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In re L.M.R.

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fourteenth District

January 4, 2018


         On Appeal from the 314th District Court Harris County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. 2016-05134J

          Panel consists of Justices Christopher, Donovan, and Jewell



         The trial court terminated the parental rights of Mother and Father (appellant N.R.) with respect to their daughter, Leah, [1] and appointed the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (the Department) to be Leah's managing conservator. On appeal, Father challenges the sufficiency of the evidence to support termination. We conclude legally and factually sufficient evidence supports the trial court's findings that Father endangered Leah and that termination of the parent-child relationship is in Leah's best interest. Therefore, we affirm the trial court's judgment.


         A. Removal

         The following facts come from the affidavit of Department investigative caseworker Courtnae Milladge.

         In July 2016, the Department received a referral alleging negligent supervision of two-year-old Leah by Mother. The reporter said Leah had abscesses on her left breast and right leg. Mother was said to be using drugs and was not providing Leah with a stable living environment. Father did not live with Mother or Leah at the time of the referral or at any time during the Department's investigation. The reporter noted a history of domestic violence in the relationship between Mother and Father.

         Mother's parental rights had been terminated with respect to five other children. She relinquished her rights to four of them. Her rights with respect to the fifth child were terminated based on findings that Mother endangered and constructively abandoned that child.

         Milladge visited Mother and Leah at the home of Leah's maternal grandfather, where the two had been living with the grandfather and his roommate. Leah's wounds appeared properly dressed and medicated. She seemed to feel fine and be in good spirits. Mother submitted to a urinalysis a few days later and tested negative for all drugs. However, she had tested positive in previous cases with the Department involving her other five children. Mother voluntarily placed Leah with a friend, S.G., on August 4.

         On August 15, a hair follicle drug test revealed Mother was positive for marijuana and cocaine. Milladge contacted S.G. on August 29. S.G. said Mother occasionally texted her to check on Leah but otherwise had not made real contact.

         The Department formally removed Leah from Mother's care on September 21, 2016 and filed this lawsuit the same day, attaching Milladge's affidavit to the original petition. The trial court signed an order allowing the removal and naming the Department as Leah's managing conservator. Leah remained living with S.G.

         B. Family service plan

         Following a full adversary hearing, the trial court signed an order requiring Father to comply with any family service plan by the Department.[2] The service plan would identify the goals he needed to achieve and tasks and services he needed to complete before Leah could be placed in his care.

         The goals stated in the service plan included: (1) being willing and able to protect Leah from harm and to provide basic necessities such as food, clothing, shelter, and medical care for her; (2) accepting responsibility as a parent; and (3) showing concern for Leah's future safety.

         So that he could accomplish those goals, the Department's service plan for Father required him to, among other things: (1) complete a substance abuse assessment and follow the assessor's recommendations; (2) submit to random drug testing and test negative at all times; (3) complete a psychosocial evaluation and follow the evaluator's recommendations; (4) obtain and maintain suitable employment and stable housing; and (5) attend all hearings, meetings, and scheduled visitations with Leah.

         C. Trial

         Trial was held in June 2017.[3] The Department presented testimony from caseworker Leslie Mike; Anthea Christie, the volunteer court-appointed special advocate (CASA) who served as Leah's guardian ad litem; and Father. The Department's documentary evidence included Father's service plan, drug test results, and judgments of criminal convictions; the Department's final permanency report filed shortly before trial; and Christie's CASA report. Father did not call witnesses or offer evidence.

         1. Evidence about Leah

         a. Condition during Department's investigation

         There is scant evidence in the record about Leah's life before and just after she was removed. Milladge stated in her affidavit that Leah was too young to understand or respond to questions. The reported abscesses on Leah's breast and leg appeared properly dressed and medicated. Milladge said Leah seemed to feel fine and be in good spirits.

         b. Progress with foster family

         Leah was placed with her foster family in late January 2017, four months after she was removed. In her CASA report, Christie described her impressions of Leah's first meeting with the foster family as positive, noting Leah displayed "comfort and interaction with the family."

         Leah thrived in her foster home in the five months leading up to trial. Christie wrote about the little girl's progress:

[Leah] has had no health issues including the eczema she had when she entered [Department] care until the time she was moved to her current placement. [Leah] takes no medication, is now accustomed to a healthy diet, and weaned off of sugar. This [guardian ad litem] had observed prior to her move she was consuming significant amounts of sugar. She is developmentally on target and is a good student at her daycare. [Leah] loves going to church with the family, is inquisitive, chatty, loves singing and dancing and likes to help her foster mom in the kitchen.

         Mike echoed those statements in her testimony:

[Leah] is in a great placement. She's stable. She's able to attend day care. She's well taken care of. There's no drugs and alcohol present, and she's thriving there. . . . They do take her to church all the time. She is involved in bible study. For her birthday they took her to Chuck-E-Cheese. They go to parks, and they do several different activities with the child.

         c. Plans for the future

         Christie and Mike both supported Leah's permanent placement with the foster family. Her foster parents planned to adopt her. Leah referred to her foster parents and their daughter as "mom, " "dad, " and "sister, " and was said to be "inseparable" from her two-year-old foster brother. Christie wrote, "In meeting with the family and seeing how consistently intentional they were with [Leah], this [guardian ad litem] supports this placement long term."

         Mike testified it was in Leah's best interest for Father's parental rights to be terminated so the foster family could adopt Leah. She said her opinion was based on Father's positive drug test results, as well as his failure to complete his services. Mike also commented on Father's recent statements that he could not attend certain appointments, including mandatory drug tests, because he had to work. She said, "I'm unsure if he did get ...

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