IN THE MATTER OF: J.T.S. and S.C.S.
in the Court of Appeals 3 September 2019.
by Respondent-mother from order entered 17 August 2018 by
Judge Larry D. Brown, Jr. in Alamance County District Court.
Nos. 18 JA 51, 09 JA 184
L. Hamlett for Petitioner-appellee Alamance County Department
of Social Services.
Parent Defender Annick Lenoir-Peek and Parent Defender Wendy
C. Sotolongo for Respondent-appellant.
Poe Adams & Bernstein LLP, by Fern A. Paterson, for
guardian ad litem.
the mother of J.T.S. and S.C.S., appeals from a permanency
planning order in which the trial court eliminated
reunification as a permanent plan and awarded guardianship of
J.T.S. and S.C.S. to their maternal grandparents. Respondent
contends the trial court erred in: waiving review hearings,
ordering a restrictive visitation schedule without
considering costs, and eliminating reunification as a
concurrent permanent plan. We affirm the trial court's
order in part, and vacate and remand in part.
and Procedural History
County Child Protective Services received a report on 29
August 2017, alleging J.T.S. and S.C.S. were "being
exposed to an injurious environment due to their parents'
substance abuse." At that time, the children resided
with Respondent and J.T.S.'s father
("father") (collectively the "parents")
in Burlington, in a house provided by the children's
maternal grandparents (the "grandparents"). The
matter was transferred the next day to the Alamance County
Department of Social Services ("DSS").
left J.T.S. and S.C.S. in the care of the grandparents on 7
September 2017, following allegations that father had held
Respondent and the children hostage at their home the
previous day. Respondent entered into a Temporary Parental
Safety Agreement on 26 October 2017, wherein Respondent
agreed to allow the children to reside with the grandparents,
to refrain from being under the influence of mood-altering
substances (unless prescribed by her doctor), and to comply
with a visitation arrangement, which allowed for supervised
visitation with the children. Thereafter, DSS transferred the
case to in-home services.
parents failed to pay the grandparents rent for the
Burlington house and the grandparents evicted Respondent and
father in September or October of 2017. From December 2017 to
February 2018, DSS social workers sought to meet with
Respondent regarding her case but they were unable to locate
her. The grandparents expressed concerns to DSS social
workers in March of 2018 that Respondent was using illegal
drugs and alerted them that, after being evicted, the parents
broke back into the home in Burlington and were currently
residing there. DSS social workers successfully contacted
Respondent via text message, and Respondent agreed to meet
with them on 13 March 2018.
scheduled meeting, Respondent confirmed she was still using
illegal drugs with father, and track marks were observed on
her arms, chest, and hands. Respondent admitted she had been
assaulted by father on multiple occasions, but denied that he
inflicted the visible bruises on her arm. Upon learning
father was waiting for Respondent in the parking lot, a
social worker asked father if he would speak with them.
Father agreed to speak with DSS and, despite the visible
track marks on his arm, he denied using illegal drugs. At the
request of DSS, the parents submitted to drug tests; father
did not produce enough of a specimen to be tested and
Respondent tested positive for cocaine and amphetamines.
also told the social workers that the grandparents frequently
interfered with her ability to see her children. As a result,
a nine-day visitation plan was put in place, allowing for
supervised visits and phone calls between Respondent and the
children. Respondent, however, "failed to maintain this
schedule," and saw her children only a few times. DSS
social workers attempted to contact Respondent and father
daily by phone, unannounced home visits at various residences
and hotels, and visits to stores where the parents were known
to shop. DSS was unable to reach the parents.
filed petitions on 21 Match 2018 alleging the children were
"neglected juveniles" as defined by N.C. Gen. Stat.
§ 7B-101(15). Respondent and the grandparents attended a
child and family team meeting on 11 April 2018, and a case
plan was established. The case plan "sought to address
[Respondent's] mental health, substance abuse, housing
instability, lack of employment, parenting style, and the
medical/mental health needs of the minor children."
adjudication hearing and a disposition hearing were held on
16 May 2018. At the start of the hearing, the trial court
adjudicated the children as "neglected juveniles"
based on stipulations made by the parties and information
received from counsel. The trial court moved on to the
disposition hearing, and entered reports from DSS and the
Guardian ad Litem ("GAL") into evidence. The trial
court announced from the bench it was adopting the
recommendations of DSS and the GAL regarding supervised
visitation between Respondent and the children.
trial court heard arguments from the parties as to whether a
permanency planning hearing could immediately follow a
disposition hearing. Thereafter, the trial court proceeded
with the permanency planning hearing for the rest of the day
and the following day. A conflict in the court's schedule
prevented the matter from concluding on 17 May and the
permanency planning hearing was continued to 18 July 2018.
end of the day on 17 May, the trial court announced from the
bench it was awarding Respondent visitation with the children
for one hour per week at the Family Abuse Services Center.
