By Will Johnson

Messenger Reporter

HOUSTON COUNTY – In the Friday, Sept. 23 edition of the Houston Chronicle, an article was published concerning criticism of the recently opened Serenity Place for foster children in Crockett. The criticism was leveled at the facility by State Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston).

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State Sen. Robert Nichols

Sen. Whitmire is the chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee which provides oversight of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. In his role as chairman of said committee, his criticism and concerns have been viewed as the primary factor in the closure of Cornerstone Programs’ Davy Crockett Regional Juvenile Facility.

Cornerstone was the previous tenant of the old Crockett State School facility, before Serenity Place took over earlier this year. After nearly three years of sitting empty, Cornerstone expressed an interest in the former state school and formally entered into agreements with the Crockett Economic and Industrial Development Corporation (CEIDC), as well as the City of Crockett, in January of 2014.

In an eleventh hour move, however, Sen. Whitmire (D-Houston) began to question the need for Cornerstone in Crockett and effectively caused the facility to shutter its doors by mid-fall of the same year.

According to the Houston Chronicle’s front page feature last week, Sen. Whitmire has once again expressed his objections to a facility 150 miles away from his senatorial district.

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State Rep. Trent Ashby

The article quoted Whitmire as saying the Serenity Place facility was “… the wrong place for foster care youths, even if it has been remodeled. This is warehousing of troubled youth, pure and simple, and that’s not a solution. It’s just creating new problem. When they turn 18 and get out, they stand a high likelihood of becoming homeless or getting into more trouble and ending up in an adult prison.”

In response to Sen. Whitmire’s critique of the Crockett facility, State Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville) was contacted. Sen. Nichols represents Houston County in the Texas Senate and was asked for his thoughts on the matter. He remarked, “Serenity Place is providing a positive environment for these children. The community has worked to make this a place where children can grow and thrive. I am hopeful other state leaders will see what a critical role Serenity Place serves in providing quality care to foster children in the State. I would encourage the community of Crockett to invite those who may have hesitations about the mission of Serenity Place to come and see it for themselves.”

State Rep. Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin) was also contacted about the matter and said, “I believe Sen. Whitmire’s concerns are unfounded and don’t reflect the conditions, nor the environment, at Serenity Place.”

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Houston County Judge Erin Ford

The legislator added, “I have spoken at length with Sen. Nichols about this issue. Sen. Whitmire is a colleague of his in the Texas Senate, and ultimately, I will follow Sen. Nichols’ lead on it. I will say that while we have certainly had our differences in the past over the best use of the facility, I do believe that Sen. Whitmire is a reasonable person who cares deeply about helping our troubled youth here in Texas. It is because of this belief that I welcome the opportunity to visit with both him and his staff about how Serenity Place is part of the solution and not the problem.”

“I would further say,” Rep. Ashby continued, “don’t just take my word for it. When the commissioner (Henry Whitman, Jr.) who oversees CPS (Child Protective Services) toured the facility recently, I believe his quote was, ‘This is one of the best facilities in Texas.’ I think legislators always need to keep an open mind and certainly listen to the feedback we are offered by our state agencies that oversee their respective issues.”

Houston County Judge Erin Ford also weighed in on the matter. “The City of Crockett and the Crockett Economic Development Corporation have worked very hard to secure Serenity Place in the old Crockett State School facility.  Serenity Place is focused on the care and education of Child Protective Services (CPS) troubled youth.  It is a very important program for the children and their future.  Houston County, alone, has 80 children which are in foster care outside the county,” the judge said.

Judge Ford added, “I’m troubled that Sen. Whitmire and his office are, once again, targeting this campus and the program that Serenity Place is managing.  I hope that our State and Federal elected officials will support them and intercede on behalf of Crockett, since we seem to be in his crosshairs.”

Crockett Mayor Robert Meadows continued the dialogue concerning Sen. Whitmire’s remarks and expressed concern about the motivating factors behind his critique. “As near as I can tell, through his legislative efforts, this is the third time he has hurt the economy of our area. The first time was when he helped close the state school. I don’t know what

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Crockett Mayor Robert Meadows

the dynamics behind it were, but he chose to close the Crockett State School and leave the facility in Corsicana open. Everyone who was involved with the process said the Crockett facility was in much better shape. I don’t know what the thinking was behind that,” he said.

The second blow to the Houston County economy was the closure of Cornerstone, Meadows said. “He pulled the plug on us getting more kids from the state, so he could be more successful,” the mayor indicated.

The mayor expressed his belief the third potential dart to the Houston County/Crockett economic balloon is aimed at Serenity Place. Meadows explained, “While the City of Crockett is making a determined effort to support Serenity – a minority owner/operator who is employing local minorities and housing minority children – Sen. Whitmire is against it. I say this knowing Sen. Whitmire is a very powerful member of the Democratic Party, which professes to look out for minorities and the socioeconomically challenged. Yet, time after time he is hurting this area which is known to be a socioeconomically depressed area. I just can’t make sense of that. It makes me wonder, did someone in this area make him mad? I don’t know. I don’t know what the dynamic is.”

Will Johnson may be contacted via e-mail at wjohnson@messenger-news.com.