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In re Dillon E.

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

November 15, 2016

IN RE: DILLON E.

         Appeal from the Juvenile Court for Montgomery County No. 15-JV-1825 Tim Barnes, Judge

         This appeal concerns termination of a mother's parental rights. The Tennessee

         Department of Children's Services ("DCS") filed a petition in the Juvenile Court for Montgomery County ("the Juvenile Court") seeking to terminate the parental rights of Autumn N. ("Mother") to her minor child, Dillon E. ("the Child"). The central issue of this parental rights case is Mother's alleged prescription drug abuse. After a trial, the Juvenile Court found that four grounds were proven against Mother sufficient to terminate her parental rights to the Child, and that termination of her parental rights was in the Child's best interest.[1] Mother appeals the termination of her parental rights to this Court. DCS argues that the Juvenile Court erred in declining to find one additional ground for termination. We affirm the judgment of the Juvenile Court in its entirety.

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

          Elizabeth D. Rankin, Clarksville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Autumn N.

          Herbert H. Slatery, III, Attorney General and Reporter, and, M. Cameron Himes, Assistant Attorney General, for the appellee, the Tennessee Department of Children's Services.

          D. Michael Swiney, C.J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which W. Neal McBrayer and Brandon O. Gibson, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          D. MICHAEL SWINEY, CHIEF JUDGE

         Background

         The Child was born to Mother in July 2004. In March 2013, the Child was taken into DCS custody following an incident where Mother, after having taken prescription drugs, was found passed out in a vehicle at a Taco Bell parking lot with the Child as a passenger in the car. Mother was charged with DUI, a charge that later was dismissed. DCS filed a petition for dependency and neglect. The Child subsequently was found to be dependent and neglected. Mother requested that an Aunt care for the Child, but DCS apparently contacted the wrong person, a mistake Mother cites in her argument on appeal. The Child remained with the state. In June 2015, DCS filed a petition seeking to terminate Mother's parental rights to the Child. The case was tried over the course of several days in December 2015, and January and March of 2016.

         Mother testified that she visited the Child whenever she was permitted. Mother stated that DCS was difficult to communicate with and, at times, ignored her calls. Mother's visitations with the Child often were marked by problems such as Mother dozed off or her speech was slurred. Mother testified that during the applicable four-month period, she worked at the Sportman's Bar and earned $150 per week. Mother had attempted to obtain disability income but had been unsuccessful. Mother testified that she gave the Child various gifts including a Lego set worth $100, clothing, and toys. Mother also made a single child support payment of $85.64 in November 2014, even though she was required by order to pay $339 per month. The evidence reflects that earlier Mother paid $1, 075 per month for her prescription medication in Clarksville. Mother later had her prescriptions filled for $275 per month in Paris, Tennessee. In the relevant four month period, Mother purchased approximately $2, 000 worth of prescription drugs.

         Mother's second caseworker, Cotrena Jones, never visited Mother's home unannounced because she did not feel safe around Mother. Nevertheless, certain of DCS's permanency plans reflected that Mother had provided a good home. Mother gave up her housing to go to a rehab center called Renewal House. According to Mother, a DCS caseworker then told her they no longer wanted her to attend that program, and Mother was left without a home. The DCS caseworker contradicted that account, stating instead that Mother was evicted from her home.

         Mother suffered from back problems which led to her taking prescription drugs. Mother testified that she completed all of the requirements of her first permanency plan, including having a suitable home, a job, and visiting the Child. Mother attended rehab at Genesis Rehabilitation in Kentucky. Mother, however, stopped providing pill counts to DCS after a DCS worker allegedly dropped Mother's pills on a bathroom floor. Mother testified:

Q. Were you making your pills available for pill counts?
A. Yes, until they dropped them all over the floor.
Q. Excuse me?
A. Yes, I did, until they dropped them all over the floor and they went everywhere.
Q. Who dropped them all over the floor? Could you explain what happened?
A. She was counting my pills and dropped --
Q. Who is "she"?
A. I'm trying to think of who it was. I've had so many caseworkers. Whoever the caseworker was at this time.
Q. At which time?
A. At the time of this permanency plan.
Q. Of this second permanency plan?
A. I believe so.
Q. Okay. So what did the caseworker at this time allegedly do with your pills?
A. Dropped them.
Q. Okay.
A. They went everywhere.
Q. Okay. Did you recover them? Did you pick them up?
A. As best as I could.
Q. Okay. And from that point --
A. Hopefully nobody else found them, a child or anything. I don't know.
Q. So from that point forward, you never again provided your pills for DCS to - -
A. Not really, no. That's the only thing I didn't do.
Q. And why not?
A. Because I was probably missing some. I don't remember at the time if I was missing pills when she dropped them or not.

         No DCS worker at trial corroborated that the pill dropping incident ever took place. Mother denied she had a problem with prescription drugs. However, Mother testified that when she does not take her medication, she gets the shakes, hot and cold sweats, and cannot move. DCS workers testified to various excuses Mother made for refusing drug tests: she did not have a ride; she could not walk because of a bad knee; even that a spider bit her.

         Angela Brown, a family service worker for DCS, testified:

Q. From the time that this permanency plan - the new permanency plan from August 2014 was created until you transferred the case in January of 2015, what efforts did you make to assist [Mother] to comply with those tasks?
A. For her outpatient to meet the terms of following the recommendations of her release from Genesis. I requested funding for intensive outpatient with Health Connect, and it was approved.
Q. Did [Mother] attend?
A. No.
Q. Was she made aware that you had obtained funding for that?
A. Yes.
Q. Do you have any idea why she didn't attend that?
A. Initially, she was happy to do it, but when we left court one day and I was talking to her about it, she had reservations about why she did not want to do it. To her -- she explained to me that she felt that, you know, she had completed inpatient and she should not be required to do anything else.
Q. And during this time period, did you continue to conduct the random drug screens?
A. Yes, I did try to.
Q. Okay. And I'm sorry if I've already asked this. Was she compliant with drug screens on a regular basis?
A. No.
Q. And what efforts did you make to conduct those drugs -- those drug screens?
A. I called her by phone; I went to the house; I, you know, explained that I could transport her to the office, ...

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