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In re J.F.

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

August 28, 2014

In re J.F. et al.

Assigned on Briefs June 30, 2014

Appeal from the Circuit Court for Jefferson County No. 23281 O. Duane Slone, Judge

C.R.H. (“Mother”) appeals the trial court’s order terminating her rights to two minor children. The Department of Children’s Services (“DCS”) removed the children from Mother’s care following allegations that she locked one child in a bedroom for three days without access to water, food, or a bathroom. The children entered protective custody and were adjudicated dependent and neglected. DCS filed a petition to terminate Mother’s parental rights. After a bench trial, the court found (1) that multiple [1] grounds exist to terminate Mother’s rights and (2) that termination is in the children’s best interest, both findings said by the trial court to be made by clear and convincing evidence. Mother appeals. She challenges the trial court’s findings with respect to grounds, but does not contest the best-interest determination. We affirm.

Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court Affirmed; Case Remanded.

Matt E. Miller, Jefferson City, Tennessee, for the appellant, C.R.H.

Robert E. Cooper, Jr., Attorney General and Reporter, and Kathryn A. Baker, Assistant Attorney General, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Tennessee Department of Children's Services.

Charles D. Susano, Jr., C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which D. Michael Swiney and John W. McClarty, JJ., joined.

OPINION

CHARLES D. SUSANO, JR., CHIEF JUDGE

I.

This case concerns two of Mother's children – a daughter, J.F., and a son, B.H. (collectively "the Children").[2] The Children are half-siblings, born in 2003 and 2010, respectively.

Mother and R.F. had a long-term relationship, but never married. R.F. legally adopted J.F., and supported Mother and all three of her children. In 2009, Mother and R.F. ended their relationship. Mother left and she and J.F. went to a homeless shelter, where she met J.D. Within a month, she moved in with J.D. In December 2009, they were married. The following year, B.H. was born to their union. By all accounts, J.D. was violent and abusive. Around January 2011, Mother left J.D. and took the Children with her to another homeless shelter. The Children were removed from Mother and adjudicated dependent and neglected in a Cocke County proceeding. Around June or July of 2011, R.F. returned to help Mother and temporary custody of the Children was returned to her. Although R.F. and Mother did not resume their relationship, R.F., an over-the-road truck driver, allowed Mother and the Children to move into his apartment and he supported them. R.F. was away most of the time, but came home every weekend to visit J.F. and help Mother with the Children.

On February 24, 2012, DCS received a call from Christopher Gulley, a neighbor, who was concerned about eight-year-old J.F. Mr. Gulley reported that he had observed J.F. through a window in his residence for three days. On the second day, February 23rd, he asked J.F. if she was alright, and she told him, "no, " that she was grounded and had had nothing to eat or drink and could not use the bathroom. Mr. Gulley brought over some potato chips and water and passed them to J.F. through the window. The following day, February 24th, he again saw J.F. in her room, and she again told him that she was not okay. He knocked on the door and asked Mother if J.F. could come out of her room; Mother told him that J.F. was grounded. Mr. Gulley went home and spoke to someone at the police department, and then contacted DCS. He was afraid if he did not call, "she might have died up there."

After 8:00 pm that evening, DCS case manager Linda Vaughn and Officer Robert Peoples arrived at Mother's home to investigate. From the front door area, Ms. Vaughn could see into a window of a bedroom at the front of the apartment. She saw J.F. lying facedown and motionless on a mattress. Mother allowed Ms. Vaughn and Officer Peoples into the home. Ms. Vaughn saw a fabric "rope" tied to the handle of the door to J.F.'s room that was stretched across a hallway and tied to the hinge of an opposite door. She untied the rope from the hinge and entered the bedroom. There was a powerful urine odor. J.F. awoke and appeared "dazed" and was "lethargic" in talking with Ms. Vaughn. J.F. said that Mother grounded her to her room days earlier and she was not allowed her to eat or drink anything. She said a friend, Mr. Gulley, had passed her something to drink and eat, but Mother intervened and nailed the bedroom window shut. According to Ms. Vaughn, J.F. acted embarrassed because she had urinated in her clothing. She indicated she had also used a nearby bucket as a toilet. Ms. Vaughn observed the bucket to be nearly full of urine and also some feces. Officer Peoples testified in a similar manner with respect to the conditions he observed. He said that the rope tied between J.F.'s door and another door had to be untied in order to gain access to the room.

An ambulance was summoned and J.F. was instructed to pack a bag. J.F. went into the kitchen and packed some snack food. On leaving the apartment, Ms. Vaughn told J.F. to say goodbye to Mother. J.F. hugged Mother. According to Ms. Vaughn, Mother was stern, but calm and told J.F., "I told you one day your words would come back and bite you. I hope that you come back, but if you don't, you know why."

At the emergency room, J.F. complained of thirst. The treating physician, Dr. William Smith, initially "asked the nursing staff to, as far as fluids and food go, go ahead and give her more, whatever she'd like. . . ." Thirty minutes later, Dr. Smith examined her. He found J.F. to be "well-developed, well-nourished" and in "remarkably good spirits" considering the history he received. Based on urinalysis, Dr. Smith diagnosed J.F. with dehydration in the "mild to moderate" range. Dr. Smith found no symptoms of severe hydration but did not think this unusual; he explained that "dehydration is a continuum and those findings are present relatively late in that continuum." He further stated that with dehydration, children are "better able to compensate for significant stress until fairly late stages – at which point they, 'fall off the cliff, ' and deteriorate . . . very rapidly." He was of the opinion that Adderall, a medication J.F. took for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, would not lead to dehydration in and of itself. It can cause increased thirst, but should not cause dehydration if the patient has free access to water. Dr. Smith estimated that if J.F. had continued with no access to food or water, it "absolutely" had the potential to lead to her death in approximately a week.

