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In re Casyn B.

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

May 26, 2017

IN RE CASYN B., ET AL.

          Assigned on Briefs April 3, 2017

         Appeal from the Juvenile Court for Coffee County No. 16J0408 Timothy R. Brock, Judge

         A father appeals the termination of his parental rights. The court terminated the father's rights on the grounds of abandonment by engaging in conduct that exhibited wanton disregard for the children's welfare, as well as substantial noncompliance with the permanency plan. The court found that termination was in the children's best interests. Upon our review, we affirm the judgment of the trial court.

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

          C. Brent Keeton, Manchester, Tennessee, for the appellant, Robert B.

          Herbert H. Slatery, III, Attorney General and Reporter; Ellison M. Berryhill, Assistant Attorney General, for the appellee, Tennessee Department of Children's Services. [1]

          Richard H. Dinkins, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which D. Michael Swiney, C. J., and J. Steven Stafford, P. J., W. S., joined.

          OPINION

          RICHARD H. DINKINS, JUDGE

         I. Factual and Procedural History

         Brittany M. ("Mother") and Robert B. ("Father") are parents of three children, two of whom are the subject of this appeal: Casyn B., born in January 2010, and Cayden M., born in November 2012. Father is not listed as the father on Cayden's birth certificate, but he was established as father in an order of legitimation entered January 21, 2014.[2]

         The Tennessee Department Children's Services ("DCS") became involved with the family in November 2013 when it received a referral based on allegations of abuse to Casyn. As stated in the petition to adjudicate dependency and neglect, filed on December 11, 2013, DCS observed during its investigation that the home in which Mother lived was "cluttered with old food and clothes and around 6 adults and 4 children and multiple animals living in the 3-4 bedroom home." When DCS tested Mother for drugs during the investigation, she tested positive and admitted to snorting opiates, Xanax, and "'shake and bake' methamphetamines." The petition alleged that during this time, Father was incarcerated.

         The children were placed in the custody of DCS in December 2013 and settled in a foster home. At a hearing in January 2014, counsel for both parents appeared and waived the parties' right to a formal adjudicatory hearing, and the juvenile court adjudicated Casyn and Cayden to be dependent and neglected by an order entered in March 2014.[3]

         Permanency plans were created in January 2014, June 2014, January 2015, and October 2015; all were ratified by the court. The first three were created during Father's incarceration and required that Father resolve his legal issues and once released, contact DCS "to be added to the permanency plan." At some point during DCS' involvement, Mother surrendered her parental rights to both children, and her rights are not at issue in this appeal.[4] Father was released from prison in September 2015, and a new permanency plan was created in October 2015 that required Father to, inter alia, follow all rules of his parole; not engage in illegal activities or obtain new charges; complete an alcohol and drug assessment; and submit to and pass all random drug screens. Father was arrested in December 2015 for driving on a revoked or suspended license and released on bond; he was arrested again and jailed on numerous charges in February 2016.

         DCS filed a petition to terminate Father's parental rights on May 9, 2016, while Father was incarcerated. The petition alleged as grounds for termination that Father was in substantial noncompliance with the permanency plan, Tennessee Code Annotated sections 36-1-113(g)(2) and 37-2-403(a)(2), and that he had abandoned the children by failing to visit or support them and by engaging in conduct that evidenced wanton disregard for their welfare, pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated sections 36-1-113(g)(1) and 36-1-102(1)(A)(iv). It also alleged that termination was in the best interest of both children.

         A trial was held on July 25 before the Juvenile Court of Coffee County. DCS called Father, DCS case manager Seandra Dartis, and DCS team leader Eric Coure to testify. Eighteen exhibits were entered without objection. Father presented no additional witnesses or proof. At the conclusion of the trial, the court made oral findings of fact and granted the petition. An order of termination was entered on August 22, terminating Father's parental rights on the grounds of substantial noncompliance with the permanency plan and abandonment by conduct that exhibited wanton disregard for the welfare of the children, and upon a finding that termination was in the children's best interest.

Father appeals, articulating the following issue:
Is there sufficient evidence in the record shown by clear and convincing evidence, after a de novo review, to support the statutory grounds for termination of parental rights of the Appellant as well as that the termination of parental rights was in the best interests of the subject children?

         II. Standard of Review

         Parents have a fundamental right to the care, custody, and control of their children. Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 645, 651 (1972); In re Adoption of A.M.H., 215 S.W.3d 793, 809 (Tenn. 2007). However, that right is not absolute and may be terminated in certain circumstances. Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745, 753-54 (1982); State Dep't of Children's Serv. v. C.H.K., 154 S.W.3d 586, 589 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2004). The statutes on termination of parental rights provide the only authority for a court to terminate a parent's rights. Osborn v. Marr, 127 S.W.3d 737, 739 (Tenn. 2004). Thus, parental rights may be terminated only where a statutorily defined ground exists. Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-1-113(c)(1); Jones v. Garrett, 92 S.W.3d 835, 838 (Tenn. 2002); In re M.W.A., 980 S.W.2d 620, 622 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1998). To support the termination of parental rights, only one ground need be proved, so long as it is proved by clear and convincing evidence. In the Matter of D.L.B., 118 S.W.3d 360, 367 (Tenn. 2003).

         Because the decision to terminate parental rights affects fundamental constitutional rights and carries grave consequences, courts must apply a higher standard of proof when adjudicating termination cases. Santosky, 455 U.S. at 766-69. A court may terminate a person's parental rights only if (1) the existence of at least one statutory ground is proved by clear and convincing evidence and (2) it is shown, also by clear and convincing evidence that termination of the parent's rights is in the best interest of the child. Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-1-113(c); In re Adoption of A.M.H., 215 S.W.3d at 808-09; In re Valentine, 79 S.W.3d 539, 546 (Tenn. 2002). In light of the heightened standard of proof in these cases, a reviewing court must adapt the customary standard of review set forth by Tenn. R. App. P. 13(d). In re M.J.B., 140 S.W.3d 643, 654 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2004). As to the court's findings of fact, our review is de novo with a presumption of correctness unless the evidence preponderates otherwise, in accordance with Tenn. R. App. P. 13(d). Id. We must then determine whether the facts, "as found by the trial court or as supported by the preponderance of the evidence, clearly and convincingly establish the elements" necessary to terminate parental rights. Id. In this regard, clear and convincing evidence is "evidence in which there is no serious or substantial doubt about the correctness of the conclusions drawn from the evidence" and that "produces a firm belief or conviction in the fact-finder's mind regarding the truth of the facts sought to be established." In re Alysia S., 460 S.W.3d 536, 572 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2014) (internal citations omitted).

         III. Discussion

         In the order terminating Father's parental rights, the court made extensive findings of fact relative to: the dependency and neglect proceeding, including the creation of the permanency plan and Father's obligations under the plan; Father's criminal history, incarceration, and parole; his involvement with DCS and his substance abuse during his parole; and the condition of the children in foster care and Father's visitation with them. On the basis of those findings, the court terminated Father's rights on the grounds of substantial noncompliance with the permanency plan and abandonment by engaging in conduct that evidenced Father's wanton disregard for the welfare of his children.[5] We have reviewed the evidence cited by the court in the order as well as that cited by the parties in the briefs and, as more fully discussed infra, have determined that there is clear and convincing evidence in support of the findings. We proceed to address whether the findings support the grounds for termination.

         A. ...


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