IN THE INTEREST OF R.L. AKA R.C. AKA R.M. AND R.L., CHILDREN IN THE INTEREST OF C.C.J., A CHILD IN THE INTEREST OF C.J., A CHILD
Appeal from the 311th District Court Harris County, Texas
Trial Court Case Nos. 2009-03954, 2013-49862, and
consists of Justices Jennings, Higley, and Massengale.
these accelerated appeals,  appellant, T.H.L., challenges the
trial court's orders, entered after a bench trial,
awarding the Department of Family and Protective Services
("DFPS") permanent managing conservatorship of her
four minor children, R.C.,  R.L., C.J., and C.C.J.
(collectively, "the children"). In her sole
issue, T.H.L. contends that the trial court erred in
appointing DFPS as the children's permanent managing
August 23, 2013, DFPS filed its "Original Motion to
Modify for Conservatorship, " seeking managing
conservatorship of R.C. and R.L., and its "Original
Petition for Protection of a Child for Conservatorship,
" seeking managing conservatorship of C.J. On May 27,
2014, DFPS filed its "Original Petition for Protection
of a Child for Conservatorship, " seeking managing
conservatorship of C.C.J. DFPS attached to its motion and
petitions, the affidavit of DFPS Investigator Patrick Atkins.
affidavit, which the trial court admitted into evidence,
Atkins testified that on June 17, 2013, DFPS received a
report of neglectful supervision of the children. On June 13,
2013 at 1:00 a.m., when T.H.L. left her home "to clear
her head, " her fiancé, D.J.,  and her son,
C.J., who was six months old, were in her bedroom. When
T.H.L. returned home at 6:00 a.m., she "noticed . . .
blood on the bed, " but did not "enter [her] room,
" even though she was aware that C.J. was still inside.
Instead, T.H.L. went upstairs, had her mother call for
emergency assistance, and had her daughter, R.C., who was
thirteen years old at the time, "go downstairs to get
[C.J.] from the room." D.J. died from "blunt force
trauma to the head." T.H.L. reported that "[a]t the
time of [D.J.'s] murder, " she was "parked at a
park" near her home "talking to a friend" on
her cellular telephone and then went to a store. According to
Atkins, T.H.L. and her ex-husband R.A.L., the father of R.C.
and R.L., were the "prime suspects in the
murder" of D.J. and the "oldest children [were]
potential[ly] witnesses." DFPS officials also believed
that the children "may [have] be[en] at a risk of harm
due to [T.H.L.] and [R.A.L]'s history of violent
Atkin's investigation, T.H.L. told him that on the night
that D.J. was murdered, he had been "acting like he was
worried about something" and said that he "had
something heavy to tell her." D.J. and T.H.L. then drove
to a daycare facility to pick up C.J. around 9:00 p.m. As
T.H.L. was backing her car out of the facility's parking
lot, "a car pulled up and tried to block her in [her]
parking spot. [Two] black males were in the car and the
passenger got out of the car and . . . opened the trunk of
the car." D.J. then told T.H.L. "to go, go, go[,
]" and she was able to back out and drive out of the
parking lot. At the time, D.J. seemed agitated.
they returned to T.H.L.'s house, D.J. spent time talking
and texting on his cellular telephone. At 10:00 p.m., D.J.
told her "what was going on." Specifically,
"someone had shot at his daughter . . . earlier in the
evening and . . . a gang called 44 was trying to kill his son
. . . and daughter." D.J.'s son "had killed a
boy" and "the boy[']s gang" was seeking
revenge. At about 1:30 a.m., D.J. told T.H.L. that "he
was going to deal with [everything] in the morning and go
get a gun." He then went to the bedroom and to sleep.
