With the recent launch of the Family Freedom Project, we are reflecting on the stories of those who have sacrificed so much for parental rights in the state of texas.
On September 21, 2013, a four-year-old autistic child in the Tutts’ care wandered away from the home after climbing over a baby gate, out a dog door, and over a 5 foot fence. The Tutts’ eight-year-old followed the four-year-old but could not bring him back, so he stayed with the child while the other Tutt children notified their father Trevor, who immediately got in his car and began to search for them. Unfortunately, Trevor turned right at the end of the block while the children turned left, and a police officer picked the children up and returned them to the home before Mr. Tutt could find them. Without entering the home, but seemingly upset with the number of children there, the fact that the shaded yard did not have grass, and the fact that the autistic child had soiled himself, the officer contacted CPS.
This call resulted in an investigation by CPS caseworker Shan Robinson, who, after walking through the home, acknowledged, “There is no problem here.” Mrs. Christina Tutt was cordial and fully cooperative with Ms. Robinson. During the visit, Ms. Robinson questioned Mrs. Tutt about her ministry to the homeless and asked why she would choose to stay at home with her children. Ms. Robinson said, “Nobody in their right mind would want to stay home all day with so many children!” Apparently, she meant that quite literally, because the caseworker issued a “safety plan” requiring the Tutts to take parenting classes and requiring Mrs. Tutt to have a psychological examination. Mrs. Tutt insisted the caseworker put an expiration date of October 20, 2013, on the safety plan.
11 days after the expiration date, Ms. Robinson returned. Mrs. Tutt produced certificates documenting parenting classes within the last year and two family therapy sessions in the previous two weeks. In addition, Mrs. Tutt produced a letter from her doctor noting her physical and mental fitness to care for children. Ms. Robinson signed a copy of the doctor’s letter to show she had received it and noted that CPS had no services that could be offered to the family because the Tutts had already taken so many parenting classes on their own. She told Mrs. Tutt she would see if the doctor’s letter would be sufficient proof of mental fitness. Ms. Robinson did not contact them again.
On November 14, 2013, Judge Graciela Olvera held a hearing regarding the Tutt family without informing the family or inviting anyone to represent them. The judge issued an order to remove the children from the Tutt home, even though CPS had acknowledged there was no evidence of abuse or neglect. Under Texas Family Code chapter 262, removal from the home requires immediate threat of harm to children, but after the order was issued, CPS took no action for a full week.
The morning of November 21, 2013, three cars of armed constables arrived at the Tutt home and took possession of the children, not allowing Mrs. Tutt to put shoes on them and refusing to put them in their car seats. The constables lied and told Mrs. Tutt that they were taking the children and her to a meeting with a judge and CPS.
On arrival at the local CPS office, the caseworker, Ms. Robinson, told Mrs. Tutt that her children were being removed by order of a judge. She would not tell Mrs. Tutt the charges and would not show her any paperwork. When Mrs. Tutt attempted to have her children placed with friends and family per standard CPS procedure, she was told, “We don’t do that anymore.”
In the interim, the guardian ad litem appointed by Judge Olvera to represent the “best interests of the children” did her own “educational examination” of the traumatized children and concluded they were not being “properly educated.” Her descriptions of the children’s inability to count objects, say the alphabet, or spell their names were unbelievable to the Tutts’ many friends and family who had witnessed their academic ability over the years.
By December 16, 2013, despite protests by the Tutts’ attorney that it is not lawful to remove children or keep them in CPS foster care without evidence of abuse or neglect, the attorney ad litem recommended to Judge Olvera that the children remain in CPS care. With no evidence of abuse or neglect whatsoever, the case hinged almost completely on the guardian ad litem’s concerns that the children were “severely behind educationally.”
According to witnesses in the courtroom, the hearing quickly devolved into a relentless attack on this family’s religious beliefs, community service, and right to homeschool their children—with no legal basis for the charges. Mrs. Tutt herself was on the stand for three full hours.
When the Tutts’ attorney was finally given the floor, she had almost no time to present her case. She had to reduce her witness list from 20 to only six (two of them taking the stand for fewer than five minutes a piece), was unable to fully cross-examine, and was unable to present her closing arguments. By that time it was 9 p.m. The hearing had dragged on for more than 12 hours.
The next afternoon, Judge Olvera issued her ruling: The Tutts’ children would be kept in foster care, and CPS would continue to pursue termination of parental rights. The parents would also be forced to undergo drug testing, psychiatric evaluation and parenting classes. Again, there was absolutely no abuse or neglect, only a rogue judge who decided to place her view of what was best for these children above the law. Stunned by the travesty of justice, the Tutts appealed the ruling.
A hearing before a new judge was set for January 7, 2014. The guardian ad litem, in the meantime, met with the Tutts in their home with their attorney and acknowledged she had no concerns about their parenting ability, the children’s safety, the ministry in which the family was involved, or how many children they had in their home. However, she would not recommend to the court that the children be returned unless the Tutts agreed to place their children in public school and never homeschool them again.
