In re JBD, 2022-NCCOA-353 (unpublished).
In North Carolina, termination of parental rights (TPR) cases exist to remove one parent’s complete rights to their child. The grounds for doing so include abuse and neglect of the minor child. The evidence must prove those grounds by clear and convincing evidence, a burden above a preponderance and below beyond reasonable doubt. There are some procedural steps as well. For example, in response to a TPR, the respondent can deny the allegations. If so, the court must appoint a guardian ad litem for the minor child. Another instance of a peculiarity of TPRs is that the trial court essentially enters two orders: one for adjudication on grounds for TPR, and one actually terminating rights (called the disposition order). This is because there are two major steps for TPR: one to find the grounds, and the other to determine whether it is in the best interest of the minor child to terminate a parent’s rights. Below is a case where a respondent did not follow procedure.
- Facts: The minor child’s mother filed a TPR petition against respondent, alleging abandonment, failure to pay child support, failure to legitimize, and dependency. Respondent filed some letters to the court asking that the court not terminate his rights. Hearings where held in May and June of 2021. Separate orders for adjudication and disposition were entered on June 29, 2021, terminating respondent’s parental rights for failure to legitimate and abandonment. Respondent appealed.
- Issue: Was it an error to terminate respondent’s parental rights?
- Rationale: The Court of Appeals first addressed the respondent’s argument that the trial court erred in failing to appoint a guardian ad litem. The law requires such appointment in TPRs under specific circumstances. One of which is when a respondent answers the petition and denies any material allegation. However, respondent admitted that he failed to preserve this error at trial. This meant that he could not challenge on appeal. In some cases, the Court of Appeals will allow the appeal to prevent injustice. This was not the case. Respondent failed to deny any allegation in his letters to the court. Thus, there was no requirement for the trial court to appoint a guardian ad litem. Respondent also appealed from only the disposition order terminating his rights, while challenging the findings of fact in the adjudication order. This also meant that respondent was precluded from making arguments. Thus, the order was upheld.
- Lessons and Observations:
- This case highlighted the importance of procedure. The lessons to be learned are: 1) preserve the errors at the trial level; if you think there was a mistake in the non-appointment of a guardian ad litem, bring it up at trial; 2) appeal both the adjudication order and the disposition order.