In re Serenity S., No. E2019-00277-COA-R3-PT

CourtCourt of Appeals of Tennessee
Writing for the CourtTHOMAS R. FRIERSON, II, JUDGE
Docket NumberNo. E2019-00277-COA-R3-PT
Decision Date31 January 2020


No. E2019-00277-COA-R3-PT


Assigned on Briefs October 1, 2019
January 31, 2020

Appeal from the Juvenile Court for Anderson County
J33113, J34028, J34029, J34030
Brian J. Hunt, Judge

This is a termination of parental rights case, focusing on Serenity S., Hezeki S., Azaiah W., and Lyriq S., the minor children ("the Children") of Angela W. ("Mother") and William S. ("Father"). The Children were taken into protective custody by the Tennessee Department of Children's Services ("DCS") on March 30, 2017, upon investigation into allegations of environmental and educational neglect. The Anderson County Juvenile Court ("trial court") subsequently adjudicated the Children dependent and neglected as to both parents on May 23, 2017. On July 11, 2018, DCS filed a petition to terminate the parental rights of Mother and Father to the Children. Following a bench trial, the trial court granted the petition as to both parents in an order entered on January 18, 2019.1 As pertinent to this appeal, the trial court found that statutory grounds existed to terminate Mother's parental rights upon its finding by clear and convincing evidence that (1) Mother had abandoned the Children by failing to visit them, (2) Mother had failed to substantially comply with the reasonable responsibilities and requirements of the permanency plans, (3) the conditions leading to the Children's removal from Mother's home persisted, and (4) Mother had failed to manifest an ability and willingness to personally assume custody of or financial responsibility for the Children. The trial court further found by clear and convincing evidence that termination of Mother's parental rights was in the Children's best interest. Mother has appealed. Discerning no reversible error, we affirm the trial court's judgment terminating Mother's parental rights to the Children.

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

THOMAS R. FRIERSON, II, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which J. STEVEN STAFFORD, P.J., W.S., and W. NEAL MCBRAYER, J., joined.

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Keri E. Rule, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Angela W.

Herbert H. Slatery, III, Attorney General and Reporter, and Matt D. Cloutier, Assistant Attorney General, for the appellee, Tennessee Department of Children's Services.


I. Factual and Procedural Background

Upon DCS's petition, the trial court initially entered an "Order Controlling Conduct and for Protective Supervision" on March 27, 2017, bringing the Children into protective custody and requiring the parents to comply with a non-custodial permanency plan. At the time, Father was incarcerated, and Mother was residing with the Children in a rented home. Following a hearing, the Children were removed from Mother's home pursuant to an order entered by the trial court on March 30, 2017. The trial court found in this order that probable cause existed to determine that the Children were dependent and neglected in that they "suffer[ed] from environmental neglect and truancy." At the time, Serenity was seven years of age, Hezeki was six, Azaiah was nearly three, and Lyriq was nearly two.

On May 23, 2017, the trial court entered an order adjudicating the Children dependent and neglected upon the parents' respective waivers of an adjudicatory hearing, the "unavailability of father due to his incarceration at time of removal," and Mother's stipulation to "environmental neglect in the home" pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated § 37-1-102(b)(13)(A) and (F). In this order, presented by DCS as an exhibit during the termination trial, the court expressly found that DCS had made reasonable efforts to prevent the Children's removal from the home.

From the time of their removal into protective custody through the time of the termination trial, Serenity, Azaiah, and Lyriq resided together in a foster home with K.M. as their foster mother ("Foster Mother"). Leah Baird, the DCS Family Services Worker assigned to the case, testified during trial that Hezeki was placed separately due to his special needs in a residential treatment facility, located in Columbia, Tennessee. It is undisputed that upon Hezeki's diagnosis of autism, he was placed in a program for autistic children on April 5, 2017, a few days after the Children's removal from Mother's home.

