Child-protection programs stir controversy - Parents complain state agency oversteps law, acts like Gestapo

By Mike Ward

Thursday, June 3, 2004

Emotion wells up in Calvin Gleason's eyes as he remembers the day he last saw his 12-year-old daughter.

"January 21. I can never forget," the 47-year-old man said, his voice wavering slightly.

It was then that state child-abuse workers took her from Dessau Middle School, alleging Gleason and his wife had not provided his daughter proper treatment for depression, even though, he said, a previous exam showed the girl was not depressed.

Since then, he and child- protection advocates who have investigated his case say, the girl has spent weeks at Austin State Hospital, where she was put on psychiatric drugs, restrained and injured, and then transferred to a privately run San Antonio center for troubled youths -- all without her parents' knowledge or permission.

She even turned 13 in custody and has spoken with her parents once in almost five months after lawmakers intervened in March.

"Child Protective Services is like the Gestapo," Gleason said. "With them, you have no rights. They lie and seem to make their own rules. The state child-protection system in Texas is out of control."

On Wednesday, Gleason and others with similar stories packed a Capitol meeting of the House Select Committee on Child Welfare and Foster Care to call for an overhaul of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, whose Child Protective Services programs were criticized by Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn in April for poor leadership, lax enforcement and regulatory miscues.

Wrong, said agency officials and their advocates. "We've been getting a harsh spotlight based on a very small number of cases, but it should not be an indictment of the entire agency, because we have a lot of success stories, and we're making a positive difference in a lot of Texans lives," said Geoff Wool, a spokesman for the agency.

In their questions during the hearing and comments to reporters during breaks, though, some lawmakers appeared unconvinced.

"There's absolutely no question that changes need to be made," said Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, echoing sentiments of several colleagues.

Gleason told the committee he has gone to court to get his daughter back. "She never had a problem with depression before . . . and although she had some behavior problems, things children this age go through, I can't imagine what kind of problems she's going to have when I get her back.

"If I get her back."

'System can't be trusted'

Gary Gates, a Rosenberg businessman, said he had much the same fear when CPS workers showed up at his upscale home in February 2000 and took custody of his 13 children -- 11 of them adopted. His crime: "I sent one of my sons to school with a plastic bag pinned on his shirt, with (empty) candy wrappers inside, to remind him that he was not to steal candy."

School officials were not amused with the unusual penance, Gates told the committee, and called CPS. "I sent a letter with the boy telling them why he was wearing it, and that he could take it off if they felt it was inappropriate in the classroom. But that didn't seem to make any difference. They never even called me."

The Rev. Gary Bower, the Gateses' pastor who was at their home when CPS workers took the children, described how sheriff's deputies roused them from their beds in pajamas, loaded them in the "jail wagon" and hauled them off. Several are special education students, he and Gates said. His pleas to allow them to remain with relatives -- or even his family -- were refused.

Three days later, after Gates hired lawyers and challenged the CPS seizure, the children were returned. Ironically, Bower noted, he was named as a responsible party by the court to monitor their well-being until the case was closed. Since then, Gates has sued the agency in state and federal court seeking redress for the raid.

So far, Gates estimates he has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal bills, money that most people who are wronged do not have, he admits.

"I adopted four kids from this system I trusted," Gates said. "But the system can't be trusted any more."

Looking for solutions

One proposal being studied by the committee, a so-called "kinship rule," would give blood relatives more say in where children are placed. Some 250 petitions supporting more parental rights were presented to the committee, which quizzed state officials, judges and others involved in the child-protection system about why so many thousands of emergency seizures of children are necessary each year and why more children are not placed with relatives, instead of in foster homes.

Even so, Scott McCown, director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, an Austin-based think tank, offered another perspective from his years as an Austin state district judge who handled child-protection cases.

"The problem is not that we don't do enough investigations. The problem is not that we don't place enough children with relatives, or that we place too many in foster care, or that we do too many emergency removals," he said. "The problem is that these programs are drastically underfunded, and we're expecting too much from this system we've created.

The Rev. Jerome Milton, pastor of Pleasant Hill Baptist Church in Tyler, offered an unusual plea as someone who grew up in 14 foster homes, two reform schools and two orphanages, "who was mentally, physically and sexually abused," and who now has six adopted children:

"There's no question the system has problems and that those problems will continue, until the hour comes, that you say enough is enough," Milton told the committee. "That hour is now . . . for the hopeless, voiceless, helpless children of Texas."



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