DALLAS, January 9, 2014— A Duncanville family has been in a legal battle with state officials over the custody of their children because of their decision to home-school their family. Trevor and Christina Tutt have four biological children, three adopted children, and were in the process of privately adopting two other children. Two of their biological children are grown and not living in the home. While the Tutts were not accused of abuse or neglect, officials objecting to their decision to home-school their children removed their children from the home.
The Tutts were previously licensed through CPS as foster parents and were working with Safe Families for Children, an organization that seeks to help keep families intact by offering temporary care for children as well as assistance for parents. At the time of the inciting incident, the Tutts were caring for a sibling group of five children placed with them short term by Safe Families. Following that placement, Child Protective Services had placed an infant with the Tutt family as a kinship placement.
According to a report by the Texas Home School Coalition (THSC), a home-school advocacy group, the catalyst for the eventual removal came on September September 11 when a four-year-old child with autism who was temporarily in their care wandered away from home. The Tutt’s eight year old child followed and stayed with the four year old. Both children were found and returned to the home by a police officer, who voiced concerns about then number of children in the home as well as the fact that the four year old had soiled himself during the incident, according to THSC. The officer reported the family to Child Protective Services, which then launched an investigation.
The CPS officer who investigated acknowledged, “There is no problem here,” during an examination of the Tutt house. However, she apparently disapproved of Christina Tutt’s decision to stay home, saying, “Nobody in their right mind would want to stay home all day with so many children!” She issued a safety plan requiring the Tutts to take parenting classes and for Christina Tutt to have a psychological evaluation. On October 31, eleven days after the safety plan expired, the caseworker returned and received documentation of the many parenting classes they Tutts had taken in their work with Safe Families, as well as information from Christina Tutt’s doctor and verification of family therapy session.
On November 14, in an ex parte hearing—meaning the Tutts were neither present nor informed of the hearing— Dallas County District Court Judge Graciela Olvera ordered the Tutt children removed from their home. Although Texas law stipulates that such action occur immediately, the removal happened a week later on November 21.
The CPS caseworker who conducted the investigation did not attend the ex parte hearing, but used statutory language in her affidavit that the children were in immediate danger which the judge used to justify removal of the children from the home. In both public hearings, the caseworker said that she did not request removal but rather was asking for the judge to order Christina Tutt to comply with a psychological evaluation, according to THSC. The caseworker admitted under oath that Tutt believed she had fulfilled that request by giving the caseworker a letter from her physician, and the caseworker did not inform Tutt that it wasn’t sufficient, nor did the caseworker make any other attempt to communicate with Tutt after her visit of October 31st.
A December 4 hearing was scheduled. In the interim, the guardian ad litem appointed by the judge asserted that the children were insufficiently educated base on her own educational evaluation. While the Tutts were not accused of abuse or neglect, the judge, attorney for CPS, and the guardian ad litem focused on homeschooling as cause to keep the children in state care. In a visit to the Tutt home, the guardian ad litem told the Tutts and their attorney, “I will not recommend the children be returned unless the Tutts agree to place their children in public school and never home school them,” according to THSC.
Representatives of the Tutts disagree with the lawyer’s educational assessment, but regardless, THSC notes that educational choices are not to be taken into consideration when removing children from a home, according to Texas law. A 2005 memo from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services notes that, “Whether parents choose to home school their children or send their child to another private or public school is not relevant to the CPS investigation. When CPS staff investigates a family for abuse/neglect, the investigation must focus on the occurrence, or risk, of abuse/neglect and not on the child’s educational setting.”
Despite this, THSC President Tim Lambert said the hearings involved in this case “have spent an inordinate amount of time on the home schooling of the children and their academic status…. Texas does not have “educational neglect” nevertheless, CPS has had a great focus on that in this case.”
On January 7, the Tutts were given a new hearing with a new judge that looked solely at the issue of removal. According to an update on the Support the Tutts Facebook page, “The judge found no abuse or neglect and agreed the children should not have been removed.” Four of the children will be returned to the Tutt family. The children who did not return include the two children whose adoptions were pending and the oldest child from a previous marriage who is is currently with his father.
However, the children are to remain in public school pending further educational evaluations. Lambert says that this case should be a cause of concern for all home school families, “since all it takes is an anonymous phone call to have a family under investigation by CPS and if, with no evidence of abuse or neglect, a judge or CPS can remove children simply by alleging that the children are behind academically, then many families could be at risk.”
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