On November 21 seven children from a home school family in Duncanville were forcibly removed from their home, in spite of no evidence of abuse or neglect, by order of Judge Graciela Olvera of the 256th District Court of Dallas County. Judge Olvera issued a removal order at an ex-parte hearing in which the parents were not represented nor notified.
This action against the Tutt family reminds me of that saying, “No good deed goes unpunished.” The Tutts are a Christian family who have five biological children, three adopted children, and one in the process of private adoption. (Three of the biological children are grown and living outside the home.) The Tutts spent several years as a licensed CPS foster home, adopted a child from CPS foster care, and now serve with Safe Families, working with at-risk families and directly with CPS to help children who are in need of care as a result of abuse or neglectful situations. At the time of the incident that drew CPS’s attention, they were caring for a sibling group of five, including a child with autism, through Safe Families. Additionally, CPS had independently placed an infant with them, knowing that they already had 12 children in their home. This family obviously has a heart for helping children in bad situations, and CPS itself was aware of this goodwill and has called on the family as a resource for such children for many years.
On September 21 the four year-old child with autism wandered away from the home. The Tutts’ eight-year-old went after him but could not bring him back, so he stayed with the child while the other Tutt children notified their father, who immediately got in his car and began to search for them. Unfortunately, he turned right at the end of the block while the children turned left, and a police officer picked them 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. Mrs. Tutt’s documentation from the local school and from Safe Families that the child was autistic and that CPS was well aware how many children were in the home was ignored by the officer.
This call by the police resulted in an investigation by a CPS caseworker who, after walking through the home, acknowledged, “There is no problem here.” Mrs. Tutt was cordial and fully cooperative with the caseworker. In the course of this conversation the caseworker questioned Mrs. Tutt about her ministry to the homeless and asked why she would choose to stay at home with her children. The caseworker said, “Nobody in their right mind would want to stay home all day with so many children!” Apparently this was not a figure of speech, 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 made sure the caseworker put an expiration date on the Safety Plan before she left. The expiration date was October 20.
In spite of the “Safety Plan” expiring on October 20, on October 31 the caseworker returned. Mrs. Tutt produced certificates documenting that they had already taken the requisite parenting classes within the last year and had had two family therapy sessions in the previous two weeks. In addition, Mrs. Tutt produced a certificate from her doctor noting her physical and mental fitness to care for children. The caseworker signed a copy of the doctor’s certificate 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 as part of their work with Safe Families. She told Mrs. Tutt she would see if the doctor’s certificate would be sufficient proof of mental fitness and then handed her a listing of all the service providers used by CPS for everything clinical, without any further instructions. The list was basically a “phone book” of all services, from drug rehab to prenatal care. The Tutts did not hear again from the caseworker
On November 14 there was an ex-parte hearing in which Judge Olvera issued an order to remove the children from the Tutt home, in spite of the fact that CPS had acknowledged, “There is no problem here.” Under Texas Family Code, Chapter 262, removal from the home requires immediate threat of harm to children, but no immediate action was taken by CPS for a full week.
On the morning of November 21 three cars of armed constables arrived at the Tutt home and took possession of the children, not allowing their mother to put shoes on them and refusing to put them in their car seats. The constables told Mrs. Tutt that they were taking the children and herself to a meeting with a judge and CPS, a statement that was untrue.
On arrival at the local CPS office, the caseworker there informed Mrs. Tutt that her children were being removed by order of a judge. The caseworker 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, as is standard CPS procedure, she was told, “We don’t do that anymore.” Mrs. Tutt cited the CPS Handbook, Section 4511, but was rebuffed, and the caseworker refused to allow any of the children to be placed with friends or family. Mrs. Tutt was told the children would be placed in foster care and that there would be a hearing on December 4 to discuss the matter further. It gets worse!
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. The guardian ad litem also told the Tutts’ attorney that the children were being “brainwashed” to think they did not need education.
On December 4 a full hearing was scheduled for December 16. Judge Olvera dismissed the Tutts’ attorney’s concerns that she did not have jurisdiction over the case and responded to her request to move the hearing on this matter to another court by saying, “If you don’t like my ruling, you can appeal it.”
On December 16, in spite of 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. No charges of abuse. No charges of neglect. No charges at all, in fact. There were simply the GAL’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 home school their children—with no legal basis at all. Mrs. Tutt herself was on the stand for three full hours.
CPS attorneys berated Mrs. Tutt for not using a “state-certified home school curriculum,” in spite of the fact that there is no such thing in Texas. The guardian ad litem denigrated her for not submitting documentation of her home schooling to the state on a regular basis, including state-mandated tests. This, of course, is not only not required, but there is no way for someone to do so in Texas.
According to another witness, the guardian ad litem told the court that she herself had a home school friend who turned her children’s work into the Texas Education Agency for academic credits, a claim that is ludicrous.
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 apiece), was unable to fully cross-examine, and was unable to present her closing arguments. By that time it was 9 p.m. The case had been going on for more than 12 hours.
The next day Judge Olvera issued her ruling: The Tutts’ children would not be returned to them but would be kept in foster care. Again, no abuse, no neglect—nothing but a rogue judge who decided to place her view of what was best for these children regarding home education above the law. The Tutts’ appealed.
A hearing before a new judge has been set for January 7, and the new judge has stated that the only evidence she will hear is the justification for the children’s removal. To this day, the Tutts have never been charged with abuse, neglect, or anything at all. The papers they were finally given five days after the removal only contained anecdotes about the caseworker’s visit—nothing actionable by CPS. The guardian ad litem, in the meantime, met with the Tutts in their home with their attorney and acknowledged she has no concerns about the children’s safety, the parents’ parenting ability, the ministry in which the family is involved, or how many children they have in their home, but she will not recommend to the court that the children be returned unless the Tutts agree to place their children in public school and never home school them.
THSC wrote a letter to this attorney to clarify as to the status of home schooling in Texas and to note that her assertion that the children are behind academically does not meet the statutory definition of neglect according to the Texas Family Code. To support our position, we also shared with her the policy statement of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services regarding investigations of abuse/neglect with regard to home school families. Finally, we shared with her the most recent letter from the TEA regarding Texas laws related to home schooling to help her understand that the state of Texas does not regulate, monitor, or oversee home schooling. Of course, we also copied this information to the attorney representing the Tutts as well. These egregious actions and violations of the law have earned Judge Olvera a place on our Texas Judicial Wall of Shame. Look for a public announcement when her addition is posted.
What can you do to help the Tutts? First, pray for them and for their attorney and that the new judge will follow the law and return their children. Secondly, sign our online petition to show you support for this embattled home school family and sign up for our updates to keep abreast of developments in this case. Thirdly, share this information with your friends and ask them to take action as well.