In re A.J.T., 374 N.C. 504 (2020)

  • Facts: In 2016, the juvenile was adjudicated neglected and dependent. For 2 years, the juvenile was placed in various therapeutic foster homes to address his problematic behaviors. After being placed in a group home, the court found his behaviors and academics had greatly improved. He was subsequently placed in a therapeutic foster home where he was doing well and was bonded with the foster parents. DSS filed a TPR petition. The juvenile was then placed in a Level II group home due to unsafe and defiant behaviors. At a permanency planning hearing, the court found the juvenile was improving. The TPR was heard and granted. Respondents appeal, challenging the best interests determination by asserting the findings do not support the conclusion, which is an abuse of discretion by the trial court.
  • Standard of review is an abuse of discretion, and “[t]he trial court’s dispositional findings of fact are reviewed under a ‘competent evidence’ standard.” Sl.Op. at 8 (citation omitted). The appellate court does not reweigh the evidence to reach a different conclusion from the trial court.
  • The trial court made findings of fact for each factor under G.S. 7B-1110(a) and did not abuse its discretion.
    • Age: The juvenile was 14 at the time of the TPR hearing.
      • Although mother argued the child’s preference should have been considered as it was in Mintz v. Mintz, 64 N.C. App. 338 (1983), the supreme court is not bound by Mintz, and that case was a divorce case addressing visitation and not a best interests determination in a TPR. Additionally, Mintz affirmed that the trial judge’s duty is to determine the weight to be given to the child’s preference and to find and conclude what is in the child’s best interests. Relying on In re J.A.M., 372 N.C. 1 (2019), the supreme court stated that it is solely for the trial court to draw any reasonable inferences based on the child’s age, demeanor, or attitude, and the weight to give those inferences.
      • In response to father’s argument that a juvenile 12 and older is required to consent to his adoption, G.S. 48-3-603(b)(2) authorizes the court to waive that requirement when it is in the child’s best interests to do so.
    • The likelihood of adoption given the juvenile’s psychiatric issues requiring multiple placements over 4 years was supported by the evidence and is binding on appeal. The GAL testified the juvenile was likely to be adopted if he finds the right family and that he engages easily with adults.
    • TPR will aid in the adoption. The TPR was a prerequisite to achieve the permanent plan of adoption.
    • Bond between parent and child is one factor to be considered under G.S. 7B-1110(a) , and the trial court may give greater weight to other factors.
    • Relationship with prospective adoptive placement. “[T]he absence of an adoptive placement for a juvenile at the time of the termination hearing is not a bar to terminating parental rights.” Sl.Op. at 13-14.
    • The supreme court is not bound by In re J.A.O., 166 N.C. App. 222 (2004), and this case is distinguishable. In J.A.O., the juvenile had been foster care since he was 18 months and was placed in 19 different treatment centers over 14 years for his significant mental health issues; mother made reasonable progress; and the GAL believed the child’s best interests would not be served by a TPR and that he was unlikely to be adopted. In contrast, in this case, the GAL testified it was likely the juvenile would be adopted and recommended TPR, and the respondents failed to make reasonable progress.
Termination of Parental Rights
Best Interests Findings
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