in the Court of Appeals 31 May 2018.
by respondent-mother from orders entered 13 September 2017 by
Judge W. Fred Gore in Brunswick County No. 17 JA 84 District
L. Jess for petitioner-appellee Brunswick County Department
of Social Services.
Anné C. Wright for respondent-appellant.
Spruill LLP, by Kate C. Dewberry and Dylan J. Castellino, for
guardian ad litem.
case requires us to examine (1) the requirements for a valid
consent adjudication order in an abuse, neglect or dependency
case; and (2) the extent to which findings in a pre-hearing
order can be used to support an adjudication of neglect. A.F.
("Respondent") appeals from adjudication and
disposition orders finding her daughter R.L.G.
("Rory") to be a neglected juvenile and continuing
her custody with the Brunswick County Department of Social
Services ("DSS"). Because we conclude the trial
court's determination that Rory was a neglected juvenile
was not supported by sufficient evidence or findings of fact,
we vacate the adjudication and disposition orders and remand
the case to the trial court for further proceedings.
and Procedural Background
is the mother of Rory, who was born in August 2006. On 25
June 2017, DSS obtained non-secure custody of Rory and filed
a petition in Brunswick County District Court alleging that
she was a neglected and dependent juvenile. In its petition,
DSS stated that in 2013 the Bladen County Department of
Social Services had substantiated allegations that Rory was
sexually abused by Respondent's boyfriend. The petition
further asserted that the boyfriend lived in Respondent's
home with Rory and that Respondent had not expressed any
concerns regarding the abuse. In addition, the petition
alleged that Rory had also recently been the victim of sexual
abuse inflicted by a family friend. According to the
petition, Respondent did not seek therapy for Rory as
recommended by DSS and failed to meet with the District
Attorney's office on two occasions to assist with the
prosecution of the case. Finally, the petition stated that
Respondent had been unable to provide Rory with an
alternative childcare arrangement since 2013.
July 2017, DSS filed a motion to amend the 25 June 2017
petition to include additional allegations. The amended
petition stated, inter alia, that Rory was absent
from school for twenty-five days during the 2016-17 school
year and was tardy on thirty-seven occasions. The motion to
amend the petition was subsequently allowed by the court.
trial court conducted a pre-adjudication hearing on 12 July
2017, and on 21 July 2017 the trial court entered an
"Order on Pre-Hearing." An adjudication hearing was
held on 16 August 2017. At this hearing, DSS read the
following prepared admission by Respondent into the record:
That admission is that the juvenile is a neglected juvenile
in that she did not receive proper care and supervision by
her mother in that her mother did not ensure the child
attended school regularly, having missed 25 days during the
2016-17 calendar year and having been tardy 37 times. The
child did not pass the core classes of English, science, and
social studies, and a copy of the report card is tendered in
support of said admission. In addition, the mother has not
taken the child to well care visits with a physician to
address her medical needs.
stated under oath her agreement to the truth of the
above-quoted admission. At that point, the trial court stated
that it would "accept the admission and adjudicate based
upon the neglect." Morgan Traynham (a social worker for
DSS) and Roberta Lerner (the guardian ad litem for
Rory) testified with regard to a potential trial home
placement with Rory's father and the possibility of
supervised visitation between Respondent and Rory.
September 2017, the trial court entered an order (the
"Adjudication Order") adjudicating Rory to be a
neglected juvenile. That same day, the trial court entered a
separate disposition order that (1) continued custody of Rory
with DSS; (2) granted Respondent supervised visitation; and
(3) ordered DSS to pursue the goal of reunification with
Respondent. Respondent filed a timely notice of
Trial Court's Order as a Consent Adjudication
Juvenile Code provides two procedural paths for an
adjudication of abuse, neglect, or dependency: an
adjudicatory hearing or an adjudication by consent."
In re J.S.C., __ N.C.App. __, __, 800 S.E.2d 126,
128 (2017). A consent adjudication "is the agreement of
the parties, their decree, entered upon the record with the
sanction of the court[.]" In re Thrift, 137
N.C.App. 559, 562, 528 S.E.2d 394, 396 (2000) (citation and
quotation marks omitted). N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-801(b1)
permits a trial court to enter a "consent adjudication
order" only if (1) all parties are present or
represented by counsel, who is present and authorized to
consent; (2) the juvenile is represented by counsel; and (3)
the court makes sufficient findings of fact. N.C. Gen. Stat.
§ 7B-801(b1) (2017).
and apart from the statutory authorization for consent
adjudication orders contained in N.C. Gen. Stat. §
7B-801(b1), a different statute - N.C. Gen. Stat. §
7B-807 - allows factual stipulations made by a party to be
used in support of an adjudication. In such cases, a record
of the stipulation "shall be made by either reducing the
facts to a writing, signed by each party stipulating to them
and submitted to the court; or by reading the facts into the
record, followed by an oral statement of agreement from each
party stipulating to them." N.C. Gen. Stat. §
initial question before us is whether the trial court's
13 September 2017 order was a valid consent adjudication
order such that no additional evidence of neglect needed to
be introduced at the adjudication hearing and no further
substantive findings of fact by the trial court establishing
neglect were necessary to support its adjudication as to
Rory. We find our decision in In re L.G.I., 227
N.C.App. 512, 742 S.E.2d 832 (2013), to be particularly
instructive. In L.G.I., an adjudicatory hearing took
place during which the trial court "read the facts into
the record[, ]" noting that the juvenile in that case
had tested positive for morphine at birth and that the
respondent-mother had used illegal substances during her
pregnancy. Id. at 515, 742 S.E.2d at 835 (citation,
quotation marks and brackets omitted). The respondent-mother
then agreed under oath to those facts. On appeal, however,
she argued that this stipulation was not sufficient to
convert the trial court's adjudication order into a
consent adjudication order. We agreed with this argument,
concluding that "[a]t most, respondent-mother entered
into a stipulation as to certain facts during the
adjudication phase of the hearing." Id.
re K.P., __ N.C.App. __, 790 S.E.2d 744 (2016), involved
a challenge by the respondent-mother to the trial court's
order adjudicating her children to be neglected and dependent
in which she contended that the order was not a valid consent
adjudication order. Id. at __, 790 S.E.2d at 747.
The parties had attended a Child Planning Conference prior to
an adjudication hearing. At the hearing, the department of
social services submitted a report to the trial court
indicating that a "Consent Agreement could not be
reached at the conference." Id. at __, 790
S.E.2d at 748 (quotation marks omitted). The trial court then
entered an order ...