In the summer of twenty eighteen, Dr. Julie Mack was just sitting down at her home computer after a long day at work when she noticed an email from a father in Texas. Dr. Mark, I apologize for reaching out through what I assume is a personal email address. To summarize, our son, Mason, six months old, suffered a fall onto concrete, causing a fracture. His healing beautifully with no permanent damage, she read on. But CPS has removed him and our daughter Charlotte from our home and place them with my mother during our investigation.
Now, the reasoning was that the CT specialist found a second fracture that is currently unexplained.
What we desperately need is a secondary review of the imaging by a medical professional.
Please let me know how we can move forward with you. Thank you again for your time. I greatly appreciate it. All the best. Michael Dillon Bright. She sent a reply that evening.
Dear Mr. Bright, I'm sorry to hear what you are going through. Do you have the imaging disks and reports? Julie she closed her computer and headed to bed. Emails like Dillons weren't unusual for Dr. Mac, a Harvard trained radiologist. She has reviewed hundreds of cases of suspected child abuse. It's something she does in her spare time, never for money.
I don't volunteer at food banks, but I do volunteer my time for this. I have to limit it just because I have a job and a family. But I. I do think it's important work. Over the years, she's noticed a recurring problem. It seems to her that CPS investigators often jumped to conclusions after getting a report from a child abuse pediatrician, confusing reasonable suspicion with proof of wrongdoing. I think particularly when assumptions are made that aren't warranted, I think that there's a real, real significant chance that an injustice will occur.
When Dr. Mack opened up Mason's medical records, she found problems right away.
For one, Mason had been diagnosed with a bleeding disorder while he was still at Texas Children's Hospital, which may have explained why he'd had so much bleeding around his brain after a shortfall onto concrete. But the hospital child abuse team never followed up to tell CPS about the condition. As for that second skull fracture, the one that child abuse pediatrician said couldn't have come from a fall in the driveway.
That second fracture was hairline. It was very small through a very thin derriere.
Texas children's doctors told the agency Melissa's story couldn't possibly explain all of Mason's injuries. But according to Dr. Mack, the science said otherwise. I said, look, it's on the same side. It's in the same plane. You can get more than one fracture from a single impact. And that has been reported by multiple authors. Dr. Mac began writing a report, one with a very different conclusion about what could have happened to Mason.
I wasn't there. I can't tell you how we felt, where he fell or whether it was in a fall or somebody hit him on the head. Nobody can. But what I can say is the story made perfect sense for what I was seeing on September 5th.
Twenty eighteen, about a week after the Brights ended their agreement with CPS and brought their children home, Dr. Mac emailed Dylan with a copy of her four page report. Dylan opened it right away.
In summary, there is nothing about the CT findings in this case that contradict the mother's statement that Mason suffered a fall on concrete that resulted in bleeding around the brain and skull fractures. Dylan was elated. He forwarded a copy of Dr. Mac's report to LeVar Jones, the CPS investigator. This had to be actionable.
This had to be, you know, something that would absolutely change the course of their investigation, except that course had already been set and there was nothing that Dr. Mac or the Brights or anyone else could do to stop it. We get support from Bode well, if you're like the 50 percent of people who suffer from eczema, psoriasis and sensitive skin, you might be used to your medicine cabinet being full of creams and moisturizers that just don't work. The team at Bode Well knows this all too well.
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My two hands can't hold you back from harm.
From NBC News and wondering, I'm Mike Xinbo and this is Do No Harm. This is episode three, Immediate Danger. With their kids back at home, the brights began slipping back into their normal routines after weeks out of the office for Mason's hospital visits. Dylan was finally catching up at work and Melissa signed up to volunteer at the kid's preschool program.
We got to enjoy the simplicity of life again. And I think that in those simple moments are when Dylan and I finally got to start healing from it all, I was going to work and coming home and having dinner as a family.
And so it was just getting back to being a family again and kind of putting everything that had happened behind us.
