State Supreme Court Clarifies Analysis For Determining Best Interests Of A Child In A Parental Termination Case

Friday, September 29, 2017
The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled on Friday that courts must consider all nine statutory factors, as well as any other relevant facts, when deciding whether terminating parental rights is in a child’s best interests. The Supreme Court explained that requiring courts to consider all relevant facts and circumstances ensures each case receives individualized consideration before fundamental parental rights are terminated.
 
In the case before the Supreme Court, the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS) removed three children, Gabriella, Jude, and Chance, from their parents’ custody in March 2012, and placed them in foster care after the youngest child, six-month-old Chance, was diagnosed with severe malnourishment, having gained only eight ounces since birth.
 The parents already had a long history with DCS and a child protective agency in Georgia, with a Georgia court having previously terminated their parental rights to two older children because of drug abuse and domestic violence.
 
After removing the children, DCS and the parents entered into a written agreement called a permanency plan, which required the parents to complete drug treatment and submit to drug tests, among other things, in order to regain custody of the children. The case was under the supervision of the juvenile court. For a few months, the parents failed to meet their obligations under the permanency plan. But, in July 2012, mother separated herself from the father and began meeting her obligations under the permanency plan, including passing drug tests and completing drug treatment, obtaining employment, creating a family support structure, securing housing, and bonding with the children during visits. As the mother’s compliance continued, DCS increased her visitation and planned to return the children to her custody, beginning with a trial home visit in July 2013. The foster parents disagreed with DCS’s decision, and on the day the mother’s trial home visit was to begin, they filed a petition in circuit court, not in the juvenile court where the case had been pending since the children were removed in 2012. The foster parents asked the circuit court to terminate the mother’s parental rights and allow them to adopt the children. By early October 2013, the juvenile court ordered DCS to place the children with the mother on a trial basis. By the time of the circuit court trial in 2015 on the foster parents’ termination and adoption petition, the children had been living with their mother for about two years and the father had voluntarily surrendered his parental rights.
 
After hearing the proof presented, the circuit court ruled that the foster parents had proven severe abuse or neglect by the higher clear and convincing evidence standard applicable in parental termination cases. But the circuit court ruled that the foster parents had failed to prove the second requirement necessary to terminate parental rights under Tennessee law, specifically, that termination of parental rights is in the best interests of the children. In a two-to-one decision, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s determination on this point and held that the foster parents had proven by clear and convincing evidence that termination of mother’s parental rights would be in the children’s best interests. 
 
The Supreme Court granted the mother permission to appeal, reversed the Court of Appeals, and reinstated the trial court’s judgment. The Supreme Court emphasized that the mother had complied with the permanency plan, had not tested positive for drugs since June 2012, had obtained stable employment and housing, and had cared for the children for two years at the time of trial without incident. The Supreme Court pointed to proof showing that the children had thrived in the mother’s care and stated that they want to live with mother and to expert testimony that removing the children from mother’s care would be a loss for them.  

The Supreme Court said that the Court of Appeals did not err by considering mother’s history of drug abuse and poor parenting and the risk that she will return to those behaviors once DCS is no longer involved. But, the Supreme Court explained these factors do not amount to clear and convincing evidence that termination of the mother’s parental rights would be in the children’s best interests, when evaluated along with the other factors the law requires courts to consider and all the proof in this case. The Supreme Court commended the foster parents for their genuine concern and affection for the children, but emphasized that fundamental parental rights may not be terminated unless clear and convincing evidence shows that termination is in the best interests of the children.

To read the unanimous opinion in In re Gabriella D. et al., authored by Justice Cornelia A. Clark, go to the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.


Nominations Open For 2018 International Business Awards

The International Business Council (IBC) of the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce announces the second annual IBC International Business Awards. These awards showcase the positive contributions international businesses make to the greater Chattanooga region. Any Chattanooga area businesses engaged in international trade (either products or services, importing or exporting) are ... (click for more)

March State Revenues Less Than Expected, Year-To-Date Revenues Remain More Than Budgeted

Department of Finance and Administration Commissioner Larry Martin Friday announced that Tennessee tax revenue fell short of budgeted estimates in March. Overall March revenues totaled $1.1 billion, which is $84.1 million more than the state collected in March of 2017, but $2 million less than the budgeted estimate for the month.  "Sales tax revenues for March recorded exceptionally ... (click for more)

Man Who Killed 4 At Waffle House Is In Custody

Travis Reinking, 29, the suspect in the shooting at a Waffle House near Nashville on Sunday, has been taken into custody, according to police. Reinking, who killed four people and injured two others at a Waffle House near Nashville on Sunday morning was on the loose Monday morning and had been added to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation's ‘Top 10 Most Wanted’ list. ... (click for more)

Pet Raccoon That Was Destroyed Did Not Have Rabies

A pet raccoon that was destroyed in order to test for rabies after biting a neighbor child did not have rabies, Chattanooga attorney Chris Jones. The family has been advised it can pick up the remains of Boomer at the Chattanooga Hamilton County Health Department. Attorney Jones, who specializes in wildlife cases, earlier argued there was no valid reason for health ... (click for more)

Set Up A Council On Love, Not A Council On Hate - And Response

In Mayor Berke's April 19 version of the Berke Bulletin, he announced plans to establish a Council on Hate and indicated a focus on tolerance. I beg of him to reconsider that plan. One problem in Chattanooga and in other places in America is that there are some people who have already established an informal version of a Council on Hate. I suggest that a more productive plan ... (click for more)

Roy Exum: Always Know The Facts

I adore the fact so many of America’s high school and college students are very active in our battle against violence in our schools but bemoan the fact that when you combine youth and ‘lack of experience’ they often are misguided and ill-informed. The best example came on Saturday when a reporter for Campus Reform walked around the Cal State-Santa Barbara campus asking the students ... (click for more)