Termination of Parental Rights: Should the Reasons Be Spelled Out?
In re C.V.D.C. and C.D.C., _______NC________ (2020).
In North Carolina, for a Termination of Parental Rights petition to succeed, a set of factors set out in N.C.G.S section 7B-1110(a) must be weighed by the court. If the balance of those factors favors termination, the trial court has discretion to do so for the best interests of the child. But does the court need to write down those specific findings? And what if you wanted to appeal their decision? Below, we discuss a case that addresses the manner in which appellate courts review such decisions of the lower courts, and whether or not a court is required to make written findings.
a) Facts: Minor children Carol and Cody were placed into kinship care after DSS received reports that mother had been homeless, spent a minor child’s disability funds to purchase crack cocaine, and left the children with a friend unfit to care for them. DSS filed a petition and had the children adjudicated neglected and dependent. Later, DSS petitioned to terminate the mother’s parental rights. The children were placed in a foster home. Trial court held that it was in the best interest of the children to have mother’s rights terminated. Mother appealed.
b) Issue: Did the trial court err by failing to make sufficient written findings to support terminating mother’s parental rights?
c) Holding: No.
d) Rationale: First, the court reaffirmed that trial courts have broad discretion in cases related to child custody. The standard to apply upon appeal is still abuse of discretion. It is a lower bar, and an appellate court will defer to the trial court unless the decision is “manifestly unsupported by reason or one so arbitrary that it could not have been the result of a reasoned decision.” The trial court concluded after uncontested evidence that it was in the best interest of the children to have the mother’s rights terminated. Next, the court reviewed the sufficiency of the trial court’s written findings. The Supreme Court held that while a trial court must consider all factors in subsection 7B-1110(a), it does not require written findings for each factor. Furthermore, the evidence for each factor is in the record: the children’s ages and adoptability were favorable; the mother had only seen her children once in over two years; she only communicated with the children while incarcerated (never while free); and both children expressed a desire to remain with foster parents. The Court affirms the lower court decision, but again admonishes the state trial courts, encouraging that they do make written findings for all factors in 7B-1110(a).
e) Lessons and Observations:
a. The Court reaffirms that trial courts have broad discretion adjudicating claims related to child custody and may only overturn if the trial court is unreasonably incorrect.
b. Sufficient evidence need not be written into findings, but still needs to be considered by the trial court. This is likely where the mother’s case was lost. She presented very little evidence regarding the exercise of her rights as a mother. She did not present any evidence of alleviating the factors that first involved DSS.
c. Even so, trial courts are highly encouraged to make written finding of the evidence that supports the decision.