Judge or­ders $127K sanc­tions against CPS

Scathing rul­ing calls agency ‘dis­hon­est’ in re­moval case

San Antonio Express-News - - METRO - By Keri Blakinger keri.blakinger@chron.com

HOUS­TON — The trou­ble that even­tu­ally landed the Bright fam­ily in court started in July.

It was a hot, Texas sum­mer day and Melissa Bright let her kids — 2-year-old Char­lotte and 5-mon­thold Ma­son — play in the sprin­kler out­side their Tom­ball home. When she put the baby down on a lawn chair to help Char­lotte strip off wet clothes, she heard a thud. Ma­son had fallen the 19 inches from the chair to the ce­ment drive­way be­low.

The tum­ble launched a months-long le­gal case with Texas Child Pro­tec­tive Ser­vices that be­gan with the re­moval of the chil­dren from the Brights’ home and ended Thurs­day with a Har­ris County judge or­der­ing what may be the largest-ever sanc­tions against the agency.

Af­ter a five-day hear­ing, Ju­ve­nile Court Judge Mike Sch­nei­der or­dered the state to come up with new re­gional train­ing for work­ers and pay more than $127,000 for wrong­fully re­mov­ing the cou­ple’s chil­dren and al­legedly ly­ing about the case in court.

Now, at­tor­neys for par­ents Melissa and Dil­lon Bright are call­ing for the fir­ing of the CPS work­ers in­volved and ask­ing pros­e­cu­tors to in­ves­ti­gate for pos­si­ble crim­i­nal charges.

“They lied in their af­fi­davit, they lied in their sworn re­moval tes­ti­mony and they have — when ques­tioned about those lies — taken the Fifth,” said fam­ily lawyer Den­nis Slate.

The rul­ing late Thurs­day by the judge came weeks af­ter case­worker Lavar Jones shocked the court­room by plead­ing his Fifth Amend­ment right against self-in­crim­i­na­tion re­peat­edly dur­ing a re­moval hear­ing in which the judge or­dered CPS to stay away from the two young chil­dren be­fore ul­ti­mately giv­ing them back to the par­ents.

It’s an un­usual case that of­fers re­peated ex­am­ples of CPS mis­steps, but the Brights’ at­tor­neys say it’s also a sign of a “bro­ken sys­tem” and high­lights the need for more ac­count­abil­ity from the agency tasked with mak­ing de­ci­sions as to whether par­ents are fit to keep their chil­dren.

The agency of­fered a short com­ment on the de­ci­sion.

“In light of to­day’s rul­ing, we are re­view­ing our op­tions,” said CPS spokes­woman Te­jal Pa­tel, “in­clud­ing our right to ap­peal.”

Panic af­ter the fall

When she heard her baby fall, a pan­icked Melissa called her hus­band, then di­aled 911. At the hos­pi­tal, the child abuse pre­ven­tion team at first told CPS that Melissa’s ex­pla­na­tion of the in­jury was a likely one, ac­cord­ing to court records.

But the next day, an MRI re­vealed that Ma­son had a sec­ond frac­ture — a smaller, hair­line crack — and bleed­ing in his brain.

The sec­ond frac­ture, the abuse team de­cided, would have come from a sec­ond in­ci­dent. And when Melissa couldn’t of­fer an al­ter­nate ex­pla­na­tion, the team deemed the in­juries were “con­sis­tent with child abuse.”

The Brights agreed to an in­home mon­i­tor­ing plan, but be­fore Ma­son left the hos­pi­tal, CPS su­per­vi­sor Niesha Ed­wards in­stead de­cided the kids would have to go live with Dil­lon’s mother in Bay­town, more than an hour away.

Mean­while, the Texas Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal hema­tol­ogy de­part­ment found that Ma­son likely had a blood clot­ting dis­or­der. That could have ex­plained how a fall from a lawn chair could gen­er­ate so much bleed­ing and so many prob­lems, but it also meant that there could be more prob­lems ahead — and there were.

The head in­jury didn’t heal as planned, so be­fore baby Ma­son left the hos­pi­tal, doc­tors drilled a hole in his skull to re­lieve pres­sure. Af­ter­wards, ac­cord­ing to the Brights, doc­tors warned that if the fam­ily wanted to avoid a sec­ond surgery it was im­por­tant to keep the child from cry­ing.

Car­ing for a med­i­cally frag­ile child even­tu­ally be­came too much for Dil­lon’s mother, and the Brights asked to move the baby closer to home with an aunt and un­cle in Tom­ball.

