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An unpublished opinion of the North Carolina Court of Appeals does not constitute controlling legal authority. Citation is disfavored, but may be permitted in accordance with the provisions of Rule 30(e)(3) of the North Carolina Rules of Appellate Procedure.

NO. COA07-415


NORTH CAROLINA COURT OF APPEALS

Filed: 7 August 2007

IN THE MATTER OF:
D.D.D.                        Johnston County
S.L.N.                        Nos. 06 JT 110, 06 JT 111

    Appeal by respondent mother from order entered 19 February 2007 by Judge Edward H. McCormick in Johnston County District Court. Heard in the Court of Appeals 23 July 2007.

    Jennifer S. O'Connor, for petitioner-appellee Johnston County Department of Social Services.

    Mobley Law Office, P.A., by Marie H. Mobley, for guardian ad litem.

    Richard Croutharmel, for respondent-appellant.

    TYSON, Judge.

    T.D. (“respondent”) appeals from order entered terminating her parental rights to her two minor children, D.D.D. and S.L.N (collectively, “the children”). We affirm.

I. Background
    Respondent gave birth to D.D.D. in 1997 and S.L.N. in 2004. On 1 March 2005, Johnston County Department of Social Services (“DSS”) became involved after the children were found inside respondent's home with untreated scabies, rashes, and very little food or baby supplies.
    On 22 March 2005, respondent pled guilty to failing to send D.D.D. to school in violation of the Compulsory School Attendance Law. The trial court placed respondent on probation for two yearsand ordered D.D.D. and S.L.N. to be placed into the custody of DSS. Social Worker Pam Flowers developed a case plan with respondent to address issues of substance abuse, domestic violence, mental health, anger management, employment, and housing.
    On 25 May 2005, at the adjudication hearing, respondent stipulated that the children were neglected and dependent. On 3 August 2005, the trial court held a 90-day review hearing, found that respondent's third child, born on 21 July 2005, had tested positive for cocaine, and placed the baby with a paternal relative. The trial court further found that respondent had made “little progress on her Family Services Case Plan to address the issues which led to the involvement of the [DSS]” and relieved DSS of further efforts towards reunification.
    On 31 August 2005, 7 December 2005, and 1 March 2006, the trial court held permanency planning hearings. The trial court found: (1) respondent initially started, but had not completed the Family Pride Parenting classes in April 2005; (2) respondent had left her independent living arrangement and moved in with her mother and sister; (3) paternity had not been established for the children; and (4) the more appropriate permanency plan was adoption for the children; and (5) terminated visitations between respondent and the children.
     On 4 May 2006, DSS filed petitions to terminate the parental rights of respondent for neglect pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1111(a)(1), for willfully leaving the children in foster care or placement outside of the home for more than twelve months withoutshowing reasonable progress pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1111 (a)(2), and for failing to pay a reasonable portion of the cost of care for the children pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1111 (a)(3).
    In August 2006, the trial court held another permanency planning hearing and found respondent had completed her substance abuse and anger management programs, but had not completed parenting classes or obtained and maintained stable housing.
    On 13 February 2007, the trial court concluded that grounds for termination of respondent's parental rights existed under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1111 (a)(1) and (a)(2). The trial court further concluded that it was in the children's best interests to terminate respondent's parental rights. The trial court also terminated the parental rights of the putative fathers, who do not appeal. Respondent appeals.
II. Issues
    Respondent argues the trial court erred by: (1) terminating her parental rights to the children based upon neglect and (2) concluding as a matter of law that it was in the best interests of the children to terminate her parental rights.
III. Standard of Review
    A trial court may terminate parental rights based upon a finding that “[t]he 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.” N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1111(a)(1) (2005). N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-101(15) defines “neglected juvenile” as:        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. . . .

