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South Carolina Department of Social Services v. Tran

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

October 10, 2016

South Carolina Department of Social Services, Respondent,
v.
Ngoc Tran and Thomas Nguyen, Defendants, Of Whom Ngoc Tran is the Appellant. In the interest of a minor child under the age of eighteen. Appellate Case No. 2014-001134

          Heard September 8, 2016

         Appeal From Anderson County Edgar H. Long, Jr., Family Court Judge

          Kimberly Yancey Brooks, of Kimberly Y. Brooks, Attorney at Law, of Greenville, for Appellant.

          Kathleen J. Hodges, of South Carolina Department of Social Services, of Anderson, for Respondent.

          Brittany Dreher Senerius, of Senerius & Tye, Attorneys at Law, of Anderson, for the Guardian ad Litem.

          PER CURIAM:

         Ngoc Tran (Mother), a Georgia resident, appeals the family court's order terminating her parental rights to her minor daughter (Child). On appeal, Mother argues the family court (1) lacked subject matter jurisdiction under the Uniform Child-Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) and (2) erred in finding clear and convincing evidence supported two statutory grounds for termination of parental rights (TPR). Because we find the Department of Social Services (DSS) failed to establish subject matter jurisdiction, we vacate the underlying removal order and TPR order and remand for additional findings.

         FACTS/PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         This case began as a removal action on May 21, 2012, when Mother-who was traveling through South Carolina-was admitted to the hospital due to an "altered mental status." DSS received allegations that Mother "was found sitting in the middle of the road and was not very responsive, " Child was with her, and Mother could not identify a family member to pick up Child. Mother was still hospitalized when the family court held a probable cause hearing on May 24, 2012; the family court determined probable cause existed to remove Child and granted DSS custody of Child "[p]ending further orders."

         According to a placement plan prepared by DSS, Mother previously had an "altered mental episode" in Georgia and left Child unattended; Mother had an "extensive history" with the Department of Families and Children in Georgia; Child had been placed in foster care in Georgia; and there were "allegations of criminal domestic violence in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania with [Mother's] husband." In a December 3, 2012 merits removal order, the family court found Mother placed Child at a substantial risk of harm of physical neglect and returning Child to Mother's home would place Child at an unreasonable risk of harm. The family court granted DSS custody of Child and ordered Mother to complete a placement plan.

         On March 6, 2014, the family court held a TPR hearing. Mother was not present, and the family court denied her request for a continuance. At the hearing, a DSS foster care worker testified Mother was a resident of Cobb County, Georgia; Father's last-known address was in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Child was born in Pennsylvania. Following testimony, the family court found clear and convincing evidence showed Mother failed to remedy the conditions causing removal, Child had been in foster care for fifteen of the most previous twenty-two months, and TPR was in Child's best interest.

         Mother filed a motion for reconsideration alleging she was a survivor of domestic abuse and had a pending case in Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania. The family court held a hearing on Mother's motion. During the hearing, Mother asserted "there was a case in Philadelphia in 2005 that she believed Child was going to be required to go back to." The family court asked DSS whether it had investigated the allegations of domestic violence in Pennsylvania. Counsel for DSS replied,

[B]ased on 2005 we did not do an independent investigation early on in the case in terms of the Philadelphia situation. I can tell the [c]ourt that we have subsequently checked with Philadelphia to find out what the status of that case was. They can find nothing on their records. They're going back and ...

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