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In re J.N.S.

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

January 4, 2018


          On appeal from the County Court at Law No. 1 of Calhoun County, Texas.

          Before Justices Rodriguez, Benavides, and Longoria


          NELDA V. RODRIGUEZ Justice

         Appellant Mother appeals the termination of her parental rights to her children J.N.S. and S.A.L.T.[1] By five issues, Mother asserts that the evidence was insufficient to support the trial court's findings of statutory grounds for termination and that termination was in the children's best interest. We affirm.

          I. Background

         In November of 2015, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (the Department) filed a petition seeking conservatorship of the children and termination of Mother's parental rights. The Department alleged that termination of Mother's rights was in the children's best interest and that Mother committed multiple infractions under the involuntary termination statute. See Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 161.001(b)(1)-(2) (West, Westlaw through 2017 1st C.S.). The Department also sought to terminate the parental rights of Father, who is the father of J.N.S., and who does not participate in this appeal. The trial court entered temporary orders granting the Department conservatorship.

         At the bench trial in June of 2017, [2] the trial court heard testimony from several witnesses.

         A. Sally Segura

         Sally Segura was an investigator with the Department. Segura testified that she began investigating Mother after receiving reports that she and the children were living with Father, who had been ordered to register as a sex offender for sexual assault of a fourteen-year-old child. Segura testified without objection that she had learned from Father's probation officer that Father was not to have unsupervised contact with children. According to Segura, Mother had once been approved to supervise Father for these purposes, but she was no longer approved.

         Based on her encounters with Mother, Segura found her to be unstable and neglectful of the children. For instance, Segura testified that during an encounter in October of 2015, J.N.S. reported: that S.A.L.T. was ill, but Mother was not tending to her; that Mother saved higher quality food for herself and did not share it with the children; that Mother often left the children with their maternal grandmother for long periods; and that Mother and Father were smoking synthetic marijuana in front of the children.

         According to Segura, the Department established a safety plan to address Mother and Father's concerning behaviors, under which the children were placed with their maternal grandmother. The plan limited Mother's ability to take the children away from the maternal grandmother's house. Nonetheless, Segura testified that Mother appeared sporadically, took the children on her whim, and declined to return them, which led the Department to seek a formal removal of the children from their maternal grandmother's home.

         B. Olga Chapman

         The trial court next heard testimony from Olga Chapman, who identified herself as Mother's substance abuse counselor. Chapman reported that when she began meeting with Mother in January of 2016, Mother was depressed and going through withdrawal from synthetic marijuana, which she had used daily. Mother was still in a relationship with Father, and she had no job, no place to live, and had not yet achieved a GED. However, Chapman testified that over the next year and a half, Mother consistently attended counseling sessions, went on medication for depression, and maintained her sobriety, with the exception of a relapse in the weeks after the death of her mother. Chapman testified that Mother reported pursuing her GED and finding a place to live with a friend who was also in recovery, and with whom she attended narcotics anonymous meetings three times a week. Mother also reported separating from Father. Chapman agreed that Mother had quit numerous jobs in the intervening year, but believed that Mother was presently employed cleaning houses. Chapman related that Mother's preferred plan would be for the children to be taken in by Mother's uncle and for Mother to be part of the children's lives while she continued to "get herself together[.]"

         However, Chapman agreed that Mother had not yet completed the substance abuse counseling portion of her service plan and had not progressed to mental health counseling, which was the next phase of her plan. According to Chapman, Mother also explained that she had a problem with lying and had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, for which she was receiving treatment from physicians at a local clinic.

         C. Melisse Fabian

         Melisse Fabian, a caseworker for the Department, testified that Mother was involved with the Department prior to the removal of the children in 2015. During her previous case, Mother successfully completed a "family plan" at the Department's behest. Fabian attested that following the 2015 removal, Mother was assigned a similar family service plan, which Mother did not complete.

         Fabian testified that Mother did not successfully obtain stable housing, as required under the second family service plan. After moving out of her residence with Father, Mother reportedly spent two months living at a shelter for domestic violence victims, but she was asked to leave due to noncompliance with the shelter's rules. Fabian testified that Mother then spent three months living in a hotel which cost almost a thousand dollars a week. Fabian attempted to verify how Mother could afford to pay for these accommodations, but Mother was not forthcoming. After leaving the hotel, Mother refused, for a time, to tell Fabian where she was living. Then, Mother reportedly told Fabian that she obtained an apartment at a local complex; however, when Fabian scheduled a visit, Mother responded that she had been evicted due to nonpayment of rent. After this, Fabian was not able to visit Mother at any location other than the Department's offices or in court. According to Fabian, Mother had also exhausted the goodwill of "several" community service providers who previously arranged to pay her housing expenses.

