I don’t know a single parent who doesn’t value and see the need for programs, institutions, and resources that protect children. We appreciate our doctors and nurses who swoop in when our kids are sick and hurt. We appreciate our teachers who, especially this year, have a bottomless vat of patience and commitment to learning that is purely inspirational. We appreciate our first responders, knowing we can call them in an emergency and they’ll appear, ready to administer CPR, bandages, or transportation to the nearest hospital should our kids need it.
Another valuable organization that we, as parents, support is Child Protective Services. We’ve all heard the horror stories of abused and neglected children and we wonder how no one stepped in to help. Our hearts break when hearing of the pain and suffering innocent kids endure, making us grateful when social workers like those from CPS identify abuse and ensure that those children are cared for and placed into safe, loving environments.
According to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, Child Protective Investigations (CPI) has the following responsibilities:
- Investigating allegations of child abuse and neglect.
- Working with law enforcement on joint investigations.
- Taking custody of children who are unsafe.
- Referring children to community resources that promote their safety and well-being.
- Assisting in the fight against human trafficking.
And for all of these roles and heartbreaking tasks, we are grateful.
Also, as allegations of abuse arise, investigators have to decide between two choices, DFPS explains:
“1. The investigator concludes the children are safe because (a) no abuse or neglect is discovered and no threats to safety are identified in the current investigation or (b) the family appears willing and able, by using family and community resources, to deal with any safety threats and risk factors in their lives to ensure the safety of the child or children for the foreseeable future. If the investigator concludes that children are not at risk, then the case may be closed.
2. The investigator concludes the children are unsafe if (a) the investigator finds significant safety threats and risk factors, and (b) the family appears unable or unwilling to use family and community resources to deal with the risk factors to ensure the safety of the child or children for the foreseeable future.”
However, like any other program or institution, CPS is not without flaws. Like many programs that serve the most vulnerable among us, CPS is often underfunded, understaffed, undertrained, and overwhelmed, meaning case workers cannot do their jobs properly. And when a vital system like CPS breaks down, sadly, it’s the children who suffer the most.
Because it’s not just when CPS fails to save a child that we the flaws within this system. It’s also when directives from high up cause social workers to overcompensate and identify signs of abuse that maybe aren’t there at all that cause lasting damage and trauma as well.
That’s what happened to Melissa and Dillon Bright—loving, hard-working parents of a baby and a toddler, whose entire world shattered one fateful day after playing outside in their yard.
As a SAHM who had three babies in five years, I can relate very much to Melissa Bright’s life. We both gave up our careers (or at least put them on h0ld) to stay home and raise our babies while our husbands worked long hours to support our families. We both know all too well the daily grind of mothering a needy two-year-old and fragile breastfeeding baby at the same time. The feeling of running out of arms, out of patience, and out of energy. The constant feeling that it’s never enough—no matter how much you give—and even though you do your very best every single day, that fear that things could go horribly wrong. That one day, for any number of reasons, you could wake up to find your arms empty. Your home empty. And your children gone.
That’s the terrifying reality Melissa and Dillon endured for several months in the summer of 2018. One day they were a happy, albeit likely exhausted, family of four. Then suddenly their children were torn away from them and they didn’t know if or when they’d get them back.
It was a hot July day in Tomball, TX, so Melissa took her two children—two-year-old Charlotte and five-month-old Mason—outside so they could cool off with some sprinkler play. Once it was time to go back in, Melissa decided to strip the kids out of their wet bathing suits outside so as to not get their carpet wet in the house. While undressing Charlotte, she needed to put Mason down. Since the ground was too hot and he wasn’t crawling yet, she assumed it was safe to place him briefly on the seat of a lawn chair.
That choice, unfortunately, will likely haunt Melissa Bright for the rest of her life.
Just a moment later, the young mom heard a horrible sound—a blood curdling scream—from her tiny son. And when she turned her head, he wasn’t on the chair anymore. He was lying on the ground, in the driveway. And she knew right away that Mason was not okay.
From that moment on, Melissa did everything any other mom would do. She called 911. She called her husband. She held her baby in her arms, following directions from first responders. She spoke openly and honestly to the doctors and nurses, telling them the truth. She chose to put him on that chair. She made a mistake. She regretted it. And she just wanted Mason to be alright.
However, what Melissa and Dillon did not realize was that as each hour ticked on, as each new test and CT scan and x-ray was performed, the medical team working on Mason were growing suspicious. It turned out that Mason had more than one skull fracture and his injuries did not, according to at least one doctor, match consistently with Melissa’s story. And that suspicion led Melissa, Dillon, Charlotte, and Mason down a heartbreaking and unexpected journey of fighting like hell to keep their family together. A journey that taught them new acronyms—like CAP (child abuse pediatricians) and that your whole life can change in an instant, after one bad decision, and suddenly you can go from “doting mother” to “abusive parent” in the eyes of the authorities.
A journey that is now documented and shared via a podcast from NBC News and Wondery. It’s called “Do No Harm: An In-Depth Look at Two Families’ Fight Against the Child Welfare System.”
One of those families is the Brights.
I’ll be honest—as a parent, the podcast is hard to listen to. You get to know Melissa and Dillon. You see your own life in theirs. You remember the baby/toddler days. Or maybe you’re still living them right now. You hear the horror in her voice as her breastfeeding baby, still recovering from a traumatic brain injury, is ripped from her arms. You hear the children crying. You hear the parents’ agony and fear as they watch strangers drive away with their kids.
