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In re A.C.

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fifth District, Dallas

May 2, 2017

IN THE INTEREST OF A.C., J.Y., J.Y. JR., L.B., AND E.B., CHILDREN

         On Appeal from the 304th Judicial District Court Dallas County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. JC-15-00958-W

          Before Justices Lang, Brown, and Whitehill

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          BILL WHITEHILL JUSTICE

         A pivotal issue in this appeal from a decree terminating parental rights is whether a parent's un-recanted statements in a mediated settlement agreement that statutory grounds for termination exist and termination is in the child's best interest, together with evidence of the State's plans for placing the child, constitute legally and factually sufficient evidence that termination is in the child's best interest.

         Here, the state sued appellant (Mother) to terminate the parent-child relationships between her and her five children. Mother signed a mediated settlement agreement in which she stipulated that her parental rights would be terminated based on specific Family Code grounds "and best interest." After a prove-up hearing at which Mother had the opportunity to testify that termination would not be in the children's best interest but did not appear and do so, the trial court signed a judgment that tracked the agreement by, among other things, terminating Mother's parental rights as to all five children.

         Mother raises three issues. Her first two issues argue that the evidence was legally and factually insufficient to support the findings that terminations were in the children's best interest. Her third issue argues that the evidence was insufficient to support the decree's provision appointing the State's representative as the children's managing conservator.

         We conclude that the evidence was sufficient to support the best interest findings and that the trial court's conservatorship decision was not an abuse of discretion. Accordingly, we affirm.

         I. Background

         In 2015, the Dallas County Child Protective Services Unit of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (Department) sued Mother to terminate her parental rights as to four children. The Department also sued three men, alleging that they were the children's fathers and seeking to terminate their parental rights.

         In February 2016, the Department amended its petition to add allegations regarding a fifth child born to Mother earlier that month. The Department sought to terminate Mother's parental rights (and the father's rights) as to that child as well.

         Several months later, Mother and her attorney signed a mediated settlement agreement in which she stipulated that her parental rights would be terminated as to all five children. The agreement further provided that:

• the Department's Director would be appointed the children's permanent managing conservator;
• the Department would consent to the children's adoption by certain named individuals, absent unforeseeable circumstances; and
• if the named individuals could not adopt the children for any reason, those individuals would become the children's permanent managing conservators, absent unforeseeable circumstances.

         The agreement also provided that Mother would be appointed the children's non-parent possessory conservator and would have some supervised visitation rights. All parties agreed that the agreement was in the children's best interest. The agreement was filed with the trial court.

         Mother later filed a motion and an amended motion to invalidate in part the mediated settlement agreement. The amended motion alleged that two children could not be placed as agreed and asked the trial court to require the parties to negotiate a new placement for the two children in question through mediation and, if necessary, through a placement hearing. The amended motion also asked the court to "Require the MSA's [mediated settlement agreement's] conditions of termination of Respondent's parental rights, including the legal grounds, be kept in place."

         The trial court held a hearing and orally denied Mother's amended motion.

         The case was set for jury trial, but that setting turned into a mediated settlement agreement prove-up before the court. Mother appeared solely by counsel. Caseworker Brennan Blakemore testified about the case's basic facts and the mediated settlement agreement's contents. The trial court also took judicial notice of its file including the agreement. Before resting, Mother's counsel said, "My client is not here today but she has signed the mediated settlement agreement, Your Honor."

         The trial court signed a decree terminating Mother's parent-child relationships with all five children.[1] The decree also appointed Mother as non-parent possessory conservator of the children and awarded her supervised visitation with the children consistent with the agreement. It ...


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