Vela v. Marywood
|17 S.W.3d 750
|(Tex.App.-Austin 2000) Corina Vela, Appellant v. Marywood, Appellee NO. 03-98-00663-CV Filed:
|27 April 2000
|Texas Court of Appeals
FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF TRAVIS COUNTY, 126TH JUDICIAL DISTRICT NO. 98-04490, HONORABLE MARY PEARL WILLIAMS, JUDGE PRESIDING
[Copyrighted Material Omitted] Before Chief Justice Aboussie, Justices Smith and Yeakel
This case presents the question of how forthright a licensed child-placing agency must be with an unmarried, expectant mother who seeks its counsel prior to the birth of her child. The child's mother, Corina Vela, is an exemplary young woman who made a mistake. The district court held that the law compels the compounding of her error, terminated her parental rights, and appointed appellee Marywood managing conservator of her child.1 Corina appeals the district-court judgment.
In September 1997, Corina, then nineteen years of age and unmarried, learned she was pregnant. At the time of the district-court trial, Corina, still living with her parents, had completed two years at Austin Community College where she had earned high grades and was planning to attend Southwest Texas State University. Corina is a member of a strong, stable, and supportive family. Her parents have been married for more than twenty-five years and have lived in the same house for over twenty years. They both hold long-term government jobs and are community leaders who volunteer at recreation centers, in political campaigns, and with senior-citizen groups. Corina herself has volunteered at her church, with Big Brothers/Big Sisters, in the neonatal unit at Brackenridge Hospital, and with her eight-year-old sister's Brownie troop. Corina has participated in various school activities and dances with a dance company. There is no evidence that Corina has abused drugs or alcohol or is in any way irresponsible. In fact, all evidence is to the contrary. A state senator and a well-known community activist both testified to the outstanding character of Corina and her family. A neighbor who had lived next to the Velas for over twenty-one years said that Corina is the envy of all the mothers in the neighborhood.
In February 1998, this pregnant young woman sought counseling services from Marywood, a licensed child-placing agency. See 40 Tex. Admin. Code §§ 720.24-.67 (1999). Corina had seen a Marywood advertisement and requested information; Marywood mailed her an "admission assessment form" that inquired about her and her family, why she sought services from Marywood, and her views about adoption. Corina completed and returned the form. She met with a Marywood counselor, Aundra Moore, several times in early March.2 During these meetings, Corina informed Moore that she wanted to place her child for adoption. In Moore's view, Corina was adamant that her child have a future, be in a two-parent family, be safe, and have the security of a family. Moore observed that Corina wanted "the best for her child" and felt that adoption "was the place to go with that."3 Corina indicated to Moore that her parents could help but she didn't want to burden them. Moore told Corina that "the adoption process is very much at [Corina's] discretion" and that Corina's "wishes and requests" as to what type of family she would place her child with and what type of relationship she would have with her child after adoption would be "considered." At a meeting on March 16, Corina reported to Moore that she had bonded with her unborn child, and Moore noted that Corina "may be grasping the difficulty of her decision."
On March 25, Corina and Moore discussed what Marywood terms an "open adoption," a process by which the birth mother expresses her criteria for adoptive parents. Corina requested a Mexican-American, Catholic couple who had no other children. She also told Moore that "she wanted to visit with the child after the adoption." Moore informed Corina that "her relationship with the adoptive family would establish what type of ongoing relationship [with her child] she would have."
