Sex trafficking, drugs and assault: Texas foster kids and caseworkers face chaos in rental houses and hotels

The Child Protective Services office at the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services in Austin on Nov. 14, 2019. (Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune, Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune)

Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

Recommended Videos

Some of Texas’ most victimized and vulnerable foster children are reportedly running away nightly, falling victim to sexual predators, consuming marijuana and threatening caseworkers with gun violence or sexual aggression.

Those — and a litany of other disturbing claims — come from foster care watchdogs who say the state is renting four single-family houses in Bell County for children in its care that are chaotic, dirty and dangerous environments that threaten the health and safety of not just the kids, but also the under-trained and under-supported caseworkers who try to supervise them.

The bevy of tragic incidents are detailed in a report filed in late October as part of a 12-year lawsuit against the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. It was written by watchdogs appointed by a federal court to monitor Texas’ progress in fixing its troubled foster care system.

The report is riddled with troubling incidents, especially in Bell County, which serves Central Texas children. One 14-year-old girl got pregnant and gave birth while in state care — only to have her baby taken into DFPS custody as well. A 16-year-old ran away from a motel in a stolen pickup and later died in a car crash. One 10-year-old girl was taken to the ground and handcuffed by police when her caretakers couldn’t handle her during a mental breakdown. A 14-year-old boy regularly smoked marijuana at a drug dealer’s nearby home. One 15-year-old said he had a gun hidden in the backyard and threatened to shoot a caseworker in the head. A teen girl got into a scuffle with a security guard, grabbed his gun and threw it on the floor.


The October 2023 report about conditions in Texas' foster care system from court-appointed monitors.

(619.7 KB)

The monitors’ latest report focuses on youths whom DFPS calls children without placement because there aren’t enough licensed facilities to house them. They are often teens with complex trauma and behavioral needs, but some are as young as 10. Across the state, they live in rental homes, apartments, church facilities and hotel rooms. They are supervised in as many as six shifts a day by a rotation of already overworked DFPS caseworkers instead of trained medical professionals handling their health care and living conditions.

The kids are “literally calling all the shots,” which makes the environment “dangerous for not just the kids but also the caseworkers,” said Myko Gedutis, vice president of the Texas State Employees Union, which represents DFPS caseworkers and other current and retired state employees.

Photo of a the Department of Family and Protective Services children without placement (CWOP) home in Belton visited by court-appointed monitors checking on the living conditions of children in the care of the state.

Photo of a home Texas rents in Belton for foster children. A report from court-appointed monitors says the Department of Family and Protective Services is housing some foster children in dirty and dangerous conditions. Credit: Court-appointed foster care monitors

“The kids are saying what they're going to do. They're saying if they're going to go to school. They're saying if they're taking their meds,” Gedutis said. “I'm not trying to blame the kids — they've been through hell — but they have unmet behavioral and mental health care needs, and they're endangering themselves. The harm they're doing to themselves is going to last a lifetime.”

In 2015, U.S. District Judge Janis Jack found that children leave Texas’ foster care system more damaged than when they entered it. In the years since, she has ordered several fixes and continuously criticized the state for not complying with her orders. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit are including the latest court monitors’ report as part of their request that Jack hold the state in contempt, sanction officials and consider putting parts of the foster care system in a receivership. If found in contempt, the state could be fined or some DFPS officials could be jailed. A hearing on those requests is scheduled for Dec. 4 and could last up to a week, attorneys said.

“Most of these children have suffered terrible abuse and need the most care. Instead, the state puts them within arm’s reach of traffickers, dealers, and danger,” Paul Yetter, who represents the plaintiffs, wrote last month. “It is indefensible.”

[How a 12-year-old federal lawsuit turned a judge into Texas’ foster care czar]

DFPS spokesperson Patrick Crimmins declined to publicly comment on specific incidents involving the kids in their care, but described “daily, intensive” efforts by the agency to reduce the number of children without placement and improve the environment at all of the rentals, apartments, church homes and hotels.

Those efforts include boosting mental health services for youth who come to those settings directly from a psychiatric hospital and allowing wraparound mental health and social services to follow children to their foster family placements.

“We continue to make progress reducing the number of youth in [children without placement] settings,” Crimmins said in a statement. “We continue to work with other states to seek solutions for one of the most formidable challenges in child welfare today.”

