IN THE MATTER OF A.N.L. Harnett County
No. 03 J 119
E. Marshall Woodall for petitioner-appellee Harnett County
Department of Social Services.
Elizabeth Boone for guardian ad litem.
Jon W. Myers for respondent-appellant.
S.R.S. (respondent), the biological mother of A.N.L. (the minor child), appeals from an order terminating her parental rights to the minor child. We affirm.
The Harnett County Department of Social Services (D.S.S.) became involved with respondent and A.W.L., the minor child's father, after 15 March 2000 when A.J.L., a sibling of the minor child, sustained multiple fractures to his skull and right arm. A physician subsequently diagnosed A.J.L. as a battered child, suffering from failure to thrive. The district court adjudicated A.J.L. abused and neglected, removed A.J.L. from the custody of respondent and A.W.L., allowed D.S.S. to cease reunification efforts, and permanently placed A.J.L. with a relative. The minor child was subsequently born and lived in the home of respondent and A.W.L. On 12 May 2003, the minor child was treated for a buckle fracture of her right proximal tibia. D.S.S. received a report of neglect. As part of its investigation, a physician examined the minor child and considered respondent's explanation of the minor child's injury that she had broken her leg while jumping out of a playpen. The physician's report stated:
It is possible that even if [the minor child] was not yet walking at the time of her fracture, she may have been able to pull up and climb out of her playpen. It is highly unlikely, however, that this type and location of fracture would result from [the minor child] landing on her feet from such a short distance and in a manner that would be compatible with her young age and delayed gross motor development. Due to these factors, it is highly probable that [the minor child] was either dropped or slammed down onto her legs resulting in her proximal tibia buckle fracture. It is possible that [the minor child] may have been accidentally dropped, but the past history of significant inflicted trauma to her older sibling makes it very concerning that [the minor child's] injury may have been non-accidental/inflicted.
Based on this report and other evidence, D.S.S. filed a juvenile petition, which in addition to referencing the above incident also alleged drug use and domestic violence within the household. The trial court granted D.S.S. non-secure custody, and the parties stipulated, inter alia, that the minor child
is a neglected juvenile in that she lived in an environment potentially injurious to her welfare by the fact [A.J.L.] suffered abuse while living in the home of the parents and the makeup of the household remained the same after [the minor child] was born. Neither parent received any services to alleviate theconditions which led to the removal of [A.J.L.]
Pursuant to this stipulation and the physician's report, the trial court adjudicated the minor child neglected. The trial court then proceeded to a temporary disposition hearing and deferred the final disposition until it received parental evaluation reports. The trial court subsequently received respondent's parental evaluation report, which revealed she suffered from alcohol abuse, post traumatic stress disorder, adjustment disorder with depression and personality disorder, and battered women's syndrome. After receiving the reports, the trial court conducted a disposition hearing, awarded full custody of the minor child to D.S.S., and relieved D.S.S. of further efforts to reunite the child with respondent and A.W.L. D.S.S. subsequently moved to terminate respondent's and A.W.L.'s parental rights to the minor child. The trial court granted the motion as to both respondent and A.W.L; however, only respondent appeals.
On appeal, we initially address respondent's argument that the trial court erred in failing to comply with the time requirements set forth in N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1109(e) (2003), which states:
The court shall take evidence, find the facts, and shall adjudicate the existence or nonexistence of any of the circumstances set forth in G.S. 7B-1111 which authorize the termination of parental rights of the respondent. The adjudicatory order shall be reduced to writing, signed, and entered no later than 30 days following the completion of the termination of parental rights hearing. (See footnote 1)
In the case sub judice, the termination of parental rights hearing ended on 8 October 2004; however, the adjudicatory order was not entered until 30 November 2004, approximately 53 days later. Respondent argues that this delay was violative of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1109(e) and that she need not prove prejudice because the violation of the statute is error per se. A panel of this Court has recently reaffirmed our holdings that we need not reverse, per se, for a violation of the statutory timelines; rather, in order to warrant reversal, respondent must show prejudice resulting from the delay. In re C.J.B., __ N.C. App. __, __, 614 S.E.2d 368, 369 (2005). Given that respondent has argued no prejudice that resulted from the delay, we hold this assignment of error is without merit.
Respondent next argues that the trial court committed plain error in admitting prior disposition and permanency planning orders into evidence when the earlier orders were entered under a lower evidentiary standard than a termination of parental rights adjudication. At trial, respondent did not object to the admission of the prior orders and now attempts to argue that their admission amounted to plain error. This Court has held that the plain error doctrine is inapplicable in civil cases. In re L.M.C., __ N.C. App. __, __, 613 S.E.2d 256, 257-58 (2005). Accordingly, this assignment of error is without merit. Respondent next argues that the trial court substituted findings from different hearings for its own independent review[,] depriving [respondent] of the opportunity for a fair hearing. The assignments of error that respondent cites as encompassing this argument merely state that the applicable findings of fact are not supported by competent evidence. These assignments of error are insufficient to raise respondent's argument. We, therefore, hold that this issue is beyond the scope of appellate review. See N.C. R. App. P. 10(a) (2005) (the scope of review on appeal is confined to a consideration of those assignments of error set out in the record on appeal in accordance with this Rule 10).
