For five months a family has been separated by a Dallas judge–not for abuse or neglect–but because their children were seemingly educated at home. In March a separate judge ruled that the hearing records must be provided to an advocacy group so the situation may be more closely monitored.
Legal problems for the family of Trevor and Christina Tutt began in late 2013 when their autistic four-year-old wandered from their home. Despite recognition the child was never in danger, Texas Child Protective Service caseworkers descended on the home following an anonymous complaint. In November 2013, constables took the seven children from the parents.
The family–a blend of biological, adopted and foster children–educates their children at home.
While legal in Texas for more than two decades, Associate Judge Graciela Olvera of Dallas County’s 256th Family District Court removed the children in part because they were not using a state-approved home schooling curriculum, according to court records. There is just one problem, according to Tim Lambert of the Texas Home School Coalition (THSC): there is no such requirement.
“The guardian ad litem denigrated [the homeschooling mother] for not submitting documentation of her home schooling to the state on a regular basis, including state-mandated tests. This, of course, is not only not required, but there is no way for someone to do so in Texas,” said Lambert.
While a different Dallas County judge, Tena Callahan, has ruled that the removal was not warranted, not all of the children have yet been returned to the family. According to a January report in the Dallas Observer, the children who have been returned to the home have been ordered to attend public school.
“If a removal was not justified, you would think they would restore the family,” Lambert told Breitbart Texas. “Instead, you have an illegal removing that has been essentially acknowledged yet you still have (the state) involved in their lives.”
The case has caught attention from around the nation. A petition at change.org has garnered more than 2,100 signatures.
Lambert said that in early hearings the CPS caseworker and a court-appointed guardian ad litem fixated on the family’s religious beliefs and homeschooling.
“Home schooling has become a central theme in this case, and we wish to have the court record in order to document the statements of family friends and observers in the courtroom regarding what many of them consider an attack against the family regarding the home schooling of their children,” Lambert wrote on his blog prior to the recent court victory. “Our concern is that documentation of the public hearing and attacks against a legitimate parental decision to home school should not be hidden from the public.”
A spokesman for the Texas Department of Family Protective Services, which includes CPS, provided Breitbart Texas with a letter from the DFPS Commissioner, John Specia Jr, to Lambert that the Tutt case would be reviewed, but that he was “confident that CPS staff complied with CPS policy and procedure.”
“You can also be assured that per the Texas Administrative Code, CPS does not conduct investigations based on a child being home school,” Specia wrote on Feb. 13, 2014. “There is no DFPS policy that would interfere with a parent or guardian’s personal decision to home school his or her child.”
Lambert said the court hearings in the Tutt case should be made available so outside groups can review them to ensure that not only the rights of the Tutt family are being protected, but other groups as well.
THSC’s attorneys argued on March 27 for the records, but were opposed by the office of Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins. Calls to the Dallas County District Attorney’s office made mid-day March 28 have yet to be returned.
Lambert said that Judge Callahan agreed with THSC, recognizing the potential impact this precedence could set for other families who home school their children. The records will not be released, though, until the judge has redacted information that does not pertain specifically to parental rights or home schooling.
Lambert said that while it might be easy to dismiss the case as only one pertaining to particular family, or home schoolers in general, all families should be concerned.
“As far as we can tell, these children were removed without cause. If any judge can remove children on a whim, that puts the rights of every parent and every family at risk.”
Follow Michael Quinn Sullivan on Twitter @MQSullivan