A Father's Retribution

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Gary Gates, whose retired Air Force pilot of a father was shot to death by a second wife, is an intensely focused man who believes in improvement, a practical man who likes to make bad things better, a studied man not prone to the waverings of doubt.

In Oklahoma, where he attended college, he bought his first house at age 19, a year after his father's death, and soon bought more, fixing them up and selling them for a profit. When he discovered there were better profits to be had in multifamily housing, he brought his wife, Melissa -- Gary was 17 when they married; Missy was 18 -- to Houston in the middle of the oil bust, and with a partner's money, began buying distressed apartment complexes and improving these too. Eventually he bought out his partners and snapped up even more units, starting his own management company, Gatesco, which has launched his income into the solid six figures and accumulated assets counted in the tens of millions.

Gary and Melissa believe also in sin, and they have strived to become better servants to their Christian God with good works and a long-followed regimen of twice-weekly churchgoing and Sunday school. Physically too, Gary buffed himself into shape, a college wrestler-turned-ultramarathoner-turned-iron man. He has raced roughly three triathlons a year over the past decade, testing himself in competitions from Italy to Korea to Canada, steadily bumping his rankings up to where he's now counted among the top 50 competitors nationwide in his age bracket.

Then there is the matter of family. Gary and Melissa have two kids of their own: Sarah, age 17, who is severely retarded, and Will, 14, an overachieving honor student. And as if that spectrum of responsibility weren't enough, in 1992, after a wrenching miscarriage, Gary and Melissa decided that they had been "led" to a new challenge, which soon became a mission: to adopt more children. First came Cassie, T.J. and Andy. A year later the Gateses adopted Cynthia and George. In 1995 Marcus joined the family. Gary and Melissa then decided to quit adopting babies -- infants were more likely to find a home elsewhere -- and went looking for the hard-to-adopts: older children and family blocs and the troubled. They found the sibling group of Raquel, Travis, Derodrick and Scott. Alexis, finally, brought the number of Gates minors to 13. Some of the kids are white. Some are black. Some are brown. Most have been in and out of foster care, and some have been categorized as "special needs." They may function a grade level below par, or struggle with the fallout of abusive histories. They may be gifted.

All 11 adoptees entered the Gates family through the bureaucratic channels of Fort Bend County. Judge Thomas Stansbury's 328th District Court is said to have erupted in applause the day the last five were adopted, by which time Gary and Melissa had moved to the outskirts of county seat Richmond, purchasing a large early-century farmhouse at the end of a cul de sac in a neighborhood so high on the scale it needed no gates. They bought 500 acres of nearby land too, on which Melissa began keeping horses and overseeing a small cattle operation, and then another big plot down the road, with a creek, for which the Gateses began designing a new home. The house will be, Gary says, a terrible investment, designed around the circumstance of 13 kids, and he'll never be able to resell it. But they have the resources.

The Gateses would use those resources to make the kids better, to improve them, with attention and discipline and a color-blind ability to love other people's children as well as their own that they consider a gift. Their neighbors and fellow parishioners saw it happen and called it a miracle, what Gary and Melissa were doing for those kids, the way they seemed to blossom under the care. The kids attended church with their parents. They learned to follow rules, to be accountable for their actions, to be polite, and they swam and ran races with Gary. Sometimes they won, which was not something they had been used to doing.

The Houston Chronicle, on page one, Christmas Day, 1997, headlined a profile of seasonal uplift thus: "Parents of 11 adopted kids give gift of love." The Gates family was so well rounded it rolled, and Gary described the linchpins of his family's success as church, exercise and discipline. He sometimes found it useful to combine the latter two. When punishment was called for, Patti Muck's article related, Gary might have the kids do push-ups, or carry lumber or bricks from the rear of the house to the front and back again. It was a technique that made its point just as well as spanking, and it was healthy.

The weakness of too many parents, Gary said, was that they didn't consistently follow through with threats of punishment. A kid has to have some stability. A kid has to know where the line is.

On Friday, February 11, of this year, Fort Bend County Children's Protective Services personnel, accompanied by local law enforcement, arrived at the Gateses' idyllic home and loaded 11 kids into a bar-windowed paddy wagon and took them away from Gary and Melissa. Travis didn't have to be herded into the van, and neither did Will. Travis was already in CPS custody, having been picked up from school that morning, and Will had been snatched earlier that evening from a National Honor Society-sponsored Valentine's Day dance.

