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In re S.R.G.

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fourteenth District

April 25, 2017


         On Appeal from the 313th District Court Harris County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. 2015-05307J.

          Panel consists of Justices Christopher, Busby, and Jewell.


          Tracy Christopher Justice

         The trial court terminated the parental rights of J.M.J. ("Mother") and A.G.G. ("Father") with respect to their children, Sarah, Julia, and Charlie, [1] and appointed the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services ("the Department") to be the children's managing conservator. On appeal, Mother challenges the factual sufficiency of the evidence to support the trial court's finding that termination of her parental rights is in the children's best interest. Father challenges the factual and legal sufficiency of the evidence to support the trial court's findings on the predicate grounds for termination and the best-interest finding. Neither parent challenges the Department's appointment as managing conservator. We affirm.


         A. Removal

         On July 20, 2015, the Department received a report alleging then four-month-old Charlie had bruising around his eyes. Mother said the bruising occurred two nights earlier, while she was out for the evening and Charlie was in Father's care at Mother's home. When she returned home the next morning and saw the bruises, Mother said, she instructed Father to leave. Father gave a different account. He said Charlie's eyes were fine the night before. Father said he woke up around 6:00 a.m. and saw Mother taking Charlie into the living room. An hour or two later, hearing Charlie crying, Father went to the living room and found Charlie's head stuck between the couch and the ottoman. Father believed Charlie "scooted his way" into that space.

         Department caseworker Cierra Davis observed all three children to be clean and well-nourished. Davis interviewed Sarah and Julia, then ages six and four, respectively. Both girls said they were afraid when Father stayed in their home. Sarah also said Father hit Mother. The girls reported Father disciplined them by spanking them. Sarah said nobody in the home used drugs or alcohol; Julia did not know what drugs or alcohol were.

         Due to the conflicting accounts of how Charlie was injured and the parents' history with the Department (discussed below), the children were placed with Mother's parents a few days later as part of a Parental Child Safety Placement while the Department continued its investigation. The trial court appointed the Department to be the children's temporary managing conservator at the end of September 2015. The children remained with their maternal grandparents.

         B. History of domestic violence

         In May 2014, the Department received a report of neglectful supervision and physical abuse of Sarah and Julia. The report arose from an argument between Mother and Father that turned physically violent. Father punched Mother in the face and choked her until she scratched his face and neck in self-defense. Father then put a knife to Mother's throat. He was still holding the knife when police officers arrived. Mother told investigators Father had previously threatened her at gunpoint and told her not to leave him. The case was referred to the Department's Family Based Safety Services section.

         Father has a long history of arrests for domestic violence. He has been convicted at least three times for assaulting Mother. Father said the assaults were "mutual."

         C. Family service plans

         Upon appointing the Department as the children's temporary managing conservator, the trial court signed an order requiring both parents to comply with any family service plan by the Department. Each service plan identified the tasks and services the parent needed to complete before the children could be returned to his or her care.

         Both parents' plans required them to:

• complete a parenting class;
• obtain and maintain suitable employment and stable housing;
• complete a substance abuse assessment and follow the assessor's recommendations;
• submit to random drug testing;
• complete a psychosocial evaluation and follow the evaluator's recommendations;
• maintain regular contact with the caseworker; and
• make reasonable efforts to attend and participate in all hearings, permanency conferences, scheduled visitations, and requested meetings.

         Both parents were required to complete individual or group counseling regarding domestic violence-Mother for victims and Father for perpetrators. Father's plan additionally required him to complete an anger-management class.

         D. Trial

         Trial was held in October 2016. The Department presented testimony from Mother, Father, and caseworker Jennifer Lombardi. Its documentary evidence included the parents' service plans, judgments of criminal convictions for Father, and drug test results for Mother, Father, and the children's maternal grandparents. Mother presented testimony from Tom Austin of Santa Maria Hostel, a residential substance abuse treatment facility. Father did not call witnesses.

         1. Mother

         Mother testified at length about her 13-year relationship with Father. He first assaulted her early in their relationship. Despite his violence toward her, Mother stayed with Father and had three children with him. She saw him physically discipline the children but never saw him act violently toward them. She said she was not thinking rationally during her time with Father. Mother and Father were not dating at the time of ...

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