A single father in Fort Worth is fighting for the return of his two young children after he claims a couple befriended him, offered to help take care of the kids while he was in poor health — and then filed court papers seeking permanent custody.
"It's miserable,” Lynn Wooley said of life without Preston, 3, and Ashealyn, 4. "It just tears me apart."
Wooley, 54, said he befriended Dr. Ben Covington and his wife Lori, who run a Christian ministry.
With the children's mother out of the picture, Wooley said he needed assistance caring for the children and the Covingtons seemed sincere and friendly and offered to help.
"We'll take one of the children over the weekend and give you a little time if that's OK with you," he quoted them as saying after they met in 2015. "We want to help."
He said he agreed to the help, which led to financial support like paying rent and buying diapers.
Wooley said last October he needed more assistance because of serious health issues, so the kids started staying with the couple even more frequently.
After back surgery and two months of recovery, Wooley said he asked for his kids back.
That's when the Covingtons served him with court papers seeking custody of both children, he said.
"I said, 'I can't believe it,'" Wooley said. "These people have been my friends. I've never seen people do stuff like this and say they're your friends."
In court papers, the Covingtons argued that the children had moved in with them, to the point they had actual care, control and possession of the children for six months.
That's important because, if true, it would give them legal standing to ask a judge for custody -- and to revoke Wooley's parental rights.
But Wooley's attorney, Jim Ross of Arlington, is fighting back.
"Our position is, it's pretty clear that there wasn't a relinquishment of parental rights by Mr. Wooley," Ross said. "He didn't stop seeing the children. He didn't stop being the father. He accepted an offering hand from a couple who said, 'You're going through some hard times, let us help you out.'"
Wooley is poor, disabled, and an ex-con. He served 23 years in prison for a 1985 armed robbery in which a store clerk was shot.
"Lynn is not perfect," Ross said. "He has made his mistakes and he has owned them. But what he really is now is a loving, caring father, who's doing the absolute best he can to take care of his children."
Ross said the Covingtons seemed to have the best intentions to give Wooley a helping hand at first.
"And somehow this thing spiraled out of control to where now they are seeking custody of his children," he said.
The Covingtons declined to be interviewed and referred questions to their attorney, David Kulesz of Arlington, who released a statement.
The statement noted Wooley recently signed court papers granting the couple temporary custody, adding that he requested that the couple be "primary caretakers" for the children several years ago.
"The Covingtons have always acted in the children's best interest and will continue to do so," the statement said. "The pleadings of this case and the reasons the children needed to be protected in the first place are matters of public record."
An affidavit from Lori Covington, a retired nurse, portrayed Wooley as an unfit father with a criminal record, health and mobility issues, and "erratic and belligerent" behavior.
Wooley said he agreed to give the couple temporary custody only so the judge would grant him visitation rights.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the Covingtons were seeking to terminate Wooley’s parental rights. In fact, they are seeking managing conservatorship, which would give them primary parental rights, including the ability to decide where the kids will live.