By Will Johnson

Messenger Reporter

CROCKETT – While the City of Crockett and Houston County celebrated the purchase of the old state school facility earlier this year by a company known as Serenity Place, storm clouds have been gathering on the horizon since it opened.  Allegations of abuse, as well as assaults by staff on the children housed there, have led to repeated calls to law enforcement.

The storm clouds may have burst on Thursday as a press release from Crockett Police Chief David “Buddy” Cross indicated the facility is now under investigation by the Crockett Police Department with assistance from “… the Texas Department of Public Safety Texas Rangers Division, Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, Child Care Licensing Division, Child Protection Division, and is supported by the Houston County District Attorney and Houston County Attorney.”

According to the press release, “Since July 21, the Crockett Police Department has received approximately 52 calls for service documenting reported alleged incidents at the facility. Some of the incidents or calls were minor in nature but a pattern of alleged serious abuse and neglect allegations began to surface in the reports. The reports that were made by the youth, staff, prior staff, teachers, parents, DFPS case workers, and others focused primarily on allegations of physical assaults on youth by staff at the facility and improper restraints of youth by staff at the facility, which led to numerous documented injuries to the youth. One specific investigation included a student who was allegedly strangled by staff to the point where she began having multiple seizures, which are believed to have been triggered due to the lack of oxygen to her brain during the strangulation assault. There are currently other alleged assaults on students by staff that are being investigated by the team of investigators that had been organized and brought in to assist.”

Chief Cross was contacted on Friday, Oct. 28 and said, “We are presenting three cases to the grand jury in November. The charges concern staff abusing students. If other cases are discovered, we will present to later grand juries.”

Asked if this was a lone employee, the police chief said, “This involves more than one employee.”

Dependent on the results of the upcoming grand jury proceedings, Cross was further asked if he thought this could possibly lead to the closure of Serenity Place. He replied, “I don’t know enough about the Child Care Licensing Division, the rules and regulations, to be able to answer that. Each child was forensically interviewed, here and in Lufkin over a three or four day period. We worked 16 hour days to get this done, due to the seriousness of it. There are some pretty serious allegations that came out and while they may not be criminal in nature, they would surely fall under the child care licensing violations. I don’t know enough about their code to tell you specifically what those are.”

Serenity Place owner/operator Chris Brown was also contacted about the allegations. “The meeting did occur last Friday, however, I found it strange that there was also a meeting held at the Convention Center (Crockett Civic Center)  that we were not invited to in order to respond to any of these allegations. If you want to get to the bottom of this, it seems to me, they would have asked us there to provide details,” he said.

Brown confirmed the children were interviewed “… and most of them were interviewed multiple times over a five or six day period. They took kids to a place in Crockett and a place in Lufkin. At the end of the meeting (at the civic center), you had the school district and police department making allegations that were startling. On any given day, we have Texas Department of Family Services investigators and case workers at our facility, literally, every day of the week.  We have been investigated up and down, inside and out so when those allegations were made, they were concerning. Those are serious allegations.”

“I would say to you,” Brown continued, “go down to the police department and get the record of the person they are talking about. You will see the person has been arrested by the Crockett Police three times. After one of those arrests, in which he attacked multiple kids, multiple girls and staff members, as a precaution, we took the girl to the local hospital in Crockett. They did CAT scans, they did blood tests and everything else in the world. That person has no history of seizures, did not have a seizure, and the paperwork – the medical report – bears that out. That is a fact. That is not fiction. That is not someone’s imagination. These were medical professionals who have said this (no seizure), independent of Serenity place.”

He added, “Mental health conditions are difficult for people to understand. CPS has a mechanism in place to investigate these type of things. They have special investigators who are trained in this area. That is how it is handled in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Waco – you name it – that is how it is handled. It is never handled by police. CPS is doing their investigations. Any time there is an allegation, CPS investigates and they investigate thoroughly. They are going to talk to the kids, the staff and everyone involved.”

