July 6, 2011 -- You can't put your children in self-storage: That's the message being given Prince and Charlomane Leonard by Texas's Child Protective Services.
The northeast Houston storage unit that the Leonards call home has 10,000 square feet—plenty of room for the parents and their six kids to roam around. It has air conditioning, beds, a bath tub, a microwave oven and two computers--among other amenities. But it lacks running water. And partly on that basis, CPS has taken custody of the couple's offspring.
"It was June 17th that they came out here," says Mrs. Leonard. "4:36 on the afternoon before Father's Day is when they took the children. I have one child who is still nursing. My son was forced to wean then and there."
Gwen Carter, a spokesperson for Child Protective Services, says all six children have been placed with family relatives. Juvenile court judge Glenn Devlin will hold a hearing Aug. 16 to determine what steps should be taken next.
The Leonards believe they are guilty not of breaking a law, only of having fallen on hard times. "We have access to running water," insists the soft-spoken Charlomane. "We get it right here at the storage facility, in a five-gallon drum."
She and her husband have worked hard, she says, to transform the storage space into a home—one far safer, she says, than the crime- and rat-ridden apartment buildings and motels where the family had lived before. Safer, too, in her opinion, than a homeless shelter. The family had been living happily in storage until a CPS investigator, responding to a tip, discovered the Leonards' solution to weathering the recession and determined it to be bad for kids. Mrs. Leonard quotes the investigator as having said, "My supervisor isn't going to like this at all."
The Texas Family Code, says Mrs. Leonard, defines physical neglect as a parent's failure to provide a child with food, clothing or shelter necessary to sustain life and health. She and her husband, she maintains, have provided all those things, notwithstanding their choice of residence. "The law doesn't say you have to have a pretty little house."
Their children, she says, "were not removed due to the breaking of any laws, but because of someone's perception of where we should reside. We are not criminals, drug abusers or child abusers, just plain old loving parents who are working hard to secure a future for our children."
Their living arrangement had the acquiescence—if not exactly the blessing—of the boat and RV storage facility's owner, Toby Hill. "He's O.K. with it," says Mrs. Leonard. "We explained the situation. He's been on hard times himself before. He understands what it is to be poor."
Happy, Well Mannered Children
Hill says that's all true. "I didn't like the situation at first," he says of the Leonards' living in his storage space. He'd had a bad experience once before, with a prior customer who tried to do the same thing. "He trashed the place, and I had to get him out." The Leonards, he says, have been a different story. "I have never seen a more happy group of children. Well-mannered. Well-kempt. Their manners are better than my kids. And I live in a rich neighborhood—just a bunch of spoiled brats here."
Before being interviewed by ABC News, Hill had not known about the Leonards' children being taken away. He thinks the lack of running water was not proper grounds for CPS's action. "You go right around the corner, practically, from where they're living, and you'll find kids living in places where you have rats and crime and drugs and guns going off all the time. But they've got water, so I guess the state deems that acceptable."
The place where he himself grew up, Hill says, had no running water. "My grandpa's property up in Livingston had no running water, just a well with a pump, and an outhouse." Growing up that way didn't do him any harm. The Leonard's housing solution, he says, "beats living on the street."
Charlomane has hope for her family's future. Prince recently graduated from community college and has been certified as a welder. They made enough money before the recession to have bought 50 acres in Liberty County, on which they hope to build a house. "We're waiting on a USDA loan," she says. "It should be finalized this week or next."