An unpublished opinion of the North Carolina Court of Appeals does not constitute controlling legal authority. Citation is disfavored, but may be permitted in accordance with the provisions of Rule 30(e)(3) of the North Carolina Rules of Appellate Proced ure.

NO. COA04-1705
            
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NORTH CAROLINA COURT OF APPEALS
        
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Filed: 1 November 2005


In the Matter of:                    Wilkes County
M.S., A Minor Child                No. 00 J 33

    Appeal by respondent mother from order entered 12 August 2004 by Judge David V. Byrd in Wilkes County District Court. Heard in the Court of Appeals 20 September 2005.

    Paul W. Freeman, Jr. for petitioner-appellee Wilkes County Department of Social Services.

    Mercedes O. Chut for respondent-appellant mother.

    Tracie M. Jordan for Guardian ad Litem.

    LEVINSON, Judge.

    Respondent-mother appeals from an order terminating her parental rights in the minor child, M.S. We affirm.
    The record establishes the following facts: M.S. was born on 10 January 1997 in Wilkes County, North Carolina. In October 1999 the Wilkes County Department of Social Services (DSS) began working with respondent's family after receiving a report that M.S.'s twelve-year-old sister, S.N.S., was being improperly supervised by respondent, and was sexually active with a seventeen-year-old boyfriend.
    In an order entered 5 May 2000 following a hearing held 10 April 2000, M.S. and S.N.S. were adjudged neglected juveniles. The court found that respondent's husband, father of the juveniles, had sexually abused their eldest daughter, the older sister of M.S. andS.N.S. This sister then sexually abused her younger brother, who in turn became sexually active with S.N.S. M.S. was never sexually abused. Respondent testified at the neglect hearing that she was only recently aware of the sexual abuse, and that she had been separated from her husband for approximately one and a half years. The trial court found that the children were being raised in an environment “characterized by sexual abuse and improper supervision”, and that even after learning of S.N.S.'s sexual activity, respondent continued to allow S.N.S. to spend time with older males.
    At a permanency planning hearing held in March and April 2001, the court found that although respondent completed parenting classes with DSS, she failed to show “meaningful progress” in being able to protect and care for her children, and that she failed to apply what she had learned in the classes to her interactions with her children. The trial court made termination of parental rights and adoption the permanent plan for M.S. and S.N.S. in an order entered 11 July 2001. This permanency planning order was affirmed by this Court in an opinion filed 4 March 2003. In Re S.N.S. and M.S., 156 N.C. App. 427, 577 S.E.2d 718 (2003) (unpublished opinion). In a petition executed 31 July 2003, DSS sought termination of the parental rights of mother and father in M.S.
    In its order on the petition to terminate parental rights, the trial court made numerous findings of fact. In the present appeal, respondent challenges findings 10, 13, 15, 16, and the underlined portions of 12 and 14:        7.    The child has not been in the mother's home for over four (4) years.

8.    The father of the child has had virtually no contact with her for many years.

    . . . .

        10. The mother has not shown appropriate care and concern for the child, sending only a couple of gifts since the Permanency Planning hearing. Although the mother claimed a problem in getting gifts to the child, the Court notes that the child's sister S.N.S. was able to provide the child with gifts without apparent problems.

11.    On or about April 10, 2000, the undersigned found [M.S.] to be a neglected juvenile. Said Order is referred to for more complete reference regarding the circumstances giving rise to such adjudication[.] . . .

12.    In July, 2001, following extensive hearings before the undersigned, an Order was entered approving adoption as a Permanent Plan for the above- referenced child. In this Order, the undersigned found that although the mother's psychological evaluation indicated that the mother had “adequate intellectual skills for parenting,” she has not been able to demonstrate her skills in a real world setting. The Court was presented with no evidence that indicates that this has changed. Indeed, the mother has had such limited contact with the child, and has shown such little interest in the child since the entry of the aforesaid Permanency Planning Order, that there is no evidence of any change of circumstances which would indicate that the mother has a better understanding of her parental responsibilities.

13.    There is a substantial likelihood that should [M.S.] be returned to the home of her mother, the neglect originally found in April, 2000 would recur.

14.    For purposes of disposition, the Court notes that [M.S.] has been in the same foster home since December, 2000. She is doing well in this home and has bonded with her foster mother. The foster mother indicates a desire to adopt the child, and there are no barriers to this adoption. Further,there is no intangible bond between the child and her natural parents.

