In re Eckard, No. COA00-655.

Docket NºNo. COA00-655.
Citation547 S.E.2d 835, 144 NC App. 187
Case DateJune 19, 2001
CourtCourt of Appeal of North Carolina (US)

547 S.E.2d 835
144 NC App.

In the Matter of Patricia ECKARD, a minor child

No. COA00-655.

Court of Appeals of North Carolina.

June 19, 2001.

547 S.E.2d 836
M. Victoria Jayne, Hickory, for Petitioner-Appellee Guardian Ad Litem

Nathaniel J. Poovey, Newton, for Respondent-Appellant Angela B. Eckard.

TYSON, Judge.

Angela Eckard ("respondent" or "mother") appeals from a "permanency planning order" ("order") ceasing reunification efforts between her and her daughter, Patricia Eckard ("Patricia" or "Tricia"). For the reasons discussed herein, we reverse the order of the trial court.


On 14 April 1999, respondent went to the grocery store to purchase food for dinner, leaving Patricia, then 22 months old, with her boyfriend, Dale Hart. Upon returning, respondent noticed bruises and cuts on Patricia, and blood on Mr. Hart. Mr. Hart explained that Patricia had fallen and hit her head on a dresser. Respondent took Patricia to Catawba Memorial Hospital. Doctors diagnosed Patricia as having suffered skull fractures and numerous bruises all over her body. Medical personnel at the hospital concluded that the injuries suffered by Patricia "could not have been caused by accidental means." Respondent consistently maintained that Patricia's injuries were suffered while under Mr. Hart's supervision.

On 21 April 1999, a nonsecure custody order was entered removing Patricia from respondent's home, and placing her in the foster home of Harry and Paulette Sigmon. On 22 April 1999, Catawba County Department of Social Services ("DSS") filed a petition alleging that Patricia was an abused, neglected, and dependent juvenile. On 26 April 1999, respondent entered into a "Memorandum of Agreement and Order" agreeing to the continuation of the nonsecure custody order until adjudication. The Agreement stated that "reasonable efforts will be made to return the child to her home." The agreement was signed by respondent, DSS, the Guardian Ad Litem's Office, and the Honorable Gregory R. Hayes.

547 S.E.2d 837
On 25 May 1999, the juvenile petition came on for adjudication before the Honorable Nancy L. Einstein. At this hearing, respondent, through her counsel, consented to an adjudication which found that Patricia was an abused, neglected and dependent juvenile. The trial court ordered
1. The custody of the minor child shall be with the Catawba County Department of Social Services with placement in its discretion; current placement in the Catawba County Foster/Adopt home is specifically approved.
2. That the placement and care of the minor child shall be the responsibility of the Catawba County Department of Social Services and the Catawba County Department of Social Services shall provide for or arrange for the foster care or other placement of the minor child.
3. That [the] Catawba County Department of Social Services shall make a reasonable effort to return the minor child to her own home.
4. That visitation between the minor child and the mother shall occur weekly and shall be supervised by the Department of Social Services at a time and place to be determined by the Agency.
5. That the minor child shall be offered all available support services, including but not limited to foster care, physical and developmental examinations and evaluations.
6. That the mother shall comply with all aspects and terms of the Family Services Case Plan, Part A.
7. That the mother shall attend and participate in Agency-approved parenting classes, and be able to demonstrate appropriate nurturing interaction and empathy toward the minor child, and an understanding of appropriate child developmental stages as a result of such classes.
8. That the mother shall complete an assessment at Mental Health to determine her need for counseling and the need for a full psychological evaluation of the mother. The mother shall pay for the assessment and any recommended counseling. If a full psychological evaluation is necessary, the Agency shall pay for such evaluation.
9. That the mother shall cooperate fully with the Child Support Enforcement unit to determine the paternity of the minor child. The mother shall enter into a child support agreement establishing her own support payment schedule for the minor child.
10. That the identity of the minor child's father shall be determined by paternity testing. That the mother and the putative fathers shall cooperate with Child Support Enforcement Unit in arranging and participation in the paternity testing.

