In re S.D., ___ N.C. App. ___ (April 6, 2021)

Held: 
Reversed and Remanded
  • Facts: In 2017, the juveniles were adjudicated dependent in part because of a history of homelessness and unsafe housing, mother’s unaddressed mental health issues and parenting deficits, and failure to address the youngest child’s development delays and medical needs. In the dispositional stage, mother was ordered to comply with a case plan that addressed these issues. The court made findings that mother was complying with her case plan, including attending parenting classes, finding and maintaining employment, and participating in mental health services. Mother’s visitation increased and she was granted both supervised and unsupervised visitation. In 2020, at a final permanency planning hearing, the court awarded guardianship of the youngest child to his foster parents, who had been caring for him and seeing the progress he made in their care. The court found mother had opportunities to obtain housing through referrals from the DSS social worker as well as referrals for a housing voucher but declined to accept housing. The court also made findings about mother’s late arrival and early departure from visits and inability to attend to the youngest child’s needs. In the order awarding guardianship, the court determined that permanency was achieved for this child and ceased further hearings. Mother appealed, arguing the evidence did not support the findings and that DSS did not make reasonable efforts.
  • 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.
  • The evidence does not support the findings.
    • Housing: The evidence does not support a finding that mother declined to accept housing. Although DSS referred the mother to Section 8 through the family reunification program (FUP), there was a 3-year waiting list. Mother also attempted to find housing on her own with rental deposit assistance. DSS’s referral to an agency that is another branch of Section 8 housing without knowing whether the rental units on the agency’s list provided to mother were available is not sufficient evidence that mother declined the housing. The DSS social worker never inquired as the availability of any housing units mother viewed. Mother’s testimony was that there was a shortage of housing due to Hurricane Florence and that some of the units she viewed were either occupied or not in good condition and that she did not turn down a viable residence. “Speculation that, in general, people who earn ‘decent’ wages should be able to find housing… is not proof that Respondent-Mother could obtain adequate housing for herself and the children.” Sl.Op. ¶37.
    • Unable to meet the child’s needs or participate in therapy: Orders in the action do not include a requirement that mother attend the child’s medical appointments or therapy. The evidence does not show mother did not understand the child’s medical needs or was unable or unwilling to provide proper care for him.
    • Late arrival/early return on visits: When taken in context, the evidence shows mother’s arrival and departure times were due to traffic or school pick-up times.
  • Reasonable Efforts Not Made: DSS must provide reasonable, not exhaustive, efforts toward reunification. See G.S. 7B-101(18). DSS’s efforts included developing a case plan, holding CFT meetings, linking mother to mental health services and parenting education, confirming completion of services, facilitating visits, and ensuring the children’s needs were met. DSS did not provide meaningful assistance to mother in obtaining housing when she was provided an unvetted list of addresses and a referral to Section 8 with a 3-year waiting list.
  • The court did not make findings that mother acted inconsistently with her constitutional right to parent or that she was unfit before granting guardianship to a third party.
  • 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. Although the order does not expressly cease reunification efforts, awarding guardianship and ceasing further reviews precludes the possibility of reunification. The findings about mother’s lack of progress is securing housing did not consider mother’s low credit score and lack of housing due to Hurricane Florence. The findings do not address the required statutory criteria and is reversible error.
  • Waiving further hearings under G.S. 7B-906.1(n) requires the court to make all the findings in that statute, which was not done. This is reversible error.
Category:
Abuse, Neglect, Dependency
Stage:
Cease Reunification
Topic:
Findings of Fact
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