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In re Travis R.

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

November 13, 2019


          Assigned on Briefs October 1, 2019

          Appeal from the Juvenile Court for Jefferson County [1] No. 18-00670 Dennis Roach, II, Judge.

         The Tennessee Department of Children's Services ("DCS") filed this petition to terminate the parental rights of a father to his seven-year-old son. The father was incarcerated for most of the child's life, and he was serving a three-year sentence in New Jersey at the time of the final hearing. The mother surrendered her parental rights after the child was found dependent and neglected and placed in foster care. Although the father was scheduled to be released from prison, he had not seen the child in over five years. The trial court found that the father had abandoned the child by failing to visit during the four months before his incarceration and exhibiting a wanton disregard for the child's welfare by engaging in criminal behavior. The trial court also found that the father's conduct during the child's life failed to manifest an ability and willingness to assume custody and that placing the child in the father's custody would pose a risk of substantial harm to the child. Moreover, the court found that terminating the father's rights would be in the child's best interests because there was no substantial relationship, and the father had no plans for employment or housing after his release. The father contends that the trial court's findings did not constitute clear and convincing evidence that termination of his rights was in the child's best interests. We find the evidence does not preponderate against the trial court's findings of fact and affirm its conclusion that DCS proved its case by clear and convincing evidence.

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

          Dana L. Lesley, Dandridge, Tennessee, for the appellant, William R.

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

          William Keith Repass, Guardian Ad Litem, Dandridge, Tennessee, for the minor child, Travis R.

          Frank G. Clement Jr., P.J., M.S., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Thomas R. Frierson II and Kenny W. Armstrong, JJ., joined.


          FRANK G. CLEMENT JR., P.J., M.S.

         Travis R. ("the Child") was born in January 2012 to Crystal G. ("Mother")[2] and William R. ("Father"). In December 2015, DCS placed the Child in protective custody with his maternal aunt, Jessica Ellis. Two years later, in December 2017, DCS removed the Child from Ms. Ellis's home due to, inter alia, a lack of supervision and Ms. Ellis's substance abuse. At the time, Father was incarcerated in New Jersey, where he lived since 2013. After an unsuccessful effort to place the Child back in Mother's custody, DCS filed a petition for termination of Mother and Father's parental rights. Mother surrendered her rights in March 2019, and the petition against Father proceeded to a final hearing in April 2017.

         At the hearing, DCS presented the testimony of the Child's Foster Care Case Manager, Jonathan Cruz. Mr. Cruz testified that the Child was behind in school and suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and undiagnosed focal seizures when DCS placed him in foster care. The Child began taking medication, and he was back on par with his grade level. By that time, the Child had been in custody for over fifteen months but did not have a prospective adoptive family. Mr. Cruz stated that DCS could not make the Child available for adoption until they obtained full guardianship.

         Father participated by telephone during the hearing and testified that he had been close to the Child until returning to New Jersey in 2013. Father admitted, however, that he had been arrested several times in Tennessee after the Child's birth. Shortly after the Child's birth, Father was arrested in Cocke County for public intoxication and resisting arrest. After a few days in jail, Father was released on probation. Father also admitted that he was arrested in Scott County and Jefferson County, and he spent six months in jail for violating his probation. Then, in April 2013, Father pleaded guilty in Morgan County to resisting arrest, unlawful possession of a weapon, and failure to register as a sex offender. Finally, in July 2013, Father pleaded guilty in Morgan County to another charge of violation of probation. Around this time, Father discovered he had a pending warrant for his arrest in New Jersey and requested Tennessee law enforcement to extradite him.

         On June 21, 2013, Father surrendered to New Jersey authorities. According to the certified copy of his conviction, Father thereafter pleaded guilty to aggravated criminal sexual contact and failure to notify the State of his change in address in 2011. He was released from prison in December 2014 and placed back on probation. For the next two years, Father lived in New Jersey. He testified that he had a job and sent money "a couple of times" for the Child when Ms. Ellis needed it.

         In January 2017, however, Father returned to prison on charges for sexual assault and endangering the welfare of his ex-girlfriend's child in 2007. Father pleaded guilty to the child endangerment charge and was sentenced to a three-year prison sentence. The New Jersey court, however, determined that Father was not a good candidate for probation due to his "history of probationary violations" and exposure "to the full array of criminal sanctions including diversion, probation, and incarceration[, ] none of which ha[d] dissuaded him from continued anti-social criminal behavior." By that time, Father was 55 years old and had an adult criminal record that comprised 44 arrests, 10 misdemeanor convictions, 12 felony convictions, two probation violations, and four parole violations.[3]

         Father testified that he returned to New Jersey to "take care of [his] past wrongs" so he could "start a new life with Travis." He was expecting to be released on parole in May 2019, but he did not know the conditions of his release. Still, he testified that he could transfer his parole to Tennessee, where he had family. He also said that he would get housing and a job, and sign up for an alcohol and drug assessment and a mental evaluation. According to his prison records, Father registered for two classes on January 7, 2019, one entitled "Successful Transition and Reentry" and one entitled "Successful Employment and Lawful Living." But Father testified that he had not been able to attend because there was a six-month wait period. Father admitted that he did not have a relationship with the Child and did not know how long it would take to be in a position to care for the Child.

         On May 23, 2019, the trial court entered an order terminating Father's parental rights. The court found that DCS proved three grounds by clear and convincing evidence: (1) abandonment by failure to visit; (2) abandonment by wanton disregard; and (3) failure to manifest ability and willingness to assume custody of the Child. It also found that termination was in the Child's best interests based on Father's failure to adjust his circumstances, his failure to maintain visitation or otherwise establish a meaningful relationship with the Child, and because of Father's criminal history. This appeal followed.

         Father raises only one issue on appeal, contending that the trial court's findings did not constitute clear and convincing evidence that termination was in the Child's best interests.

         Standard ...

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