SPLENDORA, Texas (AP) — The parents of two young children discovered living virtually unsupervised in an old school bus in Southeast Texas had been looking forward to the prospect of regaining full custody of their kids.
Child welfare officials have said they are delighted with the commitment Mark and Sherrie Shorten have shown since their kids were found last year while the couple was in federal prison.
But the Shortens were left puzzled after Child Protective Services officials told them a court hearing Tuesday was unlikely to result in them regaining full custody of their 12-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son.
"I'm going to walk in there with an open mind," Mark Shorten said Monday night shortly after CPS officials informed him they would not receive the expected recommendation for unrestricted custody of the children.
"We've done everything we could to cooperate with these people," he said.
Agency spokeswoman Gwen Carter said last week the children had been attending school and the parents have complied with CPS care plans, evaluations and therapy.
"They're doing really well and the family is doing really well," she said. "The staff is very proud of them."
But Monday evening, she called expectations that CPS would recommend dismissal "a misunderstanding."
"It's down on the books as a regular hearing," she said. "We'll report how the family is doing and proceed from there."
Last March, a postal worker, after repeatedly spotting two disheveled children in the Montgomery County neighborhood about 35 miles northeast of Houston, became concerned and notified authorities. Welfare officials quickly arrived and placed the kids in foster care while media coverage led with images of the outwardly dilapidated bus on a trash-littered lot.
Carter said officials are accustomed to poor families living in tough conditions and while it's not illegal to live in a bus, "sadly, that was the sensational part, the condition of their living environment and they were left there all day."
"Let's be blunt," Mark Shorten said. "Once I saw pictures on the news and read the full story, I was glad somebody pulled my children out of that mess. Both of them suffered through that mess."
At the time, Shorten and his wife were in separate federal prisons both serving 18 months for convictions for conspiracy to embezzle money from victims of Hurricane Ike, which struck in 2008. They had arranged for their children to be supervised by an aunt, who told authorities she became overwhelmed between working 12-hour days and trying to care for them.
"There was a lot of emotional and mental anguish put on the kids," said Sherrie Shorten, who was released from prison several weeks after the children were removed. "And that's what we were upset about."
Her husband was released in July and their children were returned to them, under CPS supervision, in September.
"My main focus when I got home was getting my kids back home," Mark Shorten said. "And I did that. Life's as good as it's going to get at the moment but we're trying to make it better."
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, where the trash has been cleared and items outside, like a lumber pile, are neatly stacked.
"We'd still like to (build), but we have some restrictions," said Sherrie Shorten, who with her husband is on supervised federal release for three years and also looking at more than $100,000 in court-ordered restitution. "We have a lot of issues rebuilding our lives and getting back on track."
Mark Shorten maintains neither he nor his wife, an accountant, were guilty.
"I don't want to sound like somebody who is bitter and mad, because I'm not," he said. "We're trying to move forward."