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Angela Sugarek

A happy ending

This was a long time coming.

When I first reported on this family a year ago, the boys – who had behavioral issues and delays likely stemming from abuse, neglect and being shuttled through foster placements – had just been removed from the loving women they called Mama and Mommy, and the stable home where they tended gardens filled with chickens, vegetables and butterflies.

Angela Sugarek and Carol Jeffery, Houston public school educators whose home was regarded as exemplary, had been deemed uncooperative by the Wharton Child Protective Services office after they repeatedly reported concerns, including suspected abuse by a teen half-sibling elsewhere in foster care whom the boys were required to visit.

The women fought in court to get the boys back. Seven weeks later, they did – but it was only supposed to be temporary. CPS continued to block adoption efforts and to shop around the boys and their sibling as a package deal. The mothers say that after my columns began running, CPS staffers who once praised their care began to nitpick and demean, at one point initiating an investigation about a pedicure one boy received on medical advice, and another time terminating their right to medical consent.

Then, suddenly, everything changed. Just as mysteriously as CPS staff had opposed the adoption by Sugarek and Jeffery, they consented to it. Maybe they realized the battle was futile.

“We weren’t going to stop fighting,” Jeffery said.

In this business, we live for happy endings. But like everything else in this saga, it didn’t come easy.

See here, here, and here for the background, and be sure to read the whole thing. I don’t have anything to add to what Lisa Falkenberg says. There are lots of problems with CPS, many of which we can blame on the Legislator and our Governor, and others that CPS itself is responsible for. This story was an example of the latter. It’s great that it all worked out in the end, but it shouldn’t have taken this long and it shouldn’t have been this hard or this frustrating.

The Sugarek/Jeffery family is back together

Wonderful news.

Seven weeks after Child Protective Services caseworkers removed the boys following their foster mothers’ repeated complaints about suspected abuse by an older sibling living elsewhere in foster care, a CPS supervisor brought them back.

The move followed a contentious court hearing and a series of private meetings in which the mothers say CPS never acknowledged an error but agreed it was best to return the boys to the home where they had flourished. A CPS spokesman declined comment.

[…]

In a series of meetings last week, Ketterman and the foster mothers say CPS told them an investigation found the teen had not abused the 3-year-old. They said CPS and the CASA advocate suggested the problem was miscommunication, even though the foster mothers had meticulously detailed every concern for months. At one point, Sugarek said, CPS suggested the anal injury may have been caused by pinworms. She found that ridiculous, saying Dion’s pinworms had healed months earlier after he came to live with them.

But the foster mothers agreed to disagree on the abuse and negotiated to have the children returned. Sugarek and Jeffery say they’re back on track to adopt the two boys and look forward to discussing that at a hearing next month.

Meanwhile, the boys will have only supervised visits with their older brother. The foster mothers say CPS has asked for help in finding a placement for the teen somewhere in the close-knit Heights community.

See here and here for the background. I was at Hogg for their end-of-year awards ceremony on Monday evening, and the first people I happened to see on campus as Olivia and I arrived were Carol Jeffery and the two boys. It was so awesome to see them together. As Lisa Falkenberg notes, the outpouring of support from the community was overwhelming, but Sugarek and Jeffery and the boys were ultimately very lucky. Far too many people, adults and children, don’t get this kind of happy ending from CPS. It sure would be nice if our state leaders cared more about that.

Sugarek/Jeffery foster family update

From Lisa Falkenberg:

The drab little courtroom off the square in Wharton, with its blond wood, stoic flags and idle metal detector at the door, seemed like an alternative universe.

Two Houston foster mothers who entered Thursday with anticipation and profound concern for the little boys recently removed from their home were jolted back by a process puttering along at half speed.

The horrifying realities facing the boys seemed shrouded in jargon and legal formalities. A CPS supervisor in a shiny suit, and the county attorney paid to represent the agency, moved with an utter lack of urgency.

