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A Family’s Battle Against Tarrant Co. Probate Judge

Emily Ramshaw over at Texas Tribune tells a heart-rending story about Frank and Chila Covington’s loss of guardianship of their Down Syndrome daughter because they did not want her to receive psychotropic drugs in a group home. Texas law makes it easy for the state to quash parental rights, and in this case the judge did it in a secret ex parte hearing. So far the legal battle to appeal the judge’s decision has cost the Covingtons $55,000.

This is the nightmare of every parent of a disabled child.  Allisonette #3 is Down Syndrome, and I feel just like the Covingtons: she is a gift from God.  The idea  that a psychiatrist or “mental health expert” can use the court system to harm a child and to separate her from a loving family is nauseating.

I have two questions for Ramshaw about the story. She doesn’t name the Tarrant County probate judge who made the decision and who has now recused himself. She does mention that several complaints have been filed against him. So, Emily, who is he? And why the free pass?

26 comments on “A Family’s Battle Against Tarrant Co. Probate Judge

  1. Tarrant County has a searchable index of their probate cases online and free to the world. The Covingtons’ case was in Probate Court #2; the judge at the time of their case and now is Pat Ferchill.

  2. Additionally, Ferchill recused himself only in July of this year. Tarrant County Probate Court #1 Judge Steve King is presiding over the case.

    And FWIW, Ferchill is up for re-election this November; there’s a Libertarian candidate running against him but no Democrat.

  3. I’ll bet Ferchill had no opponent in the primary and has no opponent in the general election. Best way to get the worst judges.

  4. As the parent of two boys affected by Fragile X/autism, I am sickened by every aspect of this story. As a lawyer who does not practice in the probate courts, I am shocked that this type of procedure exists. As someone who likes to volunteer with organizations that assist individuals and families affected by disability, I am only sorry that I did not know about this situation so that my firm could have taken on the matter pro bono. My thoughts and prayers are with this family.

  5. I practice guardianship law in Houston. While I infrequently get the opportunity to appear in Tarrant County, I do represent many families in guardianship proceedings. I have to say that in all my dealings with Judge Ferchill, he has tried to listen to the evidence and come to a ruling that is in the best interest of the child. I know nothing about the facts of this case. But,here’s the good news. It makes no sense usually to appeal a guardianship. Instead, file an amended application and ask that the matter be reheard. There is no limit technically on how many times the court can modify a guardianship or set aside its finding. While I cannot provide specific legal advice, check out my blog gardneronguardianships and we will follow this case. I intend to order the transcript and review it on line. Just remember that no Judge wants to take away a parents rights. However, sometimes the State acting in its role as “parens patrie” has to substitute its judgment for what is in the best interest of the child. Ask the court appointed ad litem who represents the child to request this matter be reheard….Ask the attorney ad litem to explain why the Court ruled the way it did. The comments suggest Judge King was assigned to the case. You will not find a fairer jurist. A mental health committment is not a guardianship proceeding. I suspect that this hearing was held on the mental health docket. If that is the case, the records are confidential under Texas law so you shouldn’t blame the judge. If the child was forced to take medication, there would have been medical testimony by clear and convincing evidence standard(higher standard that a preponderance) that it was in the child’s best interest. My point is that there are always two sides to every story and at first blush it is unclear what the otherside of the story is so let me see if we can determine the facts. I don’t always believe newspapers get the facts 100 percent accurate. I am not suggesting this article isn’t accurate but it sounds like we have some mixed up legal notions going on…

  6. @ Sharon Gardner: Thank you for your informative and helpful comment. I’m curious, and perhaps you can help. How routine are secret ex parte hearings in Texas probate courts? Although there are certainly two sides to every story, one would expect a judge to hear both of them. Or is that not the case when a medical or mental health issue arises?

  7. Mental health commitments are confidential because of the privacy of an individual. A person who is commited is a danger to themselves or others. They must be an immediate threat.

