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In re Z.L.W.

Supreme Court of North Carolina

August 16, 2019


         On writ of certiorari pursuant to N.C. G.S. § 7A-32(b) to review an order entered on 12 December 2018 by Judge Doretta L. Walker in District Court, Durham County. This matter was calendared in the Supreme Court on 1 August 2019 but determined on the record and briefs without oral argument pursuant to Rule 30(f) of the North Carolina Rules of Appellate Procedure.

          The Law Office of Derrick J. Hensley, PLLC, by Derrick J. Hensley, Esq., and Senior Assistant County Attorney Bettyna Belly Abney, for petitioner-appellee Durham County Department of Social Services.

          Daniel Heyman for appellee Guardian ad Litem.

          Mary McCullers Reece for respondent-appellant father.

          NEWBY, JUSTICE.

         Respondent appeals from the trial court's order terminating his parental rights to Z.L.W. and Z.M.W. (Zena and Zadie).[1] We affirm.

         On 19 March 2015, the Durham County Department of Social Services (DSS) filed a petition alleging that Zena and Zadie were neglected juveniles. DSS had received a Child Protective Services report on 9 June 2014 claiming that respondent, the father of the juveniles, was "extremely violent" with the juveniles' mother in their presence and had given her a black eye. The person who filed the report expressed concern that respondent might kill the juveniles and their mother. The person further reported an incident during which respondent drove off recklessly with the juveniles in the car while they were not safely secured and that respondent had threatened to fire multiple gun shots at the mother's residence.

         DSS began providing services in July 2014. Respondent was required to complete a mental health and substance abuse assessment, engage in domestic violence counseling, and participate in a parent education program. In August 2014, respondent tested positive for marijuana. In September 2014, he completed a substance abuse assessment, but declined a drug screen. Respondent was referred to Carolina Outreach for mental health services, but could not be reached at the contact numbers he provided to social workers. Respondent also failed to attend a parenting education program. At the time the neglect petition was filed, respondent was in the Durham County Detention Center facing criminal charges of assault on a female, driving while license revoked, larceny, and second-degree trespassing.

         On 5 May 2015, the trial court adjudicated Zena and Zadie neglected based on findings of fact as stipulated by the parties. The trial court ordered that custody remain with their mother and required both the mother and respondent to comply with a case plan to correct the conditions that led to the adjudication of neglect.

         On 4 November 2015, the trial court entered a review order in which it found that respondent failed to participate in mental health or substance abuse services and used profanity when speaking with a DSS social worker. During a hearing on 3 February 2016, the juveniles' mother tested positive for cocaine. On 3 March 2016, the trial court entered a review order noting the mother's continued use of illegal substances and granting custody of Zena and Zadie to their maternal grandmother.

         In a review order entered on 27 April 2016, the trial court found that respondent had not complied with recommended services. In June 2016, the maternal grandmother could no longer provide housing for Zena and Zadie, and she made arrangements for the paternal grandmother to provide care for the juveniles. In a review order entered on 12 September 2016, the trial court granted DSS legal custody, but ordered that Zena and Zadie continue to reside with the paternal grandmother. The placement ended, however, after respondent took Zena and Zadie out of the paternal grandmother's home during an unauthorized visit. In a permanency planning review order entered on 20 October 2017, the trial court ceased reunification efforts and ordered DSS to file a petition to terminate respondent's and the mother's parental rights.

         On 29 June 2017, DSS filed a motion and petition to terminate respondent's and the mother's parental rights on the grounds of neglect, willful failure to make reasonable progress, and failure to pay support. See N.C. G.S. § 7B-1111(a)(1)-(3) (2017). DSS additionally alleged that respondent had failed to legitimize Zena. See id. § 7B-1111(a)(5) (2017). On 10 April 2018, the mother relinquished her parental rights. On 12 December 2018, the trial court entered an order in which it determined grounds existed to terminate respondent's parental rights regarding Zena pursuant N.C. G.S. § 7B-1111(a)(1), (2), and (5), and regarding Zadie pursuant to N.C. G.S. § 7B-1111(a)(1) and (2). The trial court further concluded it was in Zena's and Zadie's best interests that respondent's parental rights be terminated. Accordingly, the trial court terminated respondent's parental rights. Respondent gave timely notice of appeal pursuant to N.C. G.S. §§ 7A-27(a)(5) and 7B-1001(a1)(1), but improperly designated the Court of Appeals as the court to which appeal was being taken. On 3 May 2019, respondent filed a petition for writ of certiorari, and this Court allowed the petition on 22 May 2019.

         Respondent's sole argument on appeal is that the trial court abused its discretion when it determined termination of his parental rights was in Zena's and Zadie's best interests. We disagree.

         Our Juvenile Code provides for a two-stage process for the termination of parental rights: the adjudicatory stage and the dispositional stage. Id. §§ 7B-1109, -1110 (2017). At the adjudicatory stage, the petitioner bears the burden of proving by "clear, cogent, and convincing evidence" the existence of one or more grounds for termination under section 7B-1111(a) of the North Carolina General Statutes. Id. ยง 7B-1109(e), (f) (2017). During the adjudicatory stage in this case, the trial court ...

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