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South Carolina Department of Social Services v. Powell

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

June 27, 2017

South Carolina Department of Social Services, Respondent,
Nicole Powell and Kyle Parker, Defendants, Of whom Nicole Powell is the Appellant. In the interest of a minor under the age of eighteen. Appellate Case No. 2016-002119


          Submitted May 26, 2017

         Appeal From Spartanburg County Rochelle Y. Conits, Family Court Judge

          Melinda Inman Butler, of The Butler Law Firm, of Union, for Appellant.

          Deborah Murdock Gentry, of Murdock Law Firm, LLC of Mauldin; and Robert C. Rhoden, III, of the South Carolina Department of Social Services, of Spartanburg, both for Respondent.

          John Brandt Rucker, of The Rucker Law Firm, LLC, of Greenville, as Guardian ad Litem for Appellant.

          Wendy Nicole Griffith, of Talley Law Firm, P.A., of Spartanburg, for the Guardian ad Litem for the minor child.

          PER CURIAM.

         Nicole Powell (Mother) appeals the family court's order terminating her parental rights to her minor son (Child). On appeal, Mother argues the family court (1) lacked subject matter jurisdiction under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA), [1] (2) erred in terminating her parental rights, and (3) erred in finding Child's permanent plan should be adoption without considering relative placement. We affirm.

         On appeal from the family court, this court reviews factual and legal issues de novo. Simmons v. Simmons, 392 S.C. 412, 414, 709 S.E.2d 666, 667 (2011); Lewis v. Lewis, 392 S.C. 381, 386, 709 S.E.2d 650, 652 (2011). Although this court reviews the family court's findings de novo, we are not required to ignore the fact that the family court, which saw and heard the witnesses, was in a better position to evaluate their credibility and assign comparative weight to their testimony. Lewis, 392 S.C. at 385, 709 S.E.2d at 651-52.

         We find the family court had jurisdiction under the UCCJEA to proceed with the termination of parental rights (TPR) action.[2] Although South Carolina may not have been Child's home state when the removal action commenced, [3] the family court had temporary emergency jurisdiction under section 63-15-336 of the South Carolina Code (2010) at that time. See S.C. Code Ann. § 63-15-330(A) (2010) ("Except as otherwise provided in Section 63-15-336, a court of this State has jurisdiction to make an initial child custody determination only if: (1) this State is the home state of the child on the date of the commencement of the proceeding . . . .); S.C. Code Ann. § 63-15-302(7) (2010) ("'Home state' means the state in which a child lived with a parent or a person acting as a parent for at least six consecutive months immediately before the commencement of a child custody proceeding. In the case of a child less than six months of age, the term means the state in which the child lived from birth with any of the persons mentioned."); § 63-15-336(A) ("A court of this State has temporary emergency jurisdiction if the child is present in this State and the child has been abandoned or it is necessary in an emergency to protect the child because the child, or a sibling or parent of the child, is subjected to or threatened with mistreatment or abuse."). Based on the plain language of section 63-15-336(B), we find the removal order became a final order for purposes of the UCCJEA. See id. ("If a child custody proceeding has not been or is not commenced in a court of a state having jurisdiction under Sections 63-15-330 through 63-15-334, a child custody determination made under this section becomes a final determination, if it so provides and this State becomes the home state of the child."). Child remained in South Carolina following the removal action, and no evidence showed another state had issued orders concerning Child or an action concerning Child was commenced in another state. Thus, we find the removal order became a final order under the UCCJEA, and South Carolina had jurisdiction over Child when the Department of Social Services (DSS) filed the TPR action in November 2015.

