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In re E.H.P.

Supreme Court of North Carolina

August 16, 2019

IN THE MATTER OF E.H.P. and K.L.P.

         Appeal pursuant to N.C. G.S. § 7B-1001(a1)(1) from orders entered on 14 January 2019 by Judge Monica Leslie in District Court, Graham County. This matter was calendared for argument 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.

          No brief for petitioner-appellee mother.

          Wendy C. Sotolongo, Parent Defender, by Annick Lenoir-Peek, Deputy Parent Defender, for respondent-appellant father.

          DAVIS, JUSTICE.

         This case involves a termination of parental rights proceeding initiated by petitioner-mother (petitioner) against respondent-father (respondent). In this appeal, we consider whether the trial court erred by terminating respondent's parental rights based upon the grounds of willful abandonment and willful failure to pay child support. Because we conclude that sufficient evidence existed to support the termination of respondent's parental rights on the basis of willful abandonment and that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in determining that termination of respondent's parental rights would be in the children's best interests, we affirm the trial court's orders.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         Petitioner and respondent were married in 2007 and had two daughters together. Kelly and Emily (the children) were born in 2006 and 2009, respectively.[1]The parties separated in 2012.

         In August 2013, petitioner filed a motion for temporary emergency custody of the children. In the Temporary Custody Judgment entered in District Court, Graham County on 17 December 2013, petitioner was awarded sole temporary custody of the children "until such time as this matter is resolved by the Court through a permanent custody hearing." The Temporary Custody Judgment contained the following pertinent findings of fact:

5. [Respondent] did not appear for the hearing of this matter and has never filed any form of responsive pleading, motion, or other such documentation in response to [petitioner's] Complaint.
6. The Court takes Judicial notice . . . that the [respondent] was in fact validly served and provided Notice of this hearing by the Sheriff of Loudon County, Tennessee, where [respondent] had been incarcerated.
. . . .
9. Throughout the relationship of the parties, the [respondent] committed numerous acts of domestic violence against the [petitioner].
10. The parties separated on July 23, 2012 due to the [respondent's] drug addiction and a series of acts of domestic violence by the [respondent] . . . against the [petitioner] wherein the [respondent] choked the [petitioner] and hit her in the face with his elbow causing bruising and a laceration to the person of the [petitioner].
11. The minor children of the parties were present while the [respondent] engaged in the acts of violence against the [petitioner].
. . . .
14. The [respondent] is addicted to methamphetamine and currently has charges pending against him in the State of North Carolina and Tennessee for larceny, assault on a female by strangulation, and drug related charges.

         The Temporary Custody Judgment further provided that respondent "shall have no contact with the minor children until allowed such by further Order of this Court." Respondent never filed any motions seeking to alter the custody arrangement set forth in the Temporary Custody Judgment.

         On 25 June 2018, petitioner filed petitions seeking to terminate respondent's parental rights to both children on the grounds of willful failure to pay child support and willful abandonment pursuant to N.C. G.S. § 7B-1111(a)(4) and (7), respectively. Petitioner alleged that respondent had willfully failed to pay child support for a continuous period of six months immediately preceding the filing of the petitions. She further alleged that respondent had neither attempted to see or communicate with the children during the six years preceding the filing of the petitions nor sent the children any cards or presents during that time period.

         Respondent was served with the petitions at the Sampson County Correctional Institution in Clinton, North Carolina, where he had been incarcerated since January 2018 and was serving an eight-month sentence for violating his probation. On 17 July 2018, he filed answers to the ...


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