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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. 61004 Timothy E. Irwin, Judge

         Mother appeals from the termination of her parental rights to her four children. Mother, who did not attend the final hearing, stipulated through counsel that a statutory ground existed for termination of her parental rights and that termination was in the children's best interest. The juvenile court terminated Mother's parental rights based on her 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 Mother'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

          Anna East Corcoran, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Amy E.

          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.

          OPINION

          W. NEAL McBRAYER, JUDGE.

         I.

         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

         Shortly after Aaliyah's birth, the Tennessee Department of Children's Services ("DCS") received a report that Mother exposed the child to illegal and non-prescribed drugs in utero, including methadone, benzodiazepines, oxycodone, and marijuana. As a result, Aaliyah developed symptoms of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome and required treatment with morphine and phenobarbital. On January 11, 2013, DCS petitioned the Juvenile Court for Knox County, Tennessee, for temporary legal custody of Aaliyah. The juvenile court entered a protective custody order on the same day.

         After an adjudicatory hearing on the severe abuse issue, [1] the court entered an order on January 8, 2014, adjudicating Aaliyah to be dependent and neglected and finding that Aaliyah was a severely abused child. Specifically, the court found by clear and convincing evidence

that the mother was aware of the risks of harm to herself and her unborn child, including the risk of serious bodily injury or death, during this pregnancy based on the mother's use of marijuana during the pregnancy with Brianna, mother's illicit use of substances during the pregnancy with Summer, warnings given to the mother by her OB/GYN, both verbally and in the form of a pamphlet produced by East Tennessee Children's Hospital; and that she received warnings, during the pregnancy with Aaliyah, from her OB/GYN verbally, and again, by reading the pamphlet "Drug Use During Pregnancy." Mother was aware of the dangers of her continued illicit use of drugs during pregnancy and signed an "Informed Consent: Prenatal Drug Exposure" form indicating that she was aware of such dangers, including serious bodily injury or death.

         Thereafter, Mother entered into several permanency plans. Mother sought treatment for her drug abuse and completed her responsibilities under the plans. As a result, the court allowed Mother unsupervised visits with the children and eventually restored custody of Summer, Aaliyah, and AnnaBella to Mother in late 2014. At around the same time, Father was awarded custody of Brianna and her two half-siblings.

         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, 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, again 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." 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 Mother's parental rights to the four children.[2] 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 ...


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