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In re A.P.

Supreme Court of North Carolina

May 11, 2018

IN THE MATTER OF: A.P.

          Heard in the Supreme Court on 12 March 2018.

          On discretionary review pursuant to N.C. G.S. § 7A-31 of a unanimous decision of the Court of Appeals, __ N.C.App. __, 800 S.E.2d 77 (2017), vacating an order entered on 29 June 2016 by Judge Ty Hands in District Court, Mecklenburg County.

          Matthew D. Wunsche, GAL Appellate Counsel, for appellant Guardian ad Litem, and Keith Roberson for petitioner-appellant Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services, Youth and Family Services Division.

          Anné C. Wright for respondent-appellee mother.

          BEASLEY, JUSTICE.

         In this case we consider whether the Juvenile Code mandates that a petition alleging a juvenile is abused, neglected, or dependent must be filed only by the director or authorized agent of the department of social services of the county "in which the juvenile resides or is found." Because we conclude that the legislature did not intend to constrain departments of social services in this way and because such a constraint would not be in the best interests of children or families in North Carolina, we reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals holding that the Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services, Youth and Family Division did not have standing to file the juvenile petition in this case.

         A.P. was born on 2 August 2015. When A.P. was born, she lived with respondent mother (respondent) in a group home for teen mothers located in Cabarrus County. On 22 September 2015, when A.P. was less than two months old, respondent was taken to an emergency room and subsequently involuntarily committed to a mental health facility in Mecklenburg County. A social worker from Cabarrus County Department of Human Services (CCDHS) met with respondent at the hospital, and respondent agreed to a safety plan with CCDHS that provided, inter alia, that A.P. would live in Rowan County with Ms. B., respondent's case worker from the group home, while respondent was in the residential mental health facility.

         Respondent indicated that she planned to move with A.P. to live with her grandfather in Mecklenburg County after her release from the treatment facility, and CCDHS requested that the Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services, Youth and Family Division (YFS), investigate the appropriateness of the grandfather's home for A.P.'s placement. YFS found the home appropriate. Respondent was discharged from the treatment facility on 23 October 2015, and she and A.P. moved in with respondent's grandfather. CCDHS transferred the case to YFS to provide services to respondent in Mecklenburg County. Respondent agreed to cooperate with services from YFS and reside with A.P. in her grandfather's home. According to a CCDHS employee, CCDHS "was no longer involved [with the case] after November 2, 2015."

         On 25 November 2015, YFS received a report alleging that respondent was living with A.P. in an abandoned house in Mecklenburg County without heat or electricity. The report also alleged that respondent did not have food, clothing, or diapers for A.P. and that respondent was using cocaine and marijuana. Respondent's sister took A.P. back to Ms. B.'s home in Rowan County. Ms. B. observed that A.P. had not been bathed recently and that her clothes were "very dirty." Ms. B. also found drug paraphernalia in A.P.'s diaper bag. Around 4 December 2015, respondent submitted to a substance abuse assessment at the request of YFS and tested positive for benzodiazepines and marijuana. Respondent admitted to Ms. B. that she had been living in the abandoned house and that she had used marijuana.

         On 18 December 2015, respondent mother agreed that A.P. would remain with Ms. B. temporarily while respondent lived with a family friend in South Carolina. Respondent returned to Mecklenburg County in January 2016 and was later jailed in Mecklenburg County on unidentified criminal charges in February 2016. Respondent also notified YFS that she received inpatient treatment at a mental health facility in Mecklenburg County from 18 to 20 February 2016. She later indicated to a YFS social worker that she had been residing with her sister in Cabarrus County as of 22 March 2016.

         On 23 March 2016, Ms. B. informed YFS that she was no longer able to provide care for A.P. YFS contacted CCDHS and requested to transfer the case back to Cabarrus County. CCDHS declined the transfer. On 29 March 2016, YFS obtained a non-secure custody order for A.P. from a Mecklenburg County magistrate and retrieved A.P. from Ms. B.'s home. The following day, YFS filed a juvenile petition with the District Court in Mecklenburg County alleging that A.P. was a neglected and dependent juvenile.

         The trial court conducted a hearing on 17 May 2016 and entered an adjudication and disposition order on 29 June 2016 in which it concluded that A.P. is a neglected and dependent juvenile. At the hearing, respondent moved to dismiss the case, arguing, inter alia, that YFS lacked standing to file the juvenile petition under the relevant provisions of the Juvenile Code, and therefore, the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to hear the case. The trial court denied respondent's motion at the hearing. Respondent appealed from the trial court's adjudication and disposition order.

         The Court of Appeals held that YFS lacked standing because it was not the proper party to file the juvenile petition under N.C. G.S. § 7B-401.1(a), and it vacated the trial court's order on that basis.[1] In re A.P., __ N.C.App. __, __, __, 800 S.E.2d 77, 80, 82 (2017). We now reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals.

         Generally, "[j]urisdiction is '[t]he legal power and authority of a court to make a decision that binds the parties to any matter properly brought before it.' " In re T.R.P., 360 N.C. 588, 590, 636 S.E.2d 787, 789-90 (2006) (second alteration in original) (quoting Judicial Jurisdiction, Black's Law Dictionary 856 (7th ed. 1999)). Subject matter jurisdiction, more specifically, is "the power to pass on the merits of [a] case." Boyles v. Boyles, 308 N.C. 488, 491, 302 S.E.2d 790, 793 (1983); see also 6A Strong's North Carolina Index 4th: Courts ยง 8, at 423-27 (2013) (discussing subject matter jurisdiction generally). "Subject matter jurisdiction is the indispensable ...


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