Even a Tot’s Short, Tortured Life Can’t Keep Our Child Protective System From Its Family-First Policies
(Published in FW Weekly on: )
Amanda Bush was just a baby herself on July 12, 1989, but she still has memories of how her little sister died. Maranda Bush was 18 months old when, the Tarrant County Medical Examiner would later rule, her skull was smashed like the shell of a stepped-on hardboiled egg and she was suffocated.
Amanda was only 2 1/2, but she was a “good girl” and she didn’t tell. You never, ever talk about family business. … But, she never forgot.
Her parents – she calls them “Amy” and “Johnny” now because she can’t bring herself to call them “Mom” and “Dad” – had been fighting. Amanda remembers being outside her grandparents’ central Arlington home with Amy, waiting for Johnny to bring the baby out to the car so they could take him to work.
Johnny appeared at the window and hollered for them to come back inside because Maranda had a dirty diaper. When they got inside, though, it became apparent that there was something more seriously wrong than a soiled nappy.
“I saw Johnny shaking Maranda and pushing her head on the floor,” said Amanda, now 12. “I think we were hollering for him to stop.”
Johnny was yelling and crying. The baby wasn’t crying, though. Her eyes were rolled back in her head and she was still.
Johnny and Amy were screaming at each other. A fire truck and an ambulance came. People filed in and out of the house. Relatives wailed.
The two-year-old stood there, ignored, absorbing it all.
“They took Maranda away and she never came back,” Amanda said. “That’s the only thing I remember about her.”
Paramedics who responded to the scene would later testify that the room in which Maranda lived with her parents, her sisters, two chows and a pit bull, was filthy. There was feces in the girls’ bed and all over the floor, they said.
Family members, knowing that CPS would remove Amanda until an investigation was done, hustled her to a great aunt’s house, where she would stay for the next four months.
Even if they had asked, Amanda would not have told the social workers who had come in and out of their lives but always went away again and left Maranda with the people who hurt her.
Amanda wasn’t the only one who knew that she was being hurt, however. There were lots of grown-ups – cops, social workers and even the grandparents she lived with – who saw the cuts and bruises and burns and did nothing to stop it.
There were others, however, including grandparents Glenn and Joyce Bush, whose cries for help were ignored.
The escalating abuse was reported to child welfare authorities over and over again by relatives, by doctors, by police officers. Maranda had lived only 18 months, but in that time, at least 10 calls were made to Child Protective Services to report her abuse.
Maranda’s death was tragic, but it was no aberration. There are plenty of worried or grieving grandparents with stories of complaints ignored, reports not written, investigations not undertaken, and children left to the mercy of their abusers.
What they have discovered is that Texas’ system for protecting children is broken.
As more and more children are lost, however, Child Protective Services continues to cling to an outdated philosophy that puts reuniting families above child safety, turns inexperienced untrained social workers into crime investigators and dismisses grandparents who report abuse against their grandchildren as family troublemakers.
”My wife and I tried every way possible to save Maranda’s life,” Glenn Bush said, looking back. “We reported the abuse to Child Protective Services and they did nothing.” Amy McKay and Johnny Bush had been together since junior high. The attraction was obvious. Amy was confident and strong willed, everything that Johnny, who suffered from a learning disability and had problems in school, was not.
They didn’t plan their children, they would later say, “just had ‘em whenever they decided to come.”
Amanda Renee Bush was born a few months after they moved in together. Her parents were both 18 years old. Maranda Jolee Bush was born on December 19, 1987, just 11 days before her big sister’s first birthday. She was healthy, a chubby eight pounds, and looked like her daddy with blonde hair that had more than a hint of read from her Grandma Bush’s side of the family.
When she was just 2 months old, her grandparents, Glenn and Joyce Bush, began to notice that the baby had an inordinate number of bumps, bruises, cuts and scratches for a newborn. The injuries got more serious as the baby got older. Glenn and Joyce were worried and a little confused, too, because Maranda lived with her parents and sister in the home of her maternal grandparents, Hershel and Nancy McKay, and none of the adults seemed concerned about the injuries.
The McKays back up the explanations offered by Johnny and Amy – usually that Amanda did it. Amanda was jealous; she hit, scratched, pushed Maranda, they said. They couldn’t control her.
