Assigned on Briefs May 1, 2017
Appeal from the Juvenile Court for Overton County No.
16-JV-23 Daryl A. Colson, Judge
appeal involves the termination of a mother's parental
rights to her two sons. The trial court found by clear and
convincing evidence that four grounds for termination were
proven and that it was in the best interest of the children
to terminate parental rights. Mother appeals but only
challenges the best interest determination. We have also
reviewed the evidence regarding each ground for termination.
We vacate the trial court's finding regarding one ground
for termination but otherwise affirm the trial court's
order and affirm the termination of the mother's parental
R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Juvenile
Court Vacated in part, Affirmed in part and Remanded
Vernon Hoeppner, Kingsport, Tennessee, for the appellant,
Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter,
Alexanders S. Rieger, Assistnat Attorney General and Martha
A. Campbell, Assistant Attorney General, Nashville,
Tennessee, for the appellee, Tennessee Department of
Brandon O. Gibson, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in
which Richard H. Dinkins, and Thomas R. Frierson, II, JJ.,
BRANDON O. GIBSON, JUDGE
Facts & Procedural History
("Mother") gave birth to a son, James V., in
December 2006. The child was born out-of-wedlock. The
Tennessee Department of Children's Services
("DCS") became involved with James in 2009 due to
allegations of abandonment and nutritional neglect. Mother
was released from jail around this time and admitted that she
could not care for James, so DCS placed him with his
grandparents. Mother gave birth to a second son
("Brother") in July 2010. James remained with his
grandparents until 2012, when DCS investigated the
grandmother for alleged abuse of James. At that point, James
was placed back in Mother's home. However, Mother's
involvement with DCS continued.
the years, DCS conducted ten separate investigations of
Mother's home. The reasons for these investigations
included physical abuse, unexplained bruises on the children,
environmental neglect, drug use by Mother, homelessness, and
inability to establish a suitable home. DCS developed a
non-custodial permanency plan for Mother that included
in-home counseling, parenting education, and other services.
Still, on April 21, 2015, the juvenile court adjudicated
James and Brother dependent and neglected after James came to
school with extensive bruising, scratches, and "slash
marks" on his arm and reported that Mother
"beat" him with a plastic strip off of their
refrigerator. During the investigation, DCS workers observed
that Mother's home was cluttered with clothes and
scattered garbage. The juvenile court found that the
children's safety could not be adequately protected in
the home and that there was no less drastic alternative than
removing the children from the home. The court granted
temporary legal custody to DCS, and the children entered
foster care on April 21, 2015.
developed a permanency plan for Mother on May 6, 2015, which
required her to complete numerous tasks to work toward the
goal of returning the children to her home. Mother completed
some tasks but failed to comply with many others. In December
2015, Mother's supervised visits with the children were
stopped due to adverse behavioral reactions the children were
experiencing in connection with the visitation, in addition
to the facts that a case worker observed what appeared to be
drugs during a visit to Mother's home, and Mother failed
a drug screen at a visit with the children later that day.
months after the children entered foster care, on March 8,
2016, DCS filed a petition to terminate Mother's parental
rights based on the statutory grounds of abandonment by
failure to pay child support, abandonment by failure to
establish a suitable home, substantial noncompliance with the
permanency plan, and persistent conditions. Counsel was
appointed for Mother, and a bench trial was held on June 28,
2016. By that time, Mother was pregnant with a third child.
James was nine years old, and Brother was five. The trial
court heard testimony from eight witnesses presented by DCS,
including the children's family service workers from DCS,
an investigator for child protective services, various
counselors, the family service coordinator who provided
in-home parenting education, and an in-home case manager.
Mother did not testify or call any witnesses.
14, 2016, the trial court entered its written order. The
court found by clear and convincing evidence that all four
grounds for termination were proven and that termination of
Mother's parental rights was in the best interest of the
children. Mother timely filed a notice of
only issue raised by Mother on appeal is whether the trial
court erred in concluding that termination of parental rights
was in the children's best interest. She does not
challenge the trial court's findings regarding the
existence of four grounds for termination. Nevertheless, we
must address these issues. The Tennessee Supreme Court has
stated unequivocally that "in an appeal from an order
terminating parental rights the Court of Appeals must review
the trial court's findings as to each ground for
termination and as to whether termination is in the
child's best interests, regardless of whether the parent
challenges these findings on appeal." In re
Carrington H., 483 S.W.3d 507, 525-26 (Tenn. 2016). As a
result, we have reviewed the trial court's findings
regarding all grounds for termination and regarding the best
interest analysis. For the following reasons, we affirm the
trial court's order as modified and remand for further
Tennessee, proceedings to terminate parental rights are
governed by statute. In re Kaliyah S., 455 S.W.3d
533, 541 (Tenn. 2015). Tennessee Code Annotated section
36-1-113 "sets forth the grounds and procedures for
terminating the parental rights of a biological parent."
Id. at 546. Pursuant to the statute, parties who
have standing to seek termination of a biological
parent's parental rights must prove two elements.
Id. at 552. First, they must prove the existence of
at least one of the statutory grounds for termination listed
in Tennessee Code Annotated section 36-1-113(g). Id.
Second, the petitioner must prove that terminating parental
rights is in the child's best interest, considering,
among other things, the factors listed in Tennessee Code
Annotated section 36-1-113(i). Id.
Because of the constitutional dimension of the rights at
stake in a termination proceeding, persons seeking to
terminate parental rights must prove both of these elements
by clear and convincing evidence. In re Bernard T.,
319 S.W.3d 586, 596 (Tenn. 2010) (citing Tenn. Code Ann.
§ 36-1-113(c); In re Adoption of A.M.H., 215
S.W.3d 793, 808-09 (Tenn. 2007); In re Valentine, 79
S.W.3d 539, 546 (Tenn. 2002)). "The purpose of this
heightened burden of proof is to minimize the possibility of
erroneous decisions that result in an unwarranted termination
of or interference with these rights." Id.
(citing In re Tiffany B., 228 S.W.3d 148, 155 (Tenn.
Ct. App. 2007); In re M.A.R., 183 S.W.3d 652, 660
(Tenn. Ct. App. 2005)). "Clear and convincing
evidence" has been defined as "'evidence in
which there is no serious or substantial doubt about the
correctness of the conclusions drawn from the
evidence.'" In re Adoption of Angela E.,
402 S.W.3d 636, 640 (Tenn. 2013) (quoting In re
Valentine, 79 S.W.3d at 546). It produces a firm belief
or conviction in the fact-finder's mind regarding the
truth of the facts sought to be established. In re
Bernard T., 319 S.W.3d at 596.
this heightened burden of proof in parental termination
cases, on appeal we adapt our customary standard of review
set forth in Tennessee Rule of Appellate Procedure 13(d).
In re Audrey S., 182 S.W.3d 838, 861 (Tenn. Ct. App.
2005). First, we review each of the trial court's factual
findings de novo in accordance with Rule 13(d), presuming the
finding to be correct unless the evidence preponderates
against it. In re Adoption of Angela E., 402 S.W.3d
at 639. Then, we make our own determination regarding
"whether the facts, either as found by the trial court
or as supported by a preponderance of the evidence, amount to
clear and convincing evidence of the elements necessary to
terminate parental rights." In re Carrington
H., 483 S.W.3d at 524 (citing In re Bernard T.,
319 S.W.3d at 596-97). "The trial court's ruling
that the evidence sufficiently supports termination of
parental rights is a conclusion of law, which appellate
courts review de novo with no presumption of
correctness." Id. (citing In re
M.L.P., 281 S.W.3d 387, 393 (Tenn. 2009)).