CPS thinks Gary and Melissa were abusing those kids. Gary and Melissa think CPS was abusing its power. And now Gary Gates, man of many missions, has a new one: to hold CPS, like a child who's crossed the line, to account.

Travis Gates arrived that Friday morning at Dickinson Elementary School, where he attends fourth grade, with a Ziploc bag full of empty Fig Newton wrappers stapled to his shirt and a note from Gary Gates explaining that Travis was to wear the bag all day, that he was not allowed to attend a school Valentine's Day party, that this was his punishment for stealing food.

Travis, who has an eating disorder that leads him to compulsively steal, hoard and binge on food, presumably related to "attachment" issues born of early neglect and fetal alcohol syndrome, had sneaked out of a window at home and back in another window into the kitchen, which is habitually locked at night to control the children's access. He took a bulk box of Fig Newtons back to his room and stuffed himself. A nanny discovered the wrappers hidden in the attic and told Gary.

An unidentified reporter, clearly a school employee, called CPS's centralized intake line in Austin at 8:31 a.m. with an allegation of emotional abuse. According to the intake report, Travis was "in a strict setting at school because father refuses to treat the child medically." Furthermore, "Father is very religious and is very controlling. Father weighs [Travis] every day and if [Travis] varies by even an ounce Father accuses him of stealing food and makes [Travis] work out until it is back to Father's perfect perception of [Travis's] weight." The reporter noted that at least once when Travis had stolen food, Gary had made him move bricks from one pile to another "for hours," though it was "unknown when this was," and in seeming self-contradiction, "unknown how long Father made him do this." The reporter alleged that on one occasion, Travis had stolen food from home, and Gary had handcuffed him to his bed as punishment. "[Travis] needs serious psychiatric treatment," the reporter concluded, "and Father refuses to get this for him because he thinks he can control [Travis]."

CPS caseworker Erika Davis drove to Dickinson Elementary, picked up Travis and took him to Child Advocates of Fort Bend County, where he was interviewed on videotape by Bonnie Martin. Travis explained to Martin how he had stolen the food because he was hungry, that he and the younger Gates siblings were not allowed seconds at mealtime, and that he was afraid to ask because his dad had said no before.

Travis described a Gary Gates who lost his temper upon learning of the theft. Gary, Travis said, took him outside, pushing and kicking him. Travis had a bandaged blister on his palm that he said came from falling, and a cut near his eyebrow that he couldn't explain. He said after the pushing and the kicking, Gary had made him sit against the wall, as if on a chair, and run up and down the stairs carrying a bag of his own dirty diapers -- several of the Gates children wear Depends -- that the family had discovered in the attic with the Fig Newton wrappers. Travis denied ever seeing handcuffs in the Gates home.

Here were all the red flags CPS required.

Davis called Gary Gates at work, informed him of the interview and told him that CPS would need to speak with both Gary and Melissa, as well as the other children, to determine if it was safe for Travis to return home. Gary Gates was not happy to learn that Travis had been interviewed without his permission, and was less happy still to learn of the further intrusion to come. He asked Davis for her office address and arrived there moments later. Davis spoke briefly with Gates, and then asked him to wait in the hall. Over an hour later, still sitting in the hall, Gary Gates received a cell phone call from his son Derodrick. CPS, Derodrick said, was at the house asking questions. Gary Gates told him to hold on, he would be right there.

When Gary Gates got home, he found a bad situation that he could not make better. CPS agents and sheriff's deputies were already on the property. Soon, two pastors from the Gateses' church, Brent Burckart and Keith Bower, alerted to the situation by neighbor John Martin, would arrive as well. A nanny -- one of several household helpers hired by the Gateses to help oversee the brood -- was watching the children, but Melissa was out riding and would not arrive home until later. Gary was told he would have to wait outside while the children were interviewed, though he was later allowed inside, into a separate room. The commotion lasted from mid-afternoon until after dark, when CPS finished its interviews, and Gary and Melissa got the kids into their pajamas and sat them in front of the TV to watch a video of It's a Wonderful Life.

Then CPS decided that all 13 Gates children were in real and immediate danger of harm if left in the house. According to an affidavit later filed by Pastor Bower, Deputy Sergeant Sam Millsap finally yelled, "The jail wagon is here. Let's get these kids loaded up and out of here! Now!"

