Each year, thousands of foster children in Texas are shuffled into little-known “treatment centers” where they are frequently neglected and abused. State officials have largely ignored allegations of wrongdoing and calls for reform.
By Roxanna Asgarian
October 26, 2020
It used to be right here, crouched in the Southeast Texas pines between an RV park and a snake-shaped creek: Good Shepherd Residential Treatment Centre, a home away from home for troubled boys ages 7 to 17. An opening in the timber reveals a collection of vacant, red-brick buildings, complete with a deserted playground and cafeteria. From here the din of traffic from nearby Highway 249, where thousands of commuters hustle south each day from the suburb of Tomball to Houston and points beyond, is a low but ever-present hum. Few motorists ever pay the site much mind; if you didn’t know where to look, you’d pass it in the blink of an eye.
Today—just as in the days when Good Shepherd was open for business—the place might as well be invisible.
By the time Korbin Smith arrived here, he had become an expert in sneaking out of places like Good Shepherd. Smith was 12 when the state sent him here from a similar facility in Denton. Small for his age with big ears, Smith had entered foster care at age 10 when his mom, who he says struggled with drugs, couldn’t afford to keep the lights on at home. He was used to running around the neighborhood and getting into trouble, and the shift from a life without rules to the restrictive regimen of a treatment center was a shock to the system.
He soon developed a singular, unshakeable desire: to escape.
Smith’s best friend at Good Shepherd was Colby Holcomb, a redhead with freckles who also dreamed of escaping. So one early summer afternoon in 2013, Smith and Holcomb made a run for it. The boys made it a couple miles to a nearby middle school and hid behind a subdivision entrance sign until night fell. By then, the Good Shepherd staff had realized they were gone and loaded into a van to find them. It didn’t take long. As the van rounded into sight, Smith ran; Holcomb gave himself up. Eventually both the boys were intercepted and pulled into the van.
Once inside, staff members began pummeling them.
Back at Good Shepherd, they pushed him and Holcomb out of the van, Smith remembers, kicking them and cursing at them. When he started to cry, facility manager Tracey Peters hit him in the face and ordered him to calm down. They brought the boys inside, stripped them down to their underwear, and beat them. Holcomb was left with black eyes and a busted lip.
The next day, Smith, who is now 21, was brought into a room with Peters. The woman’s tone had changed dramatically since Holcomb had reported the abuse to his caseworker. Now, she hugged Smith, assuring him everything would be OK, and she asked him to take responsibility for Holcomb’s injuries. The attention bowled Smith over. So when state investigators followed up on the allegation of abuse, Smith lied and said it was he who had hit Holcomb, not the employees. In return, Peters treated him to a nice dinner at a restaurant—a vast improvement over the bland treatment center fare. “I was used to her being mean, and now she was being nice, and I didn’t want it to stop,” Smith says.
The account is based on Smith and Holcomb’s recollections of the incident. Though the two young men have not spoken in years, they relayed the same details of it. Good Shepherd was closed in 2017. Repeated attempts to contact its former executive director, J. Charles Hinds, along with Peters, were unsuccessful.
Joey Garner, Good Shepherd’s clinical director at the time of the incident, declined to comment on multiple occasions.
Each year, thousands of Texas children like Smith and Holcomb are placed in facilities like Good Shepherd, which are formally termed residential treatment centers, or RTCs. The facilities, largely unknown to the general public, are often tucked away in rural areas or in suburbs, especially around Houston. Texas counts 106 of them, housing more children in institutions than any other state. The facilities comprise the most restrictive group setting for foster youth in Texas—people interviewed for this story say they frequently feel more like a jail than a foster home. Some RTCs are small; some care for hundreds of children. Some are religious; some secular. They all pledge to turn children with behavior problems into upstanding adults.
Most of the kids sent to these centers are older youth in the state’s foster care system who have been removed from their parents following allegations of abuse or neglect. The harm sometimes continues once the children are relocated to an RTC, however. According to former foster youth and attorneys who represent children placed in the centers, Texas children have been repeatedly retraumatized by violent or sexually inappropriate behavior at the hands of RTC staff. An investigation by The Imprint and the Texas Observer revealed that in some cases, life in these facilities is punctuated by humiliation, filth, rape, beatings, and even death. In 2019 alone, the state received more than 2,000 reports of abuse, neglect or exploitation inside RTCs and other residential institutions.
