Behind the Gates: An inside look into investigation of Crockett's Serenity Place

Behind the Gates: An inside look into investigation of Crockett's Serenity Place
Source: KTRE Staff
Source: KTRE Staff
Source: KTRE Staff
Source: KTRE Staff
Source: Texas Senate Video
Source: Texas Senate Video

CROCKETT, TX (KTRE) - The word "serenity" can be defined as peaceful and calm, but a different picture is painted by Crockett Police records for the activities going on behind the gates of Serenity Place on the west side of Crockett.

A KTRE Investigation has obtained police reports from the facility that document calls made to Crockett Police during the first three months on operation. In an original press release in October,

Crockett Police Chief David Cross said the department had received 52 calls for service since the facility opened on July 21. Our investigative team has received 37 of those calls so far. The rest have been sent to the Attorney General's office in Austin for review since juvenile records are involved. The investigation also obtained a time line document provided by police into multiple interviews conducted by the department and the Texas Rangers. The interviews included residents of the facility, current staff and former staff.

According to Crockett Police Lt. Clayton Smith, police claim that their investigation shows a lack of supervision at the facility. Smith said the calls of service ranged from 911 hang ups/ prank calls to disruptive students, runaways, theft, assaults, sexual assaults, and sexual misconduct. The investigation was officially launched on October 14.

When the facility opened in July, COO Chris Brown painted the facility as a place of peace and calm for the students he was responsible for. The facility is contracted out by the Department of Family Protective Services. The children housed at the facility are all in the Texas Foster Care Program.

The facility took over the former Crockett State School after the Texas Youth Commission announced it was closing the facility in 2012 due to a $116.9 million budget cut.

According to a police timeline, several current and former staff members were interviewed first when the investigation launched. Smith said in the report that complaints brought up to them were staff were not paid fairly compared to their counter parts at the main facility in Houston and that the staff did not receive adequate training. The report stated:

"[The staff member] says that staff members are not getting training that is required. There was an eight hour required class and they only stayed two hours. [The staff member] also reported that staff members are not properly restraining youths when dealing with them."

According to the time line, the staff member that made that statement was a witness to an alleged incident where another worker choke slammed a youth and impeded her breathing.

When Brown was asked about the incident when the investigation started he stated a crime had not occurred.

"She was put in a basket hold to prevent her from hitting another young lady," Brown said on November 1. "That is all that happened and that is all that happened. The struggle is the police department does not fully understand mental health issues. Typically when these kids get in trouble, there is a consequence for what they have done. They go and say things and become the victims. She was told by another child here that she had a seizure, so since then we have been dealing with this."

The Crockett Police timeline stated that five different witnesses all told similar stories about the staff member choke slamming the young female. Multiple accounts stated that it happened after the student became upset and called the worker "gay".

Another worker shared a similar story in the timeline. The worker said :

"[The worker] became upset after being called gay and squared up against [her], displaying his hands in a fighting stance."

The report continued stating the worker suggested that an ambulance needed to be called after she began to have a seizure approximately three or four times. The staff member claimed each time she was told they were not calling for an ambulance. To this day, Brown denies the incident happened the way the police said it did.

"At the time when you are trying to do a restraint the person is hitting and fighting," Brown said.  "It is very difficult to do all the proper steps because, at the time, you have to get control."

Brown stated that it also needs to be known that the female resident has a long history of violence and had already attacked another staff member right before the alleged incident.

Brown stated he is not trying to blame the residents but did point to a troubled past for many of them.

"When you look at the kid's history you see there is a history of aggression," Brown said. "That can't be denied or overlooked. You are delivering services but you understand that there's a history there that has nothing to do with Serenity Place."

Another interview summary stated the student who was allegedly assaulted told police she had two or three seizures before an ambulance was called. Another student allegedly told police that another staff member slapped and chocked a student after he screamed in his face. The police report claims the assault left two red marks around the youth's neck.

Several students were interviewed that stated they knew of multiple groups of students having sex at different locations. One of the areas commonly chosen was the chapel at the facility as well as the bathrooms in the dorms.

"This is nothing that doesn't happen at every high school you can imagine," Brown said. "In fact at a much greater rate there. Sometimes kids are going to do what they want."

One lengthy interview conducted with a youth on October 15 stated that several students have stolen cigarettes from workers and others get high. The student stated another youth inhaled hairspray and others make a substance they call "Acid" out of orange peels and toothpaste.

Multiple accounts were listed in the summary of fights happening and staff not stepping in.

Probably the biggest opponent of the center is Texas State Senator John Whitmire from Houston. Whitmire's district is home to the Houston campus for Serenity Place. In the past, Whitmire has blocked several programs from moving into the facility and does not agree with Serenity Place.

