Custody battle between incarcerated father, foster parents returns to TN

Many people in Knoxville are familiar with an ongoing legal dispute between a Tennessee foster family and a formerly incarcerated man over custody of the man's biological daughter. The foster family has petitioned for the termination of the father's rights, with the intention of adopting the girl. The Tennessean reports that a family law judge in Nebraska recently declined to rule on the case and sent it back to Tennessee, where a new judge will consider it.

A long-running dispute

The daughter was born in 2004 in Nebraska, and the following year, the father, who was raising the child alone, asked a friend to act as a caretaker. The same year, the father was arrested. The caretaker received the father's permission to move to Tennessee, where the Department of Children's Services took custody of the girl. In 2006, the father was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

A family that the caretaker had a personal relationship with began looking after the girl. The family later petitioned to terminate the father's parental rights on the basis of abandonment. A Tennessee judge granted the petition in 2008 and allowed the family to adopt the girl. However, a state appeals court later reversed that decision. Another petition to terminate the father's parental rights is now pending in Tennessee.

Due to a reduction in his prison sentence, the father was released in 2012. He started fighting for custody, and in 2014, a judge ordered the daughter to live with the man in Nebraska. The DCS retains legal custody during this trial arrangement, until the court reaches a decision.

Parental rights and abandonment

The Tennessean reports that the following factors could affect the final decision in this case:

  • Grounds for termination of parental rights - Typically, Tennessee law only allows the court to terminate parents' rights if there is direct neglect or abuse. In all other cases, biological parents' rights are protected over the interests of other guardians.
  • Best interests of the child - The foster parents could request a hearing over the best interests of the child. The court might weigh the child's limited relationship with her father against her stated happiness during the trial stay with him.
  • Prior termination of parental rights - The Tennessee Court of Appeals reversed a lower court's decision to terminate the father's parental rights because the question of abandonment was not addressed properly in the petition. If the case is made differently, the father could still lose his rights on the grounds of abandonment.

Determining whether a parent's actions constitute abandonment can be complicated, as a 2013 Tennessee Supreme Court decision revealed. A father did not pay child support and was ordered to cease visiting his children. The mother petitioned for termination of parental rights. A trial court ruled that the man's payments were reasonable given his financial ability and that the man should not lose his rights; however, an appeals court found that the man's failure to pay support or visit his children constituted abandonment, and the state supreme court upheld that decision.

Assistance in complex custody cases

Child custody cases involving parental absence, abandonment, adoption or other unusual circumstances are often complicated and challenging to navigate. Anyone facing this type of custody dispute in Tennessee, whether as a parent at risk for losing rights or a guardian pursuing an adoption, should consult with an experienced family law attorney as soon as possible.