Why Is It that No One Seems to Be Responsible When a 13-Year-Old in State Care Says She's Been Raped?
Her foster mother's boyfriend — the teen girls in the house knew him as "Mr. D" — was celebrating New Year's Eve 2012 by having sex with one of the girls in the back of the Missouri City foster home. All the girls knew. None of the girls talked.
Thirteen-year-old Kim — we'll give her a pseudonym — had trouble with her foster mom. Laura Davis, she said, threatened to have the other girls whip her ass if she got out of line. So it didn't take much when another girl came to Kim a few weeks after New Year's with a plan to run away. The girl, Tanya (also a pseudonym), had done it before.
Another girl who used to live in the Davis home says Kim and Tanya split when Davis was shepherding the girls into the van for Bible study. Kim and Tanya just booked it. She says Davis told the other girls to go after them and bring them back, but the absconders were too fast.
According to the lawsuit, which wouldn't be filed for another year and a half, Mr. D — tall, dark, bald — found the girls. They got into his car and drove to a Scottish Inn off Highway 6, where Mr. D "sequentially" raped them. But it was all a preamble. The suit claims that the man "took the girls to meet with 4 or 5 other gentlemen who proceeded to rape both girls, sodomizing them and throwing them out of the vehicle in the late hours of the evening." They were allegedly "rescued by residents in the community."
After two weeks in the Harris County Psychiatric Center, where, her lawyer says, she got no help, Kim was returned to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services/Children's Protective Services. The department impeded police access to Kim, according to the suit, filed in early September by Kim's aunt and uncle on Kim's behalf against Davis and a company called America's Angels, which placed foster children with Davis. No response to the lawsuit has yet been filed.
"There was so much that wasn't done in this case it is pitiful," the lawyer, Troy Wilson, told the Houston Press in an e-mail. "As long as she was in CPS care they saw no sense of urgency for doing anything for this child. During the entire time she was with them, she saw a therapist for 15 minutes total about this situation."
A CPS investigator subsequently cleared Davis, who did not return numerous voice mails from the Press left for her and her adult daughter, who also lived with her mother.
America's Angels' executive director, Uneeda Newsome-Talley, told the Press that on the night of the alleged gang rape, Kim was no longer her company's responsibility. America's Angels looks at it this way: At the time Kim was allegedly being sodomized by a group of men, who then discarded her like a spent cigarette, she had been "properly discharged." Someone may have been in charge of Kim, but it sure wasn't America's Angels.
Kim's allegations highlight a concern that the Department of Family and Protective Services doesn't exert enough oversight of licensed child-placement agencies and that there's a lack of consequences for violating state requirements.
The majority of children in the state's foster care system — about 90 percent — are placed in homes via child-placement agencies. These agencies are responsible for recruiting, vetting and training foster parents, as well as for monitoring foster homes every 30 days. The agencies are regulated through the department's residential child-care licensing division. According to the Texas Family Code, employees of child-placement agencies who suspect a child is being abused by "a person responsible for the care, custody, or welfare" of the child must report the suspected abuse directly to the Department of Family and Protective Services. The department must then notify the appropriate law enforcement agency. However, the employee may also report the suspected abuse directly to law enforcement, in addition to notifying the department.
A former America's Angels employee told the Press that case managers at a child-placement agency should expect their director to take their concerns seriously and notify state investigators or otherwise deal with foster parents accordingly. When that system fails, case managers are in an uncomfortable position: "Who can we tell?" she said. "All we can do is call in an investigation and report the concerns, but it's like we're calling the investigation on ourselves."
If you ask America's Angels' attorney, Anthony Goodall, what kind of operation 38-year-old Newsome-Talley runs, he'll tell you it's a good one. In fact, you don't even have to ask him. All you need to do is start asking employees about a lawsuit, and he'll emerge from the shadows.
"We do not intend to stand idly by [while you] bully" the employees, Goodall scolded in an e-mail. He then kindly suggested that the real story is about a couple of gold diggers and a shyster ganging up on a reputable organization. After all, the plaintiffs are seeking no less than $6 million in damages.
Goodall explained in an e-mail that America's Angels "is a well-run, well-managed foster care agency and has done nothing to deserve either the claims against it in the lawsuit nor the bad press it has received..."
It's kind of an odd thing to say about a company that, according to online CPS records, has a two-year history of not conducting background checks on frequent visitors, and in the past four months alone has been cited for failure to renew background checks for foster parents; for hiring an employee who doesn't meet minimum education requirements; and for failure to renew an expired background check on the company's director herself. (Newsome-Talley has a clean record; her husband — who is not involved with America's Angels — was sentenced to ten years in prison for aggravated robbery in 1995 and to six months in jail for unlawfully carrying a weapon in 2007.)
In January 2012, the company was cited for not reporting a runaway within 24 hours; in July of that year, an investigator's notes state that a "foster mother spoke to foster children regarding the investigation in the presence of the Investigator before the children were interviewed. Two children refused to speak to the Investigator as a result [sic]." (According to the DFPS Web site, CPS personnel evaluated "5,913 standards" for America's Angels over the past two years and found only 51 deficiencies.)
