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In re R.L.G.

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

June 19, 2018

IN THE MATTER OF: R.L.G.

          Heard in the Court of Appeals 31 May 2018.

          Appeal by respondent-mother from orders entered 13 September 2017 by Judge W. Fred Gore in Brunswick County No. 17 JA 84 District Court.

          Elva L. Jess for petitioner-appellee Brunswick County Department of Social Services.

          Anné C. Wright for respondent-appellant.

          Poyner Spruill LLP, by Kate C. Dewberry and Dylan J. Castellino, for guardian ad litem.

          DAVIS, Judge.

         This 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")[1] 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.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         Respondent 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.

         On 6 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.

         The 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.

         Respondent 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."[2] 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.

         On 13 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 appeal.[3]

         Analysis

         I. Trial Court's Order as a Consent Adjudication Order

         "[T]he 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).

         Separate 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. § 7B-807(a) (2017).

         The 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.

         In 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 ...


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