Tomi Burns had no idea he might be the father of a second child until a child welfare social worker called him from Houston in August 2020. A woman he was with briefly out in Arlington, where he lived, had moved to Houston and had a baby the previous month. The woman was currently homeless and CPS, fearing her mental illness would make her unable to care for her daughter, removed the baby from her care at the hospital.
Once Burns heard the news, he immediately asked for the baby to come live with him. His placement with him was conditional on a DNA test, but due to the hectic pace of the court, he was not confirmed as a father until January. Meanwhile, the baby lingered in foster care, and CPS assessed whether Burns was fit to be a babysitter.
Burns held a steady job as a delivery truck driver and had joint custody of his eleven-year-old daughter with another woman. But the CPS found out that he was twice charged with possession of marijuana as a teenager – some 15 years ago – and had faced a domestic violence charge four years earlier. in a case involving a woman who was not the mother of either of her children. Although he took a court-ordered domestic violence course and the trial was deferred, the CPS demanded that Burns complete a long list of mandatory exams and attend classes in order to secure custody of his child. girl. He put his pay stubs back on, got tested for drugs and allowed social workers to come to his home unannounced for several months. He was also required to complete an eight-week parenting course and undergo another domestic violence assessment and psychological assessment. All this despite the fact that he was not at all involved in why the child was taken from his mother.
Federal law dictates that children should be with their parents whenever possible, a policy that is based on research showing that children do best when they are raised by their parents or, failing that, by members of the family. family. Child protection advocates say that in cases like Burns, in which family members are willing and able to take children, the child should never end up in the foster care system reception. “From the Supreme Court there is constitutional law, the presumption that you are a fit parent until proven guilty,” Burns lawyer Aubrie Linder said. “And I don’t think that presumption was given in this case.” (A representative from the Department of Family and Protective Services, which oversees the CPS, declined to comment on the details of Burns’ case.)
Under the new rules adopted by Lege, cases like Burns’ could be avoided in Texas in the future. This year, lawmakers overwhelmingly passed a series of laws to fix Texas’ foster care system, which faces a ten-year trial for its human rights violations. child and is in the midst of a capacity crisis, with children sleeping in offices due to a dearth of good homes in which to place them. Among that list of reforms, which some parenting lawyers call “groundbreaking,” there is one that protects “non-delinquent parents,” such as Burns, who was not involved in an abuse claim, from having to work and be supervised by the CPS in order to obtain custody of their child. Another major law changed the definition of state negligence, raising the threshold for removing a child from “substantial risk of harm” to “imminent danger”, with the aim of ensuring that judges do not order withdrawal only in the most serious situations.
The reforms aim to allow children to stay with their parents in situations where poverty is confused with neglect. “Ideally, if this is a case of poverty-related neglect, a family is not separated but rather connected to community resources that can help them cope with these issues,” said Andrew Brown, senior researcher in child and family policy at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation. “Because this is ultimately not an issue child protection services should be involved in, it is an issue that the family needs support. “
Major changes to child welfare laws mostly went unnoticed in a session in which high-profile battles between Democrats and Republicans over voting rights and abortion grabbed the headlines. newspapers. Remarkably, in a particularly polarizing political climate, reforms were pushed forward and adopted by lawmakers on the fringes of left and right.
On the one hand, child protection abolitionists, including groups such as the upEND movement, formed last year at the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Houston. Abolitionists see the ‘family policing system’, as they call it, as irreparable and want to dismantle it, along with the police and prisons, in favor of community-led support groups and financial support for parents. in trouble. Their unlikely allies were conservative militant organizations including We the Parents Texas, an advocacy group co-founded by Houston State Representative Lacey Hull, which calls on Texas to abolish the CPS and turn negligence cases to the police. and child abuse. While the far left primarily looked at the issue from a racial justice perspective and linked the child welfare system to prison sentences, conservative groups have mainly focused on limiting government intrusion into the community. family unit, giving parents increased rights to make choices for their children without regulation. Advocates like Alan Dettlaff, the director of the upEND movement, say the coalition was made possible following the murder of George Floyd, when abolitionist ideas entered the mainstream.
“Somehow these two extremes came together,” says Tara Grigg-Green, a lawyer who deals with complex CPS cases in Harris County. “And then it’s like you want the government to let you raise your kids in a bunker and homeschool and not vaccinate them?” Costs. We just want them to stop removing our children from our community, ”she says of many of her clients, who are poor and predominantly black.
Dettlaff is happy to see reforms that limit the scope of the child welfare system, but he doesn’t know how long the two sides can continue to find common ground. He would like to see the definition of neglect changed again so that it is only when the harm to a child is “intentional” that parents can have their children removed. But he’s worried about the dismantling of the CPS system as Republicans remain firmly opposed to expanding social supports, including Medicaid and cash assistance for poor parents. “There is a concern of closing the front door or tightening the front door without simultaneously extending the supports for the children. And it absolutely has to happen, ”says Dettlaff.
The changes passed this year are so significant that some longtime CPS lawyers say they need to relearn the Texas Family Code statutes. Marissa Gonzales, DFPS media relations director, writes that the agency “is encouraged by the support and interest of the legislature in this session and is actively aligning its policies and procedures with newly enacted legislation.”
Because there is no case law for the new definition of negligence, leaving much to the interpretation of the judges, it remains to be seen what kind of effect the reforms, which came into effect on September 1, will have on the rates of negligence. return to the state. But the changes will likely affect cases like Burns’.
While it took Tomi Burns months to complete the extensive service plan CPS asked for, his daughter was growing up in foster care and he could only see her for short supervised visits. “I was losing my faith. I didn’t think I was going to have it, ”says Burns. To speed up the process, Burns’ mother stepped in and offered to take custody of the child. She did a home study, but her attempt to get her grandchild was delayed because she didn’t have a driver’s license, which CPS prefers caregivers to have. Before the baby could be sent to Burns’ mother, she and her son had to travel to Houston for five straight weekends to bond with the baby – a four-hour commute each way, all for a two hour supervised visit to the CPS office. .
Meanwhile, the foster family bonded with the baby and wanted to adopt him. When a child has been placed with a foster family for a year, the foster parents can go to court and argue for the adoption. As the Burns family walked through the hoops CPS had prepared for them, that date was fast approaching. Finally, just five days before the foster parents can officially join the trial and seek to adopt the baby, a judge has agreed to grant custody of the girl to Burns’ mother.
Burns now has his daughter four days a week, less than he wants, he says, but at least she’s with his family when she’s not with him. The baby was one year old in June; she is friendly and babbles “daddy” to him all the time. Still, he feels like he’s getting to know her. He holds back tears when he speaks of learning that she likes and dislikes, and of struggling to let go of the time he couldn’t spend with her early in his life. “I really feel like I haven’t had a chance just on this,” he says. “And I really don’t want this to happen to another person, you know?” They might not be as lucky as I am.