Mom Blames Youth Ranch for Son’s Death

     WACO, Texas (CN) — A grieving mother sued a Texas youth ranch, claiming it created a “Lord of the Flies atmosphere” that culminated when her 16-year-old son was kicked to death.
     Elizabeth Acevedo says in her Oct. 7 federal lawsuit that Brookhaven Youth Ranch did little to protect her disabled son from being kicked to death in 2014 at the nonprofit residential treatment center in West, Texas.
     She sued Brookhaven Youth Ranch, its foundation, its executive director Dennis Cooke, five security guards, and the teenage boy, “A.S.,” who she says was convicted of murder “and sentenced to a lengthy prison term.”
     Acevedo says her son, Cristian Cuellar, fought with A.S. in a violent game called “King Pin,” in which the stronger child attempted to restrain the weaker child on the floor to pin them. She says A.S. was older than Cristian, 6 inches taller, and outweighed him by more than 45 lbs. “Moreover, he had a documented history of ‘physical aggression and anger management difficulties,” the mother says in the complaint.
     However, she adds: “The staff at the youth ranch would simply observe this child-on-child violence, without making any attempt to intervene, creating a ‘Lord of the Flies’ atmosphere at the youth ranch.”
     After breaking up the initial fight and separating the boys, a security guard tasked with supervising Cuellar “lost track of him,” setting up the fatal incident when, “predictably,” A.S. attacked Cuellar “again, as staff at the facility routinely allowed,” Acevedo says.
     “Because the facility was understaffed, there were insufficient security officers to immediately break up the fight,” according to the complaint.
     By the time guards arrived, A.S. had thrown her son to the floor “then viciously kicked Cristian in the head, killing him,” his mother says.
     Brookhaven executive director Dennis Cooke told Courthouse News on Tuesday that he had no knowledge of the lawsuit and declined comment.
     Cooke and others at the center were not issued summonses until Tuesday because of the Columbus Day holiday, according to court records.
     Acevedo claims that Cooke knew that children at the center were regularly assaulted, but he and his staff did little to prevent violence.
     Brookhaven describes itself online as serving up to 61 teens between the ages of 13 and 17, referred mostly by two Texas agencies and various counties.
     Its mission is to provide a “therapeutic sanctuary where children feel safe, parents feel reassured and referral sources feel appreciated and included in the effort to provide a compassionate, healing environment,” the website states.
     A spokesman for the Texas Justice Juvenile Department noted in an email that it no longer contracts with the ranch, and Acevedo says state agencies have cited the center numerous times for resident-on-resident violence.
     An investigation of her son’s death by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services found that a staff member “was not aware of the child’s ongoing activity” on the date of the attack.
     “As a result, the child was involved in a physical altercation with another resident,” according to the letter sent from a licensing investigator to Brookhaven’s executive director in 2015.
     The state recommended the center implement a system to ensure that all residents are accounted for.
     Acevedo said that in her son’s case, the measures taken, if any, “were woefully ineffective,” and said the staff was “wholly untrained and incapable of preventing violence at the facility.”
     She seeks punitive damages for wrongful death, negligence, gross negligence, and civil rights violations.
     She is represented by Jeffrey Edwards in Austin.

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