Campfire Horror Story

How Carole Keeton Strayhorn and the state destroyed a healing camp for kids

Campfire Horror Story
Photo Courtesy of Bebe Gaines

It was just after 11am on Aug. 13, 2004, when the SUVs began to arrive. They'd made their way down the park road, canopied by the tall pines that blanket Bastrop County, to arrive at the entrance to the Woodside Trails Thera­peutic Camp and School. Inside the Chevy Suburb­ans were Texas Child Protective Services caseworkers who'd come to take custody of 22 foster boys, ages 12-17, all of whom the agency had previously placed at the camp.

The camp was frantic with activity and apprehension, and camp administrator Betty Lou "Bebe" Gaines was working hard to maintain calm. Just an hour and a half before, she'd gotten a call from the deputy commissioner at CPS, who informed Gaines that agents were on their way to remove the boys. It was in their best interest, Gaines was told.

The children didn't agree. After the phone call, Gaines called for the entire camp (with campers and staffers, nearly 50 people) to "circle up," and she delivered the news. "I said, 'The state has decided that you're not safe here,'" Gaines recalled recently. "One kid says, 'Well, we are safe here.' I said, 'It doesn't mean you're not safe – just that [the state] has the right to say that you're not.'"

The kids were adamant; they did not want to leave. One suggested the group pack into the camp vans and flee to Mexico. Another suggested they "melt into the woods" and climb high into the Lost Pines. That might work, the kid opined, because he'd never "seen a [CPS] caseworker climb a tree." Gaines said: "'Let's think that over.' I said that a lot that day." She let the kids have their say, then refocused the group. There's nothing you can do to prevent this, she told them. The only thing you can do is "be decent about it." The kids were about to be picked up by strangers and placed in temporary custody of other strangers. As scary as that might be, Gaines reminded the boys, they should be respectful and kind and helpful and then say, "I learned that at Woodside Trails." As the kids settled down, one boy piped up, "What's next?"

What was next would prove devastating as well as illogical – even surreal. Singled out by the state for condemnation as a negligent facility, Woodside Trails would be closed and the youths in its care scattered to the winds, with virtually no subsequent oversight. Yet the public record would eventually show not only that the camp was doing its difficult job but also that none of the allegations against the program or its staff would be sustained.


The Perfect Storm

The state closure was a stunning turn of events for the people of Woodside Trails, a primitive therapeutic camp on 120 acres of piney wilderness just west of Smithville that had been in operation since 1982. The camp was one of a very small number of specialty providers within Texas' foster-care system, a placement of last resort for extremely tough cases: kids who had been horribly abused, mentally, physically, and sexually. In the process, many had themselves become sexual offenders. Over its more than two decades in operation, Woodside Trails took in hundreds of boys who had been wards of the state for a very long time – many for most of their young lives – and had bounced around from placement to placement as their foster families found them too difficult to handle. (One boy, who spent several years at the camp, had been through 32 placements in nine years.) Among them were the extremely anti-social – narcissists, addicts, molesters, and liars. Woodside Trails was for these kids, quite literally, a last chance to get control of their lives – a final stop before the penitentiary.

Working with this population of children is risky for everyone involved. "Our children were dangerous; they did dangerous things, and they hurt people," Gaines said. Making it even more risky, to some degree, was the way Woodside Trails approached its work: in a primitive setting, where the children lived outside year-round and were responsible for creating and building their own camps; hands-on, with counselors providing not only emotional support but physical attention – hugs and kisses and hand-holding were common – something that in other facilities is discouraged, if not forbidden.

Within that context, it was not surprising that in July 2004, one of the Woodside Trails campers – 13-year-old Joseph D. – made a horrifying allegation. He claimed that one of Woodside's counselors, 36-year-old Jack Rey­nolds, had sexually abused him that spring while he was living at the camp, forcing Joseph both to masturbate and perform oral sex on him. This happened, Joseph told investigators, in the middle of his Woodside Trails campsite known as Twin Pines, in front of the campfire.

Allegations of abuse by campers were not unknown and were dealt with, by Gaines and her staff, strictly by-the-book: They cooperated with CPS and the Bastrop Co. Sheriff's Office, opening the camp and their records to scrutiny.

Bebe Gaines
Bebe Gaines (Photo by Jana Birchum)

This time was different.