They figured KPS and moved on to then on the morning of September 18th, 21 days after Dylan had called LaVar to tell him they were bringing their kids home. And more than a week after he'd emailed him a copy of Dr. Mac's report, LaVar sent Melissa a text.
She was in her car sitting in a parking lot outside of Hobby Lobby with her mom and the kids. When she noticed the message, she read it out loud. Good morning. How is Mason? After more than three weeks and no contact, the message surprised her.
I'm like, you know, what should I text back? I want to make sure that they know everything, you know. And so I sent a novel of a text message updating them on Mason's well-being. And I sent him some adorable photos I had taken of Mason that day or the day before so that he could see how well he was and how he was thriving. The VA responded right away. He looks really good in that same message. He said he needed to follow up with them.
LaVar asked if he could come by the next day. Melissa texted back to say that would be fine. She called Dylan and Feldman. She was nervous. Dylan didn't see any reason to worry. I thought that he had gotten my messages about the second opinion and that he had just finally cycled back around to checking in on our case. And so I assumed that he was going to come and see the kids and see that everything was OK.
The brights figured LaVar just needed to see the children one more time, safe and at home before closing out the case. Finally, they thought their ordeal would be over. But at CPS offices that afternoon, a much different chain of events had been set in motion, one that CPS was keeping a secret from the brights around four forty five that afternoon, six hours after he texted Melissa, LaVar sent a message to his supervisor, Nisha Edwards. Is the affidavit for just Mason or Charlotte.
Also, we can add Charlotte because she's in the home. A few minutes later, he had another question. Why were they doing this again?
Nyasha texted back due to the child's continuous visits to the hospital and the extensive injuries and there being no explanation for the injuries. Later that same night at around eight thirty, Nyasha sent a final text. Good job on the affidavit. Please report to legal first thing. I reached out to LaVar Nisha and other CPS officials to ask about their handling of the case, but they declined to be interviewed. Across town in Tomball, Melissa was just getting the kids down to bed like they did each night.
Melissa read to Charlotte Brown Bear, Brown Bear, what do you see while nursing Mason in a rocking chair afterward, she lay each of them down in their beds, kissed their heads and whispered the same prayer she's repeated every night since they were born. Thank you, Jesus. Then she clicked off the lights. The next day at the Harris County Juvenile Justice Center, Ryan Mitchell had just stepped off an elevator when one of the court coordinators flagged him down.
Hey, do you have time for another case? I say, yes, ma'am. They hand me the removal affidavit and she tells me we're ready to get started on it.
Ryan, a former prosecutor with slicked hair and a neatly trimmed beard, now mostly handles CPS cases. He grabbed the new case file and carried it into a small room with a conference table, a space where lawyers can regroup with clients after hearings or in this case, to try and speed read a document before walking into court. Ryan reads two or three of these kinds of cases every month. He's one of about one hundred names on a list of court appointed lawyers who could be tapped at a moment's notice to represent parents accused of abuse stamped across the top of this document in all caps, it read In the interest of Charlotte Bright Mason Bright Children.
As Ryan scanned the page, four words jumped out at him. Immediate and continuing danger dealing with Melissa. The parents in the case were nowhere to be seen. That wasn't unusual. It was still Ryan's job to represent them, or specifically Dylan Bright. Another lawyer, was on hand to defend Melissa. He'd never met Dylan, but now Ryan was going to have to come up with a reason why Dylan should keep his kids. So the first things first, I asked for just a little bit of time to be able to introduce myself to the caseworker, kind of figure out what's going on before I even have an idea of what we're going to have this case heard.
Ryan approached LeVar Jones in the hallway and shook his hand. He'd handled cases with LaVar before and always thought of them as a nice guy.
We step aside as one of the conference rooms and I just start asking general questions that I ask every caseworker. When I'm first put on a case, I learned that I represent the father in this case. So I started asking questions first, is he here? And he said, no, I talked to Dad. He's not coming down.
