An unpublished opinion of the North Carolina Court of Appeals does not constitute controlling legal authority. Citation is disfavored, but may be permitted in accordance with the provisions of Rule 30(e)(3) of the North Carolina Rules of Appellate Proced ure.

NO. COA02-1371


Filed: 20 May 2003

IN THE MATTER OF:                    Buncombe County
PATRINA RENEE HENSLEY,                Nos. 01 J 153-55
    Minor Child

    Minor Child

    Minor Child

    Appeal by respondent from judgments entered 31 October 2001 and 2 November 2001 by Judge Peter L. Roda in Buncombe County District Court. Heard in the Court of Appeals 19 May 2003.

    Judy N. Rudolph, for Guardian ad Litem appellee Heidi Sherman.

    Renae S. Alt, for petitioner-appellee Buncombe County Department of Social Services.

    Kay S. Murray, for respondent-appellant Robin Hall.

    CALABRIA, Judge.

    Robin Hall (“respondent”) appeals from three judgments terminating her parental rights to Patrina Renee Hensley, Amethyst Hensley, and Isabella Morgan Hensley (“the minor children”). We affirm.
    The exhibits entered into evidence at the termination hearing establish the following: The minor children were born to respondent and Burnice Keith Hensley on 21 October 1995, 6 December 1996, and 31 March 1998. On 28 June 1999, Buncombe CountyDepartment of Social Services (“DSS”) obtained non-secure custody orders for each of the minor children after substantiating neglect in the form of filthy and unsafe living conditions, substance abuse by both parents, and acts of domestic violence by Hensley against respondent. On 24 August 1999, the district court entered an adjudication order finding the children neglected under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-101(15). In a 3 November 1999 disposition order, the court directed DSS to make reasonable efforts toward reunification. Based on the results of respondent's psychological evaluation, the court ordered her to take the following actions toward reunification:
        (1) register to pay child support through the IV-D agency within two weeks;

        (2) “obtain and maintain stable housing and employment[;]”

        (3) successfully complete parenting classes at the Child Advocacy Center;

        (4) attend group therapy on domestic violence “until she demonstrates awareness of abuse cycle and she can demonstrate how domestic violence affects her children[;]”

        (5) obtain a substance abuse evaluation and follow any recommendations made therein; and

        (6) “participate in intensive individual therapy to address her cognitive distortions, to increase her self-awareness, and to assist her in developing empathy.”

