Children in Foster Care Residential Treatment Centers at High Risk of Neglect, Mistreatment and Abuse
By: By Houston Criminal Attorney John Floyd and Paralegal Billy Sinclair
In a 2002 article for Child Trends, Dr. Richard Werthheimer, Ph.d, said there were more than 556,000 children in foster care in this country—many of whom suffered from serious emotional, behavioral, developmental, and other health problems. That figure represented an increase from 302,000 in 1980. While black children at the time accounted for 15 percent of the nation’s children, they represented 30 percent of those entering foster care and 42 percent of those living in foster care. Hispanic children, who represented 16 of the nation’s children, represented just 18 percent entering and living in foster care.
By 2006, as some states began to reform their foster care systems, the number of children in foster care decreased to 510,000, but the prognosis for future success of those children was as bleak as it was in 2002 – 60 percent of them between ages two months and two years were at still at a high risk for developmental delay and neurological impairment. The number of those “aging out” of foster care was increasing and studies were consistently showing that these “aged out” children had serious adjustment problems transitioning to adulthood: 38 percent had emotional problems, 50 percent used drugs, 48 percent did not have a high school education, and 25 percent had prior involvement with legal system. They were the most likely candidates for homelessness, unemployment, and incarceration.
To combat this persistent trend, states like New York, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, New Jersey, and Ohio began to make concerted efforts to reform their foster care systems, to aggressively push for adoption over institutionalization—and with significant, albeit surprising results. Associated Press reported recently that the number of children in foster care through 2008 had declined to 463,000, thanks in large part to the reforms implemented by these seven states. That represented an 11 percent decrease in the foster care population since 2002. Of these states implementing reforms, Florida led the way by reducing its foster care population from 29,300 in 2006 to 18,700 as of June 2010. AP said Florida accomplished this by “obtaining a statewide waiver from federal funding rules. This allows federal foster care money to be used for a variety of child welfare initiatives rather than being limited to out-of-home care – enabling the state to support troubled families with economic aid, parenting classes and substance abuse so a child doesn’t need to be removed.”
Texas, along with Arizona, Nevada, and Indiana, chose not join the reform trends between 2002 and 2008, although Texas did make some strides in reducing its foster care population. As of 2005, Texas had 32,474 children in foster care, by 2008 the number had minimally decreased only to 31,058, but by 2009 the number had decreased significantly to 27,422. As impressive as the 2009 numbers may appear at first glance, Texas nonetheless saw a 45 percent increase in its foster care population since 2001. Worst yet, as of September 2006, the state had identified 3,409 of its foster care children as having “special needs,” second only to California. And all these figures must be measured against the disturbing fact that in 2009 Texas saw 280 of its children die from child abuse and neglect—a shocking 30 percent increase over the previous year.
It is unfortunate, and tragically poignant, to have to observe that the State of Texas under the administrations of Gov. Rick Perry has not been very kind and caring to its most vulnerable children. Because the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (“DFPS”) found itself having a difficult time placing foster care children with special needs in either adoption or in or group home care, the agency adopted a strategy of “farming them out” to “residential treatment centers” operated by private companies. According to a study by the Houston Chronicle and the Texas Tribune, the agency has pumped $300 million in taxpayer dollars into 80 private run residential treatment centers since 2006, with half of them located in the Houston area alone.
And what kind of bang for its buck has the DFPS gotten from these private run facilities? A boat load of criminal abuse, neglect, and mismanagement—all common characteristics associated with state contracts given to the “private sector” to handle a state’s human services needs—whether with adult/juvenile penal institutions or foster care residential treatment centers. The private sector has one overriding concern: profit, even at the expense of human decency. The companies who actively pursue these state contracts (most often through insider political connections) hire the least trained and most corrupt personnel to manage and supervise their facilities. It is arguable that the very dregs of society are drawn to employment in these facilities because of the opportunities for human abuse and corruption they offer.
And that’s precisely what the recent Chronicle/Tribune study found. The newspapers reviewed state inspection reports and other records only to find “dozens of incidents of serious abuse and neglect, including physical beatings and failing to report attempted suicides and allegations of sexual assault … Unmonitored youths 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.”
