Sixteen years have passed since Child Protective Services staffers removed 13 children from the Houston-area home of Gary and Melissa Gates, saying the kids — two born to the couple and 11 adopted — were in "immediate danger."
Within three days, a judge returned the children, and some eight months later the child welfare agency dropped its case. But being accused of child abuse did not sit well with the couple, which devoted years to a highly publicized legal quest for vindication.
The Gates children have since grown into adults. Eight now work in the family business, Gary Gates says, and "85 percent of them are doing okay" and all continue to "turn their hearts toward Mom and Dad."
But the incident resurfaces each time Gates runs for public office, which he's done four times unsuccessfully. Now, it’s bubbling up in Gates’ Republican primary race for a seat on the Texas Railroad Commission, the oil and gas regulator that has nothing to do with locomotives — or parenting, for that matter.
Gates spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawsuits that ultimately forced the child welfare agency to change some of its practices, and he proudly tells a version of the story on the campaign trail. In speeches, campaign materials and interviews, the wealthy cattle rancher and real estate mogul portrays himself as a victim-turned-crusader against government intrusion on parental rights.
“What got me involved in politics and fighting government was the story — the issue with my kids,” he told The Texas Tribune. “I’ve looked the government in the eye, and I’ve sued."
In March, Gates forced a May 24 runoff for one of three seats on the Railroad Commission with former state Rep. Wayne Christian of Center. The candidates differ little on policy, so the contest has mostly involved debate about each candidate’s background. Gates has portrayed himself as a successful businessman battling the political elite. Christian has touted his policy credentials and pointed out the inexperience of Gates, who has lost four bids for the Texas Legislature.
With the race heating up, some of the more uncomfortable details of the child welfare case are surfacing again, presumably to raise questions about Gates’ character among conservative voters.
Christian, a longtime lawmaker, did not respond to repeated interview requests for this story. But in a broad interview last month, he told the Tribune that he had no plans to wade into Gates’ complicated history with CPS.
“There are some other folks who have talked to me that say they have information,” he said. “I’ve told them personally, I don’t want to get into it.”
Last weekend, an anonymous account called “Gary Gates Case” sprang up on Twitter and began following journalists, state officials and Austin insiders. The account’s owner — who did not respond to an inquiry from the Tribune — has been linking to court documents and blasting out messages like this:
“If this is how Gary Gates treats his kids, how would he run Railroad Com?”
It’s unclear what, if any, effect the candidate's complicated back story will have on the outcome of a down-ballot race that rarely generates much discussion beyond the Capitol's pink dome or in Texas energy circles.
“I doubt that there are many people are paying attention,” said Jerry Polinard, a political scientist at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, who was not previously aware of Gates’ CPS run-in.
“I admire the Gates. I would not hesitate to place my own children in their care.”— Jay Bevan, clinical psychologist
The deeply religious Gateses had two biological children, one of them disabled, before adopting 11 others — “at God’s direction” — throughout the 1990s. That included sibling groups and troubled older children who had bounced between foster homes. The family's many supporters describe their crowded household as a place of deep love and strict discipline, where troubled children were taught structure and proper behavior through religion, exercise and punishment, some of it unorthodox.
The family's long-winding battle with CPS — which drew extensive media coverage over the years — began with stolen fig bars.
On a Friday in February 2000, the couple’s adopted 10-year-old, who had an eating disorder that involved compulsively stealing and hoarding food, arrived at school with a Ziploc bag stapled to his shirt and stuffed with Fig Newton wrappers and a note from his father: As punishment for stealing the pastry bars and devouring them in the family attic, the fourth grader would wear the wrappers all day. He would not be allowed to eat any food from school or attend a Valentine's Day party.
A school employee phoned a CPS hotline, alleging that the child's parents had emotionally abused him.
Several agency staffers later entered the Gates home, rounded up 12 of the kids and hauled them away in a “jail wagon” with barred windows — eventually delivering them to foster homes. (The agency removed the family's 14-year-old from a school dance.)
The following Monday, in a courtroom packed with the Gateses’ friends and family, CPS alleged that the couple — particularly Gary — meted out a frightening brand of discipline, forcing children to haul bricks, sit against a wall for lengthy periods of time and miss meals as punishment. If the kids acted out, the couple might resort to physical violence, the agency alleged.
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 children, and they call suggestions of physical violence absurd.
The judge soon returned the children home. And CPS dropped the case months later, after the Gateses hired high-profile attorneys, demanded records and resisted state services.
“I’ve looked the government in the eye, and I’ve sued.”— Gary Gates, Railroad Commission candidate
The legal process churned out several independent expert evaluations of life at the Gates home that Gary says should erase any doubts about his parenting.
In one glowing review, Jay Bevan, a clinical psychologist from Sugar Land, wrote of the couple’s “creative” approach to parenting that “can be seen as throwback to the 1800s.” The children, he wrote, “say they are afraid of” their father but “know that he won’t harm them.”
“I admire the Gates. I would not hesitate to place my own children in their care,” Bevan’s report said.
A licensed marriage and family therapist, Helen Kerlick, suggested that it was “inappropriate” for Gates to punish his 10-year-old in a way that would “humiliate him most.” But she called it an isolated incident. “None of the Gates children are oppressed or are being treated cruelly by either parent,” she wrote in a report to the court.
But the battle continued. The Gateses spent years tying up CPS in court, alleging the agency abused its power and unlawfully encroached on their rights and their home. (The family also sued the Lamar Consolidated Independent School District over its role in the saga and negotiated a $125,000 settlement.)
In 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.
The agency ultimately adopted such recommendations.
“Every professional that touched that case completely exonerated us. Whether I could convince CPS, that’s a different matter,” Gates told the Tribune. “The bottom line was that the system was changed because of that case, and Fourth Amendment rights are better protected.”
The couple is still fighting in court to have their names removed from a state-maintained database of Texans accused of mistreating children — saying the categorization was damaging and lacked due process. In 2013, a state appellate court upheld a lower court’s ruling that it lacked jurisdiction to weigh in.
But all those lawsuits made public many deeply personal details from the Gateses' struggles with CPS — documents that would have otherwise been protected by state privacy laws.
As the Railroad Commission runoff approaches, someone is seeking to capitalize on the trove of court records. Whoever is running the anonymous Twitter account is sending out excerpts, such as quotes from CPS’ early interviews with the Gates children, where one child mentioned being handcuffed to a bed and some spoke of being hit or kicked.
Throughout his battles with CPS, Gates has accused the child welfare agency of misunderstanding the kids’ statements or taking them out of context.
Milton Rister, the former director of the Railroad Commission who supports Christian, is quick to highlight Gates’ CPS history when evaluating his candidacy.
“I certainly wouldn’t let Gary Gates babysit my grandson,” he said.
Gates' very public parenting history hasn't deterred his supporters. Groups endorsing him include the Texas Association of Realtors and the Conservative Republicans of Texas — a group that seeks "to advance Constitutional liberties based upon Biblical principles." Representatives of those groups and a few other Gates supporters did not respond to messages Wednesday.
Christian's backers include the Tea Party-leaning group Empower Texans, which briefly alluded to the abuse allegations on its website, and the Texas Oil and Gas Association.
For his part, Gates calls the dredging up of his past — whoever is behind it — “dirty politics.”
“How many kids did he adopt?” he said. “These people, who want to sit and go through my wife’s and my papers, how many kids did they go out and adopt?”
Disclosure: The Texas Association of Realtors, the Texas Oil and Gas Association and the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.