On January 7, 2014, the Tutt case continued at a hearing in Dallas Judge Tena Callahan’s court. During the course of the hearing, it was revealed that the initial removal order by Judge Olvera was given at a hearing of which the Tutts were not informed and at which they were not represented. Shan Robinson, the CPS caseworker whose affidavit was used as justification to remove the children, testified in the hearing that she was not present at the hearing and did not seek the removal of the children, only an order to compel Mrs. Tutt to undergo a psychological evaluation. Judge Olvera had refused to issue an order to participate and told CPS she wanted a removal without even meeting with the caseworker and without any evidence that there was any abuse or neglect. Ms. Robinson then changed her paperwork to include language that would give the judge justification for removal and resubmitted it to the judge. Mrs. Robinson specifically added this ending to her affidavit: “It is my opinion that there is imminent danger and the children are at risk of serious harm if left in the care of their parents.” This is almost direct language from Texas Family Code 262.102 (1) in the emergency order section of the family code. Ms. Robinson testified at multiple hearings that the home was fine and that there were no grounds for removal, yet she included this language because Judge Olvera wanted the children removed from the home. In other words, Ms. Robinson committed perjury in the document at Judge Olvera’s request. Shan Robinson also testified that she knew Mrs. Tutt believed she was in compliance with the safety plan and acknowledged that no attempt was made to contact Mrs. Tutt and inform her that she was not in compliance.
Although Judge Callahan appeared to be much more judicious and reasonable than Judge Olvera had been, she nonetheless illegally ruled that only four of the Tutts’ children would be returned to them. One would remain with his biological father (Mrs. Tutt’s ex husband), but the two children in the process of private adoption would remain in foster care. While Judge Callahan seemed to be much more aware of homeschooling’s legal status in Texas, she nevertheless ruled that the Tutt children who were returned to them would remain in public school during a court-ordered psychological evaluation of the parents and an educational assessment of the children by an “educational expert who is familiar with homeschooling.”
On February 10, 2014, CPS finally allowed a visit between the Tutts’ foster daughter K and her siblings (whose adoption into the Tutt family had already been finalized), but tried to refuse Mrs. Tutt to be part of that visit.
There was no legal justification for the judge’s decision to separate K from her foster family and her biological siblings who were members of that family. In fact, in the state of Texas, people who have adopted a child’s biological siblings are given first right of refusal when that child is put up for adoption.
As the February 28, 2014, hearing approached, the children restored to the Tutts continued to struggle with the trauma of their experience with CPS, and the Tutts sought professional help for them. CPS illegally sought the children’s records from the public school and recruited one of the tutors from the public school to spy on the family for them. Our team helped the Tutt family with the legal costs of defending their children and kept exploring any possibility to help them get their children back and to continue homeschooling.
Several hearings in the Tutt case were held in Dallas the last week of June 2014. Our retained attorneys represented the Tutt family as they sought to continue the adoption process of K, the biological sibling of two of the adopted Tutt children. CPS repeatedly said that they would work to prevent the adoption of K by the Tutts, despite having no reason to do so. In another hearing that week the judge ruled that Mrs. Tutt must pay child support to her former husband with whom the judge placed her teenage son. Mrs. Tutt had not seen her teenage son in over 7 months. In spite of the ex-husband defying the court order to have this son attend counseling with a court-appointed counselor and Mrs. Tutt, the judge later agreed to allow the father to use a different counselor, who would only comply with the court-ordered counseling if Mrs. Tutt prepaid a $4,000 fee for services.
In yet another hearing, Dr. Ronald Johnson gave testimony as an expert witness for the family that it would be in the best interest of these children to be returned to the home. The judge seemed to accept this testimony but found it necessary to say that the focus on the education of the children “had nothing to do with homeschooling,” although the hearings in December and January were almost solely focused on the alleged lack of education of the children so CPS could justify keeping the children away from their parents. On a positive note, the judge chastised CPS officials for not completing the psychiatric evaluations of Mr. and Mrs. Tutt, which she had ordered 60 days earlier. She ordered that the Tutts have an evaluation done by a qualified psychiatrist before the next hearing in August.
By August 22, 2014, the Tutts were back in the courtroom for a hearing scheduled to decide whether they would be allowed to homeschool their children. CPS attorneys focused heavily on the issue of socialization and homeschooling during cross examination.
After taking testimony from both sides, Judge Tena Callahan declined to render an official order. Judge Callahan severely chastised the Tutts for their decision to speak to a local press contact about their issues with CPS.
On August 28, 2014, Judge Callahan ruled that two of the four children at home be released from CPS oversight and be allowed to return to homeschooling. And on September 14, 2014, Judge Callahan finally ruled that the remaining 2 children in the Tutt home would be released from CPS oversight and allowed to return to homeschooling.
