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

And the Lord said, "Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another's speech."

Genesis 11: 6-7

On Sept. 23, Sally Liu will ask the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals for the chance to get her three-year-old boy back.

Raymond was constantly surrounded by family. Here with his cousin, Diana Diep.
Raymond was constantly surrounded by family. Here with his cousin, Diana Diep.
...with Grandmother Situ.
...with Grandmother Situ.
...with Situ, Diana and mother Sally (in Phoenix).
...with Situ, Diana and mother Sally (in Phoenix).

Liu, a 38-year-old schizophrenic, lost her son in September 2007, when a Harris County jury terminated her parental rights and awarded custody of Raymond Liu to a Katy couple.

In the nearly ten years since Liu was diagnosed, she has failed to consistently take her medications and has frequently been hospitalized. Irrational when not medicated, Liu believes that having her son will "cure" her.

Sally has the misfortune not only of being mentally ill but being mentally ill in Harris County. She also has the misfortune of not speaking English as a first language and of coming from a culture completely foreign and confounding to the narrow interpretations of low-level American bureaucracy.

From the minute Sally was pregnant, her family knew she wouldn't have the capacity to independently care for Raymond, which is why he never lived with her and why she was never alone with him. Instead, as in many other families, Raymond was raised by his grandmother, Situ Liu, who lives in Phoenix near her daughter and son-in-law, Connie and Tony Diep. Raymond had the good fortune of being constantly surrounded by a bright and hardworking extended family. In Phoenix, Raymond spent time with Aunt Connie (Sally's twin) and Uncle Tony, and he bonded with his teenage cousins, Christina and Diana. In Sugar Land, Raymond was adored by Aunt Ling, Uncle Buntheng and their children. On the three or four Houston visits during Raymond's first year, Raymond would get to see his mom. It was important to the Lius that, while Sally could not care for Raymond, she still be a part of his life.

For the first year of Raymond's life, Situ would rise early every morning to boil congee, or rice porridge. She had fixed this traditional meal for her five children and eight other grandchildren.

Situ has lived in the United States for 21 years, but she never learned English. Until March 2006, it never seemed to be a problem. She was overjoyed that she was able to move her family from China to the United States. Sally and Connie came first, in 1986. They lived with family in Phoenix until the rest of the family followed a year later. (Their siblings were over 21 and had to wait a year before immigrating.)

It's the typical story: Situ and her husband did not want their children to spend the rest of their lives under an oppressive regime. The children worked hard, went to school, started businesses and took care of each other. How could she have conceived of the idea that, one day, government workers in the United States of America would come to the door and take her grandson?

We come to America. This is a great country. We have a better life here. This is the country have the freedom and have this — this is the country have civilization and freedom. And how do I know they can take the children just like this?

— Situ Liu (interpreted), testifying in court, September 2007

Raymond Liu was born in the Year of the Rooster.

According to Chinese astrology, that makes Raymond a jumble of often opposing characteristics. Brave and loyal, Roosters' blunt honesty can be misinterpreted as insulting. They are sociable, but they can be braggarts, and like to be the center of the attention. They are smart, organized and motivated. But they can also be moody and subject to severe emotional swings.

Born in 2005, Raymond is a Wood Rooster. That element tempers the Rooster's normal self-centeredness; he's more likely to be a team player. They are do-gooders, and so ready to fight injustice that they will often take on more than they can handle and never finish their mission.

His mother Sally was born in 1970, a Year of the Dog. The first Chinese New Year Raymond ever celebrated — 2006 — was also a Year of the Dog. It would be the last one he ever celebrated with his family.

Sally Liu moved to Houston from Phoenix one year earlier, in February 2005, when she was about eight months pregnant. She moved without telling anyone, for reasons still unclear. The family has said Sally might have believed doctors in Phoenix would have taken Raymond away from her as soon as he was born. By that time, her mother Situ and her sister Connie had been Sally's legal guardians for three years.

Sally gave birth to Raymond and lived with her sister Ling for three months. Then Raymond went to live with his grandmother and aunt and uncle in Phoenix. Sally never kept in touch with Raymond's father, a waiter who lived in Phoenix and who had split when Sally's illness proved too much. He wanted nothing to do with her. He told people to tell her he moved to Puerto Rico.

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.

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.

This is the first red flag that the interpreter may not have understood Situ and Ling. The scar on Raymond's bottom was a surgical scar from a minor infection he had contracted in Phoenix. No doctor in Phoenix ever expressed concern over Raymond's welfare, just as no doctor had at the Bellaire clinic where Raymond received his vaccinations. It is difficult to understand why Raymond's grandmother and aunt would say they had no explanation for his scar.

