In re R.L.R., 305A21

Docket Nº305A21
Citation2022 NCSC 92
Case DateJuly 15, 2022
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of North Carolina

2022-NCSC-92

IN THE MATTER OF: R.L.R.

No. 305A21

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 28 May 2021 by Judge D. Brent Cloninger in District Court, Cabarrus County. This matter was calendared for argument in the Supreme Court on 1 July 2022, but was determined on the record and briefs without oral argument pursuant to Rule 30(f) of the North Carolina Rules of Appellate Procedure.

William L. Esser, IV, for Guardian ad Litem, and E. Garrison White for petitioner-appellee Cabarrus County Department of Human Services.

Christopher M. Watford for respondent-appellant mother.

ERVIN, JUSTICE

¶ 1 Respondent-mother Kayla H. appeals from an order entered by the trial court terminating her parental rights in her daughter, R.L.R.[1] After careful consideration of respondent-mother's challenges to the trial court's termination order in light of the

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record and the applicable law, we conclude that the trial court's order should be affirmed.[2]

I. Background

¶ 2 On 2 April 2019, the Cabarrus County Department of Human Services filed a verified juvenile petition alleging that Rachel was a neglected and dependent juvenile and obtained the entry of an order placing her in nonsecure custody. In its petition, DHS described its interactions with Rachel's family following the receipt of a child protective services report on 26 November 2018 concerning a "nasty black, blue and red bruise on the left side of [Rachel's] face covering her lip, neck, jaw, and face[.]" Although the initial report indicated that Rachel had sustained this bruise as the result of a fall that had occurred while she was in her stepfather's care, Rachel stated during an appointment at the Child Advocacy Center that "her daddy pushed her[,]" an assertion that caused the Child Advocacy Center staff to reach the conclusion that Rachel's "injuries were from non-accidental trauma" and to become concerned about the possibility that Rachel had been subjected to physical abuse. After the maternal grandmother had been identified as a temporary safety provider, Rachel was placed in the maternal grandmother's care pursuant to a safety agreement stating that

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respondent-mother could only have supervised contact with Rachel and that the stepfather could not have any contact with Rachel at all.

¶ 3 DHS also alleged that the stepfather had been charged with committing felony and misdemeanor drug offenses on 16 December 2018 and that respondent-mother had reported on 17 December 2018 that she had used cocaine and marijuana while Rachel had been temporarily placed with the maternal grandmother. DHS asserted that, on 19 December 2019, "[t]he case was substantiated for physical abuse and neglect due to concerns of improper supervision, substance abuse, and injurious environment" and transferred it to the in-home services unit. Although respondent-mother missed an initial child and family team meeting that was held on 14 January 2019, she attended a rescheduled meeting that was held on 25 January 2019, at which time she agreed to a case plan that required her to participate in parenting education and demonstrate the skills that she had learned in disciplining, supervising, and protecting Rachel; complete a substance abuse assessment and comply with any resulting recommendations; submit to random drug screening within two hours after having been requested to do so; and sign releases authorizing the provision of information to DHS.

¶ 4 DHS further alleged that, while the family was receiving in-home services, the agency had received a second child protective services report on 29 January 2019 indicating that Rachel had been in the care of respondent-mother rather than the

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maternal grandmother and that the respondent-mother was taking Rachel to the stepfather's home. DHS asserted that it had received a third child protective services report on 14 March 2019 indicating that there were drugs in the family home and that respondent-mother and the stepfather had "fallen asleep (passed out) due to possible heroin use" while Rachel was in the home and unsupervised. According to DHS, respondent-mother had failed three drug screens in March, having tested positive for the presence of methamphetamine, opiates, amphetamines, and marijuana.

¶ 5 Finally, DHS alleged that, despite the fact that respondent-mother, the stepfather, and the maternal grandmother had repeatedly denied that they had violated the safety agreement, the agency remained concerned that Rachel was having unauthorized contact with respondent-mother and the stepfather. DHS alleged that its concerns had been validated on 1 April 2019, when Rachel was discovered with respondent-mother and the stepfather at a time when the maternal grandmother was absent.

