-33 (N.C. 1984). The child’s best interests and a parent’s fitness to care for the child must be the determinative factors at the time of trial. (Id. at 232).

 

In September 2016, the trial court found that even though the Respondent Mother had made progress complying with her case plan, she lacked the “substantial capacity” to meet the needs of the children, an inability to plan for obstacles to any future plans, and has inadequate plans for the future.

 

In reviewing each element of the respondent mother’s case plan, this Court evaluated the sufficiency of the evidentiary support for the findings of fact by the trial court.

 

In evaluating the mother’s employment and income, the trial court noted that the respondent-mother lacked the ability to properly budget or prepare for additional expenses for herself and the five children and that her current residence was inadequate to house the entire family safely. This Court found that the trial court did not err in determining that the children would experience a repetition of neglect if returned to the mother due to her deficient budget and decision-making skills.

 

The trial court’s findings show that the respondent-mother could not obtain housing suitable to safely accommodate the whole family. The children would experience a repetition of neglect if returned to the current residence. The trial court also noted that at least one “vicious” dog resides at the mother’s home. This particular dog had prevented at least two social workers from reaching the residence’s front door. The court noted this creates a safety-related concern for the children to be in the residence. This Court held that the trial court did not err in considering the respondent mother’s housing conditions to determine the probability that the children would be neglected if returned to the respondent mother’s care.

 

In reviewing the substance abuse portion of the respondent-mother’s case plan, the trial court noted that respondent-mother had refused to resume drug screening out of frustration with DHHS and not because she was using illegal substances. The trial court found that her refusal to participate was “reflective of her incapability to respond effectively to frustrations and to persist in appropriate behavior, despite those frustrations.” The trial court also found that upon learning that the drug screen was a part of her case plan and not DHHS trying to catch her using drugs, respondent-mother complied with all screening requests. This Court noted that a social worker’s report testified that substance abuse was not an issue at the time of the termination hearing. This Court held that the trial court did not err in considering the respondent mother’s reactions to requests to participate in drug screenings and whether a repetition of neglect previously experienced by the child could occur if the children were to be returned to her care.

 

In the review of the respondent mother’s parenting skills, a psychological evaluation noted that the mother either “dismissed or minimized” instances of the children’s emotional, medical, or educational needs when brought to her attention. Respondent-mother did not challenge these findings of fact, and these findings were binding on appeal.

 

The trial court found that respondent-mother had participated in mental health therapy from 2016 to 2017. Social workers testified that the mother was unwilling to continue therapy. The respondent-mother became very agitated and would not continue therapy without a judge’s order. The trial court noted that a therapist working with the eldest son stated that it would not be in the child’s best interest for the respondent-mother to participate in his therapy sessions due to fear and respondent-mother minimizing the need for therapy. This Court found that the trial court’s finding that respondent mother’s resistance to mental health services was a legitimate ground for questioning any benefits she had received.

 

In evaluating the family relationships and domestic violence, the trial court found that the respondent-mother had completed anger management and a domestic violence victim’s program. The trial court noted that even after completing these programs, the respondent-mother continued to react inappropriately when frustrated, became loud and argumentative in stressful situations, and had difficulty controlling her anger. This Court held that the trial court did not err in considering the probability that the children would be neglected in the future when respondent-mother had to deal with a difficult situation.

 

The trial court noted the respondent-mother had missed at least twenty-two scheduled visits with the children. This Court held that the trial court’s finding that respondent mother’s comments on how the children should be disciplined and history of minimizing the children’s behaviors, taken in their entirety, were not erroneous. This Court reviewed the extensive evaluation by the trial court of each of the minor children’s medical needs and respondent mother’s transportation difficulties and inability to manage the children’s complex schedules, including doctor, therapy, and speech therapy appointments and medication needs. The trial court noted that the respondent-mother claimed she would be able to manage the children’s appointment schedule with her smartphone calendar but later stated that “sometimes my phone, it just, it don’t go off for the call thing,”  when asked about using the smartphone calendar reminder for her visitation calls. This Court held that the evidence supports the trial court’s findings that the respondent mother’s inability to manage the children’s schedules shows that future neglect will occur if the children return to her care.

 

In terminating a parent’s rights, the trial court is also required to determine the likelihood that the previously experienced neglect would repeat if returned to the parent’s care. This Court noted that although the respondent-mother had complied with her case plan’s requirements, the issues that led to the children being place in DHHS care continued to exist. This Court, in evaluating each of the trial court’s findings above regarding the respondent mother’s weaknesses, when combined with the children’s conditions, would lead to a repetition of neglect if they were returned to the mother’s care.

 

During the dispositional stage of termination of a parent’s rights, the trial court is required under N.C.G.S. 7B-1110(a) to “determine whether terminating the parent’s rights is in the juvenile’s best interests” based on (1) the age of the juvenile, (2) the likelihood of adoption of the juvenile, (3) whether termination of parental rights will aid in accomplishing a permanent situation for the juvenile, (4) the juvenile’s bond with the parent, (5) the quality of the relationship between the proposed adoptive parent, guardian, custodian, or other permanent placement, and (6) any relevant consideration. This Court held that the trial court’s findings met the requirements of N.C.G.S.  7B-1110(a). The trial court found each of the children had bonded with and adapted to their current placements. The trial court further found that termination would assist in the effectuation of the permanent plans of adoption and the adoption process. While the children had bonded with one another, the trial court found that the children could maintain their existing connections even if adopted. This Court ruling was that the trial court appropriately conducted the best interests analysis for each child and did not abuse its discretion in its determination that the termination of the parental rights was in the children’s best interests.

 

Lesson:  If you are faced with the potential of having your children removed from your care or your parental rights terminated, seek the advice of a qualified family law attorney before facing the court alone.