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M. C. v. Texas Department of Family & Protective Services

Court of Appeals of Texas, Third District, Austin

August 1, 2017

M. C., Appellant
v.
Texas Department of Family & Protective Services, Appellee

         FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF HAYS COUNTY, 428TH JUDICIAL DISTRICT NO. 15-2494, HONORABLE WILLIAM HENRY, JUDGE PRESIDING

          Before Justices Puryear, Pemberton, and Goodwin

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Bob Pemberton, Justice

         This is an appeal from a final order, following a bench trial, terminating the parental rights of M.C. to her one-year-old son, J.C. In a single issue on appeal, M.C. asserts that the evidence is legally and factually insufficient to support the district court's finding that termination of her parental rights was in the best interest of the child. We will affirm the district court's order.

         BACKGROUND

         The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (the Department) brought suit to terminate M.C.'s parental rights based on allegations that M.C. had, among other grounds for termination, endangered her child's well-being by engaging in criminal activity and associating with others who had engaged in criminal activity, including illegal drug use and domestic violence. The matter was initially heard by an associate judge, who recommended termination of M.C.'s parental rights. M.C. then exercised her right to a de novo hearing before the district court, [1] during which a transcript of the proceedings before the associate judge was admitted into evidence and additional testimony was heard. The evidence considered by the district court, which we discuss in more detail below, included the testimony of M.C.; Amy Robles, a caseworker for Child Protective Services (CPS); B.V., the child's great-grandmother and current placement; and Jennifer Bevel, a licensed professional counselor who had provided counseling services to M.C. during the case. Following the hearing, the district court found by clear and convincing evidence that termination of the parent-child relationship was in the best interest of the child and that M.C. had committed the following statutory grounds for termination: (1) engaged in conduct or knowingly placed the child with persons who engaged in conduct which endangered the physical or emotional well-being of the child; and (2) failed to comply with the provisions of a court order that specifically established the actions necessary for M.C. to obtain the return of the child. This appeal followed.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         "Because the natural right between a parent and [her] child is one of constitutional dimensions, termination proceedings must be strictly scrutinized."[2] "In parental termination cases, due process requires application of the clear and convincing standard of proof."[3] Clear and convincing evidence is a heightened burden of proof that requires "the measure or degree of proof that will produce in the mind of the trier of fact a firm belief or conviction as to the truth of the allegations sought to be established."[4] On appeal, we apply a standard of review that reflects this burden.[5]

         "In a legal sufficiency review, a court should look at all the evidence in the light most favorable to the finding to determine whether a reasonable trier of fact could have formed a firm belief or conviction that its finding was true."[6] "To give appropriate deference to the factfinder's conclusions and the role of a court conducting a legal sufficiency review, looking at the evidence in the light most favorable to the judgment means that a reviewing court must assume that the factfinder resolved disputed facts in favor of its finding if a reasonable factfinder could do so."[7] "A corollary to this requirement is that a court should disregard all evidence that a reasonable factfinder could have disbelieved or found to have been incredible."[8] However, "[t]his does not mean that a court must disregard all evidence that does not support the finding."[9] The reviewing court must consider "undisputed facts that do not support the finding."[10] "If, after conducting its legal sufficiency review of the record evidence, a court determines that no reasonable factfinder could form a firm belief or conviction that the matter that must be proven is true, then that court must conclude that the evidence is legally insufficient."[11]

         "[A] proper factual sufficiency review requires the court of appeals to determine whether 'the evidence is such that a factfinder could reasonably form a firm belief or conviction about the truth of the State's allegations.'"[12] "If, in light of the entire record, the disputed evidence that a reasonable factfinder could not have credited in favor of the finding is so significant that a factfinder could not reasonably have formed a firm belief or conviction, then the evidence is factually insufficient."[13] "And in making this determination, the reviewing court must undertake 'an exacting review of the entire record with a healthy regard for the constitutional interests at stake.'"[14]However, "while parental rights are of a constitutional magnitude, they are not absolute."[15]"Consequently, despite the heightened standard of review, " the reviewing court "must nevertheless still provide due deference to the decisions of the factfinder, who, having full opportunity to observe witness testimony first-hand, is the sole arbiter when assessing the credibility and demeanor of witnesses."[16]

          ANALYSIS

         In her sole issue on appeal, M.C. asserts that the evidence is legally and factually insufficient to support the district court's finding that termination of her parental rights was in the best interest of J.C. When deciding the best-interest issue, we consider the well-established Holley v. Adams factors, which include the child's wishes, the child's emotional and physical needs now and in the future, emotional or physical danger to the child now and in the future, the parenting abilities of the party seeking custody, programs available to help that party, plans for the children by the party seeking custody, the stability of the proposed placement, the parent's conduct indicating that the parent-child relationship is improper, and any excuses for the parent's conduct.[17] The Department need not prove all of the Holley factors as a "condition precedent" to termination, and the absence of some factors does not bar the factfinder from finding by clear and convincing evidence that termination is in a child's best interest.[18] The need for permanence is the paramount consideration when determining the children's present and future physical and emotional needs.[19]Moreover, a parent's statutorily offensive conduct is often intertwined with the best-interest determination.[20]

         Here, the evidence considered by the district court on the best-interest issue included evidence tending to show that this case was not the first time that M.C. had been involved with the Department. M.C. testified that she had four children prior to J.C., all of whom had been the subject of prior CPS proceedings. According to M.C., CPS became involved with her first child after the child's "paternal great-grandmother called CPS on me and my family saying that my daughter was sleeping in a basket on the floor, and CPS showed up the day I was discharged from the hospital from giving birth." M.C. also claimed that CPS became involved with her next three children after M.C. "got in a verbal altercation" with her grandmother.[21] M.C. denied that CPS's involvement was due to more serious matters, such as drug issues or health concerns. M.C. acknowledged that she had voluntarily relinquished her parental rights to three of her other children, but she claimed that she "did that out of emotional distress" and did not believe that terminating her parental rights to those children had been in their best interest. M.C. similarly expressed the belief that terminating her rights to J.C. would not be in that child's best interest.

         According to the Department's permanency report, a copy of which was admitted into evidence, the case involving J.C. began in October 2015, when law enforcement went to B.V.'s house, where M.C. was residing at the time, to execute an outstanding warrant for M.C. Deputy Ryan Gonzalez of the Hays County Sheriff's Office testified that while officers were at the residence, they encountered J.T., the father of J.C., who also had an outstanding warrant. Gonzalez testified that J.T. was arrested and placed in a patrol car but that he escaped from the patrol car and evaded apprehension until the next day, when officers returned to the residence and found J.T. in M.C.'s bedroom, "lying in the bed covered in blankets." J.T. was again arrested, and M.C. was also arrested at that time for the offense of hindering apprehension of a fugitive. The Department subsequently took custody of J.C., who had been present at the residence when his parents were arrested.

         J.C. was initially placed with M.C.'s mother, M.K. However, that placement ended after M.K. had allowed M.C. to have unsupervised access to J.C. while the case was ongoing. During a time when M.C. had access to the child, M.C. was again arrested, this time in a hotel room where drugs were found. Specifically, according to the Department's permanency report,

[M.C.] was arrested in July 2016 with [J.C.] in her care. [M.C.] was called by law enforcement to report to a hotel room that was registered in her name. The hotel room was being investigated after a welfare check was completed and law enforcement found drugs in the room with an infant present and [an]other woman. [M.C.] stated that she had rented out the room for a friend she met; she stated she was not aware of the drugs. At this time, [M.C.] had [J.C.] ...

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