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Forced to Fight

Workers at a center for distressed children in Manvel provoked seven developmentally disabled girls into a fight of biting and bruising, while they laughed, cheered and promised the winners after-school snacks. The fight was one of more than 250 incidents of abuse and mistreatment in residential treatment centers over the last two years, based on a Houston Chronicle/Texas Tribune review of Department of Family and Protective Services records.

By Emily Ramshaw, The Texas Tribune, and Terri Langford, Houston Chronicle
The Dystar Residential Inc. campus, in Manvel, photographed on Friday, June 4, 2010.

Workers at a center for distressed children provoked seven developmentally disabled girls into a fight of biting and bruising, while they laughed, cheered and promised the winners a precious prize: after-school snacks.

Four of the girls were injured, according to records obtained by The Texas Tribune and the Houston Chronicle. State officials learned of the incident at Daystar Residential Inc. in Manvel the day after it occurred, when a Daystar employee doing health checks found bite marks, scrapes and bruises on the girls’ bodies.

The fight was one of more than 250 incidents of confirmed abuse and mistreatment in residential treatment centers over the last two years, based on the Chronicle/Tribune review of state records.

But unlike last year’s scandal at the Corpus Christi State School, where staffers were found to have forced mentally disabled adults to fight one another, there were no impassioned calls for reform. No criminal indictments sought against the perpetrators. And no lawmakers publicly grilling a state agency about how it could have happened.

Instead, the two staffers at Daystar, a child residential treatment center located 30 minutes south of Houston, were quietly fired after the fight in 2008.

To this day, the names of the pair — a dorm supervisor and another female worker — are kept secret by the Department of Family and Protective Services, even though the center, contracted by the state to provide care, has received $16 million in taxpayer money since 2006.

“Why I’m outraged is, the department hid this from us,” said state Rep. Patrick Rose, D-Dripping Springs. “This is another example of us having to find out about systemic failures through the press, as opposed to pro-actively from the department. … We could’ve fixed this problem last session when we were addressing a very similar issue.”

Residential treatment center records reviewed by the Chronicle and the Tribune show state investigators confirmed hundreds of violations from mid-2008 through April of this year — at least 250 of them involving abuse, neglect and mistreatment. All of those centers remain in operation today.

Workers choked and punched kids to get them to behave. Children who were supposed to be supervised attempted suicide. Kids were threatened with corporal punishment and forced to strip down to their underwear so they wouldn’t run away. In some cases, residents engaged in sexual acts with peers, with staff members and, in one case, with a staffer’s relative.

In the past five years, six facilities — three of them in Houston — have been shut down or denied a license renewal. But it’s unclear exactly what triggers the closures; other facilities remain open or face no sanctions despite suicide attempts and other serious abuse incidents.

In the staged fight at Daystar in April 2008, state inspection records show the two employees gathered the seven “developmentally delayed” girls, ranging in age from 12 to 17, and forced them to fight.

DFPS investigated, confirmed the abuse and cited Daystar over several deficiencies — but didn’t put the facility on suspension or probation.

Daystar attorney John Carsey said the state’s conclusions are “misleading and frankly incorrect.” He said the company fired two female employees who failed to intervene in a shoving match between two girls — not seven — that resulted in some hair-pulling and nothing more.

“Nobody got hurt,” said Carsey, who declined to provide copies of the company’s internal investigation.

DFPS stands by its findings. “We are very disappointed in Daystar’s characterization of this very serious incident, and their criticism of our investigation,” said Sasha Rasco, DFPS’ assistant commissioner of child care licensing. “These employees staged a fight between these children, and cheered as the fight occurred. A medical examination found four of the girls were injured.”

DFPS did not revisit the fight club incident — or report it up the chain — in early 2009, when police stumbled onto cell phone videos of workers at the Corpus Christi State School forcing profoundly disabled residents to fight each other.

“Nobody ever came up from [DFPS] and told us,” said Jay Kimbrough, who was Gov. Rick Perry’s chief of staff when the Corpus Christi fight club news broke. “And 'fight club' was a magic phrase, a defined term at that point.”

