In re A.C., 378 N.C. 377 (2021)

  • Facts: In 2018, the juvenile infant was adjudicated neglected after being born and placed in the NICU for possible drug exposure and respiratory distress and issues of domestic violence. In 2019, DSS filed a TPR motion, which was granted. Mother appeals, challenging the grounds.
  • G.S. 7B-1111(a)(1) authorizes a TPR on the ground of neglect which involves a parent not providing proper care, supervision, or discipline or a juvenile who lives in an injurious environment. When there is a long period of separation, neglect requires prior neglect and a likelihood of repetition of neglect, based on the circumstances at the time of the TPR hearing.
  • Detailed findings of fact are more than a mere formality or ritual, but instead are designed “to dispose of the issues raised by the pleadings and to allow the appellate courts to perform their proper function in the judicial system.” 378 N.C. at 391.
  • Recitations of a witness’s testimony are not findings of fact. Several findings were nothing more than recitations of the testimony of different witnesses when using the words, the witness “testified,” “contended,” or “indicated.” 378 N.C. at 384. The court did not evaluate the credibility of the witnesses to resolve any conflicts in the evidence. Those “findings” are disregarded on appellate review. A court may describe a witness’s testimony so long as it makes its own findings to resolve material disputes. The remaining findings are sufficient and allow for appellate review. Findings that are not supported by the evidence are disregarded on appellate review.
  • Judicial notice of findings of fact from prior orders, even when based on a lower evidentiary standard, is permissible as the trial court is presumed to disregard incompetent evidence and rely on competent evidence. However, a court may not rely solely on prior orders and reports but instead must receive some oral testimony at the hearing so as to make an independent determination about the evidence presented. At the TPR adjudicatory hearing, the court took judicial notice of prior orders and received oral testimony and made independent factual determinations based on the admitted evidence.
  • The trial court evaluates the credibility of the evidence and draws reasonable inferences from that evidence. As the fact finder, the trial court has authority to not accept mother’s justifications for missing visits.
  • Although mother made some progress in her case plan, her progress was extremely limited. Mother continued her involvement with the juvenile’s father, where there was domestic violence, and when he did not complete domestic violence counseling; minimized her parenting deficits; was dependent on others for housing and finances; missed 3 months of visits; and did not provide any financial support for her child. The court did not err in determining there was a likelihood of future neglect.
Termination of Parental Rights
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