The two-story, beige-brick shelter in north Houston was supposed to be a haven for immigrant children and teenagers, a place with teddy bears and bins of toys that they could temporarily call home while they were stranded in a foreign country, separated from their families.
And yet on a sweltering summer afternoon, an 8-year-old boy found himself in an upstairs room of the St. Michael's Home for Children shelter with an older boy, 10, who allegedly sexually assaulted him.
The lapse in supervision by the boy's caretakers was the first in a series of failures that eventually culminated with the federal government's removal of the children from the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston's shelter program, which is approaching its 25th anniversary.
Care for boy delayed
In the hours and days after a staff member interrupted the July 1 assault in the upstairs room, the senior management of the Catholic Charities' program failed to get the boy medical treatment, doctored incident reports and tried to minimize what had occurred in order to "protect the program," according to a federal report.
But it was not just the boy's caretakers who stumbled, state and local law enforcement records show. A worker for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services intake system for reports of potential abuse and neglect also made a mistake, accidentally delaying an outside investigation into what happened for nearly two weeks.
After the federal government brought that error to the state's attention, the case was referred to the wrong agency, leaving it in limbo until it landed with the Harris County Sheriff's Office in August.
In the end, children's advocates say there is blame to go around, calling for accountability for the shelter program management, who are now part of a criminal investigation. They also called for a review of the state's intake system to ensure that technical problems with law enforcement notification are quickly fixed.
"Certainly some fault has to go to St. Michael's for what happened, but if … this reporting went awry and was misdirected in some sort of way, just imagine the hurt that might have been caused to a number of these kids by something not happening soon enough," said Bob Sanborn, president and CEO of the Houston-based nonprofit Children at Risk.
"When it comes to kids, we need to take immediate action."
Details still unclear
It is still unclear exactly what happened in the upstairs room of the shelter. When the Houston Chronicle first inquired about the incident, Catholic Charities officials described it as "sexual activity" between children. It later came out that a shelter staff member, called a "teacher" by the children, walked in on the 10-year-old allegedly sexually assaulting the 8-year-old and immediately told her supervisor, according to Harris County sheriff's reports.
The shelter management did not call the sheriff's office, but they did call the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) Statewide Intake Division roughly six hours after the incident, at 6:34 p.m.
The contents of that report are confidential under state law, DFPS officials said, but Catholic Charities said in a statement on Thursday that "we now believe that the person making the report may have minimized the seriousness of the incident."
Still, any report to that state hotline reporting potential abuse or neglect should have triggered a chain of events, including notification of the licensing division for DFPS and a fax or email notification to local law enforcement, said Patrick Crimmins, a DFPS spokesman.
But the worker at the state intake center was confused and couldn't immediately find a state license for St. Michael's, Crimmins said. The intake report was "mistakenly closed" without notifying the licensing division or law enforcement about any incident at St. Michael's, he said.
When asked why they did not directly contact law enforcement to report the incident instead of relying on the state intake system, Catholic Charities officials said "it is standard procedure for (Texas Department of Family and Protective Services) to report incidents of this nature to local law enforcement."
On July 5, Catholic Charities reported the July 1 incident to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, ORR, the federal agency that places immigrant children and youth caught entering the U.S. illegally in temporary care while the government reunites them with family members.
Those initial reports to ORR, which did not mention sexual assault, became a central focus in a subsequent federal investigation that found staff members and management "had knowledge that a (child) had been anally penetrated as the result of a sexual assault."
On July 5, after hearing preliminary reports about the incident, ORR instructed the shelter workers to get immediate medical attention for the boy, who saw a doctor that day.
Days after the assault, some staff members noted the boy seemed "withdrawn" and "quiet."
On July 13, ORR called the state to check on the status of its investigation, but state licensing officials still had no idea what happened at the shelter.
They re-opened the initial July 1 report and sent out a state monitor to investigate within 72 hours. But the automatic notification system again failed, this time referring the report to the wrong agency, the Houston Police Department. The shelter sits near the city-county line but is within the jurisdiction of the Harris County Sheriff's Office.
On July 15, a DFPS inspector checked the facility for compliance with the state's licensing standards, documenting a string of deficiencies at the facility, including failure to properly supervise the children on July 1.
Crimmins said the shelter corrected the deficiencies outlined in the report, and was back in good standing with the state.
On Aug. 5, sheriff's office detectives officially took over the investigation, based on a DFPS referral. When a child psychologist and forensic specialist interviewed the 8-year-old boy, he reported being sexually abused or assaulted on "several occasions" and by a second child, who was 11, said Deputy Thomas Gilliland, a sheriff's office spokesman.
By mid-August, ORR was suspicious enough about what happened at the shelter that day to send a team of monitors to Houston. They issued a scathing report that documented a reporting delay, failure to seek medical care and the doctoring of incident reports, notifying Catholic Charities on Sept. 8 that they would remove all children from their care, at least temporarily.
"ORR discovered there was an intentional plan by CCGH Senior Management to intimidate and or pressure staff to not disclose material facts of the July 1, 2011, incident to ORR in order to 'protect the program,' " the report states.
One staffer terminated
The ORR report calls for Catholic Charities to identify and reprimand staff responsible for the delay in seeking medical care and the removal from the ORR program of anyone found to have falsified incident reports.
Catholic Charities said last week that "the individual employee at St. Michael's responsible for (ORR's) concerns was subsequently terminated."
On Thursday, Catholic Charities said in a statement that an outside firm was investigating what happened at St. Michael's and "further disciplinary or other corrective measures may be taken," but provided no additional information.
Catholic Charities still refuses to answer several key questions about the incident, including whether the 8-year-old was separated from the two older boys after the assault, how many other children reported witnessing the abuse and what kind of treatment was provided for them and when.
Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for ORR, said the agency was working on placing the last three or four children who remain in Catholic Charities' care.
Catholic Charities officials said they plan to shutter the shelter where the assault occurred, citing budget woes, but hope to get the government's approval to reopen its two remaining locations.