Language Barrier at Child Protective Services

For the first year, Baby Raymond lived happily with his family. Then the agency took him away and even though his Chinese-American family fought to get him back, they couldn't find the right words

After Sally made it clear she wanted to stay in Houston, the family bought her a condo in Chinatown. When Situ and Raymond visited, Situ and Ling would take her grocery shopping and make sure her condo was clean.

Sally Liu was a client of the Harris County Mental Health and Mental Retardation Agency. Her caseworker, Tanya Bassett, made visits to be sure Sally stayed on her meds, and during their talks, Bassett learned about Sally's mother, her sister in Sugar Land and her twin sister in Phoenix. Sally was also a client of Asian American Family Services, a group that has regularly helped Children's Protective Services caseworkers when they've needed assistance with certain Asian clients. Throughout the ensuing ordeal, no one from CPS initiated contact with either of Sally's social workers, thus maintaining the inaccurate belief that Sally was Raymond's caretaker.

The Department of Family and Protective Services, which oversees CPS, first became aware of Sally and Raymond Liu on May 20, 2005, when the agency received a tip alleging that Sally had slapped Situ in the face and pushed her while Situ was holding Raymond, who was three months old at the time. It's not known who called in the complaint — such referrals are anonymous.

...with Situ, Diana and mother Sally (in Phoenix).
...with Situ, Diana and mother Sally (in Phoenix).

According to a later summary of the report by a CPS caseworker, "The report stated that Ms. Liu is so violent that her mother locked her out of her home while she was naked. The report stated that Ms. Liu voluntarily agreed to go to Ben Taub, but on the way urinated on herself in the police car and refused to get out of the vehicle, so she was taken to a nearby ­psychiatric center...Ms. Liu was actively psychotic and 'internally preoccupied.'"

According to a later summary by a court-appointed child advocate, the allegation of abuse was ruled out. The advocate's report also states that "it was noted during the investigation that Ms. Liu's mother had been caring for the child since birth." Thus, CPS knew as early as May 2005 that Sally never had custody of the child. Sally remained in the hospital and Raymond remained with Situ.

Three months later, in August 2005, Sally's sister Ling contacted Asian American Family Services seeking information on how Situ could become Raymond's legal guardian. She apparently never found a lawyer who was able to help.

In October 2005, CPS received another complaint about Sally, this time for neglectful supervision. There is no document in the court records explaining the specifics of this allegation. But it was enough for the case to stay open, and in January 2006, the case was transferred to a department division called Family Based Safety Services.

The caseworker, Phyllis Charles, made repeated visits to Sally's condo, often leaving notes on her door. Charles was under the mistaken impression that Raymond lived there.

Finally, Charles and an interpreter found Situ, Ling and Raymond on one of their visits to the condo. They told Charles that Sally was in the Harris County Psychiatric Center. During the course of conversation, Situ and Ling naively mentioned the incident that put her there. While Situ, Sally, Ling and Raymond were at a China­town supermarket, Sally had become convinced a cashier stole her Lone Star card. She grew belligerent and slapped the cashier. The cashier called a manager, but by this time Sally was out of control and looked like she might attack the manager, who wound up pinning her to the floor while someone called police.

On March 1, 2006, Charles visited Sally in HCPC. Even though Sally was laid up in a psych ward, it's not clear if Charles actually understood that Sally was mentally ill. Her initial account of the visit and testimony during the trial express incredulity that an excitable schizophrenic whose first language isn't English was unable to hold a coherent conversation. It's not even clear if Sally was medicated during the visit, because, according to Charles, Sally's first words to the caseworker were: You've got a pussy.

This was followed by Sally demanding that Charles "fuck" the social worker who was present during the visit.

"I tried talking to Ms. Sally Liu, but she wasn't responding to me," Charles later testified. "...Even though she was telling me not to, I still had to inform her that I had to staff her case with my supervisor about her child, Raymond Liu."

Although CPS could not produce a copy of the document at trial, state law required Charles to give Sally the standard form asking a parent of a child the CPS is interested in to provide the names and addresses of three potential custodial relatives. The form, Charles testified, would of course have been written in English.

Charles testified that she and her supervisor "decided that it wouldn't be in the best interest of Raymond for Ms. Liu to return to the home," indicating again the mistaken belief that Raymond lived with his mother.

Accompanied by an interpreter from the Master Word agency, Charles then visited Situ and Ling to find out if they would "protect" Raymond from his mother. It was during this visit that Charles found a one-inch scar on Raymond's behind. Charles testified that, per the interpreter, Situ and Ling had no explanation for the scar. Also, per the interpreter, the women said they would never keep Sally from the baby.

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