In re J.M., 2021-NCCOA-92

Stay granted
allowed 6/9/21
Held: 
Reversed and Remanded
  • Facts: There were four children in the home; the 2 older juveniles were not subject to this action, were not interviewed by DSS, and remained in their home. The two younger juveniles are the subject of this action, which resulted from a report by the hospital after the youngest juvenile was shown to have severe injuries including brain injuries, retinal hemorrhages, and healing rib fractures. Almost a year after the petition was filed, the youngest child was adjudicated abused and neglected and the sibling neglected after the court found the children were in the exclusive care of their parents when the injuries occurred. Prior to the adjudication, parents entered into and participated in case plans. At disposition, the court found mother substantially completed her case plan and had father leave the home based on her belief he injured the youngest child. At permanency planning, the court found respondents were complying with their case plans and increased visitation. There were no concerns about respondents’ interactions with the children or the safety of the children, and the parents were engaged in shared parenting with the foster mother, who supervised the visits. At a permanency planning hearings, parents maintained they did not know how the injuries occurred. A permanency planning order found the life-threatening injuries were nonaccidental and occurred while in the exclusive care of the parents who did not acknowledge responsibility for the injuries such that there was no mitigation of the risk of harm to the juveniles. The permanency planning order eliminated reunification as a permanent plan. Parents appealed.
  • Standard of review is whether the findings are based on competent evidence and whether the findings support the conclusion. An abuse of discretion standard is applied. The determination of parental unfitness if review de novo.
  • In eliminating reunification/ceasing reunification efforts, the court must make findings under G.S. 7B-906.2(b) and (d). Subsection (d) focuses on the parent’s actions. The findings that reunification efforts with mother would be inconsistent with the juvenile’s health and safety are not supported by the evidence. Instead, the evidence showed mother could appropriately care for the children just as she was for the older two juveniles who remained in her care and were not harmed. Mother also had father move out. The evidence shows father’s progress in his case plan services, which contradict a conclusion that reunification would be unsuccessful or inconsistent with the children’s health or safety.
  • This case is distinguishable from In re Y.Y.E.T., 205 N.C. App. 120 (2010) when neither parent accepted responsibility for their infant’s nonaccidental injuries. There were no other children that lived in the home, unlike this case. DSS did not interview the two older children when investigating the cause of the injuries. There is no evidence that either parent is protecting the other parent like in In re Y.Y.E.T. Further, the evaluations in In re Y.Y.E.T. were unable to make service recommendations, unlike this case. Here, the evidence shows that mother complied with all the recommendations that were made, and she was benefitting from those services. Mother corrected the conditions that led to the children’s removal. Father was recommended services,  engaging in those services, and was changing his behavior and making progress.
  • Reasonable Efforts Not Made: DSS must provide reasonable, not exhaustive, efforts toward reunification. See G.S. 7B-101(18). Efforts DSS provided include attempting to locate a relative placement, complete safety assessment, create and implement case plans, supervise visits, arrange for assessments, and conduct CFTs. DSS did not interview, nor offer a reason for not interviewing, the older two children during their assessment of the youngest child’s injuries. The N.C. Child Welfare Manual published by N.C. DHHS, which guides the assessments, requires face-to-face interviews with all children residing in the home. (July 2019). By not interviewing all the children, DSS “could not have diligently investigated all potential causes of [the juvenile’s] injuries.”  Sl.Op. ¶51. As a result, DSS failed to make reasonable efforts for prompt reunification.
  • Parents’ Constitutional Rights: “The trial court’s insistence for Respondents to admit blame as a pre-condition to continuing reunification and as a basis to cease reunification has no lawful basis without the threshold finding of unfitness or conduct inconsistent with their constitutionally protected status as a parent. The fact Nellie suffered injuries does not, by itself, prove Respondents harmed her, were neglectful, or acted inconsistently with their constitutionally protected parental status.” Sl.Op. ¶54.

 

Category:
Abuse, Neglect, Dependency
Stage:
Cease Reunification
Topic:
Findings of Fact
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