At least seven Texas school districts have sent students with special needs to Shiloh Treatment Center in recent years, despite the facility’s trail of deaths and abuse of children in its care, a Reveal investigation has found.
Among the troubled past of Shiloh and its affiliated facilities are the deaths of four teenagers and allegations that children were injured or sexually abused. The center recently came under scrutiny again, this time for injecting immigrant children in its care with powerful psychiatric drugs without proper consent. A federal judge ordered Shiloh in July to stop the practice, though attorneys allege it’s still continuing.
Yet during the 2017-18 school year, about 30 students were sent to the center by independent school districts in Pasadena, La Porte, Fort Bend, Houston, Texas City and Galveston. At least four of those districts, plus the Pearland district, also have contracted with Shiloh for special education services in the current school year, records show.
A top school official who oversaw special education at Pasadena and now works in the same capacity at Fort Bend has family ties to Shiloh founder Clay Dean Hill, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting also has found.
Deena Hill is his niece, court records show. The parents of a boy who was molested by a school bus monitor sued the Pasadena district and Shiloh in 2012, alleging that they failed to disclose the family relationship when Deena Hill recommended that the boy attend Shiloh.
There’s one state agency that refuses to send children to Shiloh: the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. Seven years ago, then-Commissioner Anne Heiligenstein told a district attorney that the agency had “no intention” of contracting with Shiloh, located about 20 miles south of Houston.
But the Texas Education Agency maintains the center on its list of special education contractors for school district use.
Commissioner Mike Morath, who oversees the agency, did not respond to Reveal’s questions and a spokeswoman said he would be unavailable for an interview. Deputy commissioners Penny Schwinn, Martin Winchester, Mike Meyer, A.J. Crabill and Megan Aghazadian didn’t return calls. Clay Dean Hill and Deena Hill also didn’t respond to calls or emails seeking comment.
When her autistic son started school at Shiloh, Habebah Aburamadan noticed changes in the 13-year-old’s behavior.
The nonverbal boy clung to his mother and refused to board the school bus in the morning. When the boy came home with scratches and bruises, school officials told Aburamadan the injuries were self-inflicted, she said.
She believed them until another student recorded a video of a school aide punching her son in the face.
“I felt like I let my son down because I was listening to these people instead of listening to my child,” Aburamadan said. “He couldn’t speak, but I would see through his actions that something was wrong.”
Alan and Susan Fowler were struggling to find the right school program for their 11-year-old autistic son when Deena Hill stepped in. The special education director at the Pasadena Independent School District, Hill gave the Fowlers a tour of two facilities, including Shiloh Treatment Center, in November 2007. She told them Shiloh had a pharmacy and doctors on staff.
What she didn’t say was that Shiloh’s owner was her uncle, Alan Fowler said, or that Shiloh previously had been investigated for allegations of physical abuse.
“At no point did she mention a damn thing of her being the niece of the owner of the place,” he said. “She never told us any of that stuff.”
After their son started attending Shiloh in late 2007, the Fowlers noticed he was coming home with bruises on his arms, as well as swollen eyes and bumps on his forehead. The district told the Fowlers that the boy was hurting himself during the bus rides home, and the district began restraining the teen and placing gloves on his hands.
On Feb. 4, 2010, a detective called Alan Fowler and told him that a bus monitor employed by the school district had molested his son.
The monitor, 21-year-old Justin Perez, pleaded guilty to indecency with a child and was sentenced to 15 years in prison later that year, the Houston Chronicle reported. He is eligible for parole this year. In 2012, the Fowlers sued the Pasadena school district and Deena Hill for their decision to use restraints, alleging that it led to their son’s sexual assault.
“We felt like it was a chain of events that set off him being in those restraints,” Alan Fowler said. “We felt that there was a conflict of interest that prevented her from fully investigating all angles.”
The Fowlers’ suit, which also named Shiloh and Clay Dean Hill as defendants, states: “Defendants’ misrepresentations regarding the nepotism between Hill and his niece also constitute fraud.”
Deena Hill eventually was dropped as a defendant in the case, which was resolved in June 2013.