Prior to filing the petition for termination of parental rights, DCS developed four permanency plans for the Children and the parents. All four plans were presented as exhibits during the termination proceedings. The first permanency plan was established

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on April 17, 2017, and ratified by the trial court on May 23, 2017. The court's order ratifying the plan indicated that Mother and her counsel were present for the permanency plan hearing and that the court reviewed with Mother the statutory definition of abandonment. The court found in its order ratifying the initial plan that the placements of the Children were "safe and appropriate and in the [Children's] best interest." The court also found that the stated goal of the plan to "Return to Parent" was appropriate and in the Children's best interest at that time. Additionally, the court found that the parents' responsibilities set forth in the plan were "reasonable, related to remedying the conditions that necessitate[d] foster care, and in the [Children's] best interest."

Under the initial permanency plan, Mother's relevant responsibilities and requirements were to (1) pay child support in the amount of $50 per month, (2) participate in supervised visitation with the Children, (3) undergo random drug screens, (4) undergo a drug and alcohol assessment and follow all resultant recommendations, (5) resolve any legal issues, (6) undergo a mental health assessment and follow all resultant recommendations, (7) complete domestic violence classes, (8) complete parenting education, (9) cooperate with homemaker services, (10) obtain and maintain stable housing with documentation, (11) obtain and maintain stable income with documentation of employment, (12) obtain a valid driver's license and insurance with documentation, and (13) execute necessary releases of information to DCS. The court specifically found that DCS was "making reasonable efforts toward finalizing the permanency goals." The plan reflected that the parents were residing in a two-bedroom apartment and that Mother was employed at a Waffle House restaurant.

In the interim between ratification of the first and second permanency plans, the trial court conducted a review hearing on July 11, 2017, entering an order, inter alia, granting to the parents four hours of weekly unsupervised day visitation in a public place with Serenity, Azaiah, and Lyriq. Following a subsequent review hearing, the trial court determined in an order entered September 14, 2017, that the parents were in "substantial compliance" with the initial permanency plan. Finding that "[v]isitation [had] gone well with no concerns noted," the court expanded the parents' unsupervised day visitation with Serenity, Azaiah, and Lyriq to eight hours and authorized DCS and the guardian ad litem ("GAL") to modify this visitation to overnight. The court also authorized DCS and the GAL to modify the parents' visitation with Hezeki to unsupervised. However, following a judicial review hearing conducted on December 12, 2017, the trial court found in its related order that the parents "still need housing & transportation."

A second permanency plan was established on September 28, 2017, and ratified by the trial court on February 13, 2018. Mother and her counsel were again present during the hearing, and Mother indicated through her signature that she had participated in the plan's development. Mother's requirements and responsibilities under this revised plan

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remained essentially as under the initial plan with the added requirement, as relevant to this appeal, that Mother participate in specialized parenting training related to Hezeki's special needs. The plan also set forth an additional "action step" that the parents would "have a transportation plan in place until they obtain[ed] their licenses."

In its order ratifying the second permanency plan, the trial court directed that the goal of "Exit Custody [with] Relative" be added as a secondary goal to the primary one of "Return to Parent." The court again found that the services provided and requirements for the parents were reasonably related to the goals of the permanency plan and that DCS had been "making reasonable efforts toward finalizing the permanency goals." However, the court determined that Mother was in only "partial compliance" with the initial plan because she still needed to complete tasks. As to the requirement of random drug screens, the court ordered the parents to undergo "hair follicle/nail bed tests within 10 days of notification by DCS that funding is available." The permanency plan reflected that Mother and Father were by that time residing in Chattanooga, Tennessee, but were still seeking permanent housing. Mother had completed domestic violence and anger management education through Omni Community Health and had completed a "STOP" substance abuse program and mental health assessment through Ridgeview Behavioral Health Services. The plan indicated that Mother had not yet signed a release allowing the results of the mental health assessment to be submitted to DCS and that Mother had not obtained a valid driver's license or insurance. At the time of the plan's development, Mother reported employment at an IHOP restaurant in Chattanooga.

The third permanency plan was developed on February 7, 2018, and ratified by the trial court on June 12, 2018. Mother and her attorney were present for the hearing, and the trial court noted that Mother was "in agreement with the plan." The balance of relevant responsibilities and requirements for Mother remained the same as in...

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