Your best friend makes every kid who rides in her car sit in a booster seat, even though some of them are almost 10 years old; you just make sure they’re buckled into their seats. She says it’s the law. Who’s right?
You just had a baby and you are wondering … does your newborn really have to get all of those shots?
Your neighbor lets her 10-year-old baby-sit her 7-year-old. Nothing’s ever happened, but it makes you a bit uneasy. Should you call the authorities?
Like every other state in the union, Texas harbors a host of laws that affect you as a parent. Some may enhance your parental rights, while others could land you in jail or create other civil or criminal liabilities if not obeyed.
But how do you know what’s the law, what’s rumor or what’s just plain bad parenting? We’ve turned to our network of experts – those in the know of what the country, state and city require of parents – to help clear up some of the biggest misconceptions about Texas law.
1. HOW LONG CAN I KEEP MY KIDS HOME WITH ME BEFORE I HAVE TO SEND THEM TO SCHOOL? They need to start formal school with kindergarten. The Texas Educational Code requires that children ages 6 to 18 attend school.
2. MY SON IS BEING BULLIED AT SCHOOL? WHAT CAN WE DO? The Texas Educational Code gives the parents of a bullied child the right to request the transfer of their child to another classroom or another campus within the school district. If the board of trustees verifies the bullying, there is no time limit placed on the transfer. Transportation to the new school, however, is not required, according to the Office of the Texas Attorney General.
3. CAN WE HOMESCHOOL OUR KIDS? Yes. Texas has permitted homeschooling since the Texas Supreme Court’s ruling in Leeper v. Arlington ISD (1999), says homeschooling advocate Susan Frederick, who runs the Texas Advocates for Freedom in Education. In Leeper, the court decided that home schools are the equivalent of private schools under the Texas Education Code, thus exempting school-aged, home-schooled children from the state’s compulsory school attendance laws.
Frederick says the Leeper decision also makes Texas one of the most homeschool friendly states, because the law doesn’t require parents who homeschool their children to register themselves, test their children, get approval for their materials or even count attendance. Additionally, parents who homeschool are not required to have teaching certificates or college degrees in order to homeschool their children.
4. I WANT MY TWINS TO BE IN THE SAME CLASS. DO I HAVE A RIGHT TO DEMAND THAT? Texas is now one of a few states in the country to give parents the right to determine the placement of their multiple-birth children. Under HB 314 passed in May 2007, parents have the legal right to keep their multiples together in school. The law gives parents 14 days after the enrollment of their multiples to inform school officials in writing whether they want them in the same class. The law also allows the school principal to challenge the placement if it’s deemed disruptive, but parents also have the right to appeal the principal’s challenge.
5. I WANT TO SEE MY CHILD’S SCHOOL RECORD. CAN I? Yes. Under the Texas Education Code, parents are entitled to see all written records a school district keeps on their children, including attendance records, test scores, grades, disciplinary action, counseling, psychological testing and teacher and counselor evaluations.
6. IN TEXAS, WHO IS ALLOWED TO MAKE LIFE-OR-DEALTH DECISIONS FOR EXTREMELY PREMATURE BABIES (PARENTS OR HOSPITAL STAFF)? While recognizing that parents ordinarily have the right to consent to or decline medical care for their children, the Supreme Court of Texas ruled in Miller v. HCA, Inc. (2003) that an exception arises when doctors must administer treatment immediately to prevent the death of the child, such as in the case of a premature child, writes John Robertson, University of Texas law professor and bioethicist.
7. MY KID IS ALWAYS BRUISED FROM PLAYING. HIS TEACHER SUSPECTED WE WERE ABUSING HIM AND CALLED THE POLICE ON US. WHY’D SHE DO THAT? WE’RE GOOD PARENTS! She was following Texas law, which requires any person who believes that a child is being abused, neglected or exploited to report the suspicions to the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS), according to Parkland Hospital in Dallas. The law provides the person making the report with immunity, as long as she acted in good faith. If your son’s teacher hadn’t reported her suspicions, she could have been charged with a crime.
8. IS TEXAS AMONG ONE OF THE FEW STATES TO CLAIRFY THAT PARENTS, NOT SCHOOL DISTRICTS, WILL HAVE THE FINAL SAY ON WHETHER THEIR CHILDREN TAKE DRUGS (SUCH AS RITALIN) TO CONTROL BEHAVIOR? Texas Education Code (Section 38.016) states that it is illegal for school personnel to recommend that a student use a psychotropic drug (such as Ritalin) or to suggest any particular diagnosis, according to David Anderson, general counsel for the Texas Education Agency. If parents refuse to give their child a psychotropic drug (even after a psychiatric evaluation), the child cannot be kept from attending class or participating in a school-related activity. However, the law does not prohibit a school district employee from recommending that a child be evaluated by an appropriate medical practitioner, notes Anderson.
