Emma Tutt remembers perfectly the day police came to rip her family apart. She was standing outside their Duncanville home wondering at a flock of birds that had descended on the yard in front of her. It was a warm afternoon a week before Thanksgiving, and she thought it was strange the birds picked this particular patch of magnolia-shaded dirt to alight upon.
Emma, 10, ran inside to fetch James, 8, her adopted brother. The five other kids in Christina and Trevor Tutt's home had a stomach bug and were too ill to go outside. One, like Emma, was the Tutts' by birth; two were adopted; and two were being cared for semi-permanently through informal agreements with their parents.
James and Emma ran back outside, spooking the flock, which flew off in a noisy flutter. They sat, wondering what to do next, when three Dallas County constable cars pulled up. An officer emerged from each, one of them holding a sheaf of papers. Sensing something awful, she shrieked and darted inside, calling frantically for her mom, James close at her heels.
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Christina Tutt didn't have to ask her kids what was wrong. Two months before, the Tutts had been caring for a group of five siblings, all 7 years old or younger, to help their mother get back on her feet, when a 4-year-old slipped outside through the dog door. Duncanville police found him wandering a half-mile from home, barefoot and grimy, and referred the case to Child Protective Services.
It was the fourth time in 11 months the child-welfare agency had investigated the Tutts. The first three cases — allegations of neglect by the Tutts and of sexual abuse of two children by older siblings — had been closed with no finding of neglect or abuse, and Christina expected the same this time. Her house was reasonably clean, the kids reasonably healthy. There was no evidence of abuse, nor any clear indication of neglect. The caseworker investigating the latest incident had been concerned that 13 children were living in the home, but the five siblings had returned to their mother. A sixth child the Tutts were caring for on behalf of a homeless mother had been placed in foster care, winnowing their brood to a more manageable seven. She had heard nothing from CPS for three weeks, suggesting to her that she'd been cleared.
And yet here was a constable serving her with a removal order. She protested but knew she couldn't fight a court order, so she helped the sick kids change out of their pajamas, then watched as all seven left in squad cars.
Suddenly, after 25 uninterrupted years of having young children in her home, she realized her nest was empty.
"It's like being awake but being dead," she says, trying to explain what that felt like. "It's like being dead but being alive. Does that make sense?"
The state of Texas isn't quite sure what to make of the Tutts. Their Christian faith has led them to open their home to kids from truly awful circumstances. They've taken in the children of homeless drug addicts and jailed murder suspects, helping out an overburdened child welfare system, and often with the state's blessing.
But not all those kids have come to the Tutts through official channels, and the couple's methods and the sheer number of children cycling through their home have raised red flags among CPS caseworkers and courts charged with looking out for child welfare.
For their part, the Tutts don't have much faith in the government's ability to look after the best interests of the children it's supposed to protect. The couple used to be licensed foster parents but ultimately chose to bypass the CPS-approved foster system. At times this meant going through religious nonprofits that connect distressed families with homes offering long-term childcare. Sometimes it meant connecting with the mothers directly, through church parenting classes or homeless shelters. The number of kids in their care has sometimes crept into the double digits, reaching 13 in the months before CPS intervened.
Their skepticism toward the state extends to its public schools. Almost all the kids entering the Tutt home are home schooled, and that fact has added a political edge to the Tutts' battle with CPS.
Christina is the family's motive force, a peppy 46-year-old, perpetually caffeinated by the 20-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola she generally keeps at hand. She has olive skin and typically wears her brown hair pulled tight into a hasty ponytail. Every drop of her energy is poured into her family, and sometimes that shows as bags beneath her eyes.
Trevor, 48, has the softness of a shy teddy bear. Tall with sunken eyes, he is the introverted half of the couple, always happy to let Christina do the talking. He works as an architectural draftsman in Hillsboro and uses the hour-long commute home to decompress before evenings devoted to the kids. He would never have taken it upon himself to rescue children, but he's a willing passenger. When Christina shows up at home with a strange infant on either hip, he doesn't object and offers whatever help he can give.