Texas placed 3,700 foster children in institutional settings, which include RTCs, last year, federal data show. In all, 12 percent of Texas foster youth live in such places, as opposed to the preferred options, dictated by both best practices and federal law—with relatives, or, if that’s not possible, foster parents. Other states have greatly reduced the use of RTCs because of bad outcomes, but Texas continues to increase its reliance on the facilities.
Despite reports of abject abuse and neglect inside RTCs, a culture of silence has kept wrongdoing hidden at the facilities, court records and legal documents show. Some youth, like Smith, are coaxed or threatened by staff into concealing troubling events. The claims of abuse that do find their way to child protection officials are routed to a state office that often dismisses them without investigation, even after they have been deemed credible. Though state officials have been aware of the problems in RTCs for years, they’ve taken little action to fix them.
Inspection details on state reports are minimal, but during the summer of 2013, when Smith and Holcomb say their incident happened, Residential Child Care Licensing, the state licensing agency, twice found that Good Shepherd staff had hit children. The facility was cited for only one of the incidents. Good Shepherd was also cited that summer for physically restraining a child who had run away—a violation of protocol—and for not reporting an accusation of physical abuse to the state. Between 2011 and 2017, the facility was cited for 91 deficiencies. Seventy-one of them, such as inappropriate discipline, corporal punishment and physical or verbal abuse, were classified as “high” or “medium high” risk to children.
Holcomb and Smith say abuse happened regularly at Good Shepherd, especially after escape attempts. But Holcomb says the three or four complaints he made never resulted in action. Good Shepherd was shut down in 2017, after the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS), which oversees foster care in the state, decided to no longer place children there. The agency would not say specifically what led to that decision.
Good Shepherd has closed, but abuse continues inside other residential facilities around the state. “Any time you put a kid in an RTC, you are probably expecting some level of abuse. And that’s heartbreaking,” says Will Francis, executive director of the Texas chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. “We need to rethink where our dollars go. We need to stop putting them towards these warehouses.”
The institutional care of children has existed in the United States in some form or another since the orphanages of the 1800s. They included “houses of refuge” that were modeled after English workhouses, made famous in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, that proliferated as industrialization brought mass migration—and poverty—into cities. In the 1930s and ’40s, however, a growing body of research indicated that living in such settings was detrimental to children.
Along with the enactment of the Social Security Act in 1935, which helped support impoverished families who may otherwise have been forced to place children in state care, a movement was afoot to disband orphanages and place children in more stable, family-oriented settings. Nearly a century later, the term “orphanage” has been all but erased from Americans’ current-day lexicon. But they’re still here, critics say, just by another name.
“The orphanages of old are today’s RTCs,” says Richard Wexler, the executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. “Sometimes literally—it was founded as an orphanage then dressed up in psychobabble and rebranded an RTC—sometimes only in spirit. But whatever you call them, they’re worthless at best, harmful at worst.”
After the Great Depression many of the institutions of the day adopted a mental health focus. The concept of residential treatment, championed by a now-discredited pseudo-psychologist named Bruno Bettelheim, came about in the 1940s. Residential treatment centers exploded in popularity between the 1950s and 1970s, as books by Bettelheim and others extolled the virtues of congregate treatment. In 1967, controversial preacher Lester Roloff founded his sprawling Rebekah Home for Girls in Corpus Christi, where girls suffered beatings with leather straps and were isolated in locked rooms. (Roloff resisted state regulation of the facility so fiercely that the standoff became nationally known. Texas Monthly later dubbed it “the Christian Alamo.”)
The number of children in RTCs again skyrocketed during the 1990s as more and more parents, along with state child welfare systems, leaned on them to take unruly teenagers and children with nowhere else to go. In Texas, the number of kids in institutional settings has increased by 700 since 2010. The nearly 4,000 children Texas places in institutions is more than twice that of California, a state with 20,000 more foster kids.