Deena Hill left Pasadena to become the Fort Bend school district’s executive director of special education in 2015. The Fort Bend district, about 20 miles southwest of Houston, also sends students to Shiloh.
Fort Bend spokeswoman Amanda Bubela said Deena Hill told the administration she is related to Shiloh’s founder. Deena Hill, Bubela added, does not participate in committees that determine the placement of students in special education programs.
When Reveal asked why Deena Hill’s name appears in the contracts, Bubela said in an email: “Only after placement is determined is a contract generated with the coordination of the Special Education Department’s Executive Director.”
After Perez’s arrest, the Fowlers’ son was transferred to a school that specializes in autism and later returned to school at Pasadena. Over the summer, the 22-year-old walked across a graduation stage with two of his teachers.
“It couldn’t have been a better moment for him or the teachers. It was surreal. It was like something out of a movie,” Alan Fowler said. “They picked up the pieces from Deena Hill’s mess.”
After four teens died in facilities run by Clay Dean Hill, Brazoria County District Attorney Jeri Yenne asked the state Department of Family and Protective Services to clarify its role with Shiloh. In a 2011 letter, then-Commissioner Heiligenstein wrote that the agency didn’t have a contract with the center and “has not had one for many years, if ever.”
“DFPS has no intention of contracting or placing any CPS (Child Protective Services) children with Shiloh, Inc. and staff has been instructed accordingly,” she wrote. Seven years later, the agency still won’t send children there.
Contracts between Shiloh and the schools show that students receive occupational therapy, day programs and residential services. Reveal reached out to all of the districts for comment. Most responded, explaining that they haven’t encountered issues at Shiloh and that the Texas Education Agency allows them to use the facility.
The education agency did not respond to questions about why it allows schools to contract with Shiloh. In a statement, a spokeswoman said the agency contacted districts working with Shiloh after Reveal’s inquiry to “ensure those students are receiving the appropriate services.”
The agency has had problems with Clay Dean Hill’s services in the past. Take the case of Aburamadan’s son, who was injured at Shiloh in December 2014. According to police records, a classmate sneaked a cellphone into class and recorded a video of a school aide, identified as 46-year-old Byron Ramon Criddle, as he punched Aburamadan’s son.
The video shows Criddle holding the boy’s arms behind his back. As the boy cries, Criddle strikes him in the face with a closed fist, records state. The student who recorded the video told an officer that she brought the phone to school because “this has been going on for a while,” records state. Students aren’t allowed to bring phones into Shiloh.
Criddle was talking on an earpiece, she said, and was “getting so annoyed” that the boy was making noise.
“That’s why he punched (him),” she wrote in a statement.
Aburamadan said her son was immediately transferred out of Shiloh.
Shiloh fired Criddle on Dec. 9, 2014. During an interview with police, Criddle said he didn’t hit the student. He was arrested on a charge of felony injury to a child. His case later was dismissed by a grand jury, but the state permanently revoked his educational aide license, records show. He could not be reached for comment.
According to a Texas Education Agency inspection in 2015, officials witnessed an employee threatening misbehaving students by saying he or she planned to administer emergency medications. Some parents also told their school districts “they did not feel their concerns were being heard by facility doctors,” records state.
Agency officials also noted that Shiloh was not consistently reporting the use of restraints and that students who were supposed to receive “a stated amount of special education” were provided with about half of those services.
In a later visit, officials found that Shiloh had corrected the violations, though the agency told Reveal that it could not find documentation showing Shiloh had fixed the problems. The Texas Education Agency renewed its status as an approved contractor. It recently was renewed again through July. Contracts show that schools are paying Shiloh at least $514,000 for services this school year.
That’s surprising to Aburamadan, who said her son still has trust issues with teachers and school employees.
“They can’t speak. They can’t defend themselves. That’s what makes me mad about this whole situation,” she said, referring to special needs students. “I just don’t understand how (Shiloh) is able to be funded and still be open.”
Reporter Will Evans contributed to this story. It was edited by Ziva Branstetter and copy edited by Nikki Frick.