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Termination of Parental Rights Due to Child Injury in Texas

childIn a recent Texas child custody case, a mother sought reversal of a judgment that terminated her parental rights to her two kids. The parents were the biological parents of two small kids, one a four-year-old autistic boy and the other a 19-month-old girl. They lived in an apartment, and the father served as the breadwinner, while the mother managed the household and took care of the kids.

The mother suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, and this was one reason she didn’t work outside the home. She was hospitalized for treatment in 2015 and then took medications that made her feel out of it. She needed help from the father when she was on medication.

In December 2015, the father moved out, which was the start of a marital separation. When he left, she stayed in the apartment with their kids. She didn’t have significant resources and had to manage them alone. Her son from a prior relationship visited the family that year. He was 11 and helped the mother.

The mother was doing laundry in an apartment complex a few weeks after the father moved out. She left the 11-year-old to watch the kids while she was going in and out of the apartment doing laundry. No adults were present.

When she got back from taking clothes from the dryer, she found her daughter was lethargic because she’d run into a table. The mother called 911, and the daughter was taken to the ER. She’d suffered a serious head injury and had to stay in the pediatric intensive care unit. While there, the doctors found a bruise on her forehead and cheek and bite marks on her abdomen. A scan showed there were hematomas, and these raised issues of non-accidental trauma. They referred the matter to the Department for possible signs of physical abuse.

The Department talked to the doctors and nurses as part of an investigation. Medical providers noted their concerns about the bite marks and bruise. The mother said that she’d bumped into a door and that she wasn’t aware of the bite marks. The medical staff reported that the head injury could have arisen from a kitchen table bump and that although there weren’t explanations for the bite marks, they could have been made by a kid.

Nonetheless, the Department took possession of the two kids and petitioned to become temporary managing conservator of the kids. The mother’s oldest child went back to his father. The mother visited the kids while they were in the Department’s care. The initial goal was reunification, but the Department later became worried about whether the mother could care for the kids on her own, and the goal changed to reunification only with the father. The Department decided to try to terminate the mother’s parental rights, and the trial court discontinued her visitation. The kids went into the father’s care. At the time of trial, the mother hadn’t been allowed to see her kids in months.

The Department raised grounds of termination under Texas Family Code sections 161.001(b)(1)(D), (N), and (O). The mother’s parental rights were terminated. The court found this was in the kids’ best interests. The parents stayed married, but the mother’s rights were terminated, and the father was appointed as sole managing conservator. The mother appealed.

The appellate court explained that parental rights can be terminated if there is proof of clear and convincing evidence that (1) a parent perpetrated a prohibited act, and (2) termination is in the child’s best interests. The mother argued that there was insufficient evidence for the court to conclude that she knowingly put the kids in surroundings that endangered their wellbeing. The evidence showed that when the daughter’s head injury happened, she’d been gone for 13 minutes and stayed within the building.

The appellate court noted that the mother was the de facto single parent because the father left. It explained that a child is endangered if the environment creates dangerous potential, and the parent consciously disregards a danger of which she’s aware. The Department claimed she ignored the danger by leaving her kids in the care of her almost-11-year-old son. The appellate court found that leaving kids alone without supervision isn’t the same as leaving them with an older child who had a record of helping. Similarly, it didn’t find clear and convincing evidence of constructive abandonment. It found that she’d not completed all of the recommendations for reunification. However, it concluded that no rational fact finder could form a firm belief or conviction that the termination of parental rights was in the children’s best interests.

The appellate court reversed the termination of parental rights, although it didn’t address the appointment of the father as sole managing conservator. It noted the mother hadn’t challenged this appointment.

If you are concerned about child custody and parental rights, contact the Texas attorneys at the McClure Law Group at 214.692.8200.

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