In re G.G.M., Nos. 248A20

Docket Nº249A20
Citation377 N.C. 29, 855 S.E.2d 478
Case DateMarch 19, 2021
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of North Carolina

377 N.C. 29
855 S.E.2d 478

In the MATTER OF: G.G.M., S.M.

Nos. 248A20
249A20

Supreme Court of North Carolina.

Filed March 19, 2021


Seth B. Weinshenker, Concord, for petitioner-appellees.

Ashley A. Crowder, for respondent-appellant father.

EARLS, Justice.

377 N.C. 30

¶ 1 Respondent, the father of G.G.M. (George) and S.M. (Sarah)1 , appeals from the trial court's orders terminating his parental rights on the

377 N.C. 31

grounds of neglect and willful abandonment. Because we hold the trial court did not err in concluding that grounds existed to terminate respondent's parental rights based on willful abandonment and that termination of his parental rights was in the children's best interests, we affirm the trial court's orders.

¶ 2 Petitioners are the maternal grandmother and step-grandfather of George and Sarah. Respondent and the children's mother met in high school. They were living together when George was born in May 2008 but they were never married. The parents’ relationship ended in February 2009, and the mother and George moved in with petitioners. The mother was pregnant with Sarah at the time.

¶ 3 The parents initiated a Chapter 50 custody action, and in an order filed on 6 April 2010, the mother was granted primary custody of George with respondent having scheduled visitation. In a Temporary Order Modifying Visitation filed on 20 August 2010, the trial court modified respondent's visitation to allow only for supervised visits.

¶ 4 The mother moved out of petitioners’ home with the children in October 2010. However, the mother had financial issues, and in October 2011 the children went to live with petitioners until the mother could improve her situation. The children have resided with petitioners ever since.

¶ 5 On 17 March 2011, the mother filed a petition to terminate respondent's parental rights to George. In an order filed on 9 December 2011, the trial court found grounds to terminate respondent's parental rights based on neglect and his willful failure to pay a reasonable portion of the cost of care for George but did not find that it was in George's best interests to terminate respondent's parental rights. Accordingly, the trial

855 S.E.2d 481

court did not terminate his parental rights at that time.

¶ 6 In November 2013, shots were fired into respondent's home while he was inside with his now fiancée. No one was injured, and the perpetrator was never caught. On the morning of 27 December 2013, respondent was shot multiple times while on his way to work. The perpetrators were never identified. After he was released from the hospital, respondent lived with his aunt in Atlanta, Georgia, for a few months before coming back to North Carolina, where he has remained.

¶ 7 Respondent did not have any contact with the children after he was released from the hospital in late December 2013 until 30 June 2019 when he came to petitioners’ home with two police officers without any prior arrangement or notice that he was coming. The reason for his visit on

377 N.C. 32

30 June 2019 was that he learned that the Cabarrus County Department of Human Services ("DHS") had opened an investigation of the mother for alleged physical abuse of George and Sarah. George came outside of the home, gave his father a hug, and spoke with him briefly, but petitioners did not allow respondent to take either child with him. In response to respondent's unannounced visit, petitioners obtained an Ex Parte Custody Order on 3 July 2019 which maintained physical custody with petitioners and ordered respondent to have no contact with the children.

¶ 8 Approximately one week after his 30 June 2019 visit, respondent again came to petitioners’ home with a law enforcement officer and sought to take the children. Petitioners showed the officer the Ex Parte Custody Order, and respondent left the home without seeing either child.

¶ 9 On 16 July 2019, petitioners filed petitions seeking to terminate respondent's parental rights to George and Sarah on the grounds of neglect and willful abandonment. See N.C.G.S. § 7B-1111(a)(1), (7) (2019). On 15 August 2019, respondent filed an answer opposing the termination of his parental rights. Following a hearing held on 10 February 2020, the trial court entered orders on 9 March 2020 concluding that respondent's parental rights were subject to termination on both grounds alleged in the petitions and that termination of respondent's parental rights was in George's and Sarah's best interests. Accordingly, the trial court terminated respondent's parental rights. Respondent appealed from both orders. On 9 June 2020, respondent filed a motion seeking to consolidate the appeals from the trial court's orders terminating his parental rights. We allowed the motion on 10 June 2020 and consolidated the cases for appeal.

