In re B.E., 137A21

Docket Nº137A21
Citation2022 NCSC 83
Case DateJuly 15, 2022
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of North Carolina

2022-NCSC-83

IN THE MATTER OF: B.E., C.E., Q.E., C.E., Jr.

No. 137A21

Supreme Court of North Carolina

July 15, 2022


Appeal pursuant to N.C. G.S. § 7B-1001(a1)(1) (2019) from an order entered on 16 February 2021 by Judge James Randolph in District Court, Rowan County. This matter was calendared for argument in the Supreme Court on 1 July 2022 but determined on the record and briefs without oral argument pursuant to Rule 30(f) of the North Carolina Rules of Appellate Procedure.

Jane R. Thompson for petitioner-appellee Rowan County Department of Social Services; and Maggie Dickens Blair for appellee Guardian ad Litem.

Christopher M. Watford for respondent-appellant father.

J. Thomas Diepenbrock for respondent-appellant mother.

MORGAN, JUSTICE

¶ 1 Respondent-father appeals from the trial court's order which terminated respondent-father's parental rights to his four children: B.E. (Brian),[1] a minor child born in November 2016; C.E. (Cyrus), a minor child born in September 2015; Q.E. (Quintessa), a minor child born in December 2014; and C.E. Jr. (Craig), a minor child born in April 2008. Respondent-mother appeals from the same order of the trial court

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which terminated respondent-mother's parental rights to her children Brian, Cyrus, and Quintessa. Both respondents challenge the grounds for termination found by the trial court. Respondent-father also challenges the trial court's denial of his motion to continue the termination of parental rights hearing. We conclude that respondents' arguments are meritless and affirm the trial court's order which terminated the parental rights of both respondent-father and respondent-mother.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

¶ 2 Petitioner Rowan County Department of Social Services (DSS) became involved with this family in early 2016 after receiving a report that respondent-father had dragged respondent-mother from her bed and stomped on respondent-mother's head and neck while in the presence of two of their children. DSS initiated at-home services, but respondents largely resisted these efforts. When Brian was born in November 2016, he tested positive for the presence of marijuana in his system and weighed only four pounds. Respondent-mother told hospital staff that she was unaware of her pregnancy.

¶ 3 DSS filed a juvenile petition alleging that the four children were neglected and dependent juveniles on 15 December 2016. The petition laid out respondents' significant history of domestic violence, substance abuse, and homelessness, as well as their failure to provide adequate supervision and medical care for their children. DSS also alleged that respondent-mother "refuses to parent her children, indicating

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that she is 'done'" and that respondent-mother was "overwhelmed with her life and her poor choices and wants [DSS] to take care of her children." Lastly, DSS alleged that respondent-father was "on the run from law enforcement for stealing a golf cart and fighting deputies" and that DSS's attempts to contact respondent-father were unsuccessful. Based on these verified allegations, the trial court granted nonsecure custody of the children to DSS, which in turn placed the children in foster care.

¶ 4 On 2 February 2017, respondents consented to an adjudication of neglect and dependency based on the allegations in the petition, and on 15 March 2017, the trial court entered a written adjudication and disposition order. The trial court kept the children in DSS custody and awarded biweekly supervised visitation to Respondent-mother. Respondent-father, who was incarcerated, was ordered by the trial court to participate in any available services while in jail and upon respondent-father's release, to seek services addressing his issues with substance abuse, domestic violence, mental health, anger management, parenting education, stable housing, and employment. The trial court ordered respondent-mother to obtain and maintain adequate housing; obtain and maintain employment; obtain assessments for substance abuse, mental health, anger management, and domestic violence, and comply with any resulting recommendations; obtain a psychiatric evaluation and comply with any recommended medication management; and complete approved parenting classes and show the skills that she learned during her visitation with the

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children. Both parents were ordered to submit to random drug screens and to sign any releases which were necessary to allow DSS and the trial court to monitor respondents' progress.

