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Dozens of girls still in care facility after allegations of sexual, physical abuse surface, DA says

Authorities raided two children's homes outside Houston on Wednesday after multiple staff members were accused of phy...

Posted: May 18, 2018 8:10 AM
Updated: May 18, 2018 8:10 AM

Authorities raided two children's homes outside Houston on Wednesday after multiple staff members were accused of physically abusing underage girls in their care, according to the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office. There were also allegations that one girl was sexually abused.

But on Thursday, the approximately 60 underage girls who live in the facilities were still there, with some of the same staff members accused of abusing them, said Tyler Dunman, head of the office's Special Crimes Bureau.

"To my knowledge, all or at least the majority of these children and staff members are still in the two facilities since the raid," Dunman said on Thursday. "Ultimately, [Child Protective Services] has to make the determination to move these children to a safer location, but currently, to my knowledge, that has not yet taken place."

No one has been charged in connection with the criminal investigations, Dunman said, but "arrests are anticipated."

Patrick Crimmins, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, which includes the Child Protective Services division, said the agency had no intentions to remove the girls from the Care Cottage South and Care Cottage North in Willis, about 50 miles north of downtown Houston.

"The kids are still there and we're not going to remove them," Crimmins said. "We don't believe the facility is dangerous. We are still looking into the specific allegations, we didn't know the raid was going to happen. We had an idea there was an investigation. We are still trying to figure out exactly what led to this operation yesterday.

"We are trying to focus on the kids and make sure they feel safe right now," Crimmins said. Caseworkers from Child Protective Services met with individual girls at the homes on Thursday, he said.

"We are still checking to see if the facility members involved in the allegations have been removed from the house."

The district attorney's office executed two search warrants to look for evidence after receiving "several serious allegations of sexual and physical abuse by staff members" since October, Dunman said.

The district attorney's office said that "because of the serious nature of the allegations that came up over the last week or so, we had to move in yesterday in a raid," Dunman said.

Investigators were searching for evidence to corroborate the accusations, including cell phones, surveillance recordings, computer hard drives, and records pertaining to employees and residents, according to the warrants.

Both facilities are run by The Care Cottage and are for girls in the custody of the state -- they are either orphans or their parents have lost custody, Dunman said. One of the facilities is for girls in middle and high school, the other is for girls in elementary school.

On its website, The Care Cottage, which contracts with the Department of Family and Protective Services, says it "provides residential treatment services to youth in foster care, the juvenile justice system and private clients." Girls between the ages of 6 and 17 receive care, it says.

A person who answered the phone at The Care Cottage refused to comment Thursday night, saying, "We are not returning calls right now." The owners of the facility could not be reached for comment.

School district reported suspected abuse

The girls attend schools in the Willis Independent School District, Dunman said, and some of them had spoken about abuse to their teachers and school staff.

According to district spokeswoman Jamie Fails, the school district has reported multiple allegations about the Care Cottages to Child Protective Services. She said the district also alerted the district attorney's office.

Fails said none of the girls initially showed up to school on Thursday morning, the day after the raid. After the school district contacted Child Protective Services to ask about the girls' whereabouts, staff members from one of The Care Cottage facilities brought girls to schools about two hours late. Girls from the other home were not brought to school, Fails said.

"The safety of our students is our number one concern," the district said, "and we have faith that law enforcement will see this through."

A 'pattern of neglect, harm and injury'

Both facilities are in Willis, Texas, and are made up of multiple buildings, according to two search warrants provided to CNN by the district attorney's office. The warrants, written by Leslee Zemlicka, an officer employed by the Montgomery County Constable's Office, describe numerous accounts of alleged abuse.

A 14-year-old autistic girl's arm was broken in October 2017 after, she said, she and one of the caretakers got into a verbal spat at bedtime, the warrants state.

The girl told her teacher that a Care Cottage employee made her call her mother and tell her that she was in an accident on a trampoline, but was doing OK, the warrants state. The girl's mother later confirmed to Zemlicka that she spoke to her daughter on the phone on October 11 and heard a female voice in the background telling her what to say.

On October 12, the girl's teacher noticed her arm was swollen. The girl told the teacher a different Care Cottage worker grabbed her arm two days earlier and pulled it behind her back before they both heard a "pop," at which point the worker let go and offered the girl ice cream "if she would stop crying," the warrants state. Teachers and the school nurse were concerned the girl was not receiving proper medical care.

Less than three weeks later, the girl's teachers noticed marks on her neck and arms, the warrants say. The girl said Care Cottage workers restrained her and pulled her foot up to her back and hurt her ankle. The school took photos of the injuries and reported the incident to Child Protective Services.

Eventually, the girl saw an orthopedic surgeon, who said her arm was fractured and her ankle was sprained, the warrants state. Zemlicka learned that the employee accused of initially hurting the girl had been let go before the ankle incident, she says in the warrants, suggesting multiple employees were involved in the abuse.

"This shows a continued and pervasive pattern of neglect, harm and injury to (the girl) while presumably trying to restrain (the girl), by different and multiple Care Cottage employees," the warrants say.

Allegations of sexual abuse

In April 2018, an anonymous voice mail was left on a high school principal's phone alleging a 27-year-old Care Cottage employee was having "sexual relations" with a 16-year-old resident. The case is the subject of an investigation by detectives with the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office.

The 16-year-old girl provided images taken on Snapchat of journal entries between her and a female employee. According to the warrants, the girl feared the journal would be destroyed, and took the pictures after Care Cottage staff members showed the journal to one of the Care Cottage directors.

The detective said the journal "clearly reflects a romantic relationship" between the student and the employee, who was fired. The girl's five roommates said they were only aware of physical abuse, describing instances in which the staff would raise their elbows to the backs of their heads.

Some of the other alleged incidents, according to the warrants, include:

  • A seventh-grade girl came to school with "red marks and what appeared to be choke marks and scratches around her neck" in February 2018. A report was made to Child Protective Services.
  • Another seventh-grader came to school with a broken ankle, an injury she suffered after jumping out a window. Two weeks later, another student hurt her back jumping out the same window, which was being used as a means to escape the facility. A Child Protective Services report was made.
  • A ninth-grader told a teacher she was afraid of the Care Cottage van driver. She said she'd struck the employee and two other workers had held her face down on a table outside the building and held her in a "hog-tied position." The driver then slapped her. A Child Protective Services report was made.

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