15.    There is no intangible bond between the child and her natural parents.

16.    Other than providing some support for the child, the mother of the child has done little since the Permanency Planning hearing in this case.

    The trial court concluded as a matter of law that:
        . . . grounds exist for the termination of the parental rights of the Respondent-parents pursuant to G.S. . 7B-1111(a)(1) . . . that the repetition of neglect is highly likely should the child be returned to either of her parents . . . [and that grounds also exist for termination under] . . . G.S. . 7B-1111(a)(2), in that both of such Respondents have willfully left [M.S.] in foster care for more than twelve (12) months without showing to the satisfaction of the Court that reasonable progress under the circumstances has been made in correcting those conditions which led to the removal of the child.

Upon its conclusion that it was in the best interests of M.S. that her natural parents' rights be terminated, the trial court did so in the 12 August 2004 order now on appeal. Only respondent-mother appeals.

Standard of Review

    A court's termination of parental rights is a two-step process: there is an adjudicatory stage to the proceeding under N.C. Gen. Stat. . 7B-1109 (2003), and a dispositional stage under N.C. Gen. Stat. . 7B-1110 (2003). In re Howell, 161 N.C. App. 650, 656, 589 S.E.2d 157, 160-61 (2003). During the adjudication stage, the trial court determines whether clear, cogent, and convincing evidence exists to support at least one of the grounds fortermination under N.C. Gen. Stat. . 7B-1111 (2003). In re Shepard, 162 N.C. App. 215, 220-21, 591 S.E.2d 1, 5 (2004) (citations omitted). Where such evidence is present, the court moves to the dispositional stage, and it considers whether terminating parental rights would be in the best interest of the child. Howell, 161 N.C. App. at 656, 589 S.E.2d at 161 (citation omitted). This Court has described the standard of review for termination of parental rights cases as:
        “whether the findings of fact are supported by clear, cogent and convincing evidence and whether these findings, in turn, support the conclusions of law.” We then consider, based on the grounds found for termination, whether the trial court abused its discretion in finding termination to be in the best interest of the child.

