Texas Democrats and Republicans disagree on cause of sex trafficking scandal: Twisted priorities at DFPS contract Bastrop facility – Reuters
Gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke speaks at a press conference Wednesday, March 16 about longstanding issues with Texas’ child welfare system (Photo by Morgan O’Hanlon)
Less than a week after news broke that minors had been sex-trafficking in a Texas Department of Family and Protective Services-contract house for formerly sex-trafficked girls, the Texas Department of Civil Service Security pivoted to say there is no evidence behind the allegations. The initial story drew national attention to the state of Texas’ long-beleaguered child welfare system, which a federal judge has said leaves children “more damaged than when they entered.”
But the new information, revealed in a March 16 letter from the director of the DPS Steven McCraw for Governor Greg Abbott, does not tell the whole story. On March 17, during a hearing of the Texas Senate Select Committee on Child Protective Services, McCraw, commissioner of the DFPS Jaime Mastersand other faults detailed at The Ranch Shelterthe installation of Bastrop at the center of the scandal, which did not raise alarm bells at several agencies even after concerns about sex trafficking were brought to the attention of supervisors.
According to Masters, a Refuge Ranch staff member alerted a social worker that another staff member had nude photos of two underage residents. On January 24, this social worker alerted his supervisors at DFPS. Two days later, the social worker learned that the employee with nude photos also had close personal relationships with several other staff at the facility. Despite this, a DFPS supervisor did not recognize the urgency of the matter. It wasn’t until March 11 that the DFPS issued an order to close the Refuge Ranch. According to McCraw’s letter, four staff members were fired, although nine were initially suspected of involvement. At the committee hearing, Masters blamed human error. “I don’t think it was a failure of process,” she told the committee, adding that the supervisor who failed to report the incident had been fired. “Naked photos of children in our care should have rung all the bells,” she said.
This supervisor was not the only DFPS staff member to lose his job as a result of the scandal. On Sunday, Justin Lewis, who served as director overseeing child custody investigations for the agency, resigned after making sexist comments about U.S. District Judge Janis Jack via text message. Jack presides over a decade-long lawsuit against the agency. Lewis said “she must get hit by a bus”.
According to McCraw, his agency’s investigation of The Refuge Ranch found no evidence of allegations or evidence that residents had been “abused or sexually assaulted by anyone.” McCraw cited “inaccuracies” and “information that had not been properly verified” in a March 10 letter from DFPS to a federal court comptroller who initially reported the situation. Besides the incident involving nude photos of two underage residents “for the alleged purpose of selling them for money and/or drugs,” the letter also notes a second incident, on February 20, when two residents fled the establishment. The letter says Refuge employees are accused of facilitating the escape.
At the end of Thursday’s hearing, committee members concluded that clearly defined guidelines regarding nepotism at agency-contracted facilities and a more consistent interagency data system could have helped protect children at the Refuge Ranch. removing them from a potentially dangerous environment weeks earlier. (Masters added that simply setting up a schedule for his presentation to the committee took seven hours because his staff had to check three different data systems for information).
“Naked photos of children in our care should have rung every bell.” – DFPS Commissioner Jaime Masters
Despite the new information, Democratic challengers to the Texas GOP leadership stand by criticism that longstanding mismanagement of state resources enables misconduct. Govt. Greg Abbott “has been in charge of this issue for two decades as attorney general for 13 years and now governor,” the state representative said. Anne Johnson, D-Houston, at a March 16 news conference. “It sits squarely on her feet.” Democratic candidate for governor Beto O’Rourke — who spoke at the press conference alongside Johnson, the senator says. Sarah Echardt, and several Texans with first-hand experiences in the state’s child welfare system — described the root of the problem as “twisted priorities.” This latest DFPS scandal comes just weeks after Abbott ordered the DFPS to investigate reported cases of “abusive gender transition procedures” on Texas children. “Instead of using the resources of those working here in this building behind us to solve the problem that we just discovered,” O’Rourke said, “this governor is asking them to prosecute the parents of transgender children.”
In 2017, the Texas Legislature passed reforms in response to the crisis in the state’s troubled child welfare system that decentralized the state’s foster care system and gave private charities and nonprofits, including The Refuge Ranch (run by a nonprofit called The Refuge for DMST, or Domestic Sex Trafficking of Minors), primary responsibility for the care and management of foster families . “Why are we privatizing care for the most vulnerable in this state? O’Rourke asked. “You’re bound to have issues like this when you outsource responsibility from the state of Texas.” Stakeholders suggested giving priority to placing children in foster care with members of their extended family. According to the Texas Alliance of Child and Family Services, Texas could have received up to $50 million from the Family First Prevention Services Act, a 2018 law that aimed to encourage this placement. According to Will Francois from National Association of Social Workers, Texas has also not accepted funds that would have gone towards skilled residential treatment programs, which cater to youth with specialized treatment needs, such as victims of sex trafficking. “There were a lot of things that we left on the table,” Francis told the the Chronicle. “Texas hasn’t done anything close to the work it could have done with federal Family First funds.” According to the DFPS website, the department postponed accepting much of that $50 million to give Lege time “to weigh in on the political and fiscal changes brought about by this federal legislation.”
According to a statement about Thursday’s hearing by the Lt. Governor. Dan Patrick, the problems at the DFPS are not the result of faulty policy, but of the DFPS’s failure to follow the lead of the Legislative Assembly. “If the agency doesn’t implement these reforms, nothing has changed,” Patrick said. “This committee will also be responsible for reviewing all matters to DFPS regarding past legislative reforms, the implementation of those reforms, and all ongoing work at the agency.” State Senator Lois KolkhorstR-Brenham, author of a major bill under the 2017 reforms, is chairing the hearing committee.
Nileh Irsan, 25, aged out of the Texas foster care system after living in a group home run by a private organization. Irsan has not been a victim of sex trafficking or abuse, but said she knows how easily boundaries can blur within the system and how difficult it can be to know who to trust. . “They will spend the rest of their lives understanding, a) what [their caretakers] did and, b) why people around them let this happen,” Irsan said at Wednesday’s press conference. ” It’s disgusting.