Because her mother was staying at her house, T.H.L., who was
"freaking out, " decided to go "for a drive to
clear her head." She drove to a "small lake near
her house to think, " and when "it started to get
light" outside, she "went to Walmart to get
breakfast for the children." T.H.L. returned home around
6:00 a.m., noting that the gate to the side of her house and
the door to the garage were open. She proceeded to her
bedroom and stopped in the doorway when she saw blood on the
bed. T.H.L. then went upstairs to get her mother to ask her
"to go check the room"; however, her mother was
"too afraid." R.C. then "said [that] she would
go and went down stairs." R.C. returned with C.J. and
told T.H.L. that D.J. was in the bed and
regard to T.H.L. and R.A.L.'s relationship, Atkins
testified that R.A.L. told him that T.H.L. had once stabbed
him. R.A.L. also acknowledged that in 2009 he was arrested
for the criminal offenses of forgery and terroristic threat.
In regard to the terroristic threat, R.A.L. had telephoned
T.H.L. and told her that "he was going to put her and
her mother in an oven." He also acknowledged a history
of domestic violence. And Atkins noted that T.H.L. and
R.A.L.'s relationship appeared to be "very
further testified that R.C. told him that R.A.L. was
"very mean" to her and "treat[ed] her like
trash." He would "yell and scream at her"
and "verbally abuse her." And she did not feel
safe around him. R.C. also said that she did not "want
to go back with her mother" and did not feel safe with
caseworker Gianna Robinson testified that it is in the
children's best interest to have DFPS as their permanent
managing conservator and not be returned to T.H.L. Robinson
noted that R.C. is sixteen years old and doing well in a
foster home. While in her foster home, R.C. has been
thriving, her school grades have improved, and she has a
part-time job. R.C. wants to go to cosmetology school, and
her foster mother is willing to have R.C. remain in her home.
R.C. participates in individual therapy and has supervised
visits with T.H.L. R.C. told Robinson that, although she
would like her visits with T.H.L. to remain supervised, she
does want to continue to have contact with her. Notably, R.C.
feels that it is best for her to stay in her foster home,
where she feels safe and comfortable, and believes that she
is "growing." And Robinson explained that there
have been allegations of abuse of R.C. by her father, R.A.L.
twelve years old and doing well in a foster home with his
brother, C.J. R.L. is doing well in school, is involved in
band, and plays football and basketball. He is comfortable
and happy in his current placement and participates in family
therapy. Although Robinson recommends that R.L.'s visits
with T.H.L. be supervised, she noted that R.L. and T.H.L.
have a loving relationship, he is not afraid of T.H.L., and
T.H.L. brings him food at visits.
four years old and doing well in a foster home with his
brother, R.L. C.J. attends daycare and engages in activities
with R.L. C.J. also participates in family therapy, and
Robinson recommends that C.J. have supervised visits with
is two years old and doing well in a "relative
home" with her aunt, D.J.'s sister. She participates
in gymnastics and dance. Robinson recommends that C.C.J. have
supervised visits with T.H.L., noting that over the last four
months, T.H.L. had had three visits with C.C.J.
regard to T.H.L., Robinson explained that DFPS hopes to
continue to work with her on her coping skills and
"managing everything, " including "how she
interacts w[ith] the children." T.H.L. wants the
children returned to her, and she participates in individual
and family therapy with the children. However, T.H.L. has not
demonstrated "parenting skills" or "coping
skills" during her visits with the children. T.H.L.
successfully completed her individual therapy, her parenting
classes, and all of the services required by her Family
Service Plan ("FSP"), except family therapy.
However, Robinson explained that the children should not be
returned to T.H.L. because she has not yet completed family
therapy and there is an "open investigation" of
D.J.'s murder. Robinson is also concerned about the
"safety and the environment of the children" should
they be returned to T.H.L. And she noted that the
children's therapist does not recommend that they be
returned to T.H.L.'s home.
that T.H.L. lives in a small apartment, Robinson is also
concerned about the sleeping arrangements that T.H.L. has
made for the children. If the children were to be returned to
T.H.L., R.C. and C.C.J. would share a bedroom, while T.H.L.
and her "[g]odmother" would share the other
bedroom. Because R.L. and C.J. would have to sleep in the
living room "right there by the front door, " C.J.
