Texas House approves bill to improve background checks on child-welfare workers

The Refuge in Bastrop on Apr. 12, 2022. (Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune, Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune)

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The Texas House approved a bill Wednesday that would let the state’s child welfare agency and its contractors conduct more comprehensive background checks while hiring employees.

The vote on Senate Bill 1849 came more than a year after a Bastrop foster care facility hired, then fired, a caretaker with a history of misconduct against children.

When Iesha Greene, a caretaker at The Refuge, was accused of soliciting and selling nude photos of two girls in her care at the facility, The Texas Tribune reported that Greene had been previously fired from a state juvenile facility for inappropriate relationships with children. A spokesperson for The Refuge said the facility was “absolutely not” aware of Greene’s history of misconduct, which he said would have prevented her hiring.

SB 1849, approved 143-0, would create a single search engine that links the “do not hire” registries of the Department of Family and Protective Services, the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, the Health and Human Services Commission and the Texas Education Agency.

Leaders at foster care providers, state facilities and schools could access the search engine to conduct background checks to see if an applicant had been reported for misconduct at a school, long-term care facility, child care facility or juvenile facility.

The bill returns to the Senate to consider changes made by the House. A spokesperson did not immediately respond to an inquiry about whether Gov. Greg Abbott supports the bill.

“For those of us who want to protect children and vulnerable adults in the care of others, this bill is long overdue,” Rep. Candy Noble, R-Lucas, said on the House floor. “Today, we get to pass a bill that will keep our most vulnerable Texans safe from known predators. It’s been a long time coming.”

At a Senate committee hearing in March, Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston, said staff at The Refuge also concealed evidence that allowed the abuse to persist. While mandatory reporting requirements exist for professionals licensed by the state, such as teachers and day care employees, the rules do not extend to staff at foster care and juvenile facilities like The Refuge that are not licensed by the state.

Another measure, Senate Bill 182, would amend the state’s human resources code to require employees and contractors of DFPS and the Texas Juvenile Justice Department to report criminal offenses committed by fellow employees and contractors to the Texas Department of Public Safety. SB 182, approved 126-14 by the House on Tuesday, returns to the Senate to consider House changes. It is unclear whether Abbott supports the bill.

“We need to close the loophole and protect the most vulnerable who are receiving care from DFPS and TJJD,” Miles, the bill’s author, said in a statement. “We need to ensure that another incident like the one that occurred at The Refuge never happens again.”

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Correction, : A previous version of the story incorrectly attributed accusations that The Refuge staff concealed evidence of abuse. State Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston — not DFPS director of human resources James Yocum — said Refuge employees concealed evidence of abuse.

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