11. That this matter shall come on for review, without further notice to the parties, on the 17th day of August 1999.

The trial court also found that the respondent "is aware that she has a short period of time in which to turn her life around."

A review hearing was held on 24 August 1999 before Judge Einstein. At this hearing, DSS informed the court that respondent "has done everything requested by the Department of Social Services," and "the permanent plan for Patricia Eckard is reunification with her mother, Angela Eckard." DSS recommended to the trial court:

that the mother be permitted to have weekly unsupervised visits, starting with one hour unsupervised visits at the Department of Social Services, slowly progressing to unsupervised home visits, and eventually to overnight visitation dependent upon the success of the unsupervised visits as they progress to longer periods of unsupervised visitation.

The trial court made findings of fact that "the minor child continues to demonstrate a strong bond to her mother," and "[t]he child's face lights up when she sees the mother and she cries for her mother as the visit is ending." The trial court further found that:

the mother continues to cooperate with the Department of Social Services and is actively addressing the goals and objectives set forth in her Family Services Case Plan, Part A. Specifically, she is attending Mental Health counseling, Nurturing classes, regularly paying child support, has established an independent residence, and visits regularly with the child.

The court ordered, inter alia, that "visitation between the mother and minor child shall be

547 S.E.2d 838
unsupervised ... [and] conducted at the Department of Social Services weekly." Finally, the court ordered "[t]hat this matter shall come on for permanency planning, without further notice to the parties, on the 16th day of November 1999."

On 16 November 1999, the matter was continued until 14 December 1999 due to the recent discovery of the identity of Patricia's natural father, Mr. Willard Sanford, Jr. At the 14 December 1999 permanency planning hearing the court heard testimony from several witnesses. The first witness was Patricia's foster mother, Mrs. Paulette Sigmon. Mrs. Sigmon testified that Patricia "had a lot of bruises" and was "very shy" when she first arrived at the Sigmon home. According to Mrs. Sigmon, Patricia did not eat or sleep well at first. Mrs. Sigmon testified that it took Patricia several months to gain the trust of her foster family, and that in time, Patricia began eating and sleeping better. Mrs. Sigmon stated that Patricia calls her "momma" or "momma Paulette," and Mr. Sigmon "daddy."

The foster father, Mr. Harry Sigmon, testified that Patricia was scared of men at first. Mr. Sigmon stated that Patricia gradually became affectionate towards him, and Patricia eventually "bloomed out like a flower." Both Mr. and Mrs. Sigmon testified that they expected to be able to adopt Patricia, despite DSS's stated goal of reunifying Patricia with respondent.

The court next heard testimony from Ms. Anne Smith, a psychologist with Catawba County Mental Health Counseling Services. Ms. Smith performed a court-ordered psychological evaluation of respondent on 20 September 1999. Ms. Smith concluded that, despite respondent's low I.Q. level, she had "no severe mental health issues that would significantly interfere with her ability to parent her child," and that "reunification between Ms. Eckard and her child should be considered." Ms. Smith testified that:

The results that I came up with were, are based mainly on the fact that [respondent] was not the person herself who hurt the child. She has been cooperating with everything that's been asked of her. She's, it was reported to me by DSS that she's keeping all of her appointments, she's been very cooperative, she's gone to classes. She's keeping her Mental Health appointments. She expresses a real desire and motivation to, to learn parenting skills that she may not have had in the past. She expresses appreciation for the help that she's receiving. She expresses some anger towards the man that hurt her daughter but she also accepts some responsibility on her own part for not protecting her. And this is something that, in the number of evaluations that I've done, I don't often see. And I think it's a real healthy start that she is willing to accept responsibility herself. And that she's being very cooperative and learning and enjoying what she is learning.

The court next heard testimony from David Keyes, a psychologist with Catawba County Counseling Services. Mr. Keyes served as respondent's regular therapist. Mr. Keyes stated that respondent felt very "guilty ... about leaving her child with the boyfriend and then having to return and having her be abused." In a letter addressed to DSS and presented to the court, Mr. Keyes summarized respondent's progress as follows:

Overall, Ms. Eckard gained understanding of how and why her relationships with men are unhealthy. She was able to ascertain that the solution to her poor choices is to proceed more

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