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In re A.R.M.K.

Court of Appeals of Texas, Seventh District, Amarillo

September 30, 2019

IN THE INTEREST OF A.R.M.K., A CHILD

          On Appeal from the 154th District Court Lamb County, Texas Trial Court No. DCV19960-18, Honorable Kara L. Darnell, Associate Judge Presiding

          Before CAMPBELL and PIRTLE and PARKER, JJ.

          OPINION

          JUDY C. PARKER JUSTICE.

         In this accelerated appeal, appellant, Mother, [1] seeks reversal of the judgment terminating her parental rights to her child, A.R.M.K., and appointing the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services as permanent managing conservator of the child. In four issues, Mother argues that the affidavit relinquishing her parental rights is invalid, the affidavit was obtained as a result of fraud, there is insufficient evidence that termination is in the best interest of the child, and the court erred in appointing the Department as the permanent managing conservator. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm the judgment.

         Background

         In June of 2018, the Department brought this suit on behalf of two-month-old A.R.M.K. after allegations of domestic violence, drug use, and medical neglect of A.R.M.K. were investigated by the Department. The petition requested that the Department be appointed temporary managing conservator of A.R.M.K. The trial court entered temporary orders naming the Department temporary managing conservator. The Department eventually determined that reunification of A.R.M.K. with Mother was not feasible and pursued a petition to terminate the parent-child relationship.

         The final hearing in this matter was set for April 12, 2019. Before the hearing commenced, Mother signed an irrevocable affidavit of relinquishment to A.R.M.K. The affidavit was signed before two witnesses and Mother's attorney. In addition, a notary public acknowledged the affidavit. Mother was not present at the termination hearing.

         The Department caseworker testified that the affidavit of relinquishment was "signed in conjunction with a post-adoption agreement that has been made by the parents" with the paternal aunt and "[the affidavits] were reviewed with the parents by their respective attorneys." The caseworker did not have any reason to believe that the affidavit was not signed freely and voluntarily. According to the caseworker, it is in the best interest of A.R.M.K. that the parental rights be terminated because the paternal aunt "is willing to be a long-term placement for [A.R.M.K.] that is a stable environment." The trial court signed an order terminating Mother's parental rights based on its findings that Mother voluntarily executed the affidavit and termination was in the best interest of the child. The trial court designated the Department as the managing conservator of A.R.M.K.

         Three weeks later, Mother filed a motion for new trial claiming ineffective assistance of counsel and challenging the legal and factual sufficiency of the evidence to support the trial court's judgment. The trial court held a hearing on the motion. However, Mother did not testify at the hearing or present any evidence challenging the validity of the affidavit of relinquishment.[2] After hearing evidence, the associate judge denied the motion.

         Mother then filed this appeal. By her appeal, Mother presents four issues. Mother argues that the affidavit of relinquishment is invalid because her lawyer served as the notary, the affidavit was obtained as the result of fraud, there is insufficient evidence that termination is in the best interest of A.R.M.K., and the judge erred in appointing the Department as the permanent managing conservator of A.R.M.K.

         Standard of Review

         Involuntary termination of parental rights is a serious proceeding implicating fundamental constitutional rights. Holick v. Smith, 685 S.W.2d 18, 20 (Tex. 1985). A parent's right to the "companionship, care, custody, and management" of his or her child is a constitutional interest "far more precious than any property right." Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745, 758-59, 102 S.Ct. 1388, 71 L.Ed.2d 599 (1982); see In re M.S., 115 S.W.3d 534, 547 (Tex. 2003). Consequently, we strictly scrutinize termination proceedings and strictly construe the involuntary termination statutes in favor of the parent. Holick, 685 S.W.2d at 20. However, "the rights of natural parents are not absolute" and "[t]he rights of parenthood are accorded only to those fit to accept the accompanying responsibilities." In re A.V., 113 S.W.3d 355, 361 (Tex. 2003) (citing In re J.W.T., 872 S.W.2d 189, 195 (Tex. 1993)). Recognizing that a parent may forfeit his or her parental rights by his or her acts or omissions, the primary focus of a termination suit is protection of the child's best interest. In re T.G.R.-M., 404 S.W.3d 7, 12 (Tex.App.- Houston [1st Dist.] 2013, no pet.).

         When reviewing the legal sufficiency of the evidence in a termination case, the appellate court should look at all the evidence in the light most favorable to the trial court's finding "to determine whether a reasonable trier of fact could have formed a firm belief or conviction that its finding was true." In re J.F.C., 96 S.W.3d 256, 266 (Tex. 2002). To give appropriate deference to the factfinder's conclusions, we must assume that the factfinder resolved disputed facts in favor of its finding if a reasonable factfinder could do so. Id. We disregard all evidence that a reasonable factfinder could have disbelieved or found to have been not credible, but we do not disregard undisputed facts. Id. Even evidence that does more than raise surmise or suspicion is not sufficient unless that evidence is capable of producing a firm belief or conviction that the allegation is true. In re K.M.L., 443 S.W.3d 101, 113 (Tex. 2014). If, after conducting a legal sufficiency review, we determine that no reasonable factfinder could have formed a firm belief or conviction that the matter that must be proven was true, then the evidence is legally insufficient and we must reverse. Id. (citing In re J.F.C., 96 S.W.3d at 266).

         In a factual sufficiency review, we must give due consideration to evidence that the factfinder could reasonably have found to be clear and convincing. In re J.F.C., 96 S.W.3d at 266. We must determine whether the evidence is such that a factfinder could reasonably form a firm belief or conviction about the truth of the Department's allegations. Id. We must also consider whether disputed evidence is such that a reasonable factfinder could not have resolved the disputed evidence in favor of its finding. Id. If, in light of the entire record, the disputed evidence that a reasonable factfinder could not have credited in ...


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