Tennessee Supreme Court Sides with State in Termination of Parental Rights Case

The Supreme Court of Tennessee made a notable ruling in a recent decision, relating to the elements of proof required in parental termination proceedings. The opinion, In re Kaliyah S. (2014), arrived at during the September 2014 session, dealt with whether the State, via the Department of Children’s Services (DCS), had to demonstrate that it had made reasonable efforts to reunite a child with a biological parent prior to a termination of parental rights for that parent.

The facts in the case revealed a series of events placing the two minor children into foster care via DCS, following allegations of abuse and mysterious injuries on one and then two young girls. Following the hospitalization of the 11-month-old girl, the younger of the two, which doctors believed to be stemming from shaken baby syndrome, both girls were removed from the home, and DCS filed for termination of parental rights with the juvenile court.

In its petition seeking to terminate parental rights, the State accused the mother and another individual (the biological father of the younger of the two girls) of having committed severe abuse, which thereby excused DCS from having to make reasonable efforts to reunify the children with the mother or another individual. At the time the petition was filed, DCS believed that the other individual was Kaliyah’s father. However, the DCS worker later found out about the separate paternity proceedings that had been undertaken, identifying another man as the father. DCS then amended its petition, seeking to terminate the father’s parental rights based on his allegedly “engaging in conduct prior to incarceration that exhibited wanton disregard for the child’s welfare.”

The main issue on appeal was whether DCS was required to prove that it made reasonable efforts under Tenn. Code Ann. §  36-1-113 as a precondition of the termination of parental rights. The court discussed how Kaliyah’s father had been incarcerated at various points during the relevant periods of abuse, and it explicitly pointed to the fact that at no point did the father seek to have custody of the child, nor did he ever have regular structured parenting time with her or pay child support for her. He also did not challenge the juvenile court’s determination that the termination of parental rights was in Kaliyah’s best interests.

After a lengthy discussion of legislative history and the desired intent behind the reasonable efforts requirement, the court looked at the relationship between the termination of parental rights and the “reasonable efforts” clause. It found that, rather than being written as a required element, it was listed as one of the factors to be considered in making the decision to terminate parental rights. The court found the fact that this was listed as a factor only shows that the legislature did not intend to make it a requirement to be proven in every case.

The proper standard to be applied, therefore, is whether the termination of parental rights is in the child’s best interests, with the state’s reasonable efforts to reunify the child with the parent to be considered as one factor in that determination, but not dispositive. However, the court did say that DCS’s failure to make reasonable efforts could be determinative if it was incredibly lacking in a particular hypothetical case, but that nonetheless in every case it should be weighed in the equation as a part of the whole picture.

Thus, the ruling of the Court of Appeals, holding that DCS was required to demonstrate the reasonable efforts had been made, was reversed, and the decision of the juvenile court terminating parental rights was reinstated, and a new standard was created for Tennessee parental right termination cases.

Custody battles and matters involving the juvenile court system can be a trying and emotional experience for a family. The attorneys at MHPS have extensive experience in all aspects of family law, from complex divorces to more straightforward preparation of paperwork. If you or a loved one needs assistance in a family law matter, call us at (615) 800-7096 or contact us through this website.

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