In re A.N.H.

Decision Date06 May 2022
Docket Number123A21
Parties In the MATTER OF: A.N.H.
CourtNorth Carolina Supreme Court

Assistant County Attorney Susan F. Davis, for petitioner-appellee Henderson County Department of Social Services.

Ryan H. Niland and John R. Still, Winston-Salem, for Guardian ad Litem.

Edward Eldred, for respondent-appellant father.

EARLS, Justice.

¶ 1 Respondent-father appeals from a trial court order terminating his parental rights in his daughter, A.N.H. (Annie).1 Respondent was found by the trial court to have completed a required substance abuse assessment, completed 20 hours of substance abuse treatment, completed a parenting program, attended 78 of 80 possible visits with Annie, paid child support in an amount consistent with the child support guidelines, resided in a home safe and appropriate for Annie, attended court regularly, and maintained requested contact with the social worker. Petitioners sought to terminate respondent's parental rights based on the fact that respondent failed some of the many drug screens he submitted to between 2018 and 2020 and failed to submit to others.

¶ 2 We find that some of the trial court's findings of fact are not supported by the record, while others are. Thus, the issue here is whether the findings of fact that are supported by clear, cogent, and convincing evidence in the record are sufficient to support the trial court's conclusion that grounds existed to terminate respondent's parental rights for neglect and failure to make reasonable progress under the circumstances to correct the conditions that led to Annie's placement in foster care. We conclude that the findings of fact supported by clear, cogent, and convincing evidence in the record are insufficient to support the trial court's conclusion that respondent's parental rights in Annie were subject to termination. Accordingly, consistent with our precedents, we remand this matter for further proceedings rather than reversing the judgment and remanding for dismissal of the petition. See In re N.D.A. , 373 N.C. 71, 84, 833 S.E.2d 768 (2019) (vacating and remanding for further proceedings where factual findings were insufficient to support grounds for termination).

I. Background

¶ 3 When Annie was born on 9 April 2018, her cord blood tested positive for cocaine, and she experienced suboxone

withdrawal. Annie spent two weeks in the hospital being treated with methadone before being discharged to the custody of her mother. On 24 April 2018, the mother entered into a safety plan with Henderson County Department of Social Services (HCDSS) in which she agreed to continue with her substance abuse treatment and to reside with Annie at the maternal grandmother's home.

¶ 4 Around 13 May 2018, the mother moved with Annie to temporary housing with a friend after being kicked out of the maternal grandmother's home. The mother missed multiple substance abuse group therapy sessions throughout May 2018 and was discharged from her suboxone

treatment on 4 June 2018 after failing to attend her treatment

¶ 5 On 5 June 2018, HCDSS filed a petition alleging Annie to be a neglected juvenile. The petition alleged that the mother did not have stable income, was unemployed, and was not attending treatment for her substance abuse or mental health issues. Respondent was not listed on Annie's birth certificate. He was listed as the putative father on the petition, in which it was alleged that respondent provided no care or support for Annie, was unemployed, and had a history of criminal activity, drug use, and domestic violence with Annie's mother.

¶ 6 In early July 2018, the mother could no longer stay with her friend. On 10 July 2018, she and Annie spent the night at respondent's home; they spent the next two nights at the Rescue Mission. On 13 July 2018, HCDSS was unable to locate the mother or Annie. The social worker contacted respondent looking for the mother, but respondent did not have any information regarding her whereabouts. HCDSS located Annie later that day in the care of respondent and his family. At this point paternity had not yet been established.

¶ 7 HCDSS obtained nonsecure custody of Annie on 13 July 2018 and filed a supplemental petition alleging neglect. The petition alleged that the mother expressed concern about respondent being left alone with Annie because of his domestic violence history. Respondent submitted to paternity testing on 30 July 2018 and was found to have a 99.99% probability of being Annie's father. In a child support order filed on 28 September 2018, respondent acknowledged that he was Annie's father.

