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In re M.L.R-U.

Court of Appeals of Texas, Sixth District, Texarkana

March 23, 2017

IN THE INTEREST OF M.L.R-U., JR., M.U-T., JR., AND G.L.C.U., CHILDREN

          Submitted: March 7, 2017

         On Appeal from the 196th District Court Hunt County, Texas Trial Court No. 82513

          Before Morriss, C.J., Moseley and Burgess, JJ.

          OPINION

          Ralph K. Burgess Justice

         In a suit brought by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (the Department), the trial court terminated Sadie's parental rights to her three children, M.R., M.T., and G.U.[1] In her sole point of error, Sadie argues that there was insufficient evidence to support the trial court's termination order. For the reasons below, we affirm the trial court's judgment.

         I. Sufficient Evidence Exists to Support Termination of Sadie's Parental Rights.

         A. The Evidence

         On January 24, 2015, Russell Thompson, a night response worker for the Department, was dispatched to the home of the children's aunt for an investigation on a complaint of neglectful supervision.[2] Thompson testified that when he arrived at the residence, Sadie informed him that she and her three children resided in the home, along with two other adults and three other children, all of whom were family members. Thompson described the residence as a "substandard, " "wood-framed[, ] storage[-]shed building." Thompson immediately noticed that there was no electricity in the residence and that the inside of the house was very cold. Sadie informed Thompson that the residence had been without electricity for two weeks.

         When Thompson entered the kitchen area, he noticed that there was no refrigerator. He was told, however, that the refrigerator was located on the porch. Thompson testified that there was no food in the kitchen, but that he observed food for the family dog. Sadie explained to Thompson that there had been no food in the home for an indefinite period of time. Thompson observed a love seat in the living area, but noted that there were no beds in the home. Sadie informed Thompson that the children slept in a "pack-and-play." Thompson stated that the front yard was "bare dirt" and "looked like it was more of a parking area." Sadie informed Thompson that she did not work and that she was not receiving child support from any of the children's fathers.

         Thompson testified that Sadie was uncooperative and that "it was like pulling teeth to get any kind of answer out of her at all." He stated that the adults in the residence were "very resistive, " but that he "get[s] that a lot and that's neither here nor there." Thompson was unable to move the children to a more appropriate place because Sadie and another adult on the premises removed the children while Thompson was speaking to the children's aunt.

         Carla Delagado, a Department investigator, testified that she also visited the residence in January. When she arrived at the home, three adults were present, but the children were not in the home. Delagado stated, "There was no utilities. There was, really, nothing working. No heater, no beds. There was only a couch in the living room." Based on what she observed, Delagado testified that the residence was an inappropriate place for children. Sadie informed Delagado that the children had been staying with her brother, Daniel, since the initial report had been made. Upon learning of the children's whereabouts, Delagado proceeded with a parental child-safety placement, which meant she would be formally placing the children with the brother[3] in order to allow Sadie "to be working some services."

         Delagado stated that around February 4, Daniel sent a text message to her informing her that he was in the process of placing the children back with Sadie because the utilities at the home were working and because there was adequate food for the children. Upon receiving his message, Delagado went back to the home in which Sadie had been residing in order to verify Daniel's representations. When Delagado arrived, she found that the utilities were working, there was a playpen for the youngest child, and "a place for the older kids. They had one bed, which both of them could fit in that same bed." Delagado also noted that there was food in the home for the children. Sadie informed Delagado that her mother and father had provided her with money to pay for the food and utilities. At that time, Delagado was advised to leave the children in the home and to request a family-team meeting since Sadie's mother and father were now involved in the situation.

         Shortly after Delagado's visit, the parties appeared for the family-team meeting, and a "safety plan" was created for Sadie and the children. Sadie's mother agreed to pay the necessary bills, and Sadie agreed to search for employment. Based on the home visits, the Department deemed the allegation of physical neglect to be "valid"; however, because of assurances made at the family-team meeting, the case was closed.

         On October 22, 2015, Tabetha Sims, an investigator for the Department, was dispatched to the residence where Sadie and the children were residing.[4] Upon entry into the residence, Sims observed a single light on in the kitchen, but noticed that none of the other lights were working. Sims later determined that the working light was attached to an extension cord that led outside of the house. Sims observed an odor in the home, and when she lifted the lid of the toilet, she "observed an abundance of feces and urine." Sims also found that there was no running water available in the residence. Sims stated that this type of living environment could be a hazard to young children.[5] Sims observed opened cans on the kitchen counter, which contained "jagged edges all the way around." Sims testified that there was only one twin bed in the entire home and that thirteen people were currently living there. Sadie informed Sims that she and her three children slept in the twin bed.

         Sims stated that all of the occupants, including Sadie, acted in a "[h]ostile" manner toward her. Sims asked Sadie to provide her name and date of birth, but she refused to do so. Sims testified that other than cursing and screaming at her, Sadie refused to talk to her; however, Sadie did eventually provide the children's names and dates of birth. Based on what she had observed and after speaking to her supervisor and the program director, Sims proceeded with an emergency removal notice, which allowed the Department to take temporary custody of the children.

         When Sims attempted to issue the removal notice, Sadie left with one of the children, but law enforcement officers quickly convinced her to return to the property. When she returned, Sadie was belligerent, combative, and refused to sign any paperwork, but she agreed to come to the Department with the children. Sims testified that Sadie and the other adults in the home were referring to Sims as "a dyke and a lesbian" and that they informed the children that Sims "was going to rape them and molest them and possibly kill them."[6] On cross-examination, Sims testified that when she visited Sadie's residence, the children were not in need of medical care. Sims agreed that there had been food in the kitchen cabinets at the time of her visit.[7] Sims also stated that she did not believe the children were malnourished to the point of requiring the care of a physician.

         Christina Arbogast, a caseworker for the Department, was assigned to Sadie's case on March 18, 2016. When Arbogast initially received Sadie's case, she questioned whether her parental rights should be terminated. Arbogast stated,

[Sadie] had worked through her services.[8] By the time I got the case in March, she had completed her psychologic evaluation. She had completed two parenting classes. She had tested negative on three -- two separate occasions, three drug tests. She had been going to counseling and actually was discharged at the point with a recommendation that she be reunified with her children. She had been coming to visits -- I think there were only two that was relayed to me that she had missed at that point.

         Arbogast testified that she believed Sadie needed "to stand on her own two . . . feet as far as housing goes." Arbogast stressed to Sadie that she needed to change the conditions in which the children were living and that she needed to find employment. Arbogast stated, "Initially she was receptive and understood it -- or at least I thought she did." Sadie eventually found a job with a grain company, but lost her job shortly after she acquired it.[9] Despite reiterating to Sadie that she needed to find employment to regain custody of her children, Sadie failed to do so. At the time of trial, Sadie remained unemployed.

         Arbogast also voiced her concerns over Sadie's behavior during visits with the children.

I actually had to go in and intervene and let her know that she needed to put the cell phone away because previously we had gone over visitation rules and one of the big rules that we have is that no cell phones are allowed to be used in the visitation room because that's a time with your children.

         Arbogast testified that after she asked Sadie to discontinue her cell phone use, "She was a little frustrated[, ] but she did put the cell phone away."

         Arbogast stated that Sadie was "a little slow to comprehend some of the things [they] were explaining to her" and that her behavior was a concern. Arbogast explained to Sadie that she should participate in a mental-health evaluation because she thought Sadie might be eligible for Social Security benefits based on the results of the evaluation. Sadie responded by informing ...


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