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In re La'Trianna W.

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

December 15, 2016

IN RE LA'TRIANNA W., ET AL.

          Assigned on Briefs November 1, 2016

         Appeal from the Juvenile Court for Knox County No. 93877 Timothy E. Irwin, Judge

         This is a termination of parental rights case. Appellant/Mother appeals the trial court's termination of her parental rights to two minor children on the ground of mental incompetence and on its finding that termination of Appellant's parental rights is in the children's best interests. Discerning no error, we affirm.

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

          Ben H. Houston, II, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the appellant, La'Treese W.

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

          Kenny Armstrong, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Andy D. Bennett and Thomas R. Frierson, II, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          KENNY ARMSTRONG, JUDGE.

         I. Background

         This case involves two minor children, La'Trianna W. (born May 2012) and La'Skylar W. (born June 2015).[1] Both children were born out of wedlock to La'Treese W. ("Mother" or "Appellant"). The Tennessee Department of Children's Services ("DCS" or "Appellee") became involved with this family in August 2013, when it received a referral that La'Trianna had been seen at a local hospital.[2] The child was reported to be malnourished and dirty. Shortly thereafter, DCS placed services in the home. However, in December of 2013, DCS received a second report of harm, alleging that Mother had intellectual delays and was unable to properly care for the child. When DCS visited the home in December of 2013, La'Trianna wore only a diaper, and Mother failed to properly dress the child after being prompted by the DCS case manager. The case manager noted that the family was "basically living in one room with an electric skillet, a griddle and a fryer within reach of the child." DCS made arrangements for additional in-home services to assist Mother.

         On March 20, 2014, DCS filed a petition in the Juvenile Court for Knox County ("trial court") to remove La'Trianna from Mother's home. The trial court removed La'Trianna to protective custody on the same day. On June 16, 2014, the trial court entered an agreed order adjudicating La'Trianna as a dependent and neglected child based on environmental neglect, lack of supervision, domestic violence, and mental health issues of the parent.

         After La'Trianna was removed from her custody, Mother lived with several men. Mother told the DCS case manager, Leaha Burke, that she frequently met men at the bus station or the public library, moved them into her apartment, and engaged in sexual relationships with them. At DCS's behest, Mother also completed a psychological evaluation. The intake form notes that Mother appeared inappropriately dressed and smelling of body odor. During the evaluation, Mother blamed her boyfriends or the lies of the person(s) who reported her to DCS for the child's removal. Mother's IQ was determined to be 66, which indicates that she is functioning within a mentally challenged range of intelligence. The evaluation noted that Mother is likely to struggle with the basic tasks of daily living and will need continued support especially when dealing with the complicated challenges of raising a child.

         In the Fall of 2014, Mother became pregnant with La'Skylar, who was born in June of 2015. Mother told Ms. Burke that she met La'Skylar's father on the street near the public library and that the couple had intercourse in a public park that day. After La'Trianna was removed from her custody, Mother attended vocational counseling; however, she stopped attending during her pregnancy with La'Skylar. Mother also completed a parenting assessment with a licensed professional counselor. The assessment concluded that Mother "did not have the ability to be attuned to, anticipate, acknowledge and appropriately meet the complex and demanding needs of parenting a child." The counselor noted that Mother makes decision in the interests of her own emotional and physical needs, which often puts the children at risk.

         During Mother's pregnancy with La'Skylar, Mother frequently moved residences. Mother would stay at her own apartment until the utilities were turned off for nonpayment, then move to her grandmother's house. At her grandmother's house, Mother fought with her sister and left her grandmother's house to live with La'Trianna's father, who has a history of domestic violence against Mother. Eventually, Mother returned to live in her apartment. At her apartment, Mother continued to move men into her residence and engage in sexual relationships with them. These paramours included a man whom Mother met at a bus station, a man whom Mother met on a social media website, and a man who followed Mother home and began bringing stolen property into her apartment. Mother also allowed a woman, who was attempting to leave a violent relationship involving illegal drugs, to live in her apartment. After Mother gave birth to La'Skylar in June of 2015, she left the hospital to live with her grandmother.

