In re A.M.L., 377 N.C. 1 (2021)

  • Facts: in 2018, the juveniles were adjudicated neglected based in part on conditions resulting from mother’s substance use.  Mother was ordered to comply with a case plan addressing her substance use, parenting skills, and mental health. DSS filed a TPR petition, which was granted. Mother appeals arguing she substantially complied with her case plan and made reasonable progress to correct the conditions that led to the children’s removal.
  • G.S. 7B-1111(a)(2) authorizes a termination of a parent’s rights when two prongs exist: (1) the parent has willfully left the child is foster care or other placement outside the home for 12 or more months and (2) has failed to show reasonable progress under the circumstances to correct the conditions that led to the child’s removal. Although all aspects of a case plan do not have to be fully satisfied, there must be more than extremely limited progress. Willfulness is a finding of fact and does not require fault by the parent – “It simply requires respondent-mother’s “prolonged inability to improve her situation, despite some efforts in that direction.” 377 N.C. at 14.
  • The findings support the conclusion. (Note, there is no dispute the children were in foster care for 16 months).
    • Although mother argued her delay in receiving a written copy of the case plan harmed her, the delay was 62 days at most and a year before the TPR hearing, giving her sufficient time to make progress. Further she was aware of what she needed to do based on her prior DSS involvement.
    • When a parent’s noncompliance with a case plan supports a TPR on this ground, there must be a nexus between the court-approved case plan and the conditions that led to the children’s removal. The nexus existed here, as the case plan was tailored to help mother with her substance use, parenting, and mental health issues. Although mother made progress on the parenting skills portion of the case plan, “the trial court’s findings focused on the true gravamen of her case— her substance abuse—as well as her mental health struggles.” 377 N.C. at 12. Mother missed and failed drug screens; did not attend a recovery group; and although asserted she completed an assessment and engaged in treatment, she never reported that to DSS and the records showed primarily drug test results. Mother did not complete any of the mental health components of her case plan.
    • Mother completed a case plan for her infant who DSS did not seek custody of. Her ability to complete that case plan shows mother’s willfulness.
Termination of Parental Rights
Willfully Leaving Child in Foster Care or Other Placement
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