BELTON — The woman in court trembled as it became apparent she would not be getting her daughter back.

Child Protective Services seized the child months ago after reports of drug abuse came to light. She came up clean in recent drug tests. But her boyfriend, the child’s father, had been causing problems.

He wasn’t in the small courtroom nestled in the fourth floor of the Bell County Sheriff’s Department building on Wednesday. The child’s caretakers were. They told Judge Charles Van Orden the boyfriend sent several threatening text messages to them.

They were scared.

Van Orden gave the mother a choice: Your significant other or your child — “that’s what it is going to come down to.”

It’s a common story in the Child Protective Services Court in Belton.

The court decides the fate of hundreds of children each year in Bell and Burnet counties who have been forcibly removed from their homes or surrendered to the state after their parents were found unfit to care for them.

The court becomes part of a process. In the best-case scenario, the parents clean up their acts and are reunited with the child. In the worst case, their custody

is terminated and the child is remanded to the state.

A tough job

It can be heartbreaking and takes a certain fortitude to be able to stomach the work long term.

“There is so much sorrow in all these cases,” Van Orden said during an interview with the Herald on Thursday. “I would love not to have this job if there weren’t kids at risk.”

Retired District Court Judge Rick Morris created the CPS court in 2001 in response to a docket that had become overwhelmed with the volume of child custody cases. Van Orden was appointed to the bench in October 2001 and has presided over the court since.

In 2012, the court had an average of 325 open cases at any given time. In August, the court had jurisdiction over 577 children who were removed from their homes.

The case load remains heavy, though it has lessened recently with the state shrinking the court’s jurisdiction to encompass Bell and Burnet counties. It previously included Coryell and Lampasas counties, amounting to about 750 children at any given time, according to statistics provided by the court.

Cost to taxpayers

With a busy docket also comes a financial burden for taxpayers.

In 2005, the state mandated parents be provided court-appointed attorneys in CPS cases. Since then, Bell County bore the brunt of those costs to provide parents legal representation.

Since the law went into effect, the cost of paying court-appointed attorneys each year in Bell County has nearly doubled from $1.6 million to $3 million. The county spent $460,000 on court-appointed attorneys for CPS cases in the previous fiscal year.

While the state pays for most staff salaries and supplies, the county pays for attorneys representing the children and parents.

The Belton legal firm Messer, Potts & Messers almost exclusively represents the child or children involved in custody cases. The firm has a contract with the county that pays more than $170,000 per year.

“They bring this expertise, so we have continued this contract,” County Judge Jon Burrows said.

The Bell County Attorney’s Office staffs a lawyer who represents the state’s interests in these cases.

Court process

CPS court does not resemble a typical court. Though emotions run high, it is not an adversarial case. The goal is to get every child back into their home as long as parents can show they can provide a safe and healthy upbringing.

Van Orden estimated 70 percent of his cases end with the child getting back to their parents.

It is a one-year process, which begins when Van Orden signs the order to remove children from their homes. After an initial hearing showing cause to keep the children from their parents, the court holds a status review hearing and Van Orden creates an order.

“Most of these parents are not prepared or equipped to be parents,” Van Orden said. “We have to drag them to the track and put them on it.”

Must stay clean

Another young woman took the stand in what was a typical day at the court on Wednesday. She admittedly had problems with abusing methamphetamine. But she recently passed a drug test and found full-time employment.

The father of her daughter was in the courtroom.

While she wore a blouse and black dress pants, he had an untucked plaid flannel shirt and several days of stubble. He also found full-time employment, and would be starting work once he passed a physical.

His drug test would likely show he had taken prescription pain killers for back pain, the parents’ lawyer said.

Van Orden ordered they take weekly drug tests. If they said they were clean, they were going to have to prove it. Both of them. The man shook his head at the order.

“If he’s not doing right, and you are with him, then you’re not doing right,” Van Orden told the woman.

Root cause

Most of the cases that come through his court are connected to drugs, usually methamphetamine or cocaine.

“The main problem: It’s drugs,” he said.

Van Orden admitted he can be intimidating to parents. He doesn’t abide their stories for why they fail a drug test or miss therapy sessions, excuses he calls “selling spinach.”

The reason for his due diligence, he said, is the fear he might make a mistake.

“I really feel a sense of responsibility for these children,” he said. “If the system fails, I’ve failed.”

Contact Philip Jankowski at or (254) 501-7553. Follow him on Twitter at KDHcrime.

(2) comments


I have a case right now the judge does not know how the case workers lie and the things they to do to sway him to do whatever.. My son came from George town foster care with an blackeye and my other son was locked out until dark not to mention where they was two kids died in a pool and he went to get help... I have had case workers fired I have changed lawyers with the same result...This is an circle and looks like everyone is looking for the big pay off.. Van Orden didn't even know that cps closed my babyfather case and he yelled at them in court and told them that he says where the kids go not them.. Bell County CPS have not only failed the community but the kids.. He not telling the truth, bell county cps workers we not even going to go there they just lie for no reason in the articles online its says they do it for the kids who can be adopted so they can get money and really I am starting to belive it... This county has no funding to help families instead of breaking them up matter of fact its more animal shelters then homeless shelter, this is just a sad case and for the judge to make that statement and not know the real problem about the family is just sad....


This court and Judge Van Orden is totally unfair. My name is Norman Travis Sr. In 2011 this court terminated the parental rights of my significant other based on lies and allegations. I am a retired disabled veteran with PTSD. The court never looked at my medical history. They just terminated my significant other's parental rights based on lies that the fictive kind told the court. The fictive kind also edited video tapes to falsify evidence. This court is a travesty! I can be reached at 254-245-2049 to discuss further details with anyone that would like to assist me in exposing this court as a travesty!

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