by Kelan Lyons, NC Newsline
The North Carolina Court of Appeals issued a ruling Tuesday that a man should not lose his parental rights because of strict parole conditions imposed by another state.
In 2014, the father, who is not named in the opinion, was convicted of two felonies involving sexual conduct with a 14-year-old in Indiana. He spent three years in prison before being paroled in 2017. One of the conditions of his supervision was he couldn’t have any form of communication with a minor child, including his biological daughter, whom the opinion refers to as Crystal.
But the Court of Appeals found that the trial court was wrong in ruling that the father had “willfully abandoned” Crystal.
The father didn’t contact his daughter because he “was subject to highly restrictive parole conditions due to his conviction in Indiana,” Judge Jeffery Carpenter, a Republican on the Court of Appeals, wrote in the opinion, adding that if the father violates those conditions he could be prosecuted.
The father tried to get the terms of his parole modified in 2017, 2019 and in 2021. The State of Indiana Parole Board denied all of them.
Those requests, Carpenter wrote, plus the fact that the father was up-to-date on his child support payments, “is not consistent with a parent who has manifested a willful determination to forgo all parental duties and relinquish all parental claims to the child.”
Crystal’s mother filed a petition with a lower court to terminate the father’s rights in June 2021, alleging that he had abandoned his daughter.
There was a termination hearing in July 2022, which the father attended despite being incarcerated in Guilford County for a charge of first-degree sexual offense. During that hearing, Crystal’s Guardian ad Litem declined to testify, saying, “I’m being torn between what I believe the law is and what my wishes are on behalf of [Crystal], and as a result, I’m going to stay silent at this stage.”
The judge ruled in favor of the mother, terminating the father’s parental rights to Crystal, then 12. The judge said the father knew he had other avenues to reconnect with his daughter, despite his parole conditions. The judge also said the father didn’t make “reasonable efforts” to ask for approval from the Indiana Parole Board since getting out of prison in 2017. He also hadn’t sent Crystal “any cards, letters, gifts or tokens of affection, nor did he send any birthday or Christmas gifts or otherwise acknowledge any of these events.”
North Carolina law states that, to terminate a parent’s rights on willful abandonment grounds, a trial court has to find that there is “clear, cogent and convincing evidence” the parent has abandoned the child for at least the six consecutive months preceding the filing of the petition to terminate rights.
The Court of Appeals sided with the father regarding the allegation that he hadn’t sent Crystal any cards, gifts or tokens of affections; the father was prohibited from contacting his child without advance written approval from the Indiana Parole Board.
Nevertheless, the crimes for which the father was imprisoned in Indiana and the one he stands accused of in North Carolina are, if true, “reprehensible,” Carpenter wrote, but “reprehensibility is not tantamount to willful abandonment, which is the sole ground before us on appeal.”
Carpenter also wrote that his opinion does not bind the mother from filing another petition in the future, perhaps seeking parental rights termination on other legal grounds.
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