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In re M.P.H.

Court of Appeals of Tennessee

June 15, 2015

In re M.P.H.

Assigned on Briefs April 30, 2015

Appeal from the Juvenile Court for Meigs County No. 2014-JC-3 Jayne Johnston-Crowley, Judge

J.L.W. (Mother) appeals from the order terminating her parental rights to her minor daughter, M.P.H. (the Child). [1] Based on evidence of Mother's drug abuse, the Department of Children's Services (DCS) removed the Child from Mother's custody and placed her in foster care. The Child was later adjudicated dependent and neglected. Eighteen months after the Child's removal, DCS filed a petition to terminate each of her parents' rights. After a trial, the court granted the petition. As to Mother, the court found, by clear and convincing evidence, that (1) multiple grounds for termination exist, and (2) termination is in the Child's best interest. Mother challenges each of these determinations. We affirm.

Wilton Marble, Cleveland, Tennessee, for the appellant, J.L.W.

Herbert H. Slatery, III, Attorney General and Reporter, and Alexander S. Rieger, 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.

During their brief relationship, Mother and Father used methamphetamine together. Soon after Father was incarcerated on drug charges, Mother discovered she was pregnant. Around the same time, Mother moved in with her new paramour, J.H. The Child was born to Mother in September 2007. At that time, Father remained incarcerated. J.H. was listed as the Child's father on her birth certificate. In March 2009, the Child was first placed in state custody as a result of Mother's illicit drug use. Mother regained custody some ten months later. In 2011, DNA testing confirmed Father's paternity of the Child. In June 2012, Child Protective Services (CPS) investigated new allegations that the Child was drug exposed and lacked supervision. After Mother failed a drug screen, she became "mad" in general and was unwilling to discuss a temporary placement for the night with a relative, so the Child was taken into state custody. In September 2012, the Child, as stipulated by Mother, was adjudicated dependent and neglected as a result of Mother's drug abuse. On January 2, 2014, some eighteen months after the Child's removal, DCS filed a petition to terminate Mother's parental rights. A one-day bench trial was held on August 29, 2014.

The proof at trial generally focused on Mother's choices and life decisions leading up to and since the Child's removal. Following high school graduation, Mother completed vocational training in 2002 to become a certified nurse anesthetist. Mother, thirty-three at trial, testified that she began using methamphetamine at twenty-five and continued until the Child was removed the first time. Mother testified she completed a drug treatment program in 2009, stayed drug-free for the next two years, then resumed her drug use, and lost custody again. Following the most recent custody episode, Mother continued her habit and tested positive for methamphetamine in May 2013, and again in November. Mother's drug use led to a criminal history. In 2006, she was convicted of three misdemeanor drug-related offenses; in 2007, she was convicted of simple possession of methamphetamine; and in 2013, she was jailed on a probation violation after failing a drug screen. At trial, Mother testified that she would not be surprised to learn that the Child had reported being afraid while she lived with Mother and had memories of hiding from the police and moving homes to avoid "bad people."

The removal of the Child was not Mother's first involvement with DCS. At the time of trial, Mother had five children in all, each with a different father, and none were in her legal custody. In September 2011, Mother began a new relationship with a J.W., a married man. She characterized their relationship as "volatile" and "rough" for the first year and a half, with physical aggression between them and J.W. being mentally abusive toward her. Mother and J.W. had a child together. In March 2013, the infant was removed from their home after repeated domestic disturbances at least six times in which police were summoned. In March 2014, Mother and J.W. were married.

In June 2012, DCS developed a permanency plan with a goal of returning the Child to Mother. The plan required Mother to maintain visitation, pay child support, undergo an alcohol and drug assessment and follow all recommendations, submit to random drug screens and remain drug-free; maintain stable housing, stable income and provide proof of income to DCS. According to the case manager, Mother signed the plan, repeatedly agreed to do certain tasks, but never did, and sometimes "disappeared" for weeks at a time.

