In re K.L., ___ N.C. App. ___ (June 16, 2020)

Held: 
Reversed and Remanded
  • Facts: This case involves an appeal of an adjudication of an abused and neglected infant and an adjudication of a neglected juvenile, the infant’s 8-year old sibling who was living in the home with the infant. Mother sought medical treatment for the infant, which included x-rays. It was discovered that the infant had 6 fractures in his legs but no other injuries or marks. The cause of infant’s injuries were unknown to the parents. The parents were cooperative in seeking treatment for the child and in working with DSS. Mother raised concerns about the infant having rickets because of her family history. The infant has a Vitamin D deficiency but does not have rickets. The father stated two weeks prior to mother seeking medical attention for the infant, the child had fallen off the couch but did not appear injured. A medical provider testified that it was highly probable the injuries were caused by non-accidental trauma and not a fall from the couch.
  • Standard of review of an adjudication is whether clear and convincing evidence supports the findings and whether the findings support the conclusion of law. An abuse or neglect adjudication is a conclusion of law that is reviewed de novo. A de novo review is when the appellate “[c]ourt ‘considers the matter anew and freely substitutes its own judgment for that of the lower tribunal.’ ” Sl.Op. at 10.
  • Findings: Of the 4 challenged findings, 2 were not supported by the evidence.
    • The court’s finding that the infant was in the respondent parents’ exclusive care during a 4-day period was not supported by the evidence, which showed the infant was with a babysitter and was held by various family members during that time.
    • Clear and convincing evidence supports the court’s finding that the infant suffered non-accidental trauma that did not result from a fall but does not support the finding that the infant’s fractures occurred when he was in the exclusive care of his parents.
  • G.S. 7B-101(1) defines an abused juvenile as one whose parent, guardian, custodian, or caretaker inflicts or allows to be inflicted upon the juvenile a serious physical injury by other than accidental means.
  • Circumstances Surrounding the Child: “While ‘the determinative factors [in a neglect proceeding] are the circumstances and conditions surrounding the child, not the fault or culpability of the parent. . ., the same is not true in an abuse proceeding.” Adjudications of abuse have been upheld when the cause of the injuries was unclear but the clear and convincing evidence and resulting findings “supported the inference that the respondent-parents were responsible for the unexplained injury.” Sl.Op. at 16. These findings can “support the conclusion that the respondent-parents inflicted or allowed the infliction of the injury at issue.” Id. Although the trial court was appropriately concerned that the parents could not explain their child’s injuries, “that alone, as a matter of law, cannot support the trial court’s conclusion that Respondents were responsible for [the] injuries. There is nothing to bridge the evidentiary gap between the unexplained injuries here and the conclusion that Respondents inflicted them….” Sl.Op. at 24.
    • Author’s Note: This opinion does not discuss the holding in In re J.S., 182 N.C. App. 79 (2007), which was relied upon in In re A.B., ___ N.C. App. ___ (June 16, 2020); both of which state abuse, neglect, and dependency is about the child’s status and not the culpability of the parents.
Category:
Abuse, Neglect, Dependency
Stage:
Adjudication
Topic:
Abuse
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