Prior to an adoption, the parental rights of all parents and guardians must be terminated.  In re The Adoption of Angela E. et al was a case decided by the Tennessee Supreme Court in 2013.  The case discusses how parental rights in Tennessee may be terminated based upon a finding of abandonment. Abandonment can be found through a parent’s failure to visit or a failure to support the children.

The Adoption of Angela E. involved a divorced couple who shared three children. The mother was trying to terminate the father’s parental rights so the Stepfather could adopt the children. At the time of the divorce the father had visitation rights with the children. The father exercised his visitation rights after the divorce, but the Mother was concerned with his parenting. The mother’s concerns were that the father left the children unsupervised, that the children were poorly fed and poorly clothed in his care, and that the children were prone to injury in his care.  The father’s visitation rights were later suspended because of his failure to pay child support to the Mother.

Several years after father’s visitation rights were suspended, the mother filed a petition to terminate the father’s parental rights. Under Tennessee law, the mother needed to demonstrate reasons (also known as “grounds”) to support the requested termination. The mother’s reasons were that father abandoned the children by failing to pay child support and by failing to visit the children.

In Tennessee, there are 10 different grounds to support a termination of parental rights. Abandonment is one of the grounds for termination. Abandonment can be found in two ways:

  • Willful failure to visit the children; or
  • Willful failure to support the children/Willful failure to make reasonable payments towards the support of the child

When looking at abandonment, the Court considers the four months before the filing of the petition for termination.

In this case, the Court found that the father’s failure to visit his children supported a finding of abandonment. When determining whether the “failure to visit” rose to the level of abandonment the Court looked at different facts, but most importantly, the father’s failure to visit his children for nearly three years. The father argued that abandonment should not be found since his visitation rights had been suspended, but the court disagreed.  The Court noted that the father took no steps to try and get his visitation rights back, so the father could not use that as an excuse for his failure to visit.

Next, the Court looked to whether the father’s failure to pay rose to the level of abandonment. When making this finding, the Court looked into the ability of the father to pay the support. The Court focused on whether the father had the ability to pay but chose not to. In this case, the Court found that the mother did not provide enough evidence to show a willful failure by the father to pay support. Since terminating parental rights is a very serious matter, the Court needed strong evidence. Therefore, the court did not find a willful failure by the father to support the children.

In Conclusion, abandonment may be found through a failure to visit or a failure to provide support. In this case, the father’s failure to visit his children constituted abandonment. The finding of abandonment was able to support the mother’s petition to terminate the father’s parental rights. After the Court found abandonment, it was left with the issue of whether terminating father’s parental rights was in the best interests of the children. The Court did not address the best interest analysis in this case.

Call the Adoption Law Center of Middle Tennessee, PLLC if you would like to discuss an issue involving adoption or termination of parental rights.  We look forward to your call!  615-543-8640

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