HOUSTON—More than 250 incidents of confirmed abuse and mistreatment, including beatings and sexual abuse allegations, have occurred in the last two years at residential treatment centers that care for some of the most troubled or disabled children in Texas, two news organizations in Texas are reporting.
A review of state inspection reports and other records obtained by the Houston Chronicle and The Texas Tribune, an online news site, revealed dozens of incidents of serious abuse and neglect, including workers choking and punching kids to get them to behave, kids being threatened with corporal punishment and forced to strip down to their underwear so they wouldn’t run away and unreported sexual contact among children at the facilities or between kids and staff members.
In an April 2008 incident, workers at Daystar Residential Inc., provoked seven developmentally disabled girls, ranging in age from 12 to 17, into a fight of biting and bruising while they laughed, cheered and promised the winners after-school snacks.
Four of the girls were injured.
The incident was reminiscent of last year’s scandal at the
Corpus Christi State School, where staffers were found to have forced mentally disabled adults to fight one another.
Six workers at the Corpus Christi facility were convicted on charges of injury to a disabled person.
The incident prompted Gov. Rick Perry to place a moratorium on state school admissions, led to calls for reform and resulted in more money for the Department of Aging and Disability Services, which oversees state schools, to install security cameras and other safety measures.
But the incident at the Daystar facility, located in Manvel near Houston, stayed under the radar, with two staffers whose names were not made public being quietly fired.
Officials with the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, which oversees these treatment centers, said 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 got any notification.
"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 proactively from the department We could’ve fixed this problem last session when we were addressing a very similar issue."
DFPS officials say they confirmed the abuse and cited Daystar over several deficiencies—but didn’t put the facility on suspension or probation. They admit there should have been a more elaborate investigation.
"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," said DFPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins.
Daystar attorney John Carsey said the state’s conclusions are "misleading and frankly incorrect." He called the incident a shoving match between two girls—not seven—that only resulted in some hair-pulling.
"Nobody got hurt," said Carsey, who declined to provide copies of the company’s internal investigation.
DFPS officials stand by their findings and say they are disappointed at Daystar’s characterization of the incident.
All of the centers which had their records reviewed by the Houston Chronicle and The Texas Tribune remain in operation today.
DFPS insists that disciplinary actions do not have to take the form of license suspensions to improve care.
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 a shut down.
Since 2006, the treatment centers have received more than $300 million to care for the most troubled or disabled children taken into foster care. The Daystar facility has received $16 million in taxpayer money.
The state contracts with about 80 of these centers, nearly half of which are in the Houston area.
"It is not a perfect system, but our goal is constant improvement, and to make these operations as safe as possible," said Crimmins.
Rose, who chairs the House Human Services Committee, said he intends to make some safeguards mandatory.
"Here, clearly, the department did a poor job of reporting systemic failure to the Legislature," Rose said.