Christina grew up in The Woodlands, where her mother, a police officer, served as Montgomery County's first female sheriff's deputy before being elected a justice of the peace. She barely knew her birth father. The man she calls Dad married her mother when Christina was 13. He was a stay-at-home father and a martial artist who now runs his own judo studio. She has a younger brother who graduated from West Point and now works in the energy industry and a sister who teaches outside of Houston.
Her first child, Ashley, was born in 1988, the product of a six-year relationship with her high-school sweetheart, whom she never married. Ashley now lives in Cedar Hill with her husband and three young kids and visits her mom frequently. Christina, Ashley in tow, married another man but left him after three years, citing physical abuse. Her second marriage, to a health care executive, lasted twice as long and produced two sons, Christopher, now 18, and Jon Patrick, 15. Trevor, whose first wife died of complications from muscular dystrophy, brought one child, Joshua, now 21, when he married Christina in 2002. Emma was born a year later, bringing the number of children in the Tutt home then to five.
Both Trevor and Christina were comfortable with five, so comfortable that Trevor had a vasectomy two months before Emma's birth. But at age 3, Emma began lobbying for a sister, Christina says. "Emma kept talking about a baby sister, [that] God was sending a baby sister. And one day, she said, 'Why aren't you listening to God, Mom?' And I'm like, 'Ouch. We better do that. We better get right on that.'"
God was talking to Christina as well, she says, and he laid out his plans for the family in detail. They would receive a "newborn biracial baby girl who's gonna be addicted to drugs," Christina recalls, reciting the words like a piece of scripture she's memorized. "She'll come, and she'll never leave."
The Tutts are deeply religious, though they subscribe to no particular creed. Forced to choose, the Tutts would identify as Assembly of God, though "denominational loyalty isn't our thing," Christina says. "A spirit-filled body of believers with a pastor who follows the Word and God's lead is where we want to be."
The body of believers in which Christina has been most comfortable is Above Rubies, a nationwide network of evangelical Christians that says its goal is "encouraging women in their high calling as wives, mothers, and homemakers." Its members connect mostly online and through occasional retreats. The name comes from Proverbs 31:10: "Who can find a virtuous wife? For her worth is far above rubies."
The Tutts' God plays an active role in human affairs. He answers prayers, though not necessarily directly and not always in the way the supplicant intends, and he ensures that, in the end, there is justice. Direct revelation was new to her, but she knew God's voice when she heard it.
In 2007, the Tutts were licensed as foster parents through the Texas Baptist Home, a private child-placement agency that contracts with CPS. They planned to adopt.
"On the seventh day [after] we were licensed — and in the scripture, in the Word, seven is the number of completion — they called and said 'We've got a newborn biracial baby girl, she was born addicted to cocaine, and we don't think she'll ever go home. Do you want her?' I got that phone call. I knew."
The girl's name was Bailey. Her birth mother was a long-time drug addict who'd married young and taken her first husband's meth habit along with his name before transitioning to crack. Her grandmother, Susan Holloway, was hobbled by a congenital hip disorder and was already caring for Bailey's two elder half-brothers.
Holloway says she got a strange vibe from Christina the first time they met. She and her daughter were in the Dallas CPS office for a one-on-one visit with Bailey when Christina buttonholed them in the hallway and blurted out that she knew they weren't bad people and that she wanted Bailey to be around her birth family. Later, Holloway recalls being mildly put off by how wary Christina seemed as she watched Holloway cradle her granddaughter, though whether that was from fear that she would run off with the child or a mother's protective instinct, Holloway never could tell.
Eventually Holloway was won over by the Tutts, who let her see Bailey even after her adoption was completed after a year. "[Christina] even told me that if I should die, these boys will have a home," Holloway says. "And that means a lot. That made me feel good."
Her lone regret is that Christina refused her request to keep Bailey's middle name as Gayle. Her daughter had promised long ago that, if she ever had a daughter, she'd give the child Holloway's middle name. From a daughter who had done little in her adult life to honor her mother, it was a treasured gift.
Christina's reason for the change was simple. She didn't like the name Gayle, and Bailey was a Tutt now.
For a while after Bailey's arrival, CPS continued to place foster kids with the Tutts: three siblings taken away from their mother after the 15-month-old drank the paint thinner Mom had been huffing; a boy and a girl who'd been raped by their stepfather. The Tutts also volunteered through CPS to provide short-term respite care to relieve families who adopted kids with special needs.
