Supreme Court - Digested Index

18 March 2022

Child Abuse, Dependency, and Neglect

Dependency—incapability to parent—cognitive defects and mental illness—The trial court properly terminated a father's parental rights in his children on grounds of dependency (N.C.G.S. § 7B-1111(a)(6)) where clear, cogent, and convincing evidence–along with the court's unchallenged findings of fact–supported a determination that, at the time of the termination hearing, the father was incapable of providing proper care and supervision of the children and there was a reasonable probability that this incapability would continue for the foreseeable future. Among other things, the father suffered from severe cognitive defects and mental illnesses (including bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and an unspecified intellectual disability) that impaired his ability to reason, exercise judgment, or problem solve, and that there was no evidence showing that his mental condition was expected to change. In re J.I.G. and A.M.G., No. 154A21 (N.C. Mar. 18, 2022)

Jurisdiction

Termination of parental rights case—sufficiency of service of process—statutory requirements—type of jurisdiction implicated—The trial court properly exercised jurisdiction over a private termination of parental rights matter in which respondent-father, a nonresident, alleged on appeal that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over him because he was not properly served with a summons as required by N.C.G.S. § 7B-1101. Respondent's argument implicated personal, not subject matter, jurisdiction, and since he participated in the hearing without objection, he waived any argument regarding insufficient service of process. In re A.L.I., No. 266A21 (N.C. Mar. 18, 2022)

Termination of Parental Rights

Best interests of the child—consideration of factors—sufficiency of evidence and findings—The trial court did not abuse its discretion by concluding that terminating a mother's and father's parental rights in their eleven-year-old daughter was in the child's best interests, where the court's factual findings were supported by competent evidence and demonstrated a proper analysis of the dispositional factors set forth in N.C.G.S. § 7B-1110(a). Notably, the child–whom the parents had exposed to sexually inappropriate boundaries, inappropriate discipline, and grooming behaviors–had an unhealthy bond with her parents characterized by guilt and a distorted sense of loyalty; the parents refused to acknowledge the problems that led to the child's removal from their home, deflecting blame for the child's trauma to the "system" and the department of social services; and there was a high likelihood of adoption where, despite her history of behavioral issues, the child had shown a real improvement after finding stability in her foster home and developing a trusting relationship with her foster mother. In re S.M., No. 534A20 (N.C. Mar. 18, 2022)

Best interests of the child—factual findings—statutory factors—The trial court did not abuse its discretion by concluding that termination of a father's parental rights was in his children's best interests, where the dispositional findings were supported by sufficient evidence and the court properly considered the statutory factors in N.C.G.S. § 7B-1110(a) and performed a reasoned analysis in reaching its conclusion. Although one of the findings incorrectly listed certain crimes as ones for which the father had been convicted, the finding nonetheless accurately characterized his criminal history as "extensive"; further, the appellate court rejected the father's arguments that the trial court erred by failing to consider the impact of the coronavirus restrictions and options short of termination. In re A.N.D., A.N.D., and A.C.D., No. 113A21 (N.C. Mar. 18, 2022)

Best interests of the child—placement with foster mother—consideration of relatives—The trial court did not abuse its discretion by concluding that termination of a mother's parental rights was in her daughter's best interests and by placing the child with her nonrelative foster mother. The court's unchallenged findings addressed statutory dispositional factors, including that the child had an extremely strong bond with the foster mother and that there was a high likelihood of adoption, and gave relevant consideration to family members who were identified late in the proceedings as being available for placement. The trial court was not required to prioritize placement with a relative, and its findings indicated an appropriate balancing of competing goals. In re H.R.S., No. 227A21 (N.C. Mar. 18, 2022)

Best interests of the child—relevant factors—bond between parent and child—The trial court did not abuse its discretion in determining that termination of a father's parental rights was in his son's best interests where, contrary to the father's argument on appeal, the court made findings concerning all relevant factors–specifically, the bond between the father and son, by finding that the father obviously loved the son but that their bond was outweighed by the son's need for a safe, nurturing, stable environment. In re C.S., No. 90A21 (N.C. Mar. 18, 2022)

Best interests of the child—sufficiency of findings—statutory factors—The trial court did not abuse its discretion by concluding that termination of a father's parental rights was in his son's best interests, where the dispositional findings were supported by sufficient evidence–including findings regarding the father's minimal role in the son's upbringing, the son's significant behavioral improvements since entering social services' custody, the bond between the father and son, and the son's interest in and likelihood of adoption. Furthermore, the court properly considered the statutory factors in N.C.G.S. § 7B-1110(a) and performed a reasoned analysis in reaching its conclusion. In re K.N.L.P., T.L.S.P., and R.W.P., No. 301A21 (N.C. Mar. 18, 2022)

Grounds for termination—failure to make reasonable progress—continued drug use—lack of contact with DSS—An order terminating a mother's parental rights to two children was affirmed where the trial court's findings–that one of the children was born cocaine-positive, that the mother continued to use drugs and gave birth to another drug-positive baby during the pendency of this case, that she did not provide proof of employment or of completion of a rehabilitation program, that she maintained a relationship with the children's father despite his abuse of the children's sibling, and that she failed to cooperate or remain in contact with DSS–supported the conclusion that the mother willfully left the children in placement outside the home for more than twelve months without making reasonable progress to correct the conditions that led to their removal. In re L.D., A.D., No. 155A21 (N.C. Mar. 18, 2022)