Not the allegation itself – according to documents filed subsequently in federal court, it wasn't the first time Joseph had made similar allegations, later proven false, or had threatened to make such allegations. Joseph was a seriously troubled kid, with a history of lying and of sexually abusing others. But the timing of Joseph's latest claims proved disastrous for the camp. The summer of 2004 was a particularly tricky time for the state's foster-care regulators with the Department of Family and Protective Services, which was facing a political onslaught initiated in late 2003 by then-Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn. Responding to a string of news stories exposing serious excesses and abuses, Strayhorn undertook a review of the entire foster-care system. In April 2004, with great fanfare, she released a comprehensive and extremely unflattering report on the state of foster care in Texas and the agency that oversees it. In short, the agency was on edge.

More alarmingly, Strayhorn's report singled out Woodside Trails (initially not by name) as a particularly poor caretaker of children. Joseph's explosive allegation followed a few months later, at a moment when the political environment was volatile and any potential allies were intimidated into silence. The timing created a perfect storm that hit the camp and pulled it under – taking Gaines, Reynolds, and the kids with it. And in the short term, it didn't help that Gaines and her colleagues at Woodside Trails decided to fight back – thereby becoming even more directly a Strayhorn target.


The Strayhorn Steamroller

Concerns about the Texas foster-care system exploded into headlines in late October 2003, when The Dallas Morning News published a piece about the Houston-area Daystar Resi­dent­ial Treatment Center, which housed emotionally disturbed foster kids. According to the Morning News, not only was Daystar founder Clay Dean Hill apparently making a mint from the system – he received more than $1.5 million in salary in 2002 – his companies were also doing quite well, earning more than $4 million for their services to the state that same year. However, some of Daystar's wards weren't doing nearly so well: Children were living in "isolated trailers," and in 2002, a girl died in Daystar's care, the daily reported. According to state regulators, the girl's death was "blamed on insufficiently trained staff, poor supervision and the use of 'excessive force' to control the child."

It certainly wasn't the first time the foster-care system had been the subject of bad news, but the Daystar piece released a political flood. "The system had come to one of those periodic points where the job was overwhelming the resources," said one longtime observer of the system.

Three days later, Strayhorn responded to the story with shocked incredulity – and a promise that her office would get to the bottom of whatever problems DFPS might be hiding. "The whole thing is about accountability. Where are those dollars being spent, and on who?" she said. "Children are not only our most precious resource; these are our most vulnerable children." Strayhorn announced she would undertake an immediate and sweeping performance review of the child-welfare system. "I really can think of no better place to put our time and resources." It did not go unnoticed that her vow came at the beginning of the 2004 political season, amid the widespread presumption that Strayhorn was considering a run for governor.

When Gaines first heard of Strayhorn's plans, she was pleased. Taking care of children removed from their families is a tough job, not only for the foster parents and group homes where the children land but also for the agency and workers tasked with ensuring their safety. Child Protective Services caseworkers are a beleaguered bunch – with potentially hundreds of cases on each worker's plate, generating relentless turnover. The attrition rate at CPS is roughly 34%. The Child Care Licensing division has a more modest turnover rate of 9.6%, but with fewer than 100 caseworkers and more than 10,000 foster facilities to monitor, the job can be daunting. (In 2003, there were more than 25,000 children in the foster system, and the state spent more than $315 million to take care of them. In 2007, the number of kids in custody of the state had grown to more than 33,000, with a cost for the state of nearly $371 million.)

In Gaines' mind, Strayhorn's investigation would root out inefficiencies and confirm that child protection caseworkers are seriously overworked and that the system is seriously underfunded, considering the size of the population it is intended to serve. "I thought: 'What? A politician interested in the foster-care system? I'm on board!'" she recalled. "I was so naive."

Six months later, Strayhorn's staff had finished its review, and the comptroller convened a dramatic press conference to publicize the result, a 292-page report titled "Forgotten Children." With a plethora of charts and plenty of melodramatic photos, Strayhorn announced that the foster system lacked leadership and oversight and tolerated wildly disparate standards of care that ultimately put thousands of children at risk. "The truth is that some of these children are no better off in the care of the state than they were in the hands of abusive and negligent parents," Strayhorn said.

Strayhorn's visual aids included poster-size photos from the report that purported to depict the deplorable conditions Strayhorn and her investigative staff found during "unannounced" visits to various residential facilities. These included shots of grimy sleeping and food-storage areas, bathrooms, and recreational areas. The offending facilities were roundly lambasted. (Strayhorn personally made 11 visits to the various facilities, she said, while her staff conducted 26 "surprise" inspections.) "I saw filthy living conditions, makeshift outhouses, unsanitary food storage," Strayhorn told the assembled reporters. "That's not care. That's cruelty. That's not educating. That's endangering."

