When Dillon and Melissa Bright’s infant son fell from a chair and bumped his head, they rushed him to Texas Children’s Hospital to get him checked out. It began a months-long nightmare encounter with Child Protective Services that reached its climax on November 8, when state district Judge Michael Schneider issued an unprecedented sanction of $127,000 against the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services for wrongful removal. Just this week, the Brights’ attorneys revealed shocking new allegations that CPS put pressure on local law enforcement to file criminal charges against Melissa Bright after Judge Schneider’s sanction order.
The case highlights the desperate need for greater transparency and accountability in CPS investigations.
Doctors at the hospital contacted DFPS as required by state law, which mandates anyone who suspects child abuse to report those suspicions. CPS dispatched a caseworker, but that caseworker took no immediate action, and the Brights were relieved. They even had a text message from the caseworker saying he had no legal authority to remove their children.
Yet after more than 30 days without visiting the family or even laying eyes on the children, the caseworker went to court claiming that the children were in danger. A judge granted his request for an emergency removal.
And then it got strange. Three days after the Brights’ children were removed by CPS, the caseworker shocked the court by pleading the Fifth at a “show cause” hearing when asked why he took the children into custody.
Faced with evidence that the caseworker and his supervisor lied when requesting permission to remove the Bright’s children, Judge Schneider ordered CPS to have no contact with the family and scheduled the hearing that led to Thursday’s sanctions.
The Bright case is just one high-profile example of how a broken system not only fails to protect children, but traumatizes entire families in the process. Vague legal standards, the low burden of proof required for removals, and a lack of accountability create an environment that allows CPS to trample on the rights of families.
Under Texas law, DFPS may remove a child without prior notice or even a pre-removal hearing by merely filing a sworn affidavit “stating facts sufficient to satisfy a person of ordinary prudence and caution” that the removal is proper. In certain circumstances, the code is completely silent as to the burden of proof for establishing that abuse or neglect has occurred. This sets a shockingly low bar for one of the most severe actions the state can take against its citizens and, as the Bright case shows, is ripe for abuse.
In a long string of cases dating back to the 1920s, the U.S. Supreme Court has held the parent-child relationship to be a natural right predating and existing independently of the state. This right is so important, in fact, that the Court has almost always applied strict scrutiny – the most stringent standard of review applied by our court system – to questions involving state intervention in the life of a family.
The Texas Legislature has even gone so far as to enshrine this fundamental right in code, prohibiting any state agency from adopting rules, policies or taking any action that “violates the fundamental right and duty of a parent to direct the upbringing of the parent’s child.”
There’s good reason for this. Removing a child from her family is traumatic – both for the child as well as for the parents – leaving lasting psychological scars that may never heal.
As Texas works to implement much-needed reforms for our child welfare system, we must look at how we make these life-altering decisions. Let’s start with clarifying a strict burden of proof requiring CPS to prove that a child is in imminent danger and that removal is the least detrimental alternative available – and then hold them accountable to those high standards through our elected judges.