But when they stepped outside CPS channels to take in James and his sister Chaniya in August 2009, their relationship with CPS began to sour. State requirements say foster families can only take children into their care through their licensing agency, but the Tutts did not get James and Chaniya through the Texas Baptist Home. They picked them up in the parking lot of an Arlington Wendy's.
This, too, came from God. James was 4. His sister was a week shy of her first birthday. Their mother, Ikea Haynes, had been locked up the previous month and was on the front-end of a three-year burglary sentence, and they'd been sent to live with their grandmother and her live-in boyfriend.
CPS records provided by the Tutts alleged the boyfriend was a serial child molester and the grandmother a drug addict whose own children had been taken by CPS five years before after a finding of neglect. James and Chaniya's aunt — she was one of the kids taken from the grandmother — feared for their safety.
She contacted a foster mother she'd known from her days in the child-welfare system. The foster mom couldn't take them in, having already reached the six-child cap for foster placements in Texas, but knew the Tutts through a foster/adopt support network. If there was anyone willing to pick up two strange children from a fast-food parking lot with virtually no notice, it would be the Tutts.
Haynes says she was happy to let the Tutts care for her kids temporarily. "The deal was, Christina would keep them until I got out," Haynes says. She gave Christina power of attorney on her first visit to the jail and later lobbied the Tutts to have them care for a third child, I'kira. Haynes had placed I'kira with some family friends when she went to prison, but they'd stopped communicating, leading Haynes to believe they would run off with her daughter.
Christina, though, decided the kids deserved better. Recently, to illustrate her point, she pulled up a Facebook video showing a mob of onlookers cheering profanely as they urge on two of James and Chaniya's uncles as they brawl with some other men at a seedy Fort Worth apartment complex. The video lasts for 10 minutes, but Christina pauses it after two. There's no way she's going to let that be her children's future.
In July 2010, the Tutts sued Haynes under a provision of Texas law allowing a parent's rights to be involuntarily terminated after a child has been left with another caregiver for six months or more without providing "adequate support." The Tutts won the suit and convinced a judge to grant them permanent custody of James and Chaniya. I'kira came into their home later, once they'd tracked down her caregivers and had Haynes sign an affidavit voluntarily terminating her parental rights to I'kira. Haynes says she did this because her friends had kidnapped her child and she saw no other way to remove I'kira from their care. A judge subsequently granted the Tutts custody of I'kira.
Today, Haynes is back in the Tarrant County jail on a murder charge. Last August, almost a year after she was released on the burglary case, she and her sister — the same aunt who rescued James and Chaniya — were accused of stabbing a young woman to death during a fight. She's in the jail's maximum security wing, which means that her only contact with visitors comes via a video screen jailers roll in front of the meal slit on her cell door. It cuts off some of her face, but her eyes are visible. Tears roll down her cheeks as she rails against Christina, who she says robbed her of her kids and the chance — once she was released on the burglary conviction, but before the murder charge — to prove that she was a good mom.
"She didn't care about my feelings," she says. "I feel like it was wrong the way she did me."
When James and Chaniya were legally Tutts, Christina gave them new middle names, Justice and Liberty, to commemorate their new beginning.
The Texas Baptist Home terminated the Tutts' foster license after they took in James and Chaniya, but that didn't stop the Tutts from acquiring more children. They simply branched into less official channels. Safe Families for Children was one. It's a religious nonprofit explicitly designed to keep kids out of the state-run child welfare system by connecting struggling families with willing caregivers.
That's how Victoria Gamez met the Tutts. Her husband, the family's breadwinner, was arrested and deported to Mexico in fall 2012, leaving her to care for their five children. They lost their house and car, and she couldn't simultaneously find work and care for the kids, all of them 7 or younger.
The Tutts, she says, were a godsend. They cared for her children for several months. It was Gamez's 4-year-old, Nikko, who wandered out the Tutts' doggy door last September.
