In re A.U.D., ___ N.C. ___ (Sept. 27, 2019)

Held: 
Affirmed
There is a dissent.
  • Facts: This a private TPR initiated by a child-placing agency, BCS, against respondent father. After the twins’ birth, mother placed children in the care of her aunt. Subsequently, she executed a relinquishment to BCS. BCS removed the children from aunt’s home and placed the children with a prospective adoptive family where they continued to reside. BCS filed a TPR petition. In the TPR, respondent father’s paternity was established and after a hearing, the court denied the TPR after determining that although the ground of failure to legitimate/establish paternity existed, the TPR was not in the children’s best interests. BCS appeals. The issue on appeal is the best interests of the children determination.
  • Standard of review: The court’s dispositional determination regarding a child’s best interests is reviewed for an abuse of discretion. An “abuse of discretion results where the court’s ruling is manifestly unsupported by reason or is so arbitrary that it could not have been the result of a reasoned decision.” Sl. Op. at 5 (citations omitted).
  • G.S. 7B-1110(a) sets forth the statutory criteria for best interests of the children. The trial court must consider all the factors, which the record demonstrates the trial court did. However, written findings are not required of each factor, although a better practice would have been to make written findings of those factors identified by BCS. Under the circumstances of this case, the failure to do so is not reversible error. There was no conflict in the evidence regarding the likelihood of adoption; it was undisputed that no bond existed between the children and father; and because this was a private TPR, there was no permanent plan for the children.
  • Although the GAL recommended TPR, the trial court is not bound by that recommendation; instead the trial court has the authority to weigh all the evidence.
  • A stated purpose of the Juvenile Code is to prevent “the unnecessary or inappropriate separation of juveniles from their parents” (G.S. 7B-100(4)) and to place the best interests of the juvenile who is not to be returned home as the paramount consideration for the court (G.S. 7B-1000(5)).  Here, the trial court considered the competing purposes of the Juvenile Code and the dispositional factors in G.S. 7B-1110(a). Those considerations also included other relevant circumstances that the mother solely relinquished the children to BCS; father was not afforded an opportunity to care for the children before the relinquishment; he proactively attempted (unsuccessfully) to establish paternity; he sought to have the aunt, who had provided appropriate care for the children, obtain custody of the children until his release from prison when he could care for them; and he engaged in services that would result in self-improvement while he was incarcerated. Although evidence would support a contrary finding, the appellate court lacks authority to reweigh the evidence.
  • Rule 58 establishes that a judgement is entered when it is reduced to writing, signed by the judge, and filed with the clerk. As held by the court of appeals, oral findings made by the trial court may change before the final written order is entered. Any differences between the oral findings rendered at the hearing and those established in the written order is not an error.
  • Dissent: The adjudicatory stage focuses on the fairness to the parent and safeguards the parent’s interests. The dispositional stage requires that the best interests of the children control and safeguards the children’s best interests. The trial court misapplied the law and abused its discretion when it improperly weighed factors related to the father’s interest at disposition under the catchall provision of G.S. 7B-1110(a)(6). The five specific enumerated factors in G.S. 7B-1111(a)(1)-(5) are all relevant and directed the trial court’s discretion down a specific path which would have been to TPR.
Category:
Termination of Parental Rights
Stage:
Disposition
Topic:
Best Interests Findings
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