"could just get up and walk out the door." And
because T.H.L.'s home contained "fruit flies"
and R.C. has previously witnessed an altercation in the home
between T.H.L. and R.A.L., Robinson expressed her concern
about "the safety of the home, " the prior
"home violence, " and the domestic violence that
has occurred between T.H.L. and R.A.L.
Wingard, who was previously the DFPS caseworker for the
children, testified that she was involved with the children
for three years, and T.H.L. was "very uncooperative,
angry, blam[ed] [DFPS] for everything, " and "never
took responsibility for anything." Although her poor
attitude remained unchanged, T.H.L. did complete the
requirements of her FSP. Wingard noted that T.H.L. loves her
children, wants them returned to her, and is employed and
financially able to care for the children. When the children
came into DFPS's care, they were healthy, "good
kids, " who had a bond with T.H.L. T.H.L. acted
appropriately during her visits with C.C.J., and the children
appear happy to see T.H.L. at their visits.
Wingard opined that T.H.L. would be a danger to her children,
was not "a constant" in their lives after DFPS took
custody of them, could not be relied upon, was not
consistent, and did not "abide by the rules and
regulations" of DFPS. Wingard expressed her concern
about T.H.L.'s ability to protect the children and keep
them safe, and she opined that there would be a risk of
emotional or physical danger to the children if they were
returned to T.H.L. Wingard averred that T.H.L. is dishonest
and has engaged in certain acts and omissions that "may
indicate that the existing parent/child relationship is not
proper or is not in the best interest of the children, "
such as not being cooperative or protective of the children.
And over the course of this case, Wingard has not seen any
"growth and development" on the part of T.H.L. She
opined that T.H.L. cannot meet the needs of the children and
it is in their best interest that they remain in their
current placements. And Wingard noted that D.J.'s murder
further explained that right after DFPS took custody of the
children, it placed them with T.H.L.'s mother. However,
after one week, it removed the children from her care because
T.H.L. violated DFPS's rule that she not have contact
with the children. DFPS then placed the children in a foster
home together. However, while the children were in this
new placement, T.H.L. "sneaked" R.C. an
iPod device during a visit and then
"contact[ed]" R.C. using the iPod "while
[R.C.] was in the foster home." T.H.L. then encouraged
R.C. to use the iPod, which violated DFPS's rules and
caused problems in R.C.'s foster home. And R.C. had
to be removed from the placement because of the incident with
the iPod. Other actions by T.H.L. also caused R.L. and C.J.
to be removed from the foster home. Although the trial court
subsequently ordered T.H.L. to have no contact with the
children, she "continue[d] to communicate" with
R.C., "even though there [was] a no contact order."
R.C. lives in one foster home, while R.L. and C.J. live
together in a separate foster home. Wingard noted that R.C.
is not with her brothers because of T.H.L.'s
"disruptive[ness]." Wingard explained that T.H.L.
gave birth to C.C.J. during the pendency of this case and has
visited her. However, T.H.L. has not attended every visit,
not always arrived on time, and provided excuses only
"[s]ometimes." There was also a "period of
time when [T.H.L.] just failed to visit for several
point, DFPS had "a plan in place to [re]start contact
between [T.H.L.] and the children." Initially, T.H.L.
was to write letters to the children, and then she would
eventually have "[tele]phone contact" with them.
Wingard explained that the children did not write back to
T.H.L. and the "[tele]phone contact" did not occur
because their therapist had concerns about T.H.L.'s
further noted that before DFPS took custody of the children,
R.C. had taken on a "parenting role" with her
younger siblings that was not age appropriate. R.C. was
traumatized, confused, and hurt by the events surrounding
D.J.'s murder. However, R.C. is now doing
"[w]onderful[ly], " is happy, wants to work,
"knows what she wants, " and is "looking
towards her future, making future goals." She wants to
stay with her foster mother, who provides her with
transportation to and from her various activities. And
Wingard opined that her placement will be able to meet her
future emotional and physical needs. Wingard also noted that
during the pendency of this case, T.H.L. told R.C. that
R.A.L. is her biological father, even though R.C. had spent
her entire life believing that another man was her father.
