In re D.A.A.R., ___ N.C. ___ (April 23, 2021)

Held: 
Reversed
  • Facts: In 2017, the juveniles were adjudicated neglected and dependent based on the parents’ domestic violence, substance use, housing instability, and mental health issues. In 2018, mother entered into a case plan with DSS to address these issues and her parenting skills. Mother’s visitation was suspended with both children at one point but was reinstated with supervised visits with one child. Mother entered a 6-month residential treatment program, followed by outpatient treatment, and filed motions to have her visitation reinstated and the filing of the TPR stayed based on positive changes she had made. DSS filed the TPR petition before mother’s motions were heard. The GAL filed a motion to cease contact between mother and her one child after that child ran away from a group home with other children and mother failed to notify DSS, the group home, or law enforcement when her daughter reached out to her and she arranged to meet her daughter. Mother’s visitation was again suspended. She continued to file motions to review the plan to show her progress. In 2019, the TPR was heard, and the court granted the TPR on the ground of failure to make reasonable progress but denied the ground of neglect. The court denied the TPR for the child mother had been visited after determining it was not in that child’s best interests but granted the TPR for the child with whom mother had no visitation. Mother appealed.
  • G.S. 7B-1111(a)(2) authorizes a TPR on the ground of willfully leaving the juvenile in foster care for 12 or more months and failing to make reasonable progress under the circumstances to correct the conditions that led to the juvenile’s removal. The reasonableness of the parent’s progress is determined as of the date of the TPR hearing. Although compliance with a judicially adopted case plan is relevant, reasonable progress does not require the parent to fully satisfy all the elements of the goals of the case plan. The issue is not whether the parent can regain custody at the time of the TPR hearing but whether there has been reasonable progress under the circumstances to correct the conditions that led to the juvenile’s removal.
  • The findings are that mother was in compliance with 4 of the 5 case plan goals: she completed inpatient and outpatient substance use treatment, continues with treatment, and has negative drug screens; she relocated out of North Carolina to extricate herself from the abusive relationship with the children’s father, completed domestic violence courses, and was not involved in other instances of domestic violence; she is actively engaged in therapy; and she obtained housing and was in the residence for a year. Findings regarding lack of progress included that Mother was not approved by an ICPC home study, although this was due to an error by that state’s agency, which should not have denied a parent ICPC approval due to criminal history. The court was not willing to wait for second ICPC study to be completed where the proper standard would have been applied to mother. Additionally, the court considered mother’s delay in entering into a case plan in 2018. There were findings about mother’s handling of the child’s run-away incident, which must be viewed in context of mother’s overall success in addressing the causes for the children’s removal.
    • The findings show mother’s significant, sustained, and reasonable progress to correct the conditions that led to the children’s removal do not support the conclusion of the ground.
  • “We hold that a parent’s delay in signing a case plan or attempting to address the conditions leading to a child’s removal from the home has indisputable relevance to an evaluation of the willfulness of a parent’s conduct and the reasonableness of that parent’s progress in correcting the conditions that had led to a child’s removal from the family home for purposes of N.C.G.S. § 7B-1111(a)(2).” Sl.Op. ¶36. The court “should also evaluate the reasonableness of any progress that the parent has made in light of the amount of time that the parent had been given to make that progress.” Id. This case does not involve last-minute, limited steps a parent attempts to make when facing a TPR. Mother was making sustained progress over time.
  • The court may consider parenting decisions made with respect to one child while evaluating the reasonableness of that parent’s progress with regard to the other child. The conditions for removal and case plan were not child-specific. The interactions with one child sheds light on mother’s parenting skills and the court’s evaluation of whether her progress was reasonable.
Category:
Termination of Parental Rights
Stage:
Adjudication
Topic:
Willfully Leaving Child in Foster Care or Other Placement
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