Mothers, children dealing with mold, infestations and rotting food at now-closed Galveston shelter

Rosie Nguyen Image
Tuesday, April 18, 2023
Galveston Co. health officials force closure of children's center due to harsh living conditions
The Children's Center in Galveston has stopped sheltering families after health officials condemned it in the wake of a child client being diagnosed with lead poisoning.

GALVESTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Two mothers trying to find a safe place to live with their teenage children said they were met with deplorable conditions at The Children's Center, Inc. in Galveston. Just a few weeks into their stay, the head of the county health department shut the facility down, calling it one of the dirtiest places he's ever seen.

The center's website states that for nearly 145 years, the nonprofit has provided "safety, housing, and mentoring for those who are abandoned, abused, neglected, and exploited."

However, Alexia Francuz, who was staying at the shelter with her 15-year-old son, spoke to ABC13 on Monday about what she called "unacceptable living conditions".

"It was horrible. There is a mold smell as soon as you walk into either house. It does not matter what you do. It comes back. It's just bad there. The conditions weren't acceptable. The bathrooms alone were not acceptable. The toilets were backed up, and the water wasn't running," Francuz said.

Dr. Philip Keiser with the Galveston County Health District said they began investigating when a child staying at the center was at a routine doctor's appointment and tested positive for lead poisoning prompted them to send environmental health specialists to check on the conditions at the facility.

"It's literally one of the dirtiest places I've ever been to. There's dirt on the floor. There's dust everywhere. That's important because that's the way children get lead poisoning. The new people track the dust into the house, and you get some kids crawling through it," Keiser said.

"One of the houses we went into just smelled of sewage. We looked in the back and found the riser, which is where they have the water heater. There was just putrid water standing there, and the drain was clogged up," he said.

Officials reported high concentrations of lead, rat droppings, rotting food, and infestations of roaches, bed bugs, and fleas. The fire marshal was also called due to multiple fire code violations. Consequently, the health department issued an order to halt operations at the Children's Center.

RELATED: Galveston Co. health officials force closure of children's center following harsh living conditions

Keiser said their priority now is getting the children who have lead poisoning treated at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) and working with St. Vincent's house to find housing for those who had to leave.

"These are families that have been in crisis, and this has been a very traumatic event for them. I think that as social service providers, or just humans, we would want to treat people as we would want to be treated. The stories we are hearing and the pictures they're sharing, it's not okay," said Paula Tobon, executive director for St. Vincent's House.

"It's very heartbreaking to see that they had to be exposed to these conditions. They deserve to have that love and support," Mariana Monterrubio, a bilingual case manager for St. Vincent's House, said.

Some of the displaced residents, like Kelly Needham and her two sons, are now staying at a hotel in the area. But they don't know how long they'll be able to stay. They are hoping for some accountability from the administration running the facility.

"We were unpacking the first night, and I sat down on the bed. There were roaches everywhere. The whole mattress smelled like urine. It was gross. I mean, who would expect somebody to bring their kids, especially into a place like that?" Needham said.

Government grants and donations fund the Children's Center. Keiser said part of the funding comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the building is leased out from Galveston County on the provision that the center handles all the maintenance.

"This is a very long-standing agreement. The federal government gave it to the county on the basis that there be a shelter there. The county said, 'Fine.' They put up bids, and the Children's Center bid on it. They provided not only the property rent-free, but for a period of time, provided them a stipend every year," Keiser said.

Leslie Ornelas, the executive director of the United Way Galveston County Mainland said they give $70,000 to the center each year. She said after learning of the allegations. They pulled the Children's Center from their website as a client resource. She also called for an emergency board meeting to consider her recommendation of suspending funding indefinitely to the center for the rest of the year.

Tax filings from 2019 show the Children's Center brought in more than $2.6 million for that year. The Galveston County Health District is now working on submitting a report to the Texas State Department of Health and Human Services, which they said is the agency overseeing the nonprofit. They will also look into other locations of the Center within Galveston County.

Dr. Keiser said it would ultimately be up to the state if a criminal investigation is opened.

"I don't know about the details of the finances of this place, but I can tell you, they weren't spending it on those buildings. So what are they doing with all that grant money? I think as a lay person, that's the kind of question I would ask, and that's the question we will pass on to the regulatory authorities," Keiser said.

ABC13 requested on-camera interviews from the administrators and board members of the Children's Center but were not returned before the Monday evening deadline.

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