IN RE: S.R.W. Yancey County
No. 04 J 40
Hockaday & Hockaday, P.A., by Daniel M. Hockaday, for Yancey
County Department of Social Services, petitioner-appellee.
Hunton & Williams LLP, by Bryan A. Powell, for Guardian ad Litem.
Michael E. Casterline, for respondent-appellant.
Respondent-mother M.L.R appeals from the district court's
order terminating her parental rights to the minor child S.R.W.
Although the order also terminated the parental rights of
respondent-father R.B.W., he is not a party to the instant appeal.
The Yancey County Department of Social Services (DSS) obtained non-secure custody of newborn S.R.W. on 30 July 2004, after filing a petition alleging that he was a dependent and neglected juvenile as defined by North Carolina General Statutes, section 7B-101(9), (15) (2005). DSS placed the child with his maternal grandparents. On 29 September 2004, the district court entered an adjudication of dependency and neglect, upon finding by clear, cogent and convincing evidence: [T]hat the juvenile lived in an environment injurious to the juvenile's welfare and that the juvenile's parents were unable to provide for the juvenile's care or supervision and lacked an appropriate childcare arrangement in that there had been issues of domestic violence prior to the birth of the child which had not yet been resolved, the same of which resulted in pending criminal charges against the respondent father, the most recent incident occurring in July, 2004; that the respondent parents have not adequately addressed prior issues of domestic violence and substance abuse . . .; that [DSS] recently had custody of an older half sibling and guardianship was awarded to the maternal grandparents of that juvenile.
The district court ordered that custody and placement authority remain with DSS, with placement of S.R.W. continuing with the maternal grandparents. The district court awarded respondent- mother visitation in the grandparents' home, and ordered her to complete parenting classes, maintain suitable housing and employment, refrain from domestic violence or other illegal behavior, and attend and pay for individual counseling . . . and follow any recommendations from that counseling[.]
Based upon respondents' lack of compliance with the 29 September 2004 order, the district court relieved DSS of further efforts toward reunification on 27 January 2005. The district court found that respondent_mother had failed to attend individual counseling, lacked suitable housing, and was unemployed. Her visitation with S.R.W. was suspended, and the permanent plan was changed from reunification with his parents to guardianship with his maternal grandparents, with a concurrent plan of adoption by the grandparents. The district court again ordered respondent-mother to participate in parenting classes and individual counseling, maintain suitable housing and employment, and refrain from acts of domestic violence or illegal activity.
On 13 March 2005, the district court changed S.R.W.'s permanent plan to adoption by the maternal grandparents with a concurrent plan of guardianship. Although respondent-mother advised the court that she had begun parenting classes, was employed, and was scheduled to begin individual counseling, the district court found these facts insufficient to warrant the resumption of reunification efforts.
DSS filed a motion to terminate the parental rights of S.R.W.'s parents on 12 July 2005. Following a hearing held 16 November 2005, the district court concluded that respondent-mother had neglected S.R.W. and had willfully left him in a placement outside the home for more than twelve months without making reasonable progress towards correcting the conditions which led to his placement. See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1111(a)(1), (2) (2005). In addition, the district found by clear, cogent and convincing evidence that:
. . . [T]he juvenile was removed from the care of these respondent parents on or about 30 July, 2004 for issues of substance abuse from the respondent father . . . and because of a history of domestic violence which had occurred between the [father] and the respondent mother M[.L.R]. . . . That as to the respondent mother . . ., the Court finds she has . . . failed to address those issues which led to the removal of the juvenile from her care in July, 2004 by failing to . . . maintain a stable residence and employment . . . ; fail[ing] to timely complete parenting classes . . . ; fail[ing] to completeadditional parenting classes as recommended by Sue Wold, the instructor for the first of parenting classes; . . . fail[ing] to consistently attend and make adequate progress in her individual counseling . . .; [and] fail[ing] to consistently attend visitations with the minor child, attending approximately one-half of the same until these visitations were suspended 10 January, 2005[.]
The district court also found the existence of three grounds for termination of respondent-father's parental rights pursuant to North Carolina General Statutes, section 7B-1111(a)(1), (2), and (5).
In support of its disposition terminating respondents' parental rights, the district court found the following additional facts:
. . . [S.R.W.] has lived in one placement since his birth, a period of 16 months; that the juvenile is doing well in this placement; that the respondent parents have had no contact with or visitation with the minor child for a period of more than 10 months; that the respondent mother's contact with her older two children is now limited to visitations in the home of the maternal grandparents as the custody of these children have been awarded to their natural father . . .; that the maternal grandparents, who have provided for the exclusive care of the juvenile since his birth, desire to adopt the juvenile; . . . that terminating the parental rights of the respondent parents would assist Yancey DSS in . . . providing for a safe, permanent home for the juvenile within a reasonable period of time.
