Assigned on Briefs October 1, 2019
from the Chancery Court for Obion County No. 33512 W. Michael
appeal concerns termination of parental rights. The Tennessee
Department of Children's Services ("DCS") filed
a petition in the Chancery Court for Obion County ("the
Trial Court") seeking to terminate the parental rights
of Emily M. M.-A. ("Mother") to her minor children
Adrian, Maribel, Alisiana, and Elena ("the
Children"). The Children had been exposed to
methamphetamine in Mother's care. After trial, the Trial
Court entered an order terminating Mother's parental
rights to the Children on the grounds of abandonment by
failure to provide a suitable home; abandonment by failure to
visit; substantial noncompliance with the permanency plan;
severe child abuse; and, being sentenced to more than two
years' imprisonment for child abuse. The Trial Court also
found that termination of Mother's parental rights is in
the Children's best interest. On appeal, Mother argues
that she has made improvements such that termination of her
parental rights is not in the Children's best interest.
First, apart from the grounds of failure to visit and failure
to provide a suitable home, which we reverse, we affirm the
grounds for termination found by the Trial Court. Regarding
best interest, we find that Mother has no meaningful
relationship with the Children and that her purported
improvements are insufficient. The evidence is clear and
convincing that termination of Mother's parental rights
is in the Children's best interest. We affirm, in part,
and, reverse, in part, the judgment of the Trial Court.
R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Chancery
Court Affirmed, in Part, and Reversed, in Part; Case
C. Cooper, Martin, Tennessee, for the appellant, Emily M.
Herbert H. Slatery, III, Attorney General and Reporter, and
Amber L. Seymour, Assistant Attorney General, for the
appellee, the Tennessee Department of Children's
Michael Swiney, C.J., delivered the opinion of the court, in
which Frank G. Clement, Jr., P.J., M.S. and Kenny W.
Armstrong, J., joined.
MICHAEL SWINEY, CHIEF JUDGE
February 2017, the Children were removed from Mother's
custody on the basis of domestic violence and drug abuse in
the home. Mother and the Children tested positive
for methamphetamine. Afterwards, Mother was charged with
aggravated child abuse. In October 2017, Mother pled guilty
to four counts of attempted aggravated child abuse for which
she received a sentence of eight years for each count running
concurrently. The sentence was suspended, and Mother was
placed on supervised probation. In November 2017, the
Juvenile Court for Obion County ("the Juvenile
Court") found the Children dependent and neglected and
victims of severe child abuse. Mother moved to Ohio, and the
Children remained in Tennessee with a foster family.
permanency plans were fashioned for Mother with her
participation over the course of the case. Taken together,
Mother's responsibilities under the plans included: pass
consecutive drug screens; participate in any classes offered
in jail; maintain contact with DCS; update DCS of any changes
of contact information within 24 hours; complete a parenting
assessment and follow all recommendations; complete a mental
health intake and an A & D assessment; and, address
domestic violence issues through counseling.
2018, DCS filed a petition in the Trial Court seeking to
terminate Mother's parental rights to the Children. DCS
alleged multiple grounds for termination: abandonment by
failure to provide a suitable home; abandonment by failure to
visit; abandonment by failure to support; persistent
conditions; substantial noncompliance with the permanency
plan; severe child abuse; and, being sentenced to more than
two years' imprisonment for child abuse. This case was
tried in April 2019. At the beginning of trial, DCS stated
that it would not be proceeding with the ground of failure to
witnesses testified at trial. First to testify was Brian Hill
("Hill"), a family service worker for DCS. Hill was
the Children's case manager. Hill testified that the
Children were removed from Mother's home in February
2017. Mother and the Children tested positive for
methamphetamine. Mother, who was incarcerated from March 31,
2017 to May 4, 2017, went into rehab at Buffalo Valley for 28
days. After her time in rehab, Mother moved to Ohio where she
has friends and family. Hill testified that it was explained
to Mother that her move to Ohio would make DCS's task of
assisting her more difficult. Hill, who took over the case in
May of 2018, stated that Mother had two different addresses
on his watch, and for a period she was out of touch with him.
Hill testified that no ICPC home study had been conducted on
Mother because she moved so frequently. Regarding visitation,
Hill stated that Mother had visited the Children six times
for a total of twelve hours in the course of two years. When
asked if Mother had completed all of her permanency plan
responsibilities, Hill testified: "No, ma'am,
because she failed to complete a parenting assessment, she
failed to complete mental health intake with the A and D
assessment and to address domestic violence and
counseling." Regarding DCS's efforts, Hill stated:
Q. What reasonable efforts has the Department provided to the
mother from the time of the removal until this termination
A. Well, the mother entered rehab through our criminal court
and since she didn't sign a release, the department was
not able to work with her or provide any additional services
for the first 28 days. However, since that time, the
department has offered to set up parenting. We have attempted
to schedule a parenting assessment and pay for it. We have
offered to assist in finding housing here in Tennessee, to
pay for drug screens, to conduct an ICPC home study on her
home in Ohio. We have offered gas cards and hotels for the
mother to use to come down and visit the children. We have
communicated with service providers in Ohio to explain the
services mother needed to complete on the permanency plan. We
have offered regular monthly visitation for the mother.