    A person who is the subject of a guardianship proceeding has the right to request a closed hearing. It is the only time a court may close a courtroom. It is meant to protect the person who is the subject of a guardianship. The court room may only be closed “at a hearing to appoint a guardian. The Court did hear both sides. Judge King would have listened to both sides. He was the presiding statutory probate judge in Texas. He would rule based on the evidence. He would not rule on an ex parte basis. Ex parte means that the Court had a private meeting with one side of the case. That is not what happened in the case. If the courtroom was closed to spectators, that is no ex parte. So long as the parties and their attorneys are part of the proceeding, it is not ex parte

    Hope this helps clarify.

  8. Sharon, what are the requirements for notifying next of kin in guardianship cases? Do they differ for children and for adults?

  9. To the attorney who offered to help, there is another family in the group ( GRADE) who needs an attorney. They have a situation very similar to the Covington’s. The adoptive daughter has been taken by the court and is being isolated from her family.

    Please contact GRADE- Guardianship Reform Advocates for the Disabled and Elderly.
    http://www.guardianshipreform.org
    Leave a message so we can contact you please.

  10. The case was NOT heard on the mental health docket. Listen online to the Jurisprudence Hearings in the TX Senate on June 24th 2010 – and see the number of ex parte hearings families report in this county.

    It seems too often in Tarrant County, the ad litem is more interested in pleasing the judge and getting more appointments than in the well being of the ward. The family can literally expect no help there.

    In order for anything to be heard in this probate court( opposing a decision made by the judge ), one has to put up at least $10,000 in security costs – in addition to paying one’s own attorney – or the case is dismissed. That definitely limits access to the court.

    When you get the records, you will see that clear and convincing evidence was NOT a part of this ex parte hearing. There are similar cases in this court where the evidence is simply not there.

    I was told that Tarrant County has a special agreement with APS to simply turn cases over to the court – even before they are investigated. This then leaves the ward with little to no protection – certainly none from DADS. Private professional guardians are only responsible to the judge who appoints them. The GCB and their complaint process is totally biased.

    Sad but true.. that providers in Tarrant county generally get lots of protection from the court – without regard to what happens to the ward.

    Also check the records in Probate 2 and see the huge amount of removals that Ferchill
    does. GSI ( Guardianship Services) gets most of the cases as successor guardian. With this number of removals, it would seem to suggest one of two things: either the judge is not making good decisions to begin with, or there is a money motivation.

  11. The exparte hearing was done not with Judge King – but for the removal in July 09. Both sides were not heard.

    This court has been closed to the public just recently – and not at the request fo the so called ward. See Fort Worth Weekly article about Mary- In Whose Best Interest.
    This article also highlights all the connections that mesh too closely in Tarrant Probate. This is not in the best interest of the ward.

  12. There are so many out there, whom we have not heard from. They are lost without a friend in the world. These courts take, accuse, and abuse. I want people to know that there are more victims of these courts, and we are joining forces to stop these abuses. The Covingtons, are sweet, loving people. When I told Chila, about my case, I could hear the tears in her voice.

    The attorney who commented above, PLEASE CHECK OUT THE WEB GRADE WEB SITE. There are so many others in Tarrant County, and Denton County who need help. My case is guardianship of elderly (my in-laws), and in Denton. There are as stated above others, so many others in Tarrant, who have loved ones who need and want to be home with their family and friends.

  13. I think this statement speaks to what is happening in Tarrant County and across our country: “Texas law makes it easy for the state to quash parental rights, and in this case the judge did it in a secret ex parte hearing. So far the legal battle to appeal the judge’s decision has cost the Covingtons $55,000.”

    Victims and families who get caught up in unlawful and abusive guardianships, oftentimes lose everything – their loved one, their life savings, their health…and sadly, it’s hard to get any real help from agencies who claim to be protective of the elderly or disabled or help from our elected representative. Victims are referred back to the court where the injustice occurred. It’s a vicious cycle – and vulnerable people and their families suffer for it.

    The Boomers are coming into what should be their golden years. Will they suffer the same fate?

    If we don’t fix this mess, we might all be future victims.

    Join GRADE. Join NASGA. Work for reform!