But the agency de­layed its re­sponse, re­peat­edly promis­ing an­swers and fail­ing to de­liver, records show. Even­tu­ally, Dil­lon called case­worker Jones, ac­cord­ing to court records, and told him that since CPS hadn’t fol­lowed through on get­ting ap­proval and the cur­rent plan was quickly be­com­ing in­fea­si­ble, the Brights planned to bring the kids home. So they did. Twenty-two days passed. Then, on Sept. 18, Jones texted to ask how the kids were, and Melissa sent along happy pho­tos and a health up­date.

The next day, the state — with­out no­ti­fy­ing the Brights — filed a pe­ti­tion ask­ing for emer­gency cus­tody of the chil­dren who, of­fi­cials said, were in “im­me­di­ate and con­tin­u­ing dan­ger.” The par­ents were never told that the court would hold a re­moval hear­ing the same day.

Jones didn’t tell the court about the di­ag­nosed blood dis­or­der, nor did he men­tion that the par­ents had got­ten a sec­ond med­i­cal opin­ion that ex­plained the sec­ond, hair­line frac­ture.

So, just af­ter noon on Sept. 19, a court ap­proved the re­moval.

“It didn’t even dawn on me that he was go­ing to show up and take our kids,” Melissa said. “It wasn’t even on our radar, es­pe­cially af­ter it be­ing so long.”

That night, the chil­dren were sep­a­rated and both taken to fos­ter care. The case­worker didn’t even leave be­hind a copy of the or­der of re­moval as re­quired by law, fam­ily at­tor­ney Slate said.

A re­turn to court

A few weeks later, in early Oc­to­ber, the par­ents, their lawyers, CPS work­ers and county at­tor­neys showed up in court again for a three-day hear­ing to fig­ure out whether the state had enough cause to keep the kids.

When ques­tioned about the ear­lier claims he’d made dur­ing the Sept. 19 emer­gency hear­ing and about the agency’s rea­sons for re­mov­ing the kids, Jones pleaded the Fifth.

“It is not pos­si­ble,” Sch­nei­der said in court last month, “to look at the facts and imag­ine that the agency ac­tu­ally felt there was any sort of ur­gent need for pro­tec­tion to re­move the chil­dren.”

When Sch­nei­der sided with the Brights, the case moved to a Novem­ber sanc­tions hear­ing, where Slate and fel­low at­tor­ney Stephanie Prof­fitt ar­gued that the agency’s ef­forts to take the kids were based on such ground­less ar­gu­ments that they should be forced to pay the fam­ily for le­gal fees and other costs, a to­tal of more than $127,000.

Over the course of five days, the court heard tes­ti­mony from the Brights, a pro­gram di­rec­tor and su­per­vi­sor Ed­wards.

Slate and Prof­fitt laid out a litany of ac­cu­sa­tions, in­clud­ing claims that work­ers had al­tered com­puter records to match an af­fi­davit, in­ten­tion­ally failed to turn over in­crim­i­nat­ing text mes­sages, and plowed ahead with the “bad faith” re­moval to avoid telling their pro­gram di­rec­tor they had not checked on the kids for 22 days.

Stephen Dieu with the Har­ris County At­tor­ney’s Of­fice, which rep­re­sented CPS in the hear­ing, ac­cused the fam­ily’s at­tor­neys of “cherry-pick­ing” text mes­sages and records, and ar­gued re­peat­edly that the agency was pro­tected by sov­er­eign im­mu­nity.

“There are le­gal reme­dies but this is not the one,” he said. “The de­part­ment can­not be sanc­tioned.”

A look back at agency records would show that’s not true. Seven years ago, Slate and Prof­fitt won a $32,000 sanc­tion in an­other case in­volv­ing a “ground­less” re­moval where the agency didn’t tell the par­ents about the emer­gency hear­ing and waited hours to take the kids af­ter courts closed.

In a scathing rul­ing from the bench on Thurs­day, Sch­nei­der dinged the agency for be­ing “dis­hon­est” and pos­si­bly “ma­li­cious,” say­ing the en­tire re­moval and sub­se­quent le­gal bat­tle never would have hap­pened if the agency had told the Brights about the emer­gency re­moval hear­ing and given them a chance to de­fend them­selves at the start.

“We do need to deal with the is­sue of how we make sure this doesn’t hap­pen again,” he said, be­fore or­der­ing the agency to pay $127,000 and giv­ing them two weeks to create the new train­ing pro­gram for the Hous­ton re­gion.

But, Sch­nei­der said, there was one thing the fam­ily re­quested that he said he could not or­der: an apol­ogy.

Michael Cia­glo / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Dil­lon Bright and his wife Melissa, not pic­tured, were sep­a­rated from their chil­dren Ma­son and Char­lotte ear­lier this year when Child Pro­tec­tive Ser­vices filed for emer­gency cus­tody of the kids.

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