CONROE, Texas (AP) — Nearly a year after their two children were found living virtually unsupervised in an old school bus in Southeast Texas, the parents regained full custody of their kids Tuesday when a judge dismissed a child welfare case against them.
"It feels really good," said Sherrie Shorten, of Splendora, after she and her husband, Mark, stood before Judge Jerry Winfree at a hearing that lasted only a few minutes. "This is just one more thing we've gotten resolved."
"If you love your family, you never give up," Mark Shorten said outside the courtroom, standing close to his two children, Jessica, 12, and Chance, 6. "You do what it takes. ... It takes a lot of faith in God, belief in your family and a good attorney. You just work the problem, just don't give up, hunker down and work the problem."
The Shortens last March were serving 18-month federal prison terms for conspiracy to embezzle Hurricane Ike benefits in Louisiana when a postal worker repeatedly spotted the disheveled children in the Montgomery County neighborhood about 35 miles northeast of Houston. Child welfare officials were notified and took Jessica and Chance into foster custody.
There were no front wheels on the bus and the section of the vehicle from the windshield and engine firewall had been removed. Extensive media coverage of the case showed the bus sitting in a trash-filled yard.
Despite its worn appearance, the bus inside had been renovated, furnished, had hot and cold water and a bathroom, and was air-conditioned. The family moved it from Louisiana after their home there was flooded from Hurricane Ike. It was intended as a temporary home until they could build on the lot.
The Shortens had arranged with an aunt to care for the children while they were imprisoned but the woman told authorities her 12-hour workdays and caring for the children had overwhelmed her.
"CPS was absolutely right to take then kids when it did," the family's attorney, Chris Branson, said. "The aunt obviously dropped the ball and was neglecting these kids and it was the proper thing to take these kids into custody. However, the parents got out of jail, they fixed the problem, they cleaned up the property and the situation should have been over at that point."
Sherrie Shorten and her husband also have been fulfilling a care plan and attending counseling and therapy. The family was reunited last September under CPS watch, and still lives on the bus.
John Lockwood, an assistant attorney general and counsel for Child Protective Services, told Winfree that authorities recommended "strongly" the case against the couple be dismissed.
"We're happy to say they are safe and their needs are met," Lockwood said.
Without the dismissal, the Shortens had faced a trial that could have resulted in the children being moved to foster care or being placed under long-term monitoring by the state.
The recommendation for dismissal had been anticipated, then reversed late Monday in what Child Protective Services officials described as a miscommunication, and then reversed again.
"Things just got a little sidetracked," Mark Shorten said. "Usual bureaucracy, one hand not talking with the other."
Branson said, "I'm happy this day finally came but I'm also frustrated it took so long to get here."
Sherrie Shorten was released a few weeks after the children were placed in foster care. Her husband was released in July. They're both on supervised federal release for three years and facing more than $100,000 in court-ordered restitution. Mark Shorten said the convictions were unwarranted but is moving forward.