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In re Brianna T.

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

December 22, 2017

In re BRIANNA T. et al.

          Assigned on Briefs October 2, 2017

         Appeal from the Juvenile Court for Knox County No. 40100 Timothy E. Irwin, Judge

         Father appeals from the termination of his parental rights to his four children. Father, who did not attend the final hearing, stipulated through counsel that a statutory ground existed for termination of his parental rights and that termination was in the children's best interest. The juvenile court terminated Father's parental rights based on his stipulation and the proof offered by DCS. Despite the stipulation, we conclude that there was clear and convincing evidence of a statutory ground for termination but not for the finding that termination was in the children's best interest. Thus, we reverse the termination of Father's parental rights and remand for entry of a judgment dismissing the petition.

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

          Gregory E. Bennett, Seymour, Tennessee, for the appellant, Ronald T., Sr.

          Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter, and Jordan K. Crews, Assistant Attorney General, for the appellee, Tennessee Department of Children's Services.

          W. Neal McBrayer, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which John W. McClarty and Arnold B. Goldin, JJ., joined.


          W. NEAL McBRAYER, JUDGE.


         Ronald T., Sr. ("Father") and Amy E. ("Mother") are the parents of Brianna T., Summer E., Aaliyah T., and AnnaBella T. The children range in age from three to seven years old.

         A. Factual &Procedural Background

         On November 25, 2015, the children's half-sister was visiting with Father when she discovered "concerning marks and bruising on Aaliyah's face" and "extensive bruising" on the rest of Aaliyah's body. After receiving a referral alleging physical abuse, lack of supervision, and medical neglect of the children, the Tennessee Department of Children's Services ("DCS") began an investigation. The investigation led to the discovery of extensive injuries to Aaliyah and of the parents' failure to seek appropriate medical care and to follow recommendations for the other three children.

         On December 3, 2015, DCS petitioned the Juvenile Court for Knox County, Tennessee, seeking a finding of dependency and neglect as to the children and a severe abuse finding as to Aaliyah. The court entered a protective custody order on the same day.

         After an adjudicatory hearing, on October 19, 2016, the juvenile court entered an order adjudicating all of the children dependent and neglected and finding that Aaliyah was a severely abused child at the hands of Mother and Father. The court observed that Aaliyah "was covered from head to toe with bruises, scabs, scratches, and other marks" and that "[n]early every place on [her] body was injured." Her medical records recounted the injuries, including:

multiple contusions/bruises over her entire body (numerous areas on her chest, back, abdomen and extremities; significant area on her chest just below the neck; under her tongue; circumferencing [sic] both ankles including petechial lesions; bilaterally on buttocks including 6 cm bruise; several to right flank; at left upper pubic area including 3 cm bruise; at right groin to right lower abdomen with 9 cm bruise; right hip; entire top of right foot with scratch in center), an injury to the left side of her tongue, a bite mark to her right wrist, elevated liver enzymes, scabs throughout her scalp, multiple scratches to her face including a 3 cm scratch with petechiae, multiple scratches to bilateral ear lobes and pinna, and diffuse scratches to extremities including hands and fingers.

         Father attempted to explain away Aaliyah's injuries, claiming that she was prone to falls and "easy bruising." Father also sought to blame Aaliyah's injuries on her siblings. But the court flatly rejected both contentions. It found no medical evidence to support Father's claims and noted that even Father testified to his belief that someone had beaten the child. According to the court, the medical records indicated that "the majority of the injuries were inflicted by non-accidental trauma and not by 'rough play.'"

         Ultimately, the court found that "[o]ne or the other of these parents caused the injuries to Aaliyah, and the other knowingly failed to protect the child from those injuries or further injuries." The court also found that the parents failed to seek medical care for the other children and failed to follow recommendations of the children's pediatrician.

         On December 1, 2016, DCS filed a petition to terminate Father's parental rights to the four children.[1] The petition alleged three grounds for termination: severe child abuse against Aaliyah, substantial noncompliance with the permanency plans, and persistence of conditions. The petition also alleged that termination of Father's parental rights was in the best interest of the children.

         B. Proof at the Hearing

         On May 9, 2017, the juvenile court held a hearing on the termination petition. Father did not attend the hearing, but Father's counsel advised the court that Father authorized her to stipulate to the finding of severe child abuse, "that the Foster Parents are appropriate caregivers and that it's in the best interest of his children to be adopted."[2]In light of this stipulation, counsel for DCS elected not ...

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