Assigned on Briefs December 4, 2017
from the Juvenile Court for Tipton County No. 16-JV-256
William A. Peeler, Judge
trial court terminated Father's parental rights on the
ground of abandonment by demonstrating a wanton disregard for
his child's welfare. DCS failed to offer evidence that
Father knew of the child's existence when Father was
engaging in the behavior that demonstrated wanton disregard.
Accordingly, we reverse the termination of Father's
R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Juvenile
Court Reversed and Remanded
Deslaurier, Covington, Tennessee, for the appellant, Anthony
Herbert H. Slatery, III, Attorney General and Reporter;
Jordan K. Crews, Assistant Attorney General, for the
appellee, State of Tennessee, Department of Children's
Michael H. Willis, Covington, Tennessee, Guardian ad Litem.
Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., delivered the opinion of the
court, in which D. Michael Swiney, C.J., and Andy D. Bennett,
STEVEN STAFFORD, JUDGE
O. ("Father") is the natural and legal parent of
the minor child. At the time of the termination hearing the
child was less than one year old. Children's mother,
Chelsea S. ("Mother"), surrendered her parental
rights to the children before the trial court on November 11,
2016. Therefore, this case arises solely from Father's
appeal of the termination of his parental rights.
minor child was born in early June 2016, and placed in the
custody of the Tennessee Department of Children's
Services ("DCS") on June 17, 2016. At this time, DCS
was already working with Mother and Father regarding their
three older children, who had been in DCS custody since
August 27, 2015. The three older children were removed from
Mother and Father's home due to drug use, drug
paraphernalia found in the home, and environmental neglect.
See In re Aaralyn O, et al., No.
W2017-01411-COA-R3-PT, 2018 WL 468246 (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan.
the minor child was born, Father was incarcerated. Mother had
been evicted from her home prior to the child's birth;
however, Mother was able to stay with a family friend after
the child was born, but this was not a permanent arrangement.
Thus, Mother lacked stable housing. Mother was also
prescribed methadone throughout her pregnancy, and she
attended a methadone clinic. After the child was born,
meconium test results confirmed that the child was positive
for methadone. This led to the child experiencing severe
withdrawal symptoms during his first few months of life.
14, 2016, Mother took the child to a doctor's
appointment. The child's pediatrician later reported that
Mother seemed to be under the influence during the
appointment. The pediatrician stated that during the
appointment Mother kept falling asleep and was inattentive to
the child. It was also reported that Mother placed the child
in the front seat of her vehicle when she left the
days later, on June 16, 2016, Mother reportedly rear-ended
another vehicle while the child was in Mother's vehicle.
Although the child was not injured, Mother was given a ticket
for driving without a license and having no
insurance. Mother then contacted DCS social worker
Bridget Norfork ("Ms. Norfork") for assistance with
the child. Upon meeting, Ms. Norfork observed that the child
was hungry. Mother informed Ms. Norfork that she had only a
small amount of formula for him at that time; however, she
had an appointment at WIC the following Monday and would obtain
more formula then.
child was placed in DCS's custody on June 17, 2016, based
upon DCS's determination that Mother and Father made
little to no progress in remedying the conditions that led to
the removal of their oldest three children and were
non-compliant with DCS's recommendations. Thus,
Mother's and Father's actions, or inactions, rendered
it unsafe for the child to remain in his parents' care.
The child has remained in DCS's custody since June 17,
2016, and Father has never met the child.
November 17, 2016, DCS filed a petition to terminate
Father's parental rights on the ground of abandonment by
an incarcerated parent by exhibiting a wanton disregard for
the child. At the hearing, the trial court heard testimony
from Father, Ms. Norfork, Michelle S. ("Foster
Mother"), and Zach S. ("Foster Father").
During his testimony, Father acknowledged his lengthy
criminal history: Father admitted that in 2009, he was
convicted of Grand Theft Auto in Florida, where he served
twenty-two months for the crime. Further, Father testified
that he was charged with, and pled guilty to, the intentional
sale of a controlled substance in 2012. Father also admitted
that he had violated probation at least four or five times in
Father affirmed that he was charged with vandalism in
September 2015. As a result, Father was found to have
violated his probation and, in March 2016, was sentenced to
five years incarceration to be served at thirty percent.
Father testified, however, that with good time credits, his
expected release date is January 2018.Because the child
was born following Father's current incarceration, Father
acknowledged that he has never met this child.
also conceded that he did have a history of drug use and that
he had continued to use drugs intermittently until he was
incarcerated in March 2016. However, he also stated that he
had been drug free for approximately fifteen months,
essentially the entire time he had been incarcerated.
Father testified that at the time of the termination hearing,
he had a job pursuant to a prison work release program
packing boxes at a warehouse. He asserted that he was paid
about $7.25 an hour and earned approximately $190 per week
after paying room and board. Father had, additionally, saved
approximately $2, 000 at the time of trial. However, he also