But LaVar hadn't talked to Dillon and the Brights had no idea the hearing was happening. A few minutes later, the court coordinator flagged them down. The judge was ready to start. Ryan hadn't even had time to finish reading the paperwork. So, yes, it does seem unusual that an attorney is just given a document right away and said, hey, you know, basically being slapped on the butt and said, hey, go in front of the judge and do your thing.
The way the law is written, they don't even have to give the opportunity for essentially that testimony. The goal to give CPS the freedom to move quickly when the agency believes a child is in serious danger.
Unlike a criminal case, CPS doesn't have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that children have been abused. It just has to convince a judge the kids are more likely than not in danger. The lawyers filed into Harris County's three hundred and fifteenth juvenile district court. The room was mostly empty. The county attorney representing CPS called LaVar to the stand. He raised his right hand and swore to tell the truth.
He explained that CPS was seeking emergency custody of Charlotte and Mason Bright because the baby suffered serious and unexplained injuries. LaVar described the two skull fractures, the bleeding around his brain and the conclusion by Texas Children's Hospital doctors that those injuries didn't appear to match the story of a shortfall in a driveway. He didn't mention the second medical opinion Dillon had sent him. Then the county attorney asked the only question that really mattered.
Do you believe there's an immediate threat to the health and safety of the child at this time? At this time, I would say yes. As Ryan, listen to LaVar describe the case. Some details weren't adding up. If CPS believed Charlotte and Mason's parents were dangerous, why had the VA waited three weeks to seek an emergency removal? Where was the immediate danger? That was the red flag for us. But when Ryan asked the question, why seek the removal now, the VA had an answer.
He'd only learned for certain the children were back home when he texted Melissa for an update the day before. OK, Ryan thought. But then why hadn't he checked on the kids in three weeks? I mean, I know this caseworker, nice guy. It's just when he kept circling around answers, it just he was making eye contact, but he was a very monotone expression. Either this caseworker doesn't know what they're doing or there's something the caseworker is not telling us.
But the judge had already heard everything he needed to hear. The hearing lasted about half an hour later that afternoon, LaVar was in his car and heading north along I-40 five. When he got close, he texted Nyasha, his supervisor, just an update. I'm waiting on law enforcement to meet me at the residence. I'm in the area around that same time, Dylan was wrapping up his workday. Melissa was in the kitchen making an extra large batch of spaghetti enough to share with a friend who just had a new baby.
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They'd held off on eating dinner, hoping to enjoy their spaghetti once KPS was officially out of their lives.
And finally, it's getting bedtime, which was seven for Mason. And I texted him and I'm like, OK, LaVar. Well, if you want to see Mason, you're gonna to make it soon. Finally, at seven thirty, LaVar called Dylan and asked him to stand outside, to come outside. And so eagerly Dylan got up and he went outside as if he was going to flag them down.
Melissa held Mason and watched out the window as LaVar pulled up and stepped out of his car. The sun had begun to set, casting long shadows across the front yard.
As the two men started talking, she could tell right away from Dylan's body language something was wrong. He was jabbing his finger in the air as he talked. Dylan is a very emotive with his hands, especially when he gets worked up. Something was going on. There are something more than just inviting him over.
And a moment later, Dylan in the VA came in through the front door.
Dylan walks inside. The first thing he says is they got a court order to take the kids.
Melissa was stunned and like it struck me like a wrecking ball is like, what does that even mean? Why, how? When for what reason?
The words didn't even sound like English. It had been no communication, no anything for three weeks. And then all of a sudden he shows up and he has he says he has a court order to take the kids. It doesn't make any sense how he possibly could have pulled that off.
How was that even legal doing? Grabbed his recorder and set it on the kitchen counter.
OK, it is seven thirty and September 19th and they are meeting with LaVar.
We've just been told that now they had an emergency hearing and they have temporary receivership.
So the VA cut to the chase. I mean, like I say, we have to call it managing conservative. We have temporary custody of the state, which is why I'm fired, because no. The pickup up, the that's but that's that's that's the VA said he didn't have a choice.