Woodside Trails campers work with Gaines building boats.
Woodside Trails campers work with Gaines building boats. (Photo Courtesy of Bebe Gaines)

Although Strayhorn didn't name the facilities she'd singled out for criticism, those at the facilities immediately knew they'd been targeted. Gaines and her staff saw right away that many of the pictures of the supposedly "filthy" facilities were in fact pictures of various parts of Woodside Trails – including the report's most enduring image of what Strayhorn called a "pee wall," a crudely built urinal in the woods near one of the campsites. Gaines and others connected to Woodside Trails were shocked – primarily because the characterizations of the facilities depicted were taken out of context or completely fabricated, says Gaines.

The feeding frenzy had begun. There were editorials in major dailies applauding Stray­horn's efforts and decrying "substandard" facilities and care, and Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick empaneled a special committee to investigate the system.

Gaines and the Woodside Trails board of directors decided to fight. "I can just tell you [Strayhorn] twisted and turned and misrepresented so much in that report," Gaines told the Houston Chronicle. The problem, Gaines said, was that Strayhorn was simply "upset by the whole idea of therapeutic camping" – a concept the comptroller obviously didn't understand. "We do good work here. We work with really, really difficult children. The outdoor setting is part of the philosophy."

Woodside's unique approach to therapy included having the children live outside all year in permanent camping structures – concrete slab floors with platform beds (covered by mosquito netting in the summer and walled in with thick plastic in the winter) and stretched tarp roofs. Each of the camp's four living sites, which housed up to 12 campers each, was built and maintained by the children living there. If the campers wanted to construct a swing, an outdoor shower, or a recreation area, for example, they were responsible (with adult oversight) for the design and construction. Each campsite had a fire pit and a special structure for counselors. There were also latrines and urinals – hence the famous "pee wall" – and campers did prepare some meals for themselves at the camp sites. The procedures were a purposeful part of the campers' therapeutic experience – concrete, specific opportunities to learn responsibility and practical chores.

For most of the children at the camp, the keeping of secrets had helped destroy their young lives and eventually brought them to Woodside Trails. They were abused and told not to tell, or they abused and threatened others. Thus, the approach at the camp was exactly the opposite. Their problems had been "generated in secret, conducted in secret," Gaines said. "We turned it all out. Everything was everyone's business; everything was out in the open." And that extended to the outdoor living environment. "They are responsible for their quality of life in their social group," Gaines said earlier this year. "So they have a lot of say in increasing their quality of life." The idea was to allow the children power to bring order to their often chaotic lives. The wilderness setting played a major role in that process. "These kids are so distracted by so many things. When they get to the rhythm of the earth ... it just slows them down," said Gaines. "There's this miracle ... of the woods."

The outdoor living at Woodside did have indoor aspects: There was a large industrial kitchen and dining hall where kids ate two hot meals each day; there were indoor toilets and shower rooms; there was a large school, staffed by Smithville Independent School District teachers, with a computer lab and well-stocked library; and there was room for the children to sleep indoors when the temperature dropped lower than 25 degrees.

None of this was mentioned by Strayhorn (nor in subsequent media reports, which parroted many of Strayhorn's incorrect statements about the camp – including that Wood­side Trails lacked electricity and running water, as The Dallas Morning News reported and never corrected). Instead, Strayhorn called on DFPS to change regulations to force rustic camps like Woodside Trails to conform to "permanent" therapeutic camp standards, where children don't spend the year outside.

In essence, Strayhorn called for an end to therapeutic camping altogether and for Wood­side Trails to close. Woodside's supporters were stunned. Board Chair Robin Peyson, then working for a state agency, said she received a call from one of Strayhorn's expenditure analysts, Ruthie Ford, who Peyson said threatened her job if she didn't watch what she said about the camp and the comptroller. "I had no experience with politics," says Peyson. She called a friend, a legislative staffer at the Capitol, to ask what she and the camp should do to deal with the Strayhorn-led assault. The friend said, "You need to get on your knees and beg for help, and ask ... Strayhorn what you should do," she recalled. "I said, 'I can't do that, and the board won't do that.' [My friend] said, 'Well, then you'll get run over.'" (Ford could not be reached for comment.)


The Campaign

As a professional politician, Carole Keeton Strayhorn has never been known for subtlety. Rather, the former Austin mayor and feisty 69-year-old, who has branded herself "One Tough Grandma," is a political juggernaut prone to sensational official displays aimed at sound bites and headlines. Strayhorn's crusade against foster-care abuse (and, ultimately, against Woodside Trails) had inevitable political overtones as she contemplated a 2006 gubernatorial run – standing in defense of defenseless, abused children certainly couldn't hurt that ambition. (Ultimately, Strayhorn lost that race, placing third of four candidates.)