A 2007 federal watchdog report found thousands of abuse allegations at residential treatment programs across the country, including 10 civil or criminal cases involving deaths of teens. Rampant abuse has led to a national shift towards “therapeutic foster homes,” where foster parents are specially trained to handle kids with behavior issues. The Family First Prevention Services Act, a child welfare reform bill passed by Congress in 2018, aims to reduce the use of institutional settings by limiting federal dollars for facilities unless they meet more stringent guidelines, including providing on-call nursing staff and trauma-informed care. None of Texas’ RTCs currently meet the new guidelines, according to DFPS.
Children can be sent to an RTC by their family or be ordered there by a juvenile court, but many are placed there on the recommendation of Child Protective Services (CPS). It’s meant to be a last resort, according to the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. The agency says the facilities are specifically for children who “have proved too ill or unruly to be housed in foster care.” Nationally, nearly 70 percent of kids in RTCs are 13 or older, and many have been in the foster care system for years, bouncing from place to place and accumulating trauma and behavioral problems along the way.
Staff at residential treatment centers are frequently unequipped to handle these challenges. They receive little training and are paid poorly—wages can be as low as $10 an hour. Staff turnover is high, and staff members are known to hop from one facility to the next. “Trauma-informed care, this can be advanced stuff,” says Francis of the National Association of Social Workers. “And just hoping that someone with a high school degree and minimal training and minimal job prospects can do this, that’s a lot to ask.” The pairing of traumatized youth with unqualified staff is a recipe for abuse.
Researchers at the University of Illinois determined that youth with at least one group home placement are 2.5 times more likely to become delinquent than youth in other foster placements, and that those who have experienced trauma are at greater risk for further physical abuse when placed in group homes versus family homes. In Texas, problems with these placements are well-documented: A 2004 report produced by then–Texas Comptroller Carol Keeton Strayhorn showed horrific photos of “therapeutic camps” where children were made to use run-down outhouses and outdoor showers even in the winter. They were also punished by being isolated in rooms away from other residents, the report found.
Still, some in child welfare circles insist RTCs are necessary, since many of these foster youth would otherwise have nowhere else to go. The facilities can hold many more children than therapeutic foster homes, which can take just one or two at a time. To make matters worse, Texas projected a massive shortfall in the amount of available foster placements for high-needs children late last year. After years of media scrutiny around foster children without placements sleeping in state offices, a state report last year said that by 2021, it will have just 39 percent of the foster homes it needs for youth who qualify as “specialized” or “intense”—children who need round-the-clock care for their medical, behavioral, mental health, or substance use problems.
That’s why, critics say, the state has been lax in cracking down on residential treatment centers with histories of abuse. “Ninety to 95 percent of kids in an RTC could and would make it in a really strong foster home or with a strong relative, if we actually paid those families and gave them the support,” Francis says. “But it’s easier to stick kids in [RTCs]—and harder to get them out.”
Korbin Smith was 10 when he was sent to his first RTC, the Nelson Children’s Center in Denton. There, instead of using sanctioned restraints, he says staff would tackle him if he acted up, slamming him down on his head and rubbing his face into the carpet, leaving burns. The experience was harrowing; Smith says it set the tone for the rest of his time in foster care. Like at Good Shepherd, he was able to escape the facility. Once, he slipped out an unlocked door in the midst of a brawl between residents. Smith ran to a foster home where he had previously lived, and where his sister was still living. The foster parents let him see his sister, but then they called CPS. Like at Good Shepherd, he was forced to go back.
The Nelson Children’s Center, operated by the nonprofit Upbring, shut down in 2011 after three residents reported injuries to the state abuse hotline in the span of one month. In a letter DFPS sent to the facility terminating its contract, state officials cited the facility’s “inappropriate” restraint methods as the reason for discontinuing foster care placements there. An Upbring spokesperson declined to talk about specific cases, but said the facility shut down “due to a lack of need in that area.” Upbring, which operates two other residential treatment centers and three shelters for unaccompanied child migrants in Texas, said it has drastically reduced its use of restraints in its remaining RTCs.
At some treatment centers, “discipline” crosses the line into abuse. After one of Smith’s escape attempts from Good Shepherd, he says he was made to stand up all night long—staff would beat him up if he sat down and make him stand longer. Holcomb also remembers being made to stand up all night, in his underwear, so that if he tried to get away, he wouldn’t have his clothes. Still, they kept trying to escape. “I’d rather be out in the world having to fend for myself rather than be somewhere where someone is mistreating me,” Holcomb says.