Newsome-Talley created America's Angels in 2011 after stints with other foster care-related agencies. (It's difficult to verify aspects of her job history; an online profile lists her as a former program director for a defunct child-placement agency called Brighter Visions; ex-employees at America's Angels say she was a family home developer for two other placement agencies.) She also held the position of "area director" for Lutheran Social Services of the South, which she unsuccessfully sued in late 2010 for discrimination.
According to the suit, filed in a Houston federal court, Newsome-Talley was forced to resign in 2008 after receiving "numerous written disciplinary actions" that she believed were unjustified. The case was ultimately dismissed, and a lawyer for Lutheran Social Services would not disclose the nature of the violations to the Press.
In order to become a licensed child-placement administrator, Newsome-Talley had to submit handwritten recommendations from three references; show that she had at least one year of management or supervisory experience in child placement; have either a master's or doctoral degree, or a bachelor's degree with at least two years of experience; pass a criminal background check; and pass a multiple-choice test. (The Press requested all "procurement" documents related to Newsome-Talley's application process, but a CPS spokesman could not make the records available in time for this story.)
Former America's Angels employees told the Press that Newsome-Talley often chose her friends and associates for foster parents, sometimes against the recommendations of employees. (The ex-employees interviewed for this story said they left America's Angels for different reasons; one was fired, the others say they left of their own accord. They all had experience in the field.)
These ex-employees also claimed that some of the foster families Newsome-Talley worked with at subsequent placement agencies followed her whenever she moved. One ex-employee called such families "hoppers."
"They're at one agency and then they leave and go to another agency," the ex-employee said.
With this stable of supporters, Newsome-Talley formed America's Angels and contracted with the Department of Family and Protective Services for more than $1 million to guard the safety and well-being of the state's most vulnerable. Then she posted a sweet pic of her new Mercedes on Facebook.
Laura Davis, 52 and chronically unemployed, was one of Newsome-Talley's approximately 25 foster parents. In a 2005 bankruptcy filing, Davis claimed to be disabled; she and her then-16-year-old daughter were scraping by on $818 a month from the government. The year before, she had divorced her husband while he was in prison for being a felon in possession of a firearm. He had only recently been released from a yearlong sentence to Harris County Jail for perforating a female friend's face with a screwdriver in the presence of Davis's daughter.
Fostering provided a decent safety net for Davis and her daughter; according to America's Angels' initial contract with DFPS, foster parents received per diem payments of anywhere from $22 to $88 per child, depending on their needs. (According to former employees, Davis treated the girls fairly and kept a clean house.)
When Newsome-Talley told the Press that Kim had been "properly discharged" and was no longer America's Angels' responsibility on the night of the alleged gang rape, she may have meant that she had fulfilled the minimum state requirements. According to DFPS spokeswoman Julie Moody, if a child 13 years old or older goes missing from a foster home, the foster parent or someone with the child-placement agency must notify a state licensing representative within 24 hours but is not required to notify police. Once that's complete, the child is placed on "runaway status," and the placement agency no longer receives a payment for that child.
After 24 hours, Kim was simply no longer a revenue stream.
It's unclear why Kim was in the state's care in the first place. Custody records are confidential, and the family's lawyer is guarded.
According to Wilson, CPS removed Kim from her biological parents when she was seven and placed her directly with her aunt and uncle, who became her adoptive parents. Things get sketchy from there.
Wilson explained in an e-mail that he has known Kim's adoptive parents for "several years" and claims "they were victims of a bureaucratic system that too often allows personality to drive their actions. These folk[s] stepped up to the plate and adopted this child and her brothers when no one else would have."
But Wilson also tells a convoluted story of CPS pulling Kim and her brothers from the home for no good reason, only to promptly return them, and of Kim's parents then developing "life-threatening" health concerns and being unable to care for the kids on their own.
"Having been instructed by the judge to contact CPS if they ever needed help with the children, they did during this time and were told to bring the children to the [CPS Youth Services Center] and they would help them. To their surprise, the help they got was CPS filing another action and taking the kids from the home."
The lack of a criminal investigation is also puzzling, and something Wilson cannot entirely explain.
"While the child was in CPS care, there was no way we could do much of anything," the e-mail continues. "We constantly stayed on CPS to pursue criminal charges on the child's behalf. I personally provided the information to the officer who was handling the matter. He needed to interview the child. According to him, CPS never made the child available to him. During more than one hearing, I personally raised their failure to pursue this matter..."
Of course, the amount of time that has passed since the alleged incident doesn't help the plaintiffs. Some of the time lapse is due to Kim herself and the inability of a 13-year-old girl to process the trauma; according to Wilson, her fragile state led to the delay in filing the lawsuit.
"When she returned to her [aunt and uncle], I arranged an interview with the officer. I was not there, but according to the officer she was so disturbed that she was unable or unwilling to talk about the incident," Wilson told the Press in an e-mail. "I spoke with her and knew her story, but she said she just wanted it to go away. I told her that when she felt ready to talk and proceed to let me know. One day, [in October 2012], she told me that she was ready to talk and ready to move forward."