There was no search warrant. There was no court order. The Gateses had to fight to be allowed to explain to their retarded oldest daughter what was happening, and to let their kids get their shoes before being hauled away. Agents asked the Gateses for their children's school information so that they could be reassigned, out of reach. When Bower asked if some of the children might be taken to his parishioners' homes, he was told no. They would be taken, and separated from one another, and stashed at undisclosed locations so that Gary and Melissa Gates could not find them. The last Pastor Bower saw of the Gates children that Friday night, they were crying in the van, trying to find their seat belts.

The battle lines were well drawn the following Monday morning in Judge Stansbury's courtroom. Stansbury, who had signed the adoption papers on all 11 of the Gates adoptees, looked out over the bench and saw a standing-room-only sea of moral support for the Gates family, largely composed of their fellows at Grace Community Bible Church, most of whom had prepared character affidavits in support of Gary and Melissa. He also would have seen Gary Gates's $20,000 worth of lawyers, including former Harris and Fort Bend County District Attorney Frank Briscoe. Stansbury's purpose at this hearing was to determine whether the Gates children should return home or remain in the state's custody, and Gary Gates would spare no resource in fighting for his kids.

CPS's purpose at this hearing was to sue for termination of Gary and Melissa Gates's parental rights to all 13 children, and in support of this cause, the agency had prepared its own affidavit, based on interviews with the kids, much of which was read aloud to the assembled, all of whom were unprepared for the family portrait that its allegations sketched.

The Gates children had told stories -- not entirely consistent in detail, but compellingly similar in gist -- of a household run by a disciplinarian who may have crossed the line. There were stories of ipecac syrup, "throw-up medicine," given to several children, and meals dosed with cayenne pepper as punishment. There were stories not just of hauling two-by-fours and bricks as discipline, but of spankings with a board. The children recounted having to do "wall sits" as punishment, sometimes with a 25-pound or 50-pound weight in their laps, sometimes for hours at a time. It was learned that several of the Gates children wet their beds, and that Gary and Melissa keep a chart downstairs on which these children must note in the mornings whether their diapers are dry. Children caught stealing food would have to miss the next meal. Several children spoke of Gary taping newspaper around their hands, or handcuffing them, to keep them from stealing food.

About the incident with Travis, the children described a dad who flew off the handle, kicking a chair out from under the boy, knocking him to the ground and throwing him up against a wall, kicking him in the stomach and hitting him in the face. According to the affidavit, five CPS agents, three sheriff's deputies and Associate Pastor Brent Burckart witnessed Gary Gates tell his children, by way of explaining CPS's presence that Friday, "These people want to talk to you, they think mom and dad are bad people." T.J. responded, "Well dad, you are bad, you slammed them up against the wall and made his head bleed." Alexis and Marcus said, "Yeah, you made him bleed."

T.J. told his interviewer that "dad hurts Travis and the big kids." Cynthia said she was afraid to live at home because her dad gets so mad. Alexis said she was scared of her father when he gets angry. Will, the biological son and honor student, and perhaps the most reliable narrator of the Gates children, is reported to have said that his father was under a lot of pressure dealing with 13 kids. In the words of CPS interviewer Sherrece Haywood, "Will stated that none of us likes any of this, we just don't complain."

"What we're seeing, your honor," explained a CPS witness, is "an ongoing, escalating physical abuse in this home, not only all the emotional things but also the bizarre punishment."

CPS held that in this, as in all family matters, Gary Gates was the driving force. Melissa, the agency suggested, was either unwilling or unable to stop him.

Judge Stansbury's eyebrows were clearly raised by the evidence, but "my concern and my endeavor right now," he said, "is to make a decision in my own mind whether the emergency removal was appropriate, not whether these children have been abused, because I'm concerned that if things bear out in this affidavit, the children may very well have been abused."

Stansbury appointed an attorney ad litem for the children, and Child Advocates as guardian ad litem, and set an evidentiary hearing for two weeks later -- a hearing that has yet to take place. And then, hesitatingly, he ruled that the Gates children be returned to the care of their parents.

"This is one hearing that's conducted in this court involving children where the court's order is not made on the test of best interest of the children," Stansbury said. "The ability of the state, of CPS specifically, to come into someone's home and remove children requires a heavier burden, and our laws provided that."

