Facts: Child 1 was born in February 2009. Shortly thereafter, Father was placed on probation after pleading guilty to a drug charge. In July 2009, he was found guilty of violating his probation.
In March 2010, Father was arrested for driving on a suspended license. A subsequent drug investigation resulted in Father’s arrest for violating his probation. Father was also charged with selling drugs.
Father has been continuously incarcerated since April 2010.
Child 2 was born in July 2010.
In October 2010, Father pleaded guilty to two felonies, including the drug charge, and was sentenced to serve eight years in prison.
Father was also indicted on federal drug charges, pleaded guilty, and received a six-year sentence.
In January 2014, the Department of Children’s Services had the children declared dependent and neglected because of Mother’s drug use. The children have been in foster care since that time.
In December 2014, DCS petitioned to terminate the parental rights of both parents.
The trial court entered an order terminating Mother’s parental rights. As to Father, the trial court held that DCS failed to prove grounds to terminate his rights. The trial court found Father’s testimony “highly credible,” particularly his claims of innocence regarding the charges to which he pleaded guilty, the courses he completed while incarcerated, and his strong desire to return to society as a productive citizen.
The trial court went on to the second phase of the termination analysis and found it was in the children’s best interest terminate the parental rights of both parents. Because of the finding that no grounds were proven as to Father, only Mother’s parental rights were terminated.
Mother and DCS appealed.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.
The only noteworthy issue in this appeal concerns the grounds of Father’s wanton disregard for the welfare of the children.
Parental conduct exhibiting wanton disregard for a child welfare may occur at any time prior to incarceration. A parent’s incarceration acts as the triggering mechanism that allows the court to take a closer look at the child’s situation to determine whether the parental behavior that resulted in incarceration is part of a broader pattern of conduct that renders the parent unfit or poses a risk of substantial harm to the welfare of the child.
Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-1-102(1)(A)(iv) does not explicitly define wanton disregard, though Tennessee courts have repeatedly held that probation violations, repeated incarceration, criminal behavior, substance abuse, and the failure to provide adequate support or supervision for a child can, alone or in combination, constitute conduct that exhibits a wanton disregard for the welfare of the child.
The Court observed that the trial court focused on Father’s conduct during incarceration rather than the proper analysis, i.e., his conduct prior to incarceration. Applying the proper analysis, the Court found the record provided clear and convincing evidence of Father’s wanton disregard for the welfare of his children:
Our courts have consistently held that an incarcerated parent who has multiple drug offenses and wastes the opportunity to rehabilitate themselves by continuing to abuse drugs, resulting in revocation of their parole and reincarceration, constitutes abandonment of the child, and demonstrates a wanton disregard for the welfare of the child. [Father’s] incidents demonstrate a pattern. The record makes it clear that Father has engaged in a course of conduct in which he was involved with drugs and other violations of the law. Father’s numerous drug charges and probation violations demonstrate that he has engaged in a pattern of conduct. This pattern has caused Father to be incarcerated continuously since April 2010. Prior to that, Father was in and out of jail. . . .
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We hold, as a matter of law, that Father engaged in conduct prior to incarceration that exhibits a wanton disregard for the welfare of the Children.
Thus, the trial court’s finding that DCS failed to prove a ground to terminate Father’s parental rights was reversed. Because the trial court’s findings as to the children’s best interest was affirmed, both Mother’s and Father’s parental rights were terminated.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce and Family-Law Attorney.