The more they questioned, the more hostile Amy, Johnny and the McKays became. Finally, Glenn and Joyce were warned that if they continued to question Maranda’s injuries, they would not be allowed to see or, or Amanda, again.
The broken arm changed everything.
On Sept. two, 1988, Johnny Bush took 8-month-old Maranda to Arlington Memorial Hospital, saying her arm was swollen and sore. According to internal hospital records turned over to the Bush’s lawyers after Maranda’s death, the baby had suffered a spiral fracture just above the elbow, which means that her tiny arm had been twisted so hard the bone had snapped. The injury had happened a week to 10 days before she was brought in, Dr. Gilbert Ledesma wrote.
The doctor also noted finding a healing fracture at a different spot in the same bone, indicating that the arm had been broken before. The hospital called in CPS.
Ledesma would testify later that a spiral fracture in a child so young was a clear indication of child abuse and that he never believed Maranda’s injury was consistent with the stories her parents told.
The CPS intake worker never interviewed Ledesma, however, In fact, even after Maranda had her teeth knocked out or lost the hearing in one ear, no CPS caseworker went back and questioned the doctor.
Instead, this first time, the intake worker interviewed Johnny Bush, who speculated that Maranda’s arm must have been broken when two1-month-old Amanda jumped into the crib on top of her.
Later, when they were interviewed by investigative caseworker Becky Eller, Amy and Johnny denied knowing anything about the incident. By then, they’d settled on another story: -a friend’s two-year-old had reached through the bars of the crib and pulled on Maranda’s arm, trying to yank a doll away from her. It sounded reasonable to Eller, who wrote in her report that she agreed with their explanation. Case closed.
The injuries didn’t stop, however. In December 1988, a frantic Joyce Bush went to visit Eller. “We had started noticing bruises on [Maranda], lots of bruises,” Joyce remembered. “When we saw her at Christmas, her head was cone-shaped, kind of flat on one side, and she seemed to be deaf in that ear. You could whisper in her ear and she wouldn’t respond.”
Eller refused to reopen the case or even write up a report and upheld Amy and Johnny’s decision not to let the Bushes see the kids. “That’s when CPS gave Maranda the death sentence,” Glenn Bush said. “There was no one left to protect her.”
The burns were odd looking, too big to be cause by a cigarette. In the center of each two-inch diameter circle was a faint grid-like pattern. There were at least four or five burns on Maranda Bush’s tiny body, relatives reported to Glenn and Joyce. The baby also had scratches, bruises and healing abrasions on her face and body.
Frightened, Joyce Bush said, they did one of the hardest things they had ever done. They filed a complaint against their son with CPS. “We knew no one at the McKays’ would protect her, so reported the abuse to the government agency we thought would protect her,” she said. “We didn’t know then what we know now: never, ever report abuse to CPS. Call the police, call 911, but don’t call CPS.”
Eller, the caseworker who had concluded that the baby’s broken arm was not abuse, contacted Amy about the Bushes’ complaint and the mother brought the kids to the CPS office. According to Eller’s report, the injuries were there, and then some. Maranda’s mother, however, had an explanation for every one: Amanda did it. Amanda followed the baby into the bathroom and held a hair dryer against her sister’s skin in several places, thus the odd, grid-marked burns, Amy said. Amanda was jealous and kicks, punches and pinches her baby sister, she told Eller, thus the scratches, bruises and scabbed-over abrasions.
The caseworker concluded that Amanda, who was not yet two, was responsible for Maranda’s injuries. Grandmother Joyce called Eller later and pleaded with her to change her mind, remove the kids and do a full investigation. “My wife told [Eller] if they didn’t protect Maranda, she wouldn’t live to be two years old, Glenn Bush recalled.
In Amy and Johnny, however, Eller had found the perfect examples of CPS’ own brand of social miracle – turning rotten parents into good ones by intervention and the threat of future action if they don’t go along with the program
“These parents are young and inexperienced,” she said in her report. “I believe they now realize the importance of closely watching their small children.” Just a month later, however, Joyce and Glenn called CPS again. This time they’d learned that two of Maranda’s bottom teeth were missing, she was covered with bruises, her ears were bloody and her face was so badly swollen on one side that she looked deformed. Once again, according to the case notes, Amy had an explanation for everything: Maranda fell learning to walk and hit her head; her ear was infected from wearing earrings (the coroner’s report notes that Maranda’s ears were not pierced); Amanda hit her and bit her on the leg and foot. Amy told Eller no one realized that Maranda’s teeth were missing until they found one, along with a soft drink bottle, in her crib. She suggested that Amanda had knocked her baby sister’s teeth out with the bottle.