Stansbury was disturbed by the allegations, and he took pains to instruct Gary and Melissa Gates that their children's testimony via CPS's affidavit should not bring punishment upon the kids. Any retribution would sooner or later get back to him, Stansbury said, and that wasn't good parenting.

Finally, Judge Stansbury reminded the Gateses, "CPS has as much right tomorrow as they did last Friday to remove a child or children from your home without a further court order if they think they've got the justification under the Family Code for doing it."

Then he adjourned, and the Gates children returned home.

The first time I spoke with Gary Gates, he invited me to his office, and then to his home for dinner. We met at his suite in Rosenberg, where three of his children were sleeping on the floor or playing while he worked, and Gary began outlining the forces that were arrayed against him. The walls were crowded with running awards and photos of his children. A framed poster behind his desk read, "Persevere: On the road to success you can be sure of one thing. There is never a crowd on the extra mile." He had the Texas Family Law Code on his desk, and a copy of CPS's policy manual. CPS, he said, had referred him to the Internet for the manual, not having a current one in its office. The whole system, he said, needs to be reformed.

"The bar is so low that everyone is just one call away from losing their kids."

Later, I followed his white Suburban to the Gates home, in need of a paint job, and modest by millionaire standards. Inside, the Gates children smiled and addressed me as Mr. Tyer, one after another, stepping forward from the mass to say hello, or calling my name to get my attention, introducing themselves, some laughing, or giggling, or shy.

Sarah showed me one of her Star Wars toys. Melissa had prepared a meal of pasta, roast beef, salad and garlic bread in large pots, and the older kids helped the younger ones load their plates before settling around three makeshift tables in the living room. Gary did not ask, as is his before-dinner habit, if "all hearts were clear," but he did offer a prayer, and neither Melissa, to my left, nor Travis, to my right, seemed hesitant to clasp my hand as the Gateses held linked arms around their tables.

The kids ate quietly, considering their number, but they were not what you would call subdued. When Gary told one of them to stop something, it was stopped. Afterward they went upstairs to prepare for bed, and Gary and Melissa told me about the CAPS registry of accused child abusers to which CPS's raid had added their names. The charge was a nonspecific laundry list of allegations, including sexual assault and murder, that CPS routinely includes in its petitions, alleging commission of "one or more" of the listed crimes. The statewide registry, accessible by day care, adoptive agencies and Big Brothers, among others, remains active until the youngest affected child turns 18, regardless of whether or not the accused is eventually cleared. In the Gateses' case, this means 14 more years under the cloud. This fact seemed to bother the Gateses as much as anything else. They hoped they might be able to adopt more children in the future.

At least Gary Gates did. Melissa said she wasn't so sure, but then she had wanted to stop adopting a while ago, before Gary convinced her to keep going.

Gary Gates knows with righteous certainty why CPS is after him, and it is not because he is a child abuser. It's because he's a baldly religious man, and that, he thinks, with the besieged posture common to fundamentalists, makes him suspect to the secular eye. It's because his family is so anachronistically large, a fact that casts contemporary suspicion on his motives. It's because he has had the audacity, as a rich white man, to adopt black and Hispanic children, and there are persons, inside CPS and out, who view such an act as culturally inappropriate at best, imperialistic at worst. It is also because he has fought the Lamar Consolidated Independent School District tooth and nail over clashing interpretations of educational plans, and it retaliated with the initial report.

None of this is provable, in fact it's all plausibly deniable, but that hasn't stopped Gary Gates from launching a full frontal assault on CPS, Child Advocates and LCISD. He has converted part of his Rosenberg office to a "war room," has spent over $150,000 so far for legal fees and transcripts, has taken out advertisements in local newspapers soliciting other families' CPS horror stories, and has flooded local bureaucracies with reams of Open Records Act requests for everything from procedural manuals to caseworker salaries.

Gary Gates provides me with four thick black binders of documents and correspondence, indexed and tabbed, the section heads of the fattest punctuated with Hallmark-worthy photos of his family.

Ninety-five percent of his time, he says, is now devoted to this cause, which he has cloaked in the robes of public interest. He is the rare parent who was able to get his kids back, in no small part because of his wealth. He's fighting now, he says, for the predominantly poor families who have no leverage against CPS's unbridled power, against "the beast" that the agency has become. If Gary Gates, with his focus and his drive and his money, doesn't hold CPS accountable, who will?

