In re J.D.O., 303A21

Docket Nº303A21
Citation2022 NCSC 87
Case DateJuly 15, 2022
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of North Carolina



No. 303A21

Supreme Court of North Carolina

July 15, 2022

Appeal pursuant to N.C. G.S. § 7B-1001(a1)(1) (2019) from an order entered on 27 May 2021 by Judge Gregory A. Bullard in District Court, Robeson County. This matter was calendared for argument in the Supreme Court on 1 July 2022 but 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 Robeson County Department of Social Services.

Laura K. Greene for appellee Guardian ad Litem.

Benjamin J. Kull for respondent-appellant mother.


¶ 1 Respondent-mother appeals from the trial court's order which terminated her parental rights to the minor children Johnny, Janelle, and Joel.[1] The order also terminated the parental rights of the alleged putative father of the children and the parental rights of any unknown father. There is no father who is a party to this appeal.


¶ 2 On appeal, respondent-mother challenges the trial court's determination of the existence of grounds to terminate her parental rights to the juveniles under N.C. G.S. § 7B-1111(a)(1)-(3). She argues that the adjudication is unsupported by the evidence received by the trial court at the termination of parental rights hearing and that the trial court's findings of fact are insufficient to support the establishment of grounds to terminate her parental rights to the three juveniles. Based on our conclusion that the trial court's adjudication of neglect under N.C. G.S. § 7B-1111(a)(1) is supported by clear, cogent, and convincing evidence, which in turn supports the findings of fact included in the termination of parental rights order addressing the ground of neglect, we affirm the trial court's termination of respondent-mother's parental rights.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

¶ 3 On the evening of 7 December 2018, Robeson County Department of Social Services (DSS) obtained nonsecure custody of respondent-mother's six children, including Johnny, Janelle, and Joel, after receiving multiple reports of respondent-mother's extensive drug use. DSS filed juvenile petitions on 10 December 2018 alleging that Johnny, Janelle, and Joel were neglected juveniles because they did not receive proper care, supervision, or discipline from their parents and lived in an environment which was injurious to their welfare. The petitions recounted the circumstances of respondent-mother's illegal drug use which were referenced in reports received by DSS on 25 October 2018 and 7 December 2018, including


information that respondent-mother tested positive for cocaine when she was admitted to the hospital to give birth to her infant son Liam, who also tested positive for Suboxone[2] and cocaine; that respondent-mother "had not had any prenatal care during her pregnancy with [Liam] but had been to the emergency room while pregnant on different occasions and tested positive for cocaine, benzos, and oxycodone"; that respondent-mother overdosed on Suboxone and Neurontin on 7 December 2018 and was found unconscious in her car at a gas station while Liam and another child were in the vehicle with her; that respondent-mother "was not alert" when she was admitted to the hospital for the 7 December 2018 overdose; and that Emergency Medical Services (EMS) was previously called to the home of the mother of respondent-mother in September 2016 after respondent-mother had overdosed on controlled substances. The petitions further alleged that DSS had been involved with the family since February 2012 due to multiple neglect referrals spawned by respondent-mother's substance abuse.

¶ 4 DSS's petitions were presented at a hearing on 4 April 2019, after which the trial court entered an order on 16 July 2019 adjudicating the six children to be neglected juveniles. The trial court made several findings of fact in its order which


addressed the accounts that had been reported to the assigned DSS social worker, Miranda Wilkins, by various sources. The trial court determined that respondent-mother "neither admits nor denies the allegations . . . but does not oppose a finding of neglect." The trial court's dispositional order maintained the children in DSS custody and directed the agency to continue its efforts toward reunification of respondent-mother with the children. Further, the trial court determined that respondent-mother needed to complete substance abuse and mental health assessments and to follow the recommendations resulting from those evaluations. The tribunal likewise decided that respondent-mother must obtain housing and employment.

