State shuts down Fort Worth program for autistic teens, citing ‘immediate risk’ to kids
The state has shut down a Fort Worth residential treatment program for teens, in a sudden move that left parents scrambling to pick up their children.
The state Health and Human Services Commission issued an emergency suspension and closure of Fort Behavioral Health on Thursday, according to emails and a copy of the suspension order obtained by the Star-Telegram. Fort Behavioral Health, on Oakbend Trail in southwest Fort Worth, has a number of programs under its umbrella — including Camp Worth, a residential treatment program for teens with autism.
The emergency closure was due to “an immediate threat to the health and safety of children in care,” according to the suspension order, which the state Health and Human Services Commission provided to the Star-Telegram. The closure also came less than 24 hours after Fort Behavioral staff sent emails assuring parents that everything was fine.
Raymond Vail and Charity Harkey-Vail, of Oklahoma City, picked up their 16-year-old daughter Elaine from Camp Worth on Thursday. The sudden closure and its potential safety risks have left them reeling.
“I feel like I let my daughter down,” Harkey-Vail said. “I know that’s not what’s really happening here. But she needs help and I thought I had found a place, at least right now, just to at least get the ball started.”
The emergency closure remains in effect for 30 days, according to the order.
Fort Behavioral did not respond to phone calls requesting comment Friday and, when Star-Telegram reporters visited the facility to request comment, staff asked the reporters to leave the premises.
But on Friday afternoon, Fort Behavioral posted on Facebook that its adolescent programs are “temporarily closed” while the staff “work to restructure our curriculum and update our policies.”
The calls and emails started on Wednesday.
Daniel — a parent with a 14-year-old child at Camp Worth who asked that his last name not be used to protect his son’s identity — said he received a call from an investigator with the state Department of Family and Protective Services.
The investigator said she was looking into allegations of unauthorized restraints and inadequate staffing at Fort Behavioral Health, and asked for permission to interview Daniel’s son. Daniel declined because his son was not involved in the allegations and he worried that an interview might upset his son and disrupt his treatment.
On the same day, investigators reached out to Vail and Harkey-Vail, too.
Harkey-Vail received an email Wednesday from a state Health and Human Services employee, who explained that there was “an investigation” into understaffing at Fort Behavioral Health. (Texas Health and Human Services is the state agency that oversees residential facilities for children.) Harkey Vail then forwarded that email to Fort Behavioral Health staff, according to an email chain that the family shared with the Star-Telegram.
Fort Behavioral Health’s director of quality and compliance, Jim Morris, replied the same day and said the understaffing issue was “an unsubstantiated allegation” and that Fort Behavioral Health believed the allegation to be the work of “several former disgruntled employees.”
“It is very troubling that an investigator would send out an email like this before an investigation is even completed,” Morris wrote.
At the same time that Morris sent his response to Harkey-Vail, the family also received an email from Fort Behavioral Health’s director of admissions, Tricia Martinez.
In her email, Martinez forcefully denied the understaffing accusation.
“I can assure you with 100% confidence that this is a false allegation that will be dismissed shortly,” Martinez wrote.
At that point, Vail said, the couple had already decided to pull their daughter out of the program.
“We felt like something wasn’t adding up,” Vail said. “At that point, Charity’s motherly instincts were like, ‘I think we need to go get her.’”
Harkey-Vail called Fort Behavioral Health on Wednesday to withdraw Elaine from the program. And, minutes after she got off that phone call, her phone rang again. It was another investigator, with the state Department of Family and Protective Services, the same agency that had contacted Daniel. Harkey-Vail said the investigator mentioned an investigation into abuse allegations at Fort Behavioral Health.
“That’s what put us into full panic mode,” Vail said.
Vail and Harkey-Vail picked up their daughter Thursday morning. On the drive home, less than 24 hours after two Fort Behavioral Health administrators assured parents that everything was fine, the couple received an email from the state.
Fort Behavioral Health had been shut down.
“This morning, The Texas Health and Human Services commission has issued an emergency suspension to Fort Behavioral Health due to immediate risk to the health and safety of children residing at the operation,” says the email, which Vail shared with the Star-Telegram.
While Vail and Harkey-Vail were on their way back to Oklahoma, Daniel — the parent with the 14-year-old son — received a phone call from an employee at Texas Health and Human Services.
The employee told him there was an investigation into Fort Behavioral Health, that the facility was being shut down and that he needed to pick up his son, Daniel recalled.
“What’s going on?” Daniel said he asked the state employee. “Is my child in danger?”
According to Daniel, the staffer replied: “I cannot tell you, I just know that their licenses are being suspended and you have until 8 p.m. tonight to pick your child up.”
Daniel, not yet convinced that the call was legitimate, said he called Camp Worth’s front desk, which was unaware of plans to shut the facility down. He eventually confirmed that Camp Worth was closing after talking to two more people at the state agency. In one conversation, he asked whether there were contingency plans for the children whose parents lived far from Fort Worth, or for children who needed continuous care.
“It was horrendous making the decision in the first place to take my kid out of the home,” Daniel said. “And you’re telling me it’s 3 o’clock, at this point I have five hours to get my child?”
When Daniel arrived to pick up his son in Fort Worth, he described chaos and tears as parents, kids and employees were saying goodbye, packing their belongings and trying to understand what had happened.
“Basically we’re kicking a sick child out on the street, not just one of them a whole bunch of them,” he said.
‘Back to square one’
The closure of Fort Behavioral Health, particularly because of its suddenness, has left both families without immediate access to the resources their children need.
On Friday, Daniel and his family were scrambling to figure out next steps for their son, who needs therapy, medication, and school enrollment, all of which he was previously receiving at Camp Worth.
Vail and Harkey-Vail said they’re not sure where they’ll turn to next to get their daughter the treatment she needs. Vail said they’ll have to again search outside of their home state of Oklahoma, and he worries they might not find anything within driving distance.
It’s back to the beginning on the complex problem of where to find care.
“I’ve been making phone calls all day to try to find my daughter some help,” Harkey-Vail said.
“We’re back to square one now,” Vail said.
If you or your family have been affected by the suspension of Fort Behavioral Health’s adolescent programs, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.