Particularly disturbing was the newspapers’ finding that between June 2008 and April 2010 there were at least 250 incidents of staff violations involving neglect, abuse or other mistreatment of the children in the private run residential treatment centers. These incidents included staffers punching and choking children to get them to behave while allowing other children under “suicide watch” to be left unsupervised. A number of the children engaged in sexual activity with each other, with staff, and, in one instance, with the relative of a staffer.
At one facility 30 miles south of Houston in Manvel, Brazoria County, which is operated by Daystar Residential, Inc., employees in the spring of 2008 forced seven girls with developmental disabilities to gang fight while the staff “laughed, cheered and promised the winners a precious gift: after-school snacks,” according to the Chronicle/Tribune. The brawl resulted in four of the girls being injured. The fight came to the attention of authorities only after a Daystar employee saw bite marks and bruises on the girls during routine health checks and reported it.
While DFPS conducted a secret investigation and did not notify outside authorities, the Brazoria County District Attorney’s office did not seek a criminal indictment in this case once the incident became public as the Corpus Christi District Attorney’s office did last year upon discovery that 11 employees at the State School there forced mentally disabled adults to fight each other. The only action against the Daystar employees was that two employees (a female employee and a dorm supervisor) were dismissed shortly after the staged gang fight was exposed. The Chronicle/Tribune reported DFPS has kept the employees’ names secret, even though taxpayers have paid Daystar $16 million through the agency since 2006.
This arrogant official secrecy infuriated at least one Texas lawmaker. “Why I’m outraged is, the department hid this from us,” state Rep. Patrick Rose, D-Dripping Springs, told the Chronicle/Tribune. “This is another example of us having to find out about systematic 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.”
The “very similar issue” referred to by Rep. Rose was the Corpus Christi State School incident. It is probably not a coincidence that the Manvel incident involving the staged gang fight occurred during the same time as the Corpus Christi incident—such “fight club” episodes had obviously become popular in these kinds of facilities housing the mentally disabled. And had the local police not stumbled upon a video of one of the rights on the cell phone of a Corpus Christi State School employee, these “fight clubs” would have never been disclosed to the public even if discovered by DFPS because of that agency’s policy of secrecy.
“Nobody ever came up from (DFPS) and told us,” Jay Kimbrought, Gov. Perry’s chief of staff at the time of the Corpus Christi incident, told the Chronicle/Tribune. “And ‘fight club’ was a magic phrase, a defined term at that point.”
Rep. Rose now believes the Legislature’s House Human Services Committee should implement mandatory safeguards mandatory at foster care residential treatment centers to prevent future “fight club” incidents. One of those safeguards would be a “surprise inspection” at any facility where there is a reported incidence of abuse.
“My office, our committee, will work to move the department (DFPS) in this direction immediately,” Rose told the Chronicle/Tribune. “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.”
Earlier this year we reported that “violence is a natural growth industry” in this country—and that holds especially true in Texas where its state agencies make the abuse and neglect of the most vulnerable of its citizens a common practice, particularly those who are disabled, elderly, young, or imprisoned. The abuse consistently inflicted upon juveniles in state-run facilities and upon “special needs” foster care children in private “residential treatment centers” are breeding a future crop of very violent predators. The savings of one dollar today on the proper care and treatment of the state’s most vulnerable young will cost its taxpayers ten dollars tomorrow in court and prison costs to handle the violent harvest those savings will inevitably produce.
Our children are our future—and if we don’t love and care for the most vulnerable and least advantaged among them, then we will reap a bountiful harvest of violence, crime, homelessness, and poverty once they become adults. It is often said that a child sexually abused will grow up to sexually abuse other children. Likewise, a child brutalized will grow up seeking revenge, conscious or unconscious, against the very system that brutalized him/her. Too many Texans invest in BP and AIG, and waste valuable resources on luxuries, the latest fashion, the best meals, and entertainment, but cannot find a penny of concern for those either too young or too old and too disabled to help themselves. God forgive us.