Christina Tutt was in the kitchen preparing dinner when her husband arrived home from the store and told her the garage was on fire. In an eye-blink, she gathered the four children and hustled them outside where they stood in the cool November evening watching as the flames jumped from the detached garage to the main house.
Firefighters managed to keep the blaze contained to the back of the house, but between the scorched walls and water damage, the home was uninhabitable. An investigator traced the source of the fire to frayed electrical wiring that looked like it had been gnawed on by a squirrel.
The fire came almost exactly a year after Child Protective Services removed the Tutt children and placed them in foster care. Since then, Trevor and Christina have been locked in battle with the state's child-welfare bureaucracy.
Their case is a messy one. Christina has devoted her life to rescuing children, often from deplorable circumstances. Of the four kids who have been returned to her custody, only Emma is her biological offspring. James and Chaniya's mother is in jail in Fort Worth on a murder charge. Bailey's mom is a transient drug addict.
But Christina's kind-heartedness struck Dallas County family court Judge Graciela Olvera as excessive. Olvera became involved after a Duncanville police officer found a 4-year-old boy she was caring for wandering barefoot a couple of blocks from their house. James, 8, was on his heels, but Olvera was troubled by the cop's assessment of the home's cleanliness and by the presence in the house of 13 kids. By the time Olvera signed the removal order the number of was down to six, but that didn't change Olvera's judgment that their continued presence in the home put them in danger.
Further complicating the case is the Tutts' dedication to homeschool, which they and the Texas Homeschool Coalition think motivated the removal order.
The Tutts have made steady progress in the legal case. In January, after the case was transferred to Judge Tena Callahan's docket, Emma, James, Chaniya and Bailey were returned on the condition that they attend public school. Over the summer, Callahan ruled that the Tutts can homeschool again. That case is basically over.
They have made less progress in their attempt to reunite with I'kira, James and Chaniya's biological sister. She was also taken last November but, because her adoption had not yet been completed, she remains in foster care. Christina has been allowed occasional visits, but the adoption proceedings are moving at a snail's pace.
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"We're waiting, we're waiting, we're waiting, we're waiting," Christina says. "We're always waiting."
Despite the recent fire, the family is in good spirits -- certainly in better spirits than last year, when the kids were all wards of the state. "Some benevolent soul" has given them a place to stay in Southeast Dallas. A dog they were fostering was rescued from the fire and was subsequently adopted by a member of one of the crews who came to clean up after the blaze. And everyone's excited about the holidays.
"Fire be damned, we're going to have a Merry Christmas."
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.