I can’t begin to tell you how angry this makes me.
The new foster parents opened the door last September to a child they can only describe as feral.
At 3, he was obese, his brown saucer eyes shell-shocked, his chocolate skin pocked with a rash the CPS caseworker dismissed as eczema but a doctor later said was likely mites burrowing below. His shoes were two sizes too small, and he possessed one toy: a miniature motorcycle, broken.
He had but two words, not in his own tongue, but that of the previous foster placement in Wharton County. Más and luna, more and moon.
The boy – we’ll call him Dion – loved the moon. On a clear night, he would make his new foster parents stop the car to gaze at it. Maybe, in his young life – rootless, churning, abusive – the moon was the only thing standing still, safely out of reach of what was happening here on Earth.
Angela Sugarek and Carol Jeffrey would never know the horrors he’d seen. He didn’t come with photos, or a written history. Only violent outbursts and fear in his eyes where trust should have been.
More than anything, Sugarek and Jeffrey wanted to shield him from any more trauma. But this, they say, was the one thing they couldn’t do in a Texas foster care system where abuse is so rampant it was recently found unconstitutional by a federal judge.
The trauma would continue – according to interviews and a review of more than 100 court documents, emails and medical records – this time at the hands of the state.
From the beginning, it was clear Dion’s only chance at a future was a stable, loving home with parents willing to endure bites and black eyes, willing to turn their lives upside down to help him heal.
There’s a shortage of such homes, of such people.
But Dion hit the jackpot. Sugarek, 44, the charismatic principal of Hogg Middle School in the Heights, and her wife, Jeffrey, a 38-year-old science teacher at nearby Travis Elementary, had dedicated their lives to helping children. They had bottomless hearts, energy, education and tools.
A month later, they took in Dion’s 4-year-old brother – we’ll call him Darius – who was much more verbal, but also suffered from behavioral issues and PTSD. According to court records obtained last week, the boys’ parents had a history of family violence, and their mother was a drug addict. Their father has been charged with attempted capital murder. In a little over a year, they’d each lived in four different homes. Dion’s most recent was shut down for abuse and neglect, Sugarek said.
All the while, the foster parents arranged visits with a teenage half-brother- we’ll call him Bobby – who was also in foster care.
Knowing that CPS strongly prioritizes keeping siblings together, Sugarek and Jeffrey in October asked to increase the number of children they’d accept from two to three. They considered adding a room to their house.
But early on, they say, red flags popped up whenever Bobby was around Dion.
Texas has been criticized for not tracking child-on-child abuse. But the notion that CPS would actively discourage foster parents from reporting abuse, and even punish them for doing so, is beyond outrageous. Even for a broken system.
No doubt, the 15-year-old had survived his own hell. In 2008, one record shows, CPS received an allegation of sexual abuse involving Bobby and “an unknown perpetrator,” but the case was closed before the investigation started due to allegations being “too vague or general.”
When Sugarek and Jeffrey kept reporting incidents, and it became clear they would not agree to adopt the teen, they say CPS officials began “shopping the boys around” to other families and at an adoption fair.
This, despite glowing reviews about the boys’ care.
According to the foster mothers and emails they sent to the boys’ therapist, Dion at one point told one mom that Bobby had put something in his rear end that felt like marshmallows. He said Bobby had hurt him.
At mediation, with all parties at the table, the foster moms say they asked for an investigation. Again, denied.
Finally, the final straw. All three boys attended a CPS-supervised adoption fair earlier this month. When they returned, the moms say Darius told them Bobby had taken Dion to the bathroom for a long time. The 3-year-old complained his backside hurt. He wouldn’t let his moms wipe him. Days later, after a swim lesson, he bent down in the changing room, revealing a swollen rectum.
His foster mothers notified the therapist, and their private case manager, and they rushed him to the doctor. Medical records show the boy had an anal “abrasion” and irritated skin, but a forensic sexual assault test was inconclusive.
The foster mothers say they had a duty to report it to CPS, and they say their DePelchin case manager encouraged it, but she warned them: CPS would take the children.
She was right. Almost immediately, CPS announced it was moving the boys to a “respite” placement.
Read the whole thing. That action by CPS happened a few weeks ago. They’re still fighting to get Dion and Darius back. I know all four people involved. Sugarek is Olivia’s principal, Jeffrey was her fourth and fifth grade teacher, and I’ve met both boys since they first brought Dion home at the start of the school year. I’m furious that the system could fail in so obvious a way, and heartbroken for two good people who had gladly taken on a tough job and done so beautifully with it. I have compassion for CPS’ caseworkers, who have an impossible job themselves, and get no support from a state government that just doesn’t care. As angry as I am about the particulars of this case, it’s the indifference from the state, which is busy defending itself from lawsuits while piously proclaiming at every opportunity how much they value babies and human life. Don’t worry, kids, Dan Patrick will stand outside every bathroom you ever use to make sure nothing bad ever happens to you. Beyond that, though, you’re on your own. These tax cuts we’re going to pass next year won’t pay for themselves, you know, and we mustn’t go around throwing money at problems we’re not really interested in solving anyway.