In re J.C.J., 288A21

Docket Nº288A21
Citation2022 NCSC 86
Case DateJuly 15, 2022
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of North Carolina

2022-NCSC-86

IN THE MATTER OF: J.C.J. and J.R.J.

No. 288A21

Supreme Court of North Carolina

July 15, 2022


Appeal pursuant to N.C. G.S. § 7B-1001(a1)(1) from orders entered on 22 October 2020 and 20 May 2021 by Judge Regina R. Parker in District Court, Beaufort County. This matter was calendared for oral argument in the Supreme Court on 1 July 2022, but was determined on the record and briefs without oral argument pursuant to Rule 30(f) of the North Carolina Rules of Appellate Procedure.

J. Edward Yeager, Jr., for petitioner-appellee Beaufort County Department of Social Services.

Peter Wood for respondent-appellant father.

Benjamin J. Kull for respondent-appellant mother.

Matthew D. Wunsche, GAL Appellate Counsel, for North Carolina Guardian Ad Litem Program, amicus curiae.

ERVIN, JUSTICE

¶ 1 Respondent-mother Courtney J. and respondent-father Jeremy J. appeal from orders entered by the trial court terminating their parental rights in their twin sons J.C.J. and J.R.J.[1] After careful consideration of the parents' challenges to the trial

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court's termination orders in light of the record and the applicable law, we conclude that the trial court's termination orders should be affirmed.

¶ 2 Jaden and Jack, who are twins, were born in July 2015 and have five older half-siblings.[2] On 23 October 2017, the Beaufort County Department of Social Services obtained the entry of orders placing the twins in nonsecure custody and filed juvenile petitions alleging that they were neglected juveniles. In these petitions, DSS alleged that the twins resided in an injurious environment and received improper care, supervision, and discipline. DSS further alleged that it had received nineteen child protective service reports relating to the family since March 2013 based upon concerns relating to the adequacy of the supervision and discipline that the older children had received, the adequacy of the medical care that had been provided to these children, parental substance abuse, and the children's exposure to sexual conduct. On 9 September 2017, DSS alleged that it had received a child protective services report describing "child on child sexual abuse occurring in the home" involving two of the twins' half-siblings, with four of the twins' half-siblings having previously been found to be neglected based primarily upon respondent-mother's failure to take advantage of the remedial services that she had been offered. Finally, DSS alleged that the twins' speech development was delayed and that, even though

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a social worker had recommended that they receive speech therapy, respondentmother had refused to ensure that they received such therapy on the grounds that she did not need assistance in "keeping up with the children's appointments and/or raising her children."

¶ 3 After a hearing held on 11 April 2018, Judge Darrell B. Cayton, Jr., entered an order on 12 April 2018 determining that the twins were neglected juveniles. In light of this determination, Judge Cayton ordered respondent-mother to continue to comply with the terms of an Out of Home Family Services Agreement; continue to attend the Families Understanding Nurturing Program; continue to receive therapeutic treatment at Pamlico Counseling; participate in family therapy when recommended by her own and the twins' therapists; attend all available visits with the children; and acquire a valid driver's license and transportation. Similarly, the trial court ordered respondent-father to continue to comply with the terms of his own family services agreement; continue to attend the Families Understanding Nurturing Program; join in couple's therapy with respondent-mother; participate in family therapy with the twins when their therapist deemed it appropriate for him to do so; visit with the children; and acquire a valid driver's license and transportation. The parents were granted at least one hour of supervised visitation with the children each week.

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¶ 4 On 5 October 2018, respondent-mother filed a motion in which she requested that a trial home placement be authorized. After conducting a permanency planning hearing on 21 November 2018, Judge Cayton entered an order finding that respondent-mother had completed the Families Understanding Nurturing Program, participated in couple's counseling, and taken advantage of all available opportunities to visit with the children. In addition, Judge Cayton found that respondent-mother had continued to participate in therapeutic treatment at Pamlico Counseling until July 2018 and that, on 14 November 2018, she had resumed participating in therapy with Dream Provider Care Services. On the other hand, Judge Cayton found that respondent-mother remained unemployed and did not wish to seek or obtain employment. Similarly, Judge Cayton found that respondent-father had completed the Families Understanding Nurturing Program, attended couple's counseling, and taken advantage of all available opportunities to visit with the children. Finally, Judge Cayton found that neither parent had obtained a valid driver's license. Based upon these and other findings, Judge Cayton determined that the parents had made sufficient progress to warrant a trial home placement and established a primary permanent plan of reunification, with a concurrent plan of adoption.

