In re J.A.M., 372 N.C. 1 (2019)

  • Facts: DSS received a report about the child’s birth and a petition was filed alleging neglect because of the parents’ histories with DSS for their other children. Mother’s significant 10-year involvement with DSS regarding her other children results from her older children’s exposure to her violent relationships. In the most serious incident, one child suffered life-threatening injuries caused by his father/mother’s partner at the time; mother delayed obtaining immediate assistance for the child, and she refused to acknowledge the child’s significant special needs resulting from the injuries. Mother’s parental rights to her six other children were terminated for her failure to change her pattern of domestic violence. Father’s history regarding his other child was also related to domestic violence.
  • Procedural History: This is the second appeal to the NC Supreme Court of an adjudication order of neglect (the initial dispositional order is not the subject of the appeal). In the first appeal, the Court of Appeals (COA) reversed the adjudication after determining the evidence did not support the findings of fact and the findings of fact did not support the conclusion of neglect based on an injurious environment. The Supreme Court granted a discretionary review and held the COA applied the wrong standard of review and reversed and remanded the decision to the COA for application of the correct standard. On remand, the COA majority affirmed the neglect adjudication after holding the findings were sufficient and “our Court may not reweigh the underlying evidence on appeal.” Sl. Op. at 9. The dissent determined there was no clear and convincing competent evidence that the child was at substantial risk of neglect. That opinion was appealed to the Supreme Court.
  • Issue: “Whether the Court of Appeals majority correctly determined that the clear and convincing evidence and the trial court’s findings of fact supported its conclusion of law that the juvenile J.A.M. was neglected.” Sl. Op. at 1. Answer: Yes.
  • “A court may not adjudicate a juvenile neglected solely based upon previous Department of Social Services involvement relating to other children. Rather, in concluding that a juvenile ‘lives in an environment injurious to the juvenile’s welfare,’ N.C.G.S. 7B-101(15), the clear and convincing evidence in the record must show current circumstances that present a risk to the juvenile.” Sl. Op. at 11. The prior case alone is not determinative. The trial court has discretion to determine how much weight to give evidence of a prior neglect determination. Regarding a newborn, the trial court’s decision must be predictive in nature in assessing whether there is a substantial risk of future abuse or neglect to the child based on the historical facts of the case.
  • In this case, there were other factors the trial court found, all of which were supported by clear and convincing evidence and support the conclusion of neglect. The court found mother failed to acknowledge her role in the TPR to her other six children, denied the need for services with DSS, and was involved with the child’s father who had a domestic violence history which is one of the reasons her other children were removed from her care. These findings were supported by exhibits of the TPR and adjudication/disposition orders for mother’s six other children and the criminal record of respondent father’s convictions for assault on a female (his sister), (2)  the unchallenged testimony of the DSS social worker that mother rejected DSS services as unnecessary, and (3) mother’s testimony that she knew father had been charged with assault on a female but did not ask him if it was true and that she had no role in her other child’s serious injuries.
  • “The trial court’s findings of fact supported by clear and convincing competent evidence are deemed conclusive, even where some evidence supports contrary findings.” Sl. Op. at 10. The trial court assesses a witness’s demeanor and credibility “often in light of inconsistencies or contradictory evidence.” Sl. Op. at 15, Here, the court made a credibility determination of the testimony that supported its finding that mother failed to take responsibility for her role in the TPR of her other children.
Abuse, Neglect, Dependency
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