While Wilson says a police officer interviewed Kim, he says he's unsure if the police interviewed Davis. As of this writing, he has been unable to identify the elusive Mr. D.
A girl who lived with Davis for six months when she was approximately 17 told the Press that Davis treated her better than some other foster parents she had had, and gave the girls allowances and took them out to dinner as rewards for doing all their chores and school work. The girl said Davis's boyfriend did come over, but the couple always stayed in the bedroom, and he was never alone with any of the girls. She said she doesn't believe Kim's story but couldn't elaborate on why Kim would lie.
The girl had moved out by the time a former employee of America's Angels questioned the residents of Davis's house about Mr. D, but the ex-employee said the two remaining girls said Davis never had a man inside the house. They described a man who would sometimes come over and work on Davis's van, but he always stayed outside, and he never interacted with the girls.
"I asked Miss Davis first, and Miss Davis was like, 'I don't have a boyfriend.' She said she had like a friend or whatever, [but] she said, 'He's never been in my house, and he's never met these girls.' And I said, 'Okay.' But of course I went and asked the girls, you know, off to the side, without her...and both of those girls told me that they didn't know anything about Miss Davis having a boyfriend."
Curiously, there is no evidence the two girls who had already left Davis's house, and who were therefore not dependent on her good graces, were ever questioned by anyone from America's Angels about Mr. D.
Davis has since left America's Angels and is fostering for another Houston agency.
On March 5, 2012, a CPS licensing investigator sent Newsome-Talley a letter stating that America's Angels "was recently investigated" because CPS had received a report "concerning possible deficiency or deficiencies of the Minimum Standard Rules or the law."
According to ex-employees interviewed for this story, Newsome-Talley would already have been aware of an investigation. Which is a fundamental part of the problem.
One former employee said that, while CPS investigators may not notify foster parents before a visit, they will notify the head of a child-placement agency, operating under the perfectly reasonable belief that the foster parent isn't too close with the placement agency director.
For its part, the Department of Family and Protective Services is remarkably confident in its ability to thoroughly and competently investigate allegations of abuse. Yet the state agency has a long, troubled history in that arena and is currently a co-defendant in a class action suit filed by an advocacy group called Children's Rights on behalf of some 12,000 children in the department's "permanent managing conservatorship." (Kim is among the 4,000 other foster children who come under the heading of "temporary managing conservatorship," for a total count of 16,000 kids in foster care in Texas as of September 2013.)
The department's spokesman, Patrick Crimmins, believes Kim's allegations were addressed: He stated in an e-mail that CPS personnel "did a thorough investigation, and typically that includes interviews with the alleged victim(s) and any possible witnesses or anyone who might have helpful information."
Further complicating matters is the confusing role of an Austin-area company called Back Office for Social Services. According to its primitively designed Web site, the cleverly acronymed BOSS provides payroll, "banking and financial consultation," and other assistance for social service-related businesses. It's a site stockpiled with stock photos but devoid of principals' names or a physical address.
For the record, it's run by a guy named Robert Lambert, and several of the ex-employees interviewed for this story were under the impression that Lambert was the real boss (or BOSS, as it were) at America's Angels. (Crimmins told us he'd never heard of Back Office; America's Angels' contract with DFPS requires them to identify any subcontractors.)
One ex-employee, who said she often saw Lambert during his visits to the America's Angels office, believed Newsome-Talley deferred to him for staffing choices.
"If you really and truly own a company, you do not have to go through anyone on who you hire and who you fire," the former employee said. Another former employee told the Press that Newsome-Talley "acts like she works for them instead of the other way around."
Lambert did not respond to calls seeking comment. A woman who answered the phone at BOSS's Cedar Park office referred the Press to Goodall, who is the company's registered agent. When we continued to call Lambert, as well as his associate Jennifer Golden, we heard from a brand-new attorney, Bryan Reese, who admonished us to "stop harassing my client, its business associates, and employees to attempt to learn information about the lawsuit. All allegations in the lawsuit are unfounded and are denied by my clients."
Someone needs to learn something, though: Nearly two years after Kim spoke out, it's unclear why no one — not Kim's lawyer, not police, not Davis, not Newsome-Talley, not DFPS investigators — has been able to identify Mr. D, who could ostensibly verify whether his "4 or 5" friends cited in the lawsuit even exist.
If they can be identified, Wilson believes, there's a good chance they could be charged on more than Kim's word.
"There is a rape kit with sufficient material to test if any of the individuals involved are ever identified," he told the Press in an e-mail. "The one guy we are trying to identify by name may only come out in discovery or in the criminal investigation, because we have continually hit dead [end] roads when pursuing that information."
In the meantime, Newsome-Talley has expanded her operations; in early 2013, she founded an adoption service headquartered in Brenham. According to the company's Web site, America's Heart is "where families start."
According to the Washington County Appraisal District, it's a vacant lot.
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