Smith and Holcomb aren’t alone: DFPS reported that 1,707 foster youth across the state ran away in 2017, nearly half of them from RTCs and other institutional settings.
In 2011, it seemed as if the state’s broken foster care system might finally get the help it so sorely needed.
That year, Children’s Rights, a nonprofit organization representing foster youth in several states, set its eyes on Texas. The group had already brought class-action lawsuits seeking foster care reform in more than a dozen states and counties. New Jersey, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and others settled the cases and agreed to improve their systems. In Texas, the lawsuit alleged that children in the state’s long-term care were facing systematic violations of their rights: being physically and sexually abused, overmedicated with psychotropic drugs, and shuffled from place to place. Much of the case turned on the treatment of children in institutional settings such as RTCs.
Unlike many other jurisdictions facing similar lawsuits, Texas chose to take the case to trial. The state argued that it was already in the process of implementing reforms, including privatizing parts of its system, and didn’t need the federal government to step in. U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack disagreed. In 2015, she ruled against the state, finding that long-term foster youth “almost uniformly leave state custody more damaged than when they entered.” Jack ordered wide-ranging improvements to the state’s system, including around-the-clock supervision of children in institutional settings and reduced caseloads for overburdened caseworkers. She appointed two child welfare experts to make sure Texas complied with her orders.
Texas fought the ruling, spending millions of taxpayer dollars to appeal it. “Our current system does not violate the Constitution,” Marc Rylander, spokesman for indicted Attorney General Ken Paxton, said at the time. “If the plaintiffs complain about wasting resources on defending against its lawsuit, they should drop their lawsuit and stop using Texas children as hostages for their policy negotiation.”
In 2019, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld key parts of Jack’s orders, including the stipulations on reduced caseloads and increased supervision, as well as one requiring that all reports of abuse made by children in long-term care be quickly and thoroughly investigated. The appointed experts, called “court monitors,” say the state has dragged its feet in making those required reforms. This summer they reported that, after harrowing abuse, shoddy investigations have kept foster children in grave danger.
In one case highlighted in the court monitors’ report, a 14-year-old girl at Prairie Harbor in Wallis, west of Houston, complained of leg pain for weeks. The girl had diabetes and hypertension but her leg pain went untreated until she collapsed in her room in February. Staff waited 37 minutes to call 911; the girl later died of complications from a blood clot in her leg. An investigation is ongoing. But since the teen’s death, the RTC owners, including a former high school principal in El Campo named Rich Dubroc, were granted a license by the state to open a new facility in Corpus Christi. The former executive director of Prairie Harbor, Mario Mendoza, is now serving the same role at the new facility, called The Landing.
During three months last year, the court monitors found 57 reports of abuse or neglect in which a child was at serious risk of harm that were dismissed by a state agency when they should have been investigated. In one, a 17-year-old at an unnamed RTC told a caseworker that she got pills from other residents—who had hidden them instead of taken them as prescribed—and tried to overdose. She said she didn’t feel safe at the facility and was being mistreated by staff. Another 17-year-old told his caseworker that gangs were “always fighting and jumping people” at his RTC. After other residents put Icy Hot on his face while he was sleeping, the teen cut himself in an act of self-harm. He said a staff member told him, “I hope you will die quickly.”
Neither of these reports led to a finding of abuse or neglect by Residential Child Care Investigations (RCCI), the state agency responsible for investigating abuse reports for children in foster care. Neither incident resulted in any findings of deficiencies.
DFPS, the state agency that regulates foster care in Texas, declined to comment on pending litigation. Instead it released a statement: “It is extremely unfortunate that, among other things, the monitors’ report does not represent the literal round-the-clock efforts made to comply. To the best of our ability, and considering child welfare practices, we have used the resources generously provided by the Legislature to meet the Court’s orders.”
A major finding of the monitors’ report was that RCCI has a tendency to downgrade certain abuse reports without investigating them—during four months in 2019, the agency ruled out nearly half of the more than 900 reports the agency received with no investigation. Meanwhile, Child Protective Services, a sister agency that investigates abuse and neglect in family homes, investigates all allegations of abuse. This means that children living with relatives are more likely to have their abuse allegations investigated than kids in RTCs. According to state data, RCCI found that abuse had occurred in less than 6 percent of abuse or neglect allegations in institutional facilities in 2019; by comparison, CPS substantiated 26 percent of abuse or neglect allegations in family homes during that period.
