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In re A.L.

Court of Appeals of Texas, Eighth District, El Paso

July 31, 2017


         Appeal from 109th District Court of Winkler County, Texas (TC # DC15-16819)

          Before McClure, C.J., Rodriguez, and Palafox, JJ.


          ANN CRAWFORD McCLURE, Chief Justice.

         This appeal is from a judgment terminating the parental rights of H.L. to her daughter. We affirm.


         A.L. was three years of age at the time of the trial before the associate judge in December 2016. In August 2015, H.L. and A.L. were living in the home of H.L.'s parents. H.L.'s mother had suffered a stroke and required in-home health care to assist her with all activities of daily living.

         The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (the Department) first became involved with H.L. and A.L. in August 22, 2015 after receiving an intake report that the home was unclean and A.L. often did not wear any clothing. The Department required H.L. to clean the home and referred her to the Stay Together program so that she could receive additional in-home parenting. The Department closed the investigation in October 2015, but it received another intake on December 3, 2015 regarding the unsanitary conditions of the home. When the investigator, Carla Davis, returned to the home, she found that its condition had worsened.

         Seven dogs were in the home and Davis found dog feces in the living room, the child's bedroom, and another room. The furniture in the living room was covered in dog hair and dirty dishes were on the floor. At the time of Davis's visit, H.L.'s mother was on a recliner in the living room because she had broken her ankle. Davis testified that several "medical cords" were strung across the floor and A.L. had access to them.[1]

         H.L. denied Davis access to the kitchen stating that the dogs in the kitchen would bite her. Davis could look into the kitchen, however, and she saw that the dogs were confined in cages. The dogs had been in the cages so long that they had urinated and defecated on the kitchen floor. There was a large pile of unwashed dishes in the sink and on the kitchen counter, and insects were crawling on the dishes. Davis also observed that a bowl of cereal had spilled onto the kitchen floor and had dried there. The kitchen table was covered with empty food containers, utensils, and bottles of medication.

         In A.L.'s bedroom, Davis saw several piles of feces on the floor. The mattress did not have any sheets on it and there were brown smears on the mattress that appeared to be feces. Several fly strips were hanging from the ceiling and covered in flies. Davis also observed that A.L., who had just turned two and was not potty-trained, was wearing only a red t-shirt. H.L. refused Davis's request to take photographs of the house. The Department found reason to believe that H.L. had neglected A.L. and it removed her from the home on December 3, 2015.

         Joy Welch Miller is a conservatorship caseworker assigned to the case. Since cleanliness of the home was an issue, Miller or another caseworker went to the home monthly to examine its condition. H.L. initially had seven dogs and Miller continued to find both dog urine and feces and on the floor of the home during her visits. The number of dogs was eventually reduced to three, but Miller continued to find both what appeared to be urine on the floors of the home. The bathrooms in the home were dirty and Miller frequently found unflushed waste in the toilet bowls. Miller made a home visit on October 26, 2016, approximately five weeks before the termination hearing, and she found H.L.'s bedroom in a state of disarray. The floor was covered with clothing, dishes, leftover food, and trash. H.L. was also using a circulating fan which did not have a cover on it.

         Following the removal of A.L. from the home, H.L. or her father took steps to have repairs done to the home. For example, new laminate flooring was installed in some of the rooms and the hardwood floors were refinished in other areas. A.L.'s room was painted. Miller gave H.L. instructions on how to clean the house and provided demonstrations for her, but H.L. did not retain the knowledge from month to month or apply it consistently. H.L. was also resistant to cleaning the home and made excuses for not cleaning it, telling Miller that her father would not permit her to clean the house the way Miller had shown her. In addition to the unsanitary condition of the home, Miller was also concerned that dangerous objects, such as knives and saws, were often left within reach of a small child. Miller saw an improvement, however, with the roach infestation after a pest control company began treating the home. Despite the improvement in some areas of the home, it was Miller's opinion that the condition of the home endangered A.L.'s physical and emotional well-being.

         Chelsea Reinhard is a conservatorship case worker and she has been in the home on seven different occasions. On November 8, 2016, approximately three weeks before trial, Reinhard made an unannounced visit to the home to check on its condition. H.L. had just gotten out of the shower and she invited Reinhard to talk in her bedroom while her mother's caregiver fixed her hair. Reinhard described H.L.'s bedroom as being in a state of "vast disarray." Clothes, partially eaten food, empty food containers, cigarette butts, and soda cans were on the floor. A trash bag was on the floor near an overflowing trash can. A used tampon was on the floor near the opening of the trash bag. Reinhard also observed a bong and a package of partially-used suppositories in the room. A small refrigerator was in the bedroom, and it had knives and pill bottles on top of it. H.L. explained that her aunt and three cousins had visited her over the weekend and had "trashed" the room, but she had been cleaning it since the previous day. Despite the bedroom's condition, H.L. described herself as a "clean freak" during this conversation with Reinhard. In her previous visits, Reinhard had explained to H.L. the dangerous conditions around the home for a child A.L.'s age. When Reinhard asked H.L. if she could identify any safety concerns in the bedroom, H.L. stated she could not see anything because she did not have on her glasses, but she indicated that the pile of extension cords, empty soda cans, and cases of beer could pose a danger to a child. The caregiver pointed out the bottles of prescription medication and the knives. Reinhard testified that whenever she spoke to H.L. about the condition of the home, she either denied the condition or made excuses as in this instance.

         A.L.'s room was "fairly clean" and in the best condition Reinhard had seen it. The bed had a new mattress on it, but no sheets. Reinhard also went into the kitchen and characterized it as "vastly improved." The kitchen table was covered with dishes and utensils, but there were no dirty dishes in the sink or on the counter. Even though Reinhard had seen some improvement in the condition of the ...

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