People in Interest of R.J.B., 2021 COA 4

In this decision, the Court of Appeals considers whether the mother’s due process and equal protection rights were violated when the trial court denied the mother’s request for a continuance until an in-person hearing could be held and subsequently terminated the parent-child legal relationship between the mother and the child via a Webex hearing. In addition, the Court of Appeals considers whether the trial court abused its discretion when it held the termination hearing via Webex.

The mother asserted that her fundamental liberty interest in the care, custody, and control of her child had been violated without due process of law. The Court of Appeals holds the court provided the mother with ample notice of the proceeding, the mother was represented by court-appointed counsel throughout the proceeding, and the mother was given a meaningful opportunity to defend against the termination motion and be heard. Furthermore, the trial court ensured that the mother was provided with substantially similar procedures as would have been available at an in-person termination hearing. The Court of Appeals also notes that the trial court: asked the reporter to read back from the record portions of a question or a response that had been interrupted by connectivity issues, immediately recessed when there was difficulty hearing the mother’s counsel until counsel could appear by phone, and used the virtual lobby to ensure that sequestered witnesses were not exposed to other portions of the hearing. Based on these considerations, the Court of Appeals holds that the mother’s due process rights were not violated.

The Court of Appeals declines to consider the mother’s equal protection claim, noting that it “is merely a bald assertion without argument or development.”

Asserting that the trial court abused its discretion in denying a continuance, the mother argued that a hearing via Webex would render the proceeding fundamentally unfair because of difficulty hearing other parties, the video cutting in and out or freezing, and parties’ broadband capabilities, as well as difficulties making contemporaneous objections, effectuating a sequestration order while a witness waited in the virtual lobby, ascertaining whether witnesses were using documents or were in private communication with counsel or other parties, using documents to impeach witnesses, offering exhibits, allowing the court and counsel to observe a witness’s demeanor, and ensuring there was an adequate recording of the hearing. The Court of Appeals affirms the trial court’s denial of the mother’s request for a continuance, holding that the mother’s concerns were either unfounded or could be addressed at the hearing. The Court of Appeals also notes that the mother’s request to continue made no showing that a continuance would serve the child’s best interests.

In addition to affirming the trial court’s procedures and decisions with regard to the Webex hearing, the Court of Appeals also affirms the trial court’s finding that no less drastic alternative to termination existed, noting that the record demonstrated that the child was thriving in the godmother’s care, the mother was unfit to care for the child and had not maintained a relationship with the child, the godmother had difficulty establishing appropriate boundaries with the mother, and the child needed the permanency provided by adoption.

Click here to access the case in Westlaw.