The State Foster Care System Has a License to Be Terrible at Licensing

On February 23, 2016, an inspector for the Department of Family and Protective Services discovered how the staff of a Children's Hope foster care facility in Levelland disciplined the kids in their care: They hit them.

The state inspector noted the violation at the facility, about 30 miles west of Lubbock, and gave Children's Hope's supervisors two months to make sure their staff stopped hitting children. 

Twenty days before the February inspection, a state worker observed that a staff member was sleeping instead of watching kids. Less than three weeks before that, an inspector noted that three storage rooms had "clothes, boxes, trash and other hazardous objects on the floor where children in care could trip and harm themselves." 

This Levelland facility, it seemed, had a knack for hiring staff with unique methods of discipline. In June 2015, a staff member took to pulling a kid's hair; in February, a staff member made the kids exercise outside, inadequately dressed for cold weather, whenever they acted up. 

The violations — all available on the department's online database — weren't just isolated to that Levelland operation. In April 2014, at Children's Hope's other Levelland facility, a staff member gave a kid a black eye, and in another incident, one worker told children to make false accusations against another worker. At this facility, kids "consistently reported that they were left in a van while two staff [members] went inside a staff's home." 

And in the Children's Hope facility in Lubbock, staff got downright creative with punishment, by making kids walk or run while holding chairs above their heads. State inspectors also observed floors smeared with feces and trash; inaccurate records for medication; bathrooms without paper towels; and staff that weren't aware that children slipped off to a bathroom to engage in "inappropriate touching."

But besides a personal investment in basic human decency, there was no real incentive for Children's Hope to get its act together; the department rarely if ever seriously sanctions residential treatment centers and group homes that make money off warehousing children. 

Which is why it seems strange that the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services is getting into the business of licensing federal detention centers for immigrants seeking asylum. As we reported earlier this week, the department has granted a provisional license to the Karnes County Residential Center, which is run by the Geo Group, a private prison company that’s seen profits soar with the rise of immigrant detention in the United States in recent years.

The detention facility must pass three unannounced inspections over six months before it can be permanently licensed, but that shouldn't be a problem. The licensing bar is low. As revealed in recent class-action litigation, the department had revoked the license of only one residential treatment center in the past five years — and that was only after four kids died.

U.S. District Court Judge Janis Jack, who issued the damning ruling that laid bare the department's indifference to thousands of children in its care, outlined the ugly history of the Daystar facility in Manvel, which had a capacity of 141 children:

Between 1993 and 2002, three teenagers died at Daystar from asphyxiation due to physical restraints. In most cases, the children were hog-tied. Beyond these deaths, there were reports of sexual abuse and staff making developmentally disabled girls fight for snacks. Numerous stakeholders, including the district attorney, spoke out against Daystar, but the facility kept its license. In November 2010, a fourth child died in what was ruled a homicide by asphyxiation due to physical restraints. Daystar’s license was still not revoked until January 2011. DFPS allowed this facility—that was responsible for four deaths, numerous allegations of sexual abuse, and unthinkable treatment of developmentally disabled children—to operate for 17 years.

A group called Grassroots Leadership has rallied against the department's licensure of immigration detention centers earlier this week. The group's executive director says, "By all reasonable measures, family detention camps are prisons. They are not child-care facilities." (Grassroots on Wednesday successfully petitioned a Travis County District Court for a temporary restraining order blocking the department from licensing another detention center. A judge will hear arguments May 13.)

But given how the department conducts business with residential treatment centers, it might be a stretch to call them child-care facilities as well. 

In 2015, Austin County Sheriff Jack Brandes filed his second complaint against the department regarding the number of runaway foster children from the Five Oaks Achievement Center. Brandes told the county commissioners' court, "We are deeply concerned for the safety of the residents that run away from this facility. Deputies have previously found runaways hiding in buildings on private property, and we’re concerned over what could happen if the owners of the properties approach the runaways, especially at night."

Five Oaks' solution?

"We are going to build a tall deer fence," Five Oaks CEO Craig Bibb told the commissioners. "The state was concerned that it could have no razor wire or barbed wire. It's going to look really nice."

Nine months after the sheriff complained to the commissioners' court, at least two more kids ran away. One stole a van. 

Apparently, Five Oaks and the department are less concerned with why so many children seem to want to get the heck out of Five Oaks, and are more concerned about penning them in like animals.

Recent inspection reports note that Five Oaks could use some fixing up. Inspectors noted cottages full of holes, and mold in a girls' bathroom. Staff fight with each other in front of kids, and sometimes swear at the kids. One staff member continually taunts kids who display self-harming behavior; it's unclear if any of these include the kid who uses the chipped "upper corners" of the restrooms to "scratch themselves."  

In 2010, a 17-year-old Five Oaks resident collapsed from heat exhaustion during a nature hike and died weeks later. A month earlier, state inspectors discovered that at least seven staff members lacked first aid and CPR certification. (Recent inspections noted that the first aid kits are missing many items, but are not lacking in expired medication.) 

Department spokesman Patrick Crimmins told the Houston Chronicle  at the time, "The children there have an established relationship with their caregivers...We feel those children are very safe." 

This is the level of safety that the children at the Karnes County Residential Center have to look forward to. 
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Contributor Craig Malisow covers crooks, quacks, animal abusers, elected officials, and other assorted people for the Houston Press.
Contact: Craig Malisow