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In re Aliyah C.

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

June 26, 2019

IN RE ALIYAH C.

          Assigned on Briefs June 3, 2019

          Appeal from the Chancery Court for Bradley County No. 2017-CV-113 Jerri S. Bryant, Chancellor

         This appeal involves the termination of a mother's parental rights to her daughter. The trial court found by clear and convincing evidence that grounds for termination were proven and that it was in the best interest of the child to terminate parental rights. Mother appeals but only challenges whether the judgment is valid if the guardian ad litem was not present for the termination hearing. After careful review, we conclude that the presence of the guardian ad litem could not be waived by the other parties at the trial on the merits. Therefore, we vacate the judgment of the trial court and remand for further proceedings.

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

          Sheridan C.F. Randolph, Cleveland, Tennessee, for the appellant, Heather O.

          Samuel Francis Robinson, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for the appellees, Saron and James K.

          Carma D. McGee, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Richard H. Dinkins and John W. McClarty, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          CARMA D. McGEE, JUDGE

         I. Facts & Procedural History

         Aliyah C.[1] was born in 2011 to unmarried parents, Heather O. ("Mother") and Jeremiah C. ("Father"). In July 2016, the trial court entered an order granting Saron K. ("Aunt") custody of Aliyah.

         Nine months later, on April 26, 2017, Aunt and her husband, James K. ("Uncle"), filed a petition for termination of parental rights and for adoption. Father joined the amended petition as a petitioner and executed a separate document consenting to the adoption. Mother, who was incarcerated, filed a response in which she contested the termination of her parental rights.

         On December 13, 2017, an order was entered appointing an attorney to represent Mother and a guardian ad litem for Aliyah.

         The trial court held a hearing on November 20, 2018. Mother, who was still incarcerated, participated in the hearing by cell phone. At the beginning of the trial, the judge explained the proceedings and named the attorneys whom she believed were the attorneys of record, including the guardian ad litem. The named attorneys did not confirm or deny their involvement in the case. After direct examination of the first witness, the attorney for Aunt and Uncle informed the court that the guardian ad litem was not present. He believed that she was on maternity leave.[2]

         The trial court allowed the attorneys to speak with their clients to determine if they wished to proceed with the hearing. After a series of questions, Mother consented on the record to proceeding without the presence of the guardian ad litem. The attorney for Aunt and Uncle asserted that they had full decision-making authority in Aliyah's life and did not object to proceeding with the trial.[3]The court allowed the trial ...


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