9. I’M NOT SURE I WANT MY KIDS VACCINATED AGAINST ALL OF THE DISEASES THAT THE PEDIATRICIAN RECOMMENDS. DO I HAVE A CHOICE? Texas law requires children attending daycare, school and college to be vaccinated against a variety of childhood diseases, ranging from Hepatitis B to chicken pox to polio. However, the state also permits parents to exempt their children from these vaccinations based on reasons of conscience, including religious beliefs or medical conditions. To obtain the exemption, contact the Texas Department of Health.
10. DO MY KIDS REALLY HAVE TO WEAR BIKE HELMETS? Yes. Aside from possibly saving your children from head trauma, bike helmets are required by local law. In Dallas, city law mandates bike helmets for anyone riding a bike, according to the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute. Check with your local city hall for suburban bike helmet laws.
11. MY HUSBAND HUNTS, SO WE HAVE GUNS IN OUR HOUSE. WHAT SHOULD WE DO WITH THEM? Keep them locked up and out of reach of the kids, says Alice Tripp, legislative director of the Texas State Rifle Association in Addison. According to Tripp, Texas law makes it a class C misdemeanor, punishable by a fine, if a child under the age of 17 can easily access a gun when an adult knows it’s accessible. If the child fires the gun and injures someone, the gun owner could be sent to jail. Courts will look to see if you’ve tried to keep the gun away from little ones when deciding punishment, Tripp says, so keeping the gun in a locked cabinet or using a trigger lock may curry favor with a judge. These gun laws, however, do not bar children from hunting or engaging in any other shooting sports with training and appropriate adult supervision, Tripp adds.
12. MY FRIEND INSISTS HER OLDER KIDS SIT IN BOOSTER SEATS. IS THAT A LAW? No. Texas is one of 10 states in the country that does not have a booster seat law. But that may change. The Texas Pediatric Society and other interest groups have been pushing the state Legislature to pass a law requiring booster seats for children up to 8 years old, unless they’re over 4’ 9” in height.
13. OUR DOG GROWLS AT OUR NEIGHBORS’ TODDLERS. WHAT HAPPENS IF HE BITES A CHILD? Texas now has one of the toughest dangerous dog laws in the nation, says Marilyn Stiles Shoemaker, executive director of Texas Families Against Dangerous Dogs. Under Lillian’s Law (2007), owners of vicious dogs can be charged with a third-degree felony if their dog leaves their property and attacks and seriously injures a person, says Shoemaker, whose mother, Lillian, was killed by a pack of dogs that had escaped from their yard. If the attack results in death, the owner of the dog can be charged with a second-degree felony, punishable by up to 20 years in prison, says Shoemaker. Shoemaker says the law is especially important for people who have small children or live near children, because statistics show that dogs attack children more frequently due to their size. She also notes that a dog does not have to actually bite a person to be declared dangerous. If a person feels threatened by a dog, she can petition local authorities to declare it dangerous.
14. HOW OLD DO MY KIDS NEED TO BE BEFORE THEY CAN BE LEFT HOME ALONE BY THEMSELVES? Texas law provides no specific recommendations, according to DFPS. However, the agency recommends taking several factors into consideration before leaving a child home alone, including the age, emotional maturity and capability of the child; the layout and safety of the home or play area; the child’s ability to respond to an emergency; and whether the child has any mental, physical or medical disabilities.
15. MY 2-YEAR-OLD HAS ALREADY FIGURED OUT HOW TO UNDO THE LATCH ON HER CAR SEAT. DO I REALLY NEED TO MAKE SURE SHE’S IN A CAR SEAT? Yes! Texas law mandates that children under 5 (and those who are less than 36 inches tall) be restrained in a child safety seat while in a car, according to the Texas Pediatric Society in Austin.
16. WHAT ABOUT SEAT BELTS? Anyone 15 years or older sitting in the front seat is required to wear a seat belt. Drivers are also responsible for ensuring that anyone between ages 5 and 17 wear a seat belt regardless of where they’re seated in the vehicle, according to the Texas Department of Transportation. If you’re caught driving with unbelted minors, a ticket will set you back up to $200.
17. MY WIFE OFTEN LEAVES OUR BABY SLEEPING IN THE CAR WHILE SHE RUNS INTO THE DRY CLEANERS. IS THAT OK? Absolutely not. Under Texas law, a parent can be charged with a class C misdemeanor for intentionally leaving any child 7 years or younger unattended or left with a child under 14 in a car for more than five minutes, according to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. If the child is injured as a result of being left in the car, the crime can be increased to a felony, punishable by up to two years in jail and a $10,000 fine.
18. MY EX WAS JUST ARRESTED FOR DRIVING UNDER THE INFLUENCE. TO MAKE MATTERS WORSE, OUR KIDS WERE IN THE CAR WHEN HE WAS PULLED OVER. IS IT TRUE HE CAN GO TO JAIL? Quite possibly, says Dallas lawyer Paula Larsen, a former family court judge. Under the law, the presence of kids in the car automatically increases the first DUI charge to a felony from a misdemeanor.
