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In re Emma S.

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

January 9, 2020

In re EMMA S.

          Assigned on Briefs September 4, 2019

          Appeal from the Juvenile Court for Hamilton County No. 283144 Robert D. Philyaw, Judge

         In this parental termination case, the juvenile court found two statutory grounds for termination of a mother's parental rights: substantial noncompliance with the requirements of the permanency plan and persistence of conditions. The juvenile court also found that termination of the mother's parental rights was in her child's best interest. Because the record contains clear and convincing evidence to support the grounds for termination and the best interest determination, we affirm.

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

          David C. Veazey, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for the appellant, Haley S.

          Herbert H. Slatery II, Attorney General and Reporter, and Jeffrey D. Ridner, Assistant Attorney General, for the appellee, Tennessee Department of Children's Services.

          Raymond A. Neal, Chattanooga, Tennessee, Guardian ad Litem for Emma S.

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

          OPINION

          W. NEAL McBRAYER, JUDGE.

         I.

         A.

         The Tennessee Department of Children's Services ("DCS") first became involved with Haley S. ("Mother") when she lost custody of her older child in 2015. The child was taken from her when he was ten months old. Although the child had multiple fractures in various stages of healing, Mother claimed that she did not know the child was being hurt. According to Mother, the child's father, Geard R. ("Father"), was responsible for the child's injuries. And ultimately, Father pled guilty to aggravated child abuse. In 2016, both Mother and Father surrendered their parental rights to the child.

         A couple of months after the surrender, Mother gave birth to Emma, her second child with Father. Emma was just a little over one year old when DCS placed her in protective custody following a referral alleging lack of supervision and environmental neglect.

         At the time, Father was still serving his prison sentence for aggravated child abuse. Mother, along with her paramour and Emma, lived in the home of Mother's great aunt. When DCS arrived at the home accompanied by the police, Mother, her paramour, and her great aunt were standing outside; the one-year-old child was in the house unattended. The DCS investigator described deplorable conditions within the home. Roaches were "crawling on the child, the counters, the walls, the floor, and the furniture." And there were animal feces on the floors.

         An examination of Emma revealed bruising on Emma's forehead on the right side and fresh bruising on her cheek with an outline in the shape of fingers. When Emma was later taken to the hospital, they found additional bruising on the child's back. During an interview, Mother denied hurting Emma; much later Mother explained that the child was learning to walk and "had a couple of bruises on her face from where she had fell [sic] a couple of times trying to walk." She guessed her paramour, who she claimed was watching the child, just "wasn't quick enough to get to her."

         During her interview at the scene, Mother also disclosed that she and her paramour had smoked marijuana in the home while Emma was present about two hours before DCS arrived. Unsurprisingly, Mother and her paramour both tested positive for marijuana. Emma tested positive for exposure to methamphetamine and marijuana. The police arrested Mother and her paramour, charging them with drug possession, possession of drug paraphernalia, and felony child neglect.

         On July 31, 2017, in the Juvenile Court for Hamilton County, DCS petitioned for temporary legal custody of Emma. Mother waived the adjudicatory hearing and stipulated that Emma was dependent and neglected. The court found clear and convincing evidence that Mother was unable to provide a safe and stable home environment.

         On August 14, 2017, DCS created a permanency plan with Mother's participation. The initial goal of the plan was returning Emma to Mother provided that the court did not make a finding of severe abuse. In addition to Mother's substance abuse problems, the plan addressed Mother's mental health, parenting skills, and lack of sufficient resources to provide for Emma. Among other things, the plan required Mother to (1) participate in a mental health assessment and follow the recommendations; (2) maintain contact with DCS; (3) pay child support if ordered; (4) become financially stable and provide proof of legal income; (5) attend and actively participate in visits with Emma; (6) participate in an alcohol and drug assessment and follow the recommendations; (7) submit to random drug screens; (8) refrain from associating with individuals who are known to use illegal substances; and (9) obtain and maintain housing for at least six consecutive months. DCS revised the plan twice, but Mother's responsibilities remained largely the same.

         B.

         On June 7, 2018, DCS petitioned to terminate Mother's parental rights.[1] The petition alleged three grounds for termination: abandonment by failure to provide a suitable home, substantial noncompliance with the permanency plan, and persistent conditions. The juvenile court conducted a trial over two days in which Mother, the DCS family services worker (the "FSW"), and Emma's foster mother ("Foster Mother") testified.

         The testimony revealed that Mother had made little progress on the housing front. During the year and a half between Emma's removal and the trial, Mother lived with her ex-boyfriend's parents and then on her own in an apartment in Cleveland, Tennessee. The FSW had to arrange for a visit of the apartment through the landlord, who requested to meet with the FSW in private. During that meeting, the landlord communicated several concerns, including Mother's frequent male visitors. When the FSW arrived at Mother's apartment, the FSW found three men there. The landlord also expressed concern about a bedbug infestation and cautioned the FSW not to sit down or touch anything in Mother's apartment.

         The landlord evicted Mother after only three or four months for failure to pay rent and having too many visitors in the apartment. Although the apartment was in low income housing and rent was based on income, Mother explained that, when her hours were reduced at the fast food restaurant where she was working, she could not get her boss to give her proof of the reduction of her hours, so she was unable to get her rent adjusted.

         After Mother's eviction, the FSW assisted Mother with the completion of an application with the local housing authority. An appointment with the housing authority was set up, but Mother missed the appointment.

         At trial and for the eight-month period leading up to it, Mother was again living at the home of her great aunt, the place she lived when Emma was removed. Mother acknowledged that, when Emma was removed, the home "was awful" and that she "was embarrassed" for anyone to come in. But she claimed that the conditions ...


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