¶ 6 Within a week after the filing of the juvenile petition, DHS sought leave to amend its petition for the purpose of including additional factual allegations concerning information of which it had been unaware at the time at which the initial petition had been filed. According to the additional allegations set out in the amended petition, the stepfather's probation officer had made an unannounced visit to the

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home in March 2019; the probation officer had discovered Rachel, respondent-mother, and the stepfather at the residence during his visit; the stepfather had informed the probation officer that Rachel had been placed back in the family home; and an incident involving domestic violence between the stepfather and respondent-mother in Rachel's presence had occurred on 24 March 2019.

¶ 7 On 25 July 2019, Judge Christy E. Wilhelm entered an order determining that Rachel was a neglected and dependent juvenile based, in part, upon respondent-mother's stipulation to the making of findings of fact that were consistent with the allegations that had been made in the amended petition. In addition, Judge Wilhelm ordered that Rachel remain in DHS custody, provided for weekly supervised visitation between respondent-mother and Rachel for a period of one hour, and authorized DHS to expand the amount of time within which respondent-mother was allowed to visit with Rachel as the proceeding progressed. Similarly, Judge Wilhelm ordered respondent-mother to obtain a substance abuse assessment and to comply with any resulting recommendations; to submit to random drug screens; to obtain a comprehensive clinical assessment following a period of sobriety and comply with any resulting recommendations; complete parenting education; adhere to the weekly visitation plan; attend Rachel's medical and dental appointments and educational meetings; obtain and maintain housing that was appropriate for herself and Rachel for a minimum of six months; provide verification that she had sufficient income to

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provide for herself and Rachel; provide financial support for Rachel; sign any information releases requested by DHS; and maintain bi-weekly contact with the social worker. Finally, Judge Wilhelm established a primary permanent plan of reunification for Rachel, with a secondary plan of legal guardianship.

¶ 8 After a permanency planning hearing held on 12 March 2020, Judge Wilhelm entered an order on or about 2 April 2020 finding that respondent-mother had failed to make adequate progress toward correcting the conditions that had led to Rachel's removal from the family home within a reasonable period of time and that the conditions that had resulted in Rachel's placement in DHS custody continued to exist because respondent-mother had not participated in substance abuse and parenting education-related services and had failed to consistently visit with Rachel. As a result, Judge Wilhelm ordered that Rachel's primary permanent plan be changed to one of legal guardianship, with a secondary plan of reunification. In addition, Judge Wilhelm reduced the amount of time during which respondent-mother was entitled to visit with Rachel to a period of one hour every other week and ordered respondent-mother to confirm her attendance at least two hours prior to each visit. According to Judge Wilhelm, while Rachel was doing well in her current placement, her foster parents were not interested in serving as a permanent placement for her. On the other hand, respondent-mother's second cousin had expressed an interest in providing Rachel with a permanent placement and was the subject of a home study

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that was in the process of being performed. As a result, Judge Wilhelm ordered that Rachel be placed with the maternal second cousin in the event that a favorable result was reported at the conclusion of the pending home study.

¶ 9 After another permanency planning hearing held on 11 June 2020, the trial court entered an order on 2 July 2020 finding that the maternal second cousin's home had been approved at the conclusion of the home study and that Rachel had been transitioned to this relative placement on 25 May 2020. In addition, the trial court clarified that Rachel's primary permanent plan involved legal guardianship with a relative. The trial court found that respondent-mother had not visited with Rachel during the past ninety days and that her failure to visit with Rachel had negatively affected the child. As a result, the trial court ordered that respondent-mother's visits with Rachel be terminated until respondent-mother had made herself available to the court and had begun to actively engage in complying with the requirements of her case plan.

¶ 10 In an order entered on 20 October 2020 following a 10 September 2020 permanency planning hearing, Judge Wilhelm found that respondent-mother had continued to make no progress in complying with the requirements of her case plan and that the maternal second cousin had expressed a desire to adopt Rachel. As the result of respondent-mother's failure to make satisfactory progress in addressing the...

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