Heard April 21, 2015
Mercedes O. Chut for petitioner-appellant Guilford County Department of Health and Human Services.
Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein, LLP, by Sye T. Hickey, Appellate Counsel for appellant Guardian ad Litem, on behalf of the minor child.
J. Lee Gilliam, Assistant Appellate Defender, for respondent-appellee mother.
Appeal pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 7A-30(2) from the decision of a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C.App. ___, 765 S.E.2d 88 (2014), reversing an order entered on 4 February 2014 by Judge Tabatha Holliday in District Court, Guilford County, and remanding this case to the trial court for further proceedings. Heard in the Supreme Court on 21 April 2015.
The ultimate issue before us in this case is the extent to which a trial court must inquire into a parent's competence to determine whether it is necessary to appoint a guardian ad litem for that parent despite the absence of any request that such a hearing be held or that a parental guardian ad litem be appointed. After considering this issue in light of the record developed in this case, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court abused its discretion by failing to inquire into the issue of whether respondent was entitled to the appointment of a parental guardian ad litem given that the information available to the trial court raised a substantial question concerning her competence. We reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals.
Respondent delivered her son, T.L.H., in April of 2013. At the hospital in which T.L.H. was born, respondent voluntarily placed the child with the Guilford County Department of Health and Human Services (" DHHS" ) based upon her concerns about the safety of the home that she shared with her romantic partner, Adam McNeill. Respondent's concerns stemmed from the presence of illicit drugs in the residence that she shared with Mr. McNeill and the unsafe environment created by certain unsavory individuals who frequented the home. In addition, respondent acknowledged that, even though she had been diagnosed as suffering from certain mental health problems, she was not taking her prescribed psychotropic medication at that time. Nonetheless, respondent clearly indicated that, instead of relinquishing her parental rights in T.L.H., she wanted to work toward reunification with her son.
On 12 April 2013, DHHS filed a petition alleging that T.L.H. was a neglected and dependent juvenile. In its petition, DHHS alleged, among other things, that respondent " ha[d] been to the hospital on several occasions in the last year due to mental health complications" and that she " has diagnoses of schizoaffective disorder, bipolar, cannabis abuse and personality disorder." At the request of DHHS, Judge Betty Brown appointed Amy Bullock to serve as respondent's guardian ad litem on a " provisional/interim basis" in an order entered on 18 April 2013 that lacked findings of fact or conclusions of law relating to the appointment issue and did not specify whether Ms. Bullock was to act in a substitutive or assistive capacity.
After a hearing held on 16 May 2013, Judge Brown entered an adjudication and disposition order on 5 June 2013 determining that T.L.H. was a dependent juvenile, dismissing the neglect allegation without prejudice, retaining T.L.H. in DHHS custody, and establishing a case plan under which respondent would visit with T.L.H. At the time of the 16 May hearing, respondent did not have housing independent of Mr. McNeill, with whom incidents of domestic violence had occurred. However, respondent was on a Housing Authority waiting list. Respondent's
sole source of income consisted of $473.00 in monthly Social Security disability benefits that had been awarded based on her diagnosed mental conditions, including bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, and narcolepsy. According to court summaries that had been prepared by DHHS and T.L.H.'s guardian ad litem and submitted for Judge Brown's consideration:
[Respondent] has a history of substance abuse and has diagnoses of schizophrenic, chronic paranoid type, chronically noncompliant, marijuana dependence, personality disorder, ...