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Friday, May 17, 2024 | Back issues
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Judge calls out Texas Rangers over investigation into foster care center

Texas’ $10 billion rainy day fund could pay for mental health services to keep troubled children with their parents and out of the state’s foster care system, a federal judge said.

(CN) — Accusing the Texas Rangers of mishandling their investigation of a treatment center for underage sex trafficking victims, a federal judge on Wednesday said she will ask federal prosecutors to consider bringing charges against one of the facility’s former staffers.

Senior U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack is overseeing reforms to Texas’ foster care system for children in its long-term care, or “permanent managing conservatorship,” who became wards through court orders finding their parents had abused or neglected them.

Following a 2014 bench trial, Jack determined “rape, abuse, psychotropic medication, and instability are the norm” for children in Texas’ “broken” foster care system and found the state was violating their 14th Amendment rights.

With the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services and Health and Human Services Commission working on complying with Jack’s orders, it emerged in a court hearing early this month that a caretaker at the Refuge, a 50-acre residential treatment center in Bastrop for teenage girls who have been victimized by pimps, had been fired in January after she posted nude photos of two residents on social media.

Governor Greg Abbott ordered the Texas Rangers, a division of the state’s Department of Public Safety, to investigate. Less than a week later, DPS Director Steven McCraw wrote Abbott a letter stating, “There is no evidence that any of the residents at the Refuge have ever been sexually abused or trafficked while at the shelter.”

But that conclusion was refuted in a report issued Monday by two monitors appointed by Jack to shepherd reforms.

In January, a Refuge employee reported a colleague had posted naked photos of two 17-year-old residents on Snapchat and traded the photos for Xanax and Percocet, and had given the same teens ecstasy last November, the report states.

The Refuge immediately fired that caretaker and in February it terminated another three employees who had helped two other residents run away from the facility.

Though the Refuge’s founder told state lawmakers last week it provides extensive services for its charges – equine and art therapy, weekly visits from psychiatrists and classes at an on-site University of Texas charter school – the monitors’ probe revealed many problems.

According to their report, since the Refuge opened in August 2018 it has been cited 43 times for noncompliance with the state’s minimum standards for residential treatment centers, with violations involving employee background checks, documenting residents’ medication and failing to monitor children cleaning their rooms after a 17-year-old drank a half cup of bleach and was hospitalized.

The Refuge temporarily closed March 11 after the state suspended its license and its residents were moved to other facilities. They were also interviewed about their treatment there by state-contractor child-advocacy organizations.

At a hearing Wednesday in Dallas federal court, Jack threatened to hold Department of Family and Protective Services staff in contempt if they don’t let the monitors view tapes of those interviews.

She also questioned why McCraw concluded no teens at the Refuge had been sexually abused.

Eric Hudson of the Texas Attorney General’s Office pushed back: “This court has monitoring oversight over the administrative investigations of abuse of children in foster care---”

Jack cut him off: “I know exactly what I have oversight of.”

“Understood, your honor,” Hudson said. “Colonel McCraw, however, is conducting a criminal investigation...”

“Very poorly in my consideration,” Jack interjected.

Hudson, who said he represents Abbott, explained McCraw’s announcement of no sexual abuse uncovered at the Refuge was based on a preliminary investigation by the Texas Rangers and urged Jack to let the inquiry play out.

 Jack said she will refer the matter to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas.

“I want this to be a federal investigation,” the judge added. “That’s what I deal with when I sentence people is child pornography. And I know exactly where this falls and exactly what to look for. And I’m really concerned this investigation of the Rangers is not proceeding in an appropriate direction.”

Shifting away from the Refuge, Jack asked state officials about their progress in implementing recommendations to reduce the number of Texas foster children placed in unlicensed settings made by three independent experts she enlisted for the case.

Due to a lack of licensed residential treatment centers, last year more than 500 children spent at least one night in an unlicensed state-run placement – caseworker offices, hotels and other settings.

Jack and the trio of experts are advocating for the state to provide more mental health services for troubled youth, so they are not removed from their parents’ custody and placed into the foster care system.

They have asked the Department of Family and Protective Services to create a pool of funds for “trauma-informed services and support” for families, relatives of children who take them into their homes known as “kin caregivers” and foster parents. The agency has agreed to do it, but one director testified Wednesday it would require state lawmakers to authorize funds in their next regular session in 2023.

Jack noted the Legislature has been “incredibly generous to the foster program” as reflected by its appropriations to DFPS rising nearly every fiscal year since 2014, from $800 million to more than $2.3 billion for fiscal year 2023.

She also urged officials to ask Abbott about tapping some of the $10 billion socked away in the state’s economic stabilization fund.

Also called the “rainy day fund,” lawmakers opened the account in 1988 after the state’s tax revenues plummeted due to a decline in the price of oil and a recession. It is meant to cover budget deficits, projected revenue shortfalls and can be used for “any other purpose the Legislature chooses at any time,” according to the Texas comptroller’s office.

“Why you can’t get money from the rainy day fund, I don’t know anything about that,” Jack said. “I just know it’s there for a rainy day. I can tell you it’s raining on these children.”

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Categories / Civil Rights, Government, Regional

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