Besides, Gary Gates has some plausible deniability of his own.

Yes, he has administered ipecac syrup to two of his 13 children on, he thinks, four occasions over the years. Little Lexie sometimes eats whole pecans off the ground on the Gates property, and Travis once ate a whole loaf of moldy bread out of a garbage can. That's what ipecac syrup is for.

Yes, he once put a pair of T.J.'s plastic toy handcuffs on Travis, for about 30 minutes, after a family discussion of a newspaper account of a California man who received a mandatory 20-year sentence for stealing a pizza. Gary says he wanted to show Travis something of what it might feel like to have his freedom taken away if he kept stealing food. The spanking "board" is a paddle. Travis is not weighed every day, only when he appears bloated from gorging, and he is weighed on a bathroom scale that doesn't even register ounces. Yes, Gary kicked Travis, with the side of his foot on the rump, to get him moving. Yes, he kicked a chair out from under him and pushed him to the wall. "I meant to seem very angry and threatening to him, which I believe I achieved." When Gary suggested the wrappers-stapled-to-shirt punishment, Travis cried, and this was encouraging to his parents, who had struggled to break through Travis's lack of remorse, and Melissa approved the tactic.

Other accusations, he says, are simply mischaracterized or were suggested to the children by CPS agents. When his lawyers asked for documentation of the children's interviews, Gary learned that, aside from the videotape of Travis, which says very little, CPS had shredded its notes.

As to the original reporter's comments that Travis was in a "strict setting at school because Mr. Gates refuses to treat the child medically," the strict setting is a structured classroom environment approved by Gates, Travis's psychologist and the school district's director of Special Programs and Projects. Then there is a raft of doctor's studies, letters and meetings between Gates and the district that add up to something substantially other than a parent's unwillingness to seek help for his child.

Much of this material was on file at the school. Reams more were stored at the CPS office, through which four of the Gates children were adopted, along with three attendant CPS-commissioned social studies of the parents that discussed at length, and approvingly, the Gateses' disciplinary techniques. The Houston Chronicle profile on the Gates family, in fact, hung on a wall in CPS's office.

Gary provides documents showing that Dickinson Elementary, which in 1999 had an enviable and marketable 99 percent passing rate on the TAAS test, spent almost $30,000 in legal fees fighting Gary Gates's insistence that his sons Travis and Scott not be exempted from the test. LCISD eventually lost those battles, which hearing transcripts reveal to have been acrimonious, and Gates then went after the district for his own legal fees. At yet another hearing on the issue, two days after Judge Stansbury returned the kids to their home, Gary questioned Travis's teacher about comments made in the original CPS referral. Within a week the teacher, whom Gary suspects of calling in the CPS report, had resigned. The district's special education supervisor Marcia Vogelsang says the CPS report, the teacher's resignation and Gary Gates's battles with the district are "totally unrelated."

But retaliation or no, the school referral to CPS -- by policy it would be "a nonaccusatory report," says Vogelsang, "no accusation made whatsoever" -- begs a question. With all those school records available attesting to Travis's disorder and the Gateses' almost constant negotiations with the school regarding his special needs, and with Travis arriving at school that morning with not only the wrappers stapled to his shirt but an explanatory note from Gary Gates asking the school to please call him if there were any questions, why did someone call CPS instead and accuse Gary Gates of refusing to get treatment for his child, weighing him to the ounce, handcuffing him to his bed and being "very religious"?

And once that happened, why did CPS, on the same day, without referring to its own voluminous files on the Gates family, embark on an emergency removal without a court order, the most drastic course of action at the agency's disposal?

At root, Gary Gates thinks, because CPS thinks it can.

There is no shortage of material on the Internet and elsewhere to suggest that Gary Gates is not alone in thinking that CPS wields too much power too carelessly, operating outside of accountability to constitutional protections. Reports are taken anonymously, from sources therefore unaccountable for their charges. Could the cops have entered his house without a warrant? And what about CPS's own mission statement, to look first and foremost, even in cases of documented abuse, for ways to keep families together? Is that what happened on February 11?

