In re A.L.L., 376 N.C. 99 (2020)

There is a dissent
in part and concur in part, Newby, J.
  • Facts: The juvenile was adjudicated dependent in an underlying juvenile action based on circumstances related to mother’s mental health issues. During the course of the underlying dependency action, mother was ordered to comply with her case plan, which she did but she was still engaging in inappropriate behaviors and had parenting deficits. Ultimately the court appointed permanent guardians for the juvenile under G.S. 7B-600, achieving a permanent plan. The guardians filed the TPR petition so they could adopt. The TPR was granted on the grounds of dependency and willful abandonment. Mother appeals both grounds and argues the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction.
  • The order does not include findings addressing the determinative 6-month period of time or stating whether respondent acted willfully. The evidence in the record does not support a willfulness finding as mother’s conduct was largely based on her severe mental illnesses. The court found mother was unable to care for her child even though she desires to do so. Her actions, although misguided, showed her attempts to demonstrate her love and affection. Her behavior must show willful intent and not just symptoms of her diagnosed mental illness. Her refusal to take prescribed medications does not make her conduct rational or volitional conduct when there was no evidence that her refusal was willful or that taking her medication would have resulted in her ability to appropriately parent.
  • Like incarceration, mental illness, standing alone, is neither a sword nor a shield in a TPR action. “Our reasoning should in no way be taken to suggest that every parent who struggles with a mental health condition lacks the capacity to make choices signifying an intent to abandon one’s child.” Sl.Op. at 20. The trial court must analyze the relevant facts and circumstances including the severity of the parent’s condition and the extent that the parent’s behaviors are consistent with the symptoms of their illness.
  • Dissent: The ground exists. The majority’s opinion is policy driven and relies on social science articles that were not presented to the trial court and cases from other states to address mother’s mental illness and willfulness. The result will be legal limbo for children who will be unable to be adopted when their parent suffers from significant mental illness. This is contrary to the legislative goals of permanency for a child at the earliest possible age and to facilitate and promote the integrity of adoptions.
Termination of Parental Rights
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