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State Must Alert Parents in Person When Seeking Child Custody

Texas' high court has ruled that state officials must personally notify parents when suing to deprive them of custody of their children.

Texas Supreme Court justices listen to the State of the Judiciary speech on February 23, 2011.

The state must do what it reasonably can to personally notify parents when suing to deprive them of custody of their children, the Texas Supreme Court ruled on Friday. Failure to do so grants parents the right to appeal verdicts, the ruling states, even beyond the six-month deadline for appealing child custody cases.

The ruling could have significant consequences for Texas, where, according to the Department of Family Protective Services website, about 66,000 children faced abuse or neglect in 2011, and more than 17,000 children were removed from their homes.

It is not yet clear if the ruling will affect how DFPS handles potential child abuse cases, agency spokesman Patrick Crimmins wrote in an email to The Texas Tribune.

The case concerned a woman who was notified via a newspaper advertisement that the state wanted to end her custody of her four children. The state argued that the agency did not know how to personally contact the woman because she had told a DFPS social worker that she was moving. 

According to the court opinion, serving the woman through an advertisement was an insufficient means of notifying her, especially because the state had already communicated with her by telephone. 

Rather, the court ruled, the state should have attempted to reach her through by other means — for instance, via her mother — in order to give her a fair chance to defend herself. 

Aaron Robb, a former Child Protective Services employee who now works in the private sector, praised the ruling for "reminding the department it has to do things upfront."

From his own experience at CPS, Robb said citation through a newspaper advertisement was a generally ineffective last resort.

"We've always known it's a legal fiction," he said. "No one reads the publications that the citations are posted in."

Typically, when parents are deemed unfit to maintain custody of their children, they can appeal that decision at any point over the next six months. But if the parent was not amply warned, the court ruled on Friday, that deadline is no longer valid. The woman in the case had appealed two years after the original court decision. 

Vicky Spriggs, CEO of Texas Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA, said she had not seen the ruling but that it seemed to be a step forward in how the state will handle cases of potential child abuse.

“The ideal situation is a face-to-face conversation” when removing children from their parents, Spriggs said. If the state is removing a child from his or her parents because of a perceived failing on the parent’s part, she added, “that parent should be assessable.” 

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