"These are violent offenders," Whitmire said at an October finance committee hearing. "Some of the most disturbed conditions that I have ever seen. I have kids here that have been displaced 16-20 times. I have 1,700 clients that nobody wants."

Whitmire was particularly disturbed by the sexual activity.

"A law enforcement agency tells me the chapel is nothing more than a brothel," Whitmire said. "The vendor said that there's nothing they can do about it. They can have sex. It is consensual… I think they are being warehoused, out of sight out of mind."

The allegations against the facility were not just brought up by staff and youth but also by administrators with Crockett ISD.

According to the time line, CISD Assistant Superintendent Wendy Tullos met with Smith and Texas Rangers. The report stated she told investigators that the relationship between Serenity staffers and the youth was more inappropriate than they normally saw between adults and students.

"Tullos told that the students were constantly coming to school out of dress code and staff did not seem to take action to make sure the children were properly dressed for school. Tullos advised that after class the female students would go and hug the male Serenity staff, and Tullos thought that was a little inappropriate."

Tullos added in her interview that the students openly talked and made comments about sexual activity taking place at the dorms at night. She also claimed she knew a female student had a relationship with a staff member. The report advised she notified police that internet history on the computers the students used at the facility showed that pornography had been accessed. Tullos said the district's teachers are worried about assaults going on at the facility over the weekend based on bruising that the students have when they return to class.

Tullos also stated in her interview that on one occasion, students were taken to the administration building to talk to licensing and at the meeting, Brown took his car and parked it outside of the window into the room and sat in the car the whole time in view of the youth. Tullos also advised on a separate occasion that all the youth in the program came back to school one Monday with brand new iPods.

Up until November, most of the investigation revolved around criminal acts. According to the timeline, on November 2, the investigation started to move to the administrative side. Investigators interviewed a current staff member who said she noticed a drug test result was in their employee folder, and she knew she did not take a drug test. The staff member also told Smith that staff members would be punished and taken off the schedule or given restrictions if they did something wrong. The staff member also told police that the facility wanted to hire 300 people to house 50 youth, but the facility only had 30 youth.

The staffer admitted that some staff only get paid $7.25 an hour. The staffer said a worker that did not work there anymore was given a CPR card even though she did not complete the training. The staffer also said that Brown had been very sociable with the youth during the investigation and would play football with them, and on one occasion, gave some of them $10 each to attend the Peanut Festival in Grapeland.

"We didn't know about this community, meeting and the kids had previously been scheduled to go to the Peanut Festival," Brown said. "I asked about it, and they said go, and we will work around it. As far as the iPods are concerned, every kids at Serenity in Crockett and in Houston receives an iPod. Every single one. We started this three years ago."

The staff member also told Smith that the staff does meet the ratio required, but Brown does make staff work long hours, so the ration is met.

"When you don't have staff that is required, you have to work staff members over what they are supposed to be or need to work. So this results in staff not making good decisions and falling asleep on the job because of the hours."

Brown would not talk about the allegations made against the staff but did say some changes were made.

"I think we will get better moving forward," Brown said. "We have to. We are making some changes. Certainly there are some things that we can do better. We're dealing with this special population and you are dealing with staff, some of which are new to mental health."

Last week, Smith released an official statement on an update to an investigation. In it Smith stated:

"The file that you have received with this letter contains multiple investigations that have been performed by the Crockett Police Department. Some of these cases meet the elements of a criminal offense and some do not. There are multiple incidents that meet the elements of an administrative investigation as the burden of proof is only preponderance and not 'beyond a reasonable doubt.' There are cases involving staff assaults on youth, youth assaults on staff, lack of supervision incidents, allegations of sexual assault, and allegations of sexual misconduct. With many of these cases the Department of Family and Protective Services would have evidence of numerous administrative violations. This would include witness statements, current staff statements, former staff statements, forensic interviews from youth. Our files will show evidence of an apparent lack of supervision and will show suspicious activity from the facility regarding the accurate and truthful documentation of staff and youth incidents, personnel files, falsification of training records, and false drug testing documentation. Much of the administrative wrong doing was reported by a current administrator who felt the information needed to be given so that the proper steps are taken by DFPS. This information will be turned over to Houston County Prosecutors, DFPS- Commissioner Hank Whitman, Associate Commissioner Jean Shaw, and Texas Department of Public Safety- Texas Rangers. These files are being turned over so that DFPS can utilize the information for an in-depth administrative investigation so that the children in this facility are kept safe and in a protective environment due to the potential violations that have been uncovered and detailed in the attached report(s)."

Copyright 2016 KTRE. All rights reserved.