In Tennessee, juvenile courts have either exclusive original jurisdiction in cases involving children, or share concurrent jurisdiction with other types of courts. The transfer of legal custody of a child falls into the category of cases which can be heard before a juvenile court, a circuit court, or a chancery court. However, when the Department of Children’s Services removes a child into its legal custody or asks the court to transfer custody of the child from the parent or caregiver of the child to a third party, it files a petition to declare the child dependent and neglected under T.C.A. 37-1-102. These types of cases are ONLY heard in juvenile courts. Juvenile Courts have exclusive original jurisdiction to hear petitions in which it is alleged that the child is dependent and neglected. Even if there is an already existing matter before a circuit court or a chancery court, if there are allegations of dependent and neglected, those courts must transfer the dependent and neglected matter to a juvenile court for adjudication of that matter before the original matter i.e. a divorce petition, may continue. The only exception to the law is when an adoption petition has been filed in any court. In that type of case, any already existing dependent and neglected matter in juvenile court is transferred to the court in which the adoption petition was filed.
In this case, In Re. Brody S., et. al., the Department of Children’s Services petitioned the juvenile court for a protective custody order that would place the child into the legal custody of the Department. The Court issued the order and the child went into foster care. After the order was entered, the parents filed an “Emergency Petition for Writ of Certiorari and Injunctive Relief” in the Williamson County Chancery Court. The chancery court then issued the writ, as well as a temporary restraining order which restrained the juvenile court and the Department from retaining physical custody of the child. The Department motioned the chancery court to dissolve the restraining order and after a hearing on the matter, the chancery court not only upheld its original order, but also turned the restraining order into an injunction.
The matter was appealed and the Court of Appeals held that the chancery court did not have subject matter jurisdiction and therefore, could not enter any order on the case, nor could they review the case under a Writ of Certiorari.
This case reiterates that there are limited options available outside of a juvenile court once the juvenile court has placed a child into the legal custody of the Department. Typically, the juvenile court is the only court that can hear these types of cases and all available remedies must be sought in juvenile court. It is important that someone who is knowledgeable about the intricacies of the juvenile court process be involved in any possible resolutions to matters involving the Department and the legal custody of children.