On March 9, 2006, Charles and an interpreter went to Sally's condo to remove Raymond. By this time, Sally had been relocated to a psychiatric facility in Dallas, where she would remain for months. Situ and Raymond were hanging out in the condo while Ling shopped for groceries at the market next door. When Ling answered her cell, she heard her despondent mother: They took Raymond.

Situ would later testify that she had no idea why Phyllis Charles was removing the child, and that she gave her the business card for the Chinese restaurant run by her daughter Connie and son-in-law Tony in Phoenix. Unlike Ling, Connie and Tony could speak English. Situ thought they needed to know what had happened; Connie and Tony could straighten things out with CPS and in turn explain to Situ what in the world was going on.

Apparently, Charles must have believed Situ was merely recommending a good Chinese joint should Charles ever swing through Phoenix, because neither Charles nor any of the four subsequent caseworkers who handled the placement of Raymond Liu ever called the number.

But by then, it was too late anyway. As soon as Charles left with Raymond, there would be no chance the Lius would ever get Raymond back — not if CPS had anything to do with it. As CPS caseworkers would later testify, they failed to follow the rules mandated by the Texas Legislature regarding the process of placing a child with the best possible caregiver. While the rest of Raymond's family fought to retrieve him, CPS caseworkers ignored state law and put Raymond on the fast track to be adopted by strangers.

Something's very wrong here...Family should have the first priority to...care for this baby, any baby...Why didn't they contact them? That's very upsetting to all of us.

Kim Szeto, executive director, Asian American Family Services

The day after CPS took Raymond, his Aunt Ling called Asian American Family Services asking how she could become Raymond's legal guardian.

Ling also gave AAFS contact information for her sister and brother-in-law in Phoenix, contact information already known to CPS. Five days later, Sally's caseworker at AAFS, Sing Chan, called CPS to explain the family's situation and see how they could retrieve Raymond. Charles said it was too late. A show-cause hearing had already been set. It was out of her hands. Chan called Charles again, on the day before the hearing. Chan's notes state: "She said that she lost control of making decision where the baby would go at this point, let the judge make that decision."

Despite the fact that Raymond's grandmother raised him from day one; despite the fact that there was no evidence the child was ever abused or neglected; despite the fact that for the first year of his life he lived with aunts and uncles in Phoenix and Houston; and despite the fact that his aunt called AAFS within 24 hours of his removal from the family's care, CPS decided to go with a colorful bit of folklore that could be shared around a bonfire alongside stories about Bigfoot and Leather­face: Raymond's own family didn't want him until it was too late.

During the September 2007 trial over whether to terminate Sally Liu's rights, Estella Olguin, a spokeswoman for CPS, told KTRK Channel 13, "In this case we didn't find out about the relatives until a year later, after we already filed to terminate parental rights of the mother."

By that time, Olguin was apparently following the only policy CPS caseworkers ever stuck to: the Cover Your Ass ­Protocol.

Around the time Olguin propogated the myth about the family not stepping forward, Charles testified in court that she had violated Texas Family Code 262.201, which states: "If DFPS determines that removal of a child may be warranted, DFPS is required to provide the parent or other person having legal custody with Form 2625 Child Placement Resources for the purpose of identifying three individuals who could serve as the child's kinship caregiver."

Following that, "DFPS must complete a background and criminal history check on each person listed on the form and complete a home screening of the most appropriate substitute caregiver, if any. At the adversary hearing, the court must place a child with the noncustodial parent or relative, unless it is not in the child's best interest. Appropriate and willing relatives and family friends are generally given priority for placement."

However, it's difficult to know if following the statute would have made a difference, as CPS documents are rarely printed in Cantonese, and the agency would have then been depending on a nonnative-­English-speaking schizophrenic who was laid up in a psychiatric facility to provide contact information for relatives.

"The testimony showed there was a lot of finger-pointing and blaming CPS and all the caseworkers...[and] the interpreters. But I didn't hear any evidence about the family taking any responsibility for any of this."

— Josette LeDoux, attorney ad litem, representing Raymond Liu in the September 2007 trial

Of all the consequences that bit the Lius in the ass for their lack of English skills, perhaps the most significant was the decision by Situ Liu not to have Raymond's aunt and uncle in Phoenix try to immediately adopt Raymond in March 2006.

By the time of the trial the following year, attorneys for CPS and for Raymond's foster parents would use this decision to shred the Dieps' credibility.

As the matriarch, Situ's word is gold to the family. She holds weight. Unfortunately, she views certain things through a cultural lens that blurs when applied to the particulars of the Texas Family Code.

