Homeschool parents in Texas are still fighting to get their names removed from the state’s child abuse registry seven months after the state’s child protective services agency dismissed their case and returned their 4-year-old son.
Daniel and Ashley Pardo are appealing a decision last month by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to refuse their request for the agency to ensure that their names are removed from the Child Abuse and Neglect Registry.
The Pardo’s son, Drake, was removed from their home in June 2019 after the family missed a DFPS-facilitated meeting at Dallas Children’s Medical Center that the parents were not informed of and subsequently accused of “child medical abuse.”
The case against them began after a doctor reached out to DFPS with concerns that the parents were seeking unnecessary medical treatment for their son even though the doctor had never met the family in person.
The family’s advocacy team at the Texas Home School Coalition argued that the DFPS failed to meet the legal requirements needed for an emergency removal and failed to inform the parents about the meeting in which they were punished for not attending.
Last December, the agency dropped its five-months long case against the family and a Kaufman County Judge signed an order ending the agency’s case against the family.
But over half-a-year since the case’s dismissal, Ashley and Daniel Pardo still find themselves listed on the state’s child abuse registry.
According to THSC Public Policy Director Jeremy Newman, the DFPS agency in late June denied a request from the family to change a determination they made in the family’s case file that is causing the parents to be named on the list.
According to Newman, being placed on the child abuse list can make it more difficult to find jobs, secure housing, and can prevent them from being able to do certain types of volunteer work.
“The way that it normally works is the CPS conducts their investigation in the original case. When they are finished with their investigation, they put in what is called an official CPS finding in the family’s file, which is basically to say, ‘This is CPS’ opinion on what they found,’” Newman explained.
“There are a couple of different ones they could put in there. The one that gets you on the registry is if they put in ‘reason to believe.’ It means that there is reason to believe that abuse or neglect took place. If they put that in your file, it automatically places you on the child abuse registry.”
According to DFPS, an individual might be included in the registry when an investigation results in dispositions of either “reason to believe” or “confirmed.”
“An individual will not clear the central registry check if that individual is an alleged perpetrator in an open child abuse or neglect investigation being conducted by DFPS,” reads an article in a background-check handbook produced by DFPS.
Newman said it's common for DFPS to make such a determination against families and for families to challenge the determination once their case is over.
“It’s also pretty common for CPS to overturn that for families,” he said. “The interesting thing here is that cases end a lot of different ways. Very few cases ended the way that the Pardos' case ended, where parties mutually agreed that the case should be over and CPS argued to the court that the case should be dismissed because they now felt comfortable with Drake being left at home with his parents and with them making joint medical decisions. But after that, the family still finds themselves on the abuse registry.”
According to THSC, DFPS has the sole authority to place families on the registry and does not need consent from a judge. The agency can do so regardless of whether a parent has been found guilty of abuse or neglect.
Newman explained that after cases like these end, family attorneys will ask for the investigative files DFPS has built against their clients, which can take some time to receive.
“Once you receive that, you know the status of what their finding is against you and you can file an internal appeal within CPS asking them to overturn it,” he said.
However, the advocate said that the family’s formal challenge last month asking DFPS to overturn their “reason to believe” determination has been denied.
“That first challenge is with an internal reviewer who works at CPS,” Newman said. “They basically said, ‘Yep, we think our original decision was reasonable and so we are going to leave it how it is.’ The family lost that. That was no huge surprise because it was such a high profile case that we expected that if they were to ever deny a family it was going to be this one.”
The family appealed this week to the Office of Consumer Affairs, which is a supposedly independent office that also works within the DFPS and is tasked with reviewing these types of complaints the second time around.
“That is what the family is appealing to right now,” Newman said.
From everybody he has talked to, he gathers that most families tend to win at that first level of appeal to get their name off the list.
“It is such a high profile case that they would basically have to admit error to take them off the list at this point,” the homeschooling advocate suggests. “We raised this throughout the original case that it seemed like they [DFPS] were all about saving face all the way through. My sense is we are going right back to that same place. If they take the family off the list, what they are saying is, ‘We never had reason to believe abuse or neglect occurred in the first place.’”
Newman warned that many families might not even know they are on the list “until it comes back to bite them.”
“It can be on a background check. It can prevent you from lots of types of employment, especially anything that would require any type of security clearance or working with children,” he said. “It’s a black mark on your record. What it basically says is that if you are on this list, you are a child abuser.”
Should DFPS deny the Pardo family’s second appeal, Newman says that the family can file a lawsuit against the agency.
“We are plowing ground that has not been plowed very many times before,” he said. “The demographic of people that go into a CPS case usually cannot afford to defend themselves in the first place and can almost never afford to get this far in the process and go to court afterward if this doesn’t work out. I am actually waiting on a dataset from CPS to tell me how often this happens.”
Newman warns that part of the problem is that the way the system is set up “eats a family who is guilty or a family who is innocent.”
“You don’t have to be guilty,” he said. “[The Pardos] weren’t guilty and at the end of the day, they got their child back. But they still had to go through this six-month nightmare and cost over $100,000 and took the entire state of Texas, it seems like, to defend them.”
Last year, The Houston Chronicle/NBC News published a series of investigative articles highlighting a Texas “legal and medical system that sometimes struggles to differentiate accidental injuries from abuse.”
The news outlets analyzed 40 cases in Texas and interviewed 75 attorneys, doctors as well as two dozen current and former CPS employees.
“Under this system, children are sometimes taken from seemingly caring parents, while others are left in situations that, in rare cases, turn out to be deadly,” an NBC News report from September 2019 reads. “Parents managed to regain custody in most of the cases reviewed by reporters, in some instances after additional medical findings or reports from outside experts raised doubts about the initial abuse determination.”