In re J.C., 380 N.C. 738 (2022)

Reversed and Remanded
  • Facts: As part of an underlying neglect action, DSS filed a TPR petition naming both parents as respondents. At the TPR hearing, DSS asked the court to find the alleged grounds existed “beyond a reasonable doubt.” After hearing, the court announced it was finding two of the three alleged grounds and directed DSS to make findings of fact “based on the evidence presented.” The court did not announce the standard of proof it was applying. The TPR order stated the findings of fact were made “by a preponderance of the evidence.” Both parents appealed, challenging the standard of proof and arguing what the remedy should be.
  • G.S. 7B-1109(f) requires that adjudicatory findings in a TPR be made by clear, cogent, and convincing evidence. The U.S. Supreme Court determined this standard protects a parents’ constitutional due process in a TPR proceeding. Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745 (1982). However, there is no reversible error when the TPR order fails to state the standard of proof if it explicitly announced the standard of proof at the TPR hearing; the court must either announce the standard in open court or state the standard in its written order. In re B.L.H., 376 N.C. 118 (2020).
    • Here, the order “overtly states the wrong standard of proof – a standard which is not only less than that required by statute but one which has also been held to be constitutionally insufficient to support the permanent severance of the parent-child relationship.” 380 N.C. at 743. That distinguishes this case from In re M.R.F., 378 N.C. 638 (2021), where the order was silent as to the standard of proof applied. The application of the wrong standard is statutory error.
  • In determining the appropriate corrective measure, the supreme court considered (1) respondents’ argument that under Santosky, the TPR should be vacated, ending the case and (2) DSS’s and the GAL’s argument that the case should be remanded for the court to enter findings of fact under the correct standard.
    • Santosky is not controlling because the U.S. Supreme Court did not discuss the evidence before the N.Y. trial court, and this case falls under N.C. precedent addressing G.S. 7B-1109(f) “regarding the pivotal impact that the record evidence under appellate review has in the resolution of an appeal where a trial court has committed error regarding a standard of proof.” 380 N.C. at 746. Remand is appropriate unless “the record of this case is insufficient to support findings which are necessary to establish any of the statutory grounds for termination.” 380 N.C. at 747 (emphasis in original) quoting In re M.R.F., 378 N.C. 638, 648. The supreme court cannot conclude the record meets the exception for remand; therefore, the case is reversed and remanded for “consideration of the record before it in order to determine whether DSS has demonstrated by clear, cogent, and convincing evidence that one or more statutory grounds exit to permit termination of parental rights.” 380 N.C. at 747.
Termination of Parental Rights
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