No matter how many pieces of paper CPS caseworkers might have given her, no matter what Master Word interpreters supposedly explained to her in her obscure Hoiping dialect, Situ did not understand why CPS took her grandson. But she figured that, if Raymond wouldn't be permitted to stay with an aunt in Houston, there was no way an aunt in Phoenix would get him. So she told Connie to sit on her hands and she picked up the phone and called the child's father, William Bau. Obviously, Situ concluded, the government didn't want Raymond with a woman. They wanted him with his father. That was that.

Up until this point, Bau had no interest in Raymond, and CPS caseworkers were not able to find him because they lacked the foresight to talk to Sally's social worker at MHMRA, her social worker at AAFS or the kind phone operators at directory assistance, and they believed Sally when she said Bau lived in Puerto Rico.

Ultimately, Bau passed a home study by Arizona's CPS counterpart, which was subsequently rejected by Texas, mostly because Bau himself had interpreted the interviewer's questions for his live-in girlfriend. (In Texas, in most cases, there must be a third-party interpreter.)

Testifying at trial, CPS caseworkers said Bau (and the rest of the family) was engaged in a conspiracy to give the child back to Sally...despite the fact that Sally never had the child in the first place. At least one caseworker testified that Bau explicitly stated this, which suggests that Bau masterminded a brilliant plan whereby he would lie to an Arizona home inspector and then get on the horn to CPS in Texas and blatantly state his intent to break the law. While one would be hard pressed to imagine a more failsafe strategy, Bau was unable to sneak it past the sharp minds handling the Liu case.

Either way, Situ's decision to drag Bau into the picture was wrong for a number of reasons. A fortysomething waiter barely scraping by, he had another child by that time, whom he was supporting via Medicaid. He lived rent-free in his uncle's home, which meant his family was just one bad argument away from being out in the street. Perhaps this lack of solvency and dim prospect for a promising future was why Raymond's maternal family never paid much attention to Bau in the first place. Raymond was doing just fine without Bau. It took CPS's involvement to even bring the guy into it.

Still, Bau stepped up to the plate and flew back and forth from Phoenix to Houston, jumping through whatever hoops he needed to, trying to follow the Family Service Plan that CPS caseworkers gave to him and Sally. (Family Service Plans are parenting courses in which neglectful moms and dads must learn to do things like "maintain housing that is safe and free of environmental hazards and provide protection, food and shelter for the child and family," which means that — unlike Sally's family, who were raising Raymond because they knew she couldn't be a responsible parent — CPS was now ordering two people who never raised Raymond to take parenting classes. At the same time, even though Texas Family Code mandates CPS exhaust every possibility to place a child with a family member, CPS had decided by April 20, 2006 — about one month after Raymond's removal — that Raymond's long-term goal be designated "Unrelated Adoption.")

Amazingly, even though Bau had been showing up to court hearings in Houston, a CPS caseworker testified that the agency still believed he lived in Puerto Rico, and didn't find out he never left Phoenix until August 2006, when CPS finally got around to asking its Arizona counterpart to conduct a home study. Ultimately, CPS nixed Bau about a year after his involvement. That's when Raymond's Aunt Connie and Uncle Tony were finally able to go for Raymond. Despite the fact that they had already been raising Raymond along with Situ, their seeming one-year absence from legal maneuvers was a gift for highly skilled (and English-speaking) attorneys who wanted to paint the Dieps as a couple of grouches who didn't want to lift a finger for their own flesh and blood until the last possible minute.

By the time the trial kicked off in September 2007, attorneys also had another gift: Thirty-month-old Raymond had now been with his foster parents, Roy and Melanie Young, longer than he had been with his own family.

Over the next three weeks, the jury heard testimony that would help them with their twofold charge: Should Sally Liu's parental rights be terminated? And, if so, should Raymond go to the Dieps, or remain in the custody of the Youngs, who nearly everyone agrees are kind, caring people? (It appears the Youngs only knew what CPS caseworkers had told them about Raymond's family.)

The first question was pretty much a no-brainer. While there is no evidence Sally ever did anything to hurt Raymond, she didn't always take her meds and wound up in and out of mental hospitals...which is precisely why everyone else but Sally was taking care of Raymond.

It's not clear if anyone checked to see if Sally was legally competent to testify. But if she was, she certainly wasn't entirely sympathetic. Six months before the trial, she married a guy named Jeff who quickly split to Detroit (or at least that's what he told Sally). She wore less-than-matronly attire, laughed at inappropriate times and displayed her bigotry toward African Americans. Sally had been nasty to black caseworkers in the past, and testified her puzzling belief that a white or Chinese doctor would be more likely to give Raymond back to her. In short, she testified like an unmedicated schizophrenic.

