IN THE MATTER OF: J.M. (No. COA19-421)
Under certain circumstances, a court will remove children from the custodial care and control of a biological parent and place them with a foster family. The court then develops primary and secondary case plans. The case plans consider the children’s best interests and whether the parent is deemed fit or unfit. Courts strive to reunify the children with a biological parent, but in cases where courts determine a parent is unfit, adoption and/or foster families are appropriate alternatives. The case below reveals key findings the trial court needs to make before ceasing reunification efforts between a Mother and her child.
(a) Facts: In January of 2016, Wake County Human Services (“WCHS”) filed a juvenile petition, alleging Respondent Jessica Hayes (“Mother”) was neglecting her four young children. Jane, the youngest of the four children, was six months old at the time. In March of 2016, the court adjudicated all four children neglected and ordered non-secure custody with WCHS. As a result, the court placed Jane in the care of a foster family. Despite this, the trial court continued reunification efforts and maintained the Mother and all four children’s reunification as the primary plan and adoption as the secondary plan. Mother had many shortcomings over the years. However, the trial court found Mother was exhibiting positive progress towards reunification. Yet in January of 2018, the trial court found Mother had regressed and reverted to supervised visits with the children due to her inability to satisfactorily care for the children without a parenting coach or social worker present. At this time, the trial court changed the primary plan to adoption and the secondary plan to reunification. By December of 2018, Jane had developed a strong bond with her foster family. In January of 2019, the trial court awarded Jane’s guardianship to her foster parents and waived further review hearings.
(b) Issues: Did the trial court err in (1) waiving further review hearings; (2) finding that Mother was an unfit parent; (3) failing to make evidentiary findings that Jane’s foster parents understood the legal significance of their appointment as guardians of Jane; and (4) ceasing reunification efforts between Mother and children without making the necessary findings of fact?
(c) Holding: The trial court did not err in (1) waiving further review hearings; (2) finding that Mother was an unfit parent; and (3) failing to make evidentiary findings that Jane’s foster parents understood the legal significance of their appointment as guardians of Jane. The trial court did err in ceasing reunification efforts between Mother and children without making the necessary findings of fact. As a result, the Court of Appeals remanded for the trial court to make the necessary findings to cease reunification efforts between Mother and children.
(d) Rationale: When a court chooses to abandon reunification efforts and proceed with a permanency planning hearing, the court must make specific findings that the reunification efforts between Mother and child will be futile or inconsistent with the child’s health and
safety. In terms of determining whether reunification efforts between Mother and child are futile, the court must make written findings that demonstrate a parent’s lack of success with the following four factors: (1) a parent’s adequate progress within a reasonable amount of time under the plan; (2) how cooperative the parent is with abiding by the plan and actively participating in the plan; (3) the availability of the parent to the court, the department, and the guardian ad litem for the minor; and (4) the parent’s actions and whether they are in a manner inconsistent with the health or safety of the minor. Here, the trial court made limited findings as to the four factors listed above. As a result, the Court of Appeals vacated the trial court’s order and remanded for the trial court to make specific findings related to the four factors above.
(e) Key Takeaway: Courts strive to reunify parents and children in circumstances such as those described above. Abandoning reunification efforts and proceeding with a permanency planning hearing that involves foster families or adoption is a decision that must be supported by specific findings made by the court. The four key factors listed above provide a way for the court to measure the parent’s efforts and the potential success of reunification between parent and child. A decision to abandon reunification efforts and proceed with a permanency plan that involves foster families or adoption should not be taken lightly and should always be supported by specific findings of fact.