Despite subsequent legal proceedings that have exonerated Woodside Trails and its staff of the charges against them, Strayhorn remains unrepentant over her actions against what she calls "that so-called camp." Interviewed recently about the controversy, she told The Austin Chronicle that she was not responsible for the troubles at Woodside Trails. "I did not close Woodside Trails," she said. "The state closed it." (See "Strayhorn on Woodside Trails.")

Woodside kids sitting outside a conselors' shelter at one of the campsites
Woodside kids sitting outside a conselors' shelter at one of the campsites (Photo Courtesy of Bebe Gaines)

Woodside's attempts to fight back against the negative media reports were at best nonproductive and seemed to be getting them into more trouble with Strayhorn and, by extension, with DFPS. Veteran child psychiatrist Dr. Michael Weiner, who was a volunteer at Woodside Trails and has more than 30 years of experience with residential treatment, penned a long letter to Strayhorn offering to help her navigate the camp's treatment data. "When the comptroller first started to rumble, naive as I was, I thought she was a comptroller who counted things and was interested in the quality of care," he said last month. "Well, we had all the backup for all the stats, and I said ... 'You're welcome to send people and look at the back­up.' I thought that would solve the problem."

Instead, Weiner got a form-letter response. "And they never came to look" at any of the data, he said. "They weren't interested in the quality of the program." The camp's consulting psychologist, David Poole, got a similar response when he tried to communicate with Strayhorn. "From my perspective, Strayhorn got it in her mind that she was some sort of gifted grandma and that she cared about these kids where no one else did," he said recently. And when she came across this very specialized wilderness program, "she just presumed, I guess, that this was abusive of kids or not helpful." In all, he said he doesn't think Strayhorn ever "did much investigation" of the camp. He wrote a couple of letters, explaining the program and offering to help her understand it better. In response, Poole said he got a letter from Strayhorn that "said, basically, 'I know more than you do.'" For whatever reason, he said, it seemed that Strayhorn had "decided to scapegoat the place. And apparently she had allies in the press."

Although therapeutic camping had been in use in Texas since the 1940s, no one at DFPS seemed able to explain to Strayhorn how the program worked or to point out that it was only employed for a small minority of foster kids at serious risk of dropping out of society altogether. (The camp could only hold 48 campers at one time, and many children in the care of Woodside Trails remained at the camp for more than one year.) Instead, regulators, lawmakers, and other state officials seemed incapable of getting past the fact that the children lived outside. All year.

During an August hearing before a House interim committee set up to investigate DFPS, Diana Spiser, assistant commissioner for Child Care Licensing, told lawmakers the agency was proposing a new regulation that kids could only have a "wilderness experience" for 14 days at a time, buffered by 21 days of living inside. And although Gaines tried to explain the philosophy of the camp, lawmakers kept peppering her with questions about why the kids had to be outside for so long. Among the most persistent of questioners was Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio (then serving as a state representative), who sat in on Gaines' testimony during an Aug. 4 hearing. Uresti had been a Marine, he said, and not even Marines actually like living outside. "It's no fun being outside," he opined. "Everybody likes a warm shower; everybody likes a warm bed." Uresti said he'd rather see children housed in Texas prison facilities, where at least there are modern conveniences such as television.

Things quickly got worse for the folks at Woodside Trails. Suddenly, the state's abuse and neglect hotline was lighting up with complaints about the camp and the quality of care there. According to court records, the state received at least 40 complaints (everything from the staff not being paid enough to complaints that campers were being physically abused). They were hardly random or coincidental – as it turned out, they had been called in by members of Strayhorn's own staff. Yet under the law, every single complaint, however generated, had to be investigated by DPFS – further ratcheting up the pressure on department investigators.

There didn't appear to be any political will within the agency to take a position that might slow the Strayhorn juggernaut. "I think Stray­horn's report spooked the department," said one source with knowledge about the camp and the agency. "And so they went out [to the camp], and it was kind of like finding gambling in Casablanca. They'd been placing kids there [for years], they knew what [the camp was about], and then they go this time, and they're just shocked, shocked, shocked. And so it all kind of fell apart."


Lies Told and Untold

The beginning of the end for Woodside Trails came on July 12, 2004. That morning, DFPS investigator Darla Jean Shaw placed a call to Bastrop Co. sheriff's investigator Steve Suriano with news that a 13-year-old named Joseph D. had made an "outcry" of sexual abuse that needed investigation. Joseph, then living at a residential treatment center in Lock­hart, told a worker there that he'd been sexually abused by a counselor at Woodside Trails, where he'd lived for three years before moving to Lockhart later that summer. Accord­ing to Joseph, his "in-camp" counselor, Jack Rey­nolds, had fondled him and had forced him to fondle and perform oral sex on Rey­nolds. The next day, Suriano and Shaw met in Bastrop to observe an interview of Joseph, conducted at the county's Children's Advocacy Center.

