In re B.O.A., 372 N.C. 372 (2019)


COA decision

  • Facts and Procedural History: DSS received a report after law enforcement responded to a domestic violence call where both parents were arrested and the infant child presented with a bruise on her arm. A petition alleging neglect was filed by DSS. Mother and DSS entered into a case plan where mother agreed to compete DV counseling and avoid DV situations; complete a mental health assessment and take medication as prescribed; complete parenting classes and utilize the skills during her visits; remain drug-free, submit to random drug screens, and participate in weekly substance abuse therapy; refrain from criminal activity; and maintain stable income for 3 months. The child was adjudicated neglected based on an injurious environment, and at disposition, mother was ordered to comply with the provisions of the case plan that she agreed to. Ultimately, DSS initiated a TPR, which was granted based upon mother’s failure to make reasonable progress in correcting the conditions that led to the child’s removal from mother’s home. Mother appealed, and the court of appeals reversed the TPR based on a lack of evidence to support some findings and the trial court’s reliance on portions of her case plan (substance abuse, mental health, and income) that were not relevant to the conditions that led to the child’s removal – domestic violence and a bruise on the infant’s arm. The supreme court granted discretionary review.
  • Standard of review: whether the findings of fact are supported by clear, cogent, and convincing evidence and whether those finding support the conclusions of law. A finding of fact that is supported by clear, cogent, and convincing evidence is conclusive even if the record contains evidence that would support a contrary finding.
  • Statutory interpretation of conditions that led to the removal of the juvenile: “It is our duty to give effect to the words actually used in a statute and not to delete words used or to insert words not used…. Legislative intent controls the meaning of the statute.” Sl. Op. at 13 (citations omitted). “When the language of a statute is clear and without ambiguity, it is the duty of this Court to give effect to the plain meaning of the statute.” Sl. Op. at 14 (citations omitted). There is nothing in the language of G.S. 7B-1111(a)(2) that suggests the only “conditions of removal” that are relevant “are limited to those which are explicitly set out in a petition seeking the entry of a nonsecure custody order or a determination that a particular child is an abused, neglected, or dependent juvenile.” Id.  In looking at other related statutes, G.S. 7B-904(d1)(3), a more expansive reading of the language in G.S. 7B-1111(a)(2) is appropriate. “[T]he trial judge in an abuse, neglect, or dependency proceeding has the authority to order a parent to take any step reasonably required to alleviate any condition that directly or indirectly contributed to causing the juvenile’s removal from the parental home. In addition, G.S. 7B-904(d1)(3) authorizes the trial judge, as he or she gains a better understanding of the relevant family dynamic, to modify and update a parent’s case plan in subsequent review proceedings…. Thus the relevant statutory provisions appears to contemplate an ongoing examination of the circumstances that surrounded the juvenile’s removal from the home and the steps that need to be taken in order to remediate both the direct and indirect underlying causes of the juvenile’s removal….” Sl. Op. at 15-16.
  • “Parental compliance with a judicially adopted case plan is relevant in determining whether grounds exist pursuant to G.S. 7B-1111(a)(2) even when there is no direct and immediate relationship between the conditions addressed in the case plan and the circumstances that led to the initial governmental intervention into the family’s life, as long as the objectives sought to be achieved by the case plan provision in question address issues that contributed to causing the problematic circumstances that led to the juvenile’s removal from the parental home.” Sl. Op. at 20-21. A more restrictive interpretation would fail to recognize the complex issues that must be resolved in an abuse, neglect, or dependency case and “would unduly handicap our trial courts in their efforts to rectify the effects of abuse, neglect, and dependency.” Sl. Op. at 21. “[A] child’s removal is rarely the result of a single, specific incident and is, instead, typically caused by the confluence of multiple factors, some of which are immediately apparent and some of which only become apparent in light of further investigation.” Id. A judge’s authority, however, is not unlimited. Reasonable progress does not require full compliance with all the elements of a case plan. The extent to which a parent has reasonably complied with a case plan provision that addresses an issue that directly or indirectly contributed to the child’s removal is relevant for a determination of whether the parent failed to make reasonable progress under G.S. 7B-1111(a)(2). In this case, “the necessary nexus between the components of the court-approved case plan with which respondent-mother failed to comply and the ‘conditions which led to [Bev’s] removal’ from the parental home exists.” Sl. Op. at 22. Mother’s progress was limited and not reasonable as she abused and/or did not take her prescriptions, did not submit to her drug tests and failed some of them, did not demonstrate parenting skills she learned during visits, and did not complete the mental health evaluation and attend therapy.
Termination of Parental Rights
Willfully Leaving Child in Foster Care or Other Placement
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