In re I.K., 377 N.C. 417 (2021)

There is a dissent
Earls, J.
  • Facts and Procedural History: The juvenile was adjudicated dependent due to circumstances related to unstable housing, substance use, and domestic violence in the home. A 2017 permanency planning order that awarded guardianship to paternal grandmother and eliminated reunification was appealed by both parents. The court of appeals vacated and remanded that permanency planning order to address whether respondent father was acting inconsistently with his constitutional rights to care, custody, and control of the child. On remand, the court awarded guardianship to the grandmother. Father appealed, challenging the findings and conclusions that he acted inconsistently with his parental rights. The court of appeals in a divided opinion affirmed the trial court’s order. Father appealed to the supreme court.
  • A parent acting inconsistently with their constitutionally protected paramount status must be supported by clear and convincing evidence with findings of fact that cumulatively support that conclusion. The conclusion of law is reviewed de novo. The determination is not a bright-line test.  The cumulative evidence shows supports the court’s conclusion that father acted inconsistently with his constitutional rights by not refraining from using illegal substances, not adequately addressing his issues with domestic violence, and not obtaining safe and stable housing.
  • The findings are supported by clear and convincing evidence, and the findings support the conclusion that father acted inconsistently with his constitutionally protected rights. Credibility and weight of the evidence determinations are the role of the trial court and not the appellate court.
    • Substance use: The findings show that father continued to use substances after completing his substance abuse treatment program. The evidence showed he had a history of using substances for years, refused to submit to 11 out of 31 drug screens throughout the case, and tested positive on two of the drug screens, one of which was after completing his treatment.
    • Housing: The findings describe an unsafe and inappropriately sized home that was based on testimony of hoarding conditions, holes in the floor covered with plywood, and overcrowding. Despite having an income of more than $46,000 and assistance offered by DSS, father had no plans to move out of his mother’s inappropriate home or to stop living with the juvenile’s mother when she was found to have acted inconsistently with her parental rights.
    • Domestic violence: Unchallenged findings document father’s past domestic violence with the juvenile’s mother. Although he completed a domestic violence program, he then had domestic violence incident involving his own mother.
  • Dissent: The findings are insufficient to support the conclusion that father acting inconsistently with his parental rights, and the findings related to domestic violence and substance use are unsupported by the evidence. The majority sets a low bar in this case that is contrary to the Court’s precedent and “seriously threatens the stability of families throughout the state” who are facing financial constraints. Dissent ¶ 42. There is no evidence of father’s willful conduct evidencing his intent to act inconsistently with his parental rights. Although the findings support a lack of safe and stable housing, living in poor housing conditions is insufficient to conclude a parent acted inconsistently with their parental rights. There was no evidence better housing options were available to respondent such that the majority’s characterization of father choosing to live in the unsafe environment is misplaced.
Abuse, Neglect, Dependency
Disposition (All Stages Post-Adjudication)
Parent’s Rights
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