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.
  • Amicus to Grounds:
    • The ACLU of North Carolina raised constitutional issues regarding due process on the ground of failing to make reasonable progress to correct the conditions leading to the child’s removal, G.S. 7B-1111(a)(2). Constitutional issues not raised before the trial court are waived.
    • The NC Justice Center and Community Bail Fund of Durham argued “wealth-based pre-trial incarceration” related to mother’s incarceration and impact it has on her ability to comply with her case plan, specifically visiting the children and demonstrating skills learned in parenting, contradicts mother’s argument that she satisfied her case plan. 285 N.C. App. at 357. Further, mother did not argue her incarceration impacted her ability to work her case plan. The court did order DSS to determine what, if any, service were available in the jail and mother was later released and visited with her son.
Termination of Parental Rights
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