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In re L.E.

Court of Appeals of Texas, Seventh District, Amarillo

July 28, 2017

IN THE INTEREST OF L.E., L.E., AND S.E., CHILDREN

         On Appeal from the 286th District Court Hockley County, Texas Trial Court No. 15-08-24355, Honorable Pat Phelan, Presiding

          Before QUINN, C.J., and CAMPBELL and PIRTLE, JJ.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          James T. Campbell Justice.

         Based on a jury's verdict, [1] the trial court signed an order terminating the parental rights of the father[2] to his children, L.E.-1, L.E.-2, and S.E., [3] and appointing the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services permanent managing conservator of the children. At the time of the final hearing in February 2017, L.E.-1 was age twelve, L.E.-2, age five, and S.E., three.

         On appeal, the father does not challenge the court's findings that he engaged in conduct that endangered his children, placed them in conditions that endangered them, and failed to comply with a court order establishing the actions necessary for him to obtain their return to his care. See Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 161.001(b)(1)(D), (E), (O). His issues challenge the legal and factual sufficiency of the evidence supporting the finding that termination of his parental rights is in the best interest of the children. After review of the record, we conclude the evidence sufficiently supports the best-interest finding, and will affirm the trial court's order of termination.

         Background

         The mother did not appear for the final hearing but testified at the adversary hearing. Background facts provided here are drawn chiefly from final hearing testimony but include testimony from the adversary hearing. At the final hearing, the reporter's record of the adversary hearing was admitted into evidence without objection or limitation and excerpts of testimony were read to the jury.

         The father and the mother married in 2004. The mother is the father's fourth wife; he is twenty-three years her senior. Evidence shows their relationship has long been combative. In 2004 in Illinois, the father was convicted for felony assault of the mother and was imprisoned for six months. He was also charged with illegal possession of a firearm. At the time of the assault, the mother was pregnant with L.E.-1.

         L.F. is the father's sister. She is widowed and lives in Hockley County. In 2013, the father contacted L.F. requesting financial help. She sent him $1800 to restore the family's utilities. According to L.F's testimony, a couple of weeks later the father contacted her again, reporting he could not find work and the family had nothing. With L.F.'s help, the father and his family moved to Hockley County, first living with L.F. and her then-ill husband. The father later moved his family to a nearby house in the same community, even though, L.F. said, that house "was not in living condition[]."

         In 2014, local police arrested the father for the offense of terroristic threat, but he was not convicted. In March 2015, the mother took the children to Kentucky where her mother lived. There, the mother obtained a protective order against the father. According to L.F., the mother had bruises on her arm and stomach and the father had threatened her with a gun. They returned to Texas and the father in May 2015.

         The Department became involved with the father and the mother in July 2015 when it received a report of domestic violence. L.E.-1 was observed with bruises and a burn on his chest. He explained the bruises resulted from a fall and the burn was caused by cooking. He told the Department he often watched after his younger siblings while his parents argued.

         On August 10, 2015, L.F. testified, the father and the mother voluntarily placed the children with her because the family's water and gas had been disconnected. The father testified he was working regularly at the time but could not pay the family's bills.

         The Department filed a petition for protection, conservatorship, and termination in late August 2015. At the September 1, 2015 adversary hearing, the court appointed the Department temporary managing conservator of the children. The children remained with L.F., the parents having limited supervised visitation and telephone contact. The court signed an order specifying actions necessary for return of the children. It required the father, among other things, to maintain stable housing and adequate employment, abstain from illegal drugs, submit to drug screening as directed, abstain from activities or criminal conduct which could result in incarceration, and complete services including parenting classes, individual therapy, a psychological evaluation, anger management counseling, and a batterer's intervention program.

         A Hockley County deputy sheriff testified to a series of calls to the father and mother's home, primarily in response to domestic violence reports. He referred to five such instances from 2014 to 2016. The mother testified at the adversary hearing that the father once caused bruises on her arms by grabbing her while trying to take a knife from her. The deputy sheriff said the bruises appeared the result of someone grabbing the mother's arms. The father testified the mother hit him, causing bruises on her arms. The mother also testified the father grabbed her "at least over ten" times during a thirteen-year period.

         The deputy sheriff said the children were present during the calls to their home and appeared upset. He described a conversation with L.E.-1 after a late July 2015 call, in which the child told him his parents had "a screaming match" while the mother held S.E. He said L.E.-1 told him "the two had a tug-of-war match over [S.E.], " both struggling to take possession of the baby. The event left L.E.-1 "scared."

         In November 2015, the father was in the county jail on charges of interfering with a "nonemergency" 9-1-1 call, resisting arrest and possession of a controlled substance in a corrections facility. He remained in jail until January 2016 when he was released and the charges dismissed. During the period of confinement, the father had no contact with the children and did not participate in any services.

         On the Department's motion, during February 2016, the trial court issued a protective order in favor of L.S.-1, L.S.-2, and S.E. The order contained the court's finding that the father "has committed family violence."

         There was evidence that the father's dealings with the Department were contentious, especially so early in the case. At that time he resented the Department's involvement, and viewed it as his "adversary." The Department caseworker assigned to the family testified that when she and her supervisor called the father to discuss services he responded with profanity and threatened a lawsuit. In final hearing testimony, the caseworker testified Department caseworkers were not permitted to visit the father at his home "due to his violent tendencies." She also testified the Department did not have contact with the father from September 2015 until February 2016.

         The father eventually began therapy sessions in September 2016 with a counselor. He completed parenting and anger management classes but because of work-related absences did not successfully complete the batterer's intervention program. There was evidence his supervised visits with his children went well.

         During the summer of 2016, L.F. developed stress-related health issues, requiring the Department to place the children in foster care elsewhere. She testified at the final hearing her health issues were resolved and she saw no reason why the children could not be returned to her care. L.F. said that while ...


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