By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Rafael Sierra smiles as he watches the face of his girlfriend, Maria Martinez, with their newborn son. It's a July afternoon and sunlight pours into their hospital room at Bayshore Medical Center in Pasadena. It's the couple's second son in as many years. Rafael hasn't slept in almost two days, too anxious from the delivery. He sits by a window to fall asleep.
Maria rests in the hospital bed, holding her baby. She's glad the big day is over and her son was born without complications. During the last couple months, Maria had checked in at Bayshore several times for intense stomach pains. She had been a little worried. But now, Maria can relax.
Rafael had left the couple's first son at his mother and stepfather's house, though he would rather have his boy with him. The relationship between Rafael and his mother has deteriorated in recent years, especially since he started dating Maria, who, at 26, was almost eight years younger than Rafael. When Maria became pregnant with the couple's first child, it certainly didn't help. But sitting with his family, Rafael is convinced life's conflicts are behind him.
Then they hear a knock on the door. Wale Babalola, an investigator with Child Protective Services, stands outside. He has some things he wants to talk about.
When Maria checked in at Bayshore on May 7 for stomach pains, a urine sample came back positive for marijuana and cocaine. A hospital social worker had contacted CPS, which dispatched Babalola.
During the investigation, someone told Babalola that Maria used drugs at least twice a week, including the night before going into labor. Babalola had another urine test result from July 17, four days before Maria gave birth. Positive again for cocaine and marijuana.
Rafael's head spins. He goes into a separate room with Babalola. Rafael tells the investigator that he has never witnessed Maria taking drugs. He never thought she was stoned or high or whatever he wanted to call it.
"I wouldn't put my baby in harm's way like that," Maria says.
Rafael wants the children for himself. Nobody is accusing him of doing anything wrong, he argues. Babalola tells him that won't work. Not as long as he's living with Maria.
An emergency custody hearing is scheduled for July 24, the day after Maria checks out of the hospital. The judge rules that there is enough evidence to extend the investigation and orders Maria to give a hair follicle sample for a more accurate drug test.
Maria never brings her newborn home. Instead, the baby goes to Rafael's mother and stepfather's home, where the couple's first son remains. They can't afford it, but Maria and Rafael persuade an attorney to take the case.
"I'll do whatever it takes to get my babies back," Maria says.
Maria and Rafael have now entered the CPS system. A threat to children was presented, investigated and a decision made. Maria's case isn't hopeless. Her rights to the children were not immediately terminated, and if she and Rafael can prove capable of being good parents in the months ahead, they might get their children back.
But Maria and Rafael don't know they're about to enter the system at the worst possible time. During a two-year, statewide reform, the system has stacked the deck against itself. Caseworkers are overworked and quitting in droves. CPS is taking on more cases than it can handle, with children in state custody staying nights on cots and in cribs at a CPS office in Houston. In July, Maria and Rafael prepare to do anything to get back the kids, but the system that guards their fate is spinning wildly out of control.
Bad things happened for Child Protective Services in 2004. A string of child deaths revealed a system incapable of caring for the children it was supposed to protect.
On Christmas Day 2003, the body of four-year-old Jovonie Ochoa was taken to a San Antonio hospital. The boy was dead. He weighed 16 pounds and was covered in bruises.
About two months before the boy died, Jovonie's mother left him with his grandparents, who then duct-taped and tied the boy to his bed, beat him and left him to starve. Jovonie died covered in bed sores, his brain bleeding from the beatings.
In the months that followed Jovonie's death, investigators discovered that three complaints were filed to CPS against Jovonie's mother in 2002. A CPS employee had attempted to contact the mother but couldn't find her, and Jovonie's case was closed.
Then, in April 2004, again in San Antonio, CPS reunited two-year-old Diamond Alexander-Washington with her mother. About eight weeks later, the little girl peed in her pants. The mother beat Diamond with a vacuum cleaner hose until she was dead.
During those final eight weeks, Diamond's mother went to jail for two weeks and police were called to her apartment twice, all unknown to Diamond's caseworker. Shortly before Diamond's death, her CPS caseworker left for vacation. When the cases were handed over to coworkers, Diamond was ignored.
Politicians responded to the amount of press given to these deaths. A judge in San Antonio's juvenile court urged Governor Rick Perry to do something. Lawmakers promised reform.