         Although Mother acknowledges she did not present evidence of any existing court order addressing Child's custody from another state, she asserts that under South Carolina Department of Social Services v. Tran, 418 S.C. 308, 792 S.E.2d 254 (Ct. App. 2016), the family court should have stopped the proceeding upon learning "there was an open case in the [s]tate of Alabama with the comparable DSS Agency" and "the proceeding should not have moved forward without [DSS] satisfying the family court that it had subject matter jurisdiction to proceed." However, we find Tran distinguishable. In Tran, this court found the removal order could not become a final order under section 16-15-336(B) because the mother "submitted evidence of an existing out-of-state order" and DSS did not meet its "burden of proving South Carolina ha[d] jurisdiction to proceed with [the] action." 418 S.C. at 318, 792 S.E.2d at 259; see also Anthony H. v. Matthew G., 397 S.C. 447, 452, 725 S.E.2d 132, 135 (Ct. App. 2012) ("[F]or South Carolina cases involving jurisdictional questions under the UCCJEA, if the defendant provides evidence to the court of an existing out-of-state order, the plaintiff assumes the burden of proving the new state has jurisdiction to issue the initial child custody order and the issuing state has lost or declined to exercise its jurisdiction." (emphasis added)). Here, Mother did not submit any evidence during the hearing or on appeal that another state issued an order affecting Child. In her brief, Mother does not allege another order existed-she merely states it could exist. Mother has not submitted any evidence of an order or proceeding from another state affecting Child. Thus, we find the removal order became a final order, and the South Carolina family court had jurisdiction under the UCCJEA to proceed with the TPR action.

         Further, we find clear and convincing evidence showed Mother failed to remedy the conditions causing Child's removal. See S.C. Code Ann. § 63-7-2570(2) (Supp. 2016) (providing a statutory ground for TPR is met when "[t]he child has been removed from the parent pursuant to . . . [s]ection 63-7-1660 and has been out of the home for a period of six months following the adoption of a placement plan by court order or by agreement between [DSS] and the parent[, ] and the parent has not remedied the conditions which caused the removal"). Child was removed from the home in December 2014 after DSS received a report that Mother physically abused Child by "grabbing his leg and jerking him around while trying to change his diaper and punching him with her fist in the buttocks." A doctor examined the Child's bruises and concluded they were consistent with child abuse. Ashtyn Gardner, a DSS caseworker, testified DSS was concerned Mother may have a mental health issue because Mother stated she was bipolar, and Mother had threatened to harm her grandmother around the time Child was removed. Mother testified she was admitted to the psychiatric ward around the time of removal, and they told her she was bipolar. At the March 12, 2015 merits hearing, the family court determined Mother physically abused Child and ordered her to complete a placement plan that included attending parenting classes, completing a psychological evaluation and following recommendations, and attending individual counseling. Based on the harm Child suffered and DSS's concerns about Mother's mental health, we find the foregoing services were reasonable and necessary components of the placement plan. See McCutcheon v. Charleston Cty. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 302 S.C. 338, 343, 396 S.E.2d 115, 118 (Ct. App. 1990) (providing DSS must "identify the condition that led to the removal" and "identify appropriate rehabilitative services"); id. at 342, 396 S.E.2d at 117 ("[I]t is imperative that the condition which led to [the child's] removal be thoroughly explored.").

         Gardner testified DSS made the appropriate referrals, but at the time of the August 27, 2015 permanency planning hearing, Mother had not obtained a psychological evaluation, attended parenting classes, or completed individual counseling. Although Mother eventually attended parenting classes, the evidence showed she waited until 2016-more than a year after the removal-to begin them. Mother was discharged from mental health treatment in December 2015 due to "[n]on-compliance with treatment"; thus, we find the evidence shows that as of December 2015-a year after Child was removed and a month after DSS filed the TPR action-Mother had not completed individual counseling. Although it appears Mother sought counseling in 2016, we find Mother's delay in seeking counseling supports affirming this ground. Most concerning, however, was Mother's failure to obtain a psychological evaluation. Although Mother submitted a document that she averred was a psychological evaluation, Gardner testified the document did not "look like the typical psychological evaluation" DSS referred parents to, and DSS did not consider it a psychological evaluation. ...

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