Shepard, 162 N.C. App. at 221-22, 591 S.E.2d at 6 (quoting In Re Clark, 72 N.C. App. 118, 124, 323 S.E.2d 754, 758 (1984)) (citations omitted).
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    Respondent argues first that the trial court lacked clear, cogent, and convincing evidence to support findings of fact numbers 10, 13, 15, 16, and portions of 12 and 14. We disagree.
    Much of the evidence presented at the termination hearing concerned respondent's failure to demonstrate love, affection and concern for the child. Deborah Koen, a Wilkes County DSS social worker assigned to the case since February 2003, testified that respondent had no contact or visits with M.S. since the entry of the 2001 court order ceasing reunification efforts. Respondent had not requested any visits with M.S., and had not sent any cards orgifts during the three year period preceding the termination hearing. Nor had she filed a motion to reinstate visitation with M.S. since she filed such a motion in June 2002. Respondent had not called her to inquire about M.S., and had not taken any actions “to show some interest in [M.S.] or her well-being.” Since her involvement in the case began, Koen met with respondent only once during an agency review in October 2003. Ann Serafin, M.S.'s foster parent since 11 December 2000, testified that she had not received a call or anything in writing from respondent inquiring about M.S. _ and no cards or gifts of any sort from her except a teddy bear in December 2001 and, later, an afghan. These gifts were provided by respondent before the court ceased reunification efforts in July 2001. According to Serafin, S.N.S. sent a Christmas card to M.S. one year, and provided a gift in-person to her when she took M.S. to see S.N.S. at a mall.
    Other evidence presented during the termination hearing concerned respondent's inability or unwillingness to discipline and/or properly parent M.S. during the time she was in her care. According to Serafin, M.S. had drastically improved since first coming into her care. She provided numerous examples:
        When M.S. first came into my care, there were many things that I had to teach her. She didn't know anything about any holidays. She never knew what a birthday celebration or Christmas or Easter or Valentine's day [sic]. She really, truly didn't know what the word Mother meant. I mean, basic things like that. She thought sisters took care of you. She didn't think mothers took care of you.
Serafin testified further that, while M.S. knew that “she had a person in her life named [P]”, referring to respondent, she “does not remember too much about her now.” And, Serafin explained, M.S. had nightmares about her brother and mother when she first began living with her. Respondent became “easily frustrated” during her early visits with M.S. that occurred before the trial court changed the plan to reunification. These visits were ceased consistent with “information from the therapist,” and because M.S. was “no longer having the nightmares and the anxiety problems she had been reported having [sic] for the visits.”
    Some of the evidence reflected on the current circumstances in respondent's home, particularly those concerning the nature and quality of her supervision of her daughter, S.N.S. At the time of the hearing, S.N.S. was living with respondent after having been released from out-of-home placements under the direction of the juvenile court. S.N.S. was presently enrolled in the high school diploma program at Wilkes Community College after having decided not to attend public high school. Respondent was “not sure” how often S.N.S. attended classes. She attended “[s]ome, not a whole lot” because S.N.S. had headaches which have “been about every day for a long time.” Moreover, respondent was uncertain about whether, or how frequently, S.N.S.'s boyfriend spent early morning hours in the home. Outside of sporadic attendance at GED classes and a weekly obligation to help clean her boyfriend's residence, respondent acknowledged that S.N.S. “doesn't do much with her time.” In sum, the testimony could support an inference that themother was not sufficiently or appropriately engaged in the supervision of S.N.S.
    Respondent testified, in general, that she made efforts to see M.S., but that it was difficult because the goal was changed to adoption. She had nevertheless “asked a few times to get to see [M.S.]. All the answers I [got] is no.” Respondent stated that the last time she made such a request was “late last year.” And respondent confirmed that she had provided various gifts, including the afghan and teddy bear, and stated that it was not her religious practices to celebrate certain holidays. She was working consistently; providing child support through wage garnishment; and had an appropriate home for M.S. Respondent did not contradict the testimony concerning her failures to send correspondence or make additional efforts to demonstrate her care and concern to M.S. Respondent confirmed that it had been “several years” since a Family Services Case plan was implemented.
    Additional evidence was presented concerning whether there was a likelihood that neglect would recur if M.S. was returned to respondent. Koen testified that, while respondent had completed parenting classes in the period preceding the court's decision to make adoption the permanent plan, she had not shown by “actions or her words . . . progress in her abilities to apply in a practical way whatever parenting skills she may have acquired in [the] classes.” Koen's testimony was consistent with the permanency planning order of 11 July 2001, wherein the court found that the mother had not “shown meaningful progress in being able toappropriately protect and care for the children or the ability to apply what she has heard” from the parenting classes. We conclude that the record evidence, including the evidence suggesting a lack of current supervisory interest and control over S.N.S. and the evidence of respondent's lackluster efforts to communicate care and concern for M.S., sufficiently supports the finding that there was a “substantial likelihood” that neglect would recur if M.S. was returned to respondent's care.
    While respondent presented evidence which contradicted, in part, some of the evidence presented by DSS, “[s]uch conflicts and contradictions in the evidence are for the trier of fact to resolve.” Olivetti Corp. v. Ames Business Systems, Inc., 319 N.C. 534, 544, 356 S.E.2d 578, 584 (1987) (citing Garrett v. Garrett, 229 N.C. 290, 49 S.E.2d 643 (1948)). We conclude that the challenged findings of fact are supported by clear, cogent and convincing evidence.
    The relevant assignments of error are overruled.
    Respondent argues next that the trial court's findings of fact do not support its conclusion that she neglected M.S. We disagree.
    According to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1111(a)(1) (2003), a court may terminate one's parental rights where:

        The parent has abused or neglected the juvenile. The juvenile shall be deemed to be abused or neglected if the court finds the juvenile to be an abused juvenile within the meaning of G.S. 7B-101 or a neglected juvenile within the meaning of G.S. 7B-101.

    “Neglect”, in turn, is defined as follows:        Neglected juvenile.-- A juvenile who does not receive proper care, supervision, or discipline from the juvenile's parent, guardian, custodian, or caretaker; or who has been abandoned; or who is not provided necessary medical care; or who is not provided necessary remedial care; or who lives in an environment injurious to the juvenile's welfare; or who has been placed for care or adoption in violation of law. In determining whether a juvenile is a neglected juvenile, it is relevant whether that juvenile lives in a home where another juvenile has died as a result of suspected abuse or neglect or lives in a home where another juvenile has been subjected to abuse or neglect by an adult who regularly lives in the home.

