IN THE MATTER OF:
T.A.T., No. 04 J 1
Blake Evans and Robert A. Lester, for petitioner-appellee
Rowan County Department of Social Services.
Nancy Gaines, Guardian ad Litem.
Susan J. Hall for respondent-appellant.
Respondent-mother (respondent), L.M.T., appeals from an
order terminating her parental rights to the minor child. The
order also terminated the parental rights of T.A.T.'s putative
father, J.E.P. (respondent-father), and any unknown father,
neither of whom has appealed. For the reasons stated herein, we
The record shows that T.A.T. was born on 21 November 2001. The Rowan County Department of Social Services (RCDSS) filed a petition in district court on 26 February 2002, alleging that T.A.T. was a neglected juvenile as defined by N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B- 101(15) (2003). In an order entered by the court on 15 May 2002,respondent consented to an adjudication of neglect and to T.A.T.'s placement in the non-secure custody of RCDSS. The consent order further provided that respondent is not seeking reunification with [T.A.T.] and the permanency plan is to give legal guardianship to the maternal grandparents, C[I.] and J[.I.]
On 26 August 2002, the district court appointed T.A.T.'s great aunt, C.T., as her guardian. When C.T. determined that she could not provide for T.A.T.'s care, RCDSS placed the child in the home of C.I. on 3 June 2003. On 7 August 2003, C.I. advised RCDSS that she was unable to provide the special care T.A.T. required for her skin condition. C.T., who had remained T.A.T.'s guardian, executed a voluntary placement agreement returning the child to RCDSS's custody.
Although represented by her attorney and guardian ad litem at hearings held 20 October 2003 and 3 November 2003, respondent failed to attend the hearings or to cooperate with her attorney. Following the 3 November 2003 hearing, the court entered an order establishing adoption as the permanent plan for the child.
On 2 January 2004, RCDSS filed a petition to terminate respondent's parental rights to T.A.T., alleging the following five grounds for termination: (1) respondent continued to neglect T.A.T. within the meaning of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-101(15); (2) respondent willfully left T.A.T. in a placement outside of the home for more than twelve months without reasonable progress in correcting the circumstances which led to the placement; (3) T.A.T. had been in the care and custody of RCDSS for more than sixconsecutive months, and respondent had willfully failed to pay a reasonable portion of the cost of her care while being physically and financially able to do so; (4) respondent was incapable of providing proper care and supervision of T.A.T., such that she was a dependent juvenile as defined by N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-101(9) (2003), and there was a reasonable probability that respondent's incapacity would continue for the foreseeable future; and (5) respondent had willfully abandoned T.A.T. for at least six consecutive months immediately prior to the filing of the petition. See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1111(a)(1)-(3), (6), (7) (2003). After a hearing held 26 July 2004, the district court found grounds for termination based on neglect, dependency, abandonment, and respondent's failure to make reasonable progress to correct the conditions leading to T.A.T.'s out-of-home placement. The court then separately determined that termination was the appropriate disposition in this cause, serving the best interests of T.A.T.
By her first four assignments of error on appeal, respondent claims the district court abused its discretion at the initial, adjudicatory stage of the termination proceedings by concluding that four grounds for termination existed under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1111(a). See generally N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1109 (2003). Under the familiar standard of review in termination cases, we must determine whether the court's findings of fact are supported by clear, cogent, and convincing evidence and whether the court's findings, in turn, support its conclusions of law. See In re Huff, 140 N.C. App. 288, 291, 536 S.E.2d 838, 840 (2000). Althoughrespondent claims generally that the evidence was insufficient to support the court's conclusions of law, she has not challenged any of the individual findings of fact set forth in the termination order. Accordingly, these findings are deemed to be supported by competent evidence and are binding on appeal. See Koufman v. Koufman, 330 N.C. 93, 97, 408 S.E.2d 729, 731 (1991).
Under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1111(a)(1), the district court may terminate a respondent's parental rights if it determines that she has neglected the child. For purposes of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B- 1111(a)(1), a juvenile is deemed to be neglected if she does not receive proper care, supervision, or discipline[,] is denied necessary medical care[,] or if she lives in an environment injurious to [her] welfare[.] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-101(15).
