TN Supreme Court Rules DCS Not Required to Prove Attempt to Reunite Families Prior to Parental Rights Termination

Press release from the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts; January 22, 2015:

The Tennessee Supreme Court held today that the Tennessee statute governing termination of parental rights does not require the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services to prove as an essential element of its case that it made reasonable efforts to reunite the child with the parent (or parents) before the parent’s rights can be terminated.

According to the Supreme Court’s ruling, the termination statute includes the extent of DCS’s efforts to reunify a parent and child only as one of the factors to be weighed in determining whether termination of the parent’s rights is in the best interest of the child. The statute does not require DCS to prove it made reasonable efforts to reunify in order to obtain termination. The Court overruled previous cases holding that DCS is required to prove reasonable efforts to reunify as a precondition to terminating the parent’s rights.

The case involves the termination of the parental rights of the father of a Bradley County girl. The father never had custody of the child and, in fact, spent the majority of his daughter’s young life in prison. He did not visit her regularly, and he provided no financial support.

Based on the father’s conduct, the juvenile court terminated the father’s parental rights based on the ground of abandonment by wanton disregard for the welfare of the daughter. The juvenile court held that, because DCS proved that ground for termination, DCS was not required to establish that it made reasonable efforts to assist the father. The father appealed. The Court of Appeals, in a divided opinion, reversed the juvenile court, holding that DCS was required to show that it made reasonable efforts to assist the father before it could obtain termination of the father’s parental rights.

The State appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the Tennessee termination statute does not require DCS to prove that it made reasonable efforts to reunite families before proceeding with termination actions.

In reaching its decision, the Supreme Court compared Tennessee laws governing dependency and neglect proceedings with those governing the termination of parental rights. The opinion notes that Tennessee statutes on dependency and neglect proceedings require DCS to make reasonable efforts to reunify the family whenever it removes a child from the parent’s home. This does not mean, however, that DCS must prove that it made such efforts as an element of the termination case, because the termination statute does not require such a showing. Rather, the plain language of the termination statute provides only that the extent of DCS’s efforts to reunify the family is one of many factors considered in assessing the best interest of the child.

Therefore, in this case, the Supreme Court held that the Tennessee statute on termination of parental rights does not require DCS to prove it made reasonable efforts to reunite the parent and child. It reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals and reinstated the juvenile court decision terminating the parental rights of the father. The Court stressed in its opinion that, in ruling that DCS is not required to prove reasonable efforts at reunification, it does “not seek to minimize the importance of DCS’s efforts to assist parents who lose custody of their child and seek to regain it.”

Read the unanimous opinion in In re: Kaliyah S. et al., authored by Justice Holly Kirby.