In re N.P., ___ N.C. ___ (March 12, 2021)

Held: 
Affirmed
  • Facts: In 2017, when respondent mother and father were visiting North Carolina, from their home in Virginia, mother went into premature labor. The baby was born in New Hanover County 23 weeks prematurely and remained in the hospital due to all her medical needs. DSS become involved and filed a petition, where the infant was adjudicated neglected and dependent. In that matter, the trial court determined it had temporary emergency jurisdiction under the UCCJEA. Mother and father returned to their homes in Virginia after they entered into a case plan with DSS. The parents remained in Virginia while the child remained in NC in foster care. In October 2018, DSS filed a TPR petition which was granted. Mother appeals, raising the district court’s lack of subject matter jurisdiction.
  • Subject matter jurisdiction cannot be conferred by consent or through waiver and may be raised at any time, including on appeal. A court has no authority to act without subject matter jurisdiction and any orders entered are void. If the lower court lacks subject matter jurisdiction, the appropriate action for the appellate court is to vacate orders that were entered without authority.
  • Subject matter jurisdiction is established by the Juvenile Code. G.S. 7B-1101 states the district court has exclusive original jurisdiction in TPR cases for any juvenile who resides in, is found in, or is in the legal or actual custody of a county DSS in the judicial district at the time the TPR petition/motion is filed. It further provides that there must be jurisdiction under the UCCJEA and that a nonresident parent’s rights may be terminated when the court has jurisdiction under initial or modification jurisdiction under the UCCJEA and the parent has been served pursuant to G.S. 7B-1106. The question of subject matter jurisdiction in a TPR under G.S. 7B-1101 focuses on the custody, location, or residence of the child in a TPR, not the parents. (emphasis at Sl.Op. at 10). At the time the TPR petition was filed the conditions of G.S. 7B-1101 were satisfied: the juvenile resided in New Hanover County and was in the legal custody of New Hanover County DSS; NC was the juvenile’s home state; and mother was served pursuant to G.S. 7B-1106 (there is no dispute on this last factor).
  • The UCCJEA is an overarching jurisdictional scheme that applies to abuse, neglect, dependency and TPR proceedings. Initially, in the neglect/dependency action, the NC district court exercised temporary emergency jurisdiction in the underlying neglect and dependency action. Mother argues temporary jurisdiction should have expired given the parents’ residence in Virginia. In assuming arguendo that temporary emergency jurisdiction expired before the TPR petition was filed (as mother argues), “We are not required to determine with exactness the junction at which the temporary emergency regarding the child’s well-being may have ended.” Sl.Op. at 10. At the time the TPR was commenced, NC was the child’s home state – child lived with a person acting as a parent (the foster parents) for at least 6 consecutive months immediately preceding the commencement of the TPR action. See G.S. 50-102(7).
  • Although mother argues the court should have applied the dispositional alternative G.S. 7B-903(a)(6) in the neglect/dependency case to transfer custody of the juvenile to the responsible authorities in her home state, Virginia, North Carolina was the juvenile’s home state such that G.S. 7B-903(a)(6) was not an option.
  • Although mother argues she was a minor, G.S. 7B-1101 explicitly states “The court shall have jurisdiction to terminate the parental rights of any parent irrespective of the age of the parent.” Sl.Op. at 14 (emphasis in opinion). This language is unambiguous.
Category:
Termination of Parental Rights
Stage:
Subject Matter Jurisdiction
Topic:
G.S. 7B Jurisdiction
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