  14. There is an entity called The College of Probate Judges and this entity could very well be the source of probate judicial consistency across the United States,a consistency which parallels, imitates and mocks a valid legal process with real judicial power. To assume correctness in Sharon Gardner’s comments claiming integrity of probate judges is a big mistake, a mistake that could cost us all everything we have worked for, eeverything we love, and cost us our rights. Rudy Bush

  15. Our family were also victims of Tarrant County Probate Court 2. My Mom signed herself into a nursing home for Rehab for a back disability. After being neglected and abused and almost dieing and becoming blind and deaf from medications that were not authorized. I made the decision to bring my Mom home. Nursing home had other idea. Nursing home reported to court. Wow we were in a guardianship. Court Worker was willing to perjure herself in court if I didnt take classes. I was told judge would allow me to speak but a meeting was held without family members and it was already decided who would have guardainship Of my Mom. I was never allowed to contest or testify to the Court Workers allegations. Was never told what those allegations were. It was agreed I would take classes and become Moms successor guardian upon completed. This would turn out not to be true. I was found suitable, Willing and able in order and was ordered to take classes. G.S.I remained my Moms guardain. Guardian place my Mom in hospice with a false diagnosis and Mom was allowed to die with dignity. So please everyone read the GRADE WEBSITE. The life you save may be your own.

  16. Sharon Gardner wrote dialogue whereas she “Hopes this helps clarify”. I propose to do likewise. Ms Gardner claims that in her dealings, Judge Ferchill has tried to listen to the evidence…In Cecilia’s case, that is true, he did listen to one sided evidence. He did not listen to all the evidence, because it was a secret hearing. Ms Gardner states that no judge wants to take away a parents rights. I have never heard this before. It must be from a fairy tale, or a court that is not providing customers to guardianship companies at any cost to families. Ms Gardner states that she intends to order the transcript and follow the case. I sincerely hope that doing so will educate her to the abuse espoused by Tarrant County Probate Court 2 as we were removed without clear and convincing evidence, and as the transcripts clearly show. I will send the transcript at no cost and save her the expense. Ms Garner states that there are two sides to every story. This is intuitive, but both sides should be heard. For this case, they were not. Ms Gardner states that the newspapers don’t always get the facts 100%. That may be applied to some reporting, but I challenge anyone to find a single falsehood in the report by Emily Ramshaw. Ms Gardner states that Judge King would have listened to both sides. Very fine, but Judge King was not the presiding judge—so what? Ms Gardner says that as long as parties and their attorneys are part of the proceeding, it is not ex parte. Duh!!!! Again,—so what, this was a one sided secret hearing. I can only expect that if Judge Wood, Judge Windle, and Judge Ferchill are setting the standards for probate law, this state is in deep do-do. I am not proud to be a Texan.

    Frank Covington, father of Cecilia.

    P.S. I would have liked to read and respond to this post earlier, but have been partially sequestered with an engineering team developing weapon systems to protect this country from terrorist attacks.

  17. # Dubious Brother @ September 15th, 2010 at 4:57 pm
    I’ll bet Ferchill had no opponent in the primary and has no opponent in the general election. Best way to get the worst judge

    This is not a good thing at all. If I remember right, the Denton judge, Don Windle, who was reprimanded, ran the last election unopposed. This term, he just so happened to have opponents, which I have reserves about.

    These judges, do show favorites, preferring the attorneys, APS, DADS, and their favored guardians over true family values, and love. These judges, advance their pals, and award them, while they abuse the elderly and disabled, and their families.

    WHO IS IT THESE COURTS ARE LOOKING OUT FOR?

  18. This is a letter sent to the ad litem when my daughter was forced into an institution by the Tarrant Co judge in an exparte hearing. This is an adoptive child who had so much trouble learning to trust and bond after years of being in an orphanage in Russia. She was so brave and did get past her fears (regarding trust) in therapy. She was doing well. However the judge would hear none of this . Because Katia is so high functioning she can tell us of problems in her living environment. This she is allowed to see her family/friends only 1 hour a month and only supervised.

    TCU INSTITUTE OF
    CHILD DEVELOPMENT

    Learning to change the world … One child at a time.

