This story was produced by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization. Learn more at revealnews.org and subscribe to the Reveal podcast, produced with PRX.
During her troubled girlhood, Susan was sent to three different boarding schools to get help for drinking, drug use, and cutting herself in times of despair.
Only at the Daystar Residential Inc. treatment center in South Texas were male counselors assigned to sleep overnight in houses occupied by teenage girls, she says.
That is how in 2009, at age 15, she came to be sexually abused by a 43-year-old Daystar counselor. She says the experience sent her into a spiral of depression, methamphetamine abuse, heroin addiction and jail.
“I always blamed myself—but he preyed on me,” she says of Jay Franklin Wiggins, the former Daystar live-in counselor who abused her. In 2011, he pleaded guilty to indecency with a child and was required to register as a sex offender.
“It shows you how disgraceful the place was, letting a man sleep with the girls,” she says.
Talking publicly for the first time, the former Daystar student, now 25 and in recovery, described an out-of-control environment at Daystar and the related Shiloh Treatment Center near Manvel, about 30 miles south of Houston. The jointly operated special-needs centers have been the target of repeated official investigations because of the deaths of five residents and other incidents of suspected child abuse.
Although Daystar was shut down by the state of Texas in 2011, Shiloh remains in business, and in recent years, it has been paid millions of dollars by the federal government to house immigrant children in U.S. custody. As Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting has reported, immigrant children at Shiloh complain that they have been forcibly injected with powerful psychiatric drugs.
Hill and Shiloh employees have not returned multiple calls by Reveal seeking comment.
A July statement on Shiloh’s website says it has been investigated by various government agencies and “all of the widely distributed allegations about Shiloh were found to be without merit. The children have been found to be properly cared for and treated.”
Susan’s account of her time at the school is supported by court records from the prosecution of Wiggins and the lawsuit she filed. Susan is a pseudonym; Reveal is not publishing her real name because she is a victim of sexual abuse. Wiggins declined to comment.
Susan traces her emotional problems to a childhood trauma. At 8, in her family’s home near San Diego, she says she was molested by a family friend and suffered more abuse later. She became an angry, rebellious teen—drinking, smoking pot, running away with boys. At 13, after she had been hospitalized for cutting herself, her mother sent her to a treatment center in Montana.
Two years later, in 2008, her mother sent her to Daystar. Her fellow students were a mix of girls, some with severe psychiatric disorders and others with behavior issues or drug problems, all housed together in double-wide trailers.
The school itself was disorganized and undemanding, with no real curriculum or lesson plans, she says.
Proprietor Clay Dean Hill, who ran the facilities through a network of corporations, paid special attention to her, she says. He asked her to play guitar and sing to him and even arranged for her to perform at a bar in Houston.
Daystar seemed “kind of fun at the time,” she says. Still, she found it disconcerting that Wiggins, the counselor in her house, was sleeping in a small private room with one of the girls.
Later, Susan was moved into a different trailer. Soon, Wiggins moved there, too. She began hanging out with him in the evenings, sitting with him in his pickup truck and smoking cigarettes. One night, he gave her an Ambien pill, she says, and they wound up in his bed in a room with four or five other girls. Wiggins, thinking the other girls were asleep, had sex with her.
But one girl was awake, and the next day, angry and weeping, she told Susan that what Wiggins was doing was wrong and she was going to report him. Susan says Wiggins told her to lie to the counselor assigned to investigate, and Wiggins quickly was exonerated. Police never were called, she says.
When the girl who reported the incident learned the outcome, “she went crazy—she had a breakdown,” and was forcibly restrained by counselors and taken away, Susan says.
In July 2009, when she turned 16, Susan left Daystar and went home to her mother in San Bernardino County, California. Wiggins mailed her a cellphone so they could talk, and soon he arranged to visit. Wiggins told her mother that the girl was “like a daughter to me,” she says. On the visit, she says Wiggins twice took her to motels for sex.
After Wiggins left, Susan says she began drinking heavily and using meth. Eventually, she was arrested at school for being under the influence. After she was released from juvenile detention, she says she broke down and told her mother about Wiggins, and her mother called the local sheriff.
A detective arranged for her to call Wiggins and record the conversation.
“We got him admitting to everything,” she says, and the counselor was arrested by Texas authorities.
She called Wiggins a few times after he was freed on bail. On the last call, she says, “he ended up saying, ‘Clay Hill wanted me to tell you something: Keep your fucking mouth shut.’”
Wiggins pleaded guilty to indecency with a child, a third-degree felony. He was sentenced to 10 years’ probation.
Wiggins’ arrest cheered her, but Susan continued to struggle with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Four years later, she hit rock bottom: living on the streets in San Diego, pregnant, addicted to heroin, “hustling men for dope and places to stay.”
Arrested again, she wound up in a drug treatment program and her life started to turn around. Today, she has a job and two kids.
“I have a good life now,” she says.
But why, she asks, doesn’t somebody shut down that complex of shelters outside Manvel?
This story was edited by Ziva Branstetter and Amy Pyle and copy edited by Nikki Frick.