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In re Taya K.

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

February 6, 2018


          Assigned on Briefs October 2, 2017

         Appeal from the Chancery Court for Dickson County No. 2016-CV-79 David D. Wolfe, Judge

         Mother and Stepfather filed a petition to terminate Father's parental rights and to allow Stepfather to adopt the minor child. Following a hearing, the trial court terminated Father's parental rights, finding that Father abandoned his child by willful failure to visit and support, and that Father failed to establish paternity of the child. The trial court also found that termination of Father's parental rights was in the child's best interest. Father timely appealed. After review, we have determined that the record contains clear and convincing evidence to support two of the three grounds for termination, and to support the trial court's conclusion that terminating Father's parental rights is in the child's best interest. Thus, we affirm the termination of Father's parental rights.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Chancery Court Affirmed

          Jennifer L. Honeycutt, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Robert K. Jr. [1]

          Crystal M. Morgan, Ashland City, Tennessee, for the appellees, James and Jacqueline M.

          Bradley K. Sanders, Dickson, Tennessee, for the minor child, Taya K.

          Frank G. Clement Jr., P.J., M.S. delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Thomas R. Frierson II and Brandon O. Gibson, JJ., joined.


          FRANK G. CLEMENT JR., P.J., M.S.

         Taya K. was born to Jacqueline M. ("Mother") and Robert K. Jr. ("Father") in November of 2009. Although the parents were never married, they were living together at the time Taya was born and later separated when the child was approximately six months old. Mother and Father initially maintained an amicable relationship after the separation, allowing Father to have parenting time with Taya. However, the relationship between the parents began to deteriorate around February 2013 when Mother began dating James M. ("Stepfather"). As time passed and Mother moved on with her life, Father continued to struggle with drug and alcohol issues. Father found himself to be a frequent resident of various county jails in the years that followed the couple's break up, and his contact with Taya dwindled.

         Mother married Stepfather on May 7, 2015. Shortly thereafter, the couple moved with Taya from East Tennessee to Dickson County, which is a six-hour drive from Father, who resides in Hancock County.

         On March 16, 2016, Mother and Stepfather filed a Petition For Adoption By Step Parent and Termination of Parental Rights in the Chancery Court of Dickson County, Tennessee. The petition alleged that termination of Father's rights was warranted because Father abandoned Taya, failed to pay child support, engaged in only token visitation with the child, did not have the ability or willingness to assume legal and physical custody of the child, and alleged that placing the child in Father's custody would result in substantial harm to the child. A hearing was held on March 8, 2017, wherein the trial court heard extensive testimony from Mother, Stepfather, and Father. The court also heard brief testimony from an officer with the Dickson County jail.

         Mother testified that Father seldom visited with Taya, and when asked to describe Taya's relationship with Father, Mother said:

Taya -- I mean, she'll tell you she loves her dad. She knows who he is. As far as a relationship, that's kind of hard to describe because there isn't really an established relationship, if that makes sense. She just hasn't seen him consistently enough.

         Mother testified the reason she ended the relationship with Father was related to his drug use. She stated that Father has given Taya a few birthday gifts and "one or two" Christmas presents over the years. Mother has, however, made an effort to allow Taya to remain in contact with her paternal grandparents. Mother regularly communicates with the grandparents to arrange visits with Taya a few times a year when Mother goes to visit other family in East Tennessee. Sometimes Father is at these visits, but sometimes it is just the grandparents.

         Mother did admit that on one occasion she denied Father's request to see Taya. Father was in Nashville with his girlfriend for a doctor's appointment, and he asked if he could see Taya. Mother testified that she was not comfortable with a visit because she did not know who Father had with him, and she was aware of Father's ongoing criminal problems, including a recent gun accident that happened at Father's house involving his girlfriend. Mother was concerned for the safety of her child and so she denied Father's request to visit with Taya. Mother also stated that this was the only time she ever denied Father's request to visit with their daughter.

         Mother testified that Father seldom paid any child support. She said there was a four-month period in 2010 when Father was drawing unemployment, and he sent her some money. She also said that he paid for two or three weeks of childcare for Taya several years ago, but that was the extent of any support paid.

         Both Stepfather and Mother testified that Stepfather has been very involved and a consistent part of Taya's life since she was three years old. He helps her with homework, assists in taking and picking her up from school, and attends her extracurricular activities. Mother also testified that Taya referred to both Stepfather and Father as "Dad."

         Father testified he last saw Taya in January 2017, during one of Mother's trips to East Tennessee. On this afternoon, Father and the paternal grandparents took Taya shopping and out to eat. Prior to that visit, Father did not recall the last time he saw his daughter. He believed he saw Taya around her birthday, in November 2015, and guessed that his last overnight visit with her was sometime in 2013 or 2014. Father testified that he tried to call his daughter "a couple of times, " but said "[s]ince [Taya] moved to Nashville, I haven't spoken to her no more than probably ten words." Father also admitted to sometimes calling late at night, long after Taya went to bed. Father stated he texted Mother on occasion and received no response. He said Mother has blocked him on Facebook and argued that he has not had an address for Taya since Mother moved to Nashville.

         When questioned at trial, Father did not know what school his daughter attended. He could not say who her doctor was or how many teeth she had lost. He was asked what extra-curricular activities Taya participated in, and Father was not certain. However, Father maintained that he had a loving relationship with his daughter. Father did admit that Mother and Stepfather have taken good care of Taya, stating, "[She]'s been well taken care of. I can't say that she ain't been. I'm proud of [Mother] for doing that."

         Father also admitted that he has never paid child support. He did testify that he has "sent money on occasions, " and said that "when [he is] working, " he sends money to Mother. Father also stated that "[Mother] kn[ew] if she needed something from my mom or dad, she didn't need to ask me for it or -- she could get it from them." The trial court found this comment significant and later addressed it in its oral ruling, reminding Father that "it is not his parents' obligation to support this child."

         At the time of trial, Father was in jail in Hancock County for a violation of probation offense. To facilitate Father's participation at trial, he was transported by correctional officers from Hancock County to Dickson County jail. Father testified that he has two felonies on his record: a felony DUI and a conviction for unlawful possession of a firearm. Additionally, Father testified that he had numerous misdemeanor charges, including drug possession, DUIs, violation of parole offenses, and had been charged with driving on a suspended license in at least four states.[2] Father confirmed he has not held a valid driver's license in about three years.

         During cross-examination, counsel for Mother asked Father if he only visited his daughter when Mother brought her to visit his parents in Hancock County. Father generally agreed but insisted that Mother had denied Father's request for visitation on one occasion. Father testified that he contacted Mother while he was in Nashville for his girlfriend's doctor's appointment. Mother refused to let him see Taya and told him he would need to contact an attorney if he wanted to see his daughter. When the trial court asked Father why he did not contact an attorney, he explained he could not because he was incarcerated shortly thereafter. Regarding the evidence of Father's sporadic employment, Father testified that when employed, he worked as a welder, but stated that he did not have a job lined up for when he was released from jail.

         An officer from the Dickson County jail was also called to testify. The officer stated that on the morning of trial, he discovered Father attempting to smuggle in a vial of urine to falsify a drug screen. According to the officer, "[Father] said he might have a drug test today, and he was going to use it for a drug test." Father pled the fifth when asked whether he tried to falsify his drug screen but later admitted that he could not pass a drug test on the day of trial.

         In a Final Order entered April 18, 2017, the trial court terminated Father's parental rights, finding that Father abandoned his child by willful failure to visit and support and that Father failed to establish paternity of the child. The trial court also found that termination of ...

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