Moore first showed Corina an "Affidavit of Voluntary Relinquishment of Parental Rights" (the "relinquishment affidavit") on March 30. See Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 161.103 (West Supp. 2000).4 Moore did not discuss the relinquishment affidavit with Corina and did not explain the meaning of the term "irrevocable"; rather, Moore simply "showed her the form" but did not give her a copy to take with her to study. At the March 30 meeting, Corina signed only an "Affidavit of Status" concerning the identity of the father.5
Corina selected an adoptive couple at her next counseling session with Moore and had a face-to-face meeting with them on April 8. The meeting lasted about an hour. The prospective adoptive parents met all of Corina's criteria and indicated their willingness to comply with post-adoption visits. Throughout Corina's counseling sessions, she and Moore discussed a "sharing plan," a standard practice of Marywood. A sharing plan ostensibly allows the birth mother to select the adoptive family, visit her child on a regular basis after the adoption, and exchange letters and pictures. The adoptive parents are aware of the plan prior to placement and agree in writing with Marywood to conform to this arrangement. Significantly, the birth mother does not sign this agreement; thus, neither Marywood nor the adoptive parents enter into any agreement with the birth mother. Marywood admits that aside from advocating that the adoptive parents abide by the plan, Marywood can do nothing if the adoptive parents decide, post-adoption, to disregard it. In fact, the executive director of Marywood admits that the sharing plan is an "empty promise." Clearly, the birth mother has no power to enforce such an agreement. Marywood never discussed the unenforceability of the sharing plan with Corina.
At Corina's last meeting with Moore before her child's birth, they discussed the procedures at the hospital and the various documents Corina would have to sign at the hospital, including a temporary foster-care request. Moore also discussed the relinquishment affidavit with Corina. Moore read the affidavit to Corina and "talk[ed] about each paragraph, what each paragraph means, what it is saying." Moore also asked Corina if she had any questions. Although Moore did not first explain the word "irrevocable," she asked Corina if she knew what it meant. Corina replied that once the relinquishment is signed, it cannot be undone. Moore confirmed that meaning and also told Corina that once she signed the affidavit, she could not "take it back, undo it, or change it."
Corina gave birth to a son on April 24. Moore met with Corina at the hospital on April 26, and Corina signed a temporary foster-care request. Moore told Corina that she "would always be able to visit her baby" and that her baby would always know that Corina was his mother. Corina cried throughout the one-and-one-half-hour visit. Moore scheduled a subsequent meeting with Corina to complete the adoption process. The child was placed in foster care on April 27.6
On April 28, Corina and her parents visited Marywood. Before the meeting, Corina was not aware that she was to sign the relinquishment affidavit then and was undecided as to whether she wanted to sign it. During the two-hour meeting, Corina, her parents, and Moore read and discussed the relinquishment affidavit in detail. Eventually, Corina signed the affidavit. During the meeting, and before Corina signed the relinquishment affidavit, Moore told Corina that she would "always be that child's birth mother and that with her sharing plan that she had with the adoptive family that she would have an opportunity to be in that child's life forever"; that she would "always have a relationship with [the adoptive] family and with [her] child"; that requests she made of the adoptive family would be "respect[ed]"; that the baby would have "two mothers," "both of whom would have input into his life"; that Corina "would be able to see her son grow up"; and that the birth family would be like the child's extended family. Corina specifically asked what the agency could do to guarantee that she would have continual, post-adoptive visits with the child. Moore responded by Moore repeated to Corina that she would always be a part of the baby's life. According to Corina and her mother, these promises are what convinced Corina to sign the relinquishment affidavit; the promises were "the only reason she signed."
Before the April 28 meeting, Corina did not have a copy of the relinquishment affidavit and did not review it with her parents. Corina was crying when she signed the affidavit, but Moore testified that "it's very common to have tears." Moore asked Corina if signing the relinquishment affidavit "was what she wanted to do" and informed Corina that once she signed it, she "couldn't undo or take it back." Moore never told Corina that signing the relinquishment affidavit meant that she would "never have any legal rights to see [her] child." According to Corina, Moore told her that she would only be "giving up [her] guardianship of [the child]." Corina understood this to mean that she would not be the one "taking care of him and raising him." Corina was not aware and no one informed her that she could have signed a second foster-care agreement to allow herself more time to make the final decision. Moore was the only person who explained the relinquishment affidavit to Corina, and she never told Corina that she could seek legal counsel or another person's...
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