in the Supreme Court on 12 March 2018.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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
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. 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.
"[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 § 8, at 423-27
(2013) (discussing subject matter jurisdiction generally).
"Subject matter jurisdiction is the indispensable