The oral ruling was memorialized in a supervised visitation
order, entered 18 May 2018. An adjudication and disposition
order was entered 23 May 2018. The order directed Respondent
and father to participate in the services ordered by the
trial court. Respondent was ordered to: contact Family Abuse
Services to enroll in the supervised visitation program,
complete a substance abuse assessment and mental health
assessment and comply with any recommendations, submit to
random drug screens, take medication as prescribed, engage in
services to improve parenting skills and procure employment,
apply for a specified number of jobs per week, complete a
specified number of housing applications per week, and
participate in the children's medical, dental, and mental
preparation for the 18 July 2018 hearing, DSS prepared a
written addendum to a previously-drafted report. In the
addendum, DSS recommended "supervised visits between the
minor children and the Respondent Mother be suspended due to
her failure to take advantage of and/or engage in the offered
visitation, as well as her failure to adequately address the
issues of concern that necessitated the kinship arrangement
and court involvement." Respondent, Respondent's
attorney, father's attorney, the grandparents, a DSS
social worker, and the GAL were present at the 18 July 2018
hearing. At the start of the hearing, DSS's counsel
explained the parties had "reached a resolution"
which altered DSS's recommendation contained in the
addendum. Counsel for DSS addressed the terms of the
"resolution" during direct examination of the
[DSS'S COUNSEL]: Is it your understanding that the
respondent mother is willing to consent at this point to
guardianship being granted to her parents if the department
and GAL revised their recommendations in regards [sic] to
suspension of her visitation?
[DSS SOCIAL WORKER]: Yes.
DSS agreed to revise its recommendation to suspend
Respondent's visitation rights and Respondent consented
to guardianship of the children with the grandparents. The
GAL adopted DSS's revised recommendation. The social
worker read the terms of DSS's revised recommendation in
That the respondent mother can continue to have visitation
once a week for one hour supervised by Family Abuse Services.
That if the respondent mother misses two consecutive visits
or two out of the five visits . . . the visitation will be
suspended and will not be reinstated until further order of
the Court. That prior to visitation beginning the respondent
mother shall obtain an updated CCA including mental health
and substance abuse assessment and submit to a drug screen.
She shall enroll in treatment as recommended by the CCA. The
respondent mother must admit documentation to Family Abuse
Services verifying that she's obtained such and is
enrolled in treatment with a state approved treatment
program. If the respondent mother appears at visitation and
appears to be under the influence the visitation shall be
terminated and there should be no further visitation until
further order of the Court.
trial court then addressed the conditions agreed upon by the
parties and sought confirmation that Respondent understood
THE COURT: And, it[']s my understanding attorney Skeen
that your client is going to consent at this point to
guardianship being placed with the grandparents so long as
that modification is changed in relation to being able to
have visitation once a week at the Family Justice Center?
[RESPONDENT'S COUNSEL]: That's correct Your Honor.
THE COURT: But your client does understand though that if she
fails to provide the necessary criminal backgrounds, the
necessary documentation, and setting up at Family Abuse
Services and following all of their requirements that that is
not going to be the fault of the grandparents. She will not
be able to go and have visitation. She understands that?
[RESPONDENT'S COUNSEL]: Yes Your Honor.
recommendation was accepted by the court without objection.
Later in the hearing, the trial court confirmed
Respondent's understanding that "[r]eunification
stops today." Respondent's counsel responded,
"[r]ight, she knew that but, in doing so will allow her
to have increased visitation[.]"
trial court entered a guardianship order on 15 August 2018.
The trial court entered a permanency planning order on 17
August 2018, which waived review hearings, eliminated
reunification from the permanent plan, and provided for
Respondent's visitation with the children pursuant to the
recommendations of DSS. Additionally, the trial court entered
a supervised visitation order, also reflecting the
recommendation of DSS, on 17 August 2018. Respondent appeals
from the permanency planning order.
Waiver of ...