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Forced to Fight, Continued

Texas officials have halted the placement of foster care children at Daystar and have assigned the Houston-area residential treatment center a state monitor following revelations of a staff-instigated “fight club” incident two years ago and a new incident that has come to light this past week: a possible sexual assault of a girl living at the facility.

By Emily Ramshaw, The Texas Tribune, and Terri Langford, Houston Chronicle
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Texas officials have banned the placement of foster care children at a Houston-area residential treatment center and assigned a state monitor to oversee care following revelations of a staff-instigated “fight club” incident two years ago and recent allegations of sexual abuse.

In other incidents at Daystar Residential Inc. in Manvel, a child’s arm was broken and another attempted suicide, Texas Department of Family and Protective Services records show.

“Clearly, this is a troubled facility that needs immediate improvement,” said DFPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins.

The 2008 incident, in which seven developmentally disabled girls were provoked into a fight by two Daystar staffers, was one of 250 serious abuse incidents at residential treatment centers in the past two years, according to a review of DFPS records by The Texas Tribune and the Houston Chronicle published on June 6.

Five days later, DFPS, after meeting with Gov. Rick Perry’s staff, notified Daystar officials by phone and by letter that all new foster care placements to the facility have been halted in part because of the 2008 fight club episode. Daystar’s suspension is also tied to at least three new serious abuse incidents, including a possible sexual assault, that have been reported at the facility in the week since the Tribune/Chronicle story appeared.

“This suspension is based on the serious concerns of DFPS after considering recent Residential Child Care Licensing investigations and for the safety and well-being of children placed with Daystar Residential Inc.,” wrote Heather Shiels, director of DFPS contracts, to Daystar executive director Cal Salls.

Calls to Salls and Daystar’s attorney were not returned on Monday. The state contracts with the privately owned Daystar to care for distressed children and teens.

DFPS also will assign Daystar a “service monitor” to watch over the care of the children already living at the center — only the second time in its history that the agency has turned to a monitor. The only other time was in 2005, also in a matter involving Daystar. Further details about what prompted the 2005 monitor were not available.

In the April 24, 2008 incident, a Daystar supervisor and another worker told the girls — ages 12 to 17 — to fight one another, promising the winners after-school snacks. At least four of the girls suffered bite marks, bruises and scratches and the employees were fired, according to records.

DFPS Commissioner Anne Heiligenstein, who did not mention the latest allegations when she spoke to a Tribune reporter Monday, said the agency is doing a “very thorough review” of all the children at Daystar in light of the fight club incident.

“We have a very heavy presence in any [treatment center] already,” she said. “But on that one, as we’re doing our review, we are pausing in placing additional children in Daystar.”

No children will be sent to Daystar until she has all the information she needs, and is “totally satisfied in terms of what is happening in that facility.”

“I just want time to be able to do a very thorough review,” she said.

Later Monday, the Tribune/Chronicle learned of other recent abuse episodes at Daystar, including four violations relating to an “inappropriate relationship” between a Daystar employee and a female resident in 2009. The resident has left the center and moved to California. She did, however, notify San Bernardino County authorities, who then contacted DFPS in January.

Crimmins said the agency was asked not to investigate the matter until California authorities completed their examination. In May, DFPS officials were told they could proceed. But the criminal probe has been transferred to the Brazoria County Sheriff’s Office.

Currently, 55 foster care children reside at the 141-capacity Daystar, located 30 minutes outside of Houston. It receives about $3 million a year from DFPS to care for troubled, abused children who exhibit significant behavior problems.

“We have directed DFPS to take whatever measures necessary to ensure these children are in a safe environment,” said Perry spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger. “We expect them to keep us and lawmakers informed of this and any other issues as they arise.”

The House Human Services Committee will review abuse and neglect at state-contracted residential treatment centers at a June 30 meeting.

DFPS has refused to release the names of the fired Daystar staffers because they are not state employees.

Dennis Borel, executive director of the Coalition of Texans With Disabilities, said sending a monitor and halting Daystar admissions is not enough.

“Given the extent and seriousness of this abuse, it's totally inadequate,” he said. “This is their opportunity to really make a statement, that abuse of Texas children in any facility will not be tolerated. I’d shut them down.”

Tribune reporter Allen Reed contributed to this story.


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