MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Thursday, the 19th of December, 2019. You’re listening to The World and Everything in It. And we’re glad you are! Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up, protecting children and families.
The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services has released a report that shows more children are leaving foster care and being adopted into permanent homes.
That agency oversees Child Protective Services—CPS—and CPS reports additionally that fewer children are being removed from their homes and placed into state care in the first place.
REICHARD: Despite that good news, CPS is facing a backlash in Texas because of an increase in removals later deemed unnecessary. WORLD Radio correspondent Katie Gaultney brings us this report from Dallas.
KATIE GAULTNEY, REPORTER: It was past dinner time when a CPS caseworker showed up at Dillon and Melissa Bright’s home to remove their two young children.
MELISSA BRIGHT: What kind of mother would I be if I allowed you to put my children in further harm’s way? Calm down. No, it’s my children! I can’t calm down!
A couple of months before the surprise visit in September 20-18, 5-month-old Mason Bright had fallen off a chair in the driveway. At the hospital, doctors flagged his skull injury as suspicious. CPS opened an investigation.
The Brights got a second opinion. A radiologist and hematologist they consulted said Mason’s injuries were consistent with the driveway fall. They also discovered Mason had a previously unknown blood-clotting disorder.
But at the request of CPS, family court held an emergency hearing without involving the Brights or allowing them to present that second opinion. The court ordered the children removed.
Melissa was forced to say a tearful goodbye to her 2-year-old daughter and infant son that night.
BRIGHT: Mommy! It’s okay, I just want a hug. Mommy! I’m happy, Mommy! I’m happy. It’s okay, you’re okay.
The anguished parents had to jump through bureaucratic hoops for three weeks before a judge ruled the children’s removal illegal. He fined CPS $127,000—an unusually high penalty.
Trevor Woodruff is with the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. He testified before a Texas legislative committee last month that his agency tries to avoid taking children out of their homes in non-emergency situations.
WOODRUFF: The agency takes no joy in removing kids. I’ve never seen a caseworker enjoy it. I’ve seen caseworkers in tears over it.
But the Brights’ case isn’t an outlier. It’s one of many questionable, medically related removals that have come to light during the past year. The outcry from parents and pro-family groups has gotten so bad state lawmakers are considering a legislative fix.
Family advocacy groups say the agency’s intent is good. No one wants to see children harmed, or worse, killed. But in some cases, the system goes too far.
Andrew Brown is with the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
BROWN: I think what we have failed to do in swinging the pendulum so far in one direction… is we failed to recognize the consequences of pulling in innocent families and innocent kids into a system that they don’t need to be pulled into.
That’s always been a concern. But in 2009, a new medical subspecialty emerged, child abuse pediatrics. These are doctors who have earned special certifications that allow them to work closely with CPS. And they’re embedded at nearly every major children’s hospital in the nation.
Texas awards $5 million dollars in grants each year to support the specialty. Half of that money goes to CPS to compensate the doctors for consulting directly with the agency. Critics say that funding—plus their close work with CPS teams—may ally the doctors with the agency. That could cloud their judgment, leading to false removals of children from safe homes.
BROWN: And some of the more egregious examples of doctors assuming that something was abused and sticking to that diagnosis in the face of overwhelming medical evidence that there was something else going on…
State Representative James Frank led the recent hearing into CPS’ documented oversteps. He said he understands why CPS officials say these doctors’ recommendations are taken so seriously.
But in Mason Bright’s case—and in the ongoing case of another family—the courts deemed CPS removals of children illegal. Caseworkers grossly overstepped their bounds. Frank said it’s a delicate balance.
FRANK: We don’t want to remove the ability of somebody to remove a child in danger, but we do want to force discipline in the process.
So, what kind of measures will ensure at-risk kids are protected, while children in safe homes remain with their families? Brown said it comes down to evidentiary standards.
BROWN: Right now, the standard is, is there enough evidence to satisfy a person of ordinary prudence and caution? Now, that’s a very complicated way of saying you don’t need much evidence at all.
Appeals court Judge Darlene Byrne is often called on to decide whether to place kids in CPS care. She says these removals need a lower standard than you’d see in trial court because time is of the essence.
BYRNE: When I’m dealing with whether or not that kid can sleep in that house tonight and they can’t call 9-1-1 if I’ve got a monster in that house… I want to know right now that that baby sleeping in that bed is not at risk of being beat to a bloody pulp.
But unwarranted removals also take a heavy toll on families. Tim Timmerman’s 4-month-old son was removed from his home after a child abuse pediatrician wrongly suspected the parents of shaking their baby.
TIMMERMAN: Put yourself in my shoes and think about how you would feel if your child or grandchild were taken out of your arms, with no standard of proof other than the opinion of a single individual. Is that enough proof to interfere with the sacred bond of a parent and a child?
The Texas legislature does not meet again until 2021. That gives Representative Frank a year to propose legislative changes. One option under consideration: Giving parents the chance to seek a second opinion.
For WORLD Radio, I’m Katie Gaultney, reporting from Dallas, Texas.