Q. Since the children have been removed from the mother, she
has not corrected the situation to make herself a suitable
home to care for the children; has she?
A. No, ma'am. Her moving to Ohio directly afterwards
impeded her ability to work services with the department.
respect to the Children's foster family, Hill testified:
Q. Are the children currently in an adoptive placement?
A. They are.
Q. How long have the children been in this adoptive
A. They have been there since coming into custody.
Q. And 2 of the minor children were extremely young when they
came into custody, 1 and 1/2 years old, 6 weeks old. So would
it be fair to say the foster home is the only home they have
known at this point in their lives?
A. Yes, ma'am.
Q. Would it be detrimental to the minor children for there to
be a change in placement?
A. Yes, ma'am.
Q. Do the children have a meaningful relationship with their
A. The oldest two children, Adrian and Maribel, I would say
they love their mother. They are excited whenever she does
come visit with then but I wouldn't characterize it as a
meaningful relationship. I would say they are more so bonded
with one another and the foster mom.
Q. So you would say the children have a bond with the foster
A. Yes. And the foster family.
concluded his direct examination by testifying that Mother
had made no lasting changes to her lifestyle or conduct and
that she had failed to demonstrate an ability to provide a
safe and stable home for the Children.
cross-examination, Hill stated it was possible that
Mother's case could have been referred to Ohio, but that
he never implemented such a referral. Hill testified,
however, that "[w]e have worked with the mother and
spoken to service providers there in Ohio." Hill could
not identify the providers' names but stated that they
could be found in the file. Hill stated further that he was
unaware of any friends or relatives Mother had in Tennessee.
Hill acknowledged that Mother had passed three or four drug
screens and attended a rehab program.
his testimony, when asked if Mother brought any gifts on her
visits, Hill stated: "No, ma'am. And the visit that
I supervised I had an issue with her being on the phone
facetiming." Regarding whether he had ever spoken with
Mother about seeking services in Ohio, Hill stated that
"she told me on several occasions that she was
starting" but "whenever I would ask her the name of
where she was going and if she signed paperwork for me to get
that information, she was not able to provide that
name." Hill testified that on each visit to Tennessee,
Mother was provided gas cards and hotel rooms.
and last to testify was Mother, who participated by telephone
from Ohio. Mother stated that she had successfully completed
inpatient rehab at Buffalo Valley and had a follow-up A &
D outpatient treatment. Mother testified: "I have been
doing the process, I have been receiving A and D, counseling
101, and it is through an organization here in Ohio called
Anazo. I have mentioned it many of times to my case worker
and I did sign a medical, like a report, through Anazo."
Mother stated that she lived with her mother, son, and older
brother. Mother testified that her mother's address was
always effective as a means of reaching her. When asked if
she had provided DCS with proof of her A & D, parenting
classes, and mental health counseling, Mother stated
"[n]o" because "[t]hey don't give me
her testimony, Mother stated that she worked at a factory
prior to her pregnancy. Mother testified that she then had a
"bowel/intestine rupture" in her stomach, so she
cannot sit or travel. Mother stated that she could return to
work after her pregnancy. Regarding contact with the
Children, Mother stated that she spoke to them by phone at
least every Sunday. Mother described her relationship with
the Children as "good." Mother testified that
traveling from Ohio to Tennessee and back was difficult.
Mother stated that she brought the Children gifts, such as
shoes, when she visited them.
her testimony, Mother offered a host of excuses for why she
did not complete her services, hold a job for long, maintain
a stable residence, or visit the Children more often:
Q. Have you completed any of those services that you state
you are working on?
A. No. I still do that.
Q. So for a period of 2 years, you have been working on these
services but you haven't completed a single one?
A. Yes, because my probation department said I needed to
continue to do that, that's why. There is not a date for
completion. I have to continue to do them.
Q. If the department had contacted the facility that you
claim that you are receiving these services at and they say
you missed 10 scheduled appointments, would that be accurate?
Q. Why are you missing those appointments?
A. I was in the hospital. I just got out. That is why I am
not there. I have been in the hospital, I moved, and you know
I started working. Since my kids have been gone, I have had 3
different jobs. So I am working and had to reschedule my
appointments because I am trying to work.
Q. Where have you worked in the time period since your
children have been removed?
A. I have worked at healthcare, I was working dietary in
there and I got fired because -- I had just got hired in
there, I wasn't even working like 2 weeks there. Then I
had to come to Court in Tennessee. They told me they had to
let me go because I had just started. So I ended up leaving
there so they didn't fire me. I worked at Autoplex, that
is where I was working at when I went to the hospital and had
emergency surgery. I got put on - because I had to lift a 70
pound box that was --
Q. Right. Where was your third job?
A. Then I worked at Taco Bell. I worked there for awhile.
Then I was working --
Q. So you have had 4 jobs?
Q. Did you earn minimum wage at all of ...