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Domestic Relations – Parent & Child – Custody – Constitutional – Parental Rights

In re A.C. (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-174-16, 37 pp.) (Donna Stroud, J.) Appealed from Buncombe County District Court (Andrea Dray, J.) N.C. App.

Holding: After winning back custody of her daughter, “April,” respondent let April remain with the intervenor-aunt for six more weeks with little communication, but respondent then abruptly took April out of day care and kept her away from the aunt with no transition. Respondent acted inconsistently with her constitutionally protected status as a parent.

We affirm the trial court’s order granting sole legal and physical custody of April to her maternal aunt.

The trial court awarded respondent legal and physical custody of April at a Nov. 6, 2013 review hearing, and it entered the attendant review order on Jan. 24, 2014.

Respondent’s conduct since obtaining sole legal and physical custody of April on Nov. 6, 2013, represents an abdication of her parental role.

Respondent placed April with the aunt in May 2012, rather than live apart from her then-boyfriend. She allowed April’s newborn sister, “Megan,” to join April in the aunt’s home in October 2012.

Rather than reclaim April on Nov. 6, 2013, respondent left her and Megan in the aunt’s uninterrupted care until Dec. 19, 2014. During this period, respondent had little meaningful interaction with April and made no effort to provide for her financially. Respondent thus not only created the family unit that the aunt and the child have established, but also induced them to allow that family unit to flourish with no expectations that it would be terminated.

Clear, cogent, and convincing evidence supports the trial court’s findings of fact, which in turn support its conclusion of law that respondent acted in a manner inconsistent with her constitutionally protected paramount status as April’s parent.

There was also ample evidence of a substantial change in circumstances affecting April’s welfare and best interests since the review order entered after the Nov. 6, 2013 hearing. The findings reflect respondent’s abdication of her parental role since Nov. 6, 2013, as well as her perpetuation of the aunt, April, and Megan as a family unit in a relationship of love and duty with no expectation that it would be terminated. This substantial change in circumstances was compounded by respondent’s decision on Dec. 19, 2014, to wrest April from the only home and caretaker she had known since May 2012, without any notice or transition plan.

After regaining custody of April on Jan. 21, 2015, respondent “did not allow the [aunt] any contact with [April] for six weeks.”

Noting the importance of “stability” and “[s]ecure attachments” to early childhood development, a therapist diagnosed April with adjustment disorder and attributed her maladaptive behaviors “to the changes in custody that had occurred in” December 2014 and January 2015. The therapist described respondent’s sudden, unannounced reclamation of April on Dec. 19, 2014, as “disturbing and entirely negligent toward” April.

The direct connection between the substantial change in circumstances and April’s well-being is self-evident.


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