    October 7, 2006

    Dear Bob Gieb,

    I am writing in advocacy for Katia Seidel, whom I have known for nearly ten years. For several years, Katia was a participant in our summer camp for at-risk, adopted children, The Hope Connection® and I have followed the family for nearly a decade since that first summer camp. Data from our research-based intervention document, both behaviorally and neurochemically, Katia’s extremely fragile emotional and biochemical nature, so I was stunned to know that she would be isolated from family and friends during her hospitalization. Our Institute specializes in working with traumatized children adopted from international orphanages and a cardinal principle in working with these children is to avoid isolation at all cost.

    Most post-institutionalized children are subject to ongoing risk for disruption in their attachment relationships and “felt safety” with trust are hard earned prizes — prizes to be protected at all times. Ruptures in attachment, such as forced isolation from family and friends can have long-term consequences for children like Katia. Often, these children will capitulate to demands of hospital staff, a return to the orphanage-experience and unfortunately, a revisitation to the trauma of the past with reactivation of post-traumatic-stress-disorders. I am advocating for Katia to have ongoing contact with family friends, and as soon as possible, with her mother and brother. Otherwise, this type of institutional isolation has the potential of inducing a significant rupture in her long-term emotional and mental wellbeing.

    In addition, I am advocating for the attending physician and/or psychiatrist to consult with Dr. Karen Birdy who was supervising the use of targeted-amino-acid therapy (TAAT) with Katia. In the past few months, TAAT has been helpful in facilitating dynamic and significant shifts in the excitatory neurochemicals associated with seizure, mental illness, and psychotic behaviors. For example, before Katia began the TAAT protocol, her dopamine level was excessive, 270 mg/gCr (optimal is 110-175), now with TAAT, her dopamine level is 110. Before TAAT, her PEA (beta-phenylethelamine) level was 2366 mg/gCr (optimal is 175-450), now her PEA is 800. Before TAAT, her glutamate level was 90 mg/gCr (optimal is 10-35). These three neurotransmitters, when found in excess are associated with aggression, psychopathology, schizophrenia (dopamine), with racing thoughts, mood disorders, and mental illness (PEA) and with seizures and aberrant behaviors (glutamate) and the use of drugs alone has been unable to reduce them.

    Clearly, children like Katia who have histories of profound isolation in Russian orphanages have behavioral and biomedical changes that put them at life-long risk for aberrations in behavior. These children are unique in the nature of their early trauma, having survived profound deprivation. They also require unique treatment, which takes into account their drastically altered early years which were permeated by abuse, neglect and trauma. I am advocating for Katia’s care to include the two most dynamic influences for buffering her risk of long-term psychiatric illness — her family and friends, and the support of natural nutrients in the form of TAAT.

    I would welcome an opportunity to discuss our research with post-institutionalized children, and in particular, how our research findings inform the care of children such as Katia Seidel.

    Regards,

    Karyn B. Purvis, Ph.D.
    Director: Institute of Child Development
    Office: 817-257-5912
    FAX: 817-257-5-7681
    Email: k.s.Purvis@tcu.edu
    Web: http://www.child.tcu.edu

  19. Thank you for publishing this story. My daughter with high functioning autism is now 17, and I have been advised bynher school to seek guardianship by age 17.5. I am going to do a lot more investigation before proceeding , thanks to this report.

  20. Mrsz1ppy,

    If your daughter is HFA please don’t consider guardianship unless it is a last resort. Guardianship removes all of her constitutional rights. She will never be able to enter into a contract, get a drivers license, get married, she will be stripped of so much. Schools FALSELY tell families they need to get guardianship once the child turns 18. You do not! Legislation was recently passed that allows you to be your daughter’s surrogate decision maker, you could get a power of attorney… there are less restrictive alternatives, please explore them.

  21. Judge “Swindle” has had some issues of his own with guardianship. If one were to do a little research into the past few years, one might find an incident where he awarded the guardianship company contract to his ex-wife and was implicated in a situation where he and his ex-wife were left large sums of money by sisters that his ex-wife obtained guardianship over. There were articles in the Denton Record Chronicle. It’s also not the only shady business that the name Swindle has been dragged in to.

