Supreme Court Clarifies Analysis for Determining Best Interests of a Child in a Parental Termination Case

September 29, 2017

The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled today that courts must consider all nine statutory factors, as well as any other relevant facts, when deciding whether terminating parental rights is in a child’s best interests.  The Supreme Court explained that requiring courts to consider all relevant facts and circumstances ensures each case receives individualized consideration before fundamental parental rights are terminated.

In the case before the Supreme Court, the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS) removed three children, Gabriella, Jude, and Chance, from their parents’ custody in March 2012, and placed them in foster care after the youngest child, six-month-old Chance, was diagnosed with severe malnourishment, having gained only eight ounces since birth.  The parents already had a long history with DCS and a child protective agency in Georgia, with a Georgia court having previously terminated their parental rights to two older children because of drug abuse and domestic violence.

After removing the children, DCS and the parents entered into a written agreement called a permanency plan, which required the parents to complete drug treatment and submit to drug tests, among other things, in order to regain custody of the children.  The case was under the supervision of the juvenile court.  For a few months, the parents failed to meet their obligations under the permanency plan.  But, in July 2012, Mother separated herself from Father and began meeting her obligations under the permanency plan, including passing drug tests and completing drug treatment, obtaining employment, creating a family support structure, securing housing, and bonding with the children during visits.  As Mother’s compliance continued, DCS increased her visitation and planned to return the children to her custody, beginning with a trial home visit in July 2013.  The foster parents disagreed with DCS’s decision, and on the day Mother’s trial home visit was to begin, they filed a petition in circuit court, not in the juvenile court where the case had been pending since the children were removed in 2012.  Foster parents asked the circuit court to terminate Mother’s parental rights and allow them to adopt the children.  By early October 2013, the juvenile court ordered DCS to place the children with Mother on a trial basis.  By the time of the circuit court trial in 2015 on the foster parents’ termination and adoption petition, the children had been living with Mother for about two years and Father had voluntarily surrendered his parental rights.

After hearing the proof presented, the circuit court ruled that the foster parents had proven severe abuse or neglect by the higher clear and convincing evidence standard applicable in parental termination cases.  But the circuit court ruled that the foster parents had failed to prove the second requirement necessary to terminate parental rights under Tennessee law, specifically, that termination of parental rights is in the best interests of the children.  In a two-to-one decision, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s determination on this point and held that foster parents had proven by clear and convincing evidence that termination of Mother’s parental rights would be in the children’s best interests.

The Supreme Court granted Mother permission to appeal, reversed the Court of Appeals, and reinstated the trial court’s judgment.  The Supreme Court emphasized that Mother had complied with the permanency plan, had not tested positive for drugs since June 2012, had obtained stable employment and housing, and had cared for the children for two years at the time of trial without incident.  The Supreme Court pointed to proof showing that the children had thrived in Mother’s care and stated that they want to live with Mother and to expert testimony that removing the children from Mother’s care would be a loss for them.  The Supreme Court said that the Court of Appeals did not err by considering Mother’s history of drug abuse and poor parenting and the risk that she will return to those behaviors once DCS is no longer involved.  But, the Supreme Court explained these factors do not amount to clear and convincing evidence that termination of Mother’s parental rights would be in the children’s best interests, when evaluated along with the other factors the law requires courts to consider and all the proof in this case.  The Supreme Court commended the foster parents for their genuine concern and affection for the children, but emphasized that fundamental parental rights may not be terminated unless clear and convincing evidence shows that termination is in the best interests of the children.

To read the unanimous opinion in In re Gabriella D. et al., authored by Justice Cornelia A. Clark, go to the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.