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In re Amarria L.

Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

March 20, 2018

In re AMARRIA L.

          Assigned on Briefs November 1, 2017

          Appeal from the Circuit Court for Robertson County No. 74CC1-2016-CV-296 Ross H. Hicks, Judge

         This is a termination of parental rights case focusing on the minor child, Amarria L. ("the Child"), of Patricia L. ("Mother"). The Child was placed in protective custody on November 8, 2014, after Mother left the Child unsupervised at a homeless shelter. On July 7, 2016, the Tennessee Department of Children's Services ("DCS") filed a petition to terminate the parental rights of Mother.[1] DCS alleged as a basis for termination the statutory grounds of (1) abandonment by failure to provide a suitable home, (2) abandonment by an incarcerated parent, (3) substantial noncompliance with the reasonable requirements of the permanency plan, and (4) persistence of the conditions leading to removal of the Child. Following a bench trial, the trial court granted the petition upon its determination by clear and convincing evidence that DCS had proven the statutory grounds of abandonment by failure to provide a suitable home and substantial noncompliance with the reasonable requirements of the permanency plan. The court further determined by clear and convincing evidence that termination of Mother's parental rights was in the Child's best interest. Mother has appealed.

         Discerning no reversible error, we affirm.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court Affirmed; Case Remanded

          Ami L. Brooks, Springfield, Tennessee, for the appellant, Patricia L.

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

          Thomas R. Frierson, II, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Richard H. Dinkins, J., and J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., joined.

          OPINION

          THOMAS R. FRIERSON, II, JUDGE

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         DCS filed a petition in the Robertson County Juvenile Court on November 10, 2014, alleging that the Child was dependent and neglected in Mother's custody. In this petition, DCS stated, inter alia, that on November 8, 2014, the Child, who was approximately ten years of age at that time, was left unsupervised by Mother at a homeless/domestic violence shelter where the two had been residing. Mother left the shelter early that morning, and when Mother did not return to the shelter by 10:00 p.m. in the evening, the shelter staff notified DCS. Based on DCS's inability to locate Mother or a relative placement, the Child was placed in the temporary custody of DCS. The juvenile court subsequently entered an adjudicatory hearing order on April 2, 2015, determining the Child to be dependent and neglected. This order was based in part on Mother's stipulation that she could not provide a suitable home for the Child at that time. The Child was placed in foster care, where she remained through the date of the termination trial.

         On July 7, 2016, DCS filed a petition seeking to terminate Mother's parental rights in the Robertson County Circuit Court ("trial court"). DCS alleged as a basis for termination the statutory grounds of (1) abandonment by failure to provide a suitable home, (2) abandonment by an incarcerated parent, (3) substantial noncompliance with the reasonable requirements of the permanency plan, and (4) persistence of the conditions leading to removal of the Child. DCS concomitantly filed an affidavit of reasonable efforts.

         The trial court conducted a bench trial regarding termination of Mother's parental rights on March 7, 2017. At that time, the Child had been in the custody of DCS for twenty-eight months. Gabrielle Hargrove-Owens testified that she was the DCS family services worker supervising the Child's placement. Although Ms. Hargrove-Owens was not the original case worker assigned, she was able to review the case file and determine that DCS provided homemaker services to Mother for a three-month period beginning in January 2015 and ending in March 2015. The records reflected that Mother was not compliant with these services and that Mother's whereabouts were also unknown for a period of time.

         During trial, DCS presented as an exhibit Mother's criminal records, which demonstrated that Mother had been repeatedly charged with criminal violations and had experienced intermittent periods of incarceration during the entire time the Child was in DCS custody. According to Mother's criminal records, she was charged on November 26, 2014, and again on April 10, 2015, with driving without a driver's license. Mother pled guilty to these charges. On April 25, 2015, Mother was arrested for shoplifting. She also subsequently pled guilty to that charge. On December 7, 2015, Mother was charged with violation of her probation. On January 21, 2016, Mother incurred two shoplifting charges, and she received a subsequent probation violation charge on January 26, 2016. Mother pled guilty to both shoplifting charges as well as both violation of probation charges. On July 9, 2016, Mother was again arrested on charges of shoplifting, and she received a subsequent probation violation charge on August 16, 2016. Mother pled guilty to both of these charges.

         Ms. Hargrove-Owens testified that Mother had never been able to provide a suitable home for the Child due to her repeated criminal violations and times of incarceration. According to Ms. Hargrove-Owens, Mother did experience brief periods of employment and did complete a parenting assessment on June 29, 2015. Mother did not, however, follow through with the recommendations from such assessment, which included completion of a parenting class, supervised visitation with the Child, therapeutic visitation to help the Child bond with Mother, and outpatient alcohol and drug counseling.

