The parents of two children who were found living alone and unsupervised on an old renovated school bus in the Houston area have been granted full custody.
A judge in Conroe on Tuesday dismissed the custody case against Mark and Sherrie Shorten, who were in prison when the children were found living alone. The Shortens had left the children in the care of an aunt but she became overwhelmed.
The couple, their 12-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son, attended court to affirm the family abided by Child Protective Services requirements.
The parents were finishing 18-month terms for conspiracy to embezzle Hurricane Ike money in Louisiana when a postal carrier spotted the disheveled children last March.
The children have been back living with their parents in the renovated bus since September.
CPS Expected to Recommend Dismissing Welfare Case Against School Bus Family
Home for a Southeast Texas family is still an old school bus with no engine and no front wheels.
But child welfare officials are delighted with the commitment the parents have shown since their two young kids were discovered living there virtually unsupervised almost a year ago while their father and mother were in federal prison.
Child Protective Services officials are expected to recommend a judge dismiss the welfare agency's case against Mark and Sherrie Shorten in court Tuesday, allowing the couple to regain full custody of their 12-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son.
"That's what I've been targeting all along," Mark Shorten said.
The children are in school and the parents have complied with CPS care plans, evaluations and therapy, agency spokeswoman Gwen Carter said.
"They're doing really well and the family is doing really well," she said. "The staff is very proud of them."
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."
The family issued a statement on their website, theschoolbusfamily.com.