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M. R. v. Texas Department of Family and Protective Services

Court of Appeals of Texas, Third District, Austin

February 23, 2018

M. R., Appellant
v.
Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, Appellee

         FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF COMAL COUNTY, 207TH JUDICIAL DISTRICT NO. C2016-1421B, HONORABLE MELISSA MCCLENAHAN, JUDGE PRESIDING

          Before Justices Puryear, Pemberton, and Bourland

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          David Puryear, Justice

         After a bench trial, the trial court signed an order terminating the parental rights of appellant M.R. ("Matt") to his son "Mason, "[1] who was almost two at the time of trial. Matt appeals, contending that the evidence is insufficient to support the trial court's finding that termination was in Mason's best interest. We affirm the trial court's order.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A trial court may terminate a parent's rights to his child if clear and convincing evidence shows that (1) a parent has committed conduct that amounts to a statutory ground for termination and (2) termination of his rights would be in the child's best interest. Tex. Fam. Code § 161.001; In re S.M.R., 434 S.W.3d 576, 580 (Tex. 2014). In reviewing the legal sufficiency of the evidence in such a case, we look at all the evidence in the light most favorable to the finding to determine whether a reasonable factfinder could have formed a firm belief or conviction that the finding was true. In re J.P.B., 180 S.W.3d 570, 573 (Tex. 2005) (quoting In re J.F.C., 96 S.W.3d 256, 266 (Tex. 2002)). We assume that the factfinder resolved disputed facts in favor of the finding if a reasonable factfinder could do so, and we disregard all evidence that a reasonable factfinder could have disbelieved or found to be incredible. Id.; see In re K.M.L., 443 S.W.3d 101, 112-13 (Tex. 2014). We "should not disregard undisputed facts that do not support" the determination, and "even evidence that does more than raise surmise and suspicion will not suffice unless that evidence is capable of producing a firm belief or conviction that the allegation is true." K.M.L., 443 S.W.3d at 113.

         In evaluating factual sufficiency, we view the entire record and uphold the finding unless the disputed evidence that could not reasonably have been credited in favor of a finding is so significant that the factfinder could not reasonably have formed a firm belief or conviction that the Department's allegations were true. In re A.B., 437 S.W.3d 498, 502-03 (Tex. 2014) (quoting J.F.C., 96 S.W.3d at 266; In re C.H., 89 S.W.3d 17, 25-26 (Tex. 2002)). We defer to the factfinder's reasonable determination on issues of credibility that involve an evaluation of appearance or demeanor. J.P.B., 180 S.W.3d at 573 (quoting Southwestern Bell Tel. Co. v. Garza, 164 S.W.3d 607, 625 (Tex. 2004)); see A.B., 437 S.W.3d at 503 (requiring reviewing court to defer to "factfinder, who, having full opportunity to observe witness testimony first-hand, is the sole arbiter when assessing the credibility and demeanor of witnesses").

          SUMMARY OF THE EVIDENCE

         Mason was born in late December 2015, while his mother ("Julie") was incarcerated.[2]After he was born, Julie voluntarily placed Mason with family of hers until she was released from jail. Some months later, the Department removed Mason from Julie's care when she was incarcerated again and ultimately placed Mason with a foster family, the "Moores." The Moores had previously adopted Mason's full biological sister, "Minnie, " when the parental rights of Matt and Julie to Minnie were terminated.

         The testimony and other proffered evidence that might be relevant to the district court's best-interest determination was as follows:

• Matt has been incarcerated throughout the pendency of the case, with a maximum release date of 2023 and a possible projected release date of December 2018.
• Matt testified that he was under review for parole at the time of trial (which occurred on October 24, 2017) and that he could be released as early as three months after trial. His plan was to live in a halfway house for about 90 days, after which he would probably live in an apartment in Austin.
• In explaining why it is in Mason's best interest that he retain his parental rights, Matt testified: "I want to do the right thing with [Mason] . . . and be a part of his life"; "I'm paying for [my mistakes], and I'm going to be doing the best I can in the programs I've took [sic]"; and "I have got opportunities to, you know, be able to take care of [Mason] and work and a place to go and all that."
• Mason has never been in Matt's care or control, and Matt has seen his son only once, when Julie brought ...

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