The district court entered the following findings pertinent to its adjudication of neglect under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1111(a)(1): 5. On May 6, 2002, the juvenile and her brother, [J.P.], were adjudicated neglected by the consent of Respondent L[.M.T.] Respondent L[.M.T.] consented to the adjudication of T.A.T. as neglected by admitting that, among other things, (1) there was no food in the home, (2) she failed to take T.A.T. for medical treatment when the child was having difficulty breathing and when a neighbor took the juvenile for medical treatment, she was admitted to the hospital with a severe upper respiratory infection, and (3) she kept an open container of kerosene in the room with the juvenile less than one foot from a burning kerosene heater. The Respondent L[.M.T.] did not seek reunification with either of her children, and both children were placed with relatives.
6. On February 25, 2002, Respondent L[.M.T.] was involuntarily committed to Carolina Medical Center's psychiatric ward fordelusional thoughts and depression, and she was released on March 4, 2002.
7. Respondent L[.M.T.] denies any further psychiatric treatment, and she has refused to release any medical records to the RCDSS. [She] attributes her involvement with the RCDSS as a misunderstanding, and blames [respondent father]'s leaving her on her problems with maintaining care for her children. Respondent L[.M.T.] is very emotional about [respondent father], and she remains extremely distraught over [his] leaving her and not marrying her.
8. In August 2002, C[.T.], great aunt of the juvenile, was given guardianship of the child. On or about June 3, 2003, this placement disrupted, and the juvenile was placed with her maternal grandmother, C[.I.], through the RCDSS on a kinship care assessment. On or about August 7, 2003, [C.I.] contacted the RCDSS and informed the RCDSS that she co[u]ld no longer care for the child. The child was placed in foster care at that time.
9. The juvenile entered foster care with severe skin and behavioral problems. Since being in foster care, those problems have diminished.
10. Respondent L[.M.T.] testified that she had occasional contact with the juvenile from June 3, 2003, to August 7, 2003, when the juvenile was placed with C[.I.]
. . .
12. T.A.T. has been in a placement outside of Respondent L[.M.T.]'s home continuously since the adjudication on May 6, 2002. . . .
13. In referring to the juvenile, Respondent L[.M.T.] testified that it was alright if she got her back, but that it was also alright if she did not have the child returned to her because the juvenile was being taken care of.
14. During her testimony, Respondent L[.M.T.] exhibited no understanding of why her children were removed from her home though sheconsented to the adjudication of neglect on May 6, 2002.
15. Respondent L[.M.T.] has not cooperated with RCDSS. Respondent L[.M.T.] has refused to release psychological and medical records to the RCDSS. In February 2004, Respondent L[.M.T.] told the RCDSS not to contact her anymore. She also told the RCDSS that she was not ready to care for her child.
16. Respondent L[.M.T.] testified that she did not have any income and had been residing with a friend for approximately seven (7) months. She testified to living at the Salvation Army and with strangers for the past two (2) years because her family would not allow her to stay with them.
17. Respondent L[.M.T.] had one (1) visit with the juvenile at the RCDSS on or about June 17, 2004, after appearing in Court to answer the Petition to terminate her parental rights to the juvenile. During the visit, Respondent L[.M.T.] had little interaction with the juvenile and did not play with her. Respondent L[.M.T.] spent a lot of the time during the visit speaking with Social Worker Beverly Dupree about relinquishing her parental rights so the child could be adopted. After the visit, the child regressed [to] behaviors previously exhibited before coming back into foster care, including excessive crying, soiling herself, and hitting others. The juvenile's behavior has since improved again.
Based upon these facts, the court concluded that [r]espondent L[.M.T.] has neglected [T.A.T.] within the meaning of North Carolina General Statutes Section 7B-101, and there is a likelihood that such neglect will continue.
In challenging the court's adjudication of neglect, respondent notes that RCDSS adduced no evidence at the termination hearing that she continues to fail to have food in the home, that she continues to fail to take T[.A.T.] for medical treatment when thechild has difficulty breathing, or that she continues to keep open containers of kerosene in the room with the juvenile.
