In re A.W., 377 N.C. 238 (2021)

  • Facts: In 2017, the respondent’s 2-month-old infant died of blunt force injuries while in respondents’ care. Her death was ruled a homicide, and father was incarcerated on charges related to her death. In 2018, the juvenile in this action was born to respondent parents and DSS filed a petition alleging neglect and dependency that stated her sibling died while in the respondents’ care as a result of suspected abuse and neglect. Also in 2018, DSS filed a motion to terminate both parents’ parental rights on the grounds of neglect and dependency. The court adjudicated the juvenile neglected and dependent, ceased reunification efforts, and eliminated reunification as a permanent plan. A separate order terminated mother’s rights on both alleged grounds. Mother appealed the adjudication and disposition orders in the court of appeals and the TPR order in the supreme court. The NC Supreme Court granted a motion to consolidate the actions on appeal.
  • G.S. 7B-101(15) defines a neglected juvenile in part as a juvenile whose parent does not provide proper care, supervision, or discipline, or who lives in an environment injurious to their welfare and states, “In determining whether a juvenile is a neglected juvenile, it is relevant whether that juvenile lives in a home where another juvenile has died as a result of suspected abuse or neglect.” 377 N.C. at 243. Neglect also requires that there be harm (physical, mental, or emotional) or substantial risk of harm to the juvenile. An adjudication of neglect cannot be based solely on previous DSS involvement but must address current circumstances that present a risk to the juvenile. Regarding newborns, the trial court’s determination must be predictive in nature when assessing substantial risk of future of abuse or neglect based on historical facts in the case.
    • The adjudication was not based solely on the basis of the death of this juvenile’s sibling. Other factors of risk included mother’s continuation of providing an implausible explanation (the family dog, a great dane) for the injuries causing the infant’s death; her failure to explain the other injuries to that child; her continued relationship with the father; and the respondents’ colluding to deceive the court of the nature of their relationship such that the risk of impairment to this juvenile existed.
    • The challenged findings of fact that respondents colluded and worked together on their statements about how the injuries that caused the sibling’s death occurred are supported by clear and convincing evidence. Based on the evidence, the court made a reasonable inference that the parents worked together to provide an explanation that concealed the truth.
Abuse, Neglect, Dependency
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