The district court then concluded that it is in the best interests of the juvenile that the parental rights of the respondents . . . be terminated. See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1110(a) (2005). Respondent-mother appeals from the 27 December 2005 orderterminating her parental rights. On 3 October 2006, this Court granted respondent-mother's petition for writ of certiorari to review the district court's 27 December 2005 order.
On appeal, respondent-mother assigns error to the district court's decision to terminate her parental rights, claiming that termination of her parental rights was not necessary to achieve a permanent plan of care for [S.R.W.] Citing the policy against unnecessary severance of the parent-child relationship expressed in North Carolina General Statutes, section 7B-1100(2) (2005), she argues the court could have provided a safe, permanent home to S.R.W. without terminating her parental rights, but instead by simply awarding guardianship to the maternal grandparents. Beyond her references to the general purposes of the Juvenile Code, however, respondent-mother cites no authority to support her argument. N.C. R. App. P. 28(b)(6) (2006).
Initially, we note that respondent-mother misstates the applicable standard of review claiming that the decision to terminate her rights is reviewed de novo. It is well-established that, once grounds for termination under section 7B-1111(a) are shown, the district court's decision to terminate an individual's parental rights is reviewed only for an abuse of discretion. In re J.B., 172 N.C. App. 1, 24, 616 S.E.2d 264, 278 (2005) (citing In re Nolen, 117 N.C. App. 693, 700, 453 S.E.2d 220, 225 (1995)). Respondent-mother has not assigned error to any of the district court's findings of fact or conclusions of law, including its conclusions that grounds for termination exist under section 7B-1111(a)(1) and (2). See Koufman v. Koufman, 330 N.C. 93, 97, 408 S.E.2d 729, 731 (1991) (deeming unchallenged findings to be binding on appeal); In re Faircloth, 153 N.C. App. 565, 581, 571 S.E.2d 65, 75 (2002) (upholding termination based upon the respondent's failure to argue against certain grounds found by the district court). Nor has she assigned error to the conclusion that termination of her parental rights is in the best interests of S.R.W. See generally In re Helms, 127 N.C. App. 505, 511, 491 S.E.2d 672, 676 (1997) ([B]est interest determinations are conclusions of law because they require the exercise of judgment.). Accordingly, we must uphold the district court's disposition unless it is manifestly unsupported by reason. In re J.A.A. & S.A.A., 175 N.C. App. 66, 75, 623 S.E.2d 45, 51 (2005).
It is true that one purpose of the Juvenile Code is to protect all juveniles from the unnecessary severance of a relationship with biological or legal parents. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1100(2) (2005). However, another avowed purpose of the Code is to recognize the necessity for any juvenile to have a permanent plan of care at the earliest possible age. Id. Moreover, the fundamental principle underlying North Carolina's approach to controversies involving child neglect and custody [is] that the best interest of the child is the polar star. In re Montgomery, 311 N.C. 101, 109, 316 S.E.2d 246, 251 (1984); see also N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-100 (2005). When the interests of the child and parent are in conflict, the child's interest must prevail. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1100(3) (2005). With these principles in mind, we find no abuse of discretion by the district court. The evidence at the termination hearing showed that respondent-mother failed to consistently attend her court-ordered visitation with S.R.W., she failed to demonstrate meaningful efforts or progress towards reunification, she was non- cooperative with DSS, and she continued her relationship with respondent-father despite his ongoing criminal activity and his failure to address any of the issues which led to S.R.W.'s removal from the parents' care. Beth Harmon, Supervisor for Foster Care and Adoptions for DSS, opined that the child's best interest would be served by his adoption by the maternal grandparents, rather than guardianship. She noted that S.R.W. has resided with the grandparents since the day he left the hospital and has thrived in their care. The child's maternal grandmother confirmed to the court that she and her husband wished to adopt S.R.W. Although she and her husband were guardians of respondent-mother's seven year old son, C.J., she explained that she wanted S.R.W. to avoid the feelings of insecurity, instability and wanting to be fit in somewhere that his older brother had experienced.
The district court's emphasis on S.R.W.'s need for a permanent home was consistent with the legislative intent expressed in section 7B-1100(2). Although legal guardians enjoy certain protections under North Carolina General Statutes, section 7B- 600(b) (2005), an award of guardianship does not provide the same degree of finality as adoption and would be subject to a possible later challenge by respondent-mother. See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-906(b) (2005); compare N.C. Gen. Stat. § 48-1-106 (2005) (setting forth legal rights of adoptees). While we have found termination to be contrary to the best interests of a child who had no other family ties and no reasonable prospects for adoption, In re J.A.O., 166 N.C. App. 222, 227-28, 601 S.E.2d 226, 230 (2004), the facts of this case fully support the judgment of the district court. Respondent-mother's assignment of error is therefore overruled.
Judges STEPHENS and STROUD concur.
Report per Rule 30(e).
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