Tennessee Termination of Parental Rights: Mental Incompetence of Parents(In Re Aisha R.)

Mother and Father had three children together. Two children are at issue in this case. The parents are intellectually disabled and dependent upon government assistance. They became involved with the Department of Children’s Services (DCS), and the Tennessee DCS office offered the parents in-home services to aid in their parenting.

At a routine meeting with DCS, several individuals noted that the younger child seemed hungry when a pacifier was offered to her. Mother stated that the child had not eaten since the night before. When encouraged to do so, the Mother prepared a bottle for the child. The bottle consisted of a jar of baby food, infant cereal and water. Thereafter, DCS had the children seen at a children’s hospital, where it was discovered that both children were nutritionally deprived and were failing to thrive in the care of the parents.

The younger child, who was only about one year old at the time, was below the baseline for growth, weight and head circumference. The older child was in the 5th percentile. When the children were released from the hospital, DCS took custody of the children and placed them in foster care.

The children were then adjudicated to be dependent and neglected children.

DCS drafted three permanency plans from December 2011 to February 2013. Each plan was approved by the trial court. Tennessee permanency plans are developed to establish goals for parents who wish to be reunited with their children. In this case, the plans required the parents to safely store cleaning fluids and medications; install baby safety gates; supervise the children when they were playing outside; maintain a clean home; procure transportation; secure income so that they could financially support the children; submit to a mental health assessment and follow any recommendations; see a nutritional specialist and follow recommendations; participate in parenting classes; develop a support system; comply with the recommendations of their in-home service providers; ensure the children were keeping medical appointments.

Mother was additionally required to seek assistance from a mental health provider, attend those appointments and follow the provider’s recommendations.

On December 10, 2012, DCS filed a petition to terminate each parent’s parental rights. This was done on the basis that the parents had failed to provide a suitable home, they had not complied with the requirements of the permanency plans, and the conditions that led to the removal of the children persisted. Furthermore, DCS claimed that the parents were mentally incompetent.

An expert testified that Mother was operating at a 2nd grade level, and that she could not appropriately parent the children without constant supervision. He did not believe Mother would likely attain the ability to parent the children in the future.

A second expert testified that the Father’s mental capability was comparable to that of an 8-10 year old. She felt Father was capable of parenting the children if he had a strong support system and was willing to accept help with parenting. This expert explained that Father may have believed he was more capable than he really was, as evidenced by the fact that he had turned down financial assistance from programs like WIC.

A DCS worker explained the conditions that led to the children’s removal, noting that the parents were generally cooperative with services provided, but that they lacked the ability to follow through on recommendations made. The parents also needed to be prompted to provide basic care for the children.

The younger child had a heart condition, but the parents had not scheduled an appointment to have it examined. The parents’ apartment was infested with bed bugs.

Another case manager for DCS testified that she had been working with the family since December 2011, and she was not any closer to being able to return the children than when they started.

The parents did not have money for food because Father spent Mother’s social security income on a car lease.

Mother also complained of domestic violence and that Father was bringing other women into the home and living with them as husband and wife. Father claimed to be a bigamist.

The parents had been inconsistent with their visitation schedule and often missed visits or left early. Once the parents were allowed in-home visitation with the children, they were somewhat more consistent.

In a Tennessee termination of parental rights case, the court must determine that there is clear and convincing evidence that proves (1) the statutory grounds for termination exist and (2) that termination is in the child’s best interest.

Under Tennessee law, a court can terminate someone’s parental rights when (as applies here):

The child has been removed from the home of the parent or guardian by order of a court for a period of six (6) months and:

(A) The conditions that led to the child’s removal or other conditions that in all reasonable probability would cause the child to be subjected to further abuse or neglect and that, therefore, prevent the child’s safe return to the care of the parent(s) or guardian(s), still persist;

(B) There is little likelihood that these conditions will be remedied at an early date so that the child can be safely returned to the parent(s) or guardian(s) in the near future; and

(C) The continuation of the parent or guardian and child relationship greatly diminishes the child’s chances of early integration into a safe, stable and permanent home.

Tennessee Code Annotated §36-1-113(g)(3). To terminate a parent’s rights, all three factors must be proven by clear and convincing evidence.

The trial court found that the parents were unable to properly feed the children and unable to grasp their basic needs and ensure those needs were met. Furthermore, neither parent exhibited an ability to care for the children, even for short periods of time during supervised visits, without being prompted to address certain needs.

The second ground for termination was based on the parents’ mental incompetency. Under Tennessee law, a court may terminate parental rights when there is clear and convincing evidence that:

(i) The parent . . . of the child is incompetent to adequately provide for the further care and supervision of the child because the parent’s . . . mental condition is presently so impaired and is so likely to remain so that it is unlikely that the parent . . . will be able to assume or resume the care of and responsibility for the child in the near future; and

(ii) That termination of parental rights is in the best interest of the child.

Tennessee Code Annotated §36-1-113(g)(8)(B).

In this case, DCS must prove that the parent is presently unable to care for the children AND that the parent is unlikely to be able to do so in the near future. In this case, Mother suffered from an intellectual disability that would prevent her from gaining the skills to care for the children without constant supervision and assistance. Father is slightly more advanced than mother, but he also required continual assistance with caring for the children, and he lacked an adequate support system to aid him in this regard.

Therefore, DCS proved the grounds for termination of the parents’ rights in this case. The Court then considered whether termination was in the children’s best interest.

Parents had not adjusted their circumstances so that they could provide a safe environment for the children. They were unable to properly care for the children during short visits. The parents were inconsistent in their visitation and often missed visits altogether. Neither parent enjoyed a meaningful relationship with the children. The children were placed in a safe and stable foster home, and removing them from that home would negatively affect their emotional, psychological and medical conditions. Questions remain as to whether the parents’ homes are safe and stable.

The parents argued that the children would need less care and attention as they grew older, and noted that the children should be able to advise the parents and others when they need basic care. However, the Tennessee Appellate Court noted that “Children should not be tasked with ensuring their own well-being.”

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