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Cooper v. South Carolina Department of Social Services

Supreme Court of South Carolina

November 6, 2019

Zachariah Scott Cooper and Amie Rochelle Lord Cooper, Appellants,
v.
South Carolina Department of Social Services, Shanice Carter, and Michael Jones, Respondent. AND Arlene Annett Palazzo, Appellant,
v.
South Carolina Department of Social Services, Shanice Carter, and Michael Jones, Respondent. In the interest of minors under the age of eighteen. Appellate Case No. 2018-001151

          Heard September 26, 2019

          Appeal from Lexington County Peter R. Nuessle, Family Court Judge

          Larry Dale Dove, of Dove Law Group, LLC, of Rock Hill, for Appellants Zachariah Scott Cooper and Amie Rochelle Lord Cooper.

          Robert J. Butcher and Deborah J. Butcher, both of The Camden Law Firm, PA, of Camden, for Appellant Arlene Annett Palazzo.

          Scarlet Bell Moore, of Greenville, for Respondent South Carolina Department of Social Services.

          Amanda Mange Scott, of Parnell & Parnell, P.A., of White Rock, for Respondent Shanice Carter.

          Earnest Deon O'Neil, of Columbia, for Respondent Michael Jones.

          JAMES, JUSTICE

         Zachariah Scott Cooper, Amie Rochelle Lord Cooper, and Arlene Annett Palazzo are foster parents of three sibling children placed in their care by the South Carolina Department of Social Services (DSS). The Coopers foster one of the children, and Palazzo fosters the other two children. DSS initiated removal actions in the family court. The Coopers and Palazzo (collectively, Foster Parents) filed private actions seeking termination of parental rights (TPR) and adoption of their respective foster children. This consolidated appeal stems from the family court's order denying several motions made by Foster Parents. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand this matter to the family court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.[1]

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Michael Jones (Father) and Shanice Carter (Mother) are the biological parents of four children. Child 1 was born in 2013, Child 2 was born in 2014, and Child 3 was born in 2016. Child 1, Child 2, and Child 3 (collectively, the Children) are the focus of this appeal. The fourth child's interests are not an issue in this litigation.

         DSS removed Child 1 and Child 2 from Father and Mother's care in 2015 and placed them in foster care with Palazzo. DSS removed Child 3 from Father and Mother's care shortly after his birth and placed him in foster care with the Coopers in July 2016, and Child 3 has continuously resided with the Coopers since then. At the time of oral argument, this Court was under the impression that Child 1 and Child 2 had been residing with Palazzo since their placement with Palazzo in 2015; however, this Court learned through collateral filings made after oral argument that DSS removed Child 1 and Child 2 from Palazzo's home in February 2019 and placed them with the Coopers. This removal was prompted by an abuse complaint made against Palazzo, and proceedings relative to that complaint are reportedly still pending. Palazzo strenuously denies the complaint.

         DSS commenced two separate removal actions in the family court, one involving Child 1 and Child 2, and the other involving Child 3. Foster Parents assert DSS repeatedly informed them the permanent plan for the Children was TPR and adoption. However, in January 2018, Foster Parents received word that DSS was considering changing the permanent plan to relative placement with a maternal great uncle. A DSS caseworker subsequently sent Mrs. Cooper a text message informing her that the great uncle's home study was favorable. After Mrs. Cooper inquired as to what the placement plan was and as to whether there would be any transitional arrangements for the Children, the DSS caseworker replied, "Good morning, the agency has decided that there will not be any transitional visits. . . So if everything goes as planned on [March] 5th, I will be moving all of the children on the 6th."

         On January 29, 2018, Palazzo filed a complaint seeking TPR and adoption for Child 1, Child 2, and Child 3. After learning the Coopers wanted to adopt Child 3, Palazzo amended her complaint seeking TPR and adoption for only Child 1 and Child 2. On February 12, 2018, Palazzo moved to (1) intervene in the DSS removal action concerning Child 1 and Child 2, (2) consolidate her TPR and adoption action with DSS's removal action, and (3) have physical placement of Child 1 and Child 2. DSS opposed each motion.

         On March 1, 2018, the Coopers sent a letter to DSS objecting to Child 3's removal and appealing DSS's intended removal of Child 3. On March 2, 2018, the Coopers filed a complaint seeking TPR and adoption for Child 3. The Coopers also moved to (1) intervene in the DSS removal action concerning Child 3, (2) consolidate their TPR and adoption action with the removal action, (3) request discovery in the consolidated action, (4) require DSS to join their TPR and adoption action, and (5) have temporary custody of Child 3. DSS opposed each motion.

         Palazzo submitted several affidavits from professionals and friends endorsing her parenting skills and supporting the continued placement of Child 1 and Child 2 in her home. Child 1 and Child 2's therapist, Dr. Warren Umansky Ph.D., LPC, spoke highly in his affidavit of Palazzo's parenting skills and stated that disrupting Child 1 and Child 2's placement again "would be irresponsible and do further damage to these impressionable children at a time where they are experiencing success, enjoyment in their lives, and security." Licensed Professional Counselor Pam Stafford performed an assessment of Palazzo, Child 1, and Child 2 and stated in her affidavit that Ms. Palazzo is clearly a central figure in these two children's lives and that their relationship is creating a solid foundation for empathy, control, trust, and overall emotional well-being. Stafford further stated the relationship should not be interrupted unless absolutely necessary, as breaking the bond would re-traumatize the children.

         The Coopers submitted affidavits from two professionals supporting the continued placement of Child 3 in their home. Stafford performed an assessment of the Coopers and Child 3 and found the attachment relationship between the Coopers and Child 3 is secure and apparent and that this attachment helps a toddler learn basic trust, enhances intellectual development, and creates a foundation for a sense of identity. Stafford further stated healthy attachment forms the foundation for emotional well-being and that it would be incomprehensible for such a child to be removed from the only home he has ever known unless it was absolutely necessary.

         Dr. Philip G. Steude, MD, found Child 3 was bonded to the Coopers and stated, "Removal of this Child from [the] ongoing presence of Mrs. Cooper and, secondarily, Mr. Cooper and the older children would be exceptionally disruptive and traumatic. [Child 3's] basic response would tend to be shutting down relationships with other people, withholding and avoiding, causing probable disruption of his personality development into being a loner, angry, and untrusting."

         On March 5, 2018, the family court held a permanency planning hearing in the DSS removal actions. At the hearing, DSS sought relative placement with the maternal great uncle, even though Mother lived with great uncle. Mother and Father supported this placement. DSS recommended the Children be placed with the great uncle as soon as possible. The Children's volunteer guardian ad litem (GAL) in the DSS actions did not "feel comfortable making a recommendation because everything ha[d] changed so quickly." Foster Parents objected to the permanency planning hearing going forward until their administrative appeal and motions could be heard. The family court continued the hearing, noting Foster Parents' pending motions would have to be heard and that there was no need to rush the Children's removal from Foster Parents' homes.

         On March 19, 2018, the family court heard Foster Parents' motions. DSS, Mother, and Father opposed Foster Parents' motions. At this hearing, DSS announced to the family court it was no longer pursuing TPR and adoption or placement with the great uncle and stated the permanent plan for the Children was reunification with Mother. DSS noted Mother was seven months into a twelve month treatment plan and that Mother had to that point successfully completed the plan, with the exception of the duration requirement for stable housing. DSS argued that intervention, consolidation, and granting discovery rights to Foster Parents would unnecessarily complicate the case. DSS argued Foster Parents' intervention rights were strictly permissive and not mandatory. DSS ...


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