R.C. was shocked, surprised, and not "too happy about
also testified that R.L. is doing "very, very good,
" although he "[s]truggl[ed]" when DFPS first
took custody of him. Initially, R.L. was confused, had
"mixed emotions, " and "really didn't
understand what was going on." Now, he is
"outgoing, active, happy, more talkative, "
"listens more, " and is "a totally different
person from the beginning" of the case. C.J. is also
happy, outspoken, talkative, and bright. And he and R.L. get
along well and want to remain in their current placement.
Wingard opined that it is in the best interest of R.L. and
C.J. to remain together, and their current placement will
meet their future emotional and physical needs. Their foster
parents, who provide them with transportation and equipment
needed for their various activities, are committed to helping
them excel and taking care of their needs.
is also doing well in her placement. And Wingard opined that
it is in her best interest to remain in her current placement
with her aunt, who is able to meet her future emotional and
to Wingard, the children's respective placements are
protective and meet their needs. Their caregivers are caring,
communicate well with them, discipline them, and ensure that
they remain active. The caregivers have also availed
themselves of programs to assist them and promote the best
interest of the children. For instance, R.C. has
"consistent therapy inside the home" and with DFPS,
participates in the Preparation for Adult Living Skills
program, attends tutoring when needed, and is allowed to
work. R.L. is involved with mentoring, basketball, and
"one-on-one" intervention with a coach at his
school. And C.J. is in an after-school program that
"expose[s] [him] to other children, " as is C.C.J.
Each placement is stable, and DFPS desires permanency for the
Chapman testified that three years prior to trial, when he
was a DFPS investigator, he went to T.H.L.'s purported
residence to locate C.C.J., who was an infant, after T.H.L.
"would not produce the child." Upon his arrival, he
saw evidence that C.C.J. had been at the home, but R.A.L.,
who was present, told him that T.H.L. had taken C.C.J. to
Louisiana. Chapman then called T.H.L.'s cellular
telephone number, and she stated that she was "on the
road" to Louisiana and "in the area."
(Internal quotations omitted.) Chapman later learned,
however, that T.H.L. was not on her way to Louisiana, but
actually in a meeting with her caseworker at the DFPS office.
After T.H.L. later agreed to meet Chapman to let him see
C.C.J., she arrived without the child. T.H.L. then
subsequently returned with C.C.J. and took her out of her
car. However, when law enforcement officers arrived, T.H.L.
"grabbed the baby, " "jumped in" the
front seat of her car, shut the door, and "attempted to
take off" with C.C.J. in her lap. T.H.L. finally gave
C.C.J. to Chapman, and he served her with a "Notice of
opined that T.H.L. was untrustworthy and "willing to do
whatever she needed to do to continue to deceive
[DFPS]." He stated that T.H.L. was "a flight risk,
" who had family and friends, including R.A.L., who were
willing to help her mislead DFPS.
Boutwell, a volunteer with Child Advocates Inc. and the child
advocate for R.C., R.L., and C.J., testified that it is in
the children's best interest to remain in their current
placements and for DFPS to be named their permanent managing
conservator. She also recommended that T.H.L. have supervised
visits with the children through a family
therapist and the children not have visits with
R.A.L., unless first approved by a therapist. In making her
recommendations, Boutwell considered the desires of the
noted that R.C. participates in individual and family
therapy. Although R.C. was "quiet at the very
start" and took "a long time to build up trust,
" she is now outgoing, expressive, and "very
pleased with how her junior year was going to start in high
school." R.C. is also "more focused" and
"able to tell you what she wants for herself and for her
future." She has worked with her therapist on "some
of the concerns that she had when she entered into foster
care . . . [related] to having been in a situation where
there was a murder." R.C. continues to work on issues
related to R.A.L. and "talking to her mom." She and
her foster mother have a strong relationship, and if R.C.
were returned to the care of T.H.L., Boutwell is concerned
about her health, safety, and welfare, especially about her
moving backward in the progress that she had made so far.
participates in individual and family therapy, is on the
quiet side, is an "outstanding athlete, " and loves
being with his foster mother's son. Boutwell opined that
R.L. has bonded with his foster mother, and together, the
foster mother and father, their son, R.L., and C.J.