         DCS provided Mother with therapeutic visitation with La'Trianna; however, the record indicates that Mother struggled to develop a relationship with the child. Renee Stegall, a therapist who supervised the interaction between Mother and the children, stated that Mother required frequent prompting concerning proper parenting skills, but still experienced problems "remaining engaged with [La'Trianna], not understanding the age appropriate limitation that La'Trianna had during visits, [and] expect[ing] her to do more than she was able to do." Ms. Stegall testified that she would not recommend that Mother have unsupervised parenting time with La'Trianna. When La'Skylar was born, Mother's interactions with La'Trianna worsened. Mother focused on the younger child and had to be prompted to interact with La'Trianna. Mother could not remember or retain any of the information she received through the visitation. Caseworker, Leigh Anne Goldstine, who conducted the visits, opined that, without a structured environment, Mother could not care for the children on her own.[3] Ms. Goldstine also was concerned by the fact that Mother made dangerous decisions in moving strangers into her residence and that Mother failed to understand that these decisions placed Mother at risk of harm and endangered the children.

         On March 3, 2015, DCS filed a petition to terminate Mother's parental rights to La'Trianna. On June 17, 2015, DCS filed a second petition to terminate Mother's parental rights to La'Skylar. As grounds, for both petitions, DCS averred that Mother was incompetent to care for the children and that the conditions that led to the children's removal from Mother's home still persisted despite DCS's reasonable efforts to help her. The petitions to terminate Mother's parental rights to La'Trianna and La'Skylar were consolidated and heard by the trial court on July 23, 2015.

         On August 17, 2015, before the trial court entered an order on the hearing, Mother filed two separate notices of appeal (discussed infra) to the Circuit Court of Knox County. After the appeal was filed in the circuit court, the trial court entered an order terminating Mother's parental rights to the two children on September 22, 2015. The trial court found, by clear and convincing evidence, that Mother was

incompetent to adequately provide for the further care and supervision of the children because [Mother's] mental condition is presently so impaired and is so likely to remain impaired that it is unlikely that [Mother] will be able to assume the care and responsibility of the children in the near future.

         Following entry of the September 22, 2015 order terminating her parental rights, Mother took no further action to appeal the trial court's decision. However, on or about March 31, 2016, the circuit court entered an order, stating, in relevant part, that:

[Mother's] notice of appeal [i.e., the first August 17, 2015 notice of appeal to the circuit court] indicated that both appeals, the first concerning the finding that the minor children were dependent and neglected and the second appealing the termination of the parent's parental rights, were done on the same Notice. Accordingly, [Mother's] appeal of the termination of [her] parental rights was not sent to the Court of Appeals. This Court does not have jurisdiction to hear the [termination of parental rights] matter. Jurisdiction for th[e] appeal [of the order terminating Mother's parental rights] lies in the Court of Appeals. This error was not caught by the . . . Circuit Court Clerk or this Judge until it was recently pointed out by the [DCS's] attorney.
Based on the foregoing findings, [the circuit court] now Orders as follows:
1. The . . . appeal of the termination of . . . parental rights shall be transferred to the Court of Appeals, having exclusive jurisdiction for the determination of that issue.
2. The . . . Circuit Court Clerk is directed to make a certified copy of the Notice of Appeal that was filed in the Juvenile Court and transmitted to this Court as part of the Juvenile Court record, and forward it, along with a certified copy of this Order, to the Court of Appeals.
3. That the Order be sent to the Clerk of the Knox County Juvenile Court to alert them to the need to prepare and send to the Court of Appeals the record for the appeal of the termination of parental rights.
4. This case is set for trial in [the circuit court] on August 3, 2016, as to the issue of Dependent and Neglect.

         Mother's first August 17, 2015 notice of appeal was transmitted to this Court and stamped "Received" on July 6, 2016.

         II. Issues

Appellant raises the following issues for review, as stated in her brief:
1. The trial [c]ourt erred by terminating… the parental rights of the Mother for mental incompetence pursuant to Tenn. Code. Ann. § 36-1-113(g)(8).
2. The trial [c]ourt erred by finding that a termination of the Mother's parental rights was in the best interests of her children.
DCS raises the following additional issue:
1. This Court lacks jurisdiction because Mother did not timely file her notice of appeal.

         III. ...


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