Assigned on Briefs December 2, 2016
from the Chancery Court for Maury County No. A-049-14 Robert
L. Jones, Judge
and stepmother petitioned to terminate the parental rights of
mother to her two children. We have determined that the
petitioners proved by clear and convincing evidence that
mother's actions prior to her incarceration exhibited
wanton disregard for the welfare of the children and that it
is in the best interest of the children for mother's
parental rights to be terminated.
R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Chancery
Bledsoe Jones, Columbia, Tennessee, for the appellant, Ashley
G. Freemon, Columbia, Tennessee, for the appellees, R.D.B.
and Amy E.B.
D. Bennett, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which
Charles D. Susano, Jr., J., and J. Steven Stafford, P.J.,
D. BENNETT, JUDGE
and Procedural Background
("Father") and Ashley M.H. ("Mother") are
the biological parents of A.B. and R.B. ("the
children"). Father is now married to Amy E.B.
("Stepmother"). In December 2014, Father and
Stepmother ("the petitioners") filed a petition to
terminate the parental rights of Mother ("the
respondent") and for the adoption of the children by
Stepmother in the Maury County chancery court. According to the
petition, the children had been in Father's custody since
February 2013 pursuant to an order of the Maury County
juvenile court, and Mother was currently incarcerated in the
Maury County jail. The trial court appointed a guardian ad
litem ("GAL") to represent the interests of the
children in January 2015.
and Stepmother were permitted to file an amended petition to
terminate in March 2015 and to add the ground for termination
at issue in this appeal. They alleged that Mother had
abandoned the children by engaging in conduct prior to
incarceration that exhibited a wanton disregard for the
welfare of the children. See Tenn. Code Ann. §
36-1-102(1)(A)(iv). The case was heard on May 4 and 5, 2016.
The sole basis for termination argued at trial was
abandonment by wanton disregard.
at the Hearing
petitioners' first witness was Mother. She testified that
she and Father were in a relationship, off and on, from 2007
until 2012, during which time the two children were born (in
July 2008 and March 2011). By May 2012, when the relationship
had ended, Mother and Father alternated custody on a
acknowledged that, in January 2010, she pled guilty in
general sessions court to theft of merchandise in Walmart;
she was placed on probation and told to stay out of the
store. A few months later, she was charged in circuit court
with possession of scheduled drugs for resale and was
sentenced to three years' probation at thirty percent. In
December 2011, Mother was charged with a first offense DUI,
to which she pled guilty; that charge was tied in with her
other charges to run concurrently with her three-year
sentence. As a result of the DUI offense, Mother received a
forty-five-day sentence for violation of probation, and she
was only required to serve half of that sentence. Mother
testified that, while she was incarcerated, the children
stayed with her parents and with Father's parents because
he was also incarcerated at that time.
November 2012, Mother called Father in the middle of the
night saying that she had been threatened by someone and that
he needed to keep the children. She left Columbia, Tennessee
on December 5 and went to Memphis. Mother testified that her
reason for going to Memphis was that, beginning in October
2012, she had gotten involved with a man named Glenn Miller
and that "he had did something and I was in fear."
Their relationship ended on December 12, 2012, when Mother
went to jail in Davidson County, Tennessee, charged with
felony possession of a firearm, driving on a suspended
license, and alteration of a serial number. Mother was
erroneously released from jail in Davidson County in July
2013; she was still supposed to be incarcerated in Maury
County on violations of probation. Mother turned herself in
in Maury County in August 2013 and was incarcerated there
until December 4, 2014.
admitted to having a history of drug abuse, including the use
of drugs (marijuana, cocaine, opiates, and Xanax) since her
release from jail in 2014. She testified that, at the time of
the hearing, it had been a month since she had used drugs.
Mother admitted that, when she took a drug screen after the
filing of the petition, she failed for marijuana.
testified about her involvement with Mr. Miller. Shortly
after their relationship began, Mother realized that he was
in a gang and was engaged in some activity that scared her.
Mr. Miller had a gun that did not belong to him. The two of
them went to Memphis for a few days because they were being
threatened. On the way back to Nashville, they were pulled
over by the police. The gun was in the car. Mother further
Q. Can you tell me what happened when you were pulled over on
your way back from Memphis?
A. When we got pulled over, the cop asked what our names was
and ran his name and it came back that he had a warrant down
here so they automatically handcuffed him, and me being
scared, being my car, the gun was in my car, I just-I kind of
panicked and I put it on my person.
Q. Put what on your person?
A. The gun.
Q. Was the gun yours?
Q. Why did you put it on your person?
A. Because at that time, I didn't think that-I didn't
think that I was going to get in any kind of trouble at all.
I really wasn't thinking at all.
Q. So were you trying to keep yourself out of trouble.
A. Yes. Yes.
Q. Do you see in retrospect that was a bad idea?
Q. Did the officer ask you or tell you he was going to
A. Yes. He told me he was going to search and did I have
anything on me or in my car that he needed to know about.
Q. And what did you do at that time?
A. I told him yes, and he asked me what it was, and I told
him, and he asked where it was, and I showed him, and he ...