"feel like [a] family." C.J. participates in
family visits and is a "very industrious" child. He
has a strong vocabulary, does his homework, and is "able
to work within the structure of understanding rules and
consequences." Boutwell is concerned about R.L. and C.J.
being returned to T.H.L., especially because C.J. has
"no relationship" with T.H.L. and does not know her
further testified that Child Advocates is concerned about
T.H.L.'s "patterns of behavior, " including her
"not seeing the inappropriateness of some of the
individual males that she has been with" and the
frequency with which she "chang[es] jobs." Boutwell
noted that T.H.L. still has a relationship with R.A.L., who
has been involved with her in physical and domestic violence
that the children have witnessed, and T.H.L. associates with
individuals with criminal histories. And although T.H.L. has
a "desire to understand" her children, she is not
capable of "understand[ing] what the children have
actually experienced as a result of their involvement in a
home [in which] a murder" occurred. In other words,
T.H.L. is not able to "see things through the eyes of
the children." She has also exhibited a lack of
"follow-through" with the children and an inability
to "associate with the children and their needs."
Boutwell opined that T.H.L. has not been truthful, does not
have the judgment necessary to raise the children in a safe
environment, and lacks the ability to "provide a
protective home for the children."
did explain that although the children initially had
reservations about their visits with T.H.L., they have
gradually gotten better. The children are "good kids,
" they were raised appropriately, and they are not
disrespectful. And there is no evidence that T.H.L. has ever
injured them. However, Boutwell is concerned about the
emotional harm that R.C. suffered when she entered the
bedroom where D.J. had been murdered.
King, a volunteer with Child Advocates, testified that he is
the child advocate for C.C.J., who is currently in a
"kinship placement." He recommended that she remain
in her current placement and DFPS be appointed her permanent
managing conservator. King opined that this is in the best
interest of C.C.J. because she is closely bonded with her
caregiver. Returning C.C.J. to T.H.L. is not in her best
interest because it "would place [her] in danger, "
both physically and emotionally. King noted that C.C.J.
currently is happy, playful, healthy, and
"developmentally on track."
further expressed concern that T.H.L., in the past, had
allowed "unsafe circumstances" to exist in her
home. He noted that the murder of D.J. occurred in
T.H.L.'s home and she has allowed "unsafe men . . .
to be a part of her life." T.H.L. had also engaged in
"[s]chemes of misrepresentation and fraud that w[ere]
connected with the children or . . . involved the
children." King opined that if returned to T.H.L., the
children would be exposed to physical danger and
"circumstances that are unsafe for them in terms of
their emotional condition." And King noted that T.H.L.
has "made decisions both before and during the case that
are unwise and imprudent and reflect poorly on her parenting
did acknowledge that the children should have visits with
T.H.L., but they should be supervised. There is no evidence
that T.H.L. ever abused C.C.J. And King opined that C.C.J.
could develop an appropriate relationship with T.H.L.
Nevertheless, he believes that the appointment of T.H.L. as
C.C.J.'s permanent managing conservator would
"significantly impair the child's physical health
and emotional development."
Curtis Riggins, who has been incarcerated in the Harris
County Jail since March 2016 for the felony offenses of
possession of a controlled substance and "possession of
a weapon, " testified that he and T.H.L. have been
friends for "two or three years" and he had
"helped her out from time to time." Riggins had
previously been convicted of the offenses of possession of a
controlled substance, possession of marijuana, "felony
theft, " "felony possession of a weapon, "
"unlawful carrying of a weapon, " and "assault
on a family member." Riggins explained that he was
T.H.L.'s boyfriend at some point after DFPS removed the
children from T.H.L., they engaged in a sexual relationship
until January 2016, and she visited him in jail in 2016.
Riggins admitted that he had previously been "ordered to
register as a sex offender" and he engaged in illegal