I. Adjudication Stage Issues

¶ 10 Respondent argues the trial court erred by concluding that grounds existed to terminate his parental rights based on neglect and willful abandonment. We review a trial court's adjudication that grounds exist to terminate parental rights "to determine whether the findings are supported by clear, cogent and convincing evidence and the findings support the conclusions of law." In re E.H.P. , 372 N.C. 388, 392, 831 S.E.2d 49 (2019) (quoting In re Montgomery , 311 N.C. 101, 111, 316 S.E.2d 246 (1984) ). "Findings of fact not challenged by respondent are deemed supported by competent evidence and are binding on appeal." In re T.N.H. , 372 N.C. 403, 407, 831 S.E.2d 54 (2019) (citing Koufman v. Koufman , 330 N.C. 93, 97, 408 S.E.2d 729 (1991) ). "Moreover, we review only those findings necessary to support the trial court's

377 N.C. 33

determination that grounds existed to terminate respondent's parental rights." In re T.N.H. , 372 N.C. at 407, 831 S.E.2d 54 (citing In re Moore , 306 N.C. 394, 404, 293 S.E.2d 127 (1982) ). "The trial court's conclusions of law are reviewable de novo on appeal." In re C.B.C. , 373 N.C. 16, 19, 832 S.E.2d 692 (2019). "[A] finding of only one ground is necessary to support a termination of parental rights...." In re A.R.A. , 373 N.C. 190, 194, 835 S.E.2d 417 (2019).

¶ 11 A trial court may terminate a parent's parental rights when "[t]he parent has willfully abandoned the juvenile for at least six consecutive months immediately preceding the filing of the petition or motion." N.C.G.S. § 7B-1111(a)(7). "Abandonment implies conduct on the part of the parent which manifests a willful determination to forego all parental duties and relinquish

855 S.E.2d 482

all parental claims to the child." In re Young , 346 N.C. 244, 251, 485 S.E.2d 612 (1997) (quoting In re Adoption of Searle , 82 N.C. App. 273, 275, 346 S.E.2d 511 (1986) ). "[I]f a parent withholds his presence, his love, his care, the opportunity to display filial affection, and wil[l]fully neglects to lend support and maintenance, such parent relinquishes all parental claims and abandons the child." Pratt v. Bishop , 257 N.C. 486, 501, 126 S.E.2d 597 (1962).

¶ 12 "Whether a biological parent has a willful intent to abandon his child is a question of fact to be determined from the evidence." In re B.C.B. , 374 N.C. 32, 35, 839 S.E.2d 748 (2020) (quoting In re Adoption of Searle, 82 N.C. App. at 276, 346 S.E.2d 511 ). "[A]lthough the trial court may consider a parent's conduct outside the six-month window in evaluating a parent's credibility and intentions, the ‘determinative’ period for adjudicating willful abandonment is the six consecutive months preceding the filing of the petition." In re N.D.A. , 373 N.C. 71, 77, 833 S.E.2d 768 (2019) (quoting In re D.E.M. , 257 N.C. App. 618, 619, 810 S.E.2d 375 (2018) ).

¶ 13 In this case respondent's relevant conduct is essentially the same as it relates to each child. The trial court's findings of fact supporting its adjudications are essentially identical in each termination order, other than the juvenile's name. To examine the relevant matters pertaining to the adjudication of grounds involving both children, the discussion below refers to the findings of fact and conclusions of law as enumerated in the trial court's termination order entered in George's case but is equally applicable to Sarah.

¶ 14 Respondent first challenges finding of fact 16 as not being supported by the evidence. In finding of fact 16, the trial court found:

Pursuant to [N.C.G.S. §] 7B-1111(a)(7), the Respondent has willfully abandoned the minor child ... for a period of time of at least six months prior to the filing
377 N.C. 34
of Petitioners’ Petition to Terminate the Parental Rights of the Respondent on July 16, 2019. The Findings of Fact above show that Respondent has willfully neglected and refused to perform the natural and legal obligations of parental care, support and maintenance for the minor child. The Findings of Fact above show that Respondent has willfully withheld his presence, his love, his care for the minor child, and the
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