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In re E.G.H.

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

April 14, 2015

In re E.G.H. et al.

Assigned on Briefs December 10, 2014

Appeal from the Chancery Court for Knox County No. 184039-3 Michael W. Moyers, Chancellor

S.J. (Mother) challenges the order terminating her[1] parental rights to her minor children, E.G.H. and E.W.H. (collectively, the Children). The Children were removed from Mother's custody as a result of (1) Mother's drug use during pregnancy as well as (2) domestic violence in the home. In 2009, a year after the Children came into state custody, they were placed in the custody of an uncle, V.E.E. (Uncle), and his wife, J.G.E. (Aunt) (collectively, Petitioners). In 2012, Petitioners filed a petition seeking termination of the biological parents' rights and the adoption of the Children. Following a trial, the court found, by clear and convincing evidence, that Mother abandoned the Children by willfully failing to visit them. By the same evidentiary standard, the court determined that termination is in the Children's best interest. On this appeal, Mother challenges the sufficiency of the evidence proffered to establish a ground for termination and the trial court's best interest decision. We affirm.

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

Joshua Hedrick, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the appellant, S.J.

Allison J. Starnes-Anglea, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the appellees, V.E.E. and J.G.E.

Mary Lynn Mathis, Knoxville, Tennessee, guardian ad litem. [2]

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




Mother and Father were never married to each other. The couple resided in the state of Kentucky when a daughter, E.G.H., was born to them in 2008. A son, E.W.H., was born in Kentucky the following year. In the month following the birth of E.W.H., the Cabinet for Families and Children, a Kentucky state agency, took custody of the Children because of evidence that E.W.H. was born with drugs in his system and due to allegations of domestic violence in the parents' home. The Children were placed with a foster family in Kentucky.

In June 2008, a permanency plan was developed in Kentucky that required Mother to complete certain tasks supporting a return of the Children to Mother. Initially, Mother made some progress. A July 2008 progress report states that she began parenting classes, passed a drug screen, and regularly exercised visitation with the Children. However, by September 2008, Mother was having problems securing stable housing and had failed a drug screen. To her credit, she had passed two other drug screens. In August 2009, Mother gave birth to a third child. That child was also removed from her custody and Mother consented to the child's adoption. Mother said her "life was in disarray" and she found herself headed to jail.

When the Children first entered foster care, Mother was admittedly unable to get off drugs. After discussing her situation with her mother, C.J. (Grandmother), [3] Mother approached child services staff to pursue placing the Children with relatives while she focused on her problems. When Petitioners, who resided in Knoxville, learned that their niece and nephew were in foster care, they traveled to Kentucky for supervised visits with the Children. Following an April 2009 hearing, custody of the Children was transferred to Petitioners. The Children were moved to Petitioners' home in Knoxville, where they remained throughout the duration of the Tennessee proceedings. The custody order provided that visitation by Mother would be at Petitioners' discretion.

Mother, who remained in Kentucky, had no contact with the Children after they moved to Tennessee. On October 31, 2012, Petitioners filed a petition for adoption that also sought the termination of Mother's and Father's parental rights. In December 2012, the family court in Kentucky ordered jurisdiction of the Children's case transferred to Tennessee, which had been the Children's "home state" since 2009. The Tennessee trial court held a one-day bench trial in May 2014. At that time, E.G.H. was six and E.W.H. was five.

The proof was to the effect that Mother continued to struggle with her drug addiction and other issues. Cocaine was her drug of choice. She admitted that she was not capable of caring for the Children in the 2009-2011 period. She said that she did not make earlier efforts to contact the Children because of stints in jail or time spent attending drug treatment programs. In later testimony, Mother clarified her remarks to reflect that she quit the drug rehabilitation program after 90 days and elected to return to prison and serve out her jail sentence. She conceded that she attended three drug programs in all and completed none of them. She explained, "I was tired, and when you are tired, you are just done." At the time of trial, Mother was on five years' probation as a result of a 2012 burglary conviction. She agreed she had been in "a lot of trouble" in the past, but testified that she reported monthly to her probation officer and was in compliance with the conditions of her probation.

Mother submitted that she was now ready to parent the Children. Initially, however, she sought only visitation and the opportunity to "reconnect" with the Children. She maintained that she had become "clean and sober, " ended her abusive relationship with Father, and obtained her own housing. She had completed domestic violence and parenting classes, underwent an alcohol and drug assessment and attended some drug therapy sessions. Mother suffered from epilepsy and relied for her support on the social security disability ...

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