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In re C.D.H.

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

June 4, 2019

IN THE MATTER OF: C.D.H.

          Heard in the Court of Appeals 9 May 2019.

          Appeal 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.

          Sean P. Vitrano for respondent-appellant mother.

          Brooks, Pierce, McLendon, Humphrey & Leonard LLP, by James T. Williams, Jr., and Sarah M. Saint, for guardian ad litem.

          STROUD, JUDGE.

         Respondent-mother appeals from an order terminating her parental rights[1] to C.D.H. ("Connor").[2] 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 further proceedings.

         I. Background

          On 8 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.

         On 14 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.

         On 16 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 requirements.

         On 13 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.

         On 8 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.

         On 13 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. ยง 7B-1111(a)(1), (3), (6) (2017). Hearings on the motion to terminate were scheduled and continued several ...


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