Grounds for termination—failure to make reasonable progress—medical neglect of child—parent's untreated mental illness—The trial court properly terminated respondent-mother's rights in her son for failure to make reasonable progress to correct the conditions leading to the child's removal (N.C.G.S. § 7B-1111(a)(2)), which mainly consisted of respondent-mother's failure to seek necessary medical care for the child, who was born prematurely with a heart defect and severe lung problems. Respondent-mother did not comply with treatment recommendations for her various mental health issues, including bipolar disorder, despite receiving a psychological evaluation (which she had continually put off completing for two years) confirming the detrimental effect that these issues had on her ability to attend to her son's medical needs. Further, the court did not impermissibly terminate respondent-mother's rights on account of her poverty where social workers had made several efforts throughout the case to help respondent-mother complete her case plan despite her insufficient finances. In re D.D.M., No. 249A21 (N.C. Mar. 18, 2022)

Grounds for termination—neglect—likelihood of future neglect—drugs, parenting, and home—The trial court did not err in determining that there was a probability of a repetition of neglect if respondent-father's child were returned to his custody, where the child had been removed from the father's custody two years before the termination hearing due to the father's substance abuse, his parenting issues, and the filthy condition of the home. The trial court's findings, which were supported by sufficient evidence, established that the father had tested positive for methamphetamine approximately twenty-three months before the termination hearing, had willfully failed to complete a parenting class despite ample opportunity to do so, had failed to pay child support or find employment, and continued to have no known residence suitable for the child. In re A.E.S.H., No. 208A21 (N.C. Mar. 18, 2022)

Grounds for termination—neglect—likelihood of future neglect—failure to address domestic violence in home—The trial court properly terminated a mother's parental rights in her daughter on the ground of neglect based on a determination that a likelihood of future neglect existed if the child were returned to the mother's care. The court's findings showed that the mother had denied at least two reported incidents of domestic violence by the child's father; that the child's initial neglect adjudication resulted from the mother's tendency to deny or minimize the domestic violence issues at home; and that the mother made minimal progress in addressing the domestic violence component of her case plan, continued her relationship with the father until just months before the termination hearing, made few efforts to contact or develop a relationship with the child, and lacked appropriate housing. In re T.B., No. 149A21 (N.C. Mar. 18, 2022)

Grounds for termination—neglect—likelihood of future neglect—parent's cognitive limitations—The trial court did not err by determining that a mother's parental rights in her children were subject to termination on the grounds of neglect where the unchallenged findings of fact showed no changes in circumstance that would support a conclusion that the mother was unlikely to neglect her children in the future. Rather, the mother's significant cognitive limitations prevented her from taking basic care of even herself, and she lacked the ability to comprehend the past neglect or how to care for her children going forward; furthermore, the suitability of other family members as caregivers was irrelevant where the mother was unfit to care for the children. In re V.S. and A.S., No. 121PA21 (N.C. Mar. 18, 2022)

Grounds for termination—neglect—likelihood of repetition of neglect—parental fitness at time of proceeding—In a private termination of parental rights matter, where petitioners had obtained custody of the child pursuant to a civil custody order, the trial court properly terminated the father's parental rights in the child on grounds of neglect (N.C.G.S. § 7B-1111(a)(1)). Although the father could not regain custody under the civil order without a substantial change in his parenting skills and ability to care for the child, the court did not err in determining that a substantial likelihood of repetition of neglect existed where, under the applicable statutes, that determination depends not on the parent's fitness to regain custody of the child but rather on the parent's fitness to care for the child at the time of the termination proceeding. In re D.I.L., No. 268A21 (N.C. Mar. 18, 2022)

Grounds for termination—neglect—past neglect—other parent's conduct—The trial court did not err by determining that a father's parental rights in his son were subject to termination on the grounds of neglect where the showing of past neglect was based on the mother's (rather than the father's) conduct. In re C.S., No. 90A21 (N.C. Mar. 18, 2022)

Grounds for termination—neglect—stipulations to factual circumstances—sufficiency of findings—The trial court properly terminated a father's parental rights to his daughter based on neglect after making findings that, although respondent was not responsible for the child's initial removal from the home (which was based on her testing positive for controlled substances at birth), he had a long-standing drug addiction, he continued to use drugs after he came forward as the child's father, and he lied to the court about his drug use. Although the court's findings were limited due to respondent having stipulated to the factual circumstances underlying the grounds for termination, the findings were supported by competent evidence and were in turn sufficient to support the court's conclusions of law. In re M.S.L. a/k/a M.S.H., No. 215A21 (N.C. Mar. 18, 2022)

Jurisdiction—sufficiency of findings—In a termination of parental rights matter, the trial court's general finding that it had jurisdiction over the parties and the subject matter of the action was supported by the record and met the jurisdictional requirements of N.C.G.S. § 7B-1101. In re M.S.L. a/k/a M.S.H., No. 215A21 (N.C. Mar. 18, 2022)

No-merit brief—multiple grounds for termination—The termination of a father's parental rights in his daughter on multiple grounds was affirmed where his counsel filed a no-merit brief and where the termination order was supported by the evidence and based on proper legal grounds. In re T.B., No. 149A21 (N.C. Mar. 18, 2022)

Standard of proof—clear, cogent, and convincing—not stated in open court or in written order—appropriate remedy—In a termination of parental rights proceeding, the trial court's failure to state that it was utilizing the standard of proof of clear, cogent, and convincing evidence, either orally in open court or in its written order terminating both parents' rights to their children–and in fact stating the wrong standard of proof in its order (preponderance of the evidence)–was in violation of N.C.G.S. § 7B-1109(f). Where the record evidence was not so clearly insufficient as to make further review futile, the termination order was reversed and the matter remanded for reconsideration under the correct standard of review. In re J.C. and D.C., No. 166A21 (N.C. Mar. 18, 2022)


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