29 kids in 2 1/2 years died in state's care-- 2 stopped breathing while restrained recently
Dallas Morning News, April 18, 2000

29 kids in 2 1/2 years died in state's care-- 2 stopped breathing while restrained recently
Kelley Shannon / Associated Press

SAN ANTONIO - Two boys who stopped breathing as they were restrained recently in mental hospitals are among at least 29 children who died in the last 2 1/2 years in state-regulated youth institutions and foster homes.

Asphyxiation, suicide, drowning, car accidents and medical problems were some of the causes of death. The children ranged from ages 10 days to 17 years old. Most were teenagers.

The Associated Press obtained child death statistics for residential treatment centers, foster homes and mental retardation homes from the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services under the Texas Public Information Act.

Twenty-nine children died - 10 in fiscal year 1998, 11 in fiscal year 1999 and eight so far in fiscal 2000, according to the protective agency.

The state's fiscal year ends Aug. 31.

Two youths died in institutions of the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation. Both were teenage boys who killed themselves at the Austin State Hospital, agency spokeswoman Laurie Lentz said.

The Texas Department of Health, which licenses psychiatric hospitals, would not disclose any child death information. It cited a new law that the agency contends prohibits it from releasing details of hospital complaints to the public.

State Rep. Patricia Gray, D-Galveston, the lawmaker who wrote the bill, said she did not intend for it to keep the public from learning about hospital complaints.

Held to the floor

At least one child - 14-year-old Willie Wright - died at a psychiatric hospital in Texas this year. Willie stopped breathing in March as he was held to the floor by workers at Southwest Mental Health Center in San Antonio.

Willie was banging himself into a wall when three mental health workers restrained the 250-pound boy, said hospital president Fred Hines.

"It [physical restraint] is something we hate to use, but we're dealing with the absolutely sickest kids there are in terms of psychiatric problems," Mr. Hines said. "We get kids that get totally out of control."

A cause of death for Willie has not been determined by the Bexar County medical examiner's office.

The Texas Department of Health completed its investigation and did not find any state violations, Mr. Hines said.

9-year-old's death

Police did not file charges in connection with the youth's death or in the February death of 9-year-old Randy Steele of Nevada, who stopped breathing after he was restrained by workers at Laurel Ridge Hospital's residential treatment center in San Antonio.

As two workers held Randy to the floor, he vomited and stopped breathing, police said. He died the next day at a general hospital.

The Bexar County medical examiner's office ruled Randy had an unusually enlarged heart for his age and size and that he died of "excited delirium" during a struggle.

The Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services continues to investigate the death, agency spokeswoman Marla Sheely said.

Another Laurel Ridge Hospital patient, 16-year-old Rochelle Clayborne, died after she was restrained during a scuffle with staff members in August 1997. The state later found the hospital violated some state standards regarding restraint use.

An internal memorandum obtained from the protective services agency cites five other child deaths in Texas dating to 1990 in state-regulated facilities in which the use of restraint played a role.

Of the 29 children who died statewide during the 2 1/2-year period, 15 lived in foster homes while 14 were in residential treatment centers, psychiatric hospitals or mental retardation group homes.

There are approximately 11,000 children in foster care in Texas, including residential treatment centers, Ms. Sheely said.

How some died

A review of the children's deaths in Texas reveal a variety of circumstances:

A 2-year-old boy in Burleson died falling down stairs in May 1999 while in a reputable foster home, said Michael Kregg Phillips, a senior attorney with the protective and regulatory services agency.

In El Paso, three teenagers living at a residential treatment center were killed when their van crashed during a field trip in April 1999.

A 15-year-old boy living with a foster family in Houston was killed in August 1999 after an argument with a neighborhood youth during a basketball game. The other boy's 18-year-old brother returned and shot the foster child in the head, police said.

In Tarrant County, the Jefferson Home for Children, a residence for mentally and physically handicapped youths, closed in February after the state revoked its license following a 13-year-old girl's death. There were no allegations of abuse or foul play, but the death should have been reported, Mr. Phillips said. Other violations also were cited.

Children who live in foster homes, group homes or residential treatment centers often have serious emotional or behavioral problems, Ms. Sheely said. Some also have severe medical troubles.

"It's a real different kind of population. These are difficult kids," Ms. Sheely said, but she added that any child's death in an institution or foster home is seriously scrutinized by the state.

"One child death is too many," she said.

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