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Texas lawmakers vet state’s scandal-plagued foster care system

A state law enforcement official said he believes the arrest of a former shelter employee who sold nude photos of two teenage girls she supervised is imminent.

(CN) — Texas lawmakers grilled state law enforcement and child protective services officials Monday about a shelter worker accused of selling nude photos of two teenage girls in her care and the status of a class action in which a judge is overseeing reforms to the state’s foster care system.

The Refuge, a nonprofit that operates a 50-acre residential treatment center in Bastrop, Texas, for teenage girls who are victims of sex trafficking, had its residents removed and was forced to temporarily close March 11 after the state’s Health and Human Services Commission suspended its license.

The suspension stems from a report that one of the shelter’s staff members made on Jan. 24 to Texas Department of Family and Protective Service investigators that a colleague had given two girls her phone, had them take nude photos of themselves and then sold the photos for Percocet and Xanax pills — prescription drugs frequently sold on the street for recreational use — which she gave to the girls.

The Texas House of Representatives’ Human Services Committee held a hearing Monday on the scandal and how it had been publicized in a class action that is now in its 11th year with no signs it will be resolved soon as officials struggle to comply with court-ordered reforms of the state’s foster care system.

Brooke Crowder, The Refuge’s founder and CEO, told the committee the former employee who sold the photos was as an overnight supervisor in a cottage where four girls lived, including the two who took the pics of themselves, and was immediately fired Jan. 24 when management learned of the situation.

Crowder said The Refuge works closely with the Bastrop County Sheriff’s Office because girls who are placed there by the state’s juvenile detention system, child protective services or their own parents are the most “traumatized girls in our system” having endured sexual trafficking by pimps.

“We call them quite often for various things,” Crowder explained. “Sometimes if girls have gotten into a terrible fight … sometimes if one of our girls has homicidal ideation.”

The Refuge promptly notified the sheriff’s office about the photograph seller and its investigation is ongoing. But after the shelter's problems were publicized in a March 10 filing and hearing in the class action, sparking widespread media coverage, Governor Greg Abbott ordered an immediate probe by the Texas Rangers.

Steve McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, which oversees the Rangers, told the committee they had reviewed the sheriff’s investigation and he believes an arrest is forthcoming.

“Clearly there is evidence and probable cause to believe that Refuge employee was involved in the sexual exploitation of a child, two minors specifically,” McCraw said.

He testified police are waiting on a cellphone service provider to comply with a subpoena and provide records proving the former employee distributed the photos. He said he expects the woman to be arrested once they get that info and she may also be charged with production of child pornography.

“I’m really confused about the nonarrest,” said Representative Toni Rose, a Democrat from Dallas. “And you said that you all are waiting. I mean if it’s already been determined and you have evidence that these things have happened, I’m just really unclear about why this person hasn’t been arrested.”

“That last piece of information. OK? Which is important, is that exchange which will come with the electronic data, the digital evidence," McCraw replied. "Law enforcement, you know, we’re in a position to make the case to a prosecuting attorney. But in the end they get to decide when charges can be filed or not.”

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Though the Texas Health and Human Services Commission handles background checks for all prospective employees of residential childcare homes, including putting them through an FBI fingerprint check, a registry of child abuse and neglect maintained by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, and similar registries of other states they have lived in, Crowder said The Refuge had learned a valuable lesson that despite all those firewalls a “predator still got in.” She said it recently hired two companies to do different kinds of background checks that aren’t just criminal.

The Refuge’s license is suspended until April 10 and Crowder said she hopes the police investigations are done by then and the Health and Human Services Commission allows it to reopen. It has capacity to house 40 girls but due to budget constraints only had 11 when it was shut down, Crowder divulged.

In recent years numerous residential treatment centers for Texas foster children have shut down amid reports of abuse and neglect of their charges, and for failing to comply with state regulations and court-directed reforms, creating a crisis in which youth are forced to temporarily reside in unlicensed state-run placements such as caseworker offices and hotels. And many are sent to out-of-state facilities.

Representative James Frank, a Republican from Wichita Falls who chairs the committee, expressed frustration about the diminishing number of homes for troubled youth in the state and asked Jaime Masters, director of Department of Family and Protective Services, for answers.

“One of the challenges, particularly when you have these type of allegations, is OK now we’ve taken another 10, 20, 30, 40 beds offline and we’ve done this all around the state,” he said. “Not just with this. This is just the highest profile ... We’ve pulled bed after bed, facility after facility after facility after facility offline for the highest-needs kids in the state ... In the abundance of caution, we’re preventing anywhere from servicing these kids.”

Frank also questioned why the allegations involving The Refuge had been made public in the class action.

Masters said she believes Senior U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack, who is overseeing reforms after finding in a 2015 opinion that “rape, abuse, psychotropic medication, and instability are the norm” for children in Texas’ understaffed foster care system, had decided to air them in the March 10 hearing.

Masters revealed four of her agency's employees had been fired for not notifying superiors they had determined in February The Refuge's residents were at high risk for abuse.

On Sunday, Justin Lewis, child care investigations division director for DFPS, resigned due to the finger-pointing within the agency over who was to blame for the delay in escalating concerns about The Refuge, and what he called the "public political flogging" of two of his staffers Friday in a hearing of the Texas Senate Senate Special Committee on Child Protective Services.

But he may have also been motivated to resign by an email a former colleague sent to Judge Jack's case manager on Saturday, which was placed on the docket Monday.

It includes text messages from Lewis revealing his disdain for Jack. "She needs to get hit by a bus," he wrote.

Frank noted two monitors, employed by Texas Appleseed and Public Catalyst Group Corporation, appointed to document for Jack if state agencies are complying with her mandates charge $425 an hour, and he has been told the organizations’ staff members are paid at least $225 per hour for their work on the case.

“I’m really not concerned with the money,” Frank continued. “I am concerned with we’ve been in this lawsuit since 2011. The likelihood and the motivation to ever get out of this when you have that kind of money going to essentially two and through two different individuals is there’s not much of a chance of ever getting out.”

But state Representatives Victoria Neave and Gina Hinojosa, both Democrats, said they believe court monitoring should continue.

Hinojosa stated it’s “hard to believe we should get out from under court oversight” when 23 children have died in DFPS care since 2019, though she said she knows some parents relinquish their rights to their kids who have severe health problems that make them predisposed to dying young.

Neave said the reason for the class action is the 24,000 children in Texas’ long-term care have a right to seek recourse for the state’s failings. “And I get that not everybody agrees with every order. But in the end the main goal is that we get what we need done from the state so that these children are protected,” she added.

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