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Texas Supreme Court Child-Safety Case Could Affect Custody Disputes

A court battle stemming from a child custody dispute in Houston is on its way to the Texas Supreme Court after an appeal by the child’s mother. At issue in the case is whether two Houston judges acted improperly by allowing the child’s father to change his mind after agreeing to a child custody arrangement in binding mediation. The judges granted the man’s request to reject the mediated agreement after he expressed concerns that his 7-year-old daughter may be harmed by her mother’s husband, a registered sex offender.

Conflicting State Laws

The resolution of the case is likely to depend on how the court reconciles two conflicting Texas laws, one of which limits a judge’s ability to override a mediated agreement, and the other of which requires courts to make child custody determinations on the basis of a child’s best interest in order to provide a safe, stable and nonviolent home environment.

Typically, according to Texas law, a judge cannot reject a mediated agreement unless one party was a victim of domestic violence that influenced his or her decision. Since the child’s father was not a victim of domestic violence, it is unclear whether he should have been permitted to retract his consent to the mediated agreement, which provided that the girl would spend one weekend per month with the mother, as well as longer visitation periods during the summer.

Three weeks after reaching that agreement, the father asked a judge to allow him to back out of the deal, saying that he no longer felt comfortable with the custody arrangement, and claiming that the child’s stepfather, a registered sex offender, had slept naked in bed beside the child and her mother. After an associate judge and a district judge in Houston both granted the father’s request and rejected the agreement, the child’s mother filed an appeal with the Texas Supreme Court.

Broad Implications Likely

The outcome of this controversial case could have broad implications for the future of mediated custody agreements in Texas. While some observers believe that the judge’s decision was clearly justified and proper in light of concerns for the child’s welfare, others argue that allowing judges to reject a mediated agreement would create instability in the Texas family court system, indirectly harming other families who go through the mediation process in the future.

For help resolving child custody issues during divorce in Texas, speak with an experienced family law attorney who can advocate on your behalf and help ensure that your child’s rights are protected.