In re J.R.

Decision Date16 May 2023
Docket NumberCOA22-404
PartiesIN THE MATTER OF: J.R., J.R., J.R., Jr.
CourtNorth Carolina Court of Appeals

An unpublished opinion of the North Carolina Court of Appeals does not constitute controlling legal authority. Citation is disfavored, but may be permitted in accordance with the provisions of Rule 30(e)(3) of the North Carolina Rules of Appellate Procedure.

Heard in the Court of Appeals 4 April 2023.

Appeal by respondents from order entered 10 February 2022 by Judge Lori Christian in Wake County District Court Nos. 20 JT 20-22.

Mary Boyce Wells, for Petitioner-Appellee Wake County Health and Human Services.

Michelle FormyDuval Lynch, for Guardian Ad Litem.

Rebekah W. Davis, for Respondent-Appellant-Father.

Mercedes O. Chut, for Respondent-Appellant-Mother.


Respondent-Parents appeal the trial court's order terminating their parental rights to the minor children, J.R ("Julia")[1], J.R. ("Jake"), and J.R., Jr. ("Josh"). Both parents argue the trial court erred in adjudicating the existence of grounds to terminate parental rights. Upon review, we conclude the trial court did not err in adjudicating the existence of grounds for termination under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B- 1111(a)(1) and affirm the termination order.

I. Factual & Procedural Background

On 22 January 2020, Wake County Health and Human Services ("WCHHS") filed petitions alleging six-year-old twins Julia and Jake and seven-year-old Josh were neglected and dependent juveniles and obtained nonsecure custody of the children.

The petitions alleged, and court records show, that the family was first involved with social services in New York where Julia, Jake, Josh, their older sibling, and their younger sibling, Jill, were removed from the Respondent-Parents' custody due to abuse and neglect and placed in foster care, where they remained for approximately three years. New York court records show that Julia, Jake, Josh, and Jill were returned to Respondent-Father's care on a "Trial Discharge[]" by March 2019 and to his custody on a "Final Discharge[]" in July 2019.[2] Shortly after the return of the children to Respondent-Father's custody, Respondent-Father moved with the children to North Carolina. Respondent-Mother remained in New York. She never regained custody of the children and had not seen the children since they moved to North Carolina.

On 3 December 2019, WCHHS became involved upon receipt of a report from a school employee alleging Jake had been choked and hit in the stomach by Respondent-Father. The petitions alleged, upon WCHHS's investigation, the children described abuse they received when they lived in New York and displayed signs of past abuse, and Jake admitted to being spanked with a belt. The record, however, indicates that Jake recanted the allegations of physical abuse by Respondent-Father, which resulted in the report to WCHHS, and WCHHS did not observe Jake to have recent injuries. WCHHS noted the children appeared "somewhat malnourished and underweight," but that Josh reported there was plenty of food in the home.

The petitions provided that WCHHS subsequently received a call from the Raleigh Police Department Homicide Division on 21 January 2020 reporting Jill, who was five years old, was found deceased in a closet in the home. The petitions explained that neither Respondent-Father nor his girlfriend had an explanation for Jill's death and were unable to determine precisely when she entered the closet, but that "[t]he child had apparently been in the closet for some time and had died." An autopsy revealed Jill had a crayon in her stomach and a suction cup and a decorative rock in her throat. The petitions indicated the children knew Jill was in the closet, but Respondent-Father and his girlfriend told the children not to disturb them, and the children obeyed. WCHHS alleged in the petition that Respondent-Father's "failure to properly supervise the deceased child is concerning for the safety of the other children."