We find no merit to respondent's argument. At the time of the termination hearing, T.A.T. had been removed from her care and custody more than two years, based upon an adjudication of neglect in March of 2002. In this circumstance, N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B- 1111(a)(1) does not require RCDSS to show that respondent was continuing to neglect T.A.T. in the manner which led to the child's removal from her home:
Where, as here, a child has not been in the custody of the parent for a significant period of time prior to the termination hearing, the trial court must employ a different kind of analysis to determine whether the evidence supports a finding of neglect. This is because requiring the petitioner in such circumstances to show that the child is currently neglected by the parent would make termination of parental rights impossible. The determinative factors must be the best interests of the child and the fitness of the parent to care for the child at the time of the termination proceeding. Although prior adjudications of neglect may be admitted and considered by the trial court, they will rarely be sufficient, standing alone, to support a termination of parental rights, since the petition must establish that neglect exists at the time of hearing. Thus, the trial court must also consider evidence of changed conditions in light of the history of neglect by the parent and the probability of a repetition of neglect. In addition, visitation by the parent is a relevant factor in such cases.
In re Shermer, 156 N.C. App. 281, 286-87, 576 S.E.2d 403, 407 (2003) (emphasis omitted) (citations omitted).
As found by the district court, respondent consented to the original adjudication of neglect on the grounds alleged by RCDSS,including her failure to have food in the house and failure to obtain medication treatment for T.A.T.'s severe respiratory infection. She expressly declined to seek reunification with T.A.T. and took no steps to cooperate with RCDSS toward that end. Respondent refused to grant RCDSS access to her medical and psychiatric records, asked RCDSS not to contact her regarding the child, and failed to attend hearings related to T.A.T's custody and permanent placement plan. Respondent did not obtain employment or stable housing, had no income, and made no effort to maintain a relationship with T.A.T. beyond occasional contact during the six-month period in 2003 when the child was living with C.I. Respondent attended one visit with T.A.T. in June of 2004, but paid little attention to the child and spent the majority of the time discussing the relinquishment of her parental rights with the social worker. Moreover, at the termination hearing, respondent displayed no understanding of the reasons for the child's removal from her custody. She claimed her psychiatric commitment had been voluntary, stating, I don't have a mental problem. I never did. Respondent also testified, [i]f I get T[.A.T.] back, it's fine. If I don't get [her] back, it's fine. The district court did not err in concluding that respondent neglected T.A.T. and that such neglect was likely to continue. See e.g., In re Yocum, 158 N.C. App. 198, 204, 580 S.E.2d 399, 403, per curiam aff'd, 357 N.C. 568, 597 S.E.2d 674 (2003); In re Humphrey, 156 N.C. App. 533, 540-41, 577 S.E.2d 421, 427 (2003). Because the district court properly found grounds for terminating respondent's parental rights under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1111(a)(1), we need not review the remaining grounds found by the court. See In re Moore, 306 N.C. 394, 404, 293 S.E.2d 127, 132-33 (1982); In re Taylor, 97 N.C. App. 57, 64, 387 S.E.2d 230, 233-34 (1990).
Respondent next claims that the district court abused its discretion by electing to terminate her parental rights. Having found grounds for termination under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1111(a) at the adjudicatory stage, the court was required at the dispositional stage to terminate respondent's parental rights unless the court shall further determine that the best interests of the juvenile require that the parental rights of the parent not be terminated. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1110(a) (2003); In re Parker, 90 N.C. App. 423, 431, 368 S.E.2d 879, 884 (1988). In support of its disposition, the district court made additional findings that T.A.T. has flourished in her adoptive foster placement and that her need for a permanent plan of care at the earliest possible age could be met only by termination of respondent's rights. In light of the uncontested facts of this case, we find no abuse of the court's discretion. See In re McMillon, 143 N.C. App. 402, 408, 546 S.E.2d 169, 174, disc. review denied, 354 N.C. 218, 554 S.E.2d 341 (2001).
Chief Judge MARTIN and Judge STEELMAN concur.
Report per Rule 30(e).
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