According to Joseph, the abuse began with Reynolds "hang[ing] around me a lot ... and he sort of started to get a little in my boundaries and then ... he started to ask me to have sex with [him]," he told the interviewer. Joseph claimed the abuse took place at Woodside's Twin Pines camp, both in Joseph's bunk and at the camp's fire pit during the "three to four weeks" before Joseph moved to Lockhart.

That same day, Shaw made a trip to Wood­side Trails. She asked Gaines about Reynolds' relationship with Joseph but declined to tell her why she was asking or to tell her that Joseph alleged he'd been sexually abused at the camp. "Gaines could not be told about the specific allegations due to a criminal investigation," Shaw noted in her report. Before leaving, Shaw interviewed several young campers from the Twin Pines site – none reported having seen any abuse – and she gathered from Gaines a stack of "log notes" regarding Joseph's daily treatment and activities at the camp.

It's not clear whether Shaw did any additional investigation over the next several weeks. Suriano, it seems, did not. Instead, based solely on the content of Joseph's interview, Suriano filed for an arrest warrant and on July 22 took Reynolds into custody. (Reynolds was later released on bail.) In a 2006 deposition, Suriano, a 25-year veteran officer who now works for the Texas Attorney General's Office, said it wasn't at all unusual for him to make an arrest before conducting any independent investigation into an allegation of sexual abuse. For him, Joseph's tale alone was compelling enough to act. Nobody seemed to take note of the fact that Joseph D. was assigned to the camp because he had been a sexual offender himself and that specifically he was in a camp program designed for habitual liars – nothing he said was to be accepted as true unless it could be independently confirmed.

David Poole
David Poole

Over the next few weeks, people at Woodside Trails feared the worst. On Aug. 13, it came true; CPS caseworkers, directed by DFPS supervisors, descended on the camp to remove the 22 kids the agency had placed there. (Kids placed there by county probation departments were removed soon after.) "As most of you know our concerns about [Woodside Trails] have greatly elevated during the last week to two weeks," Shaw's supervisor in DFPS' Residential Child Care Licensing division, Char Bateman, wrote in an e-mail to colleagues. "Late last night it was decided to remove CPS children from this facility. We had long discussions with executive and legal staff ... and it was thought that since we still have open, serious investigations [of the camp], we could not take [action to revoke the camp's license] but rather would be on stronger ground to take an adverse contract action. The CPS staff have notified [Woodside] of the contract action and have moved their children," she continued. "Elected officials were notified before we took the action."

The children cried as they were taken away from the camp (some forcibly, in "shackles," recalled Cheryl Burns, Smithville ISD's director of curriculum, who was Woodside's school principal), their sleeping bags and clothes packed into the back of the state SUVs; the camp staff was crying, too, and bewildered by what was happening – how had things gone this far, Gaines wondered.

But at least one person was pleased: "It's about time," Stray­horn said in a press statement released that day. "I hope this is the beginning in a change of attitude at [DFPS] and the needs of the children will be put first, where they should have been all along."

Just three days later, on Aug. 16, Shaw and Suriano again interviewed Joseph D. According to Shaw's report, the purpose of the interview was to gather additional details about the alleged abuse. But Joseph arrived with rather different information: He told the investigators that he'd invented the allegations against Reynolds. Joseph said that none of the accusations – that he'd fondled Reynolds and that Reynolds forced Joseph to perform oral sex – was true. According to a transcript of this second interview, the investigators pressed Joseph: He shouldn't worry about what would happen to the camp, the other kids, Reynolds, or Gaines; none of them could hurt him – except, Shaw noted, other children could be abused if Joseph didn't tell the truth. The truth, said Joseph, was that he was uncomfortable with his close relationship with Reynolds, but none of the allegations of abuse was true. "Why did you say ... those things about Jack, that he did those things to you?" Shaw asked Joseph.

Joseph paused. "I don't know," he said quietly.

"You don't have any idea why?" Shaw asked.

"No," he said.


Permission to Lie

It wasn't until Aug. 20, a month after Joseph's initial outcry and following his recantation, that anyone connected to the abuse investigation finally got around to talking with the accused counselor, Jack Reynolds. That day, Shaw and her colleague Sharron Loyd sat down with him to discuss his work at Wood­side and his relationship with Joseph. Reynolds was open, discussing at length how he came to work with Joseph at the camp. Reynolds, then 36, had moved to Bastrop from Austin after the tech bubble burst, ending his job as domain administrator at a local Verizon call center. Reynolds happened to be a member of a nonprofit organization that had purchased a piece of property in Bastrop. To save money, Reynolds moved in, but professional jobs in Bastrop were hard to come by.