“That moment was the hardest moment for me,” Dillon says, describing how he had to force Charlotte into her carseat against her will while she kicked and screamed, knowing this was a stranger’s car. “Daddy, I don’t want to go. I want to stay here,” she cried in response.
It was every parent’s worst nightmare realized.
“It’s hard to explain how quiet a house is without your kids in it,” Melissa says in episode 3, her voice cracking. “It was suffocating.”
“It’s everything you can do to keep your knees from buckling,” Dillon adds. But he says the only thing that kept him standing was the need to be strong for Melissa.
You wonder, how can this be? How can heart-wrenching stories, like that of Sherin Mathews happen, where multiple reports are made on the same child and they aren’t saved in time, yet one mistake happens in a stable, loving home, and the family is torn apart?
Well, it was specifically because of the fallout of the Sherin Mathews story that Mason and Charlotte were taken away from Melissa and Dillon. Even though Melissa told the truth. Even though there were no other signs of abuse or neglect in either child beyond the head injuries he sustained from his fall. Even though Melissa and Dillon were fully cooperative and showed from the first minute of this emergency that Mason’s well-being was their top priority.
But none of that seemed to matter. After the tragic death of Sherin Mathews, a three-year-old from Richardson, Texas who had been visited by CPS many times, but sadly, who ended up dying at the hands of her father, the state of Texas implemented extreme measures to ensure another child didn’t fall through the cracks like Sherin had.
As the podcast reports, after Sherin died, things changed at CPS. Rhonda Carson, Texas CPS caseworker, shares that the head of CPS basically said, “I never want to hear again that a doctor told CPS they needed to look into a case and it wasn’t followed up with and dealt with.” And that the message was clear—what happened to Sherin Matthews could not be repeated.
Rhonda went on to say that under the new directive, if a CPS worker received a report from even one doctor that “injuries are consistent with abuse or neglect,” even if other doctors don’t agree, even if other evidence contradicts that report, it didn’t matter. “You’re going to court. Game over.”
And a few months later, after one innocent mistake, Melissa Bright found herself and her family the victims of this new level of scrutiny at CPS. A new set of rules, Melissa says, that harmed their son rather than protecting him.
A new set of directives that kept Mason, still recovering from brain trauma, away from his mother. Even though doctors said it was imperative that he stay calm in order for his wounds and stitches to heal and to prevent fluid build-up on his brain. Even though the only thing that calmed him was being in his mother’s arms, yet his new living arrangements meant he screamed all night. Even though the decisions made by CPS were not, actually, better for him at all. Or for Charlotte.
Yet, because she’s a mother, and mothers want all babies to be okay, Melissa reiterates throughout the podcast and throughout our interview with her that she absolutely values CPS, understanding that no child should return to an abusive, unsafe home. “Your job is hard,” she says, empathizing that she cannot imagine what they must see and go through in their line of work. However, being ripped away from their parents was not what was best for Mason and Charlotte, and, as Melissa puts it, “The cost of this misdiagnosis [of abuse] is Mason.”
Because here’s the truth. Not one of us is going to get through this rollercoaster gig called parenthood without making mistakes. I remember teaching our son to walk and watching him bang his face directly into the coffee table—blood everywhere. That same kid also ran head-first into a statue, cracking his head open. More blood. I can remember once thinking he’d mastered the stairs and letting him go down a couple steps by himself. I was wrong. He wasn’t ready and tumbled down, head-first.
And those three stories are just with kid #1. We messed up with the other two as well, even though we were doing our best, every single day. And, like any other parent, I punished myself horribly for those mistakes, just as Melissa did during those first few hours at the hospital, before she knew that her sweet baby not only suffered severe trauma, but also that he’d be taken away from her.
“Those mistakes feel like the worst thing ever,” Dillon tells Scary Mommy. “But then to find out it’s actually worse. Now there’s a new layer where I’m being accused of intentionally harming my kid and I’m fighting to save my family. It felt like a real-life horror story.”
Even after this nightmare that in the end, stole years of their lives, the Brights will advocate for CPS and will agree that there is a clear and present need for an organization that looks out for kids in danger. The safety and welfare of children is of utmost importance, and despite everything, these two loving parents know that.
However, after the painful experience they had, they do offer some advice should any other parent find themselves in a similar situation. “Know your rights,” Melissa recommends. She and Dillon admit that they wish they would have sought legal counsel earlier. “And, “record everything,” she adds, explaining that it was only because she and Dillon recorded that gut-wrenching night when CPS and law enforcement came to their door with a court order to remove their children that they had the hard evidence they needed to prove CPS hadn’t followed legal protocol.
And when asked what she’d like to say to CPS, Melissa tells Scary Mommy that because of what CPS workers see and do, they often assume the worst about each case. “Don’t go in assuming every case is worst-case condition,” she says, adding that she thinks CPS often forgets that “innocence is a viable option.”
Because, as Melissa explains, truly advocating for a child means considering all possible scenarios, including that the parents are innocent, an accident happened, and the child and their siblings would be best cared for by remaining at home.
And for Mason, who, at 5-6 months old, needed his mother’s comfort to ensure his surgery healed and fluid didn’t build up on his brain, being at home was by far the best option. As it was for Charlotte too.
CPS workers are vital and no one, not even the Brights, deny that. But, like any organization, Child Protective Services has flaws and needs improvement so that it can direct more efforts toward endangered children like Sherin and make better decisions for families like the Brights. Case workers are overwhelmed and often need better training. And huge, overarching directives like the one that followed the Sherin Mathews tragedy can often do more harm than good. Protecting children is everyone’s ultimate goal, so let’s improve the system so children are truly protected.
To listen to the full story of the Bright family, you can download their podcast here.