Facts: Father and Mother are the parents of four children. After being found to be dependent and neglected because of severe abuse to one child, all four children went into the protective custody of the state. The Department of Children’s Services (DCS) subsequently petitioned to terminate Father’s parental rights.
Although Father did not attend the trial, Father’s attorney told the court that Father authorized her to stipulate to the finding of severe child abuse and that it is in the children’s best interest to be adopted.
Because of Father’s stipulation, DCS presented scant evidence.
The trial court found the stipulated ground of severe abuse and that it is in the children’s best interest for Father’s parental rights to be terminated.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.
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 interest.
Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-1-113(i) lists the factors courts must consider in making a best-interest analysis. The focus of that analysis is on what is best for the child, not what is best for the parent. The analysis also must consider the impact on the child of a decision with the legal effect of reducing the parent to the role of a complete stranger. The combined weight of the proven facts must amount to clear and convincing evidence that termination is in the child’s best interest.
The party seeking termination of parental rights is not relieved of its statutory burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence both the ground for termination and that termination is in the child’s best interest simply because a parent does not oppose determination.
Questions of law are not subject to stipulation by the parties to a lawsuit, and a trial court’s ruling that the evidence sufficiently supports termination of parental rights is a conclusion of law. A stipulation that evidence satisfies a statutory ground for termination or that termination of parental rights is in a child’s best interest is a nullity.
The Court found the evidence was lacking:
[B]ased on our review of the record, no proof was presented at the hearing to support the [trial court’s] findings.
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DCS did not present enough proof for the court to conduct any meaningful best-interest analysis.
[T]he evidence presented fell far short of that required. DCS, as the party seeking to terminate Father’s parental rights, had the burden of proof. . . . DCS simply failed to meet that burden.
After concluding the trial court’s best-interest determination was not supported by clear and convincing evidence, the termination of Father’s parental rights was reversed.