"She's a great person, a great mother," Gamez says. She wasn't bothered that there would be 13 children in the home, which she felt that Christina could handle, nor by the lack of formal schooling. She credits the family with helping her eldest son academically. When she learned of CPS involvement with the Tutts last September, she immediately left work and picked up her kids, though she was suspicious of the caseworkers, not the Tutts.
The complex of homeless service centers just outside downtown Fort Worth was another source of children in need. Christina served there as an informal distribution hub for her friends' donated goods. They would bring her sacks of clothes or toys or baby supplies, and she would load up her car and hand them out to mothers or mothers-to-be.
That's how they got Armani (the Tutts called him Abraham), who was a year old when CPS removed him from the Tutts last fall. Christina would see his mom hanging around the shelter during her trips to Fort Worth. If the mom was out of food or had hit a particularly rough spot, she'd give Armani to Christina for a few days or weeks while she pulled her life back together. Then, she'd call Christina to have her bring Armani back.
The last time she took him in, Christina had heard that CPS was concerned about Armani and was looking for the mom. Christina found her, took Armani, and called the agency.
"I always call CPS to tell them, 'Look I've got this kid here. You need to know where they are, because we gotta keep this totally above board,'" she says. "It's not like I was trying to sneak children away from parents or sneak kids into my home."
Gavvin came to the Tutts through a parenting class Christina was helping lead at their church in the summer of 2011. His mother, Stephanie Schubert, was enrolled and grasped onto Christina's offers of assistance.
Christina still has their correspondence. As the class was set to get started, Christina introduced herself via email and said she was looking forward to walking her through the class. Schubert responded by asking for advice on handling an 8-year-old traffic ticket. The next day, she asks for prayer:
"I feel I have reached my breaking point with my son and feel that I need a breather unfortunately I don't have the luxury of a break so next best thing is prayer. I appreciate your prayers and thank you."
Christina's response comes nine minutes later:
"You DO have a breather ... it's called respite care ... you need a break and a family gives you a break by having your son over for a little while. We will be glad to have Gavvin for a couple of days to give you some time to regroup. Let me know. I can leave and be there within a few minutes."
The Tutts would care for him for the next two years. Christina says it started as a weekend thing but Schubert began leaving him for longer and longer stretches. Eventually, she'd stopped coming around altogether, communicating only occasionally by email. When CPS showed up last fall, the Tutts were planning to adopt Gavvin.
Gavvin, who turned 10 in April, has been in foster care since his removal from the Tutt home. The courts are working to reconnect him with Schubert and his biological father, both of whom are going through counseling and taking parenting classes.
Emma, James, Chaniya, Bailey. These are the Tutt children circa July 2014. The Tutts successfully appealed the removal order, and they returned to the family in January after spending a month and a half in foster care. (Jon Patrick, Christina's son by her second marriage, moved in with his father. I'kira remains in foster care while her custody case is sorted out.)
Emma, 10, is fair and willowy, prone like her father to bouts of quiet contemplation. James, 9, and Chaniya, 5, are dark-skinned — "chocolate," as they say. He has a lineman's build, though there's no way his mother's going to let him play football, no matter how much he complains. He's the one, as you walk past the case of frozen pies at Aldi or absent-mindedly finger a stray candy bar, who asks covetously, "Are you going to buy that?" His sister Chaniya is a wiry bundle of energy whose continuous spasms of excitement, like the shocks of hair tamed by strings of colored beads, can be channeled but never quite controlled. Bailey, 6, flits about like a hummingbird.
On a warm Friday morning in mid-June, they tumble over one another in the living room, competing to introduce their two kittens. Chaniya wins, thrusting forward a 2-month-old orange tabby.
"His name is Poundcake!" she yells. Chaniya always yells when she's excited. Which is always.
Bailey objects. "No it isn't! Its name is Oliver!"
The kitten wriggles onto the floor, nonchalantly escaping through a gantlet of stomping feet and flailing limbs as Chaniya grabs its mother: "And this one is Kittykittydownstairs!" Kittykittydownstairs is a stray who recently repaid the Tutts' offer of shelter with a pair of kittens, bringing the number of pets to eight: four dogs, four cats and a rabbit: Little Bunny Foo Foo King Prince Nibbles of Duncanville.
Christina eventually herds the kids into the car. They have a load of baby supplies to hand out at the Fort Worth shelter.
