In re A.B.C., ___ N.C. ___ (July 17, 2020)

Held: 
Affirmed
There is a dissent
as to grounds (4-3)
  • Facts: In 2015, the juvenile was adjudicated dependent primarily due to the parents’ substance use. Reunification efforts with mother were ceased in 2016. In 2017, DSS filed a TPR petition, which was granted on the ground of failure to make reasonable progress (G.S. 7B-1111(a)(2)), and mother appealed. On appeal, the court of appeals vacated and remanded the case for findings after concluding there was tension in the findings such that the appellate court could not conduct a meaningful review. On remand, the trial court did not take additional evidence and entered an amended adjudication order with additional findings of fact and granted the TPR. Mother appealed the ground and best interests determination (the best interests portion of this appeal is discussed in the section below).
  • G.S. 7B-1111(a)(2) authorizes a TPR if the parent has willfully left the juvenile in foster care or other placement for more than 12 months without making reasonable progress under the circumstances to correct the conditions that led to the juvenile’s removal. A trial court should not find a parent has failed to make reasonable progress when that parent has not fully satisfied all the case plan requirements but does have the authority to determine that a parent’s “extremely limited progress” supports the ground. Mother’s case plan included substance use treatment and stable housing.
  • The findings establish mother made marginal progress because she did not continue the recommended substance abuse treatment after completing a 6-month program. The court found that respondent chose to participate in a methadone program without counseling or a plan to wean herself off the methadone and that mother’s testimony that she was in AA or NA was not credible. “[T]he fact that respondent decided to address her substance abuse in this manner – without counseling, all the while having the available option to continue with another residential rehabilitation program that would have allowed her to reside with her child – after she completed the program at Our house is of great significance.” Sl.Op. at 14. The court’s findings support the conclusion that mother failed to make reasonable progress to address the core reason for the child’s removal.
  • Dissent (3 justices): The additional findings made by the trial court on remand were not based on clear, cogent, and convincing evidence to support the conclusion the mother failed to make reasonable progress. Mother completed a rehabilitation program and had been drug-free for one year, had a stable living arrangement, and was parenting her younger child.
    • Mother was also meeting the requirements of the  methadone program. A “drug addiction is a brain disease[; a] parent who is following a doctor’s orders in a treatment program should not have that fact held against her, just as one would not conclude that a diabetic relying on medication to control their diabetes rather than diet and exercise is failing to make reasonable progress towards good health.” SL.Op. Dissent at 7. 
    • Mother’s “parenting of another child without any evidence of neglect should have been relevant to the issue of whether respondent made reasonable progress towards addressing the conditions that led to her son being removed from her care. Sl.Op. Dissent at 7-8.
Category:
Termination of Parental Rights
Stage:
Adjudication
Topic:
Willfully Leaving Child in Foster Care or Other Placement
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