By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Ron Carpenter was looking forward to going home. It was shortly before quitting time on a Thursday in early November and Carpenter, a maintenance man at an apartment complex in far East Dallas, was anticipating being greeted by his daughter, Autumn, a pixyish 3-year-old with silky brown hair. He loved the way Autumn rushed to him at the door each night, squealing in delight, her arms thrown wide open.
It had been a tough year for the Carpenter family. On Halloween Day a year earlier, Shallin Carpenter, Ron's wife and Autumn's mother, died of a heart attack. She was only 42, and was pregnant with twins at the time of her death.
Carpenter was left to nurse his grief and to figure out how to be both father and mother to his sad, bewildered little girl who was old enough to miss her mother terribly, but lacked the maturity to comprehend what had happened.
At 4:45 p.m., minutes before Carpenter was supposed to leave work and head back to his Garland apartment, he was called into his boss' office for a phone call. A friend of Autumn's baby sitter was on the line. The man informed Carpenter that several hours earlier, Garland police had arrested the sitter, Cathy White, for delivering crack cocaine to undercover officers. Autumn had been with her at the time, the man said, and the officers had taken her to the police station.
Carpenter ran to his battered 1982 Toyota and sped off to Garland police headquarters, praying his car would not break down as it had a habit of doing. He arrived at the station and fidgeted as the desk sergeant repeatedly paged the officer who had Autumn. Finally Carpenter was told that his daughter was on her way to Child Protective Services on Stemmons Freeway. A division of the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services, CPS is responsible for investigating accusations of child abuse and neglect, and is charged with determining what is in the best interests of children who find themselves in perilous circumstances.
The desk sergeant told Carpenter to wait at the station for a call from CPS. Two hours later, CPS intake investigator Barbara Anderson called him. She told Carpenter that his baby sitter had told undercover police officers that she had been dealing drugs and engaging in prostitution for the past 19 years.
Carpenter told Anderson he had no knowledge of Cathy White's arrest, but he was aware that she had been in trouble with the law in the past. Carpenter tried to explain to the caseworker that he was in a desperate situation when he arranged for White to baby-sit Autumn. The state had cut his $200 monthly food-stamp allotment making it impossible for him to pay a neighbor $50 a week to watch his daughter. Cathy White had told him she was on parole for a drug charge, but was trying to turn her life around. Carpenter explained that he had gone as far as to meet twice with White's parole officer before giving her the job.
Worried about his daughter's fragile emotional state--having lost her mother and now being separated from her father--Carpenter pressed to know when he could pick up Autumn. All Anderson would tell him was that another CPS worker would be in touch and that a court hearing would be held within 14 days. For the first time, it dawned on Carpenter that it was he and Autumn, more than his baby sitter, who would suffer for White's run-in with the law.
According to an affidavit Anderson wrote the next day, the caseworker had not believed that Carpenter was unaware of his baby sitter's dope dealing. She also believed that Carpenter had "a history of neglectful supervision." She wrote that a nationwide registry of child abusers--called CANRIS (Child Abuse And Neglect Report and Inquiry System)--showed that CPS had removed Carpenter's son from a previous marriage from Carpenter's custody because of "a lack of supervision." This information, however, was not true to the facts.
Cathy White was let out of jail four days after her arrest. No charges were brought against her, and the Garland police can't say whether there ever will be. But for Carpenter, his travails with the legal system were just beginning. It would be five months before he would regain custody of his daughter.
During that time, CPS workers would accuse him of being an alcoholic and demand he attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings several times a week. They would prevent him from seeing his daughter for almost a month after they removed her from his custody. Finally, they would order him to take eight weeks of parenting classes, causing the already struggling single father to miss a half day of work each week.
Despite Carpenter's pleas to spend time with his daughter, CPS refused to let him call or write his daughter, or allow him to visit her more than once a week. The visits lasted for only an hour, inside a CPS office, where a caseworker--and sometimes other children--were present. Over the months, he watched helplessly as his daughter grew increasingly distant from him. During his first visitation, he says, she sat on his lap sobbing, "I want go home." By the beginning of her fifth month of being separated from her father, she cried for the foster mother whom she called "mommy."