         Ms. Hargrove-Owens also reviewed Mother's permanency plan dated March 14, 2016; she testified that Mother's prior plan, dated November 21, 2014, contained the same requirements. Ms. Hargrove-Owens related that Mother's permanency plan requirements included: (1) regular visitation with the Child, (2) completion of a parenting assessment with completion of all resultant recommendations, (3) maintenance of contact with DCS and attendance at all meetings, (4) attendance at monthly medication management meetings, (5) acquisition and maintenance of safe and stable housing, (6) acquisition and maintenance of stable employment, (7) submission to random drug screens, and (8) resolution of criminal charges. Concerning compliance, Ms. Hargrove-Owens reported that the only plan requirement that Mother had completed was the parenting assessment, although Mother did not follow through with completion of the respective recommendations contained therein.

         Ms. Hargrove-Owens further testified that when she was assigned this case in April 2016, Mother was incarcerated. She opined that Mother's repeated incarcerations made it impossible for Mother to complete the requirements of her permanency plan. According to Ms. Hargrove-Owens, she had received one phone call and one letter from Mother during the custodial period, but when Ms. Hargrove-Owens tried to respond, Mother was incarcerated again. The DCS records demonstrated that Mother never completed her application for subsidized housing assistance and that Mother failed to obtain a safe, stable home. Mother was non-compliant with the homemaker services provided by DCS and had only submitted to one drug screen. Moreover, Mother had not maintained employment and also had not maintained contact with DCS. Ms. Hargrove-Owens related that Mother had visited the Child "at first" but then saw the Child with less frequency and regularity once Mother began the cycle of incarceration.

         Ms. Hargrove-Owens stated that she had verified that Mother was currently on furlough and residing at the Hope Center in Portland, Tennessee. Ms. Hargrove-Owens also reported that the Child was thriving in her foster placement and that the foster parents wished to adopt her. According to Ms. Hargrove-Owens, the Child was well-adjusted, had experienced no behavioral issues, and was an excellent student.

         Mother testified that she had been residing at the Hope Center, a court-ordered drug rehabilitation facility, since January 2017. Mother stated that she was on furlough from incarceration and had to complete rehabilitation at the Hope Center or return to jail. Although Mother reported that she did not have an ongoing drug problem, she admitted that she had smoked marijuana in the past year.

         Mother related that prior to her most recent incarceration, she had been homeless and was sleeping in hospital waiting rooms and twenty-four-hour laundromats. Mother was most recently incarcerated beginning in August 2016. Prior to that, Mother was incarcerated for twenty-one days in July 2016, as well as from January to May 2016. Mother's last interaction with the Child was in January 2017 during a court hearing. Mother had previously seen the Child in May 2016 when she and the Child were both present at Mother's son's graduation ceremony. Mother acknowledged that her last visit with the Child prior to the graduation ceremony occurred in July 2015. Mother also indicated that the Child was doing well with her foster parents.

         Concerning her physical and mental condition, Mother explained that she had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was taking the prescribed medication. Mother stated that she was also diabetic. Mother related that on the day of the Child's removal, Mother had seen her doctor and had arranged for a friend from the homeless shelter where she was residing to pick the Child up at the bus stop. According to Mother, she was unable to return to the shelter, and consequently DCS was contacted. Following the Child's removal, Mother reported that she went "into the deep abyss" and began staying with various friends and acquaintances. Mother admitted that although DCS provided homemaker services, including assistance with an application for subsidized housing, Mother never completed the application process because she did not desire to be fingerprinted.

         Mother claimed that she received little contact from the DCS case workers but acknowledged that she was homeless or incarcerated for most of the time period during which the Child had been in DCS custody. Mother admitted that the prior case worker visited her in jail on one occasion. Mother reported that at one point, she held a job for six months at Solstice Sleep Products, earning $13.50 per hour. Mother related that she stayed in hotels, paying nightly rates, during that time, such that she had no "extra" money. She also stated that she only visited the Child once during this term of employment because she had no vehicle.

         Concerning her present circumstances, Mother offered that Hope Center would provide transitional living before her anticipated graduation from the program and that she would receive assistance with obtaining a job and housing at that time. Mother also believed she enjoyed a strong relationship with the Child, explaining that the Child had asked her if the two could reside in Springfield so that the Child might remain in her current school. Mother acknowledged that her two older children had also been in the custody of others since 2014.

         Following the presentation of evidence, the trial court announced an oral finding that DCS had proven grounds for termination of Mother's parental rights by clear and convincing evidence. The court also reviewed the respective best interest factors and determined that termination was in the Child's best interest by clear and convincing evidence. The court subsequently entered an order on April 4, 2017, terminating Mother's parental rights based on the statutory grounds of abandonment by failure to provide a suitable home and substantial noncompliance with the reasonable requirements of the permanency plan. Mother timely appealed.

         II. Issues Presented

         Mother presents two issues for our review, which we have restated slightly:

1. Whether the trial court erred by finding clear and convincing evidence that Mother abandoned the Child by ...

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