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In re T.N.H.

Supreme Court of North Carolina

August 16, 2019


         Appeal pursuant to N.C. G.S. § 7B-1001(a1)(1) from an order entered on 17 December 2018 by Judge Monica Bousman in District Court, Wake 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.

          Office of the Wake County Attorney, by Mary Boyce Wells, for petitioner-appellee Wake County Human Services.

          Everett Gaskins Hancock LLP, by Katherine A. King, for appellee Guardian ad Litem.

          Mercedes O. Chut for respondent-appellant mother.

          EARLS, JUSTICE.

         Respondent mother appeals from the trial court's order terminating her parental rights to T.N.H. (Troy).[1] We affirm.

         On 24 September 2015, Wake County Human Services (WCHS) obtained non-secure custody of Troy and his sister, T.B., [2] after receiving reports of alleged domestic violence between respondent and Troy's father C.H. WCHS subsequently filed a petition in which it claimed that Troy and T.B. were neglected juveniles. The petition claimed that respondent alleged that C.H. had assaulted her and threatened to kill Troy and T.B. WCHS further noted that respondent had a history of sixteen prior Child Protective Services (CPS) reports of neglect dating back to 2000. Several of respondent's older children have been removed from her care due to neglect and have not been returned to her care.

         On 18 November 2015, based on stipulations made by the parties, Troy and T.B. were adjudicated to be neglected juveniles. On 8 January 2016, the trial court entered a dispositional order in which it left custody of Troy and T.B. with WCHS and ordered respondent to comply with an out of home family services agreement. Troy and T.B. were placed in foster care and respondent was ordered to comply with a visitation plan that included visitation to be supervised by WCHS. On 13 September 2016, the trial court adopted an initial primary permanent plan of reunification with a secondary permanent plan of adoption.

         On 10 July 2017, the trial court held a review hearing regarding Troy pursuant to N.C. G.S. § 7B-906.1. At that time, Troy had been placed with his paternal grandmother, J.H., for approximately eight and a half months and was thriving in his placement with her. The trial court found, however, that respondent was not making adequate progress towards satisfying the requirements of her case plan within a reasonable amount of time, that respondent had acted in a manner inconsistent with Troy's health or safety, and that it was unlikely that Troy could return to her care within six months. The trial court determined that the best primary permanent plan for Troy was guardianship and that Troy should be placed in the guardianship of J.H. Respondent and C.H. were granted visitation with Troy, which was to be supervised and monitored by J.H.

         On 9 January 2018, WCHS received a report that Troy was neglected and had received improper supervision. Upon investigation, WCHS determined that in December 2017, J.H. had allowed Troy to stay unsupervised with his parents in a motel room where they had been living, in violation of the trial court's orders. During Troy's stay with his parents, he left the motel room and met a man. The man took Troy to a store, bought Troy a toy, then took Troy back to his motel room where he bathed him, washed his genitals, and took photos of Troy naked. Following this incident, J.H. noticed regression in Troy's behavior and Troy told J.H. about the incident. J.H. notified Troy's father about the disclosure and C.H. soon told respondent about the incident. However, neither respondent, C.H., or J.H. contacted WCHS to report the suspected sexual abuse. Troy's disruptive behavior subsequently became so severe that he was hospitalized at UNC Hospital on 21 January 2018 and transferred to Central Regional Hospital on 24 January 2018. On 14 February 2018, WCHS obtained non-secure custody of Troy and filed a petition alleging that Troy was a neglected juvenile. On 7 June 2018, the trial court adjudicated Troy to be a neglected juvenile, terminated J.H.'s guardianship, and continued custody with WCHS. Respondent was not allowed visitation with Troy.

         On 14 August 2018, WCHS filed a motion to terminate respondent's and C.H.'s parental rights on two grounds. The first ground was neglect. See N.C. G.S. § 7B-1111(a)(1) (2017). The second ground was that respondent's parental rights with respect to another child had been terminated involuntarily and she lacked the ability or willingness to establish a safe home. See N.C. G.S. § 7B-1111(a)(9) (2017). The trial court held a hearing on the motion to terminate on 13 December 2018, but C.H. could not attend because he was hospitalized so the hearing was continued as to C.H. On 17 December 2018, the trial court entered an order finding that the evidence in the case established facts sufficient to support the termination of respondent's parental rights on both grounds alleged in the motion. The trial court further concluded it was in Troy'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 to this Court pursuant to N.C. G.S. §§ 7A-27(a)(5) and 7B-1001(a1)(1).

         Respondent argues on appeal that the trial court erred in terminating her parental rights because it did not receive sufficient evidence or make adequate findings of fact.

         Our Juvenile Code provides for a two-stage process for the termination of parental rights: the adjudicatory stage and the dispositional stage. N.C. G.S. §§ 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 General Statutes. N.C. G.S. § 7B-1109(e), (f) (2017). We review a trial court's adjudication under N.C. G.S. § 7B-1109 "to determine whether the findings are supported by clear, cogent and convincing evidence and the findings support the conclusions of law." In re Montgomery, 311 N.C. 101, 111, 316 S.E.2d 246, 253 (1984) (citing In re Moore, 306 N.C. 394, 404, 293 S.E.2d 127, 133 (1982)). "If [the trial court] determines that one or more grounds listed in section 7B-1111 are present, the court proceeds to the dispositional stage, at which the court must consider whether it is in the best interests of the juvenile to terminate parental rights." In re D.L.W., 368 N.C. 835, 842, 788 S.E.2d 162, 167 (2016) (citing In re Young, 346 N.C. 244, 247, 485 S.E.2d 612, 614-15 (1997); N.C. G.S. § 7B-1110).

         Here, the trial court made extensive findings of fact in support of its determination that grounds existed to support the termination of respondent's parental rights. The court found that respondent had a history of CPS reports for neglect and that at least four of her children had been removed from her care. Troy was born prematurely at thirty weeks and respondent tested positive for both cocaine and marijuana at Troy's birth. Another child of respondent's was born prematurely at twenty-seven weeks and tested positive for cocaine at birth. Over the years there were several reports concerning respondent regarding: improper care, lack of housing, and substance abuse by respondent and C.H. There were also reports that C.H. was violent in the home and that he abused drugs in front of respondent's child. One of respondent's other sons was ...

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