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Supreme Court ruling clarifies ‘caretaker’ under Juvenile Code

A minor who was abused by a family member after spending a single night at his home should not have been adjudicated an abused and neglected juvenile, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled July 21, in a decision that clarifies the definition of “caretaker” under the Juvenile Code.

This ruling affirms last year’s findings by the Court of Appeals, which had reversed a district court regarding a 12-year-old girl, “Rose,” who was sexually abused by her 36-year-old step-cousin (her stepfather’s cousin), “Mr. B.,” during a sleepover.

Several instances of abuse took place before the Aug. 18, 2012, sleepover, though Rose’s parents were unaware. That night, according to court documents, Mr. B. waited until his wife fell asleep (there were also three other children in the home) before going into the bedroom where Rose was and abusing her. Rose, according to court records, believed that she and Mr. B. were in a relationship together.

Some time after the sleepover, Rose learned that Mr. B. had “engaged in sexual relations with a woman who was not his wife.” Disappointed and hurt, documents say, she told her mother about her relationship with Mr. B.

Rose’s mother and stepfather immediately sought counseling for the minor and cut off all contact with Mr. B. Rose’s mother also reported the abuse to the Wilson County Department of Social Services.

After receiving a report from Child Protective Services, records show, DSS filed a petition alleging that Rose was an abused and neglected juvenile, citing several instances of abuse by 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 Rose’s care. It adjudicated Rose as an abused and neglected juvenile.

Rose’s mother argued that the Juvenile Code did not apply and under Rule 12(b)(6) of the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure, Mr. B. was not Rose’s caretaker. Under the statute, a caretaker is defined 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 trial court agreed with DSS, allowing the court to assume authority over Rose and her family.

Annick Lenoir-Peek of the N.C. Office of Indigent Services represented Rose and her parents. She said Rose’s parents were court-ordered to take steps they had already taken — ceasing contact with Mr. B. and sending Rose to therapy — and subjected to home visits and potentially embarrassing situations as part of the investigation.

One of the most important aspects of this case, Lenoir-Peek believes, is the recognition of the need to balance the state’s interests in protecting children with the family’s constitutional rights to be free of government intrusion.
“This (Supreme Court) ruling reminds us all—judges and attorneys—that we must keep the purpose of the Juvenile Code in mind when we interfere with a family unit,” she said. “Just because something awful happened does not mean that we are benefitting the child or her family by taking the case to court.”

The Court of Appeals overturned the trial court’s decision last year, citing another 2014 case (the case name was redacted to protect the identity of the minor) in concluding that an adult is not generally considered a caretaker unless he or she provides extended care.

Justice Paul Newby, penning the Supreme Court’s opinion, echoed Lenoir-Peek’s sentiments in what he called the Juvenile Code’s dual purpose, opining that not every child who is a victim of a serious crime is “abused and neglected” under the code.

“Only when the family fails to provide proper care is DSS empowered to intervene,” Newby wrote.

The court found that the “caretaker” statute was intended to protect children from abuse and neglect inflicted by people with “significant, parental-type responsibility for the daily care of a child in the child’s residential setting.”

Newby noted that the appeals court found that a parent does not relinquish responsibility over a child’s health and welfare by allowing a child to attend a sleepover.

While DSS has an important role in protecting children, he added, parents have a fundamental right to parent their children.

“Although Mr. B.’s conduct should result in criminal charges, [Rose’s] mother and stepfather responded appropriately, and the family did not require State intervention to ensure [Rose’s] safety,” Newby wrote.

Lenoir-Peek said that Mr. B. has not been charged with a crime.

Follow Heath Hamacher on Twitter @NCLWHamacher

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