And while Situ's testimony looks moving on paper, the delayed responses due to interpretation may have sapped its power, especially when compared to Sally's all too clear irrationality.

Situ was utterly despondent by this time, wandering around the courthouse, handing an open letter to any reporter or trial observer she could find.

"I fear that I may say the wrong thing and fear of the future for my grandson Raymond," it stated. "The future of Raymond is so frightful that my heart and mind is full of pain [sic]...Connie and Tony are great parents that give much love to everyone...My daughter Connie is a great lady. I am so proud of her because of the way she has raised my two granddaughters, Christina and Diana. She gives me much happiness with everything. She makes me proud the way she wants Raymond. She is willing to be his mother and give the love, time and money to make his life a good one."

Arguably, the testimonies of Connie and Tony Diep were the most important. Tony had said he was unable to get away from his restaurant in Phoenix, and was only at the trial for a few days — which the Youngs' lawyer, Brian Fischer, made abundantly clear to the jury. After all, Roy Young was there the entire time.

"Mr. Young, you heard, derived 70 percent of his income from commissions," Fischer told the jury. "He's been here every minute of this trial. And when he says he loves Raymond, he puts his money where his mouth is."

It was highly effective. Fischer had just proven that Roy Young loved Raymond at least 70 percent more than Tony Diep.

This left Connie Diep to take the brunt of the questioning.

"If Mr. and Mrs. Diep truly love Raymond, why have they never participated in his life over the course of the past 18 months?"

— Brian Fischer, attorney for foster parents Roy and Melanie Young, trial, September 2007

It is highly unlikely Sally Liu could win her appeal; therefore it's highly likely that Raymond Liu will be raised by Roy and Melanie Young. They are loving foster parents, and he will no doubt have wonderful opportunities in life.

After Sally lost her parental rights, she took a severe nosedive. At one point, her social worker said, she hopped in a cab and ordered the driver to drive around randomly, from house to house, so she could look in windows and down roads for Raymond. As of this writing, she is in Harris County Jail for assaulting a police officer. She was wandering in the middle of traffic. When the officer attempted to help her, she kicked him. When I visited Sally Liu in jail recently, she was ambiguous about whether she had access to her medications. She was blank-faced and still.

If Raymond loses access to his extended family, there is a good chance he will never be apprised of the facts surrounding his removal from their lives. This story has tried to present the unvarnished facts, which are buried in a bungle of oft-­puzzling court orders and about 1,000 pages of trial testimony and exhibits. Hopefully, if Raymond ever chooses to read anything about that part of his life, he will have the time to look at the primary sources.

And if he chooses to read anything else, I hope it would be this:

Raymond, due to language and geographic issues, it has been difficult to illustrate exactly how much your Aunt Connie loves you, and how this ordeal has torn her, and the rest of your family, apart.

However Connie appeared to the jurors, her words on paper express a woman unsure of her tongue and unsure of the legal system, who was stumbling over herself to, in her words, "try to explain so the jury member can understand better."

Lawyers for the Youngs and CPS objected after nearly every answer she gave, because she could not limit herself to "yes" or "no." She did not understand that, once her lawyer asked her questions, she would have the opportunity to elaborate. Maybe she never watched enough courtroom dramas. She seemed to think that every answer might be her last. At one point, the judge had to explain this to her. He patiently explained the rules to her, because, he said, he really didn't want to have to hold her in contempt.

By the time your mother's case went to trial, it really ceased to be about the truth and about what was best for Raymond Liu. It was purely adversarial. It was about using your family's lack of English and lack of legal sophistication against them. And it worked. Sure, it was also about pointing the finger at CPS. And you can make up your own mind about that.

But one thing you need to know, that in the conversations I've had with your Aunt Connie, she was crumbling. She worries so much about your mother, who she feels she has to protect, because no one else will. She was very concerned that I wanted to meet your mother, because she was afraid Sally would snap at me like she did CPS caseworkers, and that I would think she's a terrible woman and write nasty things about her. She feels she has to be strong for your grandmother and for your Aunt Ling, who each depend on her for translation. She told me she became very sick and depressed during and after the trial. She could hardly eat. She blames herself for deferring to your grandmother and not trying to adopt you right away. I wonder if you'll blame her, too, or if you'll have an awareness of that part of Chinese culture that eludes me and seems to have eluded those who were supposedly looking after your best interest.

This is an extremely long-winded way of saying you have to believe this: Your Aunt Connie loves you. She fought hard for you. She and your Aunt Ling were there for the first year of your life. They had such respect for your grandmother, who they always wanted you to be with, so she could care for you like she cared for them. And you have to believe this: You were happy.

craig.malisow@houstonpress.com

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