"Just so you know, when we get down there, if all of a sudden I say everybody get in the car, I'm not kidding. Get them in the car," she warns. James and Chaniya's mother may still be in jail, but a passel of aunts and uncles aren't. They aren't always thrilled to see Christina.
On the way, she explains her approach to home schooling, which is a hodgepodge of various curricula she's found over the years and real-world experience.
"I tend to be really real with my kids — in an age-appropriate way." She recently wrapped up a lesson on the JFK assassination, which concluded with a visit to the white X in Dealey Plaza that marks where the president was shot. Before that, it was the civil rights movement, which included a visit to the old whites-only water fountain in the Dallas County Records Building, now an interactive multimedia display, and a discussion of the 1963 murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Mississippi. "I didn't show them pictures or anything," says Christina, who believes the most important thing is to get the kids interested in what they're learning. That's not something she trusts public schools to do.
The kids chatter in the back, playing a game of guess-the-My Little Pony. Except for James, who isn't a fan of the show: "It's terrible." They are reasonably clean and reasonably well-behaved. They clearly love Christina. They seem happy.
Christina still has trouble fathoming why, in a world filled with sickening cases of abuse and neglect, CPS would target her family.
"It's scary," she says. "The system is scary. Not scary so much for what it does to foster parents, although there's that, but they make out like they're protecting children. What?! It's a sham. Smoke and mirrors, that's all it is."
CPS and its caseworkers are generally circumscribed in what they can say to the press, and they declined to comment for this story, citing privacy concerns. The agency did provide a letter sent by Texas Department of Family and Protective Services Director John Specia to the Texas Homeschool Coalition, which said that an internal review absolved caseworkers of wrongdoing in the Tutt investigation.
Tutt, who is not constrained by an unwieldy bureaucracy and restrictive privacy laws, extended an invitation to sit in on a regular monthly visit by Kristina Lindsay, the CPS caseworker assigned to the family's case. She doesn't typically invite reporters to these types of visits, but to Christina, Lindsay isn't a young social worker using her best judgment to evaluate difficult situations, part of an overburdened agency charged with protecting children dealt miserable hands. She's a home-wrecking enemy to be fought. Once, Christina found Lindsay's unprotected Twitter account.
"I sat there for three hours with a giant Big Gulp of Coke and a bag of popcorn just screen-shotting the whooooole thing," Tutt says.
"You know you had a crazy #drunksleep when your sheets and blankets are all jacked up!" read one of the tweets. In another, Lindsay added "ha ha ha ha" to a retweet of a photo of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie congratulating 12 Years a Slave actress Lupita Nyong'o on her Oscar win accompanied by the caption "they wanna adopt her so bad." She was particularly incensed by a link Lindsay included to a blog post entitled "I Look Down on Young Women with Husbands and Kids and I'm Not Sorry."
For someone whose job involves interacting with racially diverse foster families, such tweets are perhaps ill-judged, but they are relatively tame stuff by Twitter standards. Lindsay has since made her Twitter account private.
The Tutt children share their mother's deep distrust of the state's child-welfare system. Emma, when she hears that Lindsay is coming, stomps through the house in a tearful huff. Later, to help her daughter purge herself of anger, Tutt plans to make a piñata out of sturdy cardboard and plaster Lindsay's and another caseworker's faces on it. This is the same reason they put the sticker of the assault rifle-toting Hello Kitty on their Dodge Durango.
The visit is anticlimactic. A puzzle, card games and a set of tangrams are spread out on the living room, and Lindsay banters with the kids as they play. She pulls each one into the kitchen for a brief one-on-one while a younger caseworker chats with Christina about tacos. Torchy's, she says, is delicious. Christina recommends Jimmy's, a lunch counter in back of a gas station on U.S. Highway 67.
The whole thing takes about 15 minutes. When both caseworkers are back in the living room, James looks up from the puzzle. "Vamanos!" he declares cheerfully. His conjugation is off, but his meaning is clear: It's time for CPS to leave.
The children follow the caseworkers to the door, which they fling shut, semi-playfully, behind them. "Adios!" James yells. "And don't come back!" Bailey adds. Christina grins in delight. See? The kids hate CPS.