Mason had unexplained injuries and the Brights had brought the kids home in violation of the safety plan.
What about the report from the radiologist, Dr. Mac Dillon asked.
I'm not saying we have decisions being made that are serious decisions, but you're doing so unlike 50 percent that you say, I have all I need. I'm telling you that a proper investigation would have had all the reports. It bothers me, but it's still right. So this doctor, the Julie Mac, right. Again, why not have this from a second opinion? Right. Which at the end of the day, we still have what we have from Texas Children's Hospital.
Melissa's hands shook as she talked, she reminded Lovaas how Mason had been up crying all night for weeks while separated from his mother, hindering his recovery. She reminded him how they'd spent days living out of a truck after Mason had undergone surgery. But CPS's kept telling that's why they had brought the kids home.
You were no longer considering our child's best interest. You broke the safety plan. I had no choice. I had no choice. What kind of mother would I be if I allowed you to put my son in further harm's way? What kind of mother would that make me? That wasn't on you. OK, calm down.
No, it's my children. Calm down. I'm not we're not going to do that.
We're not going to do that. You didn't do anything good. All right. All right. Let's opinion. No, no, no. Jamie, I want you to be honest and look at the timeline of events and you and this. So work diligently, OK? Like like I said, guys caught this October 3rd at nine thirty twelve.
So we can't see our children until they show my breastfed son. You are taking him from my breast. Melissa, you are responsible for taking my child away from my breasts.
Melissa Sorry. All right. At that moment, a Harris County sheriff's deputy arrived at the front door, the law enforcement backup that LaVar had been waiting for.
While the deputies reviewed the court order, Dylan and Melissa pleaded their case to him. CPS had known for more than three weeks that Charlotte and Mason were home. So what was the emergency now? And why haven't they been notified about the court hearing that morning? They could have told their side of the story.
There's a court order to move all the children, but there's no way they can go around no right to the court, based on what grounds I can answer. Why weren't we notified that there was an emergency court hearing? What about the emergency? Well, for four one, the this just disgruntled this. I figured it would be combative.
I know was going to be it's this disgruntled nurse. That's why CPS hadn't told the brights the agency was going to court seeking an emergency order to take their children.
The VA said he figured it would be combative.
What relevance was this emerging here? Again, sir, the here is. I've already explained the reason for the merger. That's when the reality of the situation began to set in for Melissa. Her children were going away. She didn't know where or for how long, and she was powerless to stop it. There was nothing they could do.
Charlotte, the two year old, could tell something was wrong. She tried to comfort her mom.
I'm happy, Mommy, Charlotte said. I'm happy Melissa Crouch down on the floor.
Can you give me a hug if you're happy? I am. I hope everything's OK. Are you OK? Yeah. You're OK with. Of. So you are listening to that? Yes, we are happy the toddler kept saying it over and over as if willing it to be true. And as much as I love that child, but was wasn't a hug in the world that was going to make what was about to happen, not happened. And so she you know, she's trying to comfort me and it's not working and she doesn't understand why.
But at the same time, I want her to hug me and not let go for the rest of eternity because I don't know when I'll hug her again. And I just wanted to hold on. But time was running out. They had been arguing with the VA for more than an hour. He had a court order and there was no way around that it was time to pack the children's bags. And so I went upstairs and I got one suitcase and I put in, you know, several clothes items for both of my outfits and pajamas, lots of pajamas and socks and diapers, diapers for both of them.
Melissa, grab their favorite stuffed animals, an elephant, Freemason giraffe, the stuffed giraffe for Charlotte.
And I made sure that they had bottles.
And thankfully, we had a formula for maisonette container formula so I could put that in the bag downstairs. Dylan wrote on instructions for the strangers who would be caring for their children. Mason needed to sleep on a slight incline to ensure fluid did not build up in his head. Charlotte had a severe dairy allergy and could not eat or drink any milk products whatsoever at the bottom of the page. I don't know what else I could do, so I just wrote to tell them that we love them here to this paper to deliver this bag packed full of anything we could possibly think of that our kids would need.