Eller was still buying the Amanda-did-it line. “Although Maranda has received several injuries, I do not feel it is the result of abuse,” her case notes read. In the next five months, Glenn and Joyce said, they and other relatives made call after call to CPS, reporting injuries to Maranda. No action was taken.
“I called about the middle of May 1989, to ask Becky Eller to check on Maranda and make sure she was okay,” Glenn said. “She refused and said she was closing the case.”
Three months later, Maranda was killed by her parents in the McKay house. Maranda never made it to her second birthday.
“I got a call at work telling me she was dead,” Glenn Bush said. “I wasn’t surprised.”
For friends and relatives to know that a child is being systematically abused and do nothing to stop it is shocking. For the agency that is charged with protecting children from violence and abuse to overlook a baby’s pain and suffering is inexcusable. It is also common.
In 1998, the number of kids in Texas who died from abuse or neglect increased 71 percent over the year before, according to a report by the Department of Protective and Regulatory Services, the state department that oversees CPS. There were 176 children – most of them babies and toddlers – who were killed by their caregivers last year. Four out of 10 were victims of prior abuse and 36 percent had had contact with CPS at least once before.
In CPS region 3, which includes Tarrant, Dallas and 17 surrounding counties, there were 39 abuse – or neglect-related deaths in 1998. Of those children, 17- almost 44 percent-had a prior history with CPS. In other words, when CPS investigated a charge of child abuse or neglect, the children usually were sent back to live with the adults who hurt them. Many of those children faced more abuse and a large number of them ended up dead.
CPS spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner said the fault does not lie with child protective services. “Parents are the first line of defense,” she said. “They are ultimately responsible for the health and safety of their children.” Most of the parents CPS works with love their kids and want to be better parents, she said. “Once in a while we come across what I can only call a monster, and there’s nothing we’re going to be able to do to change that individual.”
Although the police have the same right to remove a child as CPS does and they do a much better job of collecting evidence, the lead investigative agency on a case of child abuse is CPS, unless a child is killed. the police may or may not get the results of the CPS investigation, which they may or may not follow up on. Even when a case is made, more than 60 percent of the child abuse cases that go to court result in deferred adjudication or dismissal.
Once a caseworker makes a determination that abuse does not exist, it is rare that anyone else in CPS will disagree, said attorney Judith VanHoof, who specializes in CPS cases. “Say the first time, they go out there and there’s nothing they can find that says definitively that it’s child abuse.” she said. “By the third or fourth time they go out there, they feel so liability-prone that they don’t want to do anything that invalidates the previous finding.”
The ever-more-dismal statistics on abused children led the Texas legislature, at the urging of Gov. George W. Bush last session, to allocate $1 billion for CPS in the next biennium. More money won’t do much good, however, critics say, until CPS abandons the philosophy that has driven it for nearly two years – that it is in the best interest of children to attempt to fix families, even ones in which abuse and neglect occurs.
“CPS is operating from the idea that they can rehabilitate seriously dysfunctional families, when all data says otherwise,” said Houston attorney Randy Burton, the founder of Justice for Children, an advocacy group. “The rates of recidivism are extremely high. when you’re talking about an individual who looks at a child as a sex object, or uses him as a punching bag, you don’t send those people to parenting classes. The chance for them to be rehabilitated is virtually nil.”
Justice for Children sprang from such a case. After the death of a little Houston boy and a subsequent CPS cover-up, Burton, then an assistant Harris County district attorney, called for a city-wide meeting on the problem, which eventually led to the founding of Justice for Children. The non-profit organization, which Burton calls “a kind of support network for children who are falling through the cracks,” is staffed mainly by former CPS caseworkers who grew disillusioned with the agency.
“Where you and I would see an obvious risk for further abuse, CPS sees a family in need of their wisdom and counseling,” Burton said. “Something seems to be working against common sense at CPS.”
That couldn’t be more apparent than it is in CPS’ reaction to grandparents who report abuse of their own grandchildren, critics say. When grandparents call CPS, caseworkers automatically seem to assume they are involved in a family power struggle over the children and discount their concerns.
