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When Parental Rights Conflict with Special Needs, the Courts Step In

In re NNB, COA 19-261 (Unpublished opinion)

The family courts in North Carolina operate under one abiding principle: the best interest of the child. This overarching concept takes precedence over every other consideration and can produce unexpected results. This article discusses a recent case in our county in which a father wanted custody of his minor child, but circumstances were not good for his case.

Facts: This is a 2020 North Carolina Court of Appeals case out of Guilford County where Respondent appealed the termination of his parental rights.

The Guilford County Department of Health and Human Services filed a petition that the minor child, age 11 at the time of the petition, was neglected and a dependent juvenile. The allegations in the petition focus on the minor child’s mental health issues including suicidal ideations, harming animals, and starting fires.

This case concerns only the Respondent Father. The minor child’s mother relinquished her parental rights in 2018. The Respondent Father has not seen the minor child since 2012. Respondent Father has been incarcerated since 2014. Respondent Father is serving a 461-year term for rape, burglary, and other crimes. Respondent Father’s rights were terminated based on his failure to properly establish paternity, failure to provide proper care and supervision, and abandonment.

First Issue: Whether the trial court can terminate the parental rights for a dependent juvenile suffering from severe psychiatric issues when the respondent lacks an appropriate child care arrangement.

Answer to the first issue: Yes, the court may terminate the parental rights for a dependent juvenile if at least one ground for termination under N.C. Gen. Stat. §7B-1111(a)(6) exists.

Second Issue: Whether the trial court may determine that relative placement of a minor child suffering from mental health issues is appropriate.

Answer to the second issue: Yes, the trial court may determine that relative placement is not appropriate, especially upon recommendation of DHHS and inpatient mental health workers.

Summary of Rationale: Termination of parental rights as set forth in N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1111(a) is a two-step process with an adjudicatory stage and a dispositional stage. Each stage involves a different standard of review.

In the adjudicatory stage, the burden is on the petitioner to prove by clear, cogent, and convincing evidence that one of the grounds for termination of parental rights as set forth in N.C. Gen. Stat. §7B-1111(a) exists. The standard of review for this stage is whether the trial court’s findings of fact are supported by clear, cogent, and convincing evidence and whether those findings of fact support its conclusion of law. If at least one ground for termination of parental rights exists under N.C. Gen. Stat. §7B-1111(a) the court will move on to the dispositional stage. In re D.R.B., 643 S.E. 2d 77, 79(N.C. App. 2007).

The dispositional stage requires the court to determine if the termination of parental rights is in the best interest of the child. The standard of review for the dispositional stage is whether the court abused its discretion in terminating parental rights. (Id.).

N. C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1111(a)(6) states:

That the parent is incapable of providing for the proper care and supervision of the juvenile, such that the juvenile is a dependent juvenile within the meaning of G.S. 7B-101, and that there is a reasonable probability that the incapability will continue for the foreseeable future. Incapability under this subdivision may be the result of substance abuse, intellectual disability, mental illness, organic brain syndrome, or any other cause or condition that renders the parent unable or unavailable to parent the juvenile and the parent lacks an appropriate alternative child care arrangement.

N. C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1111 (2017).

A dependent child is defined as a juvenile in need of assistance or placement because the juvenile’s parent, guardian, or custodian is unable to provide for the care or supervision and lacks an appropriate alternative child care arrangement. Under this definition, the trial court must address both (1) the parent’s ability to provide care or supervision, and (2) the availability to the parent of alternative child care arrangements.

In re P.M., 610 S.E.2d 403, 406 (N.C. App. 2005).

Respondent Father did not dispute that his lengthy incarceration prevented him from providing care or supervision of the minor child. Respondent Father contends that his mother or sister would be suitable relative placements. Respondent’s mother suffered from failing health and resided in an assisted living community that did not allow children. The trial court held that the Respondent’s sister was not a viable option as the minor child had been in a Level IV Psychiatric Residential Treatment Facility (PRTF) and was transferred to a Level III group home. The trial court found that any relative placement would not be appropriate due to the level of care the minor child requires.

DHHS completed an Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children (ICPC) Case Manager Statement of Interest for respondent’s sister and allowed her to have weekly telephone contact with the minor child. This communication continued up to the time of the termination hearing. The PRTF determined that upon discharge the minor child should be in a Level III group home and did not recommend placement of the minor child with a relative because of the substantial need for psychiatric care.

Respondent Father argued that he was not allowed to have “any input or involvement whatsoever in the decision to transfer the minor child to a Level III group home.” Respondent contends that even if he had not been incarcerated, “there is no reason to believe he would have had any more actual involvement as to the placement of his child in a Level III group than he had while incarcerated.” Respondent, citing In re C.B., 783 S.E.2d at 212, argues that the mother was uncooperative with DHHS, challenged the trial court’s findings of the severity of the minor child’s mental needs and that she was able to care for the child properly herself.

Respondent did not challenge the trial court findings that the minor child suffered from serious mental issues and required Level III placement. The trial court found that the respondent’s sister was not an “appropriate” placement for the minor child due to his psychiatric needs.

This Court found that the trial court did not err in concluding that the minor child was a dependent juvenile and that the Respondent Father’s rights should be terminated under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-1111(a)(6). This Court found that one ground for termination of parental rights existed and no additional grounds need to be addressed. In re B.D.S., 594 S.E.2d 89, 93-91 (N.C. App. 2004).