This article was published in partnership with the Houston Chronicle.
HOUSTON — More than a year after Texas child welfare authorities improperly took Melissa and Dillion Bright’s children and temporarily placed them in foster care, the agency has officially notified the family that it has closed its investigation after finding no evidence that the parents abused their children.
The Oct. 31 letter from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services was delivered to the Brights’ home this weekend, just days after the family’s ordeal was the subject of an investigation by NBC News and the Houston Chronicle.
“Honestly, I was pissed when I opened it,” Melissa Bright said. “After all this time, now they’re saying there was no evidence of abuse. And yet, they put us through hell.”
The Brights’ story was the fourth in a series of reports by NBC News and the Chronicle examining the work of child abuse pediatricians, a growing subspecialty of doctors who assist authorities with child welfare investigations. The doctors’ opinions can have an extraordinary influence over the decisions of state child welfare agencies, sometimes triggering questionable family separations and criminal charges, the series found.
Child Protective Services, a division of the Texas agency, opened its investigation into the Brights in July 2018, after their son Mason, then 5 months old, fell from a lawn chair in the driveway at their home in Tomball, Texas. A child abuse pediatrician at Texas Children’s Hospital reported that Mason’s injuries — two skull fractures and brain bleeding — did not match his parents’ account of what happened and were “consistent with abuse.”
Based on the doctor’s report — and despite a dissenting medical opinion and evidence that Mason suffered from a condition that may have explained his excessive bleeding — the child welfare agency obtained an emergency court order in September 2018 to take him and his 2-year-old sister, Charlotte, and place them in foster care.
The next time the Brights saw their children, a few days later, Charlotte had a gash on her face and a black eye, and Mason’s cries were hoarse.
A few weeks later, a Harris County judge ordered the children returned to the Brights and rebuked Child Protective Services for needlessly traumatizing the family despite having “no credible evidence” of abuse. The judge also ordered the agency to retrain its investigators and pay $127,000 in sanctions to cover the Brights’ legal fees.
But this is the first time the state has acknowledged that Melissa Bright did not abuse her baby. (Although the state removed the children from both parents, the letter did not list Dillon as a subject of the investigation.)
Dennis Slate, a Houston lawyer who represented the Brights, said he believes the letter was issued as a result of the reporting by NBC News and the Chronicle.
“I had been trying to get the agency to make a finding for the last year and got nothing from them,” Slate said.
But Patrick Crimmins, a spokesman for the Department of Family and Protective Services, said the letter was the result of “a simple oversight.”
Agency officials recently discovered they never formally closed the case, Crimmins said in a text message, and that’s what triggered the letter.
"It's nothing new," he said. "Just formalized and documented the case closing."
In an earlier statement, Texas Children’s officials defended their handling of the case, noting that the hospital’s doctors are required by law to report suspicious injuries, and that “a referral to CPS is not absolute confirmation of abuse, nor a determination of guilt or innocence of the parents.”