Reforming Child Protective Services is one of THSC Watchmen’s most important goals for the 2017 legislative session, and the broad-form jury charge is a specific target for change.
What Is a Broad-Form Jury Charge?
A broad-form jury charge is when the court instructs the jury to only answer the single, broad question of whether or not the defendant (in this case the parent) is guilty.
According to Chris Branson, THSC Special Counsel on CPS issues, in cases considering the termination of parental rights, the broad-form charge puts a single question to the jury: Should the parent-child relationship be terminated?
Texas Family Code lists 20 possible reasons why a juror can answer “yes.” However, jurors do not have to be in agreement on the reason for termination. In theory, each juror could identify a different reason for deciding to terminate parental rights.
Branson explains: “It is possible that a prosecutor could give the jury 12 or more possible reasons to terminate parental rights, legally valid or not. However, with so many reasons, this scenario repeated 11 more times could result in a situation in which the court does not know with certainty that 10 jurors agreed on any single reason for termination. Nonetheless, the jury would answer ‘yes’ to terminating the parent-child relationship.”
In essence, a jury can terminate a parent-child relationship without agreeing on what the parent did wrong. A parent could lose their rights even though the prosecution failed to meet its burden of proof.
How Is this Legal?
The Texas Rules of Civil Procedure require that at least 10 jurors agree on the grounds for termination when returning a verdict. However, a broad-form jury charge makes it impossible for the court to tell whether this agreement has actually taken place because the jury is not required to report anything other than their final, general verdict.
There is no way of knowing how many Texans’ parental rights have been wrongfully terminated under this procedure.
Like the death penalty in criminal law, termination of parental rights is the most severe and final verdict that exists in civil law. This legal loophole that makes it possible to terminate parental rights without the agreement of 10 jurors represents a serious miscarriage of justice.
In preparation for this upcoming Texas legislative session, THSC is collaborating with key legislators to propose a bill addressing the problem of broad-form jury charge within Texas family courts.
THSC’s excellent working relationships with the past several Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) commissioners including the current commissioner, Henry Whitman Jr., provides the opportunity to work together and solve systemic problems. In conjunction with legislative reform, working together protects children from unfit parents and protects children and fit parents from frivolous lawsuits and unjust verdicts.
How You Can Help:
- Stay informed and be prepared to contact your legislators in support of CPS reform legislation by signing up for THSC legislative, advocacy and political updates.
- Let us know if you or someone you know has valuable knowledge or experience that could help THSC in drafting and passing this legislation.
- Attorneys can learn more family law at the THSC CLE Seminar this December in Austin. Participants earn 6 MCLE hours and registration is free in exchange for handling one pro bono CPS case referred by THSC.
Thank you for your continued support as we join together in Keeping Texas Families Free.