By Sharon Frankenberg,
Attorney at Law

The Tennessee Supreme Court recently ruled unanimously last week on a termination of parental rights case that may have a big impact on the likelihood a child in state custody may be adopted. The case is In re Kaliyah S. et al and it was decided on Jan. 22, 2015. “Parental rights” refer to the rights to act as a parent, to care for, to name and to claim custodial rights with respect to a child. By law the biological mother, guardian, putative biological father and any presumed father must all have their rights terminated before a child may be adopted.

In the case of In re Kaliyah S., the child was three months old when she was first removed from the home of her mother and her mother’s boyfriend Josh. Unbeknownst to Department of Children’s Services Josh was not Kaliyah’s father despite being named on her birth certificate. Kaliyah had suspicious bruises and the Juvenile Court found Kaliyah to be dependent and neglected. She was taken into DCS custody and placed in a foster home. A permanency plan was developed for Mother and Josh which referenced a no-contact order issued by the Juvenile Court and the ongoing child abuse investigation. Despite this, Mother continued her relationship with Josh and conceived another daughter, Jaya. Josh and Mother stopped living together and DCS returned Kaliyah to her custody with the no contact with Josh order in place. Shortly thereafter, Josh moved back in. Jaya was born and the adults and two children lived together in an extended stay motel. Mother attended school and worked. While she was away, toddler Kaliyah and infant Jaya were left in the care of Josh.

At some point Josh took a paternity test and was excluded as Kaliyah’s father. Kaliyah’s biological father was Rontez. The State sought to establish his paternity and he waived a DNA test and admitted paternity. Father was ordered to make child support payments but he made none. Father spent most of Kaliyah’s early life in jail for drug offenses, domestic assault, vandalism, and violating parole.  When Father was not in jail, Mother occasionally brought Kaliyah to visit him and he visited her occasionally in her foster home. He never sought custody of her or had any regular structured parenting time with Kaliyah.

One morning when Kaliyah was two and Jaya was 11 months old, Jaya began having seizures. Emergency medical personnel were called and Jaya was air-lifted to the hospital. She had both old and new injuries. She had fractures in both legs, intracranial hemorrhaging and retinal bleeding. The diagnosis was possible shaken baby syndrome. She was admitted to the hospital. DCS concluded that her injuries were a result of abuse by either Mother, Josh, or both. The girls were taken into DCS custody. DCS eventually discovered that Josh was not Kaliyah’s father and sought to terminate the parental rights of Mother and Father. By then Father was again incarcerated. The grounds listed for termination of Father’s rights were “abandonment by engaging in conduct prior to incarceration that exhibited wanton disregard for the child’s welfare” and that termination of Father’s parental rights was in the best interests of the child.

Father’s parental rights were terminated and the case was appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court. The Court rejected Father’s argument that under state law DCS must prove that it made reasonable efforts to reunite the child with the parent. The Supreme Court held that DCS’s efforts to reunite the child is only one factor to be considered in a termination decision, not an essential element that must be proven for a termination case to succeed.

You should always consult an experienced attorney for legal advice regarding your particular situation. My office number in Knoxville is (865)539-2100.