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In re Eddie F.

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

December 2, 2016


          Assigned on Briefs October 4, 2016

          Direct Appeal from the Juvenile Court for Sullivan County No. J41108 Mark Toohey, Judge

          This appeal involves the termination of a mother's parental rights to her four children by two different fathers. Mother contested the termination, but the fathers ultimately did not. The trial court found by clear and convincing evidence that several grounds for termination exist and that termination is in the best interests of the Children. The mother appeals. For the following reasons, we reverse the trial court's finding that Mother abandoned her children by failing to provide a suitable home. We also reverse the trial court's finding that Mother failed to substantially comply with the requirements of her permanency plans. However, we conclude that there is clear and convincing evidence to support the other grounds for termination relied upon by the trial court and that the termination of Mother's parental rights is in the Children's best interest.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Juvenile Court Reversed in part, Affirmed in part, and Remanded

          Elizabeth Alexander Brady, Sevierville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Latasha A.

          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.

          Daniel J. Cantwell, Guardian Ad Litem.

          Brandon O. Gibson, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Frank G. Clement, Jr., P.J., M.S., and John W. McClarty, J., joined.



         I. Facts & Procedural History

         Appellant, Latasha A.[1] ("Mother") is the mother of four young children: Eddie F., born April 2008, Emily F., born January 2010, Bralynn F., born January 2012, and Bryan F., born January 2013. Eddie F., II is the father of the older two children, Eddie F. and Emily F., and Jonathon F. is the father of the younger two children, Bralynn F. and Bryan F. (collectively the "Children").[2] On October 1, 2013, the Department of Children's Services ("DCS") was granted an Emergency Protective Custody Order of the Children based on allegations of environmental neglect, drug exposure, and lack of adequate food in the home. At the time the Children were removed, Mother and Jonathan F., who was also living in the home, tested positive for THC, Oxycodone, and Buprenorphine. Subsequently, both Mother and Jonathan F. stipulated to a finding of dependency and neglect.

         Over the next several months, DCS and Mother engaged in efforts to reunite Mother with the Children. To this end, at least four permanency plans were created and ratified by the Sullivan County Juvenile Court as orders of the court. These plans set forth requirements for Mother to satisfy before the Children could safely be returned home. For the most part, each new plan reiterated the requirements of the initial plan, but the subsequent plans were updated slightly to reflect the recommendations of Mother's parenting and drug and alcohol assessments. Mother entered into the initial permanency plan on October 23, 2013, and updated plans followed on March 14, 2014, August 27, 2014, and March 12, 2015. In relevant part, the plans included the following requirements for Mother: participate in alcohol and drug assessment and follow recommendations; complete Women's Recovery drug rehabilitation program; submit to and pass random drug screens; provide a safe, stable, child appropriate home; not engage in criminal activity; maintain food and child necessities in the home; demonstrate ability to provide and care for the children; sign releases for all healthcare providers, emergency rooms, and pharmacies; notify DCS of all medical appointments, and notify as soon as possible after emergencies; notify DCS prior to filling any narcotic prescriptions; notify all treating physicians of past drug addiction; provide proof of legal means to financially support the children; provide a reliable means of transportation for herself and the children; and complete a parenting assessment and follow recommendations.

          Mother was referred to Dr. Helen Lane with Families Free on November 13, 2013, to conduct a parenting assessment. Over the next couple of months, Dr. Lane determined that Mother was borderline mentally challenged and that the risk for neglect for the Children was very high. Mother began parenting education and visitations with the Children as provided through Camelot Care Services ("Camelot"). Initially, Mother's counselor with Camelot was Ms. Brenda Harper. During that time, Mother did well with her parenting skills training, her visits with the Children were consistent, and she was appropriate in her interactions with the Children. Mother completed her alcohol and drug assessment at Frontier Health in November 2013. They recommended that Mother complete the Women's Recovery Services Treatment Program, which consisted of some 60 classes, and Mother completed that program. She completed both her parenting skills program and anger management program in early 2014. Ms. Harper was eventually taken off of Mother's case due to her workload, and Mr. Kyle Gregg replaced her as Mother's counselor with Camelot from March 2014 through the duration of the trial, although he last visited with Mother and the children during June or July of 2015. According to Mr. Gregg, during his time with Mother, she was still having trouble supervising all four children at once.

         Mother's visitations went well in the beginning, so in May 2014, DCS began to seek court approval for a trial home pass. However, due to a Child Protective Services ("CPS") investigation, the trial home pass was ultimately delayed until September 2014. Mother was incarcerated from September 24, 2014, until September 25, 2014. The trial home pass then began on September 29, 2014. Mother voluntarily revoked that pass the next day for the younger two children, Bralynn F. and Bryan F., because they were inconsolably crying for their foster mother. Mother told DCS she was having difficulty managing all four children at once. Mother explained to DCS that she would like for the younger two to return to their foster home while she and the older two got acclimated. However, on October 10, 2014, DCS learned that Mother's on-and-off again boyfriend, Mr. Bellew, had been staying in the home and that the police had been called to the home for a domestic violence disturbance in the days prior to the start of the trial home pass. Mother was aware that Mr. Bellew was not approved to be around the children. Therefore, the trial home pass for the two older children was revoked on October 13, 2014.

         After the failed trial home pass, Mother lost touch with DCS for a period of time. Mother was incarcerated for public intoxication on January 10, 2015, and released the same day. Eventually, on April 22, 2015, Mother called DCS and admitted to relapsing and using several illegal drugs between November 2014 and April 2015.[3] On August 25, 2015, Mother was incarcerated for failure to pay child support for the Children, and she remained incarcerated throughout the entirety of the trial court proceedings.

         DCS filed the Petition to Terminate that is the subject of this appeal on May 28, 2015.[4] The petition alleged the following grounds for termination: (1) abandonment by willful failure to support; (2) abandonment by failure to provide a suitable home; (3) substantial noncompliance with permanency plan; and (4) persistent conditions. DCS further alleged that terminating Mother's parental rights was in the best interests of the Children. The hearing on that petition was held over the course of three days -- October 12, 2015, November 23, 2015, and January 27, 2016. The trial court ultimately held that DCS had proven by clear and convincing evidence each of the four aforementioned grounds to terminate Mother's parental rights and that termination was in the best interests of the Children. On February 29, 2016, the Final Decree of Guardianship was filed. The Mother timely filed a notice of appeal to this Court.[5]

         II. Issues Presented

          Mother presents the following issues for review on appeal, which we have restated:

1. Whether the trial court erred in terminating Mother's parental rights on four statutory grounds: abandonment for failure to support, abandonment for failure to provide a suitable home, substantial noncompliance with permanency plans, and persistence of conditions;
2. Whether the trial court erred in finding that terminating Mother's parental rights was in the best ...

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