Texas Senate votes to close employment loophole after Refuge foster care scandal

The Refuge in Bastrop last year. (Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune, Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune)

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The Texas Senate on Monday unanimously passed a bill meant to keep people from caring for kids in the state’s foster care or juvenile justice systems if they’ve previously committed what amounts to criminal conduct within one of those agencies. The legislation comes nearly a year after The Texas Tribune reported that a Bastrop foster care facility hired a caretaker whom the Texas Juvenile Justice Department previously fired for having inappropriate relationships with children in her care.

As an employee of The Refuge, a state-licensed foster care facility for victims of sex trafficking, the woman was accused of selling and soliciting nude photos of two girls in her care at the Bastrop facility. Leaders at The Refuge said last year they were not aware of those TJJD records at the time the woman was hired. A human resources director at the Department of Family and Protective Services also said during committee testimony that staff concealed evidence of abuse, which allowed the abuse to persist. A grand jury later declined to indict the woman.

Mandatory reporting requirements already exist for professionals licensed by the state, such as teachers, day care employees and juvenile probation officers. But the Tribune identified a loophole for staff at Department of Family and Protective Services and TJJD facilities who are not licensed by the state.

Senate Bill 182, which passed Senate chambers 31-0 on Monday, would amend the state’s human resources code to require employees and contractors of DFPS and TJJD to report criminal offenses committed by fellow employees and contractors to the Texas Department of Public Safety. The bill will now make its way to the Texas House.

“As we learned during the testimony regarding The Refuge … the absence of mandatory reporting requirements for all employees can prove to be dangerous for some of Texas’ most vulnerable children,” said Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston.

Under the legislation, knowingly failing to report an offense would be a class A misdemeanor. Intending to hinder an investigation or to conceal the criminal conduct could result in state jail felony charges.

When allegations against The Refuge surfaced, the state suspended its license while lawmakers scrambled to get information through committee hearings. Brooke Crowder, the CEO at The Refuge, told lawmakers then that the shelter ordered a background check before hiring the employee, but no red flags came up.

Following a temporary suspension, the state reinstated The Refuge's license in January on a one-year probationary period. DFPS no longer houses foster care children at the facility.

Lawmakers have filed several bills this session in response to testimony heard last year about The Refuge. House Bill 2572 would establish a central registry of the names of individuals found by the Health and Human Services Commission or TJJD to have abused or neglected a child. House Bill 4236, or the identical Senate Bill 1849, would create an interagency child protection database.

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