In November 2012, the Child's case was transferred to DCS case manager Wallace Fowler. Initially, Mother made progress and, by early 2013, Mr. Fowler felt that "things were looking very good." Mother passed two drug screens, was employed part-time at a retail store, and began attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Mother visited the Child consistently and case managers observed her to interact well with the Child, although Mother was often late and sometimes distracted by her guests or her cell phone during visits. Mother was granted unsupervised visits and DCS made plans to return the Child to Mother on a trial basis. According to Mr. Fowler, by March 2013, Mother's and J.W.'s relationship "exploded" and they began hurling accusations and filing complaints and petitions against each other. In May, Mother failed a drug screen, and in June she was arrested for assaulting J.W. By June 2013, the Child's trial home placement was cancelled; Mother was then staying with a friend, and she had not worked since having the baby. For three to four months, Mother missed many visits with the Child, before resuming more regular contact in the summer of 2013. Mr. Fowler testified he initiated termination proceedings because the Child was in foster care for over a year when Mother, within a 90-day span, essentially went from being ready to regain custody to spiraling downward – she lost stable housing and was unemployed, tested positive for methamphetamine, and was arrested and jailed for a month. Despite pursuing termination, Mr. Fowler referred Mother for a clinical parenting assessment to look for an underlying reason for her instability and repeated failure to achieve reunification with the Child. At trial, Mr. Fowler agreed that most recently, Mother had shown renewed progress: In 2014, she passed voluntary drug screens, was employed for the past nine months, had suitable housing with J.W., and completed outpatient drug treatment. Mr. Fowler admitted that, as of the trial date, Mother appeared to be in a stable situation and had completed most requirements of the permanency plan.

Dr. William Wray testified as an expert clinical and developmental psychologist. In June 2013, Dr. Wray evaluated Mother to determine her psychological stability and ability to parent. He found no evidence of any mental condition, but concluded that Mother had a "mixed" personality disorder as evidenced by her "fairly tumultuous lifestyle changes" and erratic behavior to that point. His formal diagnosis was "personality disorder NOS (not otherwise specified), " a chronic, long-term disorder characterized by emotional and behavioral instability. Beginning in August 2013, Mother attended counseling sessions with Angela Womack, an alcohol and drug counselor, regarding her methamphetamine use and her relationship with J.W. Over a two-month period, Ms. Womack counseled Mother and J.W. some ten times, most often when they called during an altercation. After two months, no real progress was made. Ms. Womack discontinued the sessions following a particularly heated dispute during which Mother and J.W. argued and began throwing objects around the house and Mother accused Ms. Womack of sleeping with J.W.

At the time of trial, the Child was seven. She had been in foster care for half her life, and had remained with the same, pre-adoptive foster family for the past two years. Her case manager observed her to be well-adjusted there, with no special needs or concerns. The Child shared a home with her foster parents' three biological children and two other recently adopted siblings. Foster mother testified that all the children interacted well and thought of each other as brothers and sisters.

For her part, Mother remained living with J.W. and they were awaiting a hearing regarding custody of their child. According to Mother, their rental home was in foreclosure and they had not made a payment the past two months because they planned to buy a home of their own with a loan that Mother's grandfather had cosigned. Mother was planning to change jobs within the same health care company, but had not yet informed her current supervisor. She admitted she had been "written up" a few times at work for things she claimed were not her responsibility. Asked how she could be sure that she would not relapse again, Mother asserted that this time was "different" in that she "finally just grew up out of it" and wanted her children back.

At the conclusion of the trial, the court terminated Mother's parental rights. The court found clear and convincing evidence of grounds for termination based on (1) Mother's failure to comply substantially with the terms of a permanency plan and (2) a persistence of the conditions that led to the Child's removal. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-1-113(g)(2), (3)(2014). Also by clear and convincing evidence, the court found that termination is in the Child's best interest. Mother filed a timely notice of appeal.

II.

Mother raises issues for our review that we restate ...


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