In re Taylor B.W.: Tennessee Supreme Court Evaluates Termination of Parental Right Standards

1028452_61302173Facts of the Case

In March of 2002, the Mother and Father divorced. The following November, while pretending to give the Father a flu vaccination shot, the Mother instead injected the Father with a chemical used to euthanize animals. The Mother was criminally charged and plead guilty to attempted second degree murder of the Father. The Mother’s sentence was for twelve (12) years, to be served at thirty percent (30%). This meant that Mother would be eligible for release after only four (4) years. At the time the Mother went to prison, the children were five and seven years old.

In 2004, while the Mother was serving her sentence, the parties agreed to modify their parenting plan. The new plan allowed for visitation with the children’s maternal grandmother, and it also provided for the children to visit the Mother in prison. The plan went further in setting out a plan for the children to be gradually returned to the original parenting schedule once the Mother was released.

However, the Father remarried a few years later, and he and the Stepmother filed a Petition to terminate the Mother’s parental rights and to allow the stepmother to adopt the children. The trial was not held until one (1) month after the Mother’s release from prison, and at the hearing on this matter, the trial court held that Father and Stepmother had proven grounds for termination of the Mother’s parental rights pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated §36-1-113(g)(6), which allows for termination of parental rights when the parent “has been confined in a correctional or detention facility of any type, by order of the court as a result of a criminal act, under a sentence of ten (10) or more years, and the child is under eight (8) years of age at the time the sentence is entered by the court[.]”

Finding that the Father and Stepmother had proven the grounds for termination of the Mother’s parental rights, the Court then considered the children’s best interest, finding that there was no proof that the Mother posed a danger to the children and that Mother had continually attempted to have a relationship with the children. Even after making this finding, the Court determined that a termination of the Mother’s parental rights was in the children’s best interests.

Mother then filed a Motion to alter or amend the trial court’s decision, alleging that the trial court improperly placed the burden of proof on the Mother for certain statutory factors. Upon reexamination of the ruling, the trial court agreed and found that, because the case was so close, Father and Stepmother had failed to prove that it was in the children’s best interests for the Mother’s parental rights to be terminated. The trial court specifically noted that Father had willingly mediated a parenting plan that anticipated a return of the Mother’s parenting time, even after her conviction. Furthermore, the Mother continued a meaningful relationship with the children until the Father remarried. Therefore, the trial court entered an amended order denying the Father and Stepmother’s petition. Father and Stepmother followed with an appeal of this decision.

Appeal

The Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s first order, which terminated the Mother’s parental rights, finding that it was clear that the Father and Stepmother proved by clear and convincing evidence that it was in the children’s best interests. Mother appealed this ruling to the Tennessee Supreme Court.

On Mother’s appeal, the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and affirmed the trial court’s amended order, which denied the Father and Stepmother’s petition to terminate. The Supreme Court recognized that it had not used a uniform approach to reviewing termination cases in the past, and in this order, the Supreme Court provides clarification:

We now make clear that we review findings of fact by a trial court in civil actions de novo on the record, with a presumption of correctness of the findings, unless the preponderance of the evidence is otherwise. When a trial court has made no finding of fact, however, we conduct a de novo review to determine where the preponderance of evidence lies. Following our evaluation of the facts, we review the trial court’s order to determine whether the facts amount to clear and convincing evidence that the termination of parental rights is in the best interests of the children. Clear and convincing evidence is “evidence in which there is no serious or substantial doubt as to the correctness of the conclusions drawn from the evidence.” 

Both the Supreme Court and the trial court noted the lack of expert proof presented at trial that would address psychological or emotional impacts on the children if the Mother were allowed more time. The Stepmother and children testified that they were afraid of what might happen if the children were forced to visit with the Mother. However, the Supreme Court recognized that “expert testimony could have provided the trial court with a basis for determining the authenticity of the children’s fear of Mother and a prediction of the psychological effect of required visitation.”

One lesson to be learned from this case is that, even if you believe you have met the statutory grounds for terminating someone’s parental rights, you need to focus on how you can prove that the termination is in the children’s best interests. Consider having the children see a counselor or therapist who could testify about how visitation with that parent could affect the children.

In re Taylor B.W., et al., 397 S.W.3d 105.

If you have questions about a termination of parental rights or adoption case, contact our office today to schedule your free consultation! You may contact us at 615-804-6086 or e-mail us at [email protected]

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