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In re A.E.C.

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

January 20, 2015

IN THE MATTER OF: A.E.C

Heard in the Court of Appeals December 4, 2014

Christopher L. Carr for petitioner-appellee Cumberland County Department of Social Services.

Beth A. Hall for respondent-appellee guardian ad litem.

Joyce L. Terres, Assistant Appellate Defender, for respondent-appellant father.

STEELMAN, Judge. Judges GEER and STEPHENS concur.

OPINION

Page 167

Appeal by father from orders entered 10 April 2012, 24 August 2012, 23 August 2012, and 11 April 2014 by Judge Edward A. Pone in Cumberland County District Court, No. 09 JT 299.

STEELMAN, Judge.

Where the trial court's permanency planning orders did not contain the findings required by N.C. Gen. Stat. § § 7B-507 and 7B-906.1, the trial court erred in ceasing reunification efforts with father. Where the trial court erred in ceasing reunification efforts, it erred in terminating father's parental rights.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

J.M. (father) began dating E.C. (mother) in 2008. Mother and her children were living with a mutual friend at the time; mother was married, but separated from her husband. After mother had a falling out with her friend, she and her children moved in with father. Mother lived in father's home for only a few weeks.

Mother then moved to Fayetteville, but maintained the relationship with father, who visited her on several occasions. Mother informed father that she was pregnant with his child; father did not believe it, and checked regularly for a " baby bump." On one of father's visits, mother's husband was present, and confronted father. Father told mother to handle the situation with her husband, and left. Father lost contact with mother, and moved to Virginia.

On 16 January 2009, mother gave birth to A.E.C. Her husband was named on the birth certificate as the child's father.

When A.E.C. was less than five months old, she was found home alone; mother did not return to the house for more than forty-five minutes. On 11 June 2009, Cumberland County Department of Social Services (DSS) filed a petition alleging that A.E.C. and her siblings [1]

Page 168

were neglected and dependent. This petition alleged that mother's husband and a " John Doe" were the putative fathers of A.E.C. At the time, father's identity was unknown. The children were temporarily placed in nonsecure custody with Mr. and Mrs. S., believed at the time to be A.E.C.'s paternal great grandparents. On 27 October 2009, adjudication and disposition hearings were held, at which A.E.C. was adjudicated neglected and dependent based on the petition. On 20 November 2009, the trial court entered its order on adjudication and disposition. Mother's husband was named as A.E.C.'s putative father.

On 5 January 2010, the trial court held its first review hearing. It found that the whereabouts of mother and her husband were unknown, and relieved DSS of reunification and visitation efforts. On 2 February 2010, a permanency planning hearing was held, where the trial court again found that the whereabouts of mother and her husband were unknown. As Mr. S. had suffered a stroke, the court recommended that alternate placement be sought for the children. No permanent plan was established at this time, and DSS was ordered to present a permanent plan at the next hearing.

On 27 April 2010, the trial court held its next permanency planning hearing, at which mother was present. She reported that she was living in Arkansas. The trial court established the permanent plan as relative placement.

On 29 September 2010, the trial court held another permanency planning hearing. A.E.C.'s guardian ad litem (GAL) reported that a paternity test had been ordered for mother's husband in another court. A.E.C. had provided a DNA sample. The permanent plan remained relative placement, with a concurrent plan of adoption.

On 5 January 2011, the trial court held another permanency planning hearing. A.E.C.'s GAL reported that, according to the results of the paternity test, mother's husband was not A.E.C.'s father. DSS reported that A.E.C. and her siblings had been moved from the home of Mr. and Mrs. S. into foster care on 10 November 2010. No findings were made that mother's husband was not A.E.C.'s father, and no inquiries were made into her paternity. The trial court changed the permanent plan to adoption.

On 26 April 2011, the trial court held another permanency planning hearing. DSS reported that A.E.C. had been moved to a new foster home on 7 January 2011, and that the foster parents were interested in adoption. The trial court found and concluded that adoption and termination of parental rights should be pursued. This determination was upheld at a subsequent hearing on 1 September 2011.

Sometime in September of 2011, mother was able to acquire father's contact information. At the end of September or beginning of October in 2011, mother contacted father and informed him that he was the father of A.E.C., who was in foster care. Mother gave father the phone number for DSS. Father spoke with A.E.C.'s social worker about paternity testing, and she told father he would need to attend a hearing scheduled for 2 February 2012. Father also contacted the judge's chambers and was given the same information.

On 2 February 2012, father appeared in court for the permanency planning hearing. DSS requested that its petition be amended to include father as A.E.C.'s father. Father requested paternity testing and custody of A.E.C. The court amended the petition and appointed counsel for father. It ordered paternity testing and continued the permanency planning review.

On 26 March 2012, at a permanency planning hearing, the trial court directed that DNA testing be expedited. The court maintained a permanent plan of adoption and ordered DSS to proceed with a termination of parental rights. The trial court further ordered that, should the DNA test confirm that father was A.E.C.'s father, the matter would return to court to address possible visitation rights.

On 26 April 2012, father received notice that he was A.E.C.'s father. On 29 June 2012, an order of paternity was entered ...


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