The juvenile petitions were heard together on 24 June and 8 and 9 July 2020. On 17 August 2020, the trial court entered an order adjudicating the children to be neglected juveniles based on findings of fact consistent with events described in the petition. The trial court additionally found: the children were not in school at the time of Jill's death because they had not received required immunizations, and it was unreasonable for it to take from September 2019 to January 2020 to get the children vaccinated; although Respondent-Father was home at the time of Jill's death, he left the children unsupervised for an extended period while he played video games, watched a movie, and slept in his bedroom for the greater part of the daytime hours from 6:30 a.m. until approximately 1:00 p.m.; Jill's death did not occur in the night when there was a reasonable expectation the children would be asleep; and Respondent-Father or his girlfriend should have been awake to supervise the children; Respondent-Father admitted to law enforcement that it was completely normal for the adults to leave the children to do what they want in the house while the adults were sleeping; the children were too young to supervise themselves for extended periods of time; Jill's cause of death was determined to be asphyxia due to upper airway obstruction; the children were aware Jill was in danger but were afraid to disturb Respondent-Father and the girlfriend; the children disclosed that they were put in the attic for punishment; Respondent-Father and the girlfriend had failed to provide care or seek medical attention for prior sickness and injuries to the children; and Josh was observed to have a swollen jaw and eye at the time of the filing of the petition, which he blamed on a teacher, even though he had not been to school in recent days.

The court also specifically found Respondent-Father and the girlfriend were aware of the children's developmental delays, their potential to injure themselves, including their tendency to put inappropriate objects in their mouths, and their need for greater supervision, based on prior incidents in the home. Nevertheless, Respondent-Father and the girlfriend "were habitually unavailable to spend time with the children during waking hours" and left the children unsupervised despite a warning from a social worker that "these children had to be supervised at all times." Lastly, the court found that Respondent-Mother resides in a substance-abuse treatment center in New York and was unable to provide care for the children.

Upon adjudicating the children neglected, the court ordered WCHHS to retain custody of the children and for Respondent-Parents to comply with case plans. The case plans required both parents to: complete a parenting program and demonstrate skills and lessons learned in the program; obtain and maintain housing suitable for the children and provide documentation of housing; obtain and maintain income sufficient to meet the needs of the children and provide documentation; visit with the children in compliance with a visitation agreement; and maintain regular contact with WCHHS. Respondent-Mother was additionally required to obtain a mental-health assessment and adhere to medication management protocols; follow recommendations of the substance abuse program at Odyssey House; refrain from use of illegal or impairing substance and submit to random drug screens; and complete a domestic violence education program. Respondent-Father was additionally required to obtain a psychological evaluation, refrain from illegal activity, and follow recommendations from his criminal case. Respondent-Mother was allowed virtual visitation with the children upon recommendation of the children's therapists. Respondent-Father was not allowed visitation so long as his conditions of release on felony child-abuse charges prohibited contact with the children and until recommendation by the children's therapists as well as further review by the court.

On 2 October 2020, Respondent-Father pled guilty to two counts of "negligent child abuse resulting in serious bodily injury," a Class E Felony. See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-318.4(a)(4) (2021). He received an intermediate sentence whereby he was sentenced to a suspended term of 25 to 42 months and placed on 60 months of supervised probation, with the requirement that he spend 21 January 2021, 21 January 2022, 21 January 2023, and 21 January 2024 in custody at Wake County Detention Center.

The juvenile matter came on for a permanency-planning hearing on 4 January 2021. In the court's order entered on 1 March 2021, the court found that neither parent was in a position to safely parent the children, it was unlikely the children would be able to be returned home within the next six months, and none of the children's therapists recommended contact between Respondent-Parents and the children because of the children's trauma. The court accepted the recommendations of WCHHS and established a primary plan of adoption with a secondary plan of reunification.

As of the next hearing on 28 June 2021, the trial court found Respondent-Parents were still not making adequate progress despite some efforts, and the children needed more care and supervision than Respondent-Parents could provide. With regard to Respondent-Father, the court found that he continued to somewhat cooperate with his plan, and that WCHHS and the guardian ad litem ("GAL") were available to the court. But Respondent-Father denied responsibility for the children being brought into care; instead, he believed the children had been brainwashed and were untruthful in their disclosures of physical abuse, denying he ever used physical discipline. With regard to Respondent-Mother, the court found that she...

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