They call him the boy born without a throat. That's shorthand for an esophagus that wasn't hooked up right. Born in Galveston to a juvenile diabetic mother, at age four he weighed 29 pounds and would throw up or choke at meals.
His mother died that year. His father is in the penitentiary. His grandmother tried to take care of him, but she was increasingly frail with medical problems of her own. His entry into foster care was as dramatic as his existence. Grandma Wiggins had collapsed in a diabetic coma. Trase ran out of the house naked, looking for help.
Eventually, Trase Ray Wiggins-Frederick ended up at the country home of Gloria and Kenny Rogers, in Damon near Alvin, placed there by Children's Protective Services of Brazoria County. He attached to his foster parents, a couple in their fifties and ten-year veterans of dealing with special-needs children. Kenny Rogers was president of the Brazoria County Foster Parents Association; he'd held the same position previously with the foster parents association in Fort Bend County. He and his wife were licensed for eight kids at a time. Usually they had boys.
Roberta Wiggins wanted her grandson, Trase, back. He's her only living relative. She hired Brazoria County legend Jimmy Phillips Jr. as her attorney, and one of the first things he did was run out to the Rogers home, convinced the family already had too many special-needs kids.
"I couldn't find anything wrong," Phillips says.
So Phillips picked up the Rogerses in the suit as well. He proposed to the court that Gloria Rogers and Roberta Wiggins be named permanent managing conservators of Trase. The five-year-old would have parents and a grandmother, too. On November 8, the request was granted. According to Phillips and the Rogerses, though, this didn't sit too well with Brazoria County CPS, which had been counting on the federal dollars it gets for every child it adopts out. And with Trase's special-needs status, he would be worth even more. Bonuses available through the Adoption and Safe Families Act are up to $4,000 per child and $6,000 for every child with special needs.
Things started going wrong, Gloria and Kenny say. Although Kenny says he'd always had a good working relationship with CPS in Fort Bend, that did not carry over to Brazoria. CPS caseworkers who came to their home to check on the kids did not treat Gloria and Kenny with any respect, the couple says. "They act like the foster parents are the enemy," Kenny says. He took over his new job as head of the foster parents association only to find there were no records. He decided to move the foster parents out of the building it shared with CPS, feeling that CPS was trying to run his organization. CPS didn't like that, he says, and he and Gloria say that's when they became marked for retaliation.
CPS continued placing foster children in their home, but instead of the younger boys they were used to getting, they were housing teenagers, who brought more complicated problems with them, Gloria says. By late February all but three of the boys they had were teenagers.
Their latest addition, a 15-year-old boy, brought their world crashing about them starting on February 26. He alleged physical and emotional abuse by the Rogerses. In the next day's roundup of all eight kids, according to CPS worker Cheryl L. Harvick, the children accused Gloria and Kenny Rogers of hitting some of them in the head with a rake used to clean horse stalls. Other allegations: The children weren't fed for the entire weekend of February 22-23, Gloria threw a bottle of bleach at one of the children, Gloria and Kenny pushed a child to the floor and began kicking him, and the children were emotionally abused.
Gloria was home alone when the children were taken. Kenny was in Austin as part of a group attending a ceremony honoring the first black Texas legislator.
In its sweep, CPS did leave behind two of the Rogerses' sons: Michael, 18, who is adopted, and 14-year-old Kenneth Jr., their biological son. Oldest son Jeremy Filer, a U.S. Marine with eight years of service, is in the Middle East now.
The Rogerses went to court on March 6 and state District Judge Randy Hufstetler ordered Trase returned. Phillips argued successfully that the district attorney's office hadn't filed the right paperwork in the case. The judge agreed but immediately told CPS and Assistant District Attorney Lori Rickert that the case could be refiled. Mark Jones, the court-appointed attorney for Trase, said the boy insisted there had been no abuse and he wanted to go back to the Rogerses. The seven other boys remained in other locations.
Gloria says the 15-year-old had his own private agenda, as a ringleader doing anything he could do to get what he wanted, which was out of their home and on his way to live with a brother in California. She says the boy is six foot two, and she wants to know how much physical abuse she was supposed to be able to hand out to someone that size.
