In re A.E., 379 N.C. 177 (2021)

  • Facts: In 2018, the juveniles were adjudicated neglected via stipulations due to circumstances involving lack of proper care, supervision, or discipline and an injurious environment. The children were living in unsanitary housing conditions and lacked appropriate medical care and hygiene. Mother and father were ordered to comply with case plans, involving working with an exterminator and improving conditions in the home, taking parenting classes, completing psychological and parental evaluations, attending the children’s medical appointments and learning about their special needs, and visiting with the children. The parents were making progress on their case plans until 2019. After the primary permanent plan was identified as adoption, DSS filed TPR motions. After a TPR hearing where neither parent attended, the court granted the TPR. Each respondent appeals, challenging the grounds.
  • Clear, cogent, and convincing evidence must support the findings of fact, and the findings of fact must support the court’s conclusion of law that a ground to TPR exists. Findings supported by the evidence are conclusive even if there is other evidence that would support a contrary finding.
  • Findings: Recitations of witness testimony are not findings of fact unless the trial court determines the relevant portions of the testimony are credible. Here, the court described the testimony; “there is nothing impermissible about describing testimony, so long as the court ultimately makes its own findings, resolving any material disputes.” 379 N.C. at 186. Some of the challenged findings were recitations of evidence only when those findings referred to the witness “testified” or “stated” and are disregarded. Other findings of fact resolved the material disputes in the evidence and are considered on appeal. The trial court took judicial notice of prior orders and reports in the neglect action when making some challenged findings of fact and was based in part on testimony provided at the hearing – the social workers’ and others’ testimony. As held previously, reliance on prior orders alone without any oral testimony is error. Here, there was testimony at the TPR hearing and the court did not rely solely on the prior orders. Father stipulated to findings in the neglect adjudication and did not appeal that order such that he is bound by the doctrine of collateral estoppel regarding those findings. The evidence from prior reports and orders the court took judicial notice do not support some of the court’s findings and are disregarded (e.g., father (not) attending the children’s medical appointments).  
  • Father’s challenge to findings about mother do not have a bearing on father’s challenge to his TPR order and are not considered since they are not necessary to support the TPR as to father.
  • Regarding a challenge to the evaluator’s report, the evaluator testified to the opposite of one sentence in his report. The trial court was not precluded from relying on other portions of the evaluator’s report when that report included a single erroneous phrase. The challenged findings about the evaluator’s testimony, which included the unlikeliness that mother or father could develop the ability to parent the children, are supported by the evidence.
  • G.S. 7B-1111(a)(1) authorizes a TPR on the ground of neglect, which includes a parent who does not provide proper care, supervision, or when the juvenile lives in an injurious environment. When the child has been separated from the parent for a period of time, there must be a showing of past neglect and a likelihood of future neglect, based on evidence of changed conditions between the time of the past neglect and TPR hearing. An adjudication of neglect is admissible as evidence of prior neglect.
  • The prior adjudication, via stipulations, is evidence of prior neglect. The court did consider evidence of changed circumstances at the time of the TPR hearing regarding a likelihood of future neglect. This included photos of improved conditions in the home and the efforts each parent made toward reunification as well as each parent’s failure to make necessary changes (e.g., both parents not believing there were problems needing to be addressed; father denying the children had special needs; and mother lacking sufficient caregiving skills). The findings support the conclusion of neglect.
Termination of Parental Rights
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