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Texas Supreme Court: custody suit requires in person notification

The Texas Supreme Court ruled last week that the state must do what it reasonably can to notify parents when they are being sued by the state over custody of their children. If the state fails to properly notify parents of a pending child custody suit , the parent or parents have the right to appeal any verdicts at any time. The ruling could have a significant impact on the state's 66,000 children that, according to the Texas Department of Family Services, were subjected to child abuse or neglect last year.

The agency said that greater than 17,000 children had been removed from their homes in 2011. According to a DFPS spokesperson, it is not yet known how the ruling will affect the way the agency deals with cases involving child abuse. The ruling is the result of a woman who was notified via a newspaper advertisement that the state was planning to end her custody of her four children. In its arguments the state said that it did not know how to contact the woman since she told a social worker with DFPS that she was moving.

The court's opinion stated a newspaper advertisement was insufficient as a means of notifying the parent, especially in light of the fact the agency had already been in communication with her by telephone. The court ruled that the state should have done more to contact the mother, such as trying to reach her through a relative in order to give the parent a chance to defend her parental rights.

A former employee of Child Protective Services said the ruling reminds the agency that it must operate out in the open when attempting to strip a parent of his or her custody rights. Prior to this latest ruling a parent only had up to six months to appeal a court ruling that determined him or her to be an unfit parent. With this new ruling, that six-month deadline is no longer valid if a parent was not sufficiently notified of the pending suit.

The CEO of Texas Court Appointed Special Advocates stated that in cases where a parent has been deemed unfit the preferred approach is having an in-person conversation with that parent over the state's wish to remove the child from his or her custody. Parents do have a right to appeal a court's ruling on their ability to parent and may wish to consult with a Texas family law attorney to help them understand what is involved in disputing a custody case brought by the state.

Source: Pegasus News, "Texas must alert parents in person for child custody cases," Shefali Luthra, July 10, 2012

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