AP NEWS

Attorney: CPS pressured Harris County investigator to charge mom after agency hit with $127K sanction

December 3, 2018

Child Protective Services workers allegedly pressured a Harris County investigator to file charges against the mother whose case prompted a $127,000 sanction against the agency, the family’s lawyers said Monday in court.

Dillon and Melissa Bright ended up in the middle of a legal imbroglio earlier this year after CPS wrongfully removed their children amid apparently unfounded suspicions of child abuse. Following an October court hearing in which a CPS caseworker repeatedly pleaded the Fifth Amendment on the stand, the family ultimately won back their kids and last month Juvenile Judge Mike Schneider slapped the state with what may be the largest-ever sanction against the agency.

Aside from the financial penalty - aimed an offsetting the Tomball parents’ legal and medical costs - the judge also ordered the agency to come up with new training protocols for CPS employees. When the agency on Monday turned in its plan for the program, the judge rejected it and asked for additional sections on family law and perjury.

Then, family attorneys Stephanie Proffitt and Dennis Slate came forward with allegations about a tip they’d received from a Harris County Sheriff’s Office investigator.

Last week, Proffitt said, an investigator contacted her to let her know that at least 10 CPS workers “up and down the foodchain” had allegedly called and “pressured (him) to file criminal charges” against Melissa Bright, without mentioning that the court had sanctioned the agency for their actions in the case.

“It just goes to show how CPS thinks they’re above the law because here they are in a court of law and the court tells them what you’ve done is improper and illegal,” Proffitt told the Chronicle after court, “and then they turn around and to cover up what they’ve done try to go in the back door and get criminal charges against these parents.”

Agency spokeswoman Tiffani Butler said CPS is working to fulfill the judge’s request to expand the scope of the training.

“As far as the alleged calls to a detective, if that happened, that would be part of our investigation and therefore confidential,” she added. “CPS does not encourage, pressure nor ask law enforcement or a district attorney’s office to file charges against anyone.”

The legal wrangling all stems from an accident back in July, when 5-month-old Mason fell out of a lawn chair and hit his head on the driveway.

Afterward at the hospital, an MRI revealed two fractures, and bleeding in his brain. One fracture made sense but, the hospital’s child abuse team decided, the second would have come from a separate incident. And, there was more bleeding than there should have been. When Melissa couldn’t offer an alternate explanation for it all, the team deemed the injuries “consistent with child abuse.”

So before Mason left the hospital, a CPS supervisor decided the kids would have to go live with Dillon’s mother in Baytown, more than an hour away.

In the weeks that followed, the injuries didn’t heal as expected, and caring for a baby with serious medical needs became too much for Dillon’s mother. Armed with evidence that their baby’s excessive bleeding was possibly the result of a blood disorder and not abuse, the Brights started lobbying for a better placement — closer to home, with Melissa’s mother.

But, despite promising to address it and admitting they didn’t have grounds to take the kids, according to court records, the agency never approved the switch. So finally, on Aug. 28, Dillon told caseworker Lavar Jones that they were bringing the baby home. No one from CPS contacted the family again until three weeks later, when Jones texted Melissa on Sept. 18 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 — showed up in court and got emergency custody of the children after failing to tell the judge the kids had been safe at home for 22 days. That evening, Jones showed up at the Brights’ home and took the children to foster care.

Then, in early October, the court held a three-day hearing to figure out whether the state had enough cause to keep the kids. When questioned about conflicting earlier claims he’d made, Jones pleaded the Fifth.

“It can be inferred from the context of Mr. Jones’s other testimony,” Schneider later wrote, “that he invoked his Fifth Amendment at the adversary hearing to avoid admitting to prior perjury.”

The Tomball family got back their kids, and at one point the judge ordered CPS to stay away from them. Last month, the parties reconvened for a 5-day sanctions hearing. Since then, the agency has defended its handling of the case as “appropriate.”

During Monday’s hearing to discuss the training ordered as part of the sanctions, the Harris County Attorney’s Office - which is representing CPS in the case - asked to limit the new program only to CPS workers within Harris County, instead of including everyone in the region. But since that’s still more than 400 people, Assistant County Attorney Steven Dieu warned that it might not be possible to finish training everyone in the time frame initially laid out by the judge.

After reviewing the proposed training, Schneider asked the agency to go back to the drawing board and add in more material, including information “regarding the truthfulness owed to the court and the penalties for perjury.”

The parties will reconvene in court later this week, and the first of the agency’s sanction payments is due Tuesday.

AP RADIO
Update hourly