CPS's own policy manual outlines two types of child removal: with and without a prior court order. Emergency removals, without a court order, are called for when physical abuse is documented. Spanking your kids, making them run, even kicking them in the butt, is not necessarily physical abuse, and much of what is included in the affidavit suggests emotional abuse, if anything at all. The circumstances would seem, according to CPS policy, to call for a prior court order. But in depositions a CPS caseworker admitted that she didn't even know how to go about getting one prior to removal, and had never heard of it done.

Once CPS has your kids, Gates says, it has all the cards, and can then set about implementing "services," compelling counseling and anger management courses. And once CPS has your kids in foster care, CPS gets state money for their upkeep. The agency is strategically motivated, Gary thinks, to shoot first and ask questions later.

Questioned during the Monday hearing in Judge Stansbury's courtroom, CPS witness Laurel Miller, who'd been on the scene that Friday night, was asked, "What behavior would [Gary Gates] have had to exhibit for his 13 children to have slept in their house this weekend?"

"I would have expected or hoped," Miller responded, "that he would have said, you know, "I know that there's a problem here and I'm willing to do what's necessary to remedy it.' "

But Gary Gates didn't think there was a problem, and his refusal to acknowledge one was used as evidence that there was, in fact, a problem. Gary's mind cannot get the circularity of that logic to jibe with the doctrine of innocent-until-proven-guilty.

But there is also a sense that he perhaps protests too much, and acknowledges too little the complexities of CPS's mission. In a world in which the only universally acknowledged good is a child's "best interest," any CPS deviation from a very fine line carries the potential for tragedy. An overzealous CPS will be blamed for wrongly branding parents and destabilizing families. An underzealous CPS can find itself with a dead or wounded child. A CPS that finds itself with a child dead or wounded at the hands of an adoptive parent previously approved by CPS itself would have a lot of explaining to do.

Coming from a man who has adopted several children through the offices of Fort Bend County CPS, Gary Gates's insistence that Fort Bend County CPS has no right to interview his kids without his permission, and no right to continue investigating allegations of abuse, speaks of a man insistent on everyone's accountability but his own.

Whether CPS botched this particular case or not, whether someone at the school was out of line in reporting him, shouldn't Gary Gates recognize the concern radiating back at him from his community? Valid questions had been raised, from presumably well-intentioned parties, about the appropriateness of his methods. And the fact remains that Gary Gates's disciplinary methods can seem, to a reasonable outsider, scary.

Pastor Keith Bower, who has known the Gateses for five years and testifies glowingly to their parenting, addresses the issue this way:

"Gary is, despite his intensity and his confidence, he is also a very teachable person. He's taken on some challenges. Some of these kids have various behavioral issues and just enormous challenges. And when you see the sheer range of child-rearing options that he exercises, what you see is a guy who's never stopped learning. Now the question, though, is who does he learn from? There he gets very choosy. If he respects you, he listens to you and he learns from you. But if you have not earned his respect, or worse still, if you have done something to cause him to have no respect for you at all, he's not listening to you. There are certain people in CPS that he has had a good relationship with for years. People that were involved in the home studies. The problem is that some of these other players did something that pretty much makes it impossible for them to ever enjoy the respect of Gary Gates again. I mean they blew it. Gary has been in constant dialogue with a variety of health care, medical, psychological professionals on how to raise his kids who have been very much involved in his methods and his ideas and the alternatives and options. They're aware of his methods, they have recommended many of them, they don't find them abusive.

"Now the issue of community standards, that's a tricky one, because the community standards are really established around an assumption of average kids with average needs. He doesn't have average kids with average needs. He's taken on some kids that most people would never dream of adopting. So he has to go beyond average. Now that doesn't mean he goes beyond average into abusive. But he does have to come up with some parenting solutions that most people never have to go to. I would say that while some of his methods are unfamiliar to the community, he has adopted those methods as a teachable, creative, attentive parent who's trying the best he can under topflight professional guidance to provide these kids the parenting they need."

An alternate interpretation of this testimony, of course, is that Gary Gates agrees with those who agree with him, and views those who don't as his enemies.

The court records show a CPS knocked on its heels by Gary Gates's counterattack, and the very fact that the file is open for public perusal at the Fort Bend County Courthouse is evidence of his savvy maneuvering.

