This week, Family Freedom Project filed a brief in a critical parental rights case before the Texas Supreme Court. In the case of Stary v. Ethridge, a local court in Houston issued a lifetime ban on any contact between a mother and her children based on an accusation (but not a conviction) of child abuse.

The mother in the case was accused by the children’s father of engaging in physical abuse of the children. The mother also accused the father of domestic violence.

Normally, before the state can permanently terminate the relationship between a parent and her children, it must go through a lengthy process that includes:

  1. An investigation by CPS
  2. An order of removal by a court
  3. A 6-24 month process where the state is required to try and find solutions that would allow the child to return home
  4. A full jury trial
  5. A conviction of child abuse by a heightened standard of evidence.

If the parent’s rights are terminated through this process, the parent and the child are free to reestablish relations after the child reaches the age of 18.

Instead of going through this process, the court in Houston issued an order barring the parent from ever having any contact with her children for the rest of her life. This order was based on allegations of child abuse, but no conviction had been made. Furthermore, the parent was afforded no jury trial and the court used a lower standard of evidence.

In short, the court entirely abolished the parent’s relationship with her children for the rest of time without meeting a single one of the constitutional protections that would normally be required when such weighty rights are being invaded.

Termination of parental rights is known colloquially as the “death penalty” of family law. This case is akin to a judge issuing the death penalty for a person accused of murder, but doing it without a jury trial, without meeting the constitutionally required standard of evidence, and doing it before the person has actually been convicted.

As FFP outlined in our brief, if the accusations against the mother are true, then the state has a constitutional method by which it can seek termination of those rights. Instead, it chose to levy the gravest of possible punishments through the most constitutionally inadequate means.

The result shocks the conscience. No matter how egregious the accusations, the law requires a minimum process that every person is due. Discarding that process is a threat to the rights of every parent in Texas.