¶ 5 Following a permanency planning hearing held on 20 March 2019, the trial court entered an order on 21 March 2019 in which it found that the twins remained

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in a trial home placement with the parents and that, while "[t]he present risk of harm to the children in the [parents'] home is low," "the situation is rickety, perhaps prone to sudden collapse." On 2 May 2019, the trial home placement ended.

¶ 6 On 6 April 2020, DSS filed a motion alleging that the parents' parental rights in the twins were subject to termination on the basis of neglect, N.C. G.S. § 7B-1111(a)(1); willfully leaving the twins in a placement outside the home for more than twelve months without making reasonable progress toward correcting the conditions that had led to their removal from the family home, N.C. G.S. § 7B-1111(a)(2); willfully failing to pay a reasonable portion of the cost of the care that the twins had received following their removal from the family home, N.C. G.S. § 7B-1111(a)(3); and dependency, N.C. G.S. § 7B-1111(a)(6), and that termination of the parents' parental rights would be in the twins' best interests. In its termination motion, DSS alleged that the trial home placement had ended in May 2019 after the parents had failed to deliver the twins to daycare in a timely manner, preventing the twins from receiving remedial services, such as speech and occupational therapy, and causing the twins' developmental progress to end or even regress. In addition, DSS alleged that the twins had been removed from the trial home placement because the parents had failed to provide them with proper supervision, with Jack having sustained burns after touching a "burn barrel" and with the parents having failed to report the injury to DSS or to seek medical treatment for this injury.

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¶ 7 After hearings held on 30 September and 2 October 2020, the trial court entered an adjudication order on 22 October 2020 in which it concluded that all four of the grounds for termination alleged in the termination motion existed. After a hearing held on 3 May 2021, the trial court entered a dispositional order on 20 May 2021 determining that it was in the twins' best interests for the parents' parental rights to be terminated and ordering that their parental rights in the twins be terminated. See N.C. G.S. § 7B-1110(a) (2021). The parents noted appeals to this Court from the trial court's termination orders.

I. Standard of Review

¶ 8 "We review a trial court's adjudication under N.C. G.S. § 7B-1111 '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 (2019) (quoting In re Montgomery, 311 N.C. 101, 111 (1984)). Appellate review of the trial court's adjudicatory findings of fact is limited to "those findings necessary to support the trial court's determination that grounds existed to terminate respondent's parental rights." In re T.N.H., 372 N.C. 403, 407 (2019). "A trial court's finding of fact that is supported by clear, cogent, and convincing evidence is deemed conclusive even if the record contains evidence that would support a contrary finding." In re B.O.A., 372 N.C. 372, 379 (2019). "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. At 407.

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"The trial court's conclusions of law are reviewable de novo on appeal." In re C.B.C., 373 N.C. 16, 19 (2019).

¶ 9 "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 (2016) (first citing In re Young, 346 N.C. 244, 247 (1997); and then citing N.C. G.S. § 7B-1110 (2015)). We review the trial court's dispositional findings to determine whether they are supported by sufficient evidence, In re K.N.L.P., 380 N.C. 756, 2022-NCSC-39 ¶ 11, with unchallenged dispositional findings of fact being deemed binding for purposes of appellate review. In re Z.L.W., 372 N.C. 432, 437 (2019). A trial court's dispositional determination "is reviewed solely for abuse of discretion," In re A.U.D., 373 N.C. 3, 6 (2019) (citing In re D.L.W., 368 N.C. at 842), with an abuse of discretion having occurred "where the court's ruling is manifestly unsupported by reason or is so arbitrary that it could not have been the result of a reasoned decision." In re T.L.H., 368 N.C. 101, 107 (2015) (quoting State v....

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