She and her husband say CPS tempted the kids with food until it got the stories it wanted.
CPS workers say they did feed the kids; they were in their offices for most of the day. CPS says mentally retarded or not, these kids knew enough to say they'd been mistreated.
Deep in the windy, narrow back roads of Damon are the six acres of property that Gloria and Kenny Rogers call home. Originally from California, they moved because Gloria's mother and sister lived in the area and they wanted a break from California's high land prices. Gloria had worked as an accountant and Kenny was in the convention industry. While living in the First Colony area of Sugar Land, they decided to give foster parenting a try. They ended up adopting their first foster child, Michael, who came into CPS custody because he'd been stealing food for his siblings, whose parents were on crack. Gloria gave up her accounting work and went into foster parenting full time.
Kenny says they decided to move because the atmosphere at school there could be tough on poor urban kids moved into the midst of suburban affluence. "These rich kids would eat these [foster] kids like piranhas," he says.
At first they were going to move to the Lake Livingston area. At the last minute, that deal fell through and they looked for other property and found Damon. They bought the land in 1995 and have spent the last three years working on it, moving a house from Bellaire and expanding it to 4,300 square feet, putting in a barn to the side with pasture for the horses (including some miniatures) and a fountain out front. CPS kept them supplied with a steady stream of foster children, and eventually Kenny took up foster parenting full time as well.
They bought horses for the kids to ride and enrolled them in 4H and Scouts and their church. Their foster children came from all ethnic backgrounds -- Gloria says she always wanted a "rainbow family." They took the kids on trail rides and out in groups with lots of other people. The kids were all enrolled in local public schools, where counselors would meet with them at Gloria's urging, she says, without herself or her husband.
That's why they can't believe the charges lodged against them.
"If we were trying to hide anything, would we have them out in the public like this?" Kenny asks. They were investigated once before, but the complaint was not substantiated. Kenny says such complaints are part and parcel of being a longtime foster parent.
Trase had a hard time at first. He would get in fights on the bus with older kids, Kenny says. But he was always very loving, wanted to be hugged all the time, and started doing well in school once he settled down, they say.
Trase is still small for his age, but has put on weight since coming to live with the Rogerses. A delicate-looking child with a beautiful face, he holds his upper body stiffly. From time to time, he coughs deeply.
He has low resistance to any sort of germ and sees a doctor once or twice a month, Gloria says. She's been taking him to a specialist in Galveston to try to find out why he gets pneumonia and colds so easily, causing him to miss school at West Columbia Elementary.
It was that constant sickness that Gloria says caused her to bond so closely with Trase. "He was the most grateful child. He'd say, 'Mommy, thank you for giving me my medicine.' "
Gloria is at a loss to explain the other children's accusations but says she understands that these kids will say anything to get by "because that's the way they've had to live."
Once you get past the metal detectors on the first floor, the Brazoria County courthouse has a relaxed atmosphere. Courtrooms are filled with the usual packed assortment of lawyers for docket call. What's different is the number of CPS workers on hand, and not just in the courtroom but up in front of the bar, sitting in the jury chairs, spending long hours at the courthouse. Everybody seems to be one big happy family -- judges, CPS and the district attorney's office. CPS workers are close-knit; some are related to each other, many have been with the agency for a while. When there's a hearing, no one much clears out of the way; instead, the witnesses in the case form a semicircle in front of the judge and handle the proceedings in low tones that are difficult to hear out in the courtroom. There's some talk that Assistant District Attorney Rickert, newly transferred to family court matters from the criminal side, takes her direction from CPS, but that may just be other people misunderstanding the normal fact-gathering she needs to do to present these cases.
CPS in Brazoria County has 204 children in its custody and 40 approved foster homes in which to place them, according to spokeswoman Estella Olguin. They also use places such as the DePelchin Children's Center and go to other counties for emergency shelters for teenagers since Brazoria County has none. In the last three years only about five foster homes have been closed in the county, all for repeated noncompliance, she says. She says CPS hasn't retaliated for anything the Rogerses did in regard to the foster parents association or because they got custody of Trase.