In the spring of 2003, on a whim, Reynolds decided to check the employment ads for "laborers" in the local paper, and there he found the ad seeking counselors for Woodside Trails. He went to check it out. Quickly, he was hooked. "It was the first and only job I've had in this life that I absolutely loved," he said recently. Woodside Trails was an intense working environment, and part of the approach of "openness" required that the adults working at the camp accept that they too might have issues to deal with, and they had to be willing to expose their weaknesses to the children – that was the only way to help the kids move beyond their troubled pasts. "You had to relate to them to 'reraise' them," said Gaines. "We had to love them as our own, treat them as our own."

Every potential employee at Woodside was first required to spend a "48-hour observation shift" in one of the campsites, recalled Reynolds. He did his two-day turn at the Twin Pines camp, where Joseph D. was living. The observation shift went well; Reynolds took the job and was assigned to work with the kids in Twin Pines. At his first meeting of the campsite's counselors, Reynolds' supervisor announced that each counselor would need to pick two campers to be their "in-camp" pals, kids they'd work closely with. The supervisor said everyone could choose one child, and he would assign them a second. When it was his turn, Reynolds chose the only child whose name he already knew: Joseph D. "At first, everybody started laughing," Reynolds recalled. "Then they were relieved," because they knew Joseph wouldn't be assigned to them.

Jack Reynolds
Jack Reynolds (Photo by Jana Birchum)

What the others knew that Reynolds didn't was that Joseph D. was one of the camp's most troubled kids. "He was a very charming little kid who really had an ability to have people care about him," Reynolds recalled. "But he was very sociopathic and ... used his skills to manipulate people. Clinically, there are no 'sociopaths' under 18, but he was the closest they had ever seen out there, not caring about the pain he causes."

Joseph was a very troubled kid. He'd seen his father survive a hatchet attack to the head, only to see his father later attempt to murder his pregnant mother. At 13, he'd been branded a sexual predator – he'd been molested, had molested other kids, and had exhibited sexually inappropriate behavior with a puppy – and demonstrated a troubling lack of empathy. Lying was a particular problem for Joseph – so much so that camp officials had to place Joseph on a special program called "Permission to Lie." The program, an intense intervention, was reserved only for children who are "acutely anti-social and whose habitual lying poses a particularly frightening danger to the facility and the staff ... and other residents," Reynolds has written. Under the program, everything Joseph said was considered a lie unless corroborated by a third party. In the 22-year history of Woodside Trails, only one other camper had ever been placed in the Permission to Lie program.

Regardless of Joseph's particular problems – or perhaps because of them – Reynolds was determined to reach the child and to help him overcome his difficulties. Reynolds, an affable and articulate man, is also stubborn – and so he was with Joseph. Reynolds refused to give up on the kid; he was determined to make a connection. Not surprisingly, Joseph resisted, Reynolds told investigators Shaw and Loyd. In fact, in response to Reynold's approach, Joseph threatened to falsely accuse Reynolds of sexual abuse. The threat was documented in the camp log in February 2004, and Joseph ultimately apologized in a handwritten note also included in the log. Those notes were among the logs Gaines had given Shaw back in July. "I was mad at you because you wouldn't let me run away and you could not be my [in-camp counselor] for a while and I thought that meant you wouldn't be my [in-camp] at all and you wouldn't spend time with me," he wrote in an apology. "I was afraid you wouldn't work with me like we were. I'm really sorry Jack R seriously."

During the interview on Aug. 20, Shaw pressed Reynolds, asking him repeatedly whether he'd abused Joseph. Reynolds forcefully denied each allegation. Reynolds thought – or hoped – that would be that. He didn't yet know that Joseph had already recanted his abuse claim, but he did know Joseph and his history and assumed that Shaw, and then Suriano – who'd investigated previous claims of abuse made by Joseph against others that were determined to be false – would look at the whole picture and see that Reynolds had done nothing wrong.

That didn't happen. Instead, on Aug. 25, based solely on the testimony of investigator Suriano, a Bastrop Co. grand jury indicted Reynolds on two counts of sexual assault of a child. Also that day, Shaw penned a so-called "reason to believe" letter to Gaines (and another to camp board Chair Peyson), informing her that DFPS had concluded that she had been neglectful of the children in her care – and specifically, of Joseph, for allowing him to be abused by Reynolds. "[W]e have made the decision that you pose an immediate threat or danger to the health and safety of children," Shaw wrote. "We have also instructed your employer [the Woodside Trails board] that they must immediately remove you from contact with children."

