In re M.T., 285 N.C. App. 305 (2022)

  • Facts:  In 2018, after a hearing and based on stipulations, two juveniles were adjudicated neglected, and the younger infant was also adjudicated abused and dependent. The circumstances involved lack of medical care and nonaccidental injury to the infant including skull and rib fractures in various stages of healing, retinol hemorrhages in both eyes, malnourishment, and other life-threatening conditions. At the time of adjudication and throughout the case, the cause of injuries were never explained; however, the juvenile was in the sole care of his parents at all times prior to the petition being filed. Different explanations for the injuries were provided at different times, including hospital caused, mother’s stepfather, and a single drop of the infant by father. The court determined those explanations were not credible to account for the various injuries occurring at different times.
  • At disposition, the children were placed in DSS custody, and parents were ordered to engage in a case plan. Mother’s case plan included a parenting capacity evaluation, parenting classes with demonstration of skills learned at visits, and random drug screens. In the first year of the case, the parents were incarcerated due to charges stemming from the infant’s abuse. Ultimately, father pled to a child abuse charge and mother’s charges were dismissed. At the third permanency planning hearing, reunification was eliminated as a permanent plan.
  • DSS filed a TPR, which was granted on the grounds of neglect and failure to make reasonable progress. At the dispositional portion of the TPR hearing, mother’s expert witness on child welfare policy and practice was not permitted to testify as her testimony was determined to be irrelevant. An offer of proof through the expert report was provided that addressed her testimony regarding racial disparity in child welfare, domestic violence and child welfare, and the importance of avoiding family separation and foster care versus kinship placement.
  • Mother appeals the permanency planning order eliminating reunification (which the court of appeals granted a petition for writ of certiorari to review) and the TPR order for both the grounds and the trial court’s denial of her expert witness testifying at the dispositional stage. Several agencies filed amicus briefs to the court to address domestic violence in child welfare cases, race in child welfare cases, and wealth-based pretrial incarceration on families.
  • Eliminating Reunification: The standard of review is whether the findings are based on credible evidence and support the conclusions and whether the court abused its discretion with the dispositional order. The court’s sole consideration at disposition is the child’s best interests.
    • Mother does not challenge any specific findings, so she has failed to preserve challenges to any findings. The court made the required findings to eliminate reunification under G.S. 7B-906.2(b) and (d). The court found that mother did participate in services required by her case plan, but the services did not address the reasons for the children coming into care, including the lack of an explanation for how the child was injured. The court’s decision to eliminate reunification was reasoned. Although mother argues she completed her case plan, the court’s findings explain why it did not give significant weight to the parental capacity evaluation; the evaluator did not address the court’s concerns about an explanation for the child’s injuries and failed to review the child’s medical records to learn what happened to the child. Although mother attended parenting classes, those classes focused on how to childproof a home and what to do when a child is sick or injured and did not address the reasons for the children’s removal. The court’s reasonable view of the evidence is binding, even when the evidence may support a contrary view. Further, “compliance with a case plan alone is not always sufficient to preserve parental rights” because parents must show changed behaviors and acknowledge and understand why the juvenile came into DSS custody. 285 N.C. App. at 332.
    • The court did not abuse its discretion in emphasizing the lack of an explanation for the child’s injuries when determining to eliminate reunification as a permanent plan. This case is similar to In re Y.Y.E.T., 205 N.C. App. 120 (2010), in that the court found the juvenile’s injuries were nonaccidental and indicated child abuse. Further, the adjudication order found the children were in the sole care of the parents during the time of the infant’s nonaccidental injuries. “[T]he trial court could not ‘conclusively determine’ who caused all of [the juvenile’s] conditions but could still permissibly determine both parents were responsible for [his] condition either directly or indirectly.” Id.
Abuse, Neglect, Dependency
Cease Reunification
Findings of Fact
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