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COA decision clarifies understanding of caretaker in Juvenile Code

A recent North Carolina Court of Appeals ruling outlines a more specific definition of caretaker under the Juvenile Code, and further informs the understanding of the court’s exclusive, original jurisdiction over cases involving allegedly abused and neglected juveniles.child

In this case, a 12-year-old minor identified as “Rose” was sexually abused by her 36-year-old step-cousin (her stepfather’s cousin), identified as “Mr. B,” during a 2012 sleepover at his home, where he lived with his family.

After receiving a report from Child Protective Services, the Wilson County Department of Social Services filed a petition alleging that Rose was an abused and neglected juvenile, citing several instances of abuse during an ongoing relationship with Mr. B. The petition argued that during the sleepover, Mr. B was in fact the minor’s caretaker and that she “lived” in an environment injurious to her welfare that evening.

The issue was not one of familial ties, but custody. The trial court agreed with DSS that the adult, by virtue of supervising the sleepover, was entrusted with the minor’s care. It adjudicated Rose as an abused and neglected juvenile.

Rose’s mother — unaware of the abuse until after the sleepover — immediately appealed, arguing that Mr. B was not entrusted with the child’s care as required by statute, which defines caretaker as “Any person other than a parent, guardian, or custodian who has responsibility for the health and welfare of a juvenile in a residential setting.”

The Court of Appeals agreed with the respondent, reversing and finding that the temporary nature of the visit was not enough to assume she relinquished responsibility over the child’s health and welfare, thus the Juvenile Code should not apply.

Annick Lenoir-Peek of the N.C. Office of Indigent Services represented the respondent. She said the Juvenile Code exists to assist families when children are abused or neglected and that merely being abused by a family member should not trigger its application.

Because of the latest ruling, Lenoir-Peek said, the family is no longer under court order or jurisdiction. It essentially undoes everything judicially that has happened in the nearly two years since the incidents, she added.

“The social workers cannot just show up and check on the family unless there is a new report,” Lenoir-Peek said. “The mother is no longer subject to being found in contempt for failing to undertake any actions the court imposed. Termination of parental rights is not a possibility based on this incident.”

In its opinion, the court stated, “Generally, an adult relative is not ‘entrusted’ with a juvenile’s care for the purposes of being a caretaker unless an extended-care situation is in play. Such situations may include a prolonged visit by the juvenile to a relative’s residence during which time the relative gains apparent or actual authority over the juvenile’s health and welfare.” A relative could also inadvertently become entrusted with a child’s care, the court added, should a parent leave a child with a relative for an evening and fail to return.

It was never alleged that Rose’s mother or stepfather — with whom she lived — contributed to her abuse or were aware of it. In fact, DSS conceded that upon learning of the abuse, the family immediately ceased contact with Mr. B, and the respondent ensured that Rose attended counseling.

The Court of Appeals said this case fell short in at least one regard, writing, “… the trial court failed to account for the intention of the Juvenile Code to respect family autonomy.”

Lenoir-Peek said the decision sets precedence and clarifies when a court can interfere with familial relationships or when another remedy is more appropriate.

“I could not imagine planning a date night with my husband, asking my brother and his wife to watch my children overnight, and if something bad happened that my husband and I would be brought into court and have to go through this invasive process when none of it was our fault,” she said.

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