"If we closed down every kind of home we had disagreements with, we wouldn't have anything left. There's a great need," Olguin says. Besides, she adds, CPS doesn't actually close anyone down. It's the state agency that licenses foster homes that does that. Of course, the agency relies on information from CPS, at least initially.
The Rogerses and attorney Phillips say the 15-year-old's complaints about their home mirrored those he made against his own mother. Yet Olguin says that wasn't the case, that the complaints are different and that he had just accused his mother of physical abuse and of throwing poison in his face. Yet in Cheryl Harvick's affidavit, Gloria Rogers is accused of tossing a bottle of bleach (which some might call a poison) at one kid and hitting another.
Gloria says she went out of her way to make the 15-year-old feel welcome. He told her that his mother never let him outside the house except to empty the garbage. What she should have clicked to sooner, she says, is that while he was weaving this tale of neglect, he was doing it wearing nice clothes, a gold chain, a Guess watch and a 14-carat gold bracelet. He told them he was Muslim, but she says that although they encouraged him to pray in his faith, he never did.
According to Olguin, although the Rogerses have publicly denied using corporal punishment, CPS has them on tape admitting to hitting the children. Olguin refused to let the Press hear the tape, saying the matter remains under investigation. She says Gloria and Kenny are also on tape admitting they used profanity aimed at the children and that Kenny admitted calling the children "nigger." "He said he didn't mean anything by that," Olguin says.
In the CPS interviews with the children, Olguin stressed that a trained investigator saw each one separately and asked no leading questions. The Rogerses are saying, though, that first CPS did talk to all the kids together so each heard each other's story. Olguin denies that, other than to say that the children were brought in together as a group.
But CPS's own affidavit filed in court contradicts Olguin's claim. In it, Harvick writes that "Alicia Taylor, CPS specialist and myself sat in the conference room with the children as a group. I was approached by one of the children who informed me that he was scared, because if the Rogers find out they told anyone about being hit in the home they would have to stand before the group in a 'family meeting' and be told how terrible they are and that no one wanted them and that is why they are in their home." She goes on to detail the other accusations made by the children to her in the group setting.
Olguin also discussed another point in Harvick's affidavit, concerning a documentary TV program on slavery. According to the Rogerses, they discussed it with the children saying they should watch it to know about a time in this country when whites owned blacks. Kenny says he also added that blacks owned blacks in this country as well.
According to the version CPS says it received from the kids, though, Olguin says the Rogerses "made the children come in and watch a television show on slavery. They made the Anglo children come in and look at what their people had done to the African-Americans." She says the six African-American kids were angry at the two Anglo kids.
The versions also differ about the weekend when CPS says the boys got nothing to eat.
Gloria and Kenny absolutely insist that's not true. All they can figure out, she says, is that the CPS investigator heard complaints that she didn't cook all weekend, not that there wasn't any food.
According to Kenny, Friday night he had everyone get ready for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo parade the next day. He made chorizo, eggs and beans. He made long deli sandwiches for them to take with them. After the parade, they went to Hermann Park, where the kids played and were so tired afterward that they slept on the way home. Everyone was so worn out that they had leftover sandwiches for dinner. The next morning, the well pipe burst and Kenny spent most of the day working on it. They had cold cereal for breakfast and chili dogs for lunch. They had macaroni and cheese for a snack, Gloria says, and deli ham for their dinner. "We have two refrigerators and a freezer. Food is our main cost," Gloria says, insisting that no one goes hungry at her house.
Gloria and Kenny say that they are only strict in demanding that the kids get a good education. "We make them go to bed on time. We make them do homework," Gloria says. "He had to make his bed and brush his teeth. Guess to him that was strict."
Gloria and Kenny Rogers and their attorney Jimmy Phillips aren't the only ones questioning the CPS operation in Brazoria County. Attorney Peggy Bittick has launched into battle, even interrupting her own family vacation to Disney World to represent her client's daughter, an almost 17-year-old girl taken into custody by CPS one year after CPS first heard the report of the incident that led to the charges.