“They’d pay more attention if I was the next-door neighbor,” says one grandfather, who has called CPS four times to report injuries to his three-year-old grandson. “When they find out I’m calling about my grandson, they automatically assume I’m trying to get even with my daughter for something. It is the most frustrating thing. All I want is to make sure she doesn’t kill him.”
Sarah Watson would agree. Watson’s two young grandsons, Curtis Nunez, 7, and Robert Nunez, 4, were killed by their parents in January 2006, on Fort Worth’s north side. Watson said she and other relatives had called CPS, concerned that the boys were being physically and sexually abused by their father. Curtis and Robert were removed from the home but were returned to their mother, Watson’s step-daughter Valree Nunez, after she agreed not to allow their abuser to come back. Soon after, police found the bodies of the boys, their mother, her husband Armando Nunez and the family German shepherd in the family car. The car had a clothes dryer hose leading from the exhaust pipe into the passenger compartment. Watson believes Robert and Curtis would be alive today if CPS hadn’t tried so hard to keep their family together.
Joe and Linda Jones are terrified that a similar fate awaits their 4-year-old granddaughter, who has told them that the grandmother she lives with ties her up and puts her in dark closets, hits her with a “blue stick” and burns her with matches. Joe and Linda, who asked that their real names not be used because they are involved in a year-long custody battle with the other grandmother, said CPS caseworkers believe they are coercing the child to tell stories. The other grandmother’s explanations of the little girl’s bumps, bruises, burns and broken teeth have been taken as gospel. “I know now what it feels like to be helpless,” Linda Jones said. “Across town that baby is being hurt and we are powerless to stop it.”
Stories like those aren’t oddities, critics say, but symptoms of a much larger problem. Other examples from the files of Justice for Children: a Fort Worth grandmother’s pleas to CPS were ignored, even after her grandchildren told case workers they had been given drugs by their parents, beaten by their crack addict father, and had feces smeared into their faces by their mother. CPS set up a plan to keep the family together. A Grand Prairie grandmother, who had custody, protested CPS’ decision to let her grandson’s abusive, crack-addicted mother have unsupervised visits with him, but the caseworker who was working to help the mother regain custody okayed it. The mother picked the baby up one afternoon and was seen heading toward Louisiana. She has not been heard from since. A grandmother from Dallas told CPS that her daughter-in-law’s new boyfriend was a drug addict who was abusing her grandson. Caseworkers said the charges were unfounded and ordered her to stay out of the young family’s affairs. A few weeks later, the baby’s body was found buried in the backyard.
“Child Protective Services would say that those cases do not meet the guidelines of child abuse,” said Kimberly Stabler, a former CPS supervisor who now works for Justice for Children. “Here are people who have children who have basically been abandoned and CPS does nothing.”
The policy of putting families ahead of children’s safety is not just social-worker happy-think or family-values rhetoric run amok, however. Until a couple of years ago, it was the law. The country has had a child abuse protection system in place for decades. By the 1980s, however, the system was collapsing under the weight of a growing caseload of druggies and the homeless. (drugs and/or alcohol are cited in 80 percent of violent child abuse cases). What was the state supposed to do with all those kids, lawmakers worried, the costs would be enormous. The answer- keep them in their own homes and offer their parents intensive support, including lots of self-help classes.
With that goal in mind, Congress passed the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980.
“The federal government offered a financial carrot to CPS to leave children with their families,” Randy Burton said. “Because the amount of money is so significant, a big bureaucracy like CPS can lose sight of the purpose and become vested in perpetualizing the system.”
As social experiment or cost-saving measure, the family-before-safety policy proved to be a dismal failure, however. In 1989, Congress adopted the Adoption Assistance and Safe Family Act, repealing the 1980 law and mandating that child safety would be the focus of child welfare agencies, nationwide. The same year, the Texas Senate issued a scathing report that in part blamed CPS’ focus on the family for the growing number of deaths from child abuse and called for a massive retraining of social workers.
The new federal law required caseworkers to remove all the children from any home in which another child had been sexually abused or slain. However, Texas child protection authorities have been slow to incorporate the law into their own policies, Burton said. “I don’t think that has trickled down at the lower levels where most of the protective workers work,” he said. “That is where a lot of people get their orientation and that sticks with them throughout their careers. Eventually, though, the state of Texas is going have to enforce the law.”
