In re L.N.H., 382 N.C. 536 (2022)

Reversed and Remanded
  • Facts and Procedural History: DSS became involved when the 2-month-old infant was treated at a hospital for injuries resulting from mother punching infant in the chest, spraying green liquid on the infant, and burning her infant’s feet with a lighter. The infant was left alone on the porch, and the neighbors took her to the hospital. Mother was charged with felony child abuse. DSS filed a petition alleging abuse, neglect, and dependency. The court held an adjudication, disposition, and permanency planning hearing on the same day. At the adjudication hearing, over objection, the social worker testified to the initial report, which was offered not for the truth but for why DSS became involved. The court also took judicial notice of medical records that had been admitted at a nonsecure custody hearing without objection. The juvenile was adjudicated abused, neglected, and dependent. The child was placed in DSS custody but that custody would be transferred to a willing relative once a relative complied with certain requirements. The court ordered the cessation of reunification efforts. Mother appealed. The Court of Appeals determined mother received ineffective assistance of counsel based on a lack of objection to hearsay and reversed the dependency adjudication because the trial court did not look at the circumstances that existed at the time of the adjudicatory hearing. DSS and mother both filed a petition for discretionary review, which were granted. This summary focuses on evidentiary issues.
  • Failing to object at trial to the court taking judicial notice of underlying juvenile files waives appellate review. There was no objection made when the court took judicial notice of the medical records that had been previously admitted without objection in the hearing on continued nonsecure custody. Mother waived this review.
  • Ineffective assistance of counsel places the burden on the party alleging it that the counsel’s performance was deficient, the deficiency was so serious that the party was deprived of a fair hearing, and there is a reasonable probability that, but for the counsel’s errors, there would have been a different result. This is a heavy burden as there is a strong presumption that the counsel’s performance was within the range of reasonable professional assistance, and an attorney is given wide birth in strategy decisions. Mother’s attorney objected to the social worker’s testimony, which was overruled. Counsel gave an explanation for why he did not object to the admission of the medical records – that were already in evidence. Neither NC appellate court has directly addressed whether a trial court at adjudication can take judicial notice of evidence that was admitted at a nonsecure custody hearing. As a result, “we are unable to conclude that respondent-mother’s counsel’s conduct was ‘unreasonable’ given ‘prevailing professional norms.’ ” 382 N.C. at 543 (citation omitted). There was no ineffective assistance of counsel.
  • G.S. 7B-802 states “the adjudicatory hearing shall be a judicial process designed to adjudicate the existence or nonexistence of any of the conditions alleged in a petition.” The court’s determination of abuse, neglect, or dependency is “fixed at the time of the filing of the petition. This inquiry focuses on the status of the child at the time the petition is filed, not the post-petition actions of a party.” The court of appeals’ reversal of the dependency adjudication because father and relatives were placement alternatives does not apply the plain language of G.S. 7B-802. When the petition was filed, father’s paternity was not established and his location was unknown, and relatives were not available placements because there were no completed home studies. The trial court’s findings that when the petition was filed, mother did not provide alternative placements with family members who presented themselves to DSS and did not have information about father and how to contact him were correct. The adjudication of dependency was not error.
Abuse, Neglect, Dependency
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