Bittick has filed a motion for sanctions, arguing that CPS workers misled the judges in court testimony. She asks for attorney's fees and expenses. Her client has been returned to her mother by Associate Judge Frank Bass, but the case is ongoing. CPS will get to look at the therapist's notes from the girl's counseling sessions and decide if further intervention is needed.
Cara Shy was living with her mother and stepfather in March 2002 when her older sister, who has a history of drug problems, came to visit on spring break with some friends. Her stepfather, Barton Jones, became concerned that the girls might be doing drugs and came up with an idea that everyone in retrospect agrees was stupid. Without telling anyone, he installed a video camera in the girls' bathroom, hiding it in a potted plant.
By all accounts, the only footage he had obtained was of the girls brushing their hair and putting on makeup when he decided that this had been a bad idea. He took out the camera and tossed the tapes on top of the TV, which is where Cara's mom, Cheri Jones, found them. A victim of sexual abuse as a child, Cheri erupted when she saw the tapes. She called her husband at work -- he plays in a jazz band -- and told him not to come home. She smashed the tapes with a hammer.
The stepfather, in turn, attempted suicide by taking an overdose of pills. He wandered off to die in a field, where he was found passed out 15 hours later. After his stay at Ben Taub Hospital, Cheri allowed him to move back in. Cara began seeing a private counselor, but through all this, Cara never knew anything about the tapes. She knew only that her mother and stepfather were having problems.
About a month later, on April 8, 2002, CPS was notified of the tape by a former therapist of the Joneses' -- three days after Cheri told her they were switching to another therapist. CPS interviewed Cara at Pearland High School and she denied ever being sexually abused by her stepfather. Cheri says CPS came to her home and threatened to take Cara unless Cheri signed a protective order on the spot.
In July, CPS caseworker Ida Trejo-Isquierdo went to the Jones home and talked with Cheri, who said her husband was gone and they were getting a divorce. Pregnant by her husband, she told Trejo-Isquierdo that he needed to be part of her baby's life but that he wasn't in the home when Cara was there.
In a court affidavit, the caseworker then detailed a list of attempts to contact Cheri and Cara. She said she asked Cheri to sign a form that would release the content of the counseling sessions to CPS and Cheri balked. Cheri says she had no problem with Trejo-Isquierdo talking to her daughter, she just didn't want her to do it at school where it might embarrass Cara.
According to CPS, Cheri and Barton Jones refused to participate in services deemed necessary by CPS. On November 26, CPS filed its petition for court-ordered participation. The case was reset several times until March 4. But the Joneses and attorney Bittick were absent because they hadn't been told of the court setting. Prosecutor Rickert says it was up to Bittick to learn of the resetting. An affidavit from Lesley Swift, a supervisor with the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services, presented the basic contentions in the case about the videotaping and alleged noncompliance with services, whereupon Judge Bass ordered them to appear before Judge Hufstetler to seek the removal of Cara Shy.
Bittick says at the very first hearing she was told, "This is not a pickup case."
Rickert agrees. "We did not go to court asking for the removal from Judge Bass. He told us to seek the removal."
According to Judy Hay, spokeswoman for Harris County CPS, the only reason CPS took such a drastic step was that it had no way of knowing whether Cara was getting the services she needed.
Or as Rickert put it, if Cara didn't even know of the existence of any videotape of her in the bathroom, how was she going to protect herself if needed when she saw her stepfather?
"Yes, our work is intrusive; yes, it's an invasion of family privacy," Hay says. Once they make sure the girl is all right, "then we are going to get out of their lives."
To obtain the judge's agreement for immediate removal of Cara from the home, CPS alleged there was "an immediate and continuing danger." This, although the stepfather had been out of the house for months and was not coming over (Rickert says the state did not know the couple divorced in November), despite Cara's age and despite the fact that Cara and her mother continued to go to counseling. CPS also asked that Cheri's parental rights be terminated and, if so, that Cara be placed for adoption.