Moreover, insofar as respondent argues that [i]n the present case D.S.S. presented no evidence from which the trial court could have independently found these findings, the trial court did not err. Our Supreme Court has held that earlier adjudication orders may be admitted and considered by the trial court in a termination of parental rights proceeding. In re Ballard, 311 N.C. 708, 713-14, 319 S.E.2d 227, 231 (1984). Furthermore, in the case sub judice respondent specifically stipulated to the challenged findings, and the trial court terminated respondent's parental rights based not only upon neglect but also upon the uncontested ground that respondent failed to pay a reasonable portion of the minor child's costs. Accordingly, the trial court did not impermissibly rely solely upon a prior adjudication of neglect as a basis for terminating respondent's parental rights. See Matter of Allred, 122 N.C. App. 561, 564-65, 471 S.E.2d 84, 86 (1996)([t]he trial court must make an independent determination of whether neglect authorizing termination of parental rights exists at the time of the termination hearing and may not treat a prior adjudication of neglect as determinative of the ultimate issue). This assignment of error is, therefore, without merit.
Respondent also argues that the trial court erred in concluding that grounds existed to terminate her parental rights based on neglect. Termination of parental rights involves both an adjudicatory stage and a dispositional stage. In re Blackburn, 142 N.C. App. 607, 610, 543 S.E.2d 906, 908 (2001). In the adjudicatory stage, the petitioner must prove by clear, cogent, and convincing evidence one of the grounds for termination of parental rights in N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1111 (2005). On appeal from the adjudicatory stage, we consider whether the trial court's findings of fact are supported by clear, cogent, and convincing evidence and whether those findings support its conclusions of law. In re Huff, 140 N.C. App. 288, 291, 536 S.E.2d 838, 840 (2000).
In the case sub judice, the trial court granted D.S.S.'s motion to terminate respondent's parental rights based upon two statutory grounds under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1111, which states in pertinent part:
(a) The court may terminate the parental rights upon a finding of one or more of the following: (1) The parent has . . . neglected the juvenile. The juvenile shall be deemed to be . . . neglected if the court finds the juvenile to be . . . a neglected juvenile within the meaning of G.S. 7B-101. [§ 7B-101 states that a neglected juvenile is 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.] . . . (3) The juvenile has been placed in the custody of a county department or social services . . . and the parent, for a continuous period of six months next preceding the filing of the petition or motion, has willfully failed for such period to pay a reasonable portion of the cost of care for the juvenile although physically and financially able to do so.
This Court has held a finding of any one of the grounds enumerated in N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1111 is sufficient to terminate a respondent's parental rights. In re Yocum, 158 N.C. App. 198, 203, 580 S.E.2d 399, 403 (2003). Although respondent has assigned error to the trial court's conclusion of law 4, in her brief she argues that assignment of error only in relation to the trial court's determination that grounds exist to terminate her parental rights based on neglect. She raises no argument in opposition to the trial court's determination that grounds exist to terminate her parental rights based on her failure to pay a reasonable portion of the cost of care for the minor child. Therefore, respondent's assignment of error as it relates to whether the trial court erred in determining grounds exist to terminate respondent's parentalrights based on her failure to pay a reasonable portion of the minor child's costs is abandoned pursuant to N.C. R. App. P. 28(b)(6) (2005). Accordingly, this ground for termination of respondent's parental rights is conclusively established, and we need not address respondent's assignment of error that the trial court erred in concluding that grounds exist to terminate her parental rights based on neglect of the minor child. See In re S.B.M., __ N.C. App. __, __, 619 S.E.2d 583, 585 (2005).
We next consider respondent's assignment of error that the trial court abused its discretion in determining that termination of her parental rights was in the best interests of the minor child. In the dispositional phase of a termination of parental rights proceeding, a trial court considers the best interests of a child. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1110 (2005). On review from the dispositional phase, this Court considers whether the trial court abused its discretion in terminating the appellant's parental rights. In re Blackburn, 142 N.C. App. at 614, 543 S.E.2d at 911. The trial court made findings, which we hold are supported by clear, cogent, and convincing evidence, that the minor child lived in an environment potentially injurious to her welfare by the fact [A.J.L.] suffered abuse while living in the home of the parents and the makeup of the household remained the same after [the minor child] was born. Additionally, the trial court found, also supported by clear, cogent, and convincing evidence, that [n]either parent received any services to alleviate the conditions which led to the removal of [A.J.L.] Furthermore, the trial courtmade findings, supported by clear, cogent, and convincing evidence, that respondent suffers from post traumatic stress disorder, alcohol abuse, adjustment disorder with depression and personality disorder, and battered women's syndrome. Based on these and related findings, we hold that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in determining that terminating respondent's parental rights was in the minor child's best interests.
Since grounds existed to terminate respondent's parental rights based on the unchallenged conclusion that respondent failed to pay a reasonable portion of the cost of care for the minor child and that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in determining that terminating respondent's parental rights was in the minor child's best interests, we need not address respondent's other arguments on appeal.
Moreover, since respondent has failed to raise her remaining assignments of error on appeal, we deem them abandoned pursuant to N.C. R. App. P. 28(b)(6) (2005).
Judges BRYANT and JOHN concur.
Report per Rule 30(e).
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