Frank and Chila Covington could hardly be mistaken for cruel. They cared for their disabled daughter at home in an era when many parents turned to institutions — showering Ceci, who has Down syndrome, with love, affection and opportunity. After her brother and cousins went off to college, they enabled Ceci to "graduate" in her own way: They found her a group home with two other young women.
But when the Covingtons argued with a group home provider who insisted that Ceci needed psychotropic medication, they lost their daughter entirely. After the provider accused the Covingtons of “cruelty,” a Tarrant County judge called a secret hearing and removed the parents’ guardianship, barring them from seeing the child they’d spent four decades raising.
“Ex parte,” or emergency, removal hearings have been legal in Texas guardianship cases for nearly two decades. They're designed to rescue incapacitated people in immediate danger. But in some courts around the state, advocates say, they’re being used to remedy even routine disagreements, effectively denying parents, adult children or other guardians the chance to defend themselves before their loved ones are seized.
Probate judges and court-appointed attorneys contend that they must protect those who can’t protect themselves, and that some cases demand drastic and immediate action. They say guardians who are removed can appeal and get reinstated if they’ve been wronged. “The Legislature has said we’re out here to protect the individual, not to protect the guardian,” says Travis County Probate Judge Guy Herman, the presiding probate judge in Texas. “What you have going on here is people who have done something wrong coming down to the Legislature, going to the newspaper, instead of trying their case in a court of law. In essence, they’re trying to intimidate judges.”
The Covingtons never got their day in court. On July 13, 2009, they were notified that there had been an ex parte hearing in a Tarrant County courtroom and that, as a result, they were no longer Ceci’s guardians. For nearly two months, the Covingtons were kept away from her — unable to even speak to her on the phone. They frantically studied Texas’ complex probate code and called attorney after attorney trying to find someone to help them. They begged Ceci’s “advocates” — the attorney and guardian the judge had appointed to protect her — to let them see their daughter for one hour a week, and to bring her home for Thanksgiving and Christmas. On these visits, the Covingtons say, Ceci was often so drugged she could hardly stay awake.
Every conversation, every call to the court, added to the Covingtons’ legal bills, which have now surpassed $55,000.
The Covingtons aren’t the only ones fighting this battle. Across North Texas — and Tarrant and Denton counties in particular — families who have lost guardianship rights under similar circumstances have mobilized, reaching out to the media and demanding action from lawmakers. Debby Valdez, a San Antonio mom who runs an organization called GRADE (Guardianship Reform Advocates for the Disabled and Elderly), says the common thread among these cases is that families advocated aggressively for their relatives, and care providers used guardianship removal proceedings to retaliate.
“The bottom line is that constitutional rights are being trampled,” says Valdez, who has an autistic child and fears her own family could face such a nightmare someday. “This decision is made that the guardians suddenly aren’t suitable — they don’t qualify. And families aren’t getting the opportunity to defend themselves.”
Full Article and Source:
Families Lose Guardianship in Secret Hearings