Cara was picked up and taken to a foster home run by an elderly religious woman. Cara objected and was moved to a youth detention home in Galveston and enrolled in Galveston's Ball High School. The A student was most recently being homeschooled because of mononucleosis and was in shock at her change in circumstances. Bittick says she proposed five or six other alternatives -- relatives and friends -- and none was accepted.
That Friday night, the Galveston center took the kids to the movie Bringing Down the House. Cara stepped out of the show and ran away. She called her mother, who says she did not know where Cara was. Cara stayed away till court on Tuesday, but throughout the weekend and until that time, CPS never notified Cara's mother or attorney or Cara's attorney that the girl was missing, Bittick says.
In an interview with the Press after the most recent hearing, Cara insisted she has never been sexually abused by her stepfather. She says when she was taken to the Galveston facility, the other girls there couldn't believe she was there and urged her to call for a lawyer. She says she directly asked Trejo-Isquierdo for an attorney and was told only that her mother was working with her attorney to iron something out. In court, Trejo-Isquierdo said she didn't remember Cara ever asking for her own attorney.
Bittick says CPS has misled the judges involved in the case, telling them that Cheri and Barton Jones have been uncooperative, when in fact he moved out and she and her daughter were in counseling. The attorney also says it is Trejo-Isquierdo who has been difficult to contact, so much so that the counselor seeing Cheri and Cara finally faxed Trejo-Isquierdo a statement on her progress when she was unable to reach her by phone.
Cheri and Barton Jones were arrested and are also battling criminal charges in the case. Cheri was charged with tampering with or fabricating physical evidence, a felony offense, for smashing the tapes. Barton has been charged with improper visual recording, another felony. Both cases are pending. They are out about $11,000 to regain Cara and still face attorney's fees with their criminal cases.
James and Deborah Mayhair were foster parents for 12 years in Brazoria County, leaving in 2000 when James's job transferred him to Michigan. They still hope to come back to Brazoria County someday, where they want to be foster parents again.
James was a president and treasurer of the same foster parents association that Kenny Rogers heads up now. When they were first foster parents in Brazoria County everything was fine, the Mayhairs say. As time went on and they became more demanding of their rights on behalf of their children and themselves, the relationship wasn't as comfortable. CPS policies were inconsistent and would depend on who your caseworker was, James says.
If CPS didn't like a foster parent, they would blackball the individual or couple, the Mayhairs say. "They would tell you that they don't do that, but they do." A decline in placements followed. Appeals to Houston went nowhere, but occasionally they were listened to when they appealed to CPS in Austin, they say.
"If anyone spoke up, they would say, 'You're under a lot of stress. Do we need to remove the children from your home because you're under too much stress?' " Deborah says.
The Mayhairs echo the Rogerses' complaint that visits from the CPS caseworkers came infrequently. "There are some workers that don't even know where the foster parents live," James says. It was not at all unusual for them to receive a call asking if they had a particular child or asking if they had room for any more children, which the Mayhairs thought was strange, given that CPS is charged with placing the children and should know where they are.
They were also upset when they tried to pass on information to the next set of foster or adoptive parents about children they'd had in their care. CPS discouraged this, they say. The caseworker who had barely seen the child certainly didn't know him, the Mayhairs say. They just wanted to fill in the next parents on likes, dislikes and medical needs to ease the transition. One couple became furious with them once because the caseworker intercepted a note from Deborah and didn't pass it on that the children were being treated for scabies. The new parents got scabies.
"If CPS finds out you've talked to another foster parent about a child, you're in trouble," Deborah says.
The Mayhairs adopted a girl who'd been with them for a while. It wasn't until she was five years old, though, after she suddenly developed problems, that they discovered she was manic depressive. They got her into therapy and worked with her constantly, they say, but CPS began telling them it couldn't place any foster kids with them because of the danger. They found their reputations headed downhill.
"We had 52 children in our home with never one incident. Then, because our child was having some problems ," Deborah says. The Mayhairs say their daughter never hurt anyone else, just herself.