However, Meisner insists that, at least in the seven years she has been with CPS, the policy has always been to put the safety of children first. “Children are Child Protective Services first priority,” she said. “Sometimes I think we over-promise. We like to think that we can protect every child from tragedy. … In fact, we can only do our best. We simply can’t guarantee that a child won’t die.”
One look at the autopsy photos taken by the Tarrant County Medical Examiner and there are no questions about whether Maranda Bush was an abused child. Her tiny body is pale, almost bluish, making the bruises, the scrapes, the scratches, the bites, the scars of old, healed injuries – 43 marks in all – stand out starkly in contrast. Her strawberry blonde hair is sparse; most of it has been pulled out. Her arms and legs are stick-like, her bony ribs poking through. Her tummy looks swollen, and she has diaper rash. The burn scars, the abscessed wounds – on her chest, back, under her arm, on her face, on her ear lobes, under her hair – the cuts and the swollen lump where blows were delivered to her head, the bruises on her cheek bones, all tell the horror story. She has bruises around her eyes. There is an open, raw wound inside her mouth. Huge bruises cover the backs of her legs and there is a large laceration on the side of her bottom.
“Pain and torture,” her grandmother, Joyce said, blinking back tears, “are all that baby ever knew.”
Christy Wood, like her twin brother Chris, believed her brother Johnny and blamed their parents for his problems with CPS. She refused to believe Maranda had been abused until she saw the autopsy photos, Wood said. “You can’t look at those; that baby with those bruises; and not believe that something awful had been happening to her,” she said.
Apparently signs of torture weren’t enough for CPS, however. When caseworker Becky Eller heard that Maranda was dead, according to her case notes, she hurried to the McKays’ home to check on Amanda and “offer her support to Johnny and Amy.”
Eller was told by police investigators not to question the parents about Maranda’s death, but in her notes, she writes that Amy and Johnny said Amanda probably killed her baby sister when she pushed her off a parked riding lawn mower. “Amanda hits, kicks and punches Maranda when she gets into her space,” Eller’s report says.
That seemed to be enough for Eller. Amanda did it. This time the investigation wasn’t in her hands but in the hands of Arlington Police. It was going nowhere, however. Johnny and Amy refused to talk. Amanda was too little, and too scared.
On July 23, a deputy M.E. ruled the death a homicide. seeming to want to solve the case himself, however, Medical Examiner Nizam Peerwani, who was on vacation when the autopsy was performed, decided to back off that finding until he could interview the parents. On August 1, after Johnny and Amy missed the interview, Peerwani decided it was homicide. Even though asphyxiation by smothering was listed as the cause of death, the autopsy report gave a 15-hour time range when the head injury, which also would have killed her, could have occurred. Since several people had been with Maranda during that period, that left police with a possible 14 suspects. Although they suspected Johnny Bush, without an eyewitness the murder investigation was at a standstill.
Despite Maranda’s death, Eller was still trying to reunite Amanda with her parents. “Although I indicate that they have limited parenting skills, I do believe that Amy and Johnny, in particular Amy, try their best in parenting with the children,” she says in her case notes. “I believe that the limitations on their skills have as much to do with their young age as with anything else.”
Also, the injuries that had occurred so far seemed to be targeted at Maranda. Since Maranda was dead, the danger was probably gone, she says. Her recommendation? Both parents should attend parenting and anger-management classes and then Amanda could return home. That Christmas, Johnny and Amy were allowed to have Amanda for the first overnight visit since Maranda was killed.
On January 26, 1990, three-year-old Amanda went home to live with her parents. It was almost as if Maranda’s short life and death had been nothing more than a bad dream.
On July 25, 1990 – just over a year after Maranda was killed – Amber Dawn Bush was born. She was healthy, a chubby eight pounds, three ounces, and looked like her daddy, with blonde hair that had more than a hint of red from her grandma Bush’s side of the family.
A year later, on Sept. 24, 1991, their fourth daughter, Sarah Mae Bush, was born. She weighed eight pounds, five ounces, and looked like her momma.
Sometime after Amber was born, CPS’ Becky Eller was promoted to supervisor.
Caseworker Emmy Muraishi took over the case. The police investigation into Maranda’s death had unraveled but the file wasn’t closed. No charges had been filed.
Things went on as usual for Amy and Johnny: unstable jobs, no money, kids that cried and demanded attention, fights that turned into violent boxing matches.
