New state law ensures people know they can record CPS investigation interviews, appeal results

Recordings helped Texas mom prove innocence in appeal to get children back after they were removed

SAN ANTONIO – Gov. Greg Abbott signed House Bill 135 into law last week, and advocates believe the law adds checks and balances to the Child Protective Services investigation process.

The law mandates CPS investigators to verbally remind people under investigation they have the right to record conversations and appeal investigation results.

It seems simple, but advocates say cases like Melissa Bright’s, which made national news, show the mandates are critical.

In July 2018, Bright’s 6-month-old son, Mason, fell out of a chair, causing a severe head injury.

“He ended up having a subdural hematoma and a fracture. The hospital said a subdural hematoma could not have happened from a short fall, which is why they said it was abuse,” Bright said.

Her children were eventually put into foster care during the investigation.

The investigation did not show that while Mason was in the hospital, he was also diagnosed with a blood clotting disorder.

“So that’s why he bled easier than someone else would and why be bled more than should have been expected, because he just wasn’t clotting,” Bright explained.

When Bright appealed the findings in court, recordings she took throughout the investigation exonerated her and she got her kids back.

“I would not have gotten my children back if I had not recorded CPS,” she said. “We were able to prove there was perjury. We were able to prove that falsified documents happened, certain things were said to us on the recording and they were not notated in their notes through the impact system,” she said.

After they got their children back they filed a return suit against the Department of Family and Protective services.

“We sanctioned them for acts of bad faith, and we won that as well,” Bright said.

The state of Texas is a one-party consent state, meaning you’re already allowed to record conversations, but many people don’t know that.

That’s why Carrie Wilcoxson drafted bipartisan House Bill 135, alongside Rep. Ina Minjarez.

Wilcoxson is a former CPS investigator and current reform advocate who does CPS case consulting for families and attorneys.

“These investigative findings carry significant weight in criminal court, family court,” Wilcoxson said. “I helped a guy a year ago on a case with an attorney who was looking at 25 to life in prison over a CPS investigation that was wrong. People lose jobs over these findings, and these findings can also affect custody.”

During testimony for the bill, Wilcoxson pulled a recent DFPS internal review, showing that out of all the appeals reviewed over the past decade, 30% were overturned, meaning the wrong decision was made in the case. (See the data below.)

“That’s pretty significant. So this particular bill is going to preserve material information and facts,” Wilcoxson said.

She also reiterated the importance of the new law’s mandate to verbally remind families they’re allowed to file appeals. Right now, that notification is made by certified mail, and she said families often miss it.

“Some of the families are moving, they’re transient. Some folks are illiterate,” Wilcoxson explained.

She said the new law allows both sides to control the conversation, ultimately yielding the best results for the children.

Bright testified in front of legislators to get the bill passed. While she said it was an honor, she wanted to show that the overall system needs a lot of changes.

“Not all case workers are like that, but all case workers are overworked. They are on a lot of different cases -- all of which are incredibly intricate,” she said.

Bright said bills like HB 135 allow correct information to close cases that don’t need to be taking up investigators’ time, so they can focus on the children who are actually in dangerous homes.

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DFPS internal review data:

About the Authors:

Courtney Friedman is a KSAT anchor and reporter. She has an ongoing series called Loving in Fear, confronting Bexar County’s domestic violence epidemic. She's also covered Hurricane Harvey, the shootings in Sutherland Springs and Santa Fe, and tornadoes throughout Texas. She’s a California native and proud Longhorn who loves calling SA home.