When CPS took the Tutt children last fall, it stirred up a hornet's nest. The family has many friends in the tight-knit foster/adoption circles, and a small army of supporters came to their aid on Facebook or sat for hours in the courtroom gallery during the hearing that followed the children's emergency removal. The Tutts, they say, are casualties of a broken child welfare system, persecuted, ironically enough, because of their almost single-minded devotion to rescuing children.
The Texas Homeschool Coalition, concerned that the Tutts' home-schooling practices were being targeted, rallied its members. Legally, there's no such thing as educational neglect in Texas, and home-schoolers are basically free to teach kids when, how and what they want. The state's home-school community doesn't take kindly on attempts to meddle with those rights.
Texas law says that children can be removed from their parents by an emergency order only if they are found to be in "immediate danger" of physical injury or sexual abuse. If that were the case with the Tutts, says coalition President Tim Lambert, why did two months pass between the initial CPS visit and the removal of the children?
In the weeks before the children were taken, there had been friction with the CPS investigator, Shan Robinson, because the Tutts hadn't yet undergone a psychological assessment recommended as part of the family's CPS safety plan, created after the 4-year-old's romp through the dog door. Christina says she never refused; she just couldn't afford the evaluation and was waiting for CPS to pay.
In an affidavit and at a December court hearing in which Dallas County family court Judge Graciela Olvera affirmed her decision to place the Tutts' children in foster care, Robinson expressed concern about the number of kids living at the Tutt home and questioned the "protective capacity" of two parents who take medication for depression and anxiety. Duncanville police testified that the kids were dirty and the home was unkempt, strewn with trash bags and overrun with animals.
What got the home-schooling coalition involved, however, were reports from members that testimony throughout hearings on the case was heavily focused on the Tutts' home-schooling practices.
"The problem that we have in this case is the guardian ad litem [an attorney appointed to represent the best interests of the children] saying this is not about home schooling, but they definitely made it about home schooling in that December hearing to justify or rationalize the taking of the children," Lambert says.
Lambert sees a slippery slope. What if all it took for a family's home schooling to be put under the microscope was an anonymous CPS complaint and an unsympathetic judge? "That means that every home-school family in the state of Texas is at risk," he says.
In January, District Judge Tena Callahan reversed Olvera's order and Emma, James, Chaniya and Bailey came home to a smaller household. Still, the state remains deeply uncomfortable with the Tutts' penchant for acquiring large numbers of children from outside the formal child-welfare system.
In March, Trevor and Christina completed a court-mandated psychological evaluation. Both scored well on intelligence tests. Neither has substance abuse problems or antisocial tendencies. Both established a strong rapport with the psychologist. They come across as healthy, sane adults, at least until the summary section at the end of the report.
"It appears as though Mrs. Tutt was not able to adequately care for 13 children," the psychologist writes. "She appears to be in denial about the significance of her own mental health issues, parenting skills, and her abnormal need to care take. Mrs. Tutt has compromised the safety of the children in her care as a direct result of her inability to care for their basic needs (i.e. cleanliness and education). Without appropriate intervention, Mrs. Tutt will continue to pose a threat to the safety and well-being of the children that remain in her care."
The Tutts are still attempting to reunite with I'kira, James and Chaniya's biological sister. They hope they will be allowed to complete the adoption process, which was well underway when CPS showed up last fall.
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What Christina is trying to discern now is whether God wants her child-rescue work to continue. She badly wants it to. She still gets phone calls from moms who need a break, or about kids in desperate need of shelter, and those pleas still tug at her heart.
"I got a phone call about this mom. She's, like, 17. She's pregnant. She needs a place to stay because her parents kicked her out. She's a neat kid, she wants to be a good mom, she just needs someone to tend to her. That would be right up my alley. But no." CPS has her on too short of a leash now.
Long-term, friends have suggested that God's mission for her hasn't changed and that she should continue her work. She's not so sure. She doesn't want to give CPS an excuse to take her children again.
"God is not a God of chaos," Christina says. "He is not a God of breaking up families. He is not a God of fear or terror. God is not going to call me to do something to endanger my own children. Satan would do that. Not God. No."