The Corpus Christi fights, staged the same spring the Daystar incident occurred, brought inflamed criticism from those in the disability community, prompted Perry to place a moratorium on state school admissions, and led to the conviction of six workers on charges of injury to a disabled person.

The state poured money into the Department of Aging and Disability Services, which oversees state schools, to install security cameras and other safety measures.

DFPS “should’ve stepped up and said, ‘This is bad, this is evil, and we are holding everyone accountable,’” said Jeff Garrison-Tate, whose nonprofit Community Now! works for people with disabilities. “You think, ‘How could it get worse than the Corpus Christi fight club?’ Only in Texas could it get worse.”

Since 2006, residential treatment centers have received more than $300 million to care for the most troubled or disabled children taken into foster care. Children placed at a residential treatment center are there because basic care for them is not enough. They are likely to bear deeper emotional scars, and some, in social worker parlance, “act out, sexually.”

Others have turned to alcoholism or drug addition. Some struggle with depression or developmental disabilities.

“Each child in one of these facilities is troubled, typically with serious emotional disturbance and/or mental health issues,” explained DFPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins. “These centers are designed to provide treatment for them.”

The state contracts with about 80 residential treatment centers, nearly half of which are in the Houston area.

The state workers at the Corpus Christi State School were arrested and later convicted of felonies. DFPS officials say they referred the Daystar matter to local law enforcement. But both the Manvel Police Department and the Brazoria County Sheriff’s Office say they never received any notification.

DFPS refused to release the report it filed with law enforcement and said it couldn't prove notification was sent; the agency deletes all faxed records after 30 days.

The Chronicle/Tribune review of state inspection reports and other records revealed dozens of incidents of serious abuse and neglect, including physical beatings, and failing to report attempted suicides and allegations of sexual assault.

Unmonitored youth escaped, stole vehicles and started fires. Staff failed to report sexual contact among young kids, and provided others with alcohol and illegal drugs.

Workers punished kids with dangerous physical restraints or long periods of confinement — sometimes without their clothes. Among the incidents:

* At the Brookhaven facility in McLennan County, a child who was supposed to be monitored at all times left the room and attempted to hang himself with his shoelaces. A second child swallowed 30 psychotropic pills. Within months of those incidents, a staffer choked a child and struck him with a milk crate.

* At Houston’s Serenity residential treatment center, staffers forced residents to strip down to their boxers and take off their shoes to prevent them from running away.

* At the Avalon Center in Eddy, staff didn’t intervene when a young girl ran into the highway and yelled for oncoming traffic to hit her.

* A staffer slammed a door on a resident’s head at the Guardian Angels residential treatment center in Houston.

DFPS insists that disciplinary actions do not have to take the form of license suspensions to improve care. In the incidents above, Crimmins said three firings resulted and center policies were changed.

DFPS officials do say, however, there should have been a more elaborate investigation into the Daystar incident.

“We should have conducted more follow-up, with interviews of the children and other Daystar employees to make sure that this was an isolated incident, and to make sure that there was nothing in the prior performance of the two employees that might have indicated problems,” Crimmins said.

The fired Daystar employees’ names were added to Texas’ abuse/neglect registry, which means they shouldn’t be hired to work in direct care again.

“We believe this operation acted appropriately in response to this incident,” Crimmins said. “It is not a perfect system, but our goal is constant improvement, and to make these operations as safe as possible."

Rose, who chairs the House Human Services Committee, said he intends to make some safeguards mandatory, including forcing RTCs to pay for FBI background checks for all employees, and ordering state investigators to conduct surprise inspections within 30 days of an abuse incident.

“My office, our committee, will work to move the department in this direction immediately,” Rose said. “Unless we’re made aware of the problems, we’re left responding to them, as opposed to fixing them. Here, clearly, the department did a poor job of reporting systemic failure to the Legislature.” 

Alexa Garcia-Ditta and Rachel Kraft contributed to this report.

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