Texas CPS department’s culture kept worries about now-shuttered foster care facility from being addressed, official says

Buildings located at Refuge Ranch in Bastrop. The Texas-contracted facility is meant to provide residential treatment for child sex trafficking survivors. (Via Refuge Ranch Website, Via Refuge Ranch Website)

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Texas officials were kept in the dark about a foster care facility employee who allegedly sold nude pictures of two girls in their care due to the team culture created by a Child Protective Services manager, a top official told state lawmakers Thursday.

Texas Department of Family and Protective Services Commissioner Jaime Masters told state senators that DFPS employees had determined The Refuge, a now-shuttered Bastrop facility contracted by the state to care for sex trafficking victims, was at a high risk of harming its youth.

But, she said, two managers failed to escalate the issue, violating policy. One of those managers created an “unbelievable” culture in which their employees hesitated to bring the issue back up for fear of repercussions, she said.

“I do not think this was a failure of process. … None of us can be everywhere at all times,” she said. “Everyone depends on everyone up the chain to do what they are tasked with doing, and this is what did not happen here. Policy was not followed. Naked pictures of children in our care should have rung every bell.”

The commissioner also revealed that the employee under investigation for selling nude pictures of two girls there is also accused of dating a man who allegedly trafficked another child at the facility.

Masters disclosed those details when she testified before lawmakers at an all-day hearing focused on the state’s beleaguered foster care system.

The first meeting of the Senate Special Committee on Child Protective Services came as the foster care system has yet to remedy numerous issues regarding its care of children. Multiple bombshell reports from federal court monitors have detailed abuse, neglect and deaths over the last several years. On Thursday, senators discussed a wide range of the issues and laws that had aimed to fix them.

The Refuge staff member has not been publicly named. She is accused of giving her phone to two girls so they could take naked pictures for her to sell using the mobile payment service Cash App or trade for illegal drugs, Masters testified.

That staff member was fired after the allegation was first made on Jan. 24, and a criminal investigation is ongoing. Another facility resident told staff that the alleged perpetrator was dating a man who previously trafficked the girl before she arrived at the facility, Masters said. It was unclear late Thursday if that man — or the staffers’ relationship to him — is being investigated.

No Refuge leaders were present at Thursday’s committee hearing. But Refuge CEO Brooke Crowder released a statement after it ended Thursday, saying she was grateful “for the legislature’s keen interest in the issues.” Crowder is slated to testify before lawmakers at a Texas House meeting on the facility Monday.

“While disappointed we were unable to directly respond to certain inaccurate assertions made, we understand the limitations of the hearing structure,” Crowder said in her statement Thursday. “I look forward to testifying in Monday's House hearing and being fully available for any additional Senate hearings and meetings. We remain fully committed to full cooperation with law enforcement, regulators and the Texas Legislature."

Texas officials ordered the shelter to close temporarily last week after the children had already been removed. Gov. Greg Abbott directed the Texas Rangers last week to investigate the situation.

Steve McCraw, Texas Department of Public Safety director, told lawmakers he believes the staff member will be charged with sexual exploitation of a minor and possibly possession of child pornography.

Masters also told lawmakers that staffers at The Refuge did not do enough to ensure the return of a resident who was one of two kids who ran away from the facility, allegedly with the help of an employee.

“This child called [The Refuge] and said, ‘I’m tired of walking. Can someone come and get me?’” Masters said. “And no one did.”

The staff member accused of assisting her was fired. The Refuge spokesperson Steven Phenix said in a statement to The Texas Tribune that his team “has no record of this” but will address allegations next week during another hearing before lawmakers.

In that incident, a former Refuge staff member was arrested for lying to law enforcement after saying she hadn’t been in contact with one of the girls who ran away, according to Masters.

Both girls returned to the facility before its closure this month.

Masters said she learned of the situations last week — about a month and a half after the initial report of the staff member allegedly selling nude pictures of the youth. She said facility staff should have notified DFPS much sooner — especially when it became clear that the employee accused of selling nude photos was related to others still working at The Refuge.

It's unclear how many family members related to the alleged perpetrator worked at the facility and how exactly they are related to her. But Masters said DFPS should not have treated the situation as solved just because that employee was fired if her relatives remained.

“You have to assume everyone’s lying,” Masters said.

Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, who is chairing the special committee, asked Masters why it took DFPS so long to act on the situation.

“There is no good reason why,” Masters replied.

Texas DFPS employees twice this year classified the Bastrop facility as “high risk for harm to children.” But DFPS managers broke agency policy by failing to notify higher-ups, including Masters herself.

“I was told that the supervisor stated ‘She was disengaged,’ and the program director stated it slipped her mind,” Masters said.

Both were fired.

The commissioner repeatedly said the problem isn’t the department’s policies, but rather human error and lack of judgment.

Reports of the nude photo accusations first broke last week when a federal court released a DFPS letter detailing several allegations as part of a nearly 11-year-old, ongoing lawsuit against Texas and its foster care system. The allegations against staff included sexual abuse and sex trafficking.

However, on Wednesday, McCraw said there was “no evidence” of sexual abuse or trafficking at The Refuge even as he confirmed that a former staff member allegedly attempted to sell the nude photos.

Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, pointed out in an interview with the Tribune that the Texas Rangers shared only their “initial findings,” and McCraw said the investigation was ongoing.

Menéndez, who is also a member of the special committee, said declaring there to be no evidence of sex trafficking seems premature, especially because the solicitation and sale of the two girls’ nudes could potentially fall under that definition.

“It's almost like declaring victory before all the votes are counted,” he said.

On Wednesday, Paul Yetter, the attorney representing foster care children in the federal lawsuit, also expressed issues with McCraw’s declination to define the accusations as possible trafficking.

At Thursday’s meeting, Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, said officials shouldn’t minimize what has already been uncovered.

“I’ve heard someone say, ‘Well, they weren’t actually trafficking the child.’ Well, if you’re taking nude photos, and you’re helping them escape, then you are putting them right into the hands of those who would exploit them,” Huffman said. “So I don’t want to hear that. I hope no one says that today because I don’t want to hear that because it’s just completely unacceptable.”

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