SPLENDORA, Texas - Child Protective Services caseworkers said they were never alerted to past abuse claims that focused on the two children found living in an old school bus, Local 2 Investigates reported Thursday.
Montgomery County law enforcement dispatch records reviewed by Local 2 Investigates found 10 calls since June to the lot on Three S Road in Splendora.
A 5-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl were removed from the abandoned shell of a school bus at that address on Wednesday.
In two of the calls to police, the 5-year-old apparently called for help and the aunt who was supposed to be caring for him then downplayed any need for police, according to those Montgomery County law enforcement dispatch records.
Gwen Carter with Child Protective Services said caseworkers from her office were never told about the kids living in the bus, or the past allegations of child abuse that were reported to police.
"At this point, our investigation is very new. We continue to try and gather information so we can make a determination of what's in the best interest of the children," she said.
Both of the parents are locked away in federal prison for a disaster assistance scam related to Hurricane Ike, and county officials identified the aunt that was supposed to be caring for them as Hazel Earline Burts, 60, of Splendora.
When asked for her side of the story by a Local 2 Investigates reporter on Thursday afternoon, she declined to comment. She opened a front window on the bus, where she remained all day, telling the reporter to leave the property and suggesting that she may call the reporter another time.
Montgomery County law enforcement dispatch records show one call to police from that address on Dec. 14, 2011, that is titled "Child Discipline."
According to those logs, the 5-year-old called police and said, "please send someone" because his 11-year-old sister was locked in a physical struggle with their aunt.
The boy told police that the sister had intervened because he was being beaten for "ruining his bed," according to county dispatch records.
Those records show that Burts told deputies that they were not needed, and she blamed the 911 call on the 5-year-old learning how to use the phone. The dispatch records said that she told dispatchers that the boy would be getting "five licks" for placing the phone call to 911.
Deputies responded and the 5-year-old boy told them he wanted to pack his bags and leave the hallowed out school bus.
No one was arrested in that call. The girl told deputies it was all an accident.
On Feb. 14, 2012, county dispatch records show the 5-year-old boy called 911 for help again. This time, before deputies could arrive, those records show that the aunt called to cancel the police response. She again blamed the 911 call on the boy learning to use the phone.
Other calls to Montgomery County law enforcement did not involve the children. On July 18, 2011, Burts called deputies because a tenant who was renting one of the buildings on her property was irate about being told to leave. The report said he peeled away and sped from the property.
In June 2011, county records showed she called police to remove another tenant, whom she suspected of holding illegal cockfighting. She told officers she wanted witnesses as she was telling that tenant to leave.
Several other calls to police involved Burts reporting that renters were being asked to leave the property.
In July 2011, Burts called police for a "disturbance" where she reported that a relative was drinking beer and swearing at her near one of the buildings near the bus on that property.
Vanessa Picazo, the rural U.S. Postal Service letter carrier who alerted authorities to the children living in the bus said, "It breaks my heart."
She said she needed a signature for a piece of mail and the 11-year-old girl emerged from the school bus to say that she was in charge. Picazo said she claimed to be 13 years old and she seemed "really bright," but she did not know how to sign her name using script.
"That rose a red flag that she's not in school," said Picazo.
"The children have been out in the neighborhood playing and the little girl's hair is all matted up and I could tell that she was not taking a bath and the little boy was pretty dirty," Picazo said. "It's heartbreaking for children to be … I didn't realize it was like this. I didn't realize these children were basically abandoned," said Picazo.
The local constable said there was running water along with heat, air conditioning and a bathroom in the school bus when the kids were found. He reported that there was a small amount of food in the refrigerator that was located elsewhere on the property in a building. The aunt was not present when deputies arrived, later telling them that she worked 12-hour days as a subcontractor for Centerpoint Energy. The kids were barefoot, according to the constable.
Phil Grant, first assistant in the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office, said his prosecutors are waiting for the full investigation report from CPS to determine if the aunt will face criminal charges of neglect. He said it is quite possible that she will not face charges since Texas law on neglecting a child spells out generally that kids cannot be left without reasonable and necessary care beyond what any other reasonable adult in a similar situation would provide for a child.
He said if the kids appear healthy and there was no risk of serious bodily injury, the aunt will likely avoid any criminal charges.
Neighbors near the school bus property came to Burts' defense, while hiding their faces from television cameras.
"She did what she could and someone, instead of stepping in and taking the kids and saying all these bad things, should have maybe helped her," said one neighbor who declined to provide her name.
"They were happy. They never seemed to be hungry. Their appearance? What child wants to wear shoes?" she asked.
The children have been removed through an emergency proceeding that granted custody to CPS. That agency will be presenting an investigation affidavit to a juvenile court judge in order to keep the kids in a foster home for now.
Carter said, "Right now, we believe they need to remain in their foster home while we look into seeing if there are relatives who might have a safe, stable learning environment. Last night, we were unable to find any family member that had a safe, stable learning environment."
The longer term placement of the children will be determined in proceedings that Montgomery County Attorney David Walker will oversee. He did not return calls for comment.
If CPS does not find a relative for the kids in another environment, the agency could seek to keep the kids in foster placement if a court approves it in those proceedings.
Federal prison records show the mother of the children is set for release on April 5, when she could then move to have the children returned to her. The father is set to remain in federal prison at Oklahoma City until July.
One county law enforcement officer, who spoke with the 11-year-old girl, said that she mentioned an upcoming birthday. She told the deputy that all she wanted for her birthday was a meal at Golden Corral restaurant.
"The children are doing well. They did really well with our staff last night," said Carter. "We had to find them clean clothes and we had to get them cleaned up and we had to get them ready to go to the foster home, so once again, they did really, really well."
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