¶ 5 The trial court conducted a review and permanency planning hearing in September 2017. In its resulting order, the trial court found that respondent-mother was diagnosed with histrionic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, and severe alcohol use disorder. Respondent-mother also tested positive for alcohol in May 2017, and she refused drug screens in July and September 2017. Respondent-mother also was found to have made some progress on her case plan by completing a parenting class, completing a domestic violence assessment, working to obtain housing, and obtaining employment.

¶ 6 As to respondent-father, the trial court found that he had seven pending felony charges, had been terminated from a domestic violence program for excessive absences, had missed four of six individual counseling sessions, and could not verify his employment to DSS. More favorably, respondent-father was determined to have completed twenty substance abuse sessions and submitted two negative drug screens. The trial court thereupon ordered a primary permanent plan of reunification with a secondary plan of custody with a relative or court-approved caretaker.

¶ 7 On 11 October 2017, both respondents were arrested on charges of trafficking heroin and cocaine, possession with intent to sell and deliver marijuana, and

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maintaining a dwelling for the purpose of drug sales. Respondent-father was also charged with the offense of engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise. Respondent-mother was released on bond on 16 November 2017. Respondent-father remained incarcerated as of the occurrence of the next permanency planning hearing on 25 January 2018.

¶ 8 In its order entered after the 25 January 2018 hearing, the trial court found that respondent-mother was pregnant and due to deliver the baby in April 2018. Respondent-mother tested positive for alcohol on 7 December 2017, and tested negative for alcohol on 14 and 21 December 2017. The trial court also determined that respondent-mother had completed some recommended programs and was attending different types of therapy sessions. Respondent-mother was also working twenty-four hours per week at a job that she obtained through a staffing agency. Respondent-father was not compliant with his case plan, but he regularly sent his children cards and letters. The trial court changed the plan to a primary permanent plan of reunification and a secondary plan of adoption and ordered the case plans to "be 50/50."

¶ 9 The next permanency planning hearing was held in July 2018. In the order which it issued following the hearing, the trial court found that respondents' new child Regina[2] was born on 15 April 2018 and that Regina's meconium tested positive

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for marijuana. As a result, DSS began in-home family services. Respondent-mother tested positive for alcohol in June and July 2018, she had only attended six of sixteen possible dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) sessions, and respondent-mother's psychological evaluation determined that she lacked sufficient personal or mental health functioning to be found capable of meeting the demands of parenting a child. The trial court also found that respondent-mother was temporarily living with her uncle and that she did not have a safe and stable permanent home.

¶ 10 The trial court found, with regard to respondent-father, that respondent-father pled guilty to one count of possession of a firearm while trafficking drugs under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) on 15 June 2018, which is an offense that carried a term of imprisonment of five to forty years. Respondent-father's sentencing was scheduled for 28 September 2018. DSS was unaware of any services in which respondent-father was participating while incarcerated, and he continued to send cards and letters to the children. The trial court changed the primary permanent plan to adoption, with a secondary plan of reunification.

¶ 11 On 2 January 2019, DSS filed a petition to terminate the parental rights of both respondent-mother and respondent-father on the ground of neglect and the ground of willfully leaving the children in an out-of-home placement for more than twelve months without making reasonable progress to correct the conditions leading to their removal. See N.C. G.S. § 7B-1111(a)(1)-(2) (2021). DSS also alleged

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dependency as another ground for termination of respondent-father's parental rights. N.C. G.S. § 7B-1111(a)(6) (2021).

¶ 12 After the termination of parental rights petition was filed, the matter was continued three times over the course of May, June, and July 2019 in order to allow time for respondent-father's counsel to arrange the incarcerated respondent-father's telephone attendance at the hearing. At the resulting rescheduled hearing on 5 September 2019, respondent-father's counsel moved to continue the case for a fourth time, as the attorney recounted his unsuccessful efforts to secure respondent-father's telephone presence at the hearing. Counsel represented that he was repeatedly ignored by officials at respondent-father's correctional facility. The trial court denied the fourth motion for a continuance which was made by counsel for respondent-father, and the trial court began the termination hearing.

¶ 13 The case was heard over a span of seven dates between September 2019 and September 2020. During this period of time, DSS closed its in-home services case for the juvenile...

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