In re J.A.J., 269A21

Docket Nº269A21
Citation2022 NCSC 85
Case DateJuly 15, 2022
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of North Carolina

2022-NCSC-85

IN THE MATTER OF: J.A.J., K.D.M.J., and P.A.P.J.

No. 269A21

Supreme Court of North Carolina

July 15, 2022


Appeals pursuant to N.C. G.S. § 7B-1001(a1)(1) from orders entered on 25 May 2021 by Judge Pell C. Cooper in District Court, Wilson 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.

Beaman & Bennington, PLLC, by Jennifer K. Bennington, for petitioner appellee Wilson County Department of Social Services.

Matthew D. Wunsche, GAL appellate counsel, for appellee Guardian ad Litem. Sean P. Vitrano for respondent-appellant mother.

Anne C. Wright for respondent-appellant father.

HUDSON, JUSTICE.

¶ 1 Respondent-mother and respondent-father appeal from the trial court's orders terminating respondent-mother's parental rights to her minor children J.A.J. (Jake), K.D.M.J. (Karl), and P.A.P.J. (Pamela)[1] and an order terminating respondent-father's

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parental rights to Karl.[2] Upon review, we affirm.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

¶ 2 On 11 and 17 December 2018, the Wilson County Department of Social Services (DSS) filed separate juvenile petitions alleging that two-year-old Jake, six-year-old Karl, and newborn Pamela were neglected and dependent juveniles. Each petition alleged that on 7 December 2018, family members observed Karl to be "rigid, staring, grinding his teeth, having mild tremors, incontinent, weak, and [with] his left side . . . drooping." When respondent-mother did not seek immediate medical care for what she felt was more of "a behavioral issue," family members transported Karl to Wilson Medical Center, where his "condition rapidly deteriorated, and he lost the ability to speak." The next day, Karl was transferred to Vidant Medical Center where he was placed on a ventilator, after becoming unable to breathe. Respondent-mother reportedly refused to authorize medical treatment and was ultimately escorted from the facility by law enforcement officers.

¶ 3 During the course of an investigation, Karl disclosed that he had ingested pills belonging to respondent-mother's boyfriend. Respondent-mother admitted that she was a long-time substance abuser and that she was unable to provide a safe, stable environment for her children. The whereabouts of Karl's father, respondent-father, were unknown at the time.

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¶ 4 DSS obtained nonsecure custody of Jake and Karl on 11 December 2018 and of Pamela on 18 December 2018.[3] Jake and Pamela were placed in foster care. Karl was placed with a relative "after several failed foster placements."

¶ 5 A hearing on the juvenile petitions was conducted on 20 February 2019. With the assistance of counsel, respondent-mother and respondent-father submitted stipulations in accord with allegations set forth in the juvenile petitions. After considering DSS reports, testimony, and respondents' stipulations, the trial court adjudicated Jake, Karl, and Pamela neglected and dependent juveniles by orders entered on 4 March 2019.

¶ 6 In its disposition orders entered on the same date, the trial court found, inter alia, that respondent-mother had acknowledged Karl needed mental health treatment but had refused to authorize it. The trial court found that, "[w]hen he does not get what he wants," Karl has "severe behavior problems." His diagnoses include Adjustment Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and Sibling Relational Problem. He had run away from respondent-mother's home on numerous occasions, as well as the homes of every other caregiver, including foster families, with whom he had been placed. Between 11 and 21 December 2018, Karl had been placed in three foster homes and had one night of respite placement and one night of care at a hospital. Respondent-mother's visitation

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with Karl was suspended due to the severity of his behavior following her visits.

¶ 7 The court acknowledged that respondent-mother loves her children. But she also had a long history with Child Protective Services and a history of substance abuse. She did not feel the need for treatment for mental health issues or substance abuse.

¶ 8 At the time of the hearing on Karl's juvenile petition, respondent-father was incarcerated in the Craven County Correctional Institute on drug charges. He had not been an active part of Karl's life, but he indicated his desire to be a father to Karl upon his release.