Meanwhile, the motion filed by CPS at the beginning of this case to terminate the parental rights of the Tutts was still pending. The Tutts’ attorney filed a writ of mandamus with the Texas Fifth Court of Appeals in Dallas, arguing that both judges in this case had abused their authority. She asked the court to rule that when the district judge decided that the taking of the children by CPS was unlawful, she should have complied with the law and returned all of the children to the family. Sadly, the Fifth Court of Appeals issued a ruling denying relief to the family because of a lack of an official transcript to which the Tutts were lawfully entitled but which Judge Callahan delayed providing for months.
In the meantime, hearings and court actions continued on behalf of the children still separated from the family. Our team prepared legal counsel for a jury trial, if necessary, to restore the children to their parents. Although CPS is limited by law to 12 months in such cases before it is required to drop its involvement if it has not proven its accusations, it will not come as a surprise to those who followed this case closely that the judge granted CPS an extension to allow more time to continue legally harassing the Tutt family.
At the beginning of 2015, Ms. Cecelia Wood, the Tutts’ attorney, filed a second action with the Fifth Court of Appeals in Dallas. This writ of mandamus asked the higher court to free the Tutt family from government interference in light of the earlier court ruling that the children were unlawfully removed in the first place.
As they fought this uphill battle, the Tutts yearned for their family members to return home. Seven-year-old K, the biological sister of two of the Tutt children, remained in foster care, where she had been for more than a year. CPS continued to work aggressively to prevent the Tutts from adopting K. K’s biological mother (in jail, charged with murder) had previously signed a document waiving her parental rights and agreeing to allow the Tutts to adopt her three children, but CPS acted as though it had never happened and took the biological mother to trial to terminate her rights, forcing the Tutts to witness at the hearing.
By October, 2015, the Tutts’ case was still pending at The Supreme Court of Texas with full briefings requested by the court and completed in October, 2015.
In a bewildering 2016 decision by The Supreme Court of Texas, the Tutt family was denied their motion for rehearing despite clear violations of Texas law by CPS. The Tutt family (a homeschool family from the Dallas area) had been in litigation against CPS for more than two years after the agency illegally removed their children and accused them of not having a “state-approved” homeschool curriculum. (A “state-approved” homeschool curriculum does not exist in Texas.)
After the lower court missed a statutory deadline to conclude the case, the Tutts’ attorney filed a writ of mandamus with The Supreme Court of Texas seeking relief in February 2015. The Court then requested briefings from both sides. Fourteen months later, in April 2016, The Supreme Court of Texas denied the family’s request for relief without explanation, even though the deadlines had clearly passed. The Tutts’ attorney continued to fight. He filed a motion for a rehearing which was also refused. At this point the Tutts’ child had been in foster care for more than 30 months despite the 18-month statutory deadline for finishing the case.
On June 10, 2016, Justice Eva Guzman wrote an elegant dissent specifically outlining that the district court had clearly abused its discretion:
- by keeping the Tutts’ child past the statutory deadline.
- by allowing the family’s homeschooling to be used in support of the initial removal of the children.
- by keeping several of the children in state custody even after finding that there was no evidence to justify the removal.
A grant of mandamus by The Supreme Court of Texas requires the support of six out of the nine justices. Therefore, at least four justices on The Supreme Court of Texas did not believe in enforcing the clear intent of the statute and returning the child to her home. This was despite the original removal being ruled unjustified and the fact that the child had been kept away from her home for more than a year past the required deadline.
With relief denied by The Supreme Court of Texas, the family was forced to continue battling in district court against the illegal actions of the local judge and CPS. By this point in the case, all of the Tutts’ children had been returned except for the one girl whom the Tutts had been in the process of adopting.
By January, 2017, all of the Tutts’ biological children had been returned home. Seven-year-old K., the biological sister of two other adopted Tutt children, remained in foster care (where she had been for more than a year). K. was repeatedly reprimanded for insisting that her last name was “Tutt,” but was allowed to visit her two siblings on a weekly basis. CPS continued to work aggressively to prevent the Tutts from adopting K.
Like many families in these horrific situations, the Tutts were traumatized by the multiple investigations, the constant threats by CPS to start another investigation and the string of false abuse allegations. Their hearts were broken knowing that K. had spent more than three-and-a-half years in foster care while CPS and the judges did everything possible to delay a trial. THSC fought for the Tutts this whole time to reunite their family and to allow the family to continue homeschooling.
Despite several requests to speed up K.’s return to the Tutts (including a joint trial with others involved in the case) the judge refused. After CPS’s continued obstruction of K’s adoption by the Tutts and The Supreme Court of Texas’s refusal to defend their rights, the Tutts chose to stop fighting. With that, they give up their dream of adopting her, and as a result the last child that was taken from them by CPS was never returned.
Parental rights are under attack by increasingly aggressive, invasive, and powerful outside forces, however, our team continues to fight for the rights of this family and every other Texas family.