Can the court terminate a parent’s rights for willful abandonment of the children? Are there steps a parent estranged from his child can take to ensure this doesn’t happen? In a recent North Carolina appellate decision, the court considered willful abandonment and termination of parental rights. The case arose when the parents of two minor kids separated in 2010 just before the second child was born. The mother sued for custody, child support, and alimony. The father didn’t go to the custody proceedings, and the mother was given sole custody of the kids with reasonable visitation for the father who lived in a different state.
Several years after that, the mother sued to terminate the father’s parental rights based on abandonment. The lower court had a hearing and decided to terminate the father’s parental rights. It waited almost a year to enter its written order. However, the father appealed the written order.
On appeal, the father argued: (1) the lower court hadn’t entered the written order in a timely way, (2) there wasn’t enough evidence to show abandonment, and (3) termination of his parental rights wasn’t in the kids’ best interests.
The appellate court explained that vacating a trial court’s order as untimely was barred by case law even though Section 7B-1110 of the General Statutes provided it should have been written and entered within 30 days of the termination of parental rights hearing.
The appellate court explained that termination of parental rights is only appropriate where the lower court finds by clear and convincing proof a parent willfully abandoned a child for last 6 months in a row immediately before a petition or motion was filed. In this case, the lower court’s findings were supported by clear and convincing evidence. It explained that abandonment has to show up as a willful determination to forgo all parental duties and give up all parental claims to a child. Findings need to show a parent’s actions are completely inconsistent with a desire to keep custody of a child.
Factors to be considered include a parent’s financial support and emotional contributions to a child. In this case, the father hadn’t tried to visit his kids or ask for visits with them or to contact them or even to ask how they were doing. He didn’t even send birthday or Christmas cards of emails to the kids. Both were under the age of 6, and the younger child had zero memory of the father. The older child’s only memory of the father was that the father ignored him when the mother took the kids to their paternal grandfather’s funeral. The older child took this as a rejection and needed therapy to address it.
The father doesn’t challenge those findings. He instead argued that these findings didn’t include the fact that his attorneys had tried to contact the mother to talk about a custody arrangement in 2014, before she tried to terminate his parental rights. The appellate court disagreed noting that legal action didn’t undermine the father’s decision not to have a parental relationship with his kids in 2 1/2 years.
The appellate court also found that the lower court had made thorough findings of fact and made a reasoned decision about the children’s best interests, and that it had not abused its discretion. It affirmed the lower court’s decision.
Usually courts consider it important for a child to continue building a relationship with both parents. However, where a parent willfully abandons his children, his parental rights may be terminated. It is important for parents who want to continue to have parental rights to nurture their relationships with their kids, even if the kids live with an ex-spouse. If you are concerned about a North Carolina child custody matter, you should consult skillful family law attorneys. Contact the Woodruff Family Law Group at 336.272.9122 or via our online form.