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.
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.
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.”