How Do Texas Courts Weigh Conflicting Evidence in Termination Proceedings?

In legal proceedings to terminate parental rights, the parent may have a different version of events from the caseworkers at the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS). When parents and the DFPS present conflicting narratives in court, the judge must reach factual findings by weighing each witness’s credibility. Appellate courts tend to defer to trial court findings because the trial judges directly heard the evidence. However, one party may appeal the trial court’s decision if they believe it relied on insufficient evidence. When the relevant issue is the best interests of the child, courts will more closely scrutinize the evidence the trial court relied on to support a “best interests” finding.

How Do Courts Weigh Conflicting Testimony in Termination Proceedings?

A recent Fifth District Court of Appeals case illustrates how appeals courts examine conflicting testimony between caseworkers and parents in termination proceedings. In this case, the appeals court upheld the trial court’s opinion terminating a mother’s parental rights to two of her children. According to the facts discussed in the opinion, the child’s mother had a history of substance abuse, criminal activity, and lack of stable housing an employment. There were also possible allegations that she was a victim of domestic violence and had physically abused the children, though there was no evidence of the latter. After DFPS placed the children in foster care, the agency created a compliance plan with the mother to reunite her with her children.

The plan included, among other things, submitting proof of stable housing and employment, joining an autism support group to help her child with autism, refraining from criminal activity, and submitting to frequent drug tests. Later, DFPS sought to terminate her parental rights, alleging that the mother failed to follow the plan. DFPS also explained that the children were thriving in their foster home, which led to improved grades and management of their behavioral issues. The mother, however, alleged that she diligently followed the plan, and DFPS had made no effort at reunification. After weighing the evidence, the trial judge found that terminating the mother’s parental rights was in the children’s best interests. The mother appealed, arguing the evidence was factually insufficient to support the trial court’s ruling.

The Appellate Court’s Decision

The Appeals Court affirmed the trial court’s decision to terminate the mother’s parental rights. As the court’s decision explained, when reviewing the factual sufficiency of evidence in a termination proceeding, the court considers the entire record, including evidence that is in dispute. Evidence is factually insufficient if, in light of the entire record, the disputed evidence is so significant that the factfinder (here, the trial judge) could not have reasonably formed a strong belief in one party’s favor. Appeals courts give significant deference to the factfinder. That said, courts strictly interpret termination statutes in the parent’s favor.

Here, the court applied the Holly factors and several statutory factors to determine whether they supported the trial judge’s finding that termination was in the children’s best interest. For example, the court noted that a lack of evidence about definitive plans for permanent adoption could not be the single controlling factor. Though the children’s foster parents did not intend to adopt the children, they agreed to house the children until they found permanent placement. Because the DFPS had a plan for adoption and a stable foster home, the court determined that the DFPS’s placement plan did not weigh against termination. When evaluating the other factors, such as the present and future danger to the children and the stability of the home, the court explained that a parent’s past conduct was relevant but not determinative. Here, there was some evidence that the mother was following the reunification plan, including the required proof she submitted. However, the court found significant evidence that she also regularly failed to appear for drug testing, was inconsistent in submitting her proof of housing and employment, and was charged with a criminal offense. The court found this evidence indicative of present and future harm to both children. Therefore, the court concluded that the factors weighed in favor of termination. The evidence in dispute was not so significant that it prevented the trial court from believing that termination was in the children’s best interests.

Are You Challenging a Texas Parental Termination Proceeding?

If you or a loved one is involved in a parental terminating proceeding, it is important to make the strongest possible case for your parental rights. Without a family law attorney to represent you, a court may improperly credit DFPS caseworkers’ version of events over yours. The Texas family law attorneys at Guest and Gray have provided skilled representation to hundreds of clients in child welfare, custody, and removal proceedings. With the help of our experienced attorneys, you can be sure that we will advocate for your rights in court. To schedule a free consultation, contact our office at 972-564-4644.

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