While some families in quarantine are spending more time together than ever before, those in the Child Protective Services, or CPS system must deal with even stricter physical separation. Since the beginning of lockdown this spring, courts across Texas have required video visitation between biological parents and children in foster care.
Cynthia Wright lives in the Montgomery County seat of Conroe, while her 7-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter live with a foster family in Houston. As of mid-July, Wright had not seen her kids in-person for three months. Instead, the judge on her case implemented weekly FaceTime visits every Monday from 4:45 to 5:45 pm.
“Our visits are very good up until it’s time to let go and they just break down and cry,” Wright said. “Not being able to see each other, touch each other, hug each other; it’s really impacted all of us.”
The family’s CPS case has been ongoing since around this time last year – based on charges of neglectful supervision, after a domestic dispute between Wright and her husband. She believes these video visits are not in the best interest of her children.
“CPS and COSA, they’re supposed to be for the kids,” Wright said. “They can literally see that they’re hurting my kids worse than anything has ever hurt them in their life, and they are continuing to do it.”
According to CPS representative Marissa Gonzales, the agency’s role is to ensure the visits happen, whether virtually or in-person.
“Depending on what the court has ordered in that particular case, then we facilitate the visits either in person or virtual. We are required to facilitate the visits the same way we always would,” Gonzales said.
Virtual visitation is not a blanket policy statewide, or even within counties. Some families are still able to meet in person at the CPS offices.
“Every situation is as unique as the DNA of every child I have on my docket,” said Judge Darlene Byrne, who oversees the CPS cases of around 1600 kids in Travis County. “We have to treat it individually, and try to ebb and flow with this virus in a healthy way, while also trying to keep healthy family connections”
In each case, Byrne considers the health and safety of all of the parties involved. For example, if a child is medically fragile, or a parent is more exposed to the virus, or the foster family is not comfortable with exposure, a judge is more likely to resort to virtual visits.
But most of these decisions in Travis County don’t ever make it to Judge Byrne’s bench.
“We encourage the parties to reach agreements, if they can, and only bring contests to the court so we don’t try from a bench to micromanage every case we rely on professionals, the legal attorneys, to advocate for them,” Byrne said.
After three months of video chatting, Cynthia Wright, the mom from Conroe, finally reached an alternate visitation agreement in late July. The court granted a relative temporary custody of her two kids, so Wright can go back to visiting them, in-person, on her own schedule.