It was Amber’s screams that woke her up, Amanda would remember later. It was May 9, 1992, and the two little girls had fallen asleep together in their twin-sized bed. Amanda lurched awake when she heard two-month-old Amber, the sister who looked so much like Maranda, crying from the living room.
Amanda jumped out of bed; she had to protect her sisters.
“It was dark,” Amanda remembered later. “Amber wasn’t in bed with me, she was on the couch and she was crying. I saw Johnny standing there looking at her.”
Amber fell out of the bed onto a toy – a busy bead, a contraption of wires with colored beads strung on them – and hurt her leg, her father told Amanda, as Amber sobbed. Once again, a baby was rushed to the hospital. Once again, CPS was called.
At Dallas-Fort Worth Medical Center in Grand Prairie, Amber was examined by Dr. W.A. Tucker, an orthopedic resident, who wrote in his report that the child had sustained a broken bone to upper part of her leg – an injury that would have been caused by a hard, direct blow. The injury was inconsistent with Johnny Bush’s story, the doctor said.
CPS caseworkers finally suspected child abuse. The three girls were removed from their parents’ custody and placed temporarily with foster parents Jim and Theresa Trusty. They later moved to the home of Felix and Nita Laura.
By May 12, Johnny and Amy had a lawyer and were campaigning to get their girls back. Amy called CPS to complain that she didn’t like the new caseworker and request that Eller be put back on the case. By that time, however, even Eller had begun to change her tune.
Eller today has moved on from CPS and could not be located for comment, but in case notes, CPS intake worker Nancy Wilson said Eller had told her that she was convinced Johnny Bush had killed Maranda, that when she had questioned him he “displayed a fake affect and asked inappropriate questions.
“Eller said that the tape of the 911 call from the morning of Maranda’s death included Amy’s voice telling Johnny to get his hands off Maranda and to get away from her, Wilson said. “Becky speculates that when [Johnny] took Maranda inside to change her diaper, he became irritated with her crying and covered her mouth,” Wilson said, in her notes. “This caused her to suffocate. Becky believes Maranda also had a skull fracture.”
According to confidential CPS reports obtained by FW Weekly, psychologists who interviewed both parents diagnosed Amy as “controlling” with a “sociopathic personality.” Both she and Johnny are described as “immature,” unable to handle stress or anger, and prone to drug and alcohol abuse. Despite all that, case files show, CPS still was amenable to reuniting the family, on the condition that Amy and Johnny complete drug and alcohol therapy, more parenting classes and more anger management classes.
In a report, dated July 9, 1993, caseworker Muraishi summed it up: “I hate to hold [the] abuse history against [the] parents as one of the main reasons for not returning the girls to them as the past is something one cannot change and one of CPS’ goals is to rehabilitate parents.”
CPS waffled. The squabble between Amy and Johnny’s relatives got worse. Everyone wanted the girls out of foster care, but no one could agree on who was fit to take them. While the family argued, however, Amanda began to talk.
“I didn’t hurt Amber,” she said, looking up at foster mother Nita Laura with serious eyes. Laura had brought the girls, at the insistence of Amanda, to visit their sister’s grave.
“I know you didn’t,” the foster mother reassured the little girl. Suddenly Amanda blurted out, “Some people said I hurt Maranda before she died, and I didn’t.”
Laura reported the incident to Muraishi, who included it in her notes. Amanda, Laura said, had been talking more and more about her baby sister and what had happened to her. Slowly but surely the wheels of justice were beginning to turn.
After months of legal wrangling, psychological exams and home studies, Joyce and Glenn Bush were approved for temporary custody on Nov. 20, 1992. On Jan. 20, 1993, the girls came to live with Glenn and Joyce. Amanda had just turned 6; Amber was two 1/2; Sarah was 16 months old.
“We had our hands full,” Joyce Bush said, smiling at the memory.
It took another year – one filled with family fights, angry confrontations and uncomfortable CPS-sanctioned visits by Johnny and Amy, the McKays and other family members – before they were granted permanent managing conservatorship of the girls. On Jan. 31, 1995, CPS closed its file on the Bush family. The following August, Glenn and Joyce filed suit against the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services and Becky Eller Pereda, who had married and changed her name, for negligence in the death of Maranda Bush.
