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Texas child custody case heads to state Supreme Court

A Texas father, who agreed to a mediated child custody agreement with his ex-wife, asked a judge to alter the contract to serve the child's best interests. Two separate judges in two different hearings backed the father, who claimed his 7-year-old daughter was not safe around the sex offender his ex-wife married.

The case will go before the Texas Supreme Court because there are questions about whether the hearing judges acted improperly by interfering with a mediated agreement. Few rules allow judges to tamper with mediated child custody settlements.

The agreement the girl's father signed is binding. The only time a judge can change a mediated child custody agreement, according to the Texas Family Code, is when one of the signing parties is a family violence victim and the agreement is not in the child's best interest.

It is possible the state high court will overturn the lower courts' rulings, because the two legal conditions are not separate and the father's case only focuses on the best interests of his daughter.

All child custody agreements in Texas, whether or not they are mediated, must make a child's interests top priority. The contracts must also ensure a safe environment for the child.

The Houston hearing judges who rejected the mediated child custody agreement responded to the father's claim that his daughter was in danger. The girl apparently slept between her mother and stepfather on visitations. The child's father said the sex offender slept naked during those visits.

The father's story prompted an associate judge, and later a state district judge, to dismiss the child custody agreement. The child's mother appealed, contending the agreement was valid and unbreakable.

The girl's parents divorced in 2007. Nearly three years later, the father sued for primary custody. The former spouses reached a settlement with a mediator that gave the father custody. The mother agreed to monthly weekend visitations.

Until the Texas Supreme Court decides the matter, the child will remain with her father. Visitations with the mother are supervised. It is unknown what effect the Supreme Court's ruling will have on all mediated child custody or divorce agreements.

Source: Austin American Statesman, "Child safety case could affect disputed Texas divorces," Chuck Lindell, May 28, 2012

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