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In re Jayda S.

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

August 26, 2019


          Assigned on Briefs August 1, 2019

          Appeal from the Circuit Court for Hamilton County No. 18A186 Ward Jeffrey Hollingsworth, Judge

         Mother appeals the trial court's order terminating her parental rights. Concluding that the record contains clear and convincing evidence to support the trial court's findings of a ground for termination and that termination is in the child's best interest, we affirm.

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

          Emily Brenyas, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for the appellant, Denisha S.

          Herbert H. Slatery, III, Attorney General and Reporter; Amber L. Seymour, Assistant Attorney General, for the appellee, State of Tennessee, Department of Children's Services.

          J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Charles D. Susano, Jr., and Andy D. Bennett, JJ., joined.




         Appellant Denisha S. ("Mother") gave birth to a child, Jayda S. ("Jayda" or "the child"), in April 2017 in Chattanooga.[1] Jayda is Mother's sixth child, none of whom are in Mother's physical custody.[2] Jayda's putative father was killed by Mother during a domestic violence incident on December 14, 2016. Mother was deemed to have acted in self-defense and not criminally charged following the putative father's death.

         When giving birth to Jayda four months later, Mother tested positive for cocaine while at Erlanger Health Systems. In a previous hearing during Mother's pregnancy, Mother stated that she used cocaine multiple times throughout her pregnancy as a way to cope with the death of the child's father. Mother tested positive for cocaine in three drug screens between September 2016 and March 2017. On April 17, 2017, the Tennessee Department of Children's Services ("DCS") received a referral regarding the positive drug test and a potentially drug-exposed child. While the child did not test positive for drugs, DCS filed a petition for temporary legal custody and an ex parte order regarding the child. Jayda was removed from Mother's custody and placed into foster care on April 20, 2017. After Mother waived her preliminary and adjudicatory hearings, the child was deemed dependent and neglected by a Hamilton County Juvenile Court magistrate in May 2017 because of Mother's cocaine use during and after her pregnancy.

         A permanency plan was developed with the goal of returning the child to Mother's care. That permanency plan required Mother to: (1) complete a mental health assessment and follow its recommendations, (2) complete an alcohol and drug assessment and follow its recommendations, (3) submit to drug screens to demonstrate being drug-free, (4) maintain stable housing, (5) maintain employment, (6) pay child support, and (7) participate in parenting classes and follow recommendations of a parenting assessment. Mother signed the permanency plan later ratified by the Hamilton County Juvenile Court on July 12, 2017. DCS further advised Mother about the circumstances that could lead to termination of her parental rights.

         Mother was repeatedly incarcerated during her pregnancy and after the child was born. While pregnant, Mother was jailed from March 24 to March 27, 2017. Mother was later arrested on two counts of theft and charges of criminal conspiracy and fabricating evidence. She pleaded guilty to both theft charges, while the remaining charges were dismissed. Mother was incarcerated at the Hamilton County Jail on June 17, 2017 and subsequently transferred to the Silverdale Detention Center. She remained at Silverdale Detention Center until November 29, 2017, when she was transferred into the custody of Catoosa County, Georgia officials on separate criminal charges. Mother was released from custody on February 1, 2018 and referred to the Hamilton County Mental Health Court, but was incarcerated again on March 12, 2018 after failing a drug screen. She was released on April 10, 2018, nine days before the petition to terminate parental rights was filed against her. Following a separate probation violation, Mother was taken into custody again on May 14, 2018, where she remained when the trial on the termination petition occurred. At the time of the trial, Mother was expected to be released in November 2018, though it was unclear whether she would be transferred into Catoosa County, Georgia to complete a separate sentence.[3]

         When not incarcerated, Mother worked with DCS to fulfill the department's permanency plan. Mother indicated that she took several classes and assessments as part of the plan and remained in contact with her DCS case worker. Mother has maintained housing since Jayda was born and during her periods of incarceration, though her family and friends have kept up with the rental payments for the property. However, Mother also failed the majority of the drug screens given to her during the same time period: Mother failed multiple drug screens through at least March 2018 and stated that she continued to use cocaine through at least April 2018. Mother visited Jayda nine times when she was not incarcerated, but missed multiple additional visitation appointments. Mother conceded that she had no meaningful relationship with her daughter, particularly while she was in custody. A DCS worker stated that Mother passed approximately two drug tests that the department administered when she visited Jayda.[4] Further, the child's siblings have had limited interactions with the child since her birth. Since Mother was incarcerated in 2018, she participated in multiple classes regarding literacy, empowerment, and mental and emotional "transformation." With the help of others, Mother believes she can obtain a job upon her release.

         On April 19, 2018, DCS filed a petition to terminate Mother's parental rights to the child in the Hamilton County Circuit Court ("the trial court"). As initial grounds for termination, DCS alleged that Mother had abandoned the child through wanton disregard, failed to substantially comply with a permanency plan, and failed to address persistent conditions that led to the loss of custody. Further, DCS asserted that termination of parental rights was in the child's best interest. While incarcerated, Mother filed a two-page, handwritten response challenging the petition to terminate. DCS initially moved for the court to grant a default judgment and requested a guardian ad litem be appointed on June 29, 2018. DCS later withdrew the motion for default judgment and requested that the trial court appoint counsel for Mother. Counsel for Mother was appointed on July 20, 2018, and the matter was set for trial.

         The trial occurred on September 28, 2018. At trial, DCS withdrew its claim that Mother did not substantially comply with the permanency plan. Mother testified about her criminal record, the death of the child's father, her history with drug abuse, her visits with the child, and the steps she has taken in and out of incarceration to rehabilitate herself. A DCS case worker testified that she served as the child's social worker since the child's entrance into foster care, and that DCS and Mother developed a permanency plan later ratified by the juvenile court. While Mother maintained housing, the case worker testified that Mother could not financially support herself when out of custody and failed to follow the recommendations that resulted from her mental health and drug and alcohol assessments.

         The child's foster mother ("Foster Mother") testified that the child met developmental goals and bonded with her foster family. According to Foster Mother, a change in caretakers would be devastating to the child. DCS agreed that the child's current living situation was stable and loving, and said that her foster wanted to adopt her if possible.

         Mother's pastor and friend testified in support of Mother, saying that she was a good parent to all of her children and had made positive changes in the months since the child was born.[5] Mother's pastor and friend spent limited time with Mother since the birth of the child at issue in this appeal. Mother's friend stated that she would assist Mother in finding work and offer support when she was released from incarceration.

         At the conclusion of proof, the trial court orally ruled that DCS established that Mother had been incarcerated for all or part of the four months before the petition to terminate parental rights was filed. Further, the trial court found that DCS had proven by clear and convincing evidence that Mother exhibited wanton disregard for the child through her substance abuse and repeated incarceration during and after Mother's pregnancy. However, the trial court ruled in favor of Mother regarding the persistent conditions claim.

         Finally, the trial court found by clear and convincing evidence that termination of Mother's parental rights would be in the best interests of the child. In analyzing the best interest factors, the trial court found that Mother had failed to make necessary changes to her conduct and lifestyle for the child to be safe at home or for lasting change to appear possible. Further, the trial court found that Mother had not regularly visited the child, that no meaningful relationship existed between Mother and the child, and that a transfer of custody would be detrimental to the child. Additionally, the trial court found that Mother's history with drug abuse and her mental and emotional state could make her unable to effectively parent the child. Consequently, the trial court granted DCS's petition to terminate Mother's parental rights. A written order to that effect was entered on January 30, 2019. Mother filed a timely notice of appeal.

         Issues ...

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