19. IF I DON’T HAVE A WILL, WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO MY ASSETS – WILL THEY AUTOMATICALLY GO TO MY KIDS? If a parent dies without a will and there’s a surviving spouse, generally the surviving husband/wife will receive one-third of the personal estate and the rest is given to the children of the deceased parent, according to Robert E. Holmes Jr., attorney and founder of Holmes, Diggs, Eames & Puhl, PLLC, with offices in Dallas, Collin and Denton counties. In the event that both parents die and there’s no will, the probate court will appoint a guardian for the minor child, looking first at any surviving grandparent, followed by aunts and uncles, or any other qualified relative or interested person with the overarching requirement that the appointment be in the child’s best interest, adds Wendy D. Dawer, an attorney with Pyke & Associates in Dallas. “Dying without a valid will is not the legal nightmare situation you might imagine,” says Dawer.
20. WHAT IF MY CHILDREN ARE VERY YOUNG – WHAT HAPPENS TO THE ESTATE THEY INHERIT? WHO TAKES CONTROL OF IT? When a minor inherits (whether from a parent, grandparent or other), the funds are placed into a trust account until the minor reaches an age of maturity, says Dawer. “If the inheritance is without a will, someone who wants to be appointed guardian applies to the court to act as trustee. It can either be the same person applying to be appointed guardian or someone else, even a bank in some circumstances. This commonly happens where natural parents have divorced and one parent dies, leaving an inheritance to the child,” explains Dawer. In the case of insurance policies, investment accounts, etc., the designated beneficiary is entitled to the funds regardless of whether there’s a will in place.
21. WE CREATED OUR WILL IN ANOTHER STATE. DOES IT STILL APPLY IN TEXAS? Wills prepared in other states may not comply with Texas’ probate requirements, advises Dawer. The best advice is to have a new will prepared upon a change of state residency.
22. MY EX ISN’T PAYING CHILD SUPPORT. CAN I REFUSE TO ALLOW HER TO SEE OUR KIDS UNTIL SHE PAYS UP? No, says Larsen. Child support is an independent obligation. Violating one obligation does not justify the violation of the other and could get you in trouble with the law for withholding visitation.
23. HOW CAN I MAKE SURE MY EX PAYS CHILD SUPPORT? In Texas, a parent can be jailed for failing to pay child support. “People get sent to jail every day for non-payment of child support,” cautions Larsen. A criminal contempt charge can be filed in the civil courts, not the criminal courts. She adds, “The criminal aspect is that a parent found to be in contempt can be jailed for up to six months on each count of contempt (or each missed payment). The civil or coercive aspect is that the parent can remain jailed until the entire past due amount is paid in full.” Parents have another stick to help get their former spouses to pay child support, says Dallas family lawyer Diana Friedman. Under the law, non-payment of child support obligations can result in the suspension or loss of your state licenses. “If you don’t pay child support, all of your licenses – driver’s, hunting, even professional licenses – can be taken away,” she says. Texas law also allows judges to require parents to take out a life insurance policy to ensure child support in the event of death, adds Friedman.
24. I CAN’T AFFORD HEALTH INSURANCE FOR MY KIDS. CAN I MAKE MY EX PAY FOR IT? Yes, says Larsen. Texas law allows courts to order the noncustodial parent to maintain health insurance for the children, as long as the cost does not exceed 9 percent of the parent’s net resources. If the parent cannot obtain reasonably priced health insurance, Larsen says judges can order additional medical support payments. If a parent fails to follow a court order to maintain health insurance for his or her children, that parent can be liable for all of the children’s medical expenses, Larsen notes.
25. I WANT TO MOVE OUT OF DALLAS, BUT MY EX IS FIGHTING ME. CAN THE COURT REALLY MAKE ME STAY HERE? In a nutshell, yes, says Friedman. Dallas County courts are renowned for their strong domicile restrictions on children of divorced parents and will not lift them unless both parents agree. The upshot, says Friedman, is that it’s nearly impossible to get a court to lift the restriction if one parent objects.
26. I LOST MY JOB AND CAN’T AFFORD THE CHILD SUPPORT PAYMENTS THAT I AM SUPPOSED TO MAKE. WHAT ARE MY OPTIONS? You must go to court to get your obligations changed, says Friedman. Even if your ex agrees to less, a judge must officially amend the reduction or you could be held in contempt of court with the possibility of jail.
27. MY IN-LAWS HAVE TRIED TO TURN OUR CHILDREN AGAINST US. CAN WE KEEP THEM AWAY FROM OUR KIDS? You can. In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court severely limited the circumstances under which a grandparent can sue for visitation or custody, says Larsen, and Texas law has been changed to reflect the Supreme Court decision in Troxel v. Granville (2000). Now grandparents can only prevail in a custody or visitation suit to see their grandchildren if they can prove that the parents are unfit or that denying the grandparents’ access to their grandchild would significantly impair the grandchild’s health or well-being. “The Supreme Court essentially said there is a presumption that a fit parent knows what is best for his or her child,” Larsen explains.
Published November 2008