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In re A.R.A.

Supreme Court of North Carolina

December 6, 2019

IN THE MATTER OF: A.R.A., P.Z.A., Z.K.A.

         On discretionary review pursuant to N.C. G.S. § 7A-31, prior to determination in the Court of Appeals, of an order entered on 12 December 2018 by Judge Ali B. Paksoy in District Court, Cleveland County. This matter was calendared for argument in the Supreme Court on 7 November 2019 but determined on the record and briefs without oral argument pursuant to Rule 30(f) of the North Carolina Rules of Appellate Procedure.

          Charles E. Wilson, Jr. for petitioner-appellee Cleveland County Department of Social Services.

          Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein LLP, by William L. Esser IV, for appellee Guardian ad Litem.

          Surratt Thompson & Ceberio PLLC, by Christopher M. Watford, for respondent-appellant mother.

          MORGAN, JUSTICE.

         Respondent-mother appeals from the district court's 12 December 2018 order terminating her parental rights to A.R.A. (Amy), P.Z.A. (Peter), and Z.K.A. (Zara) (collectively, the children).[1] We affirm.

         The Cleveland County Department of Social Services (DSS) has an extensive history of involvement with respondent-mother and the father[2] of the juveniles in this matter, based upon the father's substance abuse and domestic violence issues. In 2013, the father was convicted of assaulting Amy and respondent-mother. In 2015, the father assaulted Peter and threatened to kill Peter and respondent-mother. The father assaulted Amy again in 2015, resulting in a conviction of habitual misdemeanor assault. After serving time in prison for the habitual misdemeanor assault conviction, the father was released from incarceration in October 2016. In December 2016, respondent-mother allowed the father to return to the home where she lived with the children, despite his prior assaults on them and in violation of a specific condition of the father's post-release supervision conditions.

         On 20 December 2016, respondent-mother voluntarily placed all three children in foster care so that the father could reside in the family home with her. On 13 January 2017, DSS obtained nonsecure custody of the children and filed a juvenile petition alleging that the children were neglected juveniles. In its petition, DSS alleged that respondent-mother and the father had repeatedly failed to comply and cooperate with DSS and the court to assist the parents in keeping the children safe and in avoiding the need for an out-of-home placement.

         The district court entered a combined adjudication and disposition order on 24 March 2017. Based upon stipulations made by the parties, the children were adjudicated to be neglected juveniles, and custody of the juveniles was continued with DSS. Respondent-mother was ordered to complete a court-approved parenting education program; demonstrate appropriate parenting skills and an understanding of how substance abuse and domestic violence affects the children; complete an assessment by the Abuse Prevention Council (APC) or another court-approved domestic violence victims' program and comply with all recommendations for treatment; and demonstrate her ability to provide a safe and stable home environment consistent with county minimum standards and that is free from substance abuse and domestic violence for a minimum of six months. The father was ordered to comply with similar requirements, with the additional requirements of completing a substance abuse assessment; obtaining assessment through a domestic violence batterer's program; and complying with all resulting recommendations.

         At a review hearing held on 14 June 2017, pursuant to N.C. G.S. § 7B-906.1, the district court found that respondent-mother and the father had continued to reside together. Respondent-mother had started parenting classes and the APC program, but had missed two sessions of the APC program.

         On 1 November 2017, the district court held a permanency planning hearing pursuant to N.C. G.S. § 7B-906.1, at which respondent-mother stated that it was Amy who had wanted the father to return to the family home upon his release from prison. In an order entered on 14 November 2017, the district court found that respondent-mother and the father continued to reside together, and that they continued to deny or minimize the impact that their substance abuse and history of domestic violence had upon the children. Respondent-mother completed a parenting program in July 2017, but, at the time of the hearing, had completed only four out of the twelve sessions required by the APC program. The district court further found that respondent-mother and the father both tested positive for marijuana in September 2017. The district court adopted a primary permanent plan of reunification with a secondary permanent plan of custody with a court-approved caretaker.

         On 20 December 2017, the district court held a permanency planning review hearing. The district court entered an order on 11 January 2018 finding that, although respondent-mother and the father had made some effort to comply with the court's requirements, they had not demonstrated to the court any significant progress in correcting the conditions that led to the children's removal from their care. Respondent-mother was scheduled to complete the APC program on 22 December 2017 but had failed to comply with the court's recommendations for mental health services and substance abuse treatment. Both parents continued to deny responsibility for their situation and placed the blame on the children, particularly Amy. In its January 2018 order, the district court changed the primary permanent plan to adoption, concurrent with a secondary permanent plan of reunification.

         On 22 January 2018, DSS filed a petition to terminate the parental rights of respondent-mother and the father on the grounds of neglect, willful failure to make reasonable progress, and willful failure to pay a reasonable portion of the cost of care. See N.C. G.S. § 7B-1111(a)(1)-(3) (2017). The district court held hearings on the 2018 dates of 18 July, 25 September, and 16 November, and on 12 December 2018, entered an order finding that the evidence in the case established facts sufficient to support the termination of respondent-mother's and father's parental rights on the grounds of neglect and willful failure to make reasonable progress. The district court further concluded that it was in the children's best interests that both parents' parental rights be terminated. Accordingly, the district court terminated the parental rights of respondent-mother and the father.

         Respondent-mother gave timely notice of appeal to the North Carolina Court of Appeals. On 8 April 2019, respondent-mother filed a petition with this Court seeking discretionary review of the order terminating her parental rights, prior to a determination of the Court of Appeals. This Court ...


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