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In re T.L.H.

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

November 18, 2014


Heard in the Court of Appeals 6 October 2014.

Appeal by respondent mother from order entered 4 February 2014 by Judge Tabatha Holliday in Guilford County District Court, No. 13 JT 59.

Mercedes O. Chut for petitioner-appellee Guilford County Department of Health and Human Services.

J. Thomas Diepenbrock for respondent-appellant mother.

Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein, LLP, by Sye T. Hickey, for guardian ad litem.

ELMORE, Judge. Chief Judge McGEE concurs. Judge HUNTER, Robert C., dissents by separate opinion.


ELMORE, Judge.

Respondent mother appeals from the trial court's order terminating her parental rights

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to the juvenile T.L.H. Respondent contends the trial court abused its discretion by failing to inquire into whether it was necessary to appoint her a guardian ad litem (GAL), when the allegations supporting termination of her rights were focused on her serious mental health disorders. We reverse the order terminating respondent's parental rights and remand for a hearing to determine whether respondent requires a GAL.

I. Background

In addition to the juvenile T.L.H., who was born in 2013, respondent has two older children who were removed from her care. The Guilford County Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) became involved with this juvenile at the time of the juvenile's birth, after respondent informed the hospital that she had no place to take the juvenile and a hospital psychiatrist evaluated respondent and determined the juvenile would not be safe with her. Respondent has a substance abuse history and is schizophrenic. According to DHHS, respondent " has a history of substance abuse and has diagnoses of schizophrenia, chronic paranoid type, chronically noncompliant, marijuana dependence, personality disorder," and DHHS stated it needed to " rule out borderline intellectual functioning." Respondent requested that DHHS " take custody of [the juvenile] until [respondent] could obtain her own housing and other things needed for her and her baby."

On 12 April 2013, DHHS filed a petition alleging the juvenile was neglected and dependent, and the juvenile was placed in non-secure custody. The petition alleged that respondent had " a substance abuse history and is schizophrenic and has poor mental health compliance; " respondent had two children removed from her care due to substance abuse, domestic violence and her unresolved mental health issues; and respondent was hospitalized on several occasions in the past year due to mental health complications.

Deputy County Attorney Robert W. Brown, III requested that the trial court appoint respondent a GAL at an 18 April 2013 hearing to determine the need for the continued nonsecure custody of the juvenile. Judge Betty Brown (Judge Brown) appointed attorney Amy Bullock as respondent's GAL on that date. Judge Brown did not indicate whether the GAL was appointed in a substitutive capacity or an assistive capacity. The trial court dismissed the neglect allegation but adjudicated the juvenile dependent in an order entered 5 June 2013. The order also relieved DHHS of the duty to make reasonable efforts toward reunification, although it permitted DHHS to continue to make such efforts.

The matter came on for a permanency planning hearing on 11 July 2013, and respondent testified at the hearing. The trial court changed the permanent plan for the juvenile to adoption. On 9 September 2013, DHHS filed a petition to terminate the parental rights of respondent and the juvenile's unidentified father. As grounds for termination of respondent's rights, the petition alleged: (1) neglect; (2) dependency; and (3) respondent's rights to another child had previously been terminated and she lacked the ability to establish a safe home. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1111(a)(1, 6, 9) (2013). A pretrial hearing was conducted before Judge Thomas Jarrell (Judge Jarrell), following which Judge Jarrell entered an order on 19 November 2013 stating: " Attorney Amy Bullock was released by operation of law effective October 1, 2013 as [respondent's] guardian ad litem attorney of assistance." Respondent proceeded in this matter without the assistance of a GAL. The case came on for a termination hearing on 6 January 2014. Respondent was not present for the hearing, and her attorney made a motion to continue on her behalf. According to the attorney, he had been unable to send respondent notice of the hearing because she had moved and DHHS had not provided him with her new address. The attorney had sent correspondence to respondent's former address in November and December of 2013. DHHS contended that a social worker had informed respondent of the termination hearing date and that respondent had not been present for any court dates since the July permanency planning hearing. The trial court denied the motion to continue, and terminated respondent's parental rights based on all three grounds alleged in the petition. The trial

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court's order also terminated the parental rights of the juvenile's unidentified ...

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