Facts: Father and Mother are the parents of Child. When they divorced in 2009, Father was designated the primary residential parent. Mother abused drugs and was incarcerated much of the time. Child primarily lived with Father and Father’s mother (“Grandmother”).
Six years after the divorce, Father and Grandmother jointly petitioned to terminate Mother’s parental rights and allow Grandmother to adopt Child without terminating Father’s parental rights.
After a trial, the trial court terminated Mother’s parental rights and granted Grandmother’s petition to adopt without terminating Father’s parental rights.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.
“Standing” concerns whether a party has a legally protectable interest in litigation.
In the case of parental termination, Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-1-113(b)(1) confers standing on “[t]he prospective adoptive parent or parents, including extended family members caring for a related child, any licensed child-placing agency having custody of the child, the child’s guardian ad litem, or the department [of children’s services] . . .”
The statute only allows one parent to petition for termination of the other parent’s rights when the other parent had been found guilty of severe child sexual abuse in criminal court.
The Court held that Father and Grandmother lacked standing to terminate Mother’s parental rights:
[Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-1-113(b)(1)] is clear and unambiguous. It does not permit one parent to petition for the termination of the other parent’s rights, except in one specific circumstance found in Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-1-113(g)(11), which confers standing on one parent if the other parent has been found guilty of “severe child sexual abuse under any prior order of a criminal court.”
Furthermore, but for one exception, the statutory scheme unambiguously states that the rights of both parents must be terminated before a third party becomes eligible to adopt the child. Specifically, Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-1-117(a) states in pertinent part:
[T]he legal parents . . . must be made parties to the adoption proceeding or to a separate proceeding seeking the termination of those rights, and their rights to the child must be terminated by a court to authorize the court to order the adoption of the child or adult by other persons.
The only exception [is for a] stepparent [adoption]. . . . Grandmother is not a stepparent; thus, this exception is also not applicable.
Thus, the trial court’s judgment terminating Mother’s parental rights was reversed for lack of standing.
K.O.’s Comment: This case is factually similar to In re Ava B. In that case, the Court also held that a father and grandmother did not have standing under the adoption statutes to file a petition to terminate a mother’s parental rights without also terminating the father’s parental rights.