In re E.B., ___ N.C. ___ (Sept. 25, 2020)

Held: 
Reversed
  • Facts: Father appealed this TPR to the NC Supreme Court based on a dissent in the Court of Appeals opinion that affirmed the trial court’s order terminating his rights. Mother executed a relinquishment to DSS the day after the child was born. DSS placed the child in foster care and contacted the putative father, who was excited about being the child’s father and agreed to paternity testing. Father agreed to an out-of-home family services agreement, and subsequently the paternity test confirmed he was the father. Between 2016-2018, the district court held 6 permanency planning hearings, although DSS never filed a petition alleging the child was abused, neglected, or dependent. Father never obtained custody/placement of the child through the permanency planning orders as the court determined he had not satisfied the various requirements it placed on him. Father did have visitation and suggested his sister, who lived in California, be a placement option after an ICPC was conducted, until he was awarded custody. After father moved to California without informing DSS before or immediately after his move, DSS filed a TPR petition; the court had ordered a primary permanent plan of adoption. The TPR was granted on the grounds of neglect, failure to make reasonable progress, and willful abandonment.
  • Holding: “[P]etitioners [DSS] failed to prove by clear, cogent, and convincing evidence that respondent willfully abandoned his child. We also hold that petitioners have failed to prove that any other ground existed to terminate respondent’s parental rights.” Sl.Op. at 2.
  • Subject Matter Jurisdiction: “DSS never filed a petition seeking to have the trial court adjudicate Ella an abused, neglected, or dependent juvenile pursuant to N.C.G.S. §§ 7B-402(a) and -403(a). Thus, the trial court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to conduct permanency planning and review hearings, and its orders lacked the force of law.” Sl.Op. at 5. Without the petition, the trial court lacked the legal authority to demand respondent demonstrate his parenting abilities before taking custody of his daughter. However, the trial court did have jurisdiction to hear the TPR as an abuse, neglect, or dependency petition is not a precondition to a TPR proceeding and DSS had standing through mother’s relinquishment to it under G.S. 7B-1103(a)(4).
  • Constitutional Rights: “We begin by noting that DSS’s and the trial court’s actions repeatedly infringed upon respondent’s constitutional parental rights. ‘[The] government may take a child away from his or her natural parental only upon a showing that the parent is unfit to have custody or where the parent’s conduct is inconsistent with his or her constitutionally protected status.’ ” Sl.Op. at 8. Respondent grasped the opportunity to be this child’s parent and had a constitutionally protected right to the care, custody, and control of his child. Until the TPR was filed, DSS never sought an order that determined respondent father was unfit or acted inconsistently with his constitutionally protected status as a parent. Without subject matter jurisdiction in the permanency planning and review hearings, the “trial court did not have authority to act on its own views of what served [the child’s] best interests without first finding grounds to displace respondent’s constitutional parental rights to make such decisions.” Sl.Op. at 10.
  • TPR Grounds: “A trial court cannot determine a party’s rights based on facts established in or arising from a legally void judicial proceeding.” Sl.Op. at 11. There were not sufficient facts that were independent from the void permanency planning orders to prove any of the alleged grounds. Had the court made sufficient findings based on facts that were independent of the invalid hearings and orders, “the mere fact that those invalid proceedings occurred would not preclude the trial court from also concluding that termination was warranted.” Sl.Op. at 12.
    • Regarding the abandonment ground under G.S. 7B-1111(a)(7), the findings directly related to the void hearings, focusing mostly on father’s failure to satisfy the conditions that were imposed on him. Respondent’s express intent to be reunified with his daughter, have his sister be an interim placement, and have his child move to California with him does not show that he willfully determined to abandon his daughter. Additionally, respondent’s actions before and during the determinative six-month period are inconsistent with a finding that he willfully intended to forego all his parental duties.
    • Regarding the neglect ground under G.S. 7B-1111(a)(1), petitioner failed to prove there was prior neglect and a likelihood of repetition of that neglect. Respondent had custody of and was appropriately caring for his 3 other children such that the court lacked a basis to infer that respondent, who had not actually neglected this child, would have neglected her if she had been in his care.
    • Regarding the failure to correct the conditions that led to the child’s removal ground, G.S. 7B-1111(a)(2) applies when the removal is pursuant to a court order. A voluntary out-of-home family services agreement between respondent and DSS does not apply. There was never a legally valid order that removed the child from respondent.
Category:
Termination of Parental Rights
Stage:
Adjudication
Topic:
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