N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-101(15) (2005). To prove neglect in a termination case, there must be clear and convincing evidence that: (1) the juvenile is neglected within the meaning of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-101(15) and (2) the juvenile has sustained “'some physical, mental, or emotional impairment . . . or [there is] a substantial risk of such impairment as a consequence'” of the neglect. In re Reyes, 136 N.C. App. 812, 814-15, 526 S.E.2d 499, 501 (2000) (quoting In re Safriet, 112 N.C. App. 747, 752, 436 S.E.2d 898, 901-02 (1993)).
    “[A] prior adjudication of neglect may be admitted and considered by the trial court in ruling upon a later petition to terminate parental rights on the ground of neglect.” In re Ballard, 311 N.C. 708, 713-14, 319 S.E.2d 227, 231 (1984). Further, a trial court may also consider evidence of prior adjudications of neglect of a respondent's other children. See In re Allred, 122 N.C. App. 561, 564, 471 S.E.2d 84, 86 (1996) (“[A] respondent will not be prejudiced in a properly conducted hearing by the admission of evidence of the prior abuse of another of respondent's children.”).
    “A finding of neglect sufficient to terminate parental rights must be based on evidence showing neglect at the time of thetermination proceeding.” In re Young, 346 N.C. 244, 248, 485 S.E.2d 612, 615 (1997). “Termination of parental rights for neglect may not be based solely on past conditions which no longer exist.” Id.
    If the child has been removed from the parents' custody before the termination hearing and DSS presents evidence of prior neglect including an adjudication of such neglect, then “[t]he trial court must also consider any evidence of changed conditions in light of the evidence of prior neglect and the probability of a repetition of neglect.” In re Ballard, 311 N.C. at 715, 319 S.E.2d at 232.
        Where there is no evidence of neglect at the time of the termination proceeding . . . parental rights may nonetheless be terminated if there is a showing of a past adjudication of neglect and the trial court finds by clear and convincing evidence a probability of repetition of neglect if the juvenile were returned to [his or] her parents.

In re Reyes, 136 N.C. App. at 814-15, 526 S.E.2d at 501.
IV. Termination of Parental Rights
A. Neglect

    Respondent first contends the trial court erred in finding and concluding sufficient grounds existed in order to terminate her parental rights. We disagree.
    The trial court found the children were neglected within the meaning of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-101(15). To support its conclusion that respondent's parental rights should be terminated pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1111(a)(1), the trial court entered the following findings with respect to the children :        6. On or about March 1, 2005, the JCDSS substantiated that the family was in need of voluntary services, and the case was transferred to the Case Plan and Case Management Unit to address the identified neglect issues in the home, to-wit: the minor children were found to have scabies, for which they were not receiving proper treatment; that the home was also observed to have very little food during various home visits, and supplies, such as formula for the baby, was minimal at times.

        7. On or about March 22, 2005, [respondent] appeared in Johnston County Criminal District Court to address criminal charges relating to the Compulsory School Attendance Law, as school personnel reported that [D.D.D.] was often late for school and would often arrive to school in a taxi cab without any adult supervision. At the conclusion of the criminal case the court found that [respondent] had failed to work to ensure that [D.D.D.] attended school on a regular basis as mandated by law, as [respondent] appeared in open court and pled guilty. The Honorable Judge Jacquelyn L. Lee, judge presiding over the criminal matter, placed [respondent] on probation for two (2) years due to her failure to comply with the Compulsory School Attendance Law and further ordered that the [children] be placed into the custody of [DSS]. Judge Lee further ordered that the children not be placed in the custody of relatives because the current ongoing risk to the children precluded efforts to place them with relatives.

        8. Ms. Pam Flowers, social worker with [DSS], met with [respondent] after the children's removal and developed a Family Services Case Plan to address not only the issues of the removal of the children by Judge Lee but also the previously identified risk issues. During that meeting, [respondent] acknowledged using controlled substances and a history of domestic violence. The court finds that [respondent] informed the social worker she was not a heavy user of controlled substances before the child was removed but increased her usage after the children's removal. [Respondent] further acknowledged that she hadissues of anger management and depression, did not have stable housing and had not completed her education, which she would like to do. [Respondent] further acknowledged that she needed help with her parenting.

        9. [Respondent] was residing with her mother, stepfather, and adult sister . . . when the minor children were placed into the custody of [DSS]. As of March 22, 2005, [DSS] had custody of [respondent's sister's] four children because of their nonattendance at school.

        10. The Adjudication hearing was held on or about May 25, 2005, before the Honorable James Etheridge, judge presiding. [Respondent] was present and by [and] through her attorney consented to an Adjudication of neglect and dependency. The Disposition hearing was held on the same date and pursuant to the order of the Honorable James Etheridge, the child remained in the custody of [DSS] with placement in foster care. [Respondent] was ordered to cooperate with [DSS]. A copy of each order was submitted to the Court and accepted into evidence without objection.

        11. That [DSS] developed a Family Services Case Plan with [respondent] which, as of March 2005, was designed to address the following issues:

        A) Domestic Violence;
        B) Substance Abuse;
        C) Anger Management and Depression;
        E) Employment;
        F) Consistent Housing;
        G) Parenting Skills;
        H) Education.

        . . . .