         Fabian also testified regarding Mother's other shortcomings under her plan. Fabian related that in the months just prior to trial, the Department had become aware of an outcry from J.N.S. alleging that she had been sexually abused by "someone that [Mother] was aware of, " and that J.N.S. told Mother of the problem, but Mother did nothing in response. Fabian testified that throughout the time she supervised Mother, Mother was not able to demonstrate steady employment, having obtained and then quit a single verifiable job at a restaurant. After a year and a half, Mother had not fully completed her substance abuse counseling requirement, in part because she left the process for roughly four to five months. Furthermore, Mother had not begun mental health counseling, as required under her family service plan.

          More generally, Fabian came to view Mother as dishonest, stating that Mother would often make reports that proved unverifiable or false.[3] In Fabian's view, Mother had not "shown or demonstrated that she can and is willing to put the children ahead of her own needs and make sure that their needs are met ahead of her own."

         However, Fabian also testified about Mother's incremental successes under her plan. Fabian agreed that Mother had initially complied with a drug and alcohol screening, had consistently attended counseling for those issues throughout the latter half of 2016 (albeit not the first half), and had been randomly tested for the presence of drugs in her system multiple times in 2016, all of which returned negative results. To address her shortcomings in childcare, Mother completed a ten-class parenting course. Fabian agreed that Mother had consistently followed through on visitations with her children and that she had always demonstrated positive and appropriate parenting during visits. According to Fabian, the children loved Mother and were excited to see her, and when Mother left they were not sad "because they knew they would see her again." In all, Fabian agreed that Mother had almost completed her service plan, with the only major outstanding requirements being to obtain stable housing and employment.

         Finally, Fabian discussed the Department's plan for the children. Fabian averred that she investigated the option to place the children with Mother's relatives, including home studies with a maternal aunt and grandmother, but these options proved unsuitable.[4] According to Fabian, initially, the Department's goal was reunification with Mother, but over time, as Mother made little progress overall, the Department shifted its focus to adoption or at least a consistent placement with a foster family. Thus, the Department placed the children with a foster mother who was attentive and free from troubling behaviors, and who supplied a safe and healthy environment. Fabian testified that while the placement was still new, the children had developed a bond with the foster mother and were thriving under her care.

         D. Michelle Wilson

         The next witness was Michelle Wilson, also a caseworker for the Department, who shared Fabian's concerns over Mother's incomplete counseling requirements, her financial situation, and her lack of housing. With regard to housing, Wilson's investigation led her to believe that Mother's current living situation was unsuitable for J.N.S. and S.A.L.T., given that Mother's current cohabitant had an arrest record for robbery and narcotics and a history with the Department due to abuse and neglect of her own children. Wilson also questioned Mother's explanation of her relapse into use of synthetic marijuana, in that Mother attributed her relapse to the death of her mother in January of 2017, but she did not disclose her relapse until she was called for a random hair-follicle screening in April of 2017, which returned positive. Ultimately, Wilson believed that Mother was unable to adequately provide for the needs of the children and reiterated the Department's recommendation of termination and adoption.

         E. Marcia Alex

         Marcia Alex, a court-appointed special advocate for the children, testified that the children loved Mother, enjoyed spending time with her, and wanted to continue seeing her. Nonetheless, Alex testified that she believed termination would be in the children's best interest because Mother could not provide the children with a stable home, whereas the children were thriving in their current foster placement. In Alex's view, preserving the parent-child relationship would only give the children false hope of reunification.

         F. Mother

         Mother testified that she attempted to fulfill her service plan to the best of her ability, that she loved her children "dearly, " and that she wanted to continue seeing them. She testified that she was coping with her addiction, and she expressed regret at exposing her children to their prior environment, including their unsupervised exposure to Father.[5]Mother also discussed her resolve to keep up with her mental health needs through psychiatric services and medication from a local clinic. Finally, Mother discussed her difficulty in maintaining work due to her poor work ethic and her trouble finding housing, given her criminal record.

         G. ...

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