Woodside Trails was shuttered, Reynolds was branded a criminal, and Gaines' career working with foster children was over.

Neither Gaines nor Reynolds could comprehend what had happened or why they'd been targeted. Gaines was never even told that she was the subject of any investigation, nor was she ever interviewed by DFPS regarding her alleged neglectful supervision until Aug. 26 – the day after the department concluded she was at fault and a danger to children.

After months of battling with DFPS and the comptroller, Woodside Trails was, effectively, shut down. Gaines, Reynolds, and their supporters concluded that the entire episode was about politics: Strayhorn's pressure on DFPS to shape up – and shut down Woodside – had worked. Department officials have denied that charge, but documents related to Shaw's investigation suggest otherwise. To begin with, Shaw's investigation was shaky at best. She omitted many key facts from her reports that would support Reynolds' contention that Joseph's allegations were false (and would support the validity of Joseph's recantation). Indeed, she omitted information about Joseph's propensity to lie and about the false allegations that Joseph had made against Reynolds and others; she omitted any description of the setup of Twin Pines, whose open design meant any abuse would be within the view of at least 10 other people; and she neglected to interview other residents of the Twin Pines camp.

Significantly, Shaw did not even mention that Reynolds was no longer employed at Woodside Trails during the period Joseph alleged the abuse had occurred. According to Joseph, he was abused by Reynolds during the month of May, just before Joseph moved to Lockhart. In fact, Reynolds had left the camp in April 2004. In federal court this summer, Shaw said she felt that information simply wasn't necessary. "I felt I had enough for a preponderance of the evidence," she said. It's not that that information wouldn't be "important, but you can't include every tiny piece of information." Ultimately, Shaw conceded that she didn't think that information was important: "I didn't include it, so I guess I didn't."

To Gaines and Reynolds, Shaw's admissions under oath strongly suggest that the DFPS motives were political – that Reynolds, Joseph D., and Gaines were used as a means to an end. "I don't think they [ever] believed [Joseph's allegation]. I think they used it as a way to shut Bebe [Gaines] down and get the comptroller" – and, ultimately, the Legislature – "off their ass," Reynolds said recently. "Intentionally and knowingly labeling me as a child molester to achieve a political goal, that's pretty scary." The alternative explanation, Reynolds points out, is that Shaw and DFPS are simply incompetent.


Vindication

At Woodside Trails today, the kids' former campsites are abandoned and partially dismantled.
At Woodside Trails today, the kids' former campsites are abandoned and partially dismantled. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

It's been more than four years since the kids were taken away from Woodside Trails in a fleet of state-owned Suburbans. Yet the legal wrangling over what happened there – including the indictment of Reynolds on two sex assault charges – continues. Ultimately, the charges against Reynolds were dropped – but only after he doggedly sought access to Joseph's recantation. In March 2005, the Bastrop District Attorney's Office finally dismissed the charges. Reynolds and Gaines were further absolved of any wrongdoing by State Office of Administrative Hearings judges, who conducted due process inquiries of DFPS' investigations. The SOAH judges found that there was no credible evidence to support DFPS' conclusions, and Gaines and Reynolds were cleared of any wrongdoing. "This case presents many emotional, controversial, and disturbing facts, but none of these facts prove that Mr. Reynolds sexually abused [Joseph D.]," the SOAH judges wrote in their opinion in Reynolds' case. "Other than the initial outcry and Shaw's interview with [Joseph] it is unclear from the record how [she] reached her finding on sexual abuse." Ultimately, the judges concluded that there "is simply no evidence showing that sexual abuse occurred."

Reynolds, representing himself, filed a federal civil rights suit against DFPS employees, which the state ultimately settled. (Gaines' attorney, Susan Henricks, says Reynolds' is the only case she knows of in which the state has actually settled with a pro se litigant.) Reynolds has filed a second suit, in state court in Bastrop County, against Suriano and prosecutor Kathryn Holton, accusing them of false arrest, malicious prosecution, gross negligence, and abuse of process, among other claims. At press time, the case was pending.

Gaines also filed suit in federal court against Strayhorn and nine DFPS employees (including Shaw and former DFPS Commissioner Thomas Chapmond). Strayhorn was ultimately dropped from the suit – but not before the comptroller got a polite but savage scouring from U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew Austin. "It is worth noting here that the Court is not saying that its eyebrows have not been raised by the treatment of [Gaines] in this case," Austin wrote. "No doubt much of [Strayhorn and her staff's] behavior in this case ... is untoward and petty. No doubt much of the behavior is (much) less than one would expect from an elected official or her staff."