        16. In September of 2005, [respondent], after completing domestic violence counseling, became involved in a domestic violence altercation with her boyfriend . . . . Although [respondent] initially denied any dispute, she subsequently acknowledged the altercation occurred to her social worker, Pam Flowers. [Respondent] was injured in the dispute, whereby she received variousbruising, however the court finds from [respondent]'s testimony that by the time she informed the social worker, her bruises were no longer relevant. [Respondent] was encouraged by her sister and Pam Flowers to obtain a domestic violence protective order or to press criminal charges; however, [respondent] refused to do so and maintained her relationship with Mr. J, who is the father of her third child. [Respondent] was residing at a mobile home in Smithfield in September 2005, but she was “never there” when the social worker visited the residence. The domestic violence altercation did, however, take place at this residence.

        . . . .

        26. The court further finds that [respondent] is currently engaged to Mr. J, who was the perpetrator of domestic violence on [respondent] and who is the father of her third child. [Respondent] acknowledged that she had maintained her relationship with Mr. J since the September 2005 incident, having separated while Mr. J was in prison but resuming the relationship thereafter. The court further finds from [respondent]'s initial testimony that she intends for Mr. J to be a part of the home in which she wants her children returned to. Mr. J has not sought any domestic violence counseling. Mr. J was recently released from prison; however, [respondent] does not know why he went to prison and has not inquired about that information as she believes it is his business and not hers.

        27. The court further finds that [respondent] has not been forthcoming with regards to her relationship with Mr. J. As she begun her testimony stating that he was her fiancé but by the end of her testimony, she claimed they were no longer together and were merely friends. The court finds that [respondent]'s testimony with regards to the current status of her relationship, being merely “friends” with Mr. J, is not credible.

        . . . .
        29. [Respondent] has never completed a parenting skills program. [Respondent] was terminated from the Family Pride parenting program on three separate occasions for lack of attendance. Although [respondent] initially claimed transportation was an issue, she never sought any assistance from nor notified her social worker that she needed transportation. [Respondent] further paid either family members or friends to take her to work or other places, as her driver's license has been revoked, however, [respondent] failed to utilize their assistance in attending parenting classes.

        30. The court further finds that [respondent] claimed she was not able to attend [parenting classes] due to conflicts with her work schedule as well as other programs that she was attending. The court finds; however, that prior to the March 1, 2006 hearing, [respondent] was employed at KFC, however her hours were drastically cut. [Respondent] did not utilize that time to complete any of her programs to resolve the protective issues. The court further finds that [respondent] completed her substance abuse and anger management back in April of 2006 but has not made any effort since that time to re-enroll in parenting classes. [Respondent] has further not initiated any services since April of 2006. The court further finds that it was [respondent]'s parenting skills which first brought the involvement of [DSS] to the family. To date, [respondent] has not completed parenting classes and therefore has not resolved her lack of appropriate parenting skills which would place the child[ren] at risk of harm if returned to her care.

        . . . .

        33. The court finds that [respondent] has moved on at least five occasions since the removal of the child[ren]. [Respondent] has been repeatedly asked to secure appropriate housing for herself and the minor child[ren] but has not done so. [Respondent] has been evicted from the housing she was able to secure. The mother, who is pregnant, is currently staying with her fiancé's cousin; however, does not intend to continue to livethere but has not secured other accommodations. [Respondent] acknowledges that she also stays with her mother as well, whose home has been previously been ruled out by the court as an appropriate place for the children. [Respondent]'s sister, whose own four children have been removed and not returned to her care also lives with the maternal grandmother. The court finds that [respondent's] current living situation further shows [respondent's] lack of progress in correcting this issue.

        34. The court finds that [respondent] has failed to demonstrate knowledge gained from the classes she did attend. Although [respondent] did not complete her parenting program, she did attend some classes before being terminated. [Respondent] is unable to articulate what she has learned from the few parenting classes she did attend. When questioned concerning what she had learned from the parenting classes, [respondent] stated that she learned “how to be a better parent”, but was clear to point out she didn't “need no help with being a parent” (sic).

        . . . .

        36. The court further finds that [respondent] has completed anger management classes. The court finds that [respondent]'s attitude and demeanor while testifying does not demonstrate any knowledge gained from attending said anger management classes.

        37. The court finds that [respondent] fails to recognize her role or responsibility in her child[ren]'s current situation, to wit: placement in foster care. The court finds that [respondent] believes her only mistake was not taking her child D.D.D. to school. [Respondent] fails to recognize, almost two years later her lack of parenting skills and the protective issues in her home and has failed to make improvements in her lifestyle which might help her appropriately care for and supervise her children.

        38. The Court further finds that the children were adjudicated as neglected on or about May 25, 2005. The Court, while taking intoconsideration any changed circumstances, finds that [respondent] has not corrected the issues which led to the juvenile's placement in foster care nor subsequent identified risk issues. The court recognizes that [respondent] has completed her substance abuse and anger management classes and commends her for doing so. The court, taking into consideration [respondent]'s argument that she could not do all programs at the same time and work, finds that she has failed since April of 2006 to attend any classes or programs to resolve the remaining protection issues. The court finds, in light of the prior adjudication of neglect, that there is a probability of repetition of neglect if the children were to be returned to the custody of [respondent].

