Strayhorn on Woodside Trails
'Absolutely nothing political'
The most important responsibility of Texas' elected comptroller is to see that "tax dollars are being spent wisely," says Carole Keeton Strayhorn, who was elected to the post in 1998. Thus, she says, she was compelled to investigate in late 2003, when a series of articles regarding the state's foster-care system, and the possibility of financial improprieties by at least one state-contracted foster-care provider, was published by The Dallas Morning News. The fruit of her investigation was unveiled in an April 2004 press conference, with the release of her office's 292-page report, "Forgotten Children." The Strayhorn-led investigation into the foster-care system, run by Texas' Department of Family and Protective Services, delivered scathing results. The system was overburdened, and as a result, children's lives were in jeopardy. "I found some saints in foster care," she said recently, and some sinners. "I'm a mama and a grandmama more than anything else, and I found some places that I wouldn't want a child or a grandchild for 24 hours, and certainly not day-in and day-out."
Among the sinners Strayhorn found, she still believes, was the Woodside Trails Therapeutic Camp. The camp was one of several she singled out (though not initially by name) in her report as being a dirty and dangerous place for foster children. (Strayhorn now says that not all of the camp was problematic – the inside spaces, including the school, kitchen, and dining areas, were fine, although she didn't mention any of this in her report. "Sure, the inside was great, but that wasn't the part I was concerned about.")
Strayhorn visited the camp, unannounced, on at least three occasions, she said, and what she found there disturbed her. "These kids were fixing at least half of their meals themselves, outside on plates that you couldn't scrape the crud off of," she recalls. There was trash strewn around the campsite and in particular near the dining areas ("there was trash out there everywhere," she said), and she was startled to find a cooler full of the children's food sitting outside in the middle of the day without ice. The first time she went to the camp, just outside Smithville, it was winter and had been very cold and sleeting. Yet the children were sleeping outside.
In particular, Strayhorn was taken with a story she says she was told by the youngest camper, a 9-year-old boy, who she says told her that he was made to sleep by himself on a cot away from the other campers' shelters and right next to an outdoor urinal, which in her report Strayhorn famously dubbed the "pee wall." If "he was good, I was told, he would have plastic over his cot; if he wasn't, he wouldn't have plastic over his cot," Strayhorn recalled. The boy's story greatly disturbed Strayhorn: "At the time ... my oldest granddaughter was 9 years old, and I mean, that's a baby, really," she says. "And I knew what this kid was doing, sleeping by himself on that cot. ... I couldn't sleep that night. And I called CPS the next day. My staff, we worked with CPS the next day, and I wanted that kid moved immediately. And they promised me they would get on that."
Asked about Strayhorn's story, Woodside Trails administrator Bebe Gaines said the child she spoke to had in fact been moved to a separate cot, by the counselors' area, but for safety reasons. Gaines added that no child was ever denied cover as a disciplinary measure.
Other than making that one call to Child Protective Services, on behalf of a single child, Strayhorn is adamant that she did not wield any of her political power to shut down Woodside Trails. "I did not close Woodside Trails," she said. "The state closed it. I don't have the authority. ... I couldn't do it." Indeed, Strayhorn says that nothing about her investigation into the foster-care system or subsequent report on its failings, and failing institutions, was politically motivated. "That is absolute hogwash," she said. "There is absolutely nothing political about this. I'll tell you what there is about this: There is concern that the way ... this state has to be judged [is] by how we treat our most vulnerable citizens," she continued. "These kids don't hold fundraisers, they don't hire lobbyists, and they don't make political contributions. And so they are pushed to the bottom of the pile."
Going to bat for foster children doesn't win political influence, she said – in fact, quite the opposite, she contends. In this case, her advocacy on behalf of foster children ended with her being named a party in federal lawsuits filed by Jack Reynolds and Gaines. Strayhorn was ultimately dismissed from the suit by a federal magistrate who nonetheless concluded that in criticizing the camp, she and her staff had behaved badly. Strayhorn considers that nonsense also. "That is absolutely not so," she said. "I would've been thrilled to sit on the witness stand and talk about this. I promise you I would have."
Strayhorn says that the proof of her good intentions is that she's continued to fight for foster children since leaving office. "I guess my answer to you that this is not political is that I'm still doing it," she said. Indeed, Strayhorn has set up a new nonprofit group, the Our Texas Grandchildren Foundation (www.ourtexasgrandchildren.com), to provide mentoring support for foster children. In the long term, Strayhorn says she hopes to make the foundation a player at the Capitol, to push for "systemic changes in the system that will make it better for everyone." The group is starting out small but already has attracted heavy legislative hitters Sens. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and John Carona, R-Dallas, as co-chairs of the group's Leadership Advisory Council. "I get passionate when I see kids that are not in good situations," she said. "I'm not out to get anyone; I am after changes in the system so that we can protect our most precious resource, which is our kids. Whoever wants to say it was for political reasons, that's their business, but it wasn't. Ever."