Judge Stansbury ordered the file opened at least partly at the suggestion of CPS, who had a dual purpose in the request. CPS, assaulted by Gary Gates's publicity campaign, and bound by its own confidentiality rules, had no way to respond to his accusations aside from its own affidavit. And CPS also wanted access to the file's court-ordered psychological evaluation of the Gates family by the CPS-recommended clinical psychologist Dr. Jay Bevan. Gary Gates had, slyly, filed a motion to suppress the evaluation on the grounds that it might incriminate him, and CPS hoped to find further ammunition in its pages. The agency was not expecting to find a report that concluded, as Bevan's did, with this statement: "I have never said this about anyone I have ever evaluated: I admire the Gates. I would not hesitate to place my own children in their care."

Among the 95 papers filed in two fat folders are Gary Gates's original denial of the CPS charges, and shortly afterward, a motion for sanctions against CPS for bringing a frivolous lawsuit. A month later, the Fort Bend D.A. representing CPS withdrew from the case. In August, the attorney for Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services, which oversees CPS, filed her own motion to withdraw, and later that month the children's court-appointed attorney ad litem did the same, complaining that "Movants are unable to perform their duties to protect the children in the face of the total lack of cooperation from the children's parents."

This last was apparently in reference to an "Irrevocable Settlement Agreement" signed by all parties back in March ordering Dr. Bevan's psych evaluation and designating Pastor Bower as mediator between the Gates children and CPS. Gary Gates interpreted the agreement to mean that CPS would have no further direct access to his children, and so there has not been. CPS interpreted no such thing, and further mediation on the issue is scheduled.

In the meantime, though, CPS's case suffered blows at every turn. Not only did Dr. Bevan's evaluation exonerate the Gateses, but another court-ordered social study of the family -- the fourth such in eight years -- concluded that "at this time, this family needs to be free from the fear that, at any given moment, the life they have developed together (with God's help) through mutual respect and love for each other, could be shattered once again.Therefore it is recommended that no further court-mandated services are needed for the Gates family at this time.Hopefully, [CPS] will determine that taking action to close the Gates' active file at this time, will be in the best interest of the entire family."

Even a late-August report by Child Advocates' own caseworker supervisor recommended that the case be dismissed, though the report refused to go so far as to clear the Gateses of suspicion, basing its recommendation instead on the Gateses' "unprecedented resistance."

"Although [Child Advocates] would have preferred Dr. Bevan's report to be more inclusive in terms of material reviewed and persons interviewed, [Child Advocates] doubts at this point that Dr. Bevan would alter his recommendation to dismiss the case. He believes "The Gates have no need for CPS or [Child Advocates'] services.' Whether this statement is true or not, we unfortunately do not really know. So many questions remain unanswered. Nevertheless, [Child Advocates] does not believe that prolonging this case will benefit the Gates children. In these very unusual circumstances, where [Child Advocates] is now perceived as one of the "Bad Guys,' the Gates children can best be served by leaving them alone."

What will it take, Gary Gates wants to know, to get these people off his back?

The last time Gary Gates invited me to his home was a Sunday, for church and lunch. I arrived at 8 a.m. and was met at the door by Will and the family's heeler mutt, Chili. Gary was still out on his morning run, and when Will walked me inside, Melissa was upstairs getting kids ready for church, and the living room was full of more children. Marcus jumped across my lap and asked for help lacing his shoe. Lexie flipped through my notepad and pointed to the top of a page with a name and phone number jotted on it. She looked up at me and read the letters: "CPS?"

Ten minutes later Gary jogged up the driveway, said hello, and then went upstairs to change. If either parent had any hesitation about leaving their children alone in the presence of a reporter, there was nothing to show it.

A few minutes later we piled into two cars -- boys in the Suburban with Gary, girls in a minivan with Melissa -- and drove out of the neighborhood and across the highway to Grace Community Bible Church, which is within reasonable walking distance of the Gates home, and where the simple presence of the Gates children spiked the congregation's racial diversity curve.

Grace is nondenominational and casual, and Gary and Marcus and Travis and Will and I went first to an upstairs morning prayer room, where Gary, in turn, gave thanks for a litany of Grace's missionary programs and outreach successes. Six-year-old Marcus fidgeted quietly while the other boys bowed their heads.

The morning service proper began with folk-rock spirituals before Pastor Bower, in a short-sleeved Hawaiian print shirt, took the pulpit to deliver his video- and worksheet-accompanied sermon on "Meeting Your Wife's Deepest Need," second in a series of seven messages on "Maximum Marriage." Your wife's deepest need, Pastor Bower said, is her husband's "sheltering presence," and he backed this view with quotations from Peter ("Husbands be insightful as you live with your wives, and treat them with honor as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life") and Ephesians ("Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her").