They had a completely different experience working with CPS from Galveston County when they took in children from there, the Mayhairs say. An attorney ad litem from Galveston came to their house and met the child. The Mayhairs appeared in court and the judge asked them for input. "They don't do that in Brazoria County," James says. "They don't really want you to show up. The judge there doesn't even ask for any input from the foster parents. It was kind of a 'Hey, Bubba' court. CPS would go up there and you're sitting back in the courtroom. It's open to the public but it's just whispering in front of the desk up there.
"You have to stand up for these children's rights that are in your home. It is very unfortunate in Brazoria County that as soon as you're doing it, you get blackballed. They will not place children in your home. Kids will go to shelters before they place them in your home," James says. Meanwhile, his wife says, they'll give variances to other places that are overloaded.
"The one slightest thing with them, if you get wrong ways with them, they will come up with a reason to get you out," James says.
The Rogerses point to the ream of letters they have from supporters. A third-grade teacher writes that a Rogers foster child in her class has never shown signs of physical abuse and that "he has made great improvements both academically and socially." West Columbia Elementary Principal Frank Reid writes of another child whose behavior has turned around thanks to the work of the Rogerses. Nola Copus, executive director of the Brazosport Medical Center where the children see a doctor, dentist and eye doctor, says, "The children have always been well behaved and have appeared to be clean and happy." Dr. Ronald R. Corwin, who says he's seen the children in his practice for five months, says that "during discussions with the children they have only expressed happiness and joy at being placed with Mr. Rogers."
Counselor Jamie Evans refers to her sessions with four of the children, saying that they call the Rogerses "Mom" and "Dad" and that the kids said they "always had plenty to eat."
Mary Grupe, a volunteer for CASA, a support group for children, had a boy with the Rogerses for about a year and says he went from being "a belligerent child to a well-adjusted GT [Gifted and Talented] student." The Rogerses, she says, "have just a wonderful family setting."
In fact, CPS itself has been one of the biggest supporters of the Rogerses. In an October 2001 case involving the termination of the parental rights of Jasper, a boy who was being fostered at the Rogers home, CPS employee Tyrone Thomas testified that the child was doing much better with them than he had with his mother. Thomas said that since Jasper had been with the Rogerses, he had made substantial progress, both academically and in skills such as learning to brush his teeth and tie his shoes.
According to the court records, "Thomas testified that Jasper was in a good place and was with awesome parents and Jasper considered them his family."
Gloria and Kenny Rogers are sitting on top of six acres with a five-stall barn, a big house and dreams of a petting zoo. Both have concluded they have to go back to regular work; Gloria already has picked up a part-time job. They've converted their home into a foster care center and they're out of kids. No kids, no money and nothing to do. Even if things are reversed in their favor, Gloria says, she doesn't know if she can ever do this again. "It's been a nightmare," she says.
Last week, prosecutor Rickert said Brazoria County was no longer seeking to regain custody of Trase. Instead, the county is asking the court to order counseling for the family to help the Rogerses better deal with Trase's needs.
But whether the Rogerses are shut down as a foster care facility remains undecided. Rickert says a separate investigation by the state licensing board is looking into that and she cannot discuss it. The other boys are not being returned, and there will be no placements until it is settled.
Is this the case of some seemingly wonderful foster parents successfully hiding evildoing for years by taking in some of the most vulnerable among us, kids with special needs? And in this situation, is CPS, however desperate it is for homes, right in its actions?
Or is this a case of some overly officious, low-paid CPS workers on a power trip who didn't like the challenges a new foster couple brought to their county? And did they take advantage of those same special-needs kids to extract the accounts they needed?
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There seems to be no proof, no bruises or broken bones spotted at school, no way of knowing if you weren't there.
In what appears to be a mean-spirited afterthought, CPS sent a March 17 letter to the Rogerses, saying it did not have Trase's Medicaid card, adding, "Children's Protective Services responsibility ended for Trase on March 6, 2003." It advises them to begin applying for Medicaid for Trase all over again.
What we're left with is a five-year-old boy, delicate and sickly, who when he had "escaped" the Rogerses, denied there had been any abuse and chose to go back to them. CPS says everything it has done has been with the best interests of the children in mind.
Everyone certainly hopes so.