  22. Add Judge Robert Price in Dallas probate to your list. He retired Dec 31, 2010 but not before totally dismantled my life and my mother’s life – her estate which is now penniless. We filed an appeal with Dallas Court of Appeals just to have Mediation ordered. Then the new judge (Judge Michael Miller) in Dallas said he would grant me access to my mother after 13 months…..but he too wanted us to mediate it. I then learned my siblings hired a new “super” attorney who was PERSONAL FRIENDS with the Mediator, who is also an ex-judge. I don’t believe any ex-judge should be a mediator for those attorneys they worked with in probate. She was definitely bias towards the other side. She was a pathetic mediator.
    My siblings filed an ex parte TRO against me based on false statements in the court filing. I had made a complaint to APS and learned my siblings made a false complaint to APS….guess who never got a call from APS? yes, me! Guess who was never served by a process server? yes me. Guess who was never served for the next two restraining order or injunction hearings? yes, me…never served. It has been 14 months since I have seen or talked to my mother. Our argument is that the court order have never stated that I cannot “talk” to my mother by phone or mail. But I am refused that.
    So on Monday, April 4, 2011 my attorney filed a new case in Federal Court in Dallas, TX. on the question of the Parent/Child Relationship which is guaranteed by the US Constitution. My case is that I am being denied access by my siblings (Guardian) for no valid reason. If the Constitution protects the Parent/Child relationship then so should the Child/Parent relationship be protected. If you know of any case where the adult child has been denied access to their parent and has gone to court – PLEASE contact me and let me know the info about the case – what state, city, court, decision or if it was in federal court. Thank you! We pray this will keep Guardians from hiding or denying parents or adult children from their loved ones. We hope the case will move up to the Supreme Court and it will shut down the awful deeds Guardians have used to bar the wards from their loved ones.

  23. I beg to differ on who posted that Judge King is impartial. My grandmother checked herself in to a assisted retirement community on her own accord and since then has had her fiances, irrevocable trust and now, today right at this very moment is having her house seized by a court appointed guardian, under Judge Kings direction. My grandmother had a meager savings of close to $100,000, a house, a car and gets Social Security, military and retirement from IBM thanks to my grandfather, and it is all being squandered. Her savings was nearly depleted within months, whereas with her income, should have lasted her the rest of her life.

    Today, at 9am during the execution of a Writ of Possession and eviction of my grandmothers house, I was told by the DA as well as the constable that my grandmother had a right and the ability to put a stop to the eviction. My grandmother followed through and called the constable and requested the eviction be stopped. The constable got on the phone, called the officer(s) in the field and informed them that my grandmother wanted the eviction stopped, at which time the guardians attorney, Robert Brownrigg, got on the phone and told the constable in the office that he “Does not care what Peggy (my grandmothers) wants, that he wants world peace”.

    During the past two years of abuse and hell my family has endured, it was uncovered that Judge King had what appears to be an invalid oath of office. I have a copy of his oath, notarized by a county clerk rep, both before it was properly sealed, and now a copy of the oath after it has been altered. It is believed that Steve M. King is violating the Texas Constitution and rightfully has vacated his seat as judge. We believe he is also in violation of:

    Texas Penal Code – Section 37.11. Impersonating Public Servant and
    Section 32.48 Texas Penal Code, Sec. 32.48. Simulating Legal Process

    Because this was uncovered, we believe Judge King is acting in retaliation against my mother, whom was well known would be the individual to care for my grandmother. My mother was senselessly sued to the point of bankruptcy and demonized. Accusations of financial theft by my mother, on and on and on where made against my mother. All unfounded and my mother made all financial transaction available openly for scrutiny.

    We believe that other other civil and criminal violations have occurred. Without a doubt, a violation of such would allow that any and all judgments rendered by Judge Steve M. King be voidable. My grandmothers story is just too much to tell in this medium, mind you though, chalk my family up as another victim of financial abuse and exploitation of a family member.

    Thew funny thing is. When contacting attorneys and begging them to take on the case on a contingency because of my mothers bankruptcy status, many attorneys had openly stated my mother has a valid case of both criminal and civil violations, but that they would not take the case because Judge King is notorious for threatening to have attorneys that challenge him disbarred, etc.

    Judge King is as bad as the rest of the lot.