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Tennessee Appellate Court Affirms Lower Court’s Ruling Of Custody To Adoptive Parents

As discussed in previous blogs, Tennessee courts apply a best interest analysis in child custody cases involving not just biological parents but also maternal and paternal grandparents in certain instances. In the following case, the Court of Appeals of Tennessee at Knoxville analyzes a trial court’s decision involving a mother who put her biological daughter up for adoption after having lived with the mother’s parents for the duration of the child’s life.

The facts of the In Re R.S.M. case are R.S.M. (Child) was born to A.E.M. (Mother) in October 2010. Child and Mother lived with M.S.M. and M.W.M. (Grandparents). On December 26, 2012, Mother told Grandparents that she was going shopping and took the Child with her. This was the last time Grandparents saw the Child.

A month earlier Mother began a relationship with a guy named Tommy Bennett, a relationship for which Grandparents did not approve. After Mother left with the Child, she phoned Grandparents telling them that “she needed a break, the Child was not in danger, and that Bennett was there to protect her and the baby.” Mother later sent a text to Grandparents saying that she was not taking the Child from them and that she planned to be gone for only one week. Nearly a month passed, and Grandparents were unable to locate Mother and Child. One month after Mother left with Child, Bennett’s mother informed Grandparents that the Child was no longer with the couple and that Mother may have given her up for adoption. Days later, Grandparents filed an emergency petition seeking custody of the Child. At an initial hearing in that proceeding, Grandparents found that Mother had executed a consent to adoption under North Carolina law.

Grandparents subsequently filed a complaint pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated 36-1-111 which, permits “any person” to “present proof concerning the best interests of the child ” who is the subject of a surrender. Grandparents argued that awarding custody of the Child to them was in the Child’s best interest, and thus requested an order granting them custody from the adoptive parents P.B.G. and D.R.G. (Respondents).

Mother testified at trial that she had contemplated adoption since she her pregnancy with Child, but claimed she had not shared these thoughts with Grandparents. After Mother and Bennett began their relationship, Mother testified she discussed adoption with Bennett. Mother contacted an adoption agency and was referred to Respondents, a married couple residing in North Carolina. On January 24, 2013, Mother and Bennett met Respondents in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Johnson City. Respondents provided Mother with gas money and a phone card, and then left with the Child. Respondents remained in Tennessee with the Child for about two weeks until they received clearance under the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children to leave for North Carolina with the Child.

The trial court dismissed Grandparents’ complaint and declined to remove the Child from Respondents’ custody stating the following:

As a result of the decisions made by Mother, Grandparents, by clear and convincing evidence, must prove the Child’s removal from the custody of Respondents represents the best interests of the Child. Such evidence must produce in the fact- finder’s mind a firm belief or conviction that removing the Child from Respondents should be undertaken by the Court.

Although the Court may desire to give Grandparents relief from their abrupt separation from their granddaughter, their daughter’s surrender to initiate adoption proceedings controls this proceeding. The Court is unable to find by clear and convincing evidence that disrupting the adoption of the Child from a loving and caring home is in her best interests.

Grandparents appealed, and the Court of Appeals of Tennessee at Knoxville found that the trial court had carefully analyzed the best interest standard as it applies to the removal of the Child from Respondents. As such, the Court found that it could not conclude that there was clear and convincing evidence that the Child’s best interest would be served by removing her from Respondents. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the trial court’s decision.

If you are a parent, grandparent or adoptive parent of a child for whom you have custody and someone challenges your rights, you should seek the services of an experienced family law attorney. Contact Jim Widrig or any of the attorneys at Widrig Law, PLLC to schedule a consultation. Our phone number is 615-417-7800.

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