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"Under law, a person is considered innocent until proven guilty. In reality, just the allegation of sexual abuse can damage relationships forever." ~Defense Attorney Kristin Burkett

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In Re Adoption of A. M. H.

On January 23, 2007, Supreme Court of Tennessee decided a landmark case of child custody dispute between the He family and the Baker family.

W2004-01225-SC-R11-PT

Shelby County - This case concerns the termination of parental rights.

The appellants, who are the parents, seek reversal of the termination of their parental rights to the care and custody of their daughter, A.M.H. The trial court predicated the termination on the ground that the parents abandoned A.M.H. by willfully failing to visit her for four months.

  • First, we hold that the statute of repose under section 36-1-113(q) of the Tennessee Code Annotated does not deprive this Court of jurisdiction to review the termination of parental rights.
  • Second, because the undisputed evidence shows that there was animosity between the parties and that the parents were actively pursuing custody of A.M.H. through legal proceedings during the four-month period immediately preceding the filing of the petition for termination of parental rights, we hold that the trial court erred in finding a willful failure to visit.
  • Finally, we conclude that the parents' consent to transfer custody and guardianship of A.M.H. to the appellees was not made with knowledge of the consequences of the transfer.

Therefore, according the parents those superior rights to the custody of their child that constitutional law mandates, only a showing of substantial harm that threatens the child's welfare may deprive the parents of the care and custody of A.M.H. Although A.M.H. has now been with the appellees for more than seven years, six of those years elapsed after the parents' first unsuccessful legal filing to regain custody.

Evidence that A.M.H. will be harmed from a change in custody because she has lived and bonded with the Bakers during the pendency of the litigation does not constitute the substantial harm required to prevent the parents from regaining custody. For the reasons discussed below, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and this case is remanded to the chancery court to be expeditiously transferred to the Juvenile Court of Shelby County for the entry of an order that implements a plan to reunite A.M.H. with her natural parents.

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