N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-101(15) (2003).
    For a termination of parental rights based on neglect, the trial court must determine whether neglect is present at the time of the termination proceeding. See In re Ballard, 311 N.C. 708, 716, 319 S.E.2d 227, 232 (1984). “[E]vidence of neglect by a parent prior to losing custody . . . is admissible in subsequent proceedings to terminate parental rights. The trial court must also consider any evidence of changed conditions in light of the evidence of prior neglect and the probability of a repetition of neglect.” Id. at 715, 319 S.E.2d at 232 (citation omitted). The probability of a repetition of neglect must be shown by clear, cogent and convincing evidence. See In Re Young, 346 N.C. 244, 250, 485 S.E.2d 612, 616 (1997). As discussed above, G.S. § 7B- 101(15) defines a “neglected juvenile” in relevant part as one “who has been abandoned.” We note that abandonment “has been defined as wilful neglect and refusal to perform the natural and legalobligations of parental care and support.” In re Humphrey, 156 N.C. App. 533, 540, 577 S.E.2d 421, 427 (2003).
    Here, the evidence and the findings of fact support the conclusion that respondent neglected M.S. in that she failed to communicate expressions of love to the child, and still had, at the time of the termination hearing, parenting deficiencies such that the conclusion of neglect can be properly sustained.
    “A valid finding on one statutorily enumerated ground is sufficient to support an order terminating parental rights.” In Re Stewart Children, 82 N.C. App. 651, 655, 347 S.E.2d 495, 498 (1986) (citing In re Pierce, 67 N.C. App. 257, 312 S.E.2d 900 (1984)). Therefore, because we have concluded that grounds for termination were properly established under G.S. . 7B-1111(a)(1) (neglect), we need not address respondent's argument regarding G.S. . 7B- 1111(a)(2) (reasonable progress).
    The relevant assignments of error are overruled.
    Respondent argues next that the trial court erred by failing to conduct a separate “best interest phase” of the termination of parental rights proceeding. We disagree.
    Although there is both an adjudicatory stage and a dispositional stage involved in a termination of parental rights proceeding, there is no requirement that these stages be conducted during two separate hearings. In Re White, 81 N.C. App. 82, 85, 344 S.E.2d 36, 38 (1986). Furthermore, the trial court judge in this proceeding does not need to be insulated during the adjudicatory stage, as respondent suggests, from evidence that isonly relevant to the dispositional stage. “[I]t is presumed, in the absence of some affirmative indication to the contrary, that the judge, having knowledge of the law, is able to consider the evidence in light of the applicable legal standard and to determine whether grounds for termination exist before proceeding to consider evidence relevant only to the dispositional stage.” Id. This assignment of error is overruled.
    Respondent argues next that the trial court erred in concluding that termination of respondent's parental rights was in the best interests of M.S. We disagree.
    N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1110(a) (2003) provides, in relevant part, that:
        Should the court determine that any one or more of the conditions authorizing a termination of the parental rights of a parent exist, the court shall issue an order terminating the parental rights of such parent with respect to the juvenile unless the court shall further determine that the best interests of the juvenile require that the parental rights of the parent not be terminated.

    We review the trial court's conclusion that a termination of parental rights would be in the best interest of the child on an abuse of discretion standard. In Re V.L.B., 168 N.C. App. 679, 684, 608 S.E.2d 787, 791 (citing In re Anderson, 151 N.C. App. 94, 98, 564 S.E.2d 599, 602 (2002)), disc. review denied, 359 N.C. 633, 614 S.E.2d 924 (2005). “Abuse of discretion exists when 'the challenged actions are manifestly unsupported by reason.'” Barnes v. Wells, 165 N.C. App. 575, 580, 599 S.E.2d 585, 589 (2004) (quoting Blankenship v. Town and Country Ford, Inc., 155 N.C. App.161, 165, 574 S.E.2d 132, 134 (2002), disc. review denied, 357 N.C. 61, 579 S.E.2d 384 (2003)).
    Here, the findings illustrate significant parenting deficiencies on the part of respondent, who has had little or no contact with M.S. in the several years preceding the hearing on the motion to terminate parental rights. M.S. has been in the same foster home since December 2000 and is doing well in the same. This foster parent wishes to adopt M.S., who “thinks of [her] as her mother” and who has expressed a desire to be adopted. M.S. has no special needs, is in good physical health, and has “no barriers” to adoption. The trial court did not abuse its discretion by concluding that termination of respondent's parental rights was in the best interests of M.S. This assignment of error is overruled.
    We have considered respondent's remaining assignments of error and conclude that they are without merit.
    Affirmed.
    Judges WYNN and CALABRIA concur.
    Report per Rule 30(e).

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