Brown paused for a moment and said, “I find it telling that there was a meeting and who the people were who were represented there and who wasn’t represented there. There is a fishy smell and you need to find out where it’s coming from. It does not help the City of Crockett, in terms of economic development, to have a new, large employer attacked in the news. Outside businesses look at that to see how things are handled and how things work. Couple that over the last few weeks with the resignation of the city manager and the CEIDC Executive Director and it doesn’t look good to outside business owners. It makes you wonder, what in the world is going on in Crockett? I don’t know if people look at things in the big picture and the impact it could have on a city that had one of the worst labels. Outside businesses see this and say, ‘what in the world is going on over there?’ ”

Brown continued, “I am very comfortable that FPS will conduct a fair investigation of this. The kids we deal with are traumatized kids. They are kids who have a lot of issues. They are kids who have gone in and out of psychiatric facilities. Some have had as many as eight placements in one year. These are difficult kids. That is why the facility is set up the way it is so that we may accept the type of kids we have. These kids are difficult to manage, but I am very secure in the knowledge that we provide quality care. I am also very secure that we are not harming children in any way, shape, form or fashion.”

The Thursday afternoon press release also stated, “Multiple lack of supervision cases by staff at the facility, leading to improper sexual and physical assaults from students on students, have been identified by the investigators thus far. The investigative team consisted of Texas Ranger Investigators, Crockett Police Department Investigators, and Child Care Licensing Investigators.”

In addition, the police chief’s statement indicated, “The Head Commissioner of The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) and Associate Commissioner for Child Care Licensing (CCL) who are headquartered in Austin came to Crockett on Friday, 10-14-16. They met with the investigative team and others and heard their concerns and investigative results of the cases that have been reported thus far in Crockett. The Commissioner and Associate Commissioner immediately went to Serenity Place-Crockett Campus and personally met with the managers in charge of the facility and conveyed their vast concerns. The managers and owners were advised that DFPS was calling for an immediate investigation into the multiple abuse allegations. The commissioner and his staff personally called in numerous CCL and CPS workers from the region and ordered them to stay at the facility around the clock to monitor the children until all the children have been interviewed and all investigations were conducted by the investigative team. This was done to ensure that all the children were safe and placed appropriately while the investigation continued.”

Serenity Place is a residential treatment center which deals with children in the care of Child Protective Services who are waiting to be reconciled with their families or placed in foster care. The organization’s stated mission is: “To provide a clean, safe, nurturing environment for children through educational, recreational, enrichment, and social opportunities.”

Shortly after the facility opened, The Messenger conducted an interview with Reina Acosta, a curriculum specialist at the facility. During the interview, the facilities appeared to be well maintained and the children housed there appeared to be as happy as their individual situations would allow.

At the time of the interview, Acosta expressed the complexities of children in foster care were sometimes “… heartbreaking at certain levels. So what can we do? We can provide a place for them that’s safe, somewhat therapeutic and nurturing. That is what we have attempted to do here.”

However, in late September an article was published in the Sept. 23 edition of the Houston Chronicle which critiqued the recently opened facility. The criticism was leveled at Serenity Place by State Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston).

Sen. Whitmire had been a key player in shutting down the Crockett State School when it was run by the State of Texas. He was also the chief opponent to the state school’s successor, Cornerstone Programs. Through his actions, Cornerstone was also closed.

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.”

A host of elected officials including State Sen. Robert Nichols, State Rep. Trent Ashby, Houston County Judge Erin Ford and Crockett Mayor Robert Meadows defended Serenity Place against Whitmire’s criticism.

The investigation continues and all investigative criminal findings and results will be reviewed by the local Houston County District Attorney and County Attorney and will be presented to a local grand jury when complete and where warranted. Anyone with direct knowledge or information about abuse at this facility is asked to contact the Crockett Police Department at 936-544-2021.

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