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In re C.M.P.

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

August 1, 2017

IN THE MATTER OF: C.M.P., C.Q.M.P., J.A.C.

          Heard in the Court of Appeals 11 July 2017.

         Appeal by respondent-mother from order entered 7 September 2016 by Judge David H. Strickland in Mecklenburg County District Court Nos. 13 JA 423-25

          Senior Associate Attorney Keith S. Smith, for petitioner-appellee Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services, Youth and Family Services.

          Administrative Office of the Courts, by GAL Appellate Counsel Matthew D. Wunsche, for guardian ad litem.

          J. Thomas Diepenbrock for respondent-appellant mother.

          BRYANT, Judge.

         Where the trial court did not err in denying respondent's motion for a continuance or in concluding grounds existed to terminate respondent's parental rights, we affirm.

         Respondent is the mother of C.M.P. ("Charlene"), C.Q.M.P. ("Charles"), and J.A.C. ("Jackson"), [1] and Mr. P. is the father of Charlene and Charles. Respondent and Mr. P have a history with the Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services, Youth and Family Services ("YFS") dating back to 2011 due to issues of domestic violence and inappropriate discipline. YFS most recently became involved with the family on 13 March 2013, when it received a referral alleging that a domestic violence incident occurred between respondent and Mr. P., wherein respondent's C-section stitches were torn during the incident. Mr. P. was charged with assault on a female. After the incident, respondent and the children briefly stayed with the maternal grandmother before moving into the paternal grandmother's home with Mr. P. and Mr. P.'s seventeen-year-old sister.

         On 17 June 2013, YFS received a referral alleging suspected sexual abuse of then three-month-old Charlene. A medical examination revealed that the child's genital and rectal area had been subjected to trauma and that her hymen was not intact, but the source of the injuries could not be determined. At the time of the injury, two male cousins aged thirteen and fourteen years old were visiting at the home and had unsupervised contact with Charlene. However, no one on the paternal side of the family believed the cousins could have been the source of the injuries.

         Respondent entered into a safety plan in which she agreed to return to the home of the maternal grandmother and also agreed there would be constant "eye/sight" supervision of the children at all times by the maternal grandmother. Because there was also a history of domestic violence between the maternal grandmother and respondent, they also agreed not to engage in any violence in the presence of the children. YFS transferred the case to family intervention on 8 July 2013.

         On 15 July 2013, YFS received a referral alleging that a domestic violence incident had occurred between respondent and the maternal grandmother wherein respondent assaulted the maternal grandmother by pushing her hand in the grandmother's face. YFS also received information that respondent threw a rock through the grandmother's storm door shattering the glass. The children were present during both incidents. Respondent was cited for damage to property and violating a domestic violence protective order ("DVPO") the maternal grandmother had taken out against respondent based on a "history of assaultive behavior" beginning in 2008. The maternal grandmother stated that she was overwhelmed by taking care of the children and that she could only provide care through 16 July 2013.

         On 17 July 2013, YFS filed a juvenile petition alleging that the children were abused, neglected, and dependent, and took the children into nonsecure custody. The children were placed with a maternal cousin on 31 July 2013 and have remained in that placement for the duration of the case.

         A hearing was held on the juvenile petition on 18 September 2013. Respondent stipulated to the allegations in the petition, and the trial court entered an order adjudicating the children neglected and dependent as to respondent.[2] The trial court ordered respondent to comply with her case plan which required her to participate in a parenting course and demonstrate the skills learned, obtain and maintain adequate employment, obtain and maintain safe and stable housing, and complete a domestic violence assessment at NOVA, a domestic violence education and services provider, and follow all recommendations.

         Respondent initially engaged in her case plan by completing a parenting class, completing an assessment with NOVA, and obtaining employment. However, on 28 September 2014, respondent and Mr. P. engaged in a domestic violence incident resulting in their arrests. Respondent lost her job due to her arrest, and she was allowed only supervised visitation with the children.

         A permanency planning review hearing was held on 2 December 2014, and the trial court found that respondent was incarcerated due to charges of armed robbery and conspiracy to commit armed robbery. She had been arrested on 29 November 2014 and was still incarcerated at the time of the 2 December 2014 hearing. The court suspended her visitation while she was incarcerated.

         Another permanency planning review hearing was held on 12 May 2015, and the trial court found that respondent had not visited with the children since December 2014, despite the fact that suspension of visitation had been lifted upon her release from jail.[3] The trial court also found that respondent was living with the maternal grandmother, and was employed. The court further found that respondent "ha[d] not yet shown that she can parent her children" and "was advised that she [would] need to have perfect compliance during [the] upcoming review period." Respondent was awarded two hours of supervised visitation a week but was ordered to complete two clean drug tests before she could exercise her visitation. The trial court continued the permanent plan (first imposed on 30 December 2013) as reunification with respondent.

         On 15 April 2015, respondent was arrested again for injury to real property and injury to personal property. On 15 July 2015, respondent tested positive for cocaine. A subsequent drug screen on 22 July 2015 came back positive for cocaine and alcohol. Respondent denied using cocaine. Respondent also had an unauthorized, unsupervised four-day visit with the children in July 2015. She reentered substance abuse treatment, but had other subsequent drug screens which were positive for cocaine on 10 and 17 September 2015. She subsequently completed the substance abuse program in March 2016.

          In March 2016, respondent and Mr. P. engaged in another domestic violence incident, after which they both were charged with assault and respondent obtained a DVPO against Mr. P. On 24 June 2016, YFS filed a petition to terminate respondent's parental rights on the grounds of neglect, failure to make reasonable progress, failure to pay reasonable cost of care, and dependency. See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1111(a)(1), (2), (3), (6) (2015).

         After a seventh permanency planning review hearing held 22 July 2016, the trial court found that respondent had been discharged from NOVA due to excessive absences, had another new job, had a pending hit and run charge, and had been arrested for assault after the March 2016 domestic violence incident with Mr. P.

         The hearing on the petition to terminate respondent's parental rights was held on 25 August 2016. At the start of the hearing, respondent's counsel moved to continue because respondent was not present and counsel had "expected her to be [t]here." The trial court denied the motion and went forward with the hearing. A social worker testified that respondent had not made sufficient progress on her case plan to show she would be able to successfully and appropriately parent her children in that she did not have stable housing, had not completed the NOVA domestic violence program, and her employment had been inconsistent over time. The social worker also testified that respondent was inconsistent with her visits with the children and had not seen them in the month prior to the hearing despite being allowed to have weekly visitation. The social worker further testified respondent had a history of making progress on her case plan but then regressing. The trial court entered an order on 7 September 2016 terminating respondent's parental rights to all three children on the grounds of neglect, failure to make reasonable progress, and dependency. Respondent appeals.

         On appeal, respondent contends the trial court erred by (I) summarily denying respondent's motion to continue, and (II) concluding grounds existed for terminating respondent's parental rights.

         I

         Respondent first argues the trial court erred in summarily denying her motion to continue based on her unexplained absence at the termination hearing. Respondent contends the court's decision deprived ...


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