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In re Colton B.

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

December 22, 2017

IN RE COLTON B.

          Assigned on Briefs November 1, 2017

         Appeal from the Juvenile Court for Overton County No. 16-JV-122 Diana F. Monroe, Judge

         Mother appeals the termination of her parental rights. Because the trial court failed to provide a rationale for its decision and the final order entered by the trial court is nearly a verbatim recitation of the termination petition, we vacate the order of the trial court and remand for the entry of an order that reflects that it is the product of the trial court's individualized decision-making and independent judgment.

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

          William A. Camerson, Cookeville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Miranda B.

          Herbert H. Slatery, III, Attorney General and Reporter; W. Derek Green, Assistant Attorney General, for the appellee, Tennessee Department of Children's Services.

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

          OPINION

          J. STEVEN STAFFORD, JUDGE

         Background

         In July 2015, the child was born to Respondent/Appellant Miranda B. H. ("Mother").[1] The child's birth was premature and he was in severe distress following the birth. Drug tests performed on the child tested positive for morphine, buprenorphine, [2] meperidine, [3] opioids, and benzodiazepines.[4] As a result, the Petitioner/Appellee Tennessee Department of Children's Services ("DCS") received a referral that the child was drug exposed. During the initial investigation, Mother admitted that prior to her pregnancy she was a habitual drug user, that she had not sought prenatal care during her pregnancy, and that she "shot up morphine" the day before the child's birth.

         The child remained in the hospital for a period of thirty days, receiving treatment for respiratory distress, meconium aspiration, and possible HIV status. The child also experienced symptoms consistent with drug withdrawal. As such, the child was administered morphine to ease his withdrawal symptoms.

         While the child remained in the hospital, Mother was arrested for violating probation. Based upon these facts, DCS determined that it was in the child's best interest to be removed from Mother's care. When the child left the hospital, he was immediately placed in the care of a foster home, where he remained at the time of trial.

         While the child was in the hospital, DCS filed a petition to declare the child dependent and neglected in juvenile court. Eventually, on April 5, 2016, the juvenile court entered a single order following the adjudicatory and dispositional hearings. In this order, the juvenile court found the child to be dependent and neglected and the victim of severe abuse. On December 15, 2016, DCS filed a petition to terminate Mother's parental rights on grounds of (1) substantial non-compliance with permanency plans; (2) persistence of conditions; (3) failure to manifest an ability and willingness to assume custody; and (4) severe abuse.[5] The petition further alleged that it was in the child's best interest for Mother's parental rights to be terminated. Mother filed an answer to the petition on February 22, 2017, denying that grounds existed to terminate her parental rights or that termination was in the child's best interest.

         A trial was held on April 18, 2017. Five witnesses testified, including Mother, Foster Mother, and two DCS workers. DCS also entered several exhibits, including the deposition testimony of the detective who investigated Mother's alleged child abuse and the child's treating physician while hospitalized. At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court orally found clear and convincing evidence to support all of the grounds alleged and that termination was in the child's best interest. The trial court entered an order on April 19, 2017, likewise finding that all of the grounds alleged in the petition had been shown by clear and convincing evidence and that termination of Mother's parental rights was in the child's best interest. From this order, Mother now appeals.

         Standard of Review

         As explained by the Tennessee Supreme Court:

A parent's right to the care and custody of her child is among the oldest of the judicially recognized fundamental liberty interests protected by the Due Process Clauses of the federal and state constitutions. Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57, 65 (2000); Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 645, 651 (1972); In re Angela E., 303 S.W.3d 240, 250 (Tenn. 2010); In re Adoption of Female child, 896 S.W.2d 546, 547-48 (Tenn. 1995); Hawk v. Hawk, 855 S.W.2d 573, 578-79 (Tenn. 1993). But parental rights, although fundamental and constitutionally protected, are not absolute. In re Angela E., 303 S.W.3d at 250. "'[T]he [S]tate as parens patriae has a special duty to protect minors . . . .' Tennessee law, thus, upholds the [S]tate's authority as parens patriae when interference with parenting is necessary to prevent serious harm ...

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