¶ 9 The court ordered respondent-mother to complete a safety circle with a social worker and develop a safety plan to ensure the juveniles would be properly supervised at all times. She was also ordered to complete a psychological evaluation; work with a mental health provider to learn healthy coping skills, identify healthy relationships, and receive emotional support regarding her domestic violence relationships; and work with a parent trainer to learn parenting skills for a child with behavioral challenges. Respondent-mother was allowed a minimum of one hour of weekly supervised visitation with Jake and Pamela and a minimum of one and one-half hours of weekly supervised telephone contact with Karl. Respondent-father was allowed the same amount of supervised telephone contact with Karl and was ordered to work with a social worker to develop a service plan upon his release from incarceration.

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¶ 10 A review hearing was conducted on 20 March 2019. In separate amended review orders entered for each juvenile on 11 April 2019, the trial court found that respondent-mother needed to address her substance abuse and mental health issues, refrain from domestic violence, and demonstrate an ability to provide a safe living environment and manage the juveniles' needs. Respondent-mother's in-person contact with Karl would remain suspended until his mental health needs were addressed and his trauma in conjunction with his visits with respondent-mother reduced. The court found that respondent-mother wanted to be reunified with the juveniles. She had acquired public housing to accommodate herself and her children, had participated in a Child and Family Team Meeting on 3 January 2019; and had reportedly contacted Carolina Outreach to schedule a substance abuse evaluation.

¶ 11 The trial court further found that DSS had referred respondent-mother to psychologist Shartra Sylivant for a psychological evaluation, provided her with the contact information for the Social Security Administration to apply for social security disability benefits, and referred her to DSS's parenting program to assist her with learning how so that she could parent and manage children who had experienced past trauma. Respondent-father remained incarcerated.

¶ 12 In permanency-planning orders entered on 30 August 2019 following a 31 July 2019 hearing, the trial court found that return of the juveniles to respondent-mother's home would be contrary to their best interests due to her "partial progress within the

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last seven months towards her court ordered Family Services activities such as emotional/mental health, substance abuse including requested drug screens, and parenting." She had also refused to sign a family contact and visitation plan, comply with the visitation agreement, submit to requested drug screens, or submit to a substance abuse assessment. Respondent-mother believed Karl's behavior was the reason for DSS involvement and contended that the juveniles were wrongly adjudicated neglected and dependent.

¶ 13 After respondent-mother's limited participation in a psychological evaluation in June 2019, Sylivant diagnosed respondent-mother with "Cannabis and Phencyclidine (PC) use disorders, Personal History of Psychological Trauma, Partner Violence, Parental Child Neglect, Discord with Social Services, and Antisocial Personality Disorder with additional histrionic, borderline and paranoid traits." Sylivant reported respondent-mother also had "a number of problematic personality traits," which would not likely be ameliorated by psychotherapy or medication. Sylivant reported that respondent-mother's prognosis for significant and lasting behavior change was "poor."

¶ 14 Respondent-father was released from incarceration on 20 June 2019; however, he was reincarcerated on 27 June 2019 for trafficking in heroin. Shortly thereafter, a social worker met with respondent-father at the Wilson County Detention Center on 10 July 2019 to create a family contact and visitation plan. Respondent-father

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requested a visit with Karl, but face-to-face meetings during respondent-father's incarcerations were never allowed based on a determination that a meeting at the jail was not in Karl's best interests.

¶ 15 In the August 2019 permanency-planning orders, the court set custody with a relative or other suitable caregiver as the primary permanent plans for Jake and Karl with a secondary, concurrent plan of reunification. For Pamela, the permanent plan was reunification with a concurrent plan of custody with a relative or other suitable person. Respondent-mother was permitted supervised visitation with the juveniles every other week and supervised telephone calls at least weekly. Respondent-father was allowed mail correspondence and supervised telephone contact with Karl.

¶ 16 The trial court conducted permanency-planning hearings on 20 November 2019 and 4 March 2020 and entered permanency-planning orders on 13 December 2019 and 31 March 2020. In the December 2019 orders, the court noted "concerns that" respondent-mother "was having unsupervised contact" with Karl. Karl's kinship placement had been unsuccessful, and DSS had placed Karl with a foster family. The court ceased respondent-mother's contact with the juveniles until she "exhibited behavioral changes, made progress towards her Family Service Agreement, and complied with her signed family...

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