In re A.P., ___ N.C. ___, 812 S.E.2d 840 (2018)

Held: 
Reversed and Remanded

Reversed decision of Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 800 S.E.2d 77 (2017); remanded to Court of Appeals for mother’s remaining arguments (challenging adjudication and factual inquiry regarding the applicability of the Indian Child Welfare Act)

  • Facts: This case involves three counties. Mother and child, A.P., (at time of A.P.’s birth) resided in Cabarrus County. Cabarrus County DSS opened a child protective case, and mother agreed to a safety plan. Under the safety plan, A.P. lived with a safety placement resource in Rowan County while mother received residential mental health treatment. Upon discharge from her treatment, mother and A.P moved in with mother’s grandfather in Mecklenburg County. The case was transferred from Cabarrus County DSS to Mecklenburg County DSS. Later, a new report was made to Mecklenburg County DSS and mother’s sister (A.P.’s aunt) brought A.P. back to the placement in Rowan County. Mother agreed A.P. would temporarily remain in the placement in Rowan County while she went to South Carolina, was back in Mecklenburg County when she was in jail and later inpatient treatment, and finally informed Mecklenburg County DSS that she was living in Cabarrus County. The placement resource in Rowan County notified Mecklenburg County DSS that she could no longer care for A.P. Mecklenburg County DSS requested Cabarrus County DSS accept a transfer of the case back, but Cabarrus County DSS declined the transfer. Mecklenburg County DSS filed a neglect and dependency petition. The district court in Mecklenburg County denied mother’s motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction due to Mecklenburg County DSS not having standing to file the petition. A.P. was adjudicated neglected and dependent. Mother appealed.
  • Court of Appeals Opinion: Mecklenburg County DSS lacked standing under G.S. 7B-401.1(a) as G.S. 7B-101(10) defines director as the director of the DSS in the county where the juvenile resides or is found.
  • “Jurisdiction is the legal power and authority of a court to make a decision that binds the parties to any matter properly before it…. [without which] a court has no power to act…. ” Sl. Op. at 5 quoting In re T.R.P., 360 N.C. 588, 590 (2006).  The Juvenile Code (G.S. Chapter 7B) governs subject matter jurisdiction over abuse, neglect, or dependency (A/N/D) actions. Jurisdiction over all stages of an A/N/D action is established by the filing of a properly verified petition. In re T.R.P.  Here, the neglect and dependency petition was properly verified and filed by an authorized representative of “a county director of social services.” G.S. 7B-401.1(a).
  • Judicial interpretation must consider the entire statutory text, read holistically, with consideration of the logical relation of its many parts rather than by a rigid interpretation of isolated provisions in the Juvenile Code. The rigid interpretation of the statutory text creates jurisdictional requirements that exceed legislative intent. Dismissal of the juvenile petition is not mandated by G.S. 7B-401.1 (parties) and 7B-400 (venue) when the Juvenile Code is read holistically.
    • There is no requirement in G.S. 7B-401.1(a) that only one county DSS director has standing since (1) the statute uses “a county director,” which is an indefinite article, and (2) the introductory clause to the definitions statute, G.S. 7B-101, states “unless the context clearly requires otherwise.” The context does require otherwise. This opinion compares different statutes in the Juvenile Code that show how “the legislature intentionally differentiates between references to a director of a department of social services [generally] and a particular director of a department of social services.” Sl. Op. at 8. There is no reference in the party statute, G.S. 7B-401.1(a), to “the” DSS director, which would single out a particular director, but instead uses “a” director.
    • “Other provisions in the Juvenile Code [G.S. 7B-400(b), 7B-302(a2), 7B-402(d)] suggest that there may be instances when the party filing the juvenile petition is the director of a department of social services for a county that is not the juvenile’s county of residence.” Sl. Op. at 10.
  • A fundamental principle in cases involving child abuse, neglect, or dependency is that the best interests of the child is the polar star. See G.S. 7B-100(5); In re M.A.W., 370 N.C. 149 (2017) quoting In re Montgomery, 311 N.C. 101, 109 (1984). Respondent’s interpretation of G.S. 7B-101(10) and 7B-401.1(a) that ties subject matter jurisdiction with the child’s residence or physical location at the time the petition is filed would (1) prevent a district court from exercising subject matter jurisdiction by allowing a parent or caretaker to move between counties with the child and/or (2) “ ‘subject countless judgments [in juvenile cases] across North Carolina to attack for want of subject matter jurisdiction,’ … and needlessly delay permanency for juveniles alleged to be abused, neglected, or dependent.” Sl. Op. at 12 quoting In re T.R.P. at 595.
Category:
Abuse, Neglect, Dependency
Stage:
Subject Matter Jurisdiction
Topic:
Standing
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