“Fundamentally, the state is supposed to err on the side of child safety by investigating situations that are ambiguous or uncertain,” says Paul Yetter, an attorney representing children in the class-action lawsuit against Texas. “And they’ve chosen a policy that’s basically the opposite of that.”
Tara Grigg Garlinghouse, an attorney who has specialized in representing youth in Harris County in complex child welfare cases for the last seven years, says she’s made roughly 10 reports of what she saw as egregious abuse of her clients in RTCs. None have resulted in action. She calls making a complaint “an exercise in futility.”
“The RTCs don’t take it seriously; they don’t actually believe that they’re going to be punished or held accountable,” Grigg Garlinghouse says. That’s in large part because the children in these places, labeled problem kids, are often not believed. “It’s always spun in a way to make the child a liar and also responsible,” she says.
By the time Mary Gonzales entered care at age 8, she’d already learned her outcries would fall on deaf ears. After she’d been raped as a young child, her mother “was too high to listen” when she told her, Gonzales says. “I remember going to lay in the tub and washing the blood off and just laying there, because I felt alone.”
Later, in care, when she told her foster mother a boy in the home had harmed her again, Gonzales was the one removed from the home, instead of the boy. By then, she says, “I had a good feeling that nobody would believe me—and I was right.”
Gonzales ended up at Krause Children’s Center, an RTC in Katy, where she says she witnessed sexual relationships between staff and residents and constant fights among the girls who lived there. “You know that saying, ‘Sleep with one eye open’? I tried my best to do that. I didn’t trust nobody there,” Gonzales says. “It messes you up in the head.”
“We take every allegation seriously and follow all protocols to ensure the safety of every child,” Upbring, which also operates Krause Children’s Center, said in a statement.
Grigg Garlinghouse pointed out that kids placed in these settings for years learn “institutional behaviors” such as a distrust for authority and the need to protect themselves against threats—the same behaviors they might pick up in jail or prison. The more time spent in a residential treatment center, “the less likely you’ll be able to function in the community,” Grigg Garlinghouse says.
Korbin Smith quickly realized that adults in the foster care system were not going to keep him safe. At his first foster home, he says he learned that he had to fight and win if he didn’t want to get beat up. Each time he’d tell his caseworker about an abusive encounter, she’d accuse him of making it up and ask why he didn’t report it earlier, he says. But according to Smith, calls to his caseworker were always supervised by RTC staff, which made it difficult to report problems. “If you snitch, you get beat up,” he says.
For Smith and Holcomb, like many other kids who have aged out of RTCs, the next chapter in their lives was the criminal justice system. Colby Holcomb got back in touch with his mom at age 17, when he found her on Facebook while he was living at Hector Garza Center, a facility owned by for-profit prison company GEO Group that is slated to close this year. He got a Greyhound bus ticket to his aunt’s house in Pasadena when he aged out of care. That’s where he got his first adult criminal charge for marijuana possession, in 2016. He’s gotten five criminal charges since then, and is currently incarcerated in San Jacinto County Jail.
After running from one facility in San Antonio, Korbin Smith stole a car trying to get to Houston, where his grandma lived. For that, he went to juvenile detention at age 16. After he turned 17, making him an adult in the eyes of the law, he spit on a guard and was charged with harassing a public official. He eventually was sent to a string of adult prisons to serve his two-year sentence, much of it in solitary confinement, before being released last year.
Smith turned 21 in September. With his criminal record, it’s been hard to find a job. He says he’s been arrested for several low-level offenses since his release from prison, and much of his monthly unemployment check goes to paying his mom back for bonding him out. He was living with her in Gainesville, north of Dallas, until she was evicted this summer. Since then, he and his girlfriend have been staying in San Marcos. “Right now, me and my girl are on our own, struggling,” he says. “We’re trying to make it. It’s harder than I thought, but we really have no other choice.”
Illustration by Chris Gash. Graphics by Sunny Sone.
This story was co-published with The Imprint, an independent, nonprofit daily news publication covering child welfare, juvenile justice, mental health and educational issues.