Most termination of parental rights cases focus on grounds for termination. If grounds are proven, it often seems as if the second prong of the legal analysis — whether termination is in the child’s best interest — is an afterthought. This case is noteworthy because although grounds were proven, it was not proven that termination was in the children’s best interests.
Facts: Mother and Father are the parents of three children. After both parents were incarcerated, the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS) obtained temporary custody. Over one year later, DCS petitioned to terminate their parental rights.
The trial court found that although DCS had proven grounds for terminating both parents’ rights, termination was not in the best interest of the children. The trial court dismissed the petition.
The children’s guardian ad litem appealed.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed in part and affirmed in part.
The Court reviewed the proof regarding grounds for termination and found DCS did not prove grounds sufficient to terminate Father’s parental rights but had proven two separate grounds sufficient to terminate Mother’s parental rights. The Court’s analysis then turned to whether termination of Mother’s parental rights was in the children’s best interest.
Because not all parental misconduct is irredeemable, Tennessee’s termination of parental rights statutes recognize the possibility that terminating an unfit parent’s parental rights is not always in the child’s best interests.
Because denial of a petition to terminate parental rights does not in and of itself affect the custody of a child, the Court’s task is not to choose between two home situations. Instead, the inquiry should address itself to the impact on the child of a decision that has the legal effect of reducing the parent to the role of a complete stranger. Ultimately, the burden of proof on this issue rests with DCS, not the parent opposing the petition. Like the statutory grounds for termination, clear and convincing evidence must prove that termination is in the child’s best interest. The statutory best-interest factors are located at Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-1-113(i).
The Court agreed with the trial court that termination was not in the children’s best interest, explaining:
We conclude the proof in this record does not clearly and convincingly establish that termination of Mother’s parental rights is in the best interest of the children. DCS presented little to no proof concerning the impact on the children of terminating Mother’s parental rights. The children have a variety of health and behavioral needs, but they were doing well in their foster care placement and receiving the necessary services. They had been living in their current foster homes [for many months]. At the time of the hearing, these foster homes were not adoptive. In fact, in the case manager testified the main motivation behind DCS’s petition to terminate parental rights was a desire to broaden the search for potentially adoptive parents. While permanence for these children is one of the primary goals, severing forever the children’s relationship with Mother will not necessarily achieve that end, especially in light of the fact that grounds for terminating Father’s rights were not proven. It remains to be seen whether Father will be able to regain custody. . . .
* * * * *
While Mother has not yet made a lasting adjustment to her circumstances, we cannot find, based on the record before us, that Mother would be unable to make a lasting adjustment in the near future. She took significant steps in the right direction while incarcerated. The DCS case manager agreed Mother had accomplished as much as she could to change her circumstances while incarcerated. The case manager also admitted that Mother had the ability to properly parent her children when she was not incarcerated and not impaired.
We also note Mother’s relationship with her children. DCS presented proof that Mother had not been able to establish a relationship with her youngest child prior to Mother’s incarceration. However, there was proof of a loving bond between Mother and [the two older children].
Accordingly, the dismissal of DCS’s petition to terminate parental rights was affirmed.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce and Family Law Attorney.