In re K.L.T., ___ N.C. ___ (July 17, 2020)

Held: 
Reversed
  • Facts: In 2016, the juvenile (along with his siblings) was adjudicated neglected and dependent due to a lack of proper care and supervision and an environment injurious to his welfare. Mother had a long history with CPS. The marriage between mother and the juvenile’s father was mother’s third and domestic violence was present. Throughout the case, mother was awarded supervised visitation. Mother was also ordered to comply with her case plan, which required her to engage in services to address domestic violence, her emotional and mental health, parenting skills, and stable housing. After the primary permanent plan was changed to adoption, with a secondary plan of reunification with mother, DSS was ordered to and did file a TPR. After a hearing, the TPR was granted on the grounds of neglect and dependency. Mother appeals, challenging the court’s findings.
  • Standard of review for an adjudication is whether the findings are supported by clear, cogent, and convincing evidence and whether the findings support the conclusions of law. Conclusions are law are reviewed de novo.
  • Under G.S. 7B-1111(a)(1), neglect is a ground to TPR. The neglect must result in some physical, mental, or emotional impairment or a substantial risk of such impairment to the juvenile. When a parent and child have been separated for a long period of time, there must be both past neglect and a likelihood of future neglect by the parent. The determinative factors are the child’s best interests and the fitness of the parent at the time of the adjudicatory hearing to TPR. “A termination of parental rights for neglect cannot be based solely on past conditions that no longer exist.” Sl.Op. at 29.
  • Findings regarding the likelihood of future neglect are unsupported by the evidence and the remaining findings are insufficient to support the ground of neglect.
    • Despite the finding that mother did not fully comply with her case plan, the evidence shows otherwise. Mother completed her domestic violence support group, completed parenting classes, completed outpatient therapy after accomplishing her treatment goals with no further treatment recommended, separated and divorced the juvenile’s father and obtained and extended a DVPO against him, maintained stable income with disability benefits and a part-time job, moved into a 3-bedroom home, consistently attended her supervised visitation, and paid monthly child support.
    • The finding about mother’s new online relationship that created a red flag that caused the court to question mother’s judgment is unsupported by the evidence. The evidence about mother’s online communications does not indicate any risk to the juvenile. Without any legitimate basis for believing mother’s relationship was likely to cause harm to the juvenile, DSS lacks authority to prohibit mother from engaging in her social interaction.
    • Regarding domestic violence and her past history with DSS, mother’s therapists did not believe she needed additional treatment to avoid abusive relationships or to understand why her child was removed by DSS. She also divorced her husband and obtained a DVPO against him. Past cases supporting a finding of likelihood of neglect based on domestic violence involve a parent continuing to participate in domestic violence, failing to engage in therapy, or refusing to end the abusive relationship. The evidence also showed she developed a detailed safety plan for her son, which acknowledged her role in failing to protect her children, in anticipation of reunification.
    • Although mother never had unsupervised visits, the record shows she was not permitted to do so.
    • Regarding her housing, the findings focused on the environment and management of the household as two of her other children, who were adults, resided with her. Although the trial court, as fact finder, may make reasonable inferences from the evidence, it “cannot rest on conjecture or surmise…. [and] the appellant court may review the reasonableness of the inferences drawn by the trial court from the evidence.” Sl.Op. at 26. Here, the majority of the findings were based on conjecture and were not reasonable inferences that mother would be unable to maintain a safe and stable environment for the juvenile such that he would be at risk of harm.
    • Dependency as a ground to TPR under G.S. 7B-1111(a)(6) requires findings that establish (1) the parent’s inability to provide care or supervision and (2) the parent lacking an alternative child care arrangement. The finding that mother was incapable of providing care and supervision was unsupported by the evidence as explained above.
Category:
Termination of Parental Rights
Stage:
Adjudication
Topic:
Neglect
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