The court scheduled a permanency planning and review hearing for 10 January 2000.
    Respondent did not attend the 10 January 2000 review hearing. The court found that she had failed to establish child supportthrough the IV-D agency and ordered that she do so by the next hearing. The court further ordered respondent to attend the next hearing and continued with the reunification plan established in its earlier order.
    In its 22 May 2000 review order, the court found that respondent had produced a IV-D child support order indicating her support obligation of $97 per month. The court found “no evidence that [respondent] ha[d] complied with prior orders of the Court; specifically, that she obtain drug screens, attend[] and complete[] the Helpmate program and parenting classes, or that she obtain[] a substance abuse assessment.” The court noted that respondent had completed Building Families parenting classes, but that the Guardian ad Litem had recommended that respondent have no further contact with the children except by court order. The court altered the permanent plan to reunification with a concurrent plan of guardianship with caretakers Leslie and Dan Anderson, pending a satisfactory home study by DSS.
    In an order entered 26 June 2000, the court found that respondent claimed, without documentation, to have obtained a negative drug screen and started the Helpmate program. The court approved DSS' placement of the minor children with the Andersons and changed the permanent plan to guardianship with a concurrent plan of adoption.
    The court held a review hearing on 17 October 2000 and entered its review order on 15 November 2000. It found that respondent missed scheduled visitations with the minor children withoutnotice, failed to attend substance abuse treatment, and failed to obtain a drug screen as requested by a social worker. The court further found that the children had “been in the custody of [DSS] for over one year and neither parent is capable of providing a safe home for the children with proper care and supervision.” Therefore, the court authorized DSS to proceed with a plan of adoption and limited respondent's contact with the children to one- hour supervised visitations every other week.
    Following a hearing held 13 December 2000, the court found respondent failed to attend the hearing and her counsel refused to advise the court of her whereabouts due to attorney-client privilege. The court noted DSS proffer that respondent had not visited with the minor children since 17 October 2000 and was subject to outstanding arrest warrants for cruelty to animals and probation violations. The court ordered respondent to obtain a negative drug screen prior to any further visitation with the minor children. Adoption with a concurrent plan of guardianship remained the placement plan.
    DSS petitioned to terminate respondent's parental rights on 22 May 2001, on the grounds that she (1) neglected the minor children; (2) willfully left the children in a placement outside of the home for more than twelve months without reasonable progress in correcting the conditions leading to their placement; and (3) willfully abandoned the minor children for at least six months prior to the filing of the petition.     The court held its next review hearing on 31 May 2001. Respondent again failed to appear. The court noted that DSS had filed petitions to terminate respondent's parental rights, because she had failed to attend any visitations with the minor children or to work toward reunification. The court ordered that parental visitations cease and that adoption shall remain the permanent plan. (R.p.46).
    In its review order following a 12 September 2001 hearing, the court found that respondent was incarcerated and had given birth to her sixth child, who was immediately taken into custody by DSS. Noting that respondent had been ordered not to contact the minor children, the court found it was in the best interests of the children to continue to have no further contact with the parents and that adoption remain the permanent plan.
    The court heard DSS termination petitions on 5 October 2001. Lisa Cook, a DSS social worker, testified that respondent had failed to comply with the steps ordered to obtain reunification with the minor children, including substance abuse treatment and drug screens, group therapy for domestic violence, and individual therapy. While noting respondent's initial attendance at visitations with the children, Cook described the visitations as “very chaotic.” Respondent began missing visitations in May of 2000, failed to comply with the court's 19 January 2001 order that she obtain a drug screen prior to any additional visitations, and had not visited the children since 6 October 2000. Moreover, respondent refused specific DSS requests for drug screens. Although respondent had written two or three letters to the minor children since her incarceration, she inappropriately wrote that they would be returning to her soon. Cook testified that the minor children's pre-adoptive placement with the Andersons was “stable” and described the Andersons as “good parents” to the minor children. She opined that termination of respondent's parental rights was in the children's best interests.
    On cross-examination, Cook was shown documentation reflecting respondent's completion of Building Families parenting classes on 5 February 2000. She testified that she observed respondent's visitation with the children from May to October of 2000, during which respondent failed to control or redirect the children and did not demonstrate appropriate parenting skills.
    Respondent testified that she had completed parenting classes and had paid child support until she “quit” her job in October or November of 2000. She claimed she attended group therapy in domestic violence for almost a year but could only document attendance at one session. Respondent admitted that she attended only four of sixteen recommended therapy sessions at Blue Ridge Center, because she was fatigued from her job and “didn't feel that I was getting what I needed out of them.” She had been incarcerated since June of 2001, and had participated in prison job readiness and alcohol treatment programs. Respondent obtained one negative drug screen for her probation officer on 27 April 2000. However, she acknowledged that she twice refused DSS requests for drug screens. Respondent expressed her hope to enter a halfwayhouse upon her release from prison in November, and to begin visitation with her children as a step toward reunification. She acknowledged she had been unable to “appropriately reunify” prior to her incarceration, because of her alcohol problem. However, she had obtained effective treatment in prison and was now ready to work toward reunification.
    The district court made the following findings by clear, cogent and convincing evidence: that the minor children were neglected when taken into DSS custody in June of 1999; that respondent had not made reasonable progress toward reunification since that time; that she had not visited the children since October of 2000; that she had abandoned the children; and that she was incapable “of providing the child with a safe home with appropriate care and supervision.” The court further found it “reasonable to assume” that respondent would continue to neglect the minor children if they were returned to her custody. The court concluded that grounds for termination were established because respondent (1) neglected the children and failed to correct the conditions causing the neglect, (2) willfully left the children in foster care for more than twelve months without making reasonable progress to correct the conditions leading to their placement in foster care, and (3) willfully abandoned the minor children for at least six months prior to the filing of DSS' petitions. See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1111(a)(1), (2), (7) (2001). In determining the appropriate disposition, the court found that the minor children were adoptable and were living together in a home with people whowished to adopt them. The court determined that it was in the children's best interests to terminate respondent's parental rights in order to facilitate the adoption.
    The termination of a party's parental rights is a two-stage process. At the adjudication stage, the district court must determine if clear, cogent and convincing evidence establishes grounds for termination under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1111(a). See In re Brim, 139 N.C. App. 733, 741, 535 S.E.2d 367, 371 (2000) (citing In Re Young, 346 N.C. 244, 485 S.E.2d 612 (1997)).     If one or more grounds exist for termination of parental rights, the court proceeds to the disposition stage under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1110 (2001), where it must decide if termination would serve the best interests of the child. See In re Blackburn, 142 N.C. App. 607, 610, 543 S.E.2d 906, 908 (2001). The court's ruling at the disposition stage is discretionary. See id., 142 N.C. App. at 614, 543 S.E.2d at 911.
     Respondent first claims the trial court erred in failing to conduct separate hearings at the adjudication and disposition stages of the termination proceedings. However, the district court is not required to bifurcate the proceedings in this manner. In re White, 81 N.C. App. 82, 85, 344 S.E.2d 36, 38 (1986) (finding “no requirement . . . that the stages be conducted at two separate hearings”). The court separately concluded (1) that grounds for termination were established under G.S. § 7B-1111(a) by clear, cogent and convincing evidence, and (2) that termination served the minor children's best interests under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1110. By treating the adjudication and disposition questions as separate issues and employing the proper standard for each, the court fully complied with the statutory framework. Id. Respondent's assignment of error is without merit.
    Respondent next challenges the court's adjudication that grounds for termination exist. Among the statutory grounds found by the trial court was that respondent “willfully left the [minor children] in foster care or placement outside the home for more than 12 months” and had not made “reasonable progress under the circumstances . . . in correcting those conditions which led to the removal of the [children].” N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1111(a)(2). It is undisputed that the minor children had been in a placement outside the home since June of 1999. “Thus, this Court must determine whether there is clear, cogent and convincing evidence to support the trial court's finding that [respondent] failed to make reasonable progress in correcting the conditions which led to [the minor children]'s removal and further, that such failure was willful.” In re Nesbitt, 147 N.C. App. 349, 352, 555 S.E.2d 659, 662 (2001).
    In her brief to this Court, respondent maintains she attempted or completed most of the activities she was ordered to do by the district court. She claims the evidence shows her substantial compliance with the disposition order and her “great strides in correcting the conditions which had led to the removal of her children.” She avers the court failed to consider her progresssince the original adjudication of neglect and since the filing of the petition to terminate her parental rights.
    We find ample evidence in the record to support the finding that respondent failed to make reasonable progress to correct the conditions that led to the 24 August 1999 adjudication of neglect. Although respondent completed parenting classes, she failed to exhibit appropriate parenting skills during visitations with the children. Respondent also registered for child support payments but paid no support after quitting her job in November of 2000. In all other respects, respondent failed to comply with the Court's 3 November 1999 disposition order and its subsequent orders entered in the cause. She did not maintain stable housing and employment as ordered by the court; nor did she follow through with intensive individual psychotherapy or with group therapy related to domestic violence. Respondent further failed to obtain a substance abuse assessment and refused DSS requests for drug screens. Having skipped scheduled visitations with her children without notice between June and October of 2000, respondent ceased visitations altogether on 6 October 2000, after the court conditioned visitations on her submission of a negative drug screen. Moreover, respondent failed to attend the court proceedings or advise the court of her whereabouts between the 17 October 2000 review hearing and the 21 October 2001 termination hearing. At the time of the termination hearing, respondent had had no contact with the minor children for more than a year. Her two or three letters to thechildren from prison inappropriately stated that they would be reunited soon.
    Similarly, the evidence supports a finding that respondent's lack of reasonable progress was willful. As we have previously explained in a factually analogous context:
        The fact that some efforts were made does not preclude a finding of willfulness. The record shows that, although respondent initially participated in programs designed to improve her situation, she has largely abandoned these efforts. She has not followed through on her program of vocational training. Since the petition in this case was filed, respondent has been traveling, her visitation with the children has been very infrequent, and her social worker has had difficulty in contacting her.

