In re X.M., ___ N.C App. ___ (March 19, 2024)

  • Facts: Four children were adjudicated neglected based on Mother’s substance use issues and inability to provide a safe home. The court ordered primary custody of the children with Father, and five years later, the children were adjudicated neglected and dependent based on reports of Father leaving the children for long periods (e.g. six months) with a young relative incapable of caring for the children. The children were placed in DSS custody while both parents were ordered to comply with their case plans that included conditions of completing a clinical assessment and resulting service recommendations; drug testing; maintaining appropriate housing; and consistently visiting with the children. Mother made minimal efforts to comply with her case plan; testing positive on drug screens, refusing to tell DSS where she was (she worked in traveling carnivals); and rarely visiting with the children. DSS filed a TPR motion and the court terminated Mother’s parental rights based on four grounds, one of which was willfully leaving the children in foster care for more than 12 months without showing reasonable progress to correct the circumstances of their removal. Mother appeals the ground.
  • A trial court’s adjudication of grounds to terminate parental rights are reviewed to determine “whether the findings of fact are supported by clear, cogent and convincing evidence and the findings support the conclusions of law.” Sl. Op. at 6 (citation omitted). An adjudication of a single ground is sufficient to support a TPR and the court need not address remaining grounds for termination once one ground is affirmed supporting the trial court’s conclusion.
  • G.S. 7B-1111(a)(2) authorizes a trial court to terminate parental rights after “the parent has willfully left the juvenile in foster care or placement outside the home for more than 12 months without showing to the satisfaction of the court that reasonable progress under the circumstances has been made in correcting those conditions which led to the removal of the juvenile.” Sl. Op. at 7, quoting G.S. 7B-1111(a)(2). Termination under this ground requires a “two-step analysis” to determine both whether the parent willfully left the child in foster care for more than 12 months and the parent’s failure to make reasonable progress in correcting the conditions that led to their child’s removal. Sl. Op. at 7 (citation omitted). A parent’s “prolonged inability to improve her situation, despite some efforts in that direction, will support a finding of willfulness . . . and will support a finding of lack of progress . . .” Sl. Op. at 8 (citation omitted). Noncompliance with case plan conditions are “relevant, ‘provided that the objectives sought to be achieved by the case plan provision in question address issues that contributed to causing the problematic circumstances that led to the juvenile’s removal from the parental home.’ ” Sl. Op. at 8 (citation omitted).
  • Mother failed to make reasonable progress in correcting the conditions that led to the children’s removal, satisfying the second prong of the two-step analysis required under G.S.7B-1111(a)(2) at issue. At the time of the TPR hearing Mother had failed to address her substance use issues with only sporadic participation in substance use treatments and consistent refusal of drug tests or positive test results throughout the life of the case; had failed to create a safe home for the children as she had been homeless for months prior to the hearing and had refused cooperating with DSS regarding the children’s living situation and her own whereabouts; and had failed to regularly visit the children while they were in DSS custody. Mother’s “incapability to parent” was willful and would likely continue given Mother’s substance use and failure to engage in meaningful treatment. Sl. Op. at 10. These components of Mother’s case plan address the issues that contributed to the circumstances of the children’s removal and support termination.
Termination of Parental Rights
Willfully Leaving Child in Foster Care or Other Placement
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