Assigned on Briefs October 1, 2014
Appeal from the Juvenile Court for White County No. JV514 Sammie E. Benningfield, Jr., Judge
Laurie A. Seber, Cookeville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Casey R.
Robert E. Cooper, Jr., Attorney General and Reporter, and Ryan A. Lee, Assistant Attorney General, for the appellee, State of Tennessee, Department of Children's Services.
Andy D. Bennett, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Richard H. Dinkins, and W. Neal McBrayer, JJ., joined.
ANDY D. BENNETT, JUDGE
J.C.B. ("Child") was born in 2012 to Casey R. ("Mother") and Justin B. ("Father").DCS first became involved with Child on November 13, 2012, when law enforcement officials discovered a methamphetamine lab in the living room of Mother's apartment while attempting to serve an outstanding warrant on someone who was present in her home.
Mother, Father, and Child were all present, along with four other people. At that time, Mother submitted to two urine drug screens which both came back positive for methamphetamine, amphetamine, benzodiazepine, and THC. Child was then placed into emergency custody pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 37-1-113. DCS filed a petition for dependency and neglect on November 16, 2012, in the Juvenile Court for White County. On that same day, the court issued a protective custody order and appointed a guardian ad litem for Child.
On December 4, 2012, DCS met with Mother and her appointed counsel to develop a permanency plan, which included a number of responsibilities for Mother and Father. These responsibilities included, but were not limited to: being on time for visitation with Child; not using drugs or alcohol; seeking drug treatment; being attentive to Child's needs; providing healthy food, clothing, and shelter for Child; spending quality time with him; reporting history of drug use; not associating with any alcohol or drug abusers; scheduling and attending mental health screenings; maintaining regular contact with DCS; and keeping contact information updated with DCS. The plan listed Rachel Conrad ("Ms. Conrad") as the primary case worker and provided her address and phone number, along with the contact information for her supervisor. The goal of the plan was adoption or returning Child to his parents.
From December 7, 2012, through January 18, 2013, Mother visited Child three times. Ms. Conrad scheduled visits after that and offered transportation, but Mother repeatedly cancelled. Mother was also convicted of theft on March 15, 2013. The majority of her sentence was suspended, and she was placed on probation for eleven months and twenty-nine days. On June 3, 2013, Mother participated in creating a second permanency plan that contained the same goals and responsibilities as the first plan. This new plan also listed Ms. Conrad as the primary case worker and provided her phone number. Mother was then incarcerated on July 19, 2013, for violating her probation and, on July 30, 2013, the juvenile court entered an order finding Child to be dependent and neglected.
On August 16, 2013, while Mother was incarcerated, she tested positive for methamphetamine and amphetamine. Mother later sent an application to Angel Ministries rehabilitation program and was accepted in October. As a result, she was granted early release on November 1, 2013, but she violated her probation by refusing to take a drug screen within three days of that release. On December 19, 2013, a third permanency plan was created which stated that the only goal was adoption and that DCS would be filing a petition to terminate Mother's parental rights. This plan contained no action steps for the parents. It required DCS to provide transportation for Child to and from his medical appointments and to keep his parents informed of those appointments. Mother was not present to help create this permanency plan because she could not be located.
On January 2, 2014, Mother requested from Ms. Conrad an application for Blue Monarch, which is a long-term rehabilitation program. Mother told Ms. Conrad to send the application to Father's address, which Ms. Conrad did eleven days later. The materials never reached Mother, so Ms. Conrad mailed them via certified mail one month later, but they were returned to Ms. Conrad. Mother was incarcerated on February 26, 2014, for her August drug charge and subsequent probation violation. Towards the end of May 2014, Mother received and sent out applications for Blue Monarch and the Maranatha House, which is a long-term treatment facility.
On June 11, 2014, the termination proceeding was held. Mother testified that she did not visit Child after January 18, 2013, because she was on the run as a result of her two drug charges and probation violations. She stated that this, along with her inability to consistently have access to a working telephone, was why it was difficult for DCS to contact her, and that she had not completed any of her requirements under the permanency plans despite being aware of her responsibilities.
Mother testified that she did send out applications in an attempt to find work, along with trying to find a rehabilitation program. In addition to Angel Ministries, the Maranatha House, and Blue Monarch, Mother tried to get into Next Door, but she was not accepted because she had not been clean for six months. Out of these four programs, the only one Mother told Ms. Conrad about was Blue Monarch.
Mother also testified that she completed a twelve-step program during one period of incarceration, and that she was dependent on Ms. Conrad because it was difficult for her to find information on rehabilitation programs while incarcerated given her lack of access to the internet, phone books, and family. Mother complained to her previous attorney about DCS, but she received no response and did not follow up.
Ms. Conrad filed an affidavit of reasonable efforts on the same day as the termination proceeding. The affidavit included a list of services that were provided to assist in preventing removal and reunifying the family. In her testimony, Ms. Conrad mentioned some of these services, which included multiple offers for transportation to visits and services (which Mother never accepted), access to a telephone, and the contact information for Cumberland Plateau Recovery A&D Treatment Program ("CPR"). She also provided Mother the contact information for the Choices Program on multiple occasions. However, Ms. Conrad had difficulty keeping up with Mother's addresses and phone numbers because Mother would either not provide an address when requested or would provide addresses that were seemingly incorrect. Ms. Conrad also testified that her inability to maintain contact with the parents and their lack of cooperation made it difficult for her to test them for drugs frequently. However, Ms. Conrad was able to visit Mother while Mother was incarcerated. Ms. Conrad visited Mother four times between July 19 and November 1, 2013, and three times between March 11 and May 28, 2014.
Ms. Conrad testified that Child has been in foster care for over a year and was doing very well. He had a strong bond with his foster parents, who were willing and able to adopt him. Child's foster mother testified that he has been living with her for more than nineteen months and that Child sees a speech therapist and an OT therapist once a week. Child also regularly visits his primary care physician and the Center for Child Development at Vanderbilt.
The juvenile court terminated Mother's parental rights by order entered June 11, 2014. The court found DCS had proven by clear and convincing evidence that termination was in the best interest of Child and that grounds for termination of Mother's parental rights existed. The court primarily based its opinion on Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-1-113(g)(1) and § 36-1-102(1)(A)(iv), which defines abandonment, and stated that Mother's willful failure to support or visit Child despite her ability to do so constituted grounds for terminating her parental rights. The court also stated that Mother's behavior in continuing to use drugs and commit crimes, in addition to allowing Child to be present in a place where methamphetamine was being created, exhibited wanton disregard for Child's welfare. ...