The case against the DFPS employees went forward, however, and on Aug. 13 – four years to the day that the children were taken from Woodside Trails – the state settled with Gaines (just two hours before the case was set to go to the jury), awarding her $300,000 in damages, the largest amount the state will indemnify its employees. "In this case, it was so blatant that they didn't have any evidence of abuse. It was not credible and not thoroughly investigated," said attorney Henricks. DFPS is "used to, with small operations like [Woodside], jumping on them with their full force, and you can't fight back. They're just piling on, 'We'll bury you here,'" she continued. "It was really compelling to me that these people had really gotten railroaded, and [DFPS] really didn't have a case. Most people won't [fight back]. They'll just fold."

For Gaines, the legal victories have been bittersweet. Although her camp administrator's license has been restored, the allegations of neglect wiped from her state record, she'll never again be able to work with foster children. She's simply too big a liability, colleagues from other state-contracting treatment programs told jurors in federal court – they can't take the chance that Gaines would again attract the ire of DFPS. Yet Gaines remains determined to help the state's "forgotten children." Woodside Trails is closed, but the property is now being transformed into the Eagle Pines Academy, a place for adolescents who have outgrown state care to live, learn life skills, and receive training in "green skills" – water harvesting, solar energy, green building. (See "Woodside's Future.")

"This is a hugely underserved population," Gaines said recently. They leave foster care with few skills and are at high risk for ending up homeless. Gaines is hoping the new academy can help lead these young people to stable lives.

Overall, Strayhorn's crusade to reform the state's foster-care system had very mixed results. Strayhorn's report highlighted the overuse of psychotropic medications for foster children, and in response, DFPS wrote its first policy and guidelines for their use and hired its first-ever staff child psychiatrist and medical director – "one of the great steps forward" to come out of Strayhorn's crusade, said one political observer. "So she had a tremendous effect." And DFPS is performing somewhat better, say agency observers. The department has implemented more family-based safety plans and are opting more often for "relative care," both ways to avoid removing children from their families altogether.

The question remains: At what cost were these modest accomplishments made? "We rebuilt hearts, minds, and souls," at Woodside, says board Chair Peyson, and Strayhorn destroyed that – taking down Gaines, Reynolds, and the campers in the process. "She allowed [children] to be sacrificed on the altar of her personal ambitions." Others suggest that Woodside was nothing more than the victim of a "political drive-by" – and that nothing that happened was actually about Woodside Trails. The camp was "ground up in the middle of forces far larger – it wasn't really about what was happening at Woodside Trails," said one observer. Strayhorn might have been "genuinely well-motivated" in her ambitions, but she didn't know "anything about foster care" and thus needed a "sensational" story to drive the policy. Woodside Trails was a convenient prop. "Did Woodside Trails matter?" asks one source close to the case. "In a way, Woodside Trails never mattered."

That's not the memory of the children of Woodside Trails. "Late yesterday, [DFPS] effectively closed the Woodside Trails therapeutic camp in Bastrop by revoking its license. It's about time," Strayhorn said in an Aug. 26, 2004, press release. "I hope the children removed from Woodside ... will find the love and nurturing they so desperately need and deserve."

It didn't work out that way for many of the children pulled from the camp. Some stayed in touch with Gaines, but many disappeared – some ended up in shelters; others disappeared to the streets. Many of the children were moved from placement to placement, says former Woodside school principal Cheryl Burns, who could track the kids based on how many times Smithville ISD received requests for their academic records. In the first year after Woodside closed, she received requests for the same children's records "three and four" times. It was heartbreaking, says Burns – many of the children had made such progress and had actually graduated to being able to attend school at Smithville's regular high school campus. "We felt pretty successful with what we were doing," she said. "The hardest thing was being there the day" CPS removed the children. "These kids did not want to leave this place where they felt safe," she continued. "In my 20-some-odd years in education, it was an eye-opening event. I kept thinking, where is the life of the child here?"

For Reynolds, the experience was painful but in retrospect has provided him a clear sense of what really matters. "I'd floundered most of my life. I always wondered about my legacy – would anyone even know I was here?" he said. "I know now that the single greatest contribution you can make in this world is to raise your kids well. I learned that at Woodside Trails."


Woodside Trails

Bebe Gaines talks about the day the state closed down her therapeutic camp for troubled foster kids. Video by Jana Birchum

Video no longer available.

  • More of the Story

  • Strayhorn on Woodside Trails

    Former comptroller defends her actions on foster care
  • Woodside's Future

    A green-skills program caters to children who have aged out of the foster-care system

    Woodside Trails

    Bebe Gaines talks about the day the state closed down her therapeutic camp for troubled foster kids

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Woodside Trails, Bebe Gaines, Jack Reynolds, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, Child Protective Services, foster children

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