Children's shelter tried to cover up assault, feds claim

Senior management with Catholic Charities attempted to mislead federal officials about a sexual assault at St. Michael's Home for Children, doctoring incident reports and failing to seek medical treatment for the child victim for days, according to a federal report.

The report, obtained by the Houston Chronicle, and a letter from the director of the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) detailed the findings of a federal investigation into a July 1 sexual assault at the north Houston shelter for immigrant children.

Managers with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston "deliberately misled" federal officials about the incident, which involved the anal penetration of a child at the shelter and implicated two other youths housed there, according to federal documents.

The findings prompted ORR, which places children and teenagers caught crossing the border without family members into temporary care, to begin removing all the children and teens from the three area St. Michael's shelters run by Catholic Charities - a process still under way.

In a statement issued Friday, Catholic Charities officials said that "when Catholic Charities learned of ORR's concerns, the individual employee at St. Michael's responsible for those concerns was subsequently terminated."

"Catholic Charities is working with ORR and has every expectation that it will meet ORR's recommendations and address its concerns and reopen the St. Michael's Program soon," the statement said.

The statement also said that Catholic Charities reported the sexual assault to Texas Department of Family and Protective Services officials within 24 hours of the incident, though state records show the incident was "self-reported" by the shelter on July 13.

Federal investigators conducted an unannounced site visit in August to investigate the sexual assault, reporting that the Catholic Charities senior management doctored initial reports to omit details of the sexual assault and tried to pressure staff not to disclose details of the incident to "protect the program," according to the report.

"The ORR monitors found significant concerns, including the fact that management had full knowledge of the extent of the assault and submitted erroneous … reports to this office, which deliberately misled ORR," the agency's director wrote in a Sept. 8 letter to the president of Catholic Charities.

The shelter management failed to report the incident to federal officials until July 5, and then submitted a report that failed to mention that a sexual assault had taken place, the report states.

Shelter workers did not seek medical treatment for the child until after the incident was reported to ORR on July 5, and only then after they were ordered to do so by federal officials, according to the report. Neither federal officials nor Catholic Charities would disclose the ages of the children involved.

"CCGH staff had knowledge that a (child) had been anally penetrated as the result of a sexual assault … and did not seek medical treatment," the report states. "Program staff should have observed that a sexual assault of a child is grounds for immediate medical attention."

Other problems noted

The state, which licenses the shelters, documented several deficiencies in connection with the incident, faulting the administrator for assigning staff members in charge of supervising children with other assignments, which left them unsupervised upstairs in the shelter when the assault occurred.

State records show that in early September, Catholic Charities was in the process of hiring a new licensed child care administrator for the St. Michael's program.

The investigative report by ORR calls for Catholic Charities to identify and reprimand staff responsible for the delay in seeking medical care for the child victim, who some staff members noted was "withdrawn" and "quiet" after the assault. The report also calls for the removal from the ORR program of staff found to have falsified the incident reports.

On Sept. 8, ORR's director sent a letter to Bonna Kol, the president of Catholic Charities Galveston-Houston, detailing the results of the investigation and saying the agency planned to remove all of the children from the organization's care until the "corrective actions" called for in its report were addressed.

Kenneth Wolfe, an ORR spokesman, said Friday that only five of 72 children and teenagers remained in Catholic Charities' Houston shelters on Friday, and that ORR officials are working to place them in other facilities or with families.

Catholic Charities officials have said the shelter where the incident occurred will stay closed permanently, citing budget woes.

Joanie Wentz, vice president of development and communications for the organization, insisted the closure was not related to the July 1 incident. She said the St. Michael's program, which is approaching its 25th anniversary, suffered a $1 million cut from the federal government in the last budget, reducing the number of beds from 88 to 52 and resulting in the layoffs of 19 employees.

After the incident, Catholic Charities contracted with an outside firm to conduct an investigation and review the organization's initial response, Catholic Charities officials have said. The organization also said it is working with ORR to "learn more about what safeguarding practices we can implement to better protect the children."

Shortage of bed space

Some immigrant and child welfare advocates lamented the latest development at St. Michael's, saying there is a need for the shelters and bed space in Texas.

U.S. immigration officials placed 6,074 immigrant and refugee children in the care of ORR in 2009, the most recent data available. More than half of those - some 3,200 - were detained in Texas, the statistics show.

In 2010, St. Michael's provided shelter for 280 children and youth through the program.

ORR's program provides temporary care and shelter to undocumented immigrants who are younger than 18 and caught entering the country illegally without relatives.

The program, which primarily serves Central and South Americans, aims to reunite the children and youths with family members and provides them with care and educational services while they await the outcome of their immigration cases.

"These are kids that are high-risk children, so whenever we move them around a lot, it just adds to … the things that have gone wrong in their life," said Bob Sanborn, president and CEO of the Houston-based nonprofit Children at Risk.

In the Sept. 8 letter, ORR's director gave Catholic Charities 30 days to respond to its corrective action plan, warning that if the agency's concerns were not adequately addressed, ORR "may have to re-evaluate its decision to maintain operations" with Catholic Charities.

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  • Susan Carroll, Houston Chronicle
    published this page in News Story of the Day 2011-09-27 09:12:00 -0500

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