The Gates family took up almost two full rows, and Gary and Melissa filled in the blanks on their worksheets as the older kids kept the younger ones focused with quiet reminders. Congregants mingled and socialized on a breezeway afterward, and then the kids split off into groups for their Sunday-school sessions, and Gary and Melissa and I went to Associate Pastor Brent Burckart's class for adults. There the expulsion from Eden was discussed, and the folk-rock guitarist from the opening sing-along asked those assembled to pray for his sister, who had apparently gotten herself pregnant without a husband.

After church, we ferried back across the highway to the Gates house, where we were joined by Pastor Bower, neighbor John Martin and their wives. While Melissa prepared a lunch of Lean Cuisine chicken lasagna and the kids set up tables in the front yard, Scott and George, neither one much over four feet tall, took me to school in consecutive games of horse at the driveway basketball goal. Nine-year-old Cynthia wanted to know was I married, and when I told her no, she wanted to know why not.

"All you have to do is find a girl and date her and then get married," she said, and I thanked her for the tip.

The adults ate lunch inside, uninterrupted, and then pushed back chairs for a male-dominated discussion of the church's work in Africa, where Grace was buying land and building churches and treatment centers for local parishes. It is so much easier to reach people with God's word, Bower said, in the third-world countries. They are so much more responsive. Here in America, here in Fort Bend County, where the people are rich beyond their own imaginations, we too often fail to see our own spiritual need, our own accountability to God.

The topic, eventually, turned to the reason for my presence, and the fallout from that weekend seven months earlier. The worst thing to come of it, Melissa said, was that it was now harder to discipline the kids. Several times already one of her kids, not liking his punishment, had responded with a threat to call CPS, and that fear just tore apart the necessary hierarchy of the household, in which Gary Gates was, and had to be, the final authority.

On the other side of the coin, said Pastor Bower, there had been an unexpectedly positive result as well.

"Some of the kids, especially Scott and Derodrick and Travis and Raquel, the black kids, these kids didn't grow up in the home, they've only been there a few years, and these are kids that have been bounced from foster home to foster home to foster home. This is the first time that they've ever seen a dad fight for them, stand up for them, fight to keep them instead of fight to get rid of them. And it's really had a neat effect on those kids. It's given them a greater sense of comfort. And Travis is really doing well. He has become so assured now that they really do want him. And nobody ever wanted him before. Now he knows."

It was universally agreed upon by my hosts that accountability was the issue at hand in Gary's battle with CPS. The agency's own policies, Gary said, were extraordinary, not a one he would change, but out of either inattention or habit, CPS had run roughshod, not only over his family, and who knows how many others, but over its own safeguards.

How, I wanted to know, did Gary propose to achieve this accountability?

He looked at me like he'd never heard such a stupid question. The only way to hold someone accountable for their actions is by providing a consequence so dire that the offending party chooses never to step over the line again. Staple a bag of wrappers to its shirt. Expose its actions to the light of public scrutiny. I almost asked where Gary Gates's own accountability lay, but I knew the answer would be with God.

When I finally took my leave, at about four o'clock that afternoon, the Gates children were out of sight, playing out back of the house, and Gary walked me to my car. I had been looking, of course, for some sign in the children, some hint that CPS was right, that Gary Gates was wrong. All I'd found was a bunch of active, laughing, well-behaved kids and a father with ironclad moral convictions that, in the sheer unfamiliarity of their strength, seemed at first glance frightening, and at second glance, maybe just foreign.

True, Gary Gates has taken, as a recent CPS filing complains, "extraordinary steps to block any investigation," to "stop the department from obtaining any more information," to deny access to his children. Does that make him guilty?

CPS can't seem to get over that hunch that it does, and unanswered questions gnaw at the agency. Travis, for instance, was not known to wet the bed before his adoption into the Gates family. "Where and why did these problems develop, if they exist now?"

But as this article went to press, CPS, stymied, finally filed a motion for nonsuit, effectively quitting the case, "having accomplished as much as it can accomplish."

I couldn't find any proof that Gary Gates was abusing his kids, either. And not knowing, I figured I too ought to get out of his hair, and let Gary Gates's God judge.

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