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A Death at Daystar

The same Houston-area residential treatment center where staffers forced disabled girls to fight each other — prompting child welfare officials to halt admissions and hire a safety monitor — is now under fire for the asphyxiation of a 16-year-old boy who died Friday after a restraint was applied by a staffer in a closet.

By Emily Ramshaw, The Texas Tribune, and Terri Langford, Houston Chronicle
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An emotionally troubled 16-year-old living in a Manvel residential treatment center died after a restraint was applied in a closet by a staffer — just four days after the home was placed on probation by the state, The Texas Tribune and the Houston Chronicle have learned.

Michael Keith Owens’ death on Friday night occurred after a Daystar Residential Inc. staff worker tried to physically restrain him. The teen, who had been in state foster care since 2008, fell unconscious, and staff summoned the Brazoria County Sheriff’s Office for help.

By the time Owens arrived at Memorial Hermann in Houston, about 25 miles away, he was dead. The initial cause of death appears to be asphyxiation.

“We are extremely saddened by Michael’s death,” Department of Family and Protective Services Commissioner Anne Heiligenstein said in a written statement. “He was in our care, and he obviously was in need of the best care possible. We are going to do everything we can to find out exactly what happened and if this death was, in any way, preventable.”

“We also are disappointed to be looking, yet again, at Daystar," Heiligenstein said. "We are going to ensure that this facility improves, quickly. Or, we are going to close it.”

It had been a tumultuous last week for Owens. He was removed by police from Manvel High School after striking an educator on Nov. 1, said Shirley Brothers, a spokeswoman for the Alvin Independent School District. He spent the next four days at the Brazoria County Detention Center in Angleton before a Daystar staffer drove him back to Manvel on Friday.

Preliminary police interviews, according to Brazoria County Sheriff’s Investigator Ronnie Falks, suggest Owens was upset that his radio was gone when he returned to Daystar and became unruly, prompting a staffer to try physical restraints. “There was a struggle inside a closet,” Falks said.

Daystar’s attorney, John Carsey, told the Tribune he hadn’t heard about Friday’s incident. “That’s news to me,” Carsey said. Calls for further comment were not returned.

As Owens’ death surfaced on Monday, the agency that supervised his care, DFPS, told the Chronicle and the Tribune that it had placed Daystar on probation four days earlier. “Several days before the death, on November 1, DFPS informed Daystar management that the facility would be placed on probation because of persistent concerns about the facility and the children in its care,” an agency statement read.

DPFS officials released a report by a Daystar monitor who was after hired by the state after a Tribune/Chronicle investigation in June found some 250 abuse incidents at residential treatment centers, including one in 2008 in which Daystar staffers encouraged girls to fight one another. Following the Tribune/Chronicle story, DFPS suspended new placements at Daystar, which is paid by taxpayers to care for some of the state’s most troubled foster care children.

The monitor, Jeff Enzinna, who was paid $43,691 for his approximate 90 days of observation, left the facility two months ago. In his Sept. 2 report, Enzinna noted shortcomings with children’s care and pointed out the reliance on restraints. “From reviewing incoming documentation,” Enzinna wrote, “my impression was there was a frequent use of emergency personal restraint and emergency medications.”

Enzinna also noted that Daystar relied upon a one-size-fits-all type of treatment for children at the facility. “Based upon chart reviews, the treatment plans for behavior problems are essentially the same for all clients,” Enzinna wrote.

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, the Laredo Democrat who has repeatedly filed unsuccessful anti-restraint bills, called Friday’s Daystar death “horrifying and heartbreaking.” She said she’s already prefiled a bill this session to dramatically reduce use of restraints in Texas’ state-supported living centers but will soon expand the legislation to include residential treatment centers.

“A restraint is like a hog-tie,” Zaffirini said. “But somehow this issue doesn’t seem to get on the radar screen until there’s a tragedy.”

The state has 1,600 children living in about 80 residential treatment centers across the state, nearly half of them in the Houston area. Since 2006, the centers have received more than $300 million to care for the most troubled or disabled children taken into foster care.

“These really aren’t places we should be entrusting the children the state of Texas has taken responsibility for caring for,” said Mary Christine Reed, an attorney and director of the Texas Foster Youth Justice Project. “I hear stories all the time about restraints being used for a routine disciplinary situation.”

A spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry, Katherine Cesinger, would not comment on the state’s ongoing investigation, but the governor’s office has directed DFPS to immediately take any necessary actions to ensure the safety of the other residents at Daystar. “Despite the state’s efforts over the past couple of years to improve the safety net for children in foster care, the governor is concerned about the continuing incidents involving death and injuries to children in foster care,” Cesinger said.

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