Facts: Mother gave birth to Child in 2002. In 2007, Maternal Grandmother obtained custody of Child.
In 2015, Maternal Grandmother petitioned to terminate Father’s parental rights on grounds of wanton disregard and because Father was sentenced to serve over 10 years in prison. Maternal Grandmother sought to adopt Child.
Mother consented to the termination of her parental rights and the adoption of Child. Father did not.
Father has a lengthy criminal history related to drug trafficking. At the time of trial, he was serving a 25-year sentence. He also has an extensive history of discipline infractions while in prison.
Father testified that the criminal charges that resulted in his current incarceration occurred in 1997 in 1998, which was prior to when he met Mother. He went to jail in 2002 — two months after Child was born — and was not made aware of Child’s existence until Child was five or six years old.
The trial court found that Father’s criminal activities and his disciplinary actions in prison constituted grounds of wanton disregard for the welfare of Child. The trial court also found that termination of Father’s parental rights was in Child’s best interest.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed in part and affirmed in part.
Parental rights can be terminated on grounds of abandonment by engaging in conduct prior to incarceration that exhibits a wanton disregard for the welfare of the child. The law requires, however, that the parent have knowledge of the child’s existence at the time the actions constituting wanton disregard are taken.
The Court was persuaded by Father’s argument that he has not engaged in any criminal content since prior to Child’s birth:
While [Father’s] testimony at trial as well as the copies of his criminal convictions fully support a finding that he engaged in serious criminal behavior for many years prior to his incarceration, this conduct occurred prior to [Child’s] birth. His uncontradicted testimony is that he did not learn of her existence until she was five or six years old.
In addition, the trial court relied on [Father’s] disciplinary record in prison in sustaining this ground. . . . While the record shows that [Father] has engaged in a series of acts that have resulted in disciplinary measures being taken against him while incarcerated, these acts do not come within the purview of Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-1-102(1)(A)(iv), which requires the conduct to have occurred prior to the parent’s incarceration.
Because the evidence did not support grounds of wanton disregard, the trial court’s ruling on that particular ground was reversed. The other ground — the 10-year prison sentence when the child is less than eight years old – was affirmed, along with the finding that termination is in Child’s best interest. Thus, the termination of Father’s parental rights was affirmed.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce and Family-Law Attorney.