Facts: After Mother and Father divorced, Paternal Grandparents filed a dependency and neglect action. Following a hearing, the trial court found Child dependent and neglected and awarded Grandparents custody of Child. Four months later, Grandparents petitioned to adopt Child and terminate the parental rights of Mother and Father.
Father surrendered his parental rights to Child, in the case proceeded to trial against Mother alone.
The evidence revealed that Mother had experienced trouble with drugs and alcohol when Child was younger and around the time of Mother’s divorce from Father. Mother had two older children, one of whom she arranged to live with her mother in Florida for a year while the other was placed in foster care.
At trial, Mother testified that she did not abuse drugs anymore. She admitted to smoking marijuana one time three months earlier, but she said that had been a mistake and she had no plans to smoke marijuana again.
After finding that grounds of abandonment had been proven by clear and convincing evidence, the trial court also concluded that it was in Child’s best interest that Mother’s parental rights be terminated. In support of this conclusion, the trial court found that Mother was still addicted to drugs, Mother had not accessed social service agencies, and the drugs and alcohol in Mother’s home, while not as bad as they once were, were still bad and undesirable for Child. Thus, Mother’s parental rights were terminated.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.
Persons seeking to terminate another’s parental rights must prove two things. Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-1-113(c) requires that termination of parental rights must be based upon: (1) A finding by the court that the grounds for termination of parental rights have been established; and (2) that termination of the parent’s rights is in the best interests of the child. Both grounds and best interests must be proved by clear and convincing evidence.
Statutory factors are set out for the best interests analysis that the court “shall consider,” but that analysis “is not limited to” the factors enumerated in Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-1-113(I). Every factor need not be applicable in order for the trial court to determine that it is in the best interest of the child for a parent’s right to be terminated. The relevance and weight to be given each factor depends on the unique facts of each case. In some cases, one factor alone may be sufficient to determine the outcome. Conducting a best interests analysis is broad and subjective and does not include hard and fast rules.
After reviewing the record, the Court concluded that termination was not in Child’s best interest, writing:
In reviewing the evidence introduced at trial, we find that the evidence preponderates against some of the trial court’s findings of fact regarding [Child’s] best interests. Moreover, the majority of the factors the court considered are not applicable because change of custody is not at issue. Mother offered uncontroverted testimony, for example, that she is not addicted to drugs at this point and that she has not drunk alcohol since 2010. Despite this evidence, the court found that “she is still addicted to drugs, maybe ‘less addicted’ but still addicted.” The court based its finding in part on a photograph showing two medicine bottles on a table. Mother testified that one of the bottles contained antibiotics that were prescribed for another child and that the other bottle contained over-the-counter painkillers.
The trial court also noted that Mother has not accessed available social services in determining that Mother “has failed to effect a lasting adjustment.” Mother testified, however, that she has turned her life around through hard work and her own willpower in addition to assistance from the church she attends. Mother and her current husband moved into a four-bedroom house in June 2011, and Mother was living in that same house as of the time of trial nearly a year and a half later. Mother’s husband works as a roofer and a painter, and he and Mother are able to provide for their family. Mother has both of her older sons living with her again, and, at the time of trial, she was attending classes and working towards a paralegal degree. The fact that Mother has not accessed social service agencies does not, in and of itself, mean Mother has not made great strides in improving her life situation since the time when [Child] was placed with Grandparents.
Considering the totality of the circumstances, we conclude the evidence is not clear and convincing that it is in Trinity’s best interest that Mother’s parental rights be terminated.
Accordingly, the trial court’s judgment was reversed, and Mother’s parental rights were restored. This ruling did not affect the custody of Child, as Mother was not seeking custody in these proceedings. Mother acknowledged that Grandparents were doing a fine job raising Child in providing her with what she needed to thrive.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce, Matrimonial and Family Law Attorney.