        39. The court finds that the changed conditions, taken in light of [respondent]'s history of neglect, do not deflect the high probability of future neglect if the juveniles were returned to [respondent]'s care. The court further finds that [respondent] is not fit at the time of this Termination of Parental Rights hearing to parent the minor children. The court further finds that [respondent] has willfully failed to perform her obligations as a parent. The court further finds that most of the conditions that occurred and/or existed at the time of the removal have not been successfully resolved as of this date.

    Respondent assigns error to the above findings of fact, but does not argue them in her brief. In the absence of any argument, respondent has abandoned her assignments of error on these issues and these findings are deemed binding on appeal. See In re P.M., 169 N.C. App. 423, 424, 610 S.E.2d 403, 404-05 (2005) (The respondent abandoned factual assignments of error when she “failed to specifically argue in her brief that they were unsupported by evidence.”). The record shows clear, cogent, and convincing evidence supports the trial court's determination that the childrenhad been subjected to a history of neglect and were likely to be similarly neglected in the future. We hold that these findings of fact support the trial court's conclusion that grounds existed to terminate respondent's parental rights under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1111(a)(1). As such, we do not address the other grounds for termination. See In re Pierce, 67 N.C. App. 257, 261, 312 S.E.2d 900, 903 (1984) (A finding of one statutory ground is sufficient to support the termination of parental rights.). This assignment of error is overruled.
B. Best Interests
    Finally, respondent contends the trial court erred by concluding that the termination of her parental rights was in the best interests of the children. We disagree.
    In determining whether terminating a parent's rights is in a juvenile's best interest, the court shall consider the following:
        (1) The age of the juvenile.

        (2) the likelihood of adoption of the juvenile.

        (3) Whether the termination of parental rights will aid in the accomplishment of the permanent plan for the juvenile.

        (4) The bond between the juvenile and the parent.

        (5) The quality of the relationship between the juvenile and the proposed adoptive parent, guardian, custodian, or other permanent placement.

        (6) Any relevant consideration.

N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1110 (2005).    Respondent challenges the trial court's reliance on D.D.D.'s academic improvement and the lack of a bond between her and D.D.D. and S.L.N. when the trial court ceased her visitation privileges in March 2006. To support its determination that it was in the best interests of the children to terminate respondent's parental rights, the trial court made the following findings concerning the children:
        48. The Court, after having found that grounds to terminate parental rights exists, further finds as a fact, pursuant to N.C.G.S. 7B-1110, that it is in the children's best interest that the parental rights of [respondent] and the putative and any unknown biological father be terminated as the juveniles are in need of stability in a safe, protective and nurturing environment, with proper care and supervision. The children are adoptable. There are no identified barriers to adoption. An identified adoptive placement has been located for the minor children. The children have a strong bond with the prospective adoptive parents. The court finds that the children's prospective adoptive parents have provided care for the children since placement in their home in March of 2005. The children have not had any contact with the putative fathers and have not had any contact with [respondent] since March of 2006. The Court finds that while there was a bond between the children and [respondent] prior to ceasing visitation, the children have not shown any problems or behaviors since contact with [respondent] ended.

        49. The juvenile, [D.D.D.], who is nine years old, has improved since his placement in foster care and his needs are being regularly met. Since D.D.D.'s placement in foster care, he has been regularly attending school, which he did not do while in the care of [respondent]. Since D.D.D. has been regularly attending school, he is no longer behind academically and does not require special classes. The child, S.L.N., now two years old, is developmentally on target. The courtfurther finds that the juvenile S.L.N. was only seven months old at the time she was placed in foster care, where she has continuously resided since March of 2005. The court finds it would be in the best interest of the minor children to proceed with a permanent plan of adoption, due to the lack of progress of either of the biological parents to provide a stable, safe and nurturing home for said minor children within a reasonable time.

    The trial court's findings are supported by testimony from Pam Flowers, who was respondent's social worker beginning in March 2005, prior orders of the court, and reflect a rational reasoning process. We conclude that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in its best interests of the children determination in terminating the parental rights of respondent. This assignment of error is overruled.
V. Conclusion
    Respondent has failed to show the trial court erred in concluding a statutory ground exists to terminate her parental rights based upon neglect or in determining such termination was in the best interests of the children. The trial court's order terminating respondent's parental rights to D.D.D. and S.L.N. is affirmed.
    Affirmed.
    Judges MCGEE and ELMORE concur.
    Report per Rule 30(e).

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