Session Date: January 20, 2015
Appeal from the Chancery Court for Maury County No. A00313 Stella L. Hargrove, Judge
Nicholas Mark Tidwell, Brentwood, Tennessee, for the appellant, Lewis Chester D.
Stacy S. Neisler, Spring Hill, Tennessee, for the appellees, Melissa Taylor C. and Timothy Allen C.
Andy D. Bennett, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Frank G. Clement, Jr., P.J., M.S., and Richard H. Dinkins, J., joined.
ANDY D. BENNETT, JUDGE
Factual and Procedural Background
Melissa Taylor C. ("Mother") and Lewis Chester D. ("Father") are the parents of Anna D. ("Anna" or the "Child"), who was born in late 2008. Mother and Father were not married and lived together for a period of time from shortly before Anna was born until sometime in July 2009. Father is a military veteran and has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. Father admits that he has "dealt with issues related to anger."
Mother sought an order of protection from the general sessions court against Father in January 2010 based on Father's allegedly abusive behavior towards Mother in 2009 and January 2010. The court granted Mother relief and ordered Father not to contact Mother for one year, from February 10, 2010, through February 10, 2011. Specifically, Father was "restrained from committing further acts of abuse, domestic abuse, stalking or sexual assaults or threats of abuse, stalking, or sexual abuse or assaults against [Mother] or [the Child]." In addition, Father was "prohibited from having any contact at all with [Mother], including but not limited to verbal, physical, and/or any type of communication (email, text, etc.)."
In February 2010, Father filed a petition in the juvenile court seeking to establish paternity/legitimation, support, and parenting responsibilities. In his petition, Father sought reasonable visitation with the Child and an order establishing Father's support obligation in accordance with the Tennessee child support guidelines. Mother filed an answer to Father's petition acknowledging Father's paternity. Mother agreed that Father should be awarded "appropriate parenting time" with the Child and joined Father in asking the court to determine the amount of child support Father was obligated to pay.
In February 2011, Mother sought to extend the court's restraining order for another year. The court held a hearing during which Father testified he had been diagnosed with intermittent explosive disorder and was being treated for this disorder. Mother testified that she continued to be fearful that Father would physically harm her or the Child. The court granted Mother the requested relief and extended the restraining order through February 18, 2012. With regard to Father's contact with the Child, however, the court stated that "[a]ny future Order entered by the Juvenile Court for Maury County, Tennessee shall supercede this Order as to [Father]'s contact with [the Child]."
Mother met Timothy Allen Crabtree ("Step-Father") in 2010, and they were married in late 2012 or early 2013. On February 26, 2013, Mother and Step-Father filed a petition seeking to terminate Father's parental rights and have Step-Father adopt Anna. The grounds asserted for terminating Father's parental rights include abandonment by failure to visit and failure to provide any support for Anna in the four consecutive months immediately preceding the filing of the petition. Father filed an answer in which he admitted that he neither visited nor provided support for Anna in the four months preceding the petition's filing. However, Father asserted the failures were not willful. He claimed that the restraining orders Mother obtained against him prohibited Father from contacting the Child despite his desire to see her. Further, Father alleged he had contacted two different state attorneys general offices before the petition was filed in an effort to set up an account and begin making child support payments.
The court held a trial on March 31, 2014. Testimony was provided by Mother, Father, Step-Father, and several other witnesses on behalf of both Mother and Father. Mother testified that Father had not attempted to contact or visit Anna since January 2010. She acknowledged the restraining orders against Father for the two-year period from February 2010 through February 18, 2012, but she testified that she did not seek to extend the restraining order once it expired in February 2012. Mother was asked whether her intent in seeking the restraining order was to prevent Father from spending time with Anna, and Mother responded that it was not:
Q: Was it your intention in seeking the restraining order that [Father] never have a relationship with his daughter?
A: No. I didn't even think it was possible at the time, no.
Q: Did you think that you would be keeping him from seeing his daughter for an extended period of time?
On the issue of child support, Mother testified that when she was seeking the initial restraining order, Father represented to the general sessions court that he had a job lined up in Wyoming and that he would be able to make enough money there to enable him to pay child support. Mother testified as follows:
And his argument was, If I take it, . . . I am going to make $5, 000 a month, and I'll be able to pay child support, and I will be on my own, and be out of the area.
When asked whether Father provided any support for Anna after the restraining order expired in February 2012, Mother replied that he had not:
Q: And let's focus on February 2012 forward because there were no orders restraining him in any way. Has he contacted you since February 2012?
Q: Has he ever sent anything for Kate?
Q: Has [Father] ever paid child ...