The judge, Eric Andell, at least seemed to grasp the seriousness of the case and noted he’d read about it in this column last week.

The foster mothers, Angela Sugarek and Carol Jeffery, who were by all accounts loving parents to 3-year-old “Dion” and 4-year-old “Darius,” saw their plans of adoption dashed when CPS relocated the boys last month, apparently because the foster mothers had reported alleged abuse by a teen half-sibling living elsewhere in foster care.

[…]

At the status hearing last week, the foster mothers hoped the judge would consider their motion. They asked to be heard in matter, and they made a formal request to adopt the boys. But a ruling was delayed because their attorney had filed the motion only the night before.

“It seems to me the quicker we get this case to trial, the better off we are,” the judge told the attorneys and court-appointed advocates. “Time is not our friend.”

In fact, time may be the enemy for two troubled little boys with a history of abuse.

See here for the background, and be sure to read the whole thing. The good news is that CPS program director Leshia Fisher has been apprised, and is looking into things. The bad news is that she had been completely unaware that the boys had been taken away from Sugarek and Jeffery; she had assumed they had been returned to them by now. Every day that passes makes the situation worse for all involved. All we can do at this point is hope that someone steps in and fixes this.

And speaking of our bedeviled foster care system:

Two special masters appointed by a federal judge to oversee reforms to the state’s embattled foster care system have begun visiting with state officials, and their recent two-and-a-half-day orientation is projected to cost the state roughly $43,000, according to state officials.

The cost of the meetings held April 25-27 are just the beginning of an open-ended tab for court-ordered oversight after U.S. District Judge Janis Jack ruled last year that Texas’ long-term foster care system treated children inhumanely and violated their civil rights.

In that December ruling, Jack ordered the state to pay special masters to study ways to improve foster care over a six-month period. In March, Jack picked two special masters favored by children’s rights advocates: Francis McGovern, a Duke University law professor, and Kevin Ryan, a partner at the New Jersey nonprofit Public Catalyst, which advocates for child welfare.

Emails obtained by The Texas Tribune show the special masters and their staff arranged meetings with state officials for late April. Jack approved pay for McGovern and Ryan at $345 per hour, according to the court record.

Ryan also hired four staff members to assist him: Deborah Fowler, Eileen Crummy, Lisa Taylor and Margaret McHale. McHale received court approval to charge $305 per hour; the other three staff could charge $325 per hour, according to an email from staff at the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.

[…]

This isn’t the first time the state has been on the hook for the costs of an external review of the state’s child welfare system. In 2014, the state paid The Stephen Group to review the operations of the state’s Child Protective Services agency. The initial $750,000 contract has been renewed twice, for a total cost of $2.7 million.

In this case, however, state lawmakers had no choice in approving the cost of the special masters. Lawyers for the state are appealing Jack’s ruling but must comply with her orders as the appeal progresses. Republican leaders have challenged Jack’s ruling as an affront to states’ rights.

A spokesman for Gov. Greg Abbott said the court ruling was forcing the state to spend money it could have otherwise used to improve child safety, such as hiring more staff. Much of Jack’s ruling criticized the state for failing to hire enough caseworkers to keep track of vulnerable children.

“It’s unfortunate and disappointing that millions of dollars that could have gone to serving youth in the Texas foster care system and hiring more caseworkers will now be spent towards the legally baseless special master process,” Abbott spokesman John Wittman said in a prepared statement.

[…]

State Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, told colleagues at an April hearing of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee that the state was simply paying on the back end for its failures to offer preventive care.

“Every time we have a federal court telling us that we’re not complying, it ends up costing us money. That’s just the way it is,” he said. “I know we’re all concerned about cost, but we always talk about how sometimes, prevention that we could’ve done could’ve saved us a lot of money.”

That’s because we always have to do this the hard way. And because “states rights” are more important than the children. Greg Abbott himself says so.

A personal story of CPS’ failure to protect children

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.