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All opinions are subject to modification and technical correction prior to official publication in the North Carolina Reports and North Carolina Court of Appeals Reports. In the event of discrepancies between the electronic version of an opinion and the print version appearing in the North Carolina Reports and North Carolina Court of Appeals Reports, the latest print version is to be considered authoritative.
IN THE MATTER OF: D.S., S.S., F.S., M.M., M.S.
Filed: 4 April 2006
Termination of Parental Rights--timeliness of order--prejudicial error
The trial court erred by failing to reduce its order terminating respondent's parental rights
to writing, sign, and enter it within the statutorily prescribed time period under N.C.G.S. § 7B-
1111(a), and the trial court's order is reversed and remanded because the delay of over six
months to enter the adjudication and disposition order prejudiced all parties.
Appeal by respondent mother from order entered 22 September
2004 by Judge J.H. Corpening, II, in New Hanover County District
Court. Heard in the Court of Appeals 15 March 2006.
No brief filed for petitioner-appellee New Hanover County
Department of Social Services.
Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, PLLC, by Murray C. Greason,
III, for petitioner-appellee Guardian ad Litem.
Lisa Skinner Lefler, for respondent-appellant.
S.S. (respondent) appeals from order entered terminating her
parental rights to her minor children, D.S., S.S., F.S., M.M., and
M.S. We reverse and remand.
On 5 October 2001, a non-secure custody order was entered for
legal custody of respondent's five minor children. Respondent's
three oldest children were placed in foster care.
Respondent appeared pro se at the 8 October 2001 hearing on
the need for continued non-secure custody of the three oldest
children. Respondent denied allegations of neglect and asserted itwas in her children's best interests to reside in her home or in
the home of her children's great grandparents. Respondent
requested assistance of counsel. The court ordered the three
oldest children remain in non-secure custody of the New Hanover
County Department of Social Services (DSS).
On 13 December 2001, the adjudication hearing was held.
Respondent was represented by counsel. The court concluded
respondent's five children were neglected and dependent.
A review hearing was held on 7 March 2002. The court
permitted the return of respondent's two youngest children to her
home. Respondent's three oldest children remained in non-secure
On 23 May 2002, the court convened a hearing for review of the
prior order. To reunify her family, respondent was ordered to:
(1) complete her GED; (2) satisfy the requirements of the Work
First Program; (3) obtain a psychological evaluation; and (4)
cooperate with DSS to assure her children's mental health needs
were met. The court concluded the legal custody of her five
children remain with DSS for continued placement of her three
oldest children. The court ordered the children not to be in the
presence of their maternal great-grandfather.
On 15 August 2002, the court: (1) determined respondent
failed to satisfy the obligations contained in the prior order; (2)
granted physical custody of the two youngest children to DSS; and
(3) retained the cause for a permanency planning hearing. On 21 November 2002, the court convened a permanency planning
hearing. The court concluded, the permanent plan for the above-
named children shall be adoption.
On 30 September 2003, DSS petitioned to terminate respondent's
parental rights. The termination hearing was held 16 and 17
February 2004 and the court terminated respondent's parental
rights. The trial court reduced its order to writing and signed it
on 22 September 2004. Respondent appeals.
Respondent argues the trial court erred by: (1) failing to
reduce its order to writing within the statutorily prescribed time
limit; (2) terminating her parental rights in the absence of clear,
cogent, and convincing evidence; and (3) terminating her parental
rights when it was not in the best interests of the minor children.
III. Standard of Review
On appeal, our standard of review for the termination of
parental rights is whether the trial court's findings of fact are
based upon clear, cogent and convincing evidence and whether the
findings support the conclusions of law. In re Baker, 158 N.C.
App. 491, 493, 581 S.E.2d 144, 146 (2003) (citations and internal
The trial court's conclusions of law are reviewable de novo
on appeal. Starco, Inc. v. AMG Bonding and Ins. Servs., 124 N.C.
App. 332, 336, 477 S.E.2d 211, 215 (1996).
IV. Order in Writing
Respondent argues the trial court erred when it failed to
reduce its order to writing, sign, and enter it within the
statutorily prescribed time period. We agree.
N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1111(a) (2005) provides, [a]ny order
shall be reduced to writing, signed, and entered no later than 30
days following the completion of the termination of parental rights
This Court has previously stated that absent a
showing of prejudice, the trial court's
failure to reduce to writing, sign, and enter
a termination order beyond the thirty day time
window may be harmless error. See In re
J.L.K., 165 N.C. App. 311, 315, 598 S.E.2d
387, 390 (2004) (order entered eighty-nine
days after the hearing), disc. rev. denied,
359 N.C. 68, 604 S.E.2d 314 (2004).
In re L.E.B., K.T.B., 169 N.C. App. 375, 378-79, 610 S.E.2d 424,
426, disc. rev. denied, 359 N.C. 632, 616 S.E.2d 538 (2005).
This Court has held a delay of the entry of order of six
months was prejudicial to respondent-mother, the minors, and the
foster parent. Id. at 380, 610 S.E.2d at 427.
Respondent-mother, the minors, and the foster
parent did not receive an immediate, final
decision in a life altering situation for all
parties. Respondent-mother could not appeal
until entry of the order. If adoption
becomes the ordered permanent plan for the
minors, the foster parent must wait even
longer to commence the adoption proceedings.
The minors are prevented from settling into a
permanent family environment until the order
is entered and the time for any appeals has
Id. at 379, 610 S.E.2d at 426.
Here, the termination of parental rights hearing was held on
16 and 17 February 2004. Respondent's trial counsel entered apurported notice of appeal on 8 June 2004 and formally requested
the trial court reduce its order to writing, sign, and enter it.
The trial court reduced its order to writing in September 2004.
Although the file-stamp on the termination order is illegible on
the copy in the record on appeal and on the original in the office
of the New Hanover County Clerk of Superior Court, the trial
court's signature line is preceded by a date line. The trial court
marked the date line as 22 September 2004. The order could not
have been entered prior to that date. Id. The trial court failed
to reduce its order to writing until approximately seven months
after the termination hearing.
Respondent argues the delay prejudiced all members of the
family involved, as well as the foster and adoptive parents. By
failing to reduce its order to writing within the statutorily
prescribed time period, the parent and child have lost time
together, the foster parents are in a state of flux, and the
adoptive parents are not able to complete their family plan. The
delay of over six months to enter the adjudication and disposition
order terminating respondent-mother's parental rights prejudiced
all parties, not just respondent-mother. Id. at 380, 610 S.E.2d
This late entry is a clear and egregious violation of both
N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1109(e), N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1110(a), and this
Court's well-established interpretation of the General Assembly's
use of the word 'shall.' Id. at 378, 610 S.E.2d at 426.
The trial court erred when it failed to reduce its order
terminating respondent's parental rights to writing and enter it
within the statutorily prescribed time limit. See In re T
170 N.C. App. 430, 432, 612 S.E.2d 436, 448 (2005) ([T]he trial
court entered its order approximately seven months after the
conclusion of the termination hearing. . . . Therefore, as we
recognized in In re L
., the trial court's failure to enter its
termination order in a timely manner affected not only respondent,
but also Thomas, his foster parents, and his potential adoptive
parents.). This trial court's order is reversed, and this case is
remanded. In light of our decision, we do not address respondent's
remaining assignments of error.
Reversed and remanded.
Judges MCCULLOUGH and LEVINSON concur.
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