¶ 8 Following a hearing, the trial court entered a Consent Adjudication Order on 13 September 2018 concluding that Annie was a neglected juvenile based on the parents’ stipulated facts. In a separate disposition order entered 17 January 2019, the trial court ordered respondent to do the following in order to achieve reunification with Annie: obtain a comprehensive clinical assessment (CCA) from a certified provider and provide the assessor with truthful and accurate information; follow and successfully complete all the recommendations of the CCA; submit to random drug screens; complete an anger management/domestic violence prevention program; successfully complete a parenting class that addresses the ability to identify age-appropriate behaviors, needs, and discipline for the juvenile; cooperate and pay child support; attend visitations and demonstrate the ability to provide appropriate care for the juvenile; obtain stable income sufficient to meet the family's basic needs; obtain and maintain an appropriate and safe residence; maintain face-to-face contact with HCDSS; and provide HCDSS with updated information and sign any releases of information necessary to allow the exchange of information between HCDSS and the providers. The court granted respondent one hour of supervised visitation per week.

¶ 9 The trial court held a permanency planning hearing on 11 April 2019. In an order entered 17 May 2019, the court set the permanent plan for Annie as reunification with a secondary plan of adoption. The court found that respondent obtained a CCA, completed a parenting class, obtained sufficient income, and began mental health treatment on 7 November 2018. From July 2018 to the date of the hearing, respondent submitted to nine drug screens, seven of which were negative. However, respondent tested positive for marijuana on 18 July and 23 October 2018 and did not take requested drug screens on 28 August 2018 and 8 January 2019. The court ordered respondent to comply with the components of his case plan and allowed him six hours of unsupervised visitation per week.

¶ 10 On 3 June 2019, HCDSS filed a Motion for Review requesting respondent's visitation be changed back to supervised visits after respondent's 21 May 2019 hair follicle test came back positive for amphetamines, methamphetamines, and cocaine. Following a hearing on 11 July 2019, the trial court entered an order on 3 September 2019 continuing the permanent plans.

¶ 11 Respondent himself requested additional hair follicle tests on 25 and 26 September and 2 October 2019. However, respondent testified that he could not submit samples for these tests because he was working two hours away in Maggie Valley and could not get to the testing site before it closed. On 10 October 2019, a second hair follicle test came back positive for methamphetamine, cocaine, and benzoylecgonine, the main metabolite of cocaine. Respondent's unsupervised visitation was suspended on 15 October 2019 due to his positive hair follicle screens.

¶ 12 In a review order entered 14 February 2020, the trial court changed the permanent plan to adoption with a secondary plan of guardianship, finding that respondent had not made adequate progress within a reasonable time under the plan. The court found that respondent had not engaged with individual therapy to comply with his substance abuse requirements, and that he was extremely dependent on his grandmother for assistance in caring for Annie. The court also found that respondent had threatened family members who offered to help with Annie or provide information to HCDSS about Annie. The court allowed respondent a minimum of one hour of supervised visitation per week.

¶ 13 On 12 March 2020, HCDSS filed a motion to terminate respondent's parental rights on the grounds of neglect and willful failure to make reasonable progress to correct the conditions that led to Annie's removal from the home.2 N.C.G.S. § 7B-1111(a)(1)(2) (2021). Following multiple continuances, the trial court held a termination of parental rights hearing on 15 October, 12 November, and 10 December 2020. On 19 January 2021, the trial court entered an order concluding that HCDSS had proven both alleged grounds to terminate respondent's parental rights and that termination of respondent's parental rights was in Annie's best interests. Accordingly, the trial court terminated respondent's parental rights. Respondent appealed.

II. Analysis

¶ 14 On appeal, respondent challenges the trial court's adjudication of grounds for termination of his parental rights under N.C.G.S. § 7B-1111(a)(1) and (2). He contends that of the twenty-seven findings of fact relied upon by the trial court, the entirety of finding of fact 38 and significant portions of eleven others are not supported by the evidence and that the remaining findings do not support the trial court's conclusions that grounds existed to terminate his rights.

¶ 15 We review a trial court's adjudication that grounds exist to terminate parental rights "to determine whether the findings are supported by clear, cogent and convincing evidence and the findings support the conclusions of law." In re E.H.P. , 372 N.C. 388, 392, 831 S.E.2d 49 (2019) (quoting In re Montgomery , 311 N.C. 101, 111, 316 S.E.2d 246 (1984) ). "A trial court's finding of fact that is supported by clear, cogent, and convincing evidence is deemed conclusive even if the...

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