Now it was time to take the children out to the car. Melissa collapsed on the floor. Oh, no, I had to get it from.
Dylan picked up his daughter and carried her out to lover's car, Melissa trailed behind them with Mason. That's when Charlotte started to scream and kick. Dylan had to force her down into the seat to buckle her in. That moment was the hardest moment for me because my my little girl is crying and screaming because I'm putting her into a car seat. That's not Mommy's car. She knows it's not Mommy's car. And I kept telling her that, you know, baby, it's going to be OK.
You're going to go you're going to see some friends. You know, you're going to go spend the night with some friends. It'll be OK. She kept trying to say, you know, Daddy, Daddy, I don't want to go and I want to stay here. I want to go back to my room much more.
Dylan kissed his daughter on the head. He told her he loved her and that he would see her soon. Then he shut the car door.
The moment I closed the door, man that the screaming was just so intense. Dylan went and stood with Melissa in the front yard and waited.
LaVar and the deputies stood at the front of their car, talking for several minutes as Charlotte's cries grew louder. You could just hear screaming through the car. Finally, I just got to a point where I was so bad. I'm like, could you go? Could you get in the car? You're just just standing here and you're making it way worse on her.
Finally, LaVar got into his car. He started the engine, flicked on the headlights. Dylan and Melissa held each other in the front yard, watching them pull away. As the car turned the corner, Charlotte's muffled screams faded to silence. We get support from at home hair color company, Madison Reed, we're doing a lot at home these days and a lot of it can feel repetitive chores, TV. But one of the things you can do at home that's pretty exciting is coloring your hair with Madison Reed.
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But the children, they were gone.
It's hard to explain how quiet a house is without your kids in it. And I know that's something that parents take as a as a break and something to look forward to. But it's one thing when you know, they're going to be coming back and that noise will be filled again and then not knowing if they'll ever be noisy, it was suffocating.
And so just the gravity of the whole situation kind of hits you in that moment. And it's and it it's everything you can do to keep your knees from buckling. And the only reason I was even able to keep it together myself was because of just how broken Melissa was at that point. And so I couldn't do anything for my kids. So at least the one thing I could do is keep it together enough for my wife.
The sheriff's deputy followed them inside just to make sure they were OK. It was after 11 p.m. By the time he left, Dylan and Melissa headed upstairs and grabbed their laptops. And for the next several hours they sat up in bed searching for answers. What were their rights? Who should they call? There's no way that this just happened to us and that it was right. There's no way that this was legal. So we we spent maybe the next two or three hours, you know, Melissa, trying to put a plan together, what lawyers we could call, who we could reach out to.
No, no, no.
There was no there was there was no there are moments where I'm distracted just long enough for the task, like researching some attorneys to stop the crying. And, um, and then I realized why I'm looking for an attorney and it just floods back in. I felt this need that I needed to Nurse Mason and there was no medicine to nurse and I started to cry anymore. Eventually, Melissa closed her computer. She walked down the hall to Mason's room.
She curled up on the floor in his empty nursery alone in the dark, praying that her babies were safe. I felt more weak and exhausted that I ever felt my life was no, there was no energy to feel sad at that point, it was just all gone.
The next morning before sunrise, Melissa contacted the one person who she knew would understand what she was going through, a woman named Anne Marie Timberman.
One of Melissa's friends from church had connected her with Amerie weeks earlier when CPS first opened its investigation, Amerie had been through something similar. In twenty sixteen, CPS had taken custody of her baby Treston for several months. A child abuse pediatrician told CPS he'd been abused and opinion later refuted by several medical experts. Amerie noticed the text from Melissa as soon as she woke up. And I remember reading the text and the first one said, Annmarie, CPS took the kids.
And at that moment, I fell to my knees, I cried with her, I cried, but then I became strength and I told her, I said, Melissa, we're going to get through this. We're going to get Dennis involved and he's going to bring your babies home. Dennis Slate, the lawyer who helped Emery with her KPS case the moment Amerie got off the phone, she called him on his cell.
