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In re M.R.

Court of Appeals of Texas, Second District, Fort Worth

December 5, 2019

In the Interest of M.R., a Child

          On Appeal from the 323rd District Court Tarrant County, Texas Trial Court No. 323-107788-18

          Before Sudderth, C.J.; Birdwell and Bassell, JJ.


          Bonnie Sudderth Chief Justice

         In three issues, Appellant Mother appeals the termination of her parental rights to her child, M.R. Because the evidence supports the trial court's findings in favor of termination, we affirm.


         Mother has had seven biological children. The three oldest children were removed from Mother's care by a California agency and placed for adoption; they are now adults. Three more children were removed by the State of Texas, and Mother's parental rights were terminated for knowingly placing or allowing the children to remain in conditions or surroundings endangering their physical or emotional well-being and for engaging in conduct or knowingly placing the children with persons engaging in conduct which endangered the children's physical or emotional well-being. See Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 161.001(b)(1)(D), (E). This case regards Mother's seventh child, M.R.

         At the time that Mother gave birth to M.R. in July 2018, she was married to Husband, who is not M.R.'s biological father, [1] and Mother had been homeless for nine or ten months. The Department of Family and Protective Services (the Department) was referred to Mother and M.R. on the day of M.R.'s birth because of Mother's previous history with the Department. The Department removed M.R. from Mother's care on the day after M.R.'s birth.

         I. The Department's investigation

         Morgan Overn investigated the case on behalf of the Department, and Sarah Vinet acted as Mother's Child Protective Services (CPS) caseworker. Both testified at trial, identifying several areas of concern regarding Mother's ability to care for M.R.: Mother's history of domestic violence, her troubling behavior around M.R., her mental-health issues, her illegal drug use, and her lack of a stable residence and employment.

         A. Mother's involvement with domestic violence

         Overn testified to Mother's history of violence, of which Overn was familiar because she had investigated domestic-violence allegations during the Department's removal and termination proceedings regarding two of Mother's older children. According to Overn, Mother and Husband both acknowledged instances of domestic violence. Overn related Husband's description of two specific instances when Mother had assaulted him when he and Mother had been sleeping on the street because he did not want to cuddle with her. While Overn did not personally witness any physical abuse between Mother and Husband, Overn testified that "[t]here was a lot of yelling." For instance, Overn described a verbal altercation when Husband repeatedly told Mother to "shut up" when Mother was explaining to Overn that she "had to keep [M.R.] or she would not have a place in the shelter she was wanting to go stay at." Overn testified that domestic violence is worrisome because it could result in physical and emotional harm to the children.

         Vinet testified that she had discussed Mother's history of domestic violence with Mother, and although Vinet had requested that Mother participate in domestic-violence classes, Mother had refused.

         In Mother's trial testimony, she denied any domestic violence had occurred between her and Husband or between her and the father of two of her other children. When Mother was confronted with her 2018 deposition testimony that her previous husband had assaulted her at least 22 times, she denied testifying that he had assaulted her. Instead, she claimed that they "had many accidents together" that involved blood and getting hurt but that he never punched or hit her. She described him as "the most loving, calm, nondrug using father that you would ever meet" and "a great father."

         While most of the testimony on the topic of violence and criminal charges focused on Mother's involvement in domestic-violence incidents with her partners, Overn also testified to her review of CPS records that included a report of Mother's 2010 arrest after she physically blocked a caseworker's exit from a daycare parking lot.

         B. Mother's behavior around M.R.

         Overn described her first encounter with Mother and M.R. at the hospital shortly after M.R.'s birth:

When I first walked into the room [Mother] continued asking me and the nurse that was in the room to drug test the baby, and she kept trying to hand us the baby. When I explained that that's not something that I do and explained that the nurses already have done that, she continued trying to hand me the baby to the point where her arms were very far out over the bed and it was concerning to me that she was going to drop the baby so I did hold the baby and get the baby from her.

         According to Overn and Vinet, after M.R. was removed and Mother's interactions with M.R. were limited to supervised visitation sessions, Mother made no progress in demonstrating her ability to be a safe parent. Overn described Mother's first visit with M.R.:

During the first visit, I had an observer helping me out watch that visit [between Mother and M.R] while I was making some phone calls. She had let me know that she felt very uneasy about [Mother] holding the baby. She was not very steady. And so I was bringing the car seat to the visit room so we could have the baby sit in the car seat. As I was doing that, when I turned the corner to look into the room, [M.R] was face down in [Mother]'s lap with her face in a blanket and so I went and picked up [MR] and I made a rule that [M.R.] had to sit in the car seat unless there was a worker standing right next to her while she was holding [M.R.]

         A recurring theme from Overn's and Vinet's observations was Mother's preoccupation with her phone and her refusal to put the phone down during the visitation sessions. Overn testified that at one visit, two of Mother's other children[2]were also there, and Mother appeared "very uneasy, just appeared to not know how to hold [M.R.] and was constantly on her phone and [Mother] allowed [her eight-year-old child] to hold [M.R] and [that child] was holding [M.R.] better than [Mother] was." Overn noted that Mother was constantly on her phone and "very easily distracted by stuff that was on her phone or taking pictures of something on her phone to where she would come close to or almost drop [M.R.]"

         Vinet described another incident when Mother arrived at visitation wearing a neck brace and attempted to feed M.R. while holding the baby bottle with her chin and trying to use her phone at the same time. Vinet reported that the bottle fell out of M.R's mouth repeatedly, causing M.R. to scream, and Mother "would put the bottle back in her mouth while [M.R] was screaming and she would choke on the formula." When Vinet asked Mother to put the phone down, explaining that "this was time she needed to spend with [M.R]," Mother refused. After Vinet threatened to cancel the visit if she did not get off the phone, Mother complied by setting the phone on the table and putting it on speakerphone while she continued her telephone conversation about going to Whataburger for lunch afterwards. Vinet again warned Mother that if she did not hang up the phone, the visit would be ended, at which point, Mother "grabbed [M.R.], ran to the corner," and told Vinet she wanted to call police because Vinet and the other caseworkers were kidnapping her child. Vinet testified that Mother was holding M.R. so tightly that it took two security guards to pry M.R. free from Mother's arms.

         The incident was reported to Overn, who testified that M.R. was three months old at the time and that Mother's tight squeeze had left "red marks on [M.R's] body." According to Overn, M.R. was taken to the emergency room immediately after that visit, where it was confirmed that there were no broken bones or injuries resulting from the incident. Nor did the red marks leave any bruises on M.R.

         Vinet testified that she was also concerned by other behavior Mother exhibited during visitations with M.R.:

[W]hen [Mother] would be in the visit with [M.R.], if [M.R.] started to cry, she would just kind of zone out and she would twirl . . . her bangs and it's like she couldn't focus on [M.R] or console her. She would be trying to feed [M.R.] She would take the bottle in and out of her mouth saying that she needed to learn to fight for her food. She would insist that [MR] was only crying because she could smell the yeast in her breast milk and just couldn't console her. So we - during the visits we would have to take the baby from her, console the baby and as soon as she was consoled, give her back and then she would start screaming again and she would again zone out and I tried to get [Mother] to kind of come back to us and like read a book to her but she couldn't soothe her.

         Additionally, Mother admitted at trial that "quite a few times" she attempted to sneak unrefrigerated, unfrozen breastmilk to M.R. during visitation appointments despite being prohibited from doing so due to food-safety concerns. At trial, Mother attempted to justify her ...

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