¶ 5 In its initial permanency planning order entered in this case on 29 October 2019, the trial court established a primary permanent plan of reunification with a concurrent plan of adoption. The trial court found that respondent-mother was attending substance abuse treatment at RAPHA Healthcare Services but "ha[d] not made any progress on" other components of her case plan. In a subsequent permanency planning order entered on 7 April 2020, the trial court maintained the primary plan for Johnny, Janelle, and Joel as adoption with a concurrent plan of reunification, but encouraged DSS to "primarily focus" on the plan of adoption. The trial court found that "[n]one of the parents have made substantial progress at eliminating the issues that brought the children into care" and that respondent-mother


"was receiving substance abuse treatment at RAPHA, but she no longer attends RAPHA. The mother is pregnant and has entered Our House."

¶ 6 DSS filed a petition to terminate respondent-mother's parental rights to Johnny, Janelle, and Joel on 28 April 2020, alleging that grounds existed to terminate respondent-mother's parental rights because (1) she had failed to make reasonable progress to correct the conditions which had precipitated the removal of the juveniles from her care within the meaning of N.C. G.S. § 7B-1111(a)(2); (2) she had neglected the juveniles within the meaning of N.C. G.S. § 7B-101(15); and (3) she had willfully failed, for a continuous period of six months immediately preceding the filing of the petition, to pay a reasonable portion of the cost of care for the juveniles although physically and financially able to do so within the meaning of N.C. G.S. § 7B-1111(a)(3). Following hearings conducted on 29 April 2021 and 17 May 2021, the trial court entered an order terminating respondent-mother's parental rights to the three children on 27 May 2021. As its statutory grounds for termination, the trial court concluded that respondent-mother had previously neglected the children as evidenced by the trial court's 2019 adjudication and that there existed the likelihood of future, repeated neglect if the children were returned to her care, see N.C. G.S. § 7B-1111(a)(1) (2021); that respondent-mother had willfully left the children in a placement outside the home for more than twelve months without making reasonable progress to correct the conditions leading to the removal of the children from


respondent-mother's care, see N.C. G.S. § 7B-1111(a)(2); and that respondent-mother willfully failed to pay a reasonable portion of the children's cost of care, although physically and financially able to do so, for the six months immediately preceding the filing of the petition to terminate her parental rights on 28 April 2020[3], see N.C. G.S. § 7B-1111(a)(3). The trial court further concluded that it was in the best interests of Johnny, Janelle, and Joel that respondent-mother's parental rights be terminated. See N.C. G.S. § 7B-1110(a) (2021).

¶ 7 Respondent-mother filed timely notice of appeal from the termination of parental rights order. See N.C. G.S. § 7B-1001(a1)(1) (2019).

II. Analysis A. Subject matter jurisdiction

¶ 8 Respondent-mother first claims that the trial court's order terminating her parental rights is void for lack of subject matter jurisdiction because the trial court failed to make written findings of fact to establish the basis for its jurisdiction under N.C. G.S. § 7B-1101. While respondent-mother acknowledges that this Court rejected an identical challenge to the trial court's jurisdiction in In re K.N., 378 N.C. 450, 2021-NCSC-98,


she "respectfully submits that [In re] K.N. was wrongly decided on this issue."

¶ 9 Section 7B-1101 provides as follows:

The [trial] court shall have exclusive original jurisdiction to hear and determine any petition or motion relating to termination of parental rights to any juvenile who resides in, is found in, or is in the legal or actual custody of a county department of social services or licensed child-placing agency in the district at the time of filing of the petition or motion.... Provided, that before exercising jurisdiction under this Article, the court shall find that it has jurisdiction to make a child-custody determination under the provisions of G.S. 50A-201, 50A-203, or 50A-204.

N.C. G.S. § 7B-1101 (2021); see also N.C. G.S. § 7B-101(6) (2021) (defining "[c]ourt" as "[t]he district court division of the General Court of Justice").

¶ 10 Because the trial court made no express finding that it had jurisdiction to make a child custody determination under N.C. G.S. §§ 50A-201, 50A-203, or 50A-204, respondent-mother contends that "it could not properly exercise jurisdiction to conduct the termination proceeding or enter the resulting order." In In re K.N., this Court considered the fact-finding requirements of N.C. G.S. § 7B-1101 and held that "[t]he trial court is not required to make specific findings of fact demonstrating its jurisdiction under the UCCJEA,[4] but the record must reflect that the jurisdictional


prerequisites of the Act were satisfied when the court exercised jurisdiction." In re K.N., ¶ 21 (first alteration in original)...

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