Houston Juvenile Court Judge Michael Schneider has once again unsheathed his judicial sword (Houston Chronicle, 11/9/18). And once again, Child Protective Services must yield.
I’ve written before about Schneider. He shows every indication of being a judge who’s bent on educating CPS caseworkers and their supervisors about how to do their jobs within the confines of statutory and constitutional law. Several years ago, when caseworkers demanded an emergency hearing because, according to them, a child was in such danger that regular notice couldn’t be given to its parents, Schneider acquiesced. But, on learning that no such emergency had occurred, he took the unusual step of ordering the pair to write essays demonstrating that they understood parents’ constitutional rights.
This past Thursday, Schneider went himself one better. In a completely different case, he ordered the agency to pay two parents $127,000 for the wrongful taking of their children, withholding evidence and lying under oath. He also ordered the Harris County (Houston) CPS to create, within two weeks, new caseworker training to avert such outrages in the future.
Judge Schneider’s actions look entirely appropriate from here.
It was a hot, Texas summer day and Melissa Bright let her kids — 2-year-old Charlotte and 5-month-old Mason — play in the sprinkler outside their Tomball home.
When she put the baby down on a lawn chair so she could help Charlotte strip off wet clothes, she heard a thud. Mason had fallen the 19 inches from the chair to the cement driveway below…
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.CPS concluded that Melissa and her husband Dillon were child abusers and forced the kids to live with their grandmother. Eventually, medical experts determined that Mason had a clotting disorder that lead to the bleeding in his brain, but CPS ignored the finding.
Not content with breaking up the family for dubious reasons, CPS proceeded to place Mason’s physical well-being in jeopardy.
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.
But, the Brights said, that would require nursing, and CPS wouldn't allow Melissa to live with the child.
The baby went to Baytown, but 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.Amazingly, CPS dithered and did nothing. So, with no one responding at CPS, the Brights took matters into their own hands. They brought Mason home with them. Caseworkers ignored that too, for 22 days. Surely, thought the Brights, that means all is well; CPS approves of having Mason with us.
Then, on Sept. 18, [caseworker Lavar] 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.Yes, in response to a positive update about the children’s health CPS not only went to court, but lied to the judge claiming the kids were in imminent danger. That done, they refused to inform the Brights about the hearing despite doing so requiring nothing more than a phone call or text message. That, as we’ve seen before, doesn’t impress Judge Schneider, who seems to believe that parents have basic due process rights. No wonder he and CPS are at odds.
Having kept the Brights in the dark about the hearing, Jones lied and withheld material evidence from the court in order to get an order of removal.
Jones didn't tell the court about the diagnosed blood disorder, which could have explained some of the medical problems. And he didn't mention that the parents had gotten a second medical opinion that explained the second, hairline fracture.Of course, had the Brights been in court, they could have provided the judge that information, an eventuality CPS seems to have wanted to avoid.
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 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, making for a case the judge found thoroughly unconvincing.
"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."If lying, both in court and out, weren’t enough, if having to plead the Fifth Amendment didn’t suffice to demonstrate CPS’s incompetence, one CPS supervisor drove the point home.
Over the course of five days, the court heard testimony from the Brights, a program director and supervisor Edwards, who claimed so frequently that she didn't know, couldn't answer or didn't understand the questions that Slate eventually asked whether she had any knowledge that made her qualified to make decisions.But that still wasn’t all.
[Attorneys] 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.Judge Schneider wasn’t pleased.
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.Apart from the financial incentives offered by the federal government for taking children from parents and into foster care, it’s hard to figure why an agency that’s charged with protecting children would behave so outrageously. We see similar conduct all over the country and all too frequently, so whatever the motivation, it’s not unique to Houston. Only last year we saw an attorney for the child protection agency in California arguing to an astonished court of appeals that CPS caseworkers should be permitted to commit perjury. Really, that actually happened.
Plus of course CPS agencies across the country conduct their business in complete secrecy. Only in cases like the Brights or when a child is killed is the veil permitted to be lifted and then, to our shock and horror, we see what goes on in those agencies. Too often, what we see is a litany of incompetence, dishonesty, agency overreach, agency under-reach and yes, malice.
State legislatures need to order child protective agencies to open the windows and let the sunshine in. When that’s done, many heads will roll, many changes will be made, much embarrassment and outrage will ensue. But once that’s happened, those agencies will do a far better job of protecting children and accommodating parents’ rights than they do now. They’ll do that because they’ll know that the press and We the People are looking over their shoulders.
It can’t happen too soon.