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In re B.H.-M.

Court of Appeals of Texas, Thirteenth District, Corpus Christi-Edinburg

May 4, 2017


         On appeal from the 156th District Court of San Patricio County, Texas.

          Before Justices Contreras, Benavides, and Longoria.


          GINA M. BENAVIDES, Justice.

         By one issue, appellant B.H. (Mother)[1] challenges a jury verdict terminating her parental rights to her daughter, B.H.-M., a child (Child). See Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 161.001 (West, Westlaw through 2015 R.S.). We affirm.

         I. Background

         This case stems from a petition to involuntarily terminate Mother's parental rights to Child brought by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (the Department).[2] See id. The case was tried to a jury, and the record reveals the following:

         On October 4, 2015, then-seven-year-old Child arrived at Dell Children's Medical Center in Austin with bruising to her cervix and a perforation to the back of her vaginal wall that had caused internal bleeding and air seepage into her abdomen. The severity of these injuries required Child to undergo surgery. Notes from hospital nurses indicated that Mother denied knowledge of any trauma or event sustained by Child that would cause these injuries. Kelly Liker, M.D., medical director of child-abuse pediatrics at Dell Children's Medical Center, testified that in addition to Child's internal injuries, she also had bruising on her shins and knees, as well as scratches to her thigh and back. Dr. Liker testified that upon interviewing family members at the hospital, she was able to discern that earlier in the day, Child was in the presence of Mother, B.I. (Maternal Grandmother), L.L. (Child's Brother), T.T. (Uncle T), N.T. (Cousin N), C.T. (Cousin N's Wife), and "two other" unnamed adult male siblings. Without being able to identify the exact object that caused Child's trauma, Dr. Liker nevertheless testified that she believed Child's injuries to be inflicted by an individual.

         The next day, Austin Police Department Detective Jane Pacifico responded to the Dell Children's Medical Center for further investigation. Detective Pacifico testified that she interviewed Mother, who had had told her that she and Child had visited Maternal Grandmother in Travis County after a camping trip earlier in the day to New Braunfels. Mother and Child then left to spend the night at Cousin N and his wife's apartment that evening. Detective Pacifico testified that Mother told her that Child was getting ready for bed in the bathroom, when Child began to scream. Mother then discovered Child bleeding from her vagina and took her to the hospital. Detective Pacifico testified that she treated this investigation as a sexual assault and at the time of trial, the criminal investigation was ongoing without any arrests and declined to testify into further detail about the criminal investigation.

         Mother testified that she, Child, and Child's Brother, who was already an adult, had gone to visit Maternal Grandmother after camping in New Braunfels in October of 2015. At the time, Maternal Grandmother lived with Uncle T and his son, M.T. (Cousin M). Mother told jurors that: (1) Cousin M was a registered sex offender[3]; (2) she knew that Cousin M was a registered sex offender; but (3) only brought Child to visit Maternal Grandmother after assurances from Maternal Grandmother that Cousin M was not at the residence. After camping, Mother then left Child alone with Maternal Grandmother to visit with each other, and Mother left with Child's Brother to visit Cousin N at his apartment. Mother testified that at Cousin N's apartment, Cousin M also visited "for about fifteen or twenty minutes" with his girlfriend.

         Later that evening, Mother picked up Child from Maternal Grandmother's care and brought her back to Cousin N's apartment to turn in for the evening. Mother asserted that Cousin M was never present at Cousin N's apartment while Child was present. At Cousin N's apartment, Mother instructed Child to get ready for bed. Child then proceeded to the bathroom and "moments later" Mother heard screams from Child in the bathroom, and Mother ran to the bathroom. Mother discovered Child "sitting on the toilet seat with her panties down to her knees and the first thing [she] noticed was blood in the crotch of her underwear." Mother testified that she asked Child what happened, but Child did not respond. Mother then laid Child on the floor and saw blood, but could not tell whether it was coming out of Child's anus or vagina. Cousin N and his wife assisted Mother, and transported Child to the hospital. Mother denied that Cousin M was ever present around Child during their visit to the Austin area, and told jurors that Child does not know Cousin M because she has never interacted with him. Mother did not offer jurors an explanation for what happened to her daughter, other than to simply state that she believed whatever her daughter told her, which was that Child was attacked by a dog.

         On October 6, 2015, the Department filed a petition for Child's protection for conservatorship and for termination of Mother's parent-child relationship with Child. The trial court subsequently issued temporary orders with regard to Child, including removing Child from Mother's possession. Mother stated that since the Department removed Child from her possession in October of 2015, she complied with the Department's family service plan, including: completing a twelve-week drug abuse program; completing a ten-week individual counseling program; attending once-a-week counseling sessions; completing a psychological evaluation; and completing an eight-week parenting class. Mother and Child continued interacting during Child's removal, and Mother stated that the visits had been "going very well." According to Mother, Child would ask when she could go home and would send her letters telling her how much she loved Mother and wanted to go home. Lastly, Mother admitted that she stopped communicating with the Department after it placed Child with Child's paternal aunt, A.H. (Aunt), in June of 2016 in North Carolina.

         Licensed professional counselor Kristie Reynolds evaluated Child from the beginning of the Department's intervention in this case until June of 2016 when Child was placed with Aunt. Reynolds described Child as "very guarded" at first, but later told Reynolds what had happened to her in "little bits and pieces." Reynolds told jurors that Child told her was that she was playing in Cousin N's bedroom, where Cousin M was also present. Reynolds also stated that Child told her that she went to use the bathroom when Cousin M threw her off the toilet and onto her hands and knees and sexually assaulted her. Reynolds stated that Child told her that Mother was "on the couch either watching TV or sleeping" at the time the assault occurred. Reynolds testified that before she left for North Carolina, Child was "very clear" that she loved Mother, but Child also told Reynolds that Mother could not keep her safe.

         From October of 2015 until June of 2016, Child was under the care of certified foster parent, Patricia Arroyo. According to Arroyo, during her six-month stay, Child told Arroyo a story about a dog that had hurt her. Eventually, Child stated that the "dog" that had hurt her was actually a human, and later identified the human as Cousin M. After the initial outcry, Arroyo notified Detective Pacifico, who then facilitated a forensic interview between the Children's Advocacy Center and Child.

         At the Children's Advocacy Center, Child told the forensic interviewer that a "dog was doing bad things" to her and the dog "did something that it wasn't supposed to." Despite initially telling the interviewer that Cousin N's dog attacked her, she later revealed that it was a human dressed as a dog who "pushed her down" in the bathroom and began "going back and forth in her bottom." In a later interview, however, Child identified the "dog" as Cousin M. Child stated that Cousin M went "side to side" on her ...

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