in the Court of Appeals 9 May 2019.
by respondent from order entered 7 March 2018 by Judge Lora
C. Cubbage in District Court, Guilford County. No. 16 JT 424
Mercedes O. Chut for petitioner-appellee Guilford County
Department of Health and Human Services.
P. Vitrano for respondent-appellant mother.
Brooks, Pierce, McLendon, Humphrey & Leonard LLP, by
James T. Williams, Jr., and Sarah M. Saint, for guardian ad
appeals from an order terminating her parental
rights to C.D.H.
("Connor"). Because the record before this Court is
silent on the reasons for mother's absence from the
hearing and from mother's counsel's justification for
her actions during the termination hearing, we remand for
September 2016, the Guilford County Department of Health and
Human Services ("DHHS") filed a petition alleging
that Connor was a neglected and dependent juvenile. DHHS
detailed Mother's history of substance abuse, mental
health issues, and unstable housing. Because of these
problems, Mother agreed to allow Connor to reside in a
kinship placement with his maternal great-uncle and
great-aunt beginning in May 2016. These relatives later asked
for Connor to be removed from their home, and, on 11 October
2016, DHHS placed him in foster care.
September 2016, the trial court held a hearing to determine
the need for continued nonsecure custody of the child. Mother
attended this hearing, and the trial court set the next
hearing for 9 November 2016. On that date, the trial court
held a hearing for pre-adjudication, adjudication, and
disposition; Mother did not attend. At the pre-adjudication
hearing, Mother's counsel made an oral motion to continue
due to Mother's absence. The trial court denied the
motion, finding that Mother was present in court on 14
September 2016 when the case was set for hearing for 9
November; the social worker had spoken to mother on the phone
on 8 November 2016 to remind her of the hearing; Mother had
not maintained contact with her counsel since the prior court
date; and, there was no valid reason to excuse her absence.
On 7 December 2016, the trial court filed its order based
upon the 9 November hearing adjudicating Connor as a
neglected juvenile. Mother was ordered to enter into and
cooperate with a case plan addressing her issues with
housing, employment, parenting skills, mental health, and
substance abuse. Mother was granted one hour of supervised
visitation per week.
December 2016, the trial court held a Juvenile Court
Infant/Toddler Initiative ("JCITI") status review
hearing and entered an order noting Mother's
noncompliance with her case plan; again, Mother was not
present. The trial court noted that Mother had attended only
two of six visits with the child and that she was "in
the process of complying" with the
"parenting/psychological evaluation" and obtaining
employment, but she had failed to comply with any other
January, 2017, the trial court held another JCITI status
review hearing; once again, Mother did not attend. The court
found her level of compliance with her plan had decreased
since the prior hearing, although she continued to visit with
Connor erratically and maintained some contact with DSS.
February 2017, the trial court held a permanency planning
hearing; once again, Mother did not attend, although her
counsel was present on her behalf. On 10 March 2017, the
trial court entered its permanency planning order which found
that Mother had still not entered into her required case
plan. The court set the primary permanent plan as adoption
with a secondary plan of reunification and ordered DHHS to
seek to terminate Mother's rights within 60 days.
April 2017, DHHS filed a motion in the cause to terminate
Mother's parental rights on the grounds of neglect,
failure to pay a reasonable portion of Connor's cost of
care, and dependency. See N.C. Gen. Stat. §
7B-1111(a)(1), (3), (6) (2017). Hearings on the motion to
terminate were scheduled and continued several ...