When she got on the stand in Judge Paul Enlow’s 141st District Court, Eller Pereda’s memory about the day Maranda died had changed considerably. Johnny, she testified, “didn’t appear to be as appropriately upset about a child’s death as I would have expected him to be,” and added, “he asked me several times if I believed that he did not kill Maranda. I felt like he was afraid.”
Eller Pereda conceded that she had not told this to investigators and admitted that blaming Amanda for the murder would have been “questionable, very questionable.”
Enlow ordered CPS to turn over all of its files, an unprecedented ruling. In spite of all the evidence showing CPS had made fatal mistakes, however, the judge ruled that neither the state nor its employees could be held liable. Two years later, the state court of appeals dismissed the Bushes’ lawsuit, on the same grounds. The Texas Supreme Court upheld that ruling this June. Glenn Bush was ordered to pay $250,000 in court costs.
That wasn’t the end of the story, however. Amber’s injury had caused the police once again to cast a skeptical eye at Johnny and Amy Bush. Both parents were indicted and charged with injury to a child in Amber’s case. Later they were charged with homicide in Maranda’s murder.
In July 1997, the court approved a $475,000 wrongful death settlement against Johnny, Amy and the McKays, on behalf of the girls. Amy pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide, accepting one year’s probation in exchange for her testimony against her husband. During Johnny Bush’s trial in Judge James R. Wilson’s 371st district court, she blamed all of Maranda’s injuries on him. Amanda also testified against her father.
In December 1997, Johnny Bush was convicted of murder and sentenced to 99 years in prison. His lawyer, Ted Hall, refused to comment for this story. After the sentence was read, Johnny jumped up and declared that it was Amy who had abused and killed Maranda. Johnny’s conviction was upheld by the court of appeals.
It’s a hot summer day and the Bush sisters, Amanda, Amber and Sarah, are playing outside with a gaggle of neighborhood kids and cousins. They laugh and giggle and run in and out of the house, stopping a minute to cuddle up to their “Mama” or “Daddy,” curious about what they are saying to the reporter sitting in their living room. They seem like normal kids, taking advantage of the distraction of a visitor to try to weasel out of cleaning their bedroom.
Today, Glenn and Joyce Bush and their girls live in a pleasant Arlington duplex with a front porch for the girls to play on. The apartment is small but homey, with dozens of family photos on the wall and children’s drawings on the fridge. Maranda’s picture, the one in which she has a broken arm and faintly black eye, is there on the wall among those of the other 14 grandkids. The girls have grown into beauties, willowy with long hair in various shades of reddish brown and their mother’s delicate features. All are straight-A students. Amber, 8, doesn’t remember much about her parents; Sarah, 7, who was only 8 months old when she left, doesn’t remember anything at all. Amanda is a mature, serious-beyond-her-years 12, whose biggest worry now is the usual adolescent trauma of starting to junior high school. She remembers Maranda, though, and has vowed to keep her alive in her heart. She wrote a letter on Maranda’s birthday to the Arlington Morning News, which published it on its op-ed page.
Johnny has served almost two years of his 99-year sentence. He won’t be eligible for parole for another 12 years.Glenn has written him, promising to help with his appeal if he will tell what really happened the day Maranda died. So far, Johnny has refused. ”Don’t get me wrong,” Glenn said. “Johnny’s where he needs to be. I just think there are others who are just as guilty who need to be there, too.”
Amy is free, after serving a year in the penitentiary. Living with her parents, she has visitation rights but has not seen the girls since her release. Neither Amy nor the McKays agreed to talk for this story.
CPS never recommended severing parental rights and the court has not done so. Glenn Bush may have lost the battle against CPS, but he hasn’t surrendered. The state can throw out his lawsuit, but it can’t shut him up, he said. “It’s too late for Maranda but it’s still happenin’ out there,” he said. “Most people get disgusted and give up. Our case has been dismissed and I won’t shut up. I’m trying to get other people to realize that something has to be done to make CPS accountable.”
Glenn and Joyce still haven’t gotten over their granddaughter’s death and the events of the last 10 years. It is a common subject of conversation in their house. The family is divided. Some family members believe Johnny is covering for someone else; others still believe Maranda’s death was an accident. They blame Joyce and Glenn for putting him in prison.
“How did CPS keep my family together?” Glenn Bush asked. “Our family’s not together. My son is in prison and my granddaughter is dead.”