The recent outbreak of COVID-19 has led to levels of infection and death that have severely impacted all aspects of our society. In response, nearly all world governments—from all the states of our nation to those of sovereign countries—have instituted previously unimaginable degrees of precaution. In March and in early April, many cities and states implemented a policy of isolation and social distancing to countermand the Coronavirus pandemic.
In the early days of the pandemic, many people remained unconvinced about the destructive potential of the recent outbreak. News reports depicted young college-aged adults and adolescents shrugging off the idea of practicing heightened precautions as they continued to gather into large crowds in places like beaches and bars, determined to enjoy their vacations and holidays.
A New Jersey couple hosted a “Corona Party” in violation of public health precautions against large gatherings. Eventually, police broke up the party—which involved a gathering of fifty people, including the couple’s five children. The couple had allegedly been charged with child endangerment.
These incidents fueled heated criticism across the news and social media, with some people questioning the parental fitness of anyone who would include their children in such a celebration. This blog discusses the idea of child endangerment in times of crisis, and how it could provide a basis for terminating someone’s parental rights.
Termination of Parental Rights Based on Child Endangerment
The rights and responsibilities of a parent stem from the existence of the parent-child relationship. Individuals have a constitutional right to raise their children according to their own personal views, values, and beliefs.
The fundamental nature of this right is reflected by the strict legal standard by which the law allows the parent-child relationship to be terminated.
Texas Family Code § 161.001 gives courts the power to terminate the parent-child relationships in the following general situations:
- The parent knowingly placed the child in a situation or environment that endangers their physical or emotional well being
- Acted in a way that endangers the child’s physical or emotional well being
The type of conduct that endangers the child’s welfare and safety is broader than affirmative acts that directly put a child at risk. A parent is nevertheless liable for child endangerment even if they did not create the dangerous conditions, but did knowingly let the child continue to be exposed to danger. This includes where a parent leaves their child in the possession and responsibility of someone whom they know had endangered the child.
Even if a parent has committed any of the above, the court must also determine that terminating the parent-child relationship would serve the best interests of the child, based on clear and convincing evidence. (This standard is a step below beyond a reasonable doubt, which is the standard to convict someone of a crime).
Situations that qualify as endangerment can include a parent’s history of substance abuse and how it impairs their parenting ability and judgment.
Importantly, Texas courts have held that a parent does not necessarily have to intentionally or knowingly subject the child to dangerous circumstances before a court can terminate their parental rights. In 1996, the Texas Supreme Court addressed this issue, holding that “neglect can be just as dangerous to the well-being of a child as directly as physical abuse.”
For example, if a parent leaves their child unattended in a car amidst sweltering heat with the windows rolled up, the parent may be liable for child endangerment. As a result, the parent-child relationship could be terminated. In many child endangerment cases, children had been left in the care of drug addicts, in vermin-infested motel rooms, and environments that were just shy of being considered indoor landfills.
The Boundaries of Child Endangerment
However, simply leaving a child alone may not be sufficient cause to terminate someone’s parental rights for committing child endangerment. The parent’s actions or omissions normally must have exposed the child to clearly hazardous conditions.
For instance, if a parent leaves their child at home unattended, they probably would not be guilty of child endangerment if their home would be considered a reasonably safe environment.
In many child endangerment cases, the conditions in which the children were left typically involve shocking levels of unsanitary, harmful, and hazardous risks. As an example, a parent’s failure to provide their children with necessary medical treatment can be considered to be child endangerment, even if the parent was not the cause of the underlying medical condition.
Applying these principles, it is unlikely that a court will terminate the rights of a parent who takes a healthy child to the grocery store without giving them gloves and a mask during our current pandemic state. However, if the child suffers from an underlying medical condition that puts them at an increased risk for severe infection, there is a better argument for child endangerment.
But for the recent public health measures implemented to combat the spread of COVID-19, residential gatherings ordinarily would not qualify as a danger to the welfare of children, unless the children were exposed to drugs or other harmful things. It might be a stretch to equate the misguided “Corona Parties” of the news to such conditions. But, given the unprecedented nature of the outbreak, it is better not to test the law with equally unprecedented scenarios.
For Advice Regarding Your Legal Concerns, Consult Coker, Robb & Cannon, Family Lawyers
In moments of crisis, it can be difficult to get a firm comprehension of what constitutes reasonable precautions and unreasonable dangers. When it comes to child endangerment and terminating parental rights, the applicable body of law has generally been consistent as to what circumstances rise to the level of actionable harm. For more information, you should consult Coker, Robb & Cannon, Family Lawyers.
Please call our office at (940) 293-2313 or contact our office online today.