Since the start of 2023, the Family Freedom Project (FFP) has been involved in “IN re NH,” a case marked by its implications for parental rights and government intervention in family matters.
In this case, a non-parent is now battling to take custody of a child from the child’s biological mother. The non-parent asserts that she should be entitled to certain decision making power over the child, even though she is of no biological relation. The dispute in the case is between a biological mother and a former romantic partner (another woman who lived in the home during the relationship) with no biological relation to the child.
At the start of the trial, the child was just four years old. The ex-girlfriend had repeatedly insisted up until this point that the mother was a fit parent, but in 2019, she made the first claim that the mother wasn’t a fit parent.
The mother asserted her rights as the child’s sole biological parent as well as her ability to make all decisions for her child at the final trial in February 2021. At this trial, the non-parent could not present any proof that the mother was in any way unfit. According to the court’s judgment, the mother was to be the primary decision maker involving her child, but the court still gave the ex-girlfriend large amount of court ordered possession time with the child.
The mother appealed, objecting to the idea that she could somehow be a fit parent but not fit enough to decide who her child should spend time with. In July 2022, the Court of Appeals issued a judgment and opinion in which it was said that the non-parent had not presented enough evidence to disprove the legal presumption that the biological mother was acting in her child’s best interests when she chose to deny the ex-girlfriend access to the child.
The court of appeals overruled the trial court’s decision and returned to the mother the exclusive right to make decisions for her child.
The ex-girlfriend then filed an appeal with the SCOTX.
The heart of the matter in front of the Supreme Court of Texas (SCOTX) revolves around the legal rule that judges must begin a case by presuming that a parent is acting in the best interests of their child. This principle was emphasized by the SCOTX in a previous case called “In re C.J.C”, which set the stage for subsequent legal discussions on the subject. However, what remains unaddressed is a crucial aspect: Under what circumstances can a judge intervene and overrule a parent’s decisions for their child? This is the central issue that the FFP’s amicus curiae (friend of the court) seeks to tackle head-on.
The FFP’s involvement in the “IN re NH” case underscores the importance of clarifying the threshold at which a judge can lawfully step in and supersede parental decisions.
Our goal is to establish a consistent standard that protects both the rights of parents to make decisions for their children and the state’s duty to ensure a child’s welfare.
The crux of the matter revolves around differing interpretations within Texas courts about the conditions under which a judge is justified in overruling a parent’s choices. Some courts have leaned towards requiring substantial evidence demonstrating that denying a particular parental request would substantially harm the child – known as the “significant impairment” standard.
Others have seemingly taken a more lenient approach, potentially allowing any amount of evidence against the parent to warrant judicial intervention.
FFP’s argument in support of the “significant impairment” test is multi-faceted. First and foremost, it draws attention to Texas’ historical precedent of adhering to this high standard as a means of respecting and safeguarding parental rights. Moreover, it highlights the importance of setting a clear and constitutionally sound guideline that ensures consistency across family law cases. By advocating for this standard, FFP seeks to prevent the potential erosion of parental rights and provide a reliable framework for judges to make informed decisions that prioritize children’s well-being.
Our amicus curiae brief presents the case for the adoption of the “significant impairment” test, emphasizing that judges should only be permitted to overrule parental decisions when the child’s safety and well-being are at stake. This approach strikes a balance between upholding parental autonomy and fulfilling the state’s responsibility to protect vulnerable children from harm.
As the “IN re NH” case continues to unfold, the FFP’s involvement brings a crucial perspective to the legal discourse surrounding parental rights and government intervention. We are advocating for not only a consistent and constitutionally sound standard but also a decision that settles the current confusion and sets a precedent that will safeguard parental rights for years to come. In a society where parental rights are constantly under attack, the outcome of this case holds far-reaching implications for families across Texas.