Accused in Texas Face Long Wait to Fight Abuse Label

Parents Melissa and Gary Gates with seven of their 13 children on the Gates' 150-acre property in Richmond, Texas. From left to right: Melissa, Marcus, 15; Gary; Cassie, 18; Sarah, 28; Cynthia, 20; Andy, 18; Raquel, 20; and Lexi, 16.
Parents Melissa and Gary Gates with seven of their 13 children on the Gates' 150-acre property in Richmond, Texas. From left to right: Melissa, Marcus, 15; Gary; Cassie, 18; Sarah, 28; Cynthia, 20; Andy, 18; Raquel, 20; and Lexi, 16.

It’s been more than a decade since Child Protective Services entered Gary and Melissa Gates’ Houston-area home and removed their two biological kids and 11 adopted ones, following an allegation the pair had emotionally abused one of their children. Within three days, a judge had returned all the children to their parents; within eight months, the child welfare agency had dropped its case.

But the Gateses, along with half a million other people, remain listed in a statewide database of people who mistreat children — a registry that often precludes child care jobs, foster care and their life’s work, adoption.

“From my side of the socioeconomic scale, this is nothing you’d ever think would happen,” said Gary Gates, who has spent “well north of $500,000” trying to get off the registry, and to hold CPS accountable for the trauma he says his family has endured. “The reality is, very few people have the emotional and financial fortitude to fight this.”

CPS officials, who say they must walk a fine line between keeping children safe from harm and protecting the rights of those accused of abuse, are prohibited from speaking about the Gates case. Meanwhile, more than 2,000 people are caught in a backlog of cases awaiting administrative appeals, many with their careers and families hanging in the balance.

Minors on the Central Registry

Age Total Perpetrators
10 42
11 126
12 224
13 396
14 721
15 958
16 1,318
17 1,884
Source: CPS

Texas’ “central registry” was created in the 1990s as a repository for reports of child abuse and neglect — a database maintained so child welfare workers and job placement offices could run background checks or further investigations. There are roughly 325,000 central registry checks each year.

But the confidential registry is largely made up of people who are not convicted criminals or registered sex offenders. It contains more than 500,000 people — 5,700 of them between the ages of 10 and 17 — who state investigators have found “reason to believe” sexually abused, physically harmed or neglected a child.

Their acts are listed as moderate, serious or severe — subjective, undefined determinations made by individual caseworkers. (More than half are classified as “moderate.”) And once on the registry, it is very difficult to get off. Those on the registry can wait anywhere from five to 99 years for their designation to expire. Or they can appeal to CPS — the same agency that made the initial determination — to be removed from the list.

Just a third of alleged perpetrators who appeal to CPS are successful. The others can pursue a review from the State Office of Administrative Hearings — which can take years because of a shortage of lawyers in CPS’s legal division. At the end of 2010, more than 2,100 people were awaiting these reviews. More than 1,000 of them had been waiting for more than a year; nearly 200 had been waiting three or more years.

In the meantime, child welfare officials say, people accused of abuse or neglect and placed on the registry can continue to work with children as long as they go through a review and are not determined to be an “immediate threat” — a classification doled out in 7.5 percent of cases. But they cannot foster children. And they cannot adopt.

“We consider this backlog a safety issue,” said Anne Heiligenstein, commissioner of Texas’ Department of Family and Protective Services, which oversees CPS. "We remain concerned about the risk.”

Allegations Against Minors on Registry

Allegation Total Confirmed Percent of Allegations
Abandonment 7 0.11%
Emotional Abuse 24 0.39%
Medical Neglect 60 0.98%
Neglect (MH&MR Facility) 1 0.02%
Neglectful Supervision 861 14.10%
Physical Abuse 761 12.46%
Physical Neglect 112 1.83%
Refusal to Accept Parental Responsibility 5 0.08%
Sexual Abuse 4,277 70.02%
Source: CPS

For the Gateses, being on the registry is akin to being blacklisted. The deeply religious couple had two biological children, one of them disabled, before adopting 11 others “at God’s direction” throughout the 1990s — including sibling groups and troubled older children, some of the hardest to place. The Gateses' many supporters describe their sprawling household as a place of deep love and strict discipline, where troubled children were taught structure and proper behavior through church, exercise and punishment, some of it unconventional.  

On a Friday in February 2000, CPS workers came to the Gateses’ home and removed all of their children after a phone call alleging emotional abuse. The couple’s adopted fourth grader had arrived at school with a plastic bag of cookie wrappers stapled to his shirt — his punishment, the Gateses said, for breaking into the kitchen late at night to binge on a bulk box of Fig Newtons.

The following Monday, in a courtroom packed with the Gateses’ friends and family, CPS alleged that the couple — and in particular Gary — were frightening disciplinarians, who forced their children to haul bricks and miss meals as punishment and who resorted to physical violence when the children acted out. (In years of media reports, the Gateses have never denied being strict, or taking an aggressive, physical approach to disciplining their kids. But they say the average parent's scolding has no effect on the most troubled child — and argue that any suggestions of violence are preposterous.)  

The judge returned the children to their parents. CPS dropped the case several months later, after the Gateses hired high-profile attorneys, demanded records and resisted state services. But the battle did not stop there. The Gateses have spent much of the last decade tying CPS up in court, alleging the agency abused its power and unlawfully encroached on their rights and their home. As recently as 2008, a federal appellate court dismissed a suit alleging that the state had violated the Gateses’ constitutional rights — but insisted that CPS overhaul how it removes children from their homes, including getting a court order first unless a child is in imminent danger. 

Today, most of the Gates children are fully grown. But the couple remains on the central registry after losing an administrative review for which they say they waited more than eight years. Now, they are pursuing legal remedies to try to get off of the registry. “There’s no accountability in the system,” Gates said of CPS. “They make up the rules as they go along.”

Rep. John Zerwas, R-Simonton, has filed legislation backed by the Gateses that would ban CPS from adding someone’s name to the central registry until the individual had time to appeal it and until the abuse finding has been upheld in an administrative hearing. But with four weeks left in the legislative session, the bill still has not gotten a hearing. CPS officials say the measure would increase the agency’s costs and potentially endanger children by allowing someone who ultimately ends up in the database to be around children while the administrative process plays out.

“The department would not know that a person applying to work in child care or who is applying to become a foster or adoptive parent has been determined to have abused or neglected another child,” said Patrick Crimmins, a spokesman for the agency.

Meanwhile, state child welfare officials came before lawmakers this winter to request 25 additional attorneys to clear the administrative hearing backlog. But the House version of the tightened up budget does not include the funding — and the Senate draft only includes enough to get the backlog down to 1,300 by the end of fiscal year 2013. 

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