Appeal by respondent from orders entered 8 October 2004, 12
November 2004, and 13 January 2005
by Judge Marcia K. Stewart in
Harnett County District Court. Heard in the Court of Appeals 11
E. Marshall Woodall for petitioner-appellee.
Michael J. Reece for respondent-appellant.
Elizabeth Boone for guardian ad litem.
The respondent mother of the three minor children _ M.H.
("Matt"), L.C. ("Lucy"), and K.H. ("Keith") _ appeals orders
adjudicating Matt and Lucy as abused and all three children as
(See footnote 1)
Respondent primarily argues that the trial court erred
by finding that efforts to reunify respondent and her children
would be futile and by ordering, on the same day, that the Harnett
County Department of Social Services ("DSS") be released from
making further reunification efforts. Based upon our review of therecord, we hold that the trial court's findings of fact not
assigned as error on appeal support the trial court's determination
that reunification is not in the best interests of the children.
Further, respondent has failed to demonstrate that the trial court
abused its discretion in ordering that DSS be released from further
reunification efforts. Accordingly, we affirm.
On 30 April 2004, DSS filed a juvenile petition regarding
respondent's children. At that time, Matt was four months old,
Lucy was one year old, and Keith was two years old. DSS alleged
that Matt was an abused juvenile, stating that respondent had
inflicted or allowed to be inflicted on Matt serious physical
injuries, including a skull fracture, old and new subdural
hematomas, and old and new rib fractures. DSS stated that it had
been advised that Matt was a victim of "shaken baby syndrome." DSS
additionally alleged that Lucy and Keith were neglected juveniles
in that they lived in an environment injurious to their welfare,
citing the injuries to Matt. A non-secure custody order was
entered, and the children were removed from respondent's home.
An adjudication and disposition hearing was held on 7 October
2004. Following the hearing, on 8 October 2004, a memorandum order
was entered finding that Matt and Lucy were abused juveniles and
that all three children were neglected. The court awarded full
custody of the children to DSS, ceased visitation with respondent,
and released DSS from further efforts to reunite the children with
respondent. A permanency planning review hearing was held on 12 November
2004, and, on the same day, a Permanency Planning Order was
entered. The trial court ordered that a plan of adoption be
established as the permanent plan for the children, based on its
findings in the prior memorandum order and on further findings that
DSS had offered appropriate services, that the court had determined
that further reunification efforts were futile, and that respondent
had made no further progress to improve her parental abilities and
On 13 January 2005, the court entered a full adjudication and
dispositional order, including specific findings of fact regarding
the evidence presented at the initial adjudication hearing and
concluding, consistent with the memorandum order, that Matt and
Lucy were abused and that all three children were neglected. The
court made further, separate findings regarding the proper
disposition, including a finding that "[f]urther effort on behalf
of the petitioner to reunify the children with [respondent] is
deemed futile; a return of these children to their mother would be
against their welfare." The court concluded that "[t]he plan for
the children should be placement with others."
Respondent first argues that the evidence was not sufficient
to support the trial court's findings in the memorandum order and
the January 2005 order that further reunification efforts would be
futile. We review a trial court's findings of fact to determine
whether they are supported by competent evidence; if so, they arebinding on appeal, even if there is evidence that would support a
finding to the contrary. In re Weiler
, 158 N.C. App. 473, 477, 581
S.E.2d 134, 137 (2003). When, as in this case, a respondent has
not assigned error to specific findings of fact, those findings are
deemed supported by competent evidence and are conclusive on
appeal. Koufman v. Koufman
, 330 N.C. 93, 97, 408 S.E.2d 729, 731
Here, the trial court found that DSS first became involved
with respondent in January 2004, because she was leaving her
children _ an infant and two toddlers _ unattended. The trial
court further made extensive findings, with respect to the period
from January 2004 until the children were removed from her care on
28 April 2004, regarding (1) Matt's suffering numerous severe
injuries that were caused by non-accidental trauma and were
consistent with shaken baby syndrome and (2) Lucy's having an
abnormal hymen strongly suggestive of penetrating hymeneal trauma
that required very significant force. The court noted that the
mother had no plausible explanations for the injuries to Matt and
Lucy and had "failed to see or recognize any distress or problems
experienced by [Matt] until he stopped breathing on April 28,
The court made numerous other findings of fact regarding (1)
respondent's failure to obtain proper medical care for the children
even when, as one example, Matt was unable to drink formula for a
week; (2) additional less severe injuries of Keith and Matt; (3)
respondent's failure to properly care for the children with respectto car seats and clothing; and (4) respondent's failure to ensure
that the children were properly supervised, including leaving the
children unattended or with individuals whom she knew could be
violent, who might drop Matt, or whom she did not know well.
The court found: "The mother testified she didn't know
anything about any injuries to her children; she wasn't there all
the time. She further stated she expected people to take care of
the kids." With respect to services offered as a result of the
January 2004 report of improper supervision, the court found "[t]he
mother failed to take free advantage of all the services made
available." Finally, the court found "[t]he court has had the
opportunity to observe the mother during the trial and especially
during her testimony. Her attitude is not one of cooperation with
those who are trying to help her and her children."
The trial court's findings of fact amply support its
determination that further reunification efforts would be futile.
See In re M.J.G.
, 168 N.C. App. 638, 649, 608 S.E.2d 813, 820
(2005) (finding reunification efforts futile where the trial court
found the mother failed to utilize offered services); In re D.J.D.
171 N.C. App. 230, 238, 615 S.E.2d 26, 32 (2005) (finding
reunification efforts futile where respondent had not cooperated
with DSS). Accordingly, this assignment of error is overruled.
Respondent next argues that the trial court erred by ordering
that DSS be released from further efforts to reunite the children
with her on the same day that the children were adjudicatedneglected and/or abused. Under North Carolina law, there is no
requirement that adjudications of neglect or abuse be made separate
from orders ceasing reunification efforts.
Reunification efforts may be terminated if the court makes
written findings of fact that "[s]uch efforts clearly would be
futile or would be inconsistent with the juvenile's health, safety,
and need for a safe, permanent home within a reasonable period of
time." N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-507(b)(1) (2005). Respondent does not
suggest that the trial court failed to make the necessary findings,
but rather contends that it is "fundamentally unfair and wholly at
odds with the spirit of the North Carolina Juvenile Code to cease
efforts to reunify a family before the efforts can truly have
begun." That argument is one better presented to the General
Assembly, the policymaking body for the State.
While respondent urges that the trial court should have
ordered concurrent efforts to reunify the family while
simultaneously developing an alternate plan should reunification
fail, we review a trial court's dispositional order for abuse of
N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-903 (2005) (leaving
dispositional alternatives to the discretion of the trial court).
Based on the trial court's findings of fact in this case _ binding
on appeal _ and our own review of the record, the trial court's
disposition does not appear manifestly unreasonable and, therefore,
we are compelled to affirm the trial court's order. See State v.
, 334 N.C. 252, 261, 432 S.E.2d 314, 318 (1993) (for a
trial court's decision to be an abuse of discretion, it must havebeen "manifestly unsupported by reason").
Chief Judge MARTIN and Judge BRYANT concur.
Report per Rule 30(e).