Detective Roland Holt arrived at the apartment after J.F. had left. He noticed that the doorknob at J.F.'s bedroom door was turned around so that the lock was on the outside. Inside, he also saw a bucket filled with urine and some feces. The room was in "pretty nasty condition" and the window was nailed shut. On speaking with Mother, she admitted that she locked J.F. in her room to punish her, but said that the child had not been in there "that long." Detective Holt arrested Mother, but not without incident. B.H. had to be pried from her arms. Mother walked to the door, then laid down on the floor. Two officers carried her outside while she uttered a stream of profanities. As they reached the patrol car, Mother continued her tirade. Detective Holt related his exchange with Mother: "She said something along the lines of, 'That fucking cunt is not coming back to my house. She's cost me my son.' [A]t that time I'm not sure who she's talking about, so I asked her, 'Who are you talking about?' And she says, 'I'm talking about my fucking daughter.' " After being placed in the patrol car, Mother immediately kicked out the rear glass window.

DCS took the Children into protective custody and they were placed in foster care. In March 2012, DCS filed a petition alleging that they were dependent and neglected and the victims of severe child abuse in Mother's (and R.F.'s) custody. As a result of her disruptive behavior, J.F. was removed from three different traditional foster homes before being admitted to Parkridge Valley Hospital for psychiatric care. Mother was indicted for aggravated child neglect and especially aggravated kidnapping. Pursuant to a plea agreement, she entered a guilty plea to child neglect and was sentenced to two years in prison.

On May 21, 2012, DCS filed a petition to terminate Mother's parental rights. An amended petition followed in May 2013. In September 2012, after a trial, the juvenile court adjudicated the Children dependent and neglected as the result of severe abuse by Mother and the failure of R.F. to protect the Children from said abuse. Mother and R.F. appealed. The appeal from juvenile court and the petition to terminate were consolidated for hearing in the trial court.

In July 2013, a four-day trial was held. Mother described J.F. as a smart, sweet child. She was also difficult as a result of anger and behavior issues. As one example, J.F. had been suspended from kindergarten many times and then expelled after she head-butted her teacher in the face. Just before her removal, Mother had taken her to see a counselor. She said that she and J.F. had many good days together, but at least two to three times a week, the child went into a "rage, " and became uncontrollable and destructive and tried to hurt herself or others. Besides a mattress, there was no furniture or decorations in J.F.'s room because she had broken and destroyed everything she had. Her room always smelled of urine because J.F. wet the bed every night without exception. Mother explained that she had originally placed a bucket in J.F.'s room so that she might use it when she woke up to find herself urinating at night. Mother and R.F. decided against physically disciplining J.F. Mother believed sending her to her room to calm down was the best option. Mother testified she had fashioned a makeshift door alarm that caused soda cans to make noise to alert her if J.F. opened her bedroom door at night to prevent her from getting out unnoticed and into trouble.

Mother acknowledged that the week of the Children's removal had been difficult with conflicts between her and J.F. J.F. was home from school all that week because Mother had misinterpreted the school calendar and kept her home following a break that actually ended that Wednesday. Mother admitted that over the course of the days in question, she had sent J.F. to her room, her "standard" punishment, but said she never locked her in and never kept her there for more than an hour or two at a time. Mother said she did what she thought was best, and did not feel her discipline was abusive.

At the time of trial, the Children had been in foster care for seventeen months and had had no contact with Mother. DCS was making efforts to move J.F. from Parkridge Valley to a therapeutic foster home. B.H. remained in a pre-adoptive foster home. Since being released from prison in January 2013, Mother had been living with her father who supported her. Mother recognized that if her rights were not terminated, the Children could not come straight home. She conceded she did not have the ability to handle J.F. by herself and estimated she would need another six to eight months to prepare herself for the Children's return.

At the conclusion of the trial, the court terminated Mother's parental rights upon finding that grounds for termination were established by clear and convincing evidence. As to Mother, the court found that DCS had sufficiently proven each of the grounds cited in the petition – abandonment by conduct evincing a wanton disregard for the Children's welfare; severe child abuse; and a sentence of more than two years for severe child abuse. The court further found clear and convincing evidence to show that termination was in the Children's best interest.

In addition, the trial court deemed void the juvenile court's September 2012 order adjudicatory order for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.[3] As to R.F., the court dismissed the termination petition and remanded the case to the Jefferson County Juvenile Court with instructions to contact the Cocke County Juvenile Court to determine whether the case should be transferred to Jefferson County. Mother filed a timely notice of appeal.

II.

Mother presents issues for our review that we restate slightly and address as follows:
Whether the trial court committed clear error in its factual finding that J.F. was confined to her room for three consecutive days.
Whether the trial court erred in terminating Mother's parental rights based on her two-year prison sentence absent a finding that the conduct which led to her incarceration constitutes severe child abuse.
Whether the trial court erred in finding that there was clear and convincing evidence of Mother's wanton disregard ...

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