CPS drops appeal, agrees to pay $127K sanction for wrongful removal of Tomball children
Six months after a Harris County judge hit Child Protective Services with a rare $127,000 sanction for wrongfully removing a Tomball couple’s children, the state agency has abandoned its appeal and agreed to pay what may be an unprecedented sum for its handling of the case.
But the agency still hasn’t admitted wrongdoing, a fact that irked the family and their attorneys.
“To this day, they just can’t admit that they screwed up — to me that’s the saddest part for all of the children in Harris County,” said Stephanie Proffitt, one of the attorneys representing Melissa and Dillon Bright. “They could have at least said we may have messed this one up and we’ll do better next time. Instead they’re basically taking no responsibility. Shame on them.”
It’s not clear what prompted the agency to drop the appeal, though in a statement a spokesman cited the need to focus resources on other local children. Had the court of appeals ruled against them it could have set a precedent that would make it easier for other families to win sanctions in similar cases.
“With so many other CPS cases pending in Harris County that demand our attention, we have decided to forgo an appeal and to focus our attention on those children and families, and their needs,” said agency spokesman Patrick Crimmins. “We will have no additional comment on this matter.”
The Bright case drew statewide attention and raised concerns about the process CPS follows after receiving a report of abuse from a child abuse pediatrician, a small but growing medical subspecialty. The doctors are based at major children’s hospitals across the nation and work closely with child welfare agents and law enforcement officials in cases of suspected abuse.
The legal dispute stems from an accident in July, when 5-month-old Mason Bright fell out of a lawn chair and hit his head on the driveway.
Later at Texas Children’s Hospital, an MRI revealed two fractures and bleeding in his brain. One fracture made sense to doctors, but the hospital’s child abuse team concluded that the second would have come from a separate incident. And, the hospital’s abuse specialists determined, there was more bleeding than there should have been.
When Melissa couldn’t offer an alternate explanation, the team notified CPS that it had deemed the injuries “consistent with child abuse.”
Later, however, blood tests taken at the hospital revealed that Mason likely had a clotting disorder that could have explained the excessive bleeding. And a medical expert hired by the Brights authored a report explaining why it’s possible to suffer two skull fractures from a single fall.
Despite those findings, CPS still pushed to remove the children from the home, first by agreeing to a placement with relatives in Baytown. When that proved difficult, the Brights — who believed the arrangement was voluntary — told their caseworker they planned to bring their children home.
No one from CPS contacted the family again until three weeks later, when a caseworker texted Melissa to ask how the baby was. She replied, sending along happy photos and a health update.
The next day, the state — without notifying the Brights — sought emergency custody of the children without bothering to mention that they had been safe at home for 22 days.
That evening, the caseworker showed up at the Brights’ home, took the children and placed them in foster care. Then-Judge Mike Schneider later reversed that decision and hit CPS with a rare sanction, citing the agency for “illegal, fraudulent and unreasonable acts.”
Schneider also ordered the agency to create a training program for workers and supervisors in the Houston region. Though CPS followed through on the training, the agency continued to defend its handling of the matter.
“Our actions in this case were appropriate,” then-spokeswoman Tejal Patel said in a statement.
CPS filed an appeal, a move that could increase the dollar figure that state could pay out because of increased legal fees the Brights incurred fighting the challenge.
“While the Bright family is extremely relieved and happy to finally get past this almost yearlong nightmare,” said Dennis Slate, another attorney representing the family, “they also feel a little let down because they wanted the pain they went through to end up making new law which would protect other families from CPS illegally taking their children.”
Had the state continued fighting the appeal and lost, Slate said, it would have created case law making it easier for families to get sanctions after a wrongful removal in similar situations - such as when CPS files to remove a kid without telling the parents they’re going to court.
‘No checks and balances’
In March, the Brights traveled to Austin to testify in support of a bill that would have required CPS to seek a second medical opinion and check for underlying conditions in certain cases before moving to separate children from their parents.
The bill faced opposition from the state’s leading physicians advocacy group and is not likely to pass this session, said Andrew Brown, director of the Center for Families and Children at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which backed the legislation.
“Second opinions are the standard of care in medicine, anytime you have a major diagnosis,” Brown said. “All this would have done was require that that standard of care be met.”
To Melissa Bright, the agency’s decision to drop the appeal was thrilling, but the bill’s likely failure has left her disappointed.
“There’s no checks and balances,” she said. “It’s really sad for all of the children that have something medically wrong with them, because now they can keep sweeping it under the rug as abuse.”
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