Heard in the Court of Appeals: January 26, 2015.
The Law Offices of Martin J. Horn, PLLC, by Martin J. Horn, for Petitioner-Appellee Mother.
Mary McCullers Reece for Respondent-Appellant Father.
McGEE, Chief Judge. Judges STEELMAN and DAVIS concur.
Appeal by Respondent from order entered 24 March 2014 by Judge Robert J. Stiehl, III, in District Court, Cumberland County,
No. 13 JT 159.
McGEE, Chief Judge.
Because the findings of fact and conclusions of law in support of the trial court's ruling terminating Respondent's parental rights are insufficient for appellate review, we remand for further action.
Petitioner-Appellee Mother (" Petitioner" ) filed a petition to terminate the parental rights of Respondent-Appellant Father (" Respondent" ) concerning their child, O.J.R. (" the Child" ), on 26 July 2013. Petitioner alleged dependency and willful abandonment, pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1111(a)(6) & (7), as grounds for termination of Respondent's parental rights. The petition alleged Respondent had no contact with the Child and had provided no support.
The Child was born to Petitioner and Respondent in January 2009. Petitioner and Respondent were unmarried, but had been living together for approximately eight months at the time the Child was born. Petitioner testified that Respondent was in the hospital room with Petitioner when the Child was born, and that Respondent worked and helped support the Child following the birth. Approximately four months after the birth of the Child, Respondent was incarcerated due to probation violations related to several 2007 convictions. Respondent's projected release date from prison was in 2014. Before Respondent returned to prison, he signed over the title of his car to Petitioner to assist in child care expenses. Petitioner sold the car for approximately $3,000.00. Petitioner testified that, after Respondent returned to prison, they talked on the phone and corresponded through letters. Petitioner testified she took the Child to visit Respondent, stating: " I want to say, at the most, three times[.]"
Respondent, with the assistance of a church program, sent the Child a present for Christmas in 2009. Petitioner testified that the Child received a gift from Respondent,
sent by Respondent's mother, in 2010. Petitioner testified there were letters and cards from Respondent to the Child that Petitioner had thrown away when she moved residences. Petitioner testified that she intentionally withheld her address from Respondent and his family " [b]ecause I felt, at the time, it was in my child's best interest not to be subject to that."
A guardian ad litem was appointed for the Child, and the guardian ad litem signed an affidavit on 9 September 2013 concerning interviews she had conducted with Petitioner and Respondent. The guardian ad litem's affidavit included the following: Petitioner told the guardian ad litem that Respondent " got upset when she did not bring [the Child]" to visit him. Petitioner stated that she " decided the relationship was not going to work and told [Respondent]. [Petitioner] indicated [Respondent] was 'okay with it, but wanted the name of the person she would be dating if it was going to get serious so he would know who was raising his child.'" Petitioner deleted Respondent's mother from her Facebook account because Petitioner and Respondent's mother were arguing. Petitioner stated that Respondent's mother wanted Petitioner's new address, but Petitioner refused to give it to her, telling Respondent's mother that she could send any correspondence to Petitioner's mother. Respondent told the guardian ad litem that Petitioner sent him a letter in late 2009 indicating that Petitioner no longer wanted Respondent in the child's life " because of his lifestyle." Respondent told the guardian ad litem that he did not want his parental rights terminated.
Petitioner married another man (" Petitioner's husband" ) in May 2010, and they had a child together in December 2011. Petitioner sent Respondent a letter in May 2012, included in the record, in which she states that the Child " is doing great in the environment she is in[,]" that Petitioner's husband gives the Child everything she needs, and that Petitioner's husband " would like to adopt [the Child] so he can legally provide [the Child] with everything [the Child] could ever need." Petitioner included in that letter an agreement, handwritten by her, for Respondent to sign agreeing to give consent for Petitioner's husband to adopt the Child. Petitioner then stated: " I will let you know that if you deny the adoption, paperwork will be filed [and] you will be served with child support orders. As of now you are behind about $10,000." There was never any order for child support entered against Respondent, and Petitioner testified that Respondent was never behind in child support. Respondent did not reply to the letter containing the handwritten agreement.
Respondent sent Petitioner a letter in January 2013 and included a birthday card for the Child. In that letter, Respondent stated: " I really want to be a part of [the Child's] life." Respondent indicated his desire that Petitioner would forgive him for his prior failings, and that they could be friends for the Child's sake. He indicated that he had felt shut out of the Child's life, but he believed it had more to do with Petitioner's husband than with Petitioner. Respondent asked Petitioner to respond, and that if she did not want to write him a long response, she could just write back with her phone number and he would call her at his own expense. Petitioner did not respond.
Respondent accepted service of a summons and complaint in this matter on 30 May 2013. Petitioner voluntarily dismissed the original complaint and filed a second complaint on 26 July 2013. Respondent again accepted service. Respondent sent the Child two more cards in 2013, one for Halloween and one for Thanksgiving. Included with the Halloween card was a letter to Petitioner stating: " If you don't mind I would like it if you would write me and let me know how [the Child] is doing." Respondent wanted to know specifics about the Child's personality and how she was doing in school. Respondent concluded the letter:
I really want to be part of her life. I wish you would let me do that. If not let me in b/c I'm in here at least keep me informed on how she is plus maybe a few new pics of her would be great. All I'm asking is to please let me be in [the ...