Facts: Father abused prescription drugs. A disturbing incident occurred where Father — while in the presence of the children — injected drugs intravenously and, ultimately, entered into a state of total unconsciousness.
The police arrived. Father was arrested and released from jail several hours after his arrest.
The children were removed from Father’s care by the Department of Children’s Services (DCS) and placed in foster homes.
Father later pleaded guilty to public intoxication and was sentenced to no jail time.
Several months later, DCS sued to terminate Father’s parental rights.
After a trial, the trial court did just that on grounds of wanton disregard, persistent conditions, and severe child abuse.
On Appeal: As to wanton disregard, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court. After everything else, the trial court was affirmed.
Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-1-102(1)(A)(iv) provides grounds to terminate the parental rights of a parent who has been incarcerated during all or part of the four months immediately preceding the commencement of the termination of parental rights action when that parent “has engaged in conduct prior to incarceration that exhibits a wanton disregard for the welfare of the child. . . .”
Father argued the trial court erred in finding the ground of wanton disregard when he was incarcerated for less than 24 hours.
In In re Courtney N., the Court held that a parent who spent a total of six or seven hours during one day in jail in the months before the termination petition was filed did not place that parent within the class of “incarcerated or recently incarcerated parents” to which the statute applies.
After reviewing the record, the Court concluded:
DCS correctly states the statute. However, this Court took the reasoned position in In re: Courtney N. that a parent spending a few hours in jail does not rise to the level our General Assembly intended in establishing the ground of wanton disregard. DCS asks that we depart from In re: Courtney N. We decline to do so. In the present case, Father bonded out and never was sentenced to jail or prison. Father submits that the time he spent in police custody was less than 24 hours, a position DCS does not contradict. Indeed, DCS acknowledges that there is no proof as to the length of time Father spent in jail, only that he did in fact enter police custody when he was arrested. This fact, or absence of fact, also supports Father’s position on this issue.
In keeping with In re: Courtney N., we decline to find, particularly in the absence of adequate proof in the record, that Father’s entry into police custody and apparent brief incarceration thereafter suffice to trigger the examination of pre-incarceration conduct relative to the ground of wanton disregard. We find and hold that Father’s brief incarceration resulting solely from his arrest and not any court-imposed sentence of incarceration does not place Father “within the class of incarcerated or recently incarcerated parents’ to which Tenn. Code Ann. 36-1-102(1)(A)(iv) applies.” We reverse the judgment of the Juvenile Court as to the ground of wanton disregard.
The trial court’s judgment regarding grounds of wanton disregard was reversed. The trial court’s judgment as to other grounds and the children’s best interest was affirmed, however, resulting in the termination of Father’s parental rights.
K.O.’s Comment: Kudos to Robin Gunn, Esq., who represented Father on appeal. She’s a long-time reader of this blog, which of course entitles me to take full credit for her success. 🙂
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce and Family Law Attorney.