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In re Janiyah J.

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

September 4, 2019

In Re JANIYAH J., et al.[1]

          Assigned on Briefs May 1, 2019

          Appeal from the Juvenile Court for Hamilton County Nos. 281780; 281781; 281782 Robert D. Philyaw, Judge

         This action involves the termination of a father's parental rights to his minor children. Following a bench trial, the trial court found that clear and convincing evidence existed to support the statutory ground of severe child abuse and that termination was in the best interest of the children. We affirm.

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

          Robert B. Pyle, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for the appellant, Jermichael J., Sr.

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

          John W. McClarty, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Richard H. Dinkins and Arnold B. Goldin, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          JOHN W. McCLARTY, JUDGE

         I. BACKGROUND

         Janiyah, Areial, and Jermichael, Jr. (collectively "the Children") were born to Desanta D. ("Mother") and Jermichael J., Sr. in August 2010, July 2012, and May 2014, respectively. Mother and Father ("the Parents") resided together with the Children in a one-bedroom motel suite in Chattanooga. The front room was converted into a bedroom for the Parents, while the Children shared the one bedroom.

         On February 20, 2015, the Tennessee Department of Children's Services ("DCS") received a referral with allegations of lack of supervision and drug exposure. This was not the first referral in which DCS investigated the Parents and their care of the Children. Jennifer Lambert, a DCS investigator, visited the home on March 2, 2015, and found Mother alone with the Children and the home in disarray with chemicals, clothing, trash, food, empty cans, and other items strewn about. Mother admitted use of marijuana and submitted to a drug screen that confirmed her admission. Ms. Lambert advised Mother to inform Father of the visit and to clean the home before she returned in one week.

         Ms. Lambert returned on March 9. Mother had made significant progress at that time; however, Ms. Lambert provided Mother with additional information for resources to assist her further in her care of the Children.

         Thereafter, DCS received another referral on April 27 with new allegations of environmental neglect and drug exposure. Ms. Lambert, along with another investigator, returned on April 28. Ms. Lambert found Mother alone with the Children again. The home was in disarray, and the Children were confined to their bedroom. The bedroom was "filthy" and "cluttered," and Jermichael, Jr. had a soiled diaper, with "feces running down the sides of his legs" and "up his back." Ms. Lambert questioned Mother about the living conditions and reminded her that she had agreed to accept services and complete certain tasks. Mother admitted her lack of effort and also that she would test positive for marijuana. Ms. Lambert advised Mother that she would return.

         Ms. Lambert attempted a visit in May 2015; however, no one answered the door. She returned on June 15. Again, no one answered the door; however, Ms. Lambert asked the motel office to call Mother's room. Mother answered. At that point, Ms. Lambert requested police assistance, and once enforcement arrived, she observed Mother standing in the hallway outside the residence. Mother gave permission to enter the home, which emitted a strong odor of urine and feces. Ms. Lambert found the Children in the bedroom, which was covered in feces, garbage, and roaches. The Children were also covered in feces. At some point, Father arrived and was shown the Children's living conditions. He explained that he worked seven days per week and was unaware of the state of the Children's bedroom. Mother was arrested, and the Children were taken to the hospital.[2]

         Once at the hospital, the Children were cleaned and examined. Medical personnel shaved Janiyah and Areial's hair because their hair was matted with feces and could not be adequately cleaned, despite persistent attempts to remove the fecal matter. Jermichael, Jr. was diagnosed with Rickett's, and Areial's bones showed signs of demineralization. All three children also tested positive for marijuana. Janiyah and Areial were later diagnosed with severe developmental delays. The girls were placed in the same foster home at the time of removal. Jermichael, Jr. later joined them on February 2, 2018.

         The Parents were charged with three counts of aggravated child neglect. They pled guilty, and received sentences of probation. The Children were adjudicated as dependent and neglected. The Hamilton County Juvenile Court also found the Parents guilty of severe abuse by final order, entered on March 24, 2017. The order was appealed to the Circuit Court; however, an agreed order was entered dismissing the appeal on December 1, 2017.

         Meanwhile, DCS developed a permanency plan in which the Parents were tasked with various responsibilities, including refraining from drug use, completing an alcohol and drug assessment and a mental health assessment, submitting to random drug screens, securing and maintaining stable housing and income, and ensuring that the home was free from environmental concerns and other issues.

         On March 12, 2018, DCS filed a petition to terminate Father's parental rights based upon the statutory ground of severe child abuse.[3] The case proceeded to a hearing, at which several witnesses testified. As pertinent to this appeal, Ms. Lambert testified that there were five prior investigations concerning the family before the current investigation that began in February 2015. She admitted that she did not call Father prior to the Children's removal on June 15 but explained that Mother advised her that they did not have cellular telephones. She recalled that Father arrived during the removal process. At that time, he admitted that the current living environment was uninhabitable and inhumane. He further acknowledged that he also lived in the residence and had been advised of her prior visits.

         Mother testified that she was currently not in a position to care for the Children but claimed that Father was ready and willing to assume responsibility for them. She believed he could provide appropriate care for them. She asserted that he provided for them prior to their removal and interacted with them when he came home from work. She stated that he currently lived with his grandmother in a nice neighborhood.

         Father confirmed that he lived with his grandmother and has resided there since 2015. He stated that he was working 8 to 12-hour shifts at the time of the Children's removal. He alleged that Mother was "always cleaning" when he arrived home after his shifts. He claimed that he always smelled bleach and that the residence was always clean when he returned home. He stated that on June 15, he left for work around 5:30 a.m. and returned around 3:30 p.m. He agreed that the residence was "a little messed up" that week and claimed that he advised Mother to "get everything together" and that they had cleaned some that morning. He claimed that the fecal matter strewn throughout the residence looked like "candy" to him and that the stains on the mattress were caused by juice. He also denied knowledge of Mother's marijuana use in the home. He admitted that he knew she smoked marijuana but claimed that he advised her not to smoke marijuana in the home while caring for the Children.

         Father admitted that Mother could not provide appropriate care for the Children. He claimed that he was unaware of her need for mental health treatment prior to removal but that he was ready and willing to care for the Children in her stead. He believed he also had an adequate support system to assist him in caring for them. He stated that he had housing and employment that ...


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