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.
  • Disposition: Expert Testimony by mother’s witness was excluded after the court determine at voir dire that it was irrelevant. The expert was going to address mother’s bond with the children and the importance of maintaining family relationships, especially for Black families. The standard of review of the court’s dispositional order is reviewed for an abuse of discretion, and the admissibility of evidence at disposition is also reviewed for an abuse of discretion.
    • The court made a reasoned decision after finding the expert did not believe she had all the documents to review and that the expert had insufficient information about mother and the facts of the case. The expert was also unfamiliar with NC DHHS practices and did not have research from NC. “The trial court’s responsibility was to find the facts based upon the evidence presented as to these specific child and parents and to determine the best interests of these specific children based upon those facts and the law.” 285 N.C. App. at 364.
    • Amicus NC NAACP and ACLU of NC argue the expert would have provided relevant evidence of race disproportionately in child welfare via data.  These points are worthy of note and are addressed by G.S. 7B-1110(a) – the bond with the parent and any other relevant consideration. The General Assembly also identifies the purposes and policies of the child welfare system in NC through G.S. 7B-100, which involves balancing family autonomy and protecting children and providing a safe permanent home to children. These laws favor family placement over any other placement when a family placement is available and safe. Parents have constitutional rights to care, custody, and control of their children when they are not unfit or have not acted inconsistently with those rights. “Statistics or studies regarding outcomes for children in non-kinship homes or disproportionate impacts on ‘marginalized racial groups’ may be of great assistance to the policy-making branches of government when establishing the laws and procedures in child welfare cases generally, but may have no direct relevance to a particular child or family.” 285 N.C. App. at 364.
Termination of Parental Rights
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