I was sitting in my kitchen kind of looking out the big window, drinking a cup of coffee and kind of collecting my thoughts. I had a very busy day planned. I was going to be in a big hearing that morning and I was thinking about the hearing and what I needed to do.
Or former officer in the Army Reserves. Dennis had carved out a niche defending parents against CPS accusations. Often there was more work than he could keep up with.
This was one of those days.
All of a sudden, my phone rings and it's about six thirty in the morning and I look over and it's Amauri. There are times when when you're wanting to talk to Anne Marie, there are times when you don't because you know and Anne Marie conversation is going to be very long and intense.
But it wasn't normal for her to call so early. So he picked up.
I said, hello, Anne Marie, what's going on? And she kind of is in a panic state. And she said, I need you to talk to my friend Melissa. Right. I told Dennis about showing up about the brights, not knowing about the court order. And I explained to Dennis the emotional turmoil that Melissa was going through and how important it was to me. She begged Dennis to look at their case. Dennis said fine, but there was no way he could do it that day.
He would try to fit the brights in sometime over the next few days once his schedule wasn't so packed.
Anne Marie is probably the most persistent person I've ever met in my entire life.
I was not going to get off the phone with him until I felt like he was going to look at it that day. I mean, if you know Anne Marie, you know that if you tell her no, she's just going to keep at you until you say yes. And so it doesn't really help to fight it.
He told Marie to have Melissa call his office and that he would do his best to fit them in that afternoon. And Melissa gathered all of their files, documents CPS had shared Mason's medical records. The second opinion from Dr. Mac, they loaded the files into Dylan's truck and began the hour long drive to Dennis's office. They didn't talk much during the ride. They were both exhausted and lost in their own thoughts.
And that was a very a very tense drive because it's the first time in, say, the past twenty four hours that we had any kind of semblance of hope.
Melissa thought about the kids. She wondered where they were and if they were safe. You just always wonder, is your kid eating OK?
Are they getting attention? Are they getting love or are they scared? Are they hurt? They harmed.
As they drove, Dylan suddenly ran through all the things he wanted to tell the lawyer about Lamar's failure to check on the kids for twenty two days, about the disregarded second medical opinion.
Just knowing that there was a lawyer willing to stay late after office hours gave Dylan some relief. Maybe Dennis would actually listen to their story, consider all of the evidence.
Maybe this would be a turning point.
We finally had somebody on our team that was willing to put on some gloves and go fight CPS.
What the Brits didn't know was 30 miles away in a different Houston suburb, another set of parents were also searching for help. On paper, the two cases could not have been more similar. Two sets of parents both fighting to save their families after having their two young children torn from their arms. Although they had never met, their paths were about to cross in ways they couldn't possibly have predicted. That's next time on Do No Harm. From NBC News and wondering, this is episode three of six of Do No Harm, a story about innocent children and the adults who are supposed to keep them safe.
The next episode will be out in a week. But listen to it right now, ad free by joining one degree plus in the one to wrap Do No Harm was written, reported and hosted by me, Mike Hicks and a national investigative reporter for NBC News special. Thanks to my reporting partner, Carrie Blake, anchor whose reporting made this podcast possible.
If you want to help us spread the word, please give us a five star rating and review on Apple podcasts and be sure to tell your friends subscribe on Apple podcasts, Spotify, the Wonder App or wherever you're listening right now.
In the episode notes, you'll find some links and offers from our sponsors. Please support them. Another way you can support the show is by filling out a small survey at one to read dotcom survey. Associate producers are Chris Siegel and Alison Bailey. Story editor is Julie Shapiro. Additional production assistance from Daniel Gonzalez. Music Supervisor Scott Velasquez, managing producer Lata Pandya, sound design by Jeff Schmidt, Executive Producer for NBC News by Steve, Leftie Executive produced by George Lavender, Marshall Louis and Hernan Lopez for wondering.
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