In re Bishop, 92 N.C. App. 662, 669, 375 S.E.2d 676, 681 (1989) (citation omitted). As was the case in Bishop, respondent took some initial steps to comply with the reunification plan but later ceased her efforts, stopped her visitations with the children, and disappeared from the district court's view. Although she claimed to have been making progress during her incarceration, her actions in the two years prior to the revocation hearing supported the court's finding of willfulness under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B- 1111(a)(2). See id.
    Respondent further contends that the court erred in finding her actions to be willful, because “as an active alcoholic her failure to comply with the disposition order was not willful as she was under the control of this illness.” We find no merit to her claim. Under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1111(a)(2), “[w]illfulness is established when the respondent had the ability to show reasonableprogress, but was unwilling to make the effort.” In re McMillon, 143 N.C. App. 402, 410, 546 S.E.2d 169, 175 (2001) (citing In re Nolen, 117 N.C. App. 693, 453 S.E.2d 220 (1995); In re Bluebird, 105 N.C. App. 42, 411 S.E.2d 820 (1992)). A finding of willfulness in this context does not require a showing of fault on the part of the respondent. In re Oghenekevebe, 123 N.C. App. 434, 439, 473 S.E.2d 393, 398 (1996). A respondent's prolonged inability to improve her situation, despite some efforts in that direction, will support a finding of willfulness “regardless of her good intentions.” In re Bishop, 92 N.C. App. at 669, 375 S.E.2d at 681. Moreover, the fact that alcoholism played a role in respondent's behavior does not preclude a finding of willfulness by the district court. See In re Nolen, 117 N.C. App. at 699-700, 453 S.E.2d at 224-25.
     Having upheld the district court's conclusion that grounds for termination exist under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1111(a)(2), we need not address remaining grounds for termination. See In re Huff, 140 N.C. App. 288, 293, 536 S.E.2d 838, 842 (2000); In re Moore, 306 N.C. 394, 404, 293 S.E.2d 127, 133 (1982).
    We further find no abuse of discretion by the district court in terminating respondent's parental rights. Once grounds for termination are found, the best interests of the minor children are paramount. See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1110(a). Here, the court's finding of the minor children's best interests is supported by Cook's testimony regarding the minor children's current placement and the Andersons' avowed interest in adopting the children. Thecase file reflects the court's earlier approval of the placement with the Andersons following a home study conducted by DSS. Similarly, the file contains reports from the Guardian ad Litem describing the Anderson family as “an ideal home” for the minor children which will “provide the love and stability these girls deserve.” Based on this evidence, the district court reasonably determined that it was best for the minor children to be adopted together into a suitable home.
    Judges MARTIN and McCULLOUGH concur.
    Report per Rule 30(e).

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