Officials are also trying to reduce the number of children who enter the foster care system directly from juvenile detention or a psychiatric hospital setting. They are also emphasizing more daily structure and routine in the homes, Crimmins said.

For those who are still without placement, the agency is continuously seeking more capacity to better meet the needs of these kids, including expanding the agency’s temporary emergency placement program and strengthening support for family members who agree to foster children.

The entire system is also heavily focused on finding these children foster placements as soon as possible and — most importantly — keeping them from being removed from their homes to begin with through community-based intervention programs and services, Crimmins said.

“The best solution is one that keeps a child or young person safe, and out of the child welfare system,” he said.

DFPS lawyers have filed a response to the request that the department be held in contempt, arguing the agency has shown “substantial compliance, good faith, and undisputed improvement” in the areas the court has instructed the agency to fix.

Run-down homes with no permanent staff

The vast majority of the children without placement are teenagers, although some have been as young as 2. More than half are girls, and most are children of color. They often have complex psychiatric and behavioral needs, addiction issues or other mental health problems caused by long histories of physical and sexual abuse both at home and in adoptive or foster homes.

[How hollow rhetoric and a broken child welfare system feed Texas' sex-trafficking underworld]

Many of them are believed to have been victims of sex trafficking before or during their time in state custody. More than a quarter of the children who wind up in temporary houses or hotels were released from a psychiatric hospital within the previous 24 hours, the October report says.

Across the state, there were 59 children without placement staying in unlicensed homes and hotels as recently as Thursday, Crimmins said. The average stay lasts nearly three weeks — although kids often return to the hotels and houses for multiple stays over the course of months or years, according to the report.

From Jan. 1 through Aug. 31, 465 children in permanent state conservatorship spent at least one night in one of these unlicensed, unregulated homes and hotels across the state.

Four single-family homes the state rents are in or near Killeen, Belton and Temple in the Central Texas region. Six other residences — including apartments and religious-run group homes — are located in Houston, the El Paso and Big Bend area, northeast Texas, and the Midland-Odessa area. The state uses hotel and motel rooms mostly in the urban areas.

Photo of a the Department of Family and Protective Services children without placement (CWOP) home in Belton visited by court-appointed monitors checking on the living conditions of children in the care of the state.

Photo of a the Department of Family and Protective Services children without placement (CWOP) home in Belton visited by court-appointed monitors checking on the living conditions of children in the care of the state. Credit: Report from court-appointed monitors

Photo of a the Department of Family and Protective Services children without placement (CWOP) home in Belton visited by court-appointed monitors checking on the living conditions of children in the care of the state.

Photo of a the Department of Family and Protective Services children without placement (CWOP) home in Belton visited by court-appointed monitors checking on the living conditions of children in the care of the state. Credit: Report from court-appointed monitors

A home Texas rents for foster children has holes in the walls, according to photos taken by court-appointed monitors for the Department of Family and Protective Services. Credit: Court-appointed foster care monitors.

Photo of a the Department of Family and Protective Services children without placement (CWOP) home in Temple visited by court-appointed monitors checking on the living conditions of children in the care of the state.

Cabinet doors are broken in a home Texas rents for foster children in Temple, according to photos taken by court-appointed monitors of the Department of Family and Protective Services. Credit: Court-appointed foster care monitors

The report’s words and photos of the Bell County homes depict dirty, run-down, flophouse-style living conditions. Sheets are pinned up over windows on bare walls riddled with holes. Mattresses are strewn around the rooms, dirty clothes and dishes are piled up, threadbare carpets are stained and streaked with filth. In others, door jambs are broken and plaster chunks lie on the floor next to kids’ beds. In one house, the report says, a caseworker arrived to find blood on the tile floors of the kitchen.

The hotels and motels include a Super 8 in Bell County that was the scene of a drug raid by U.S. Marshals while some of the girls were staying there during air conditioning repairs on their rental house. The Marshals found two teenage foster girls, ages 16 and 15, hanging out in one of the rooms that was raided, the report said. The kids were sent back to their rooms without criminal charges, the report said.

One caseworker who had removed a 12-year-old boy from his parents — after the boy suffered physical and sexual abuse at home — had nowhere to take him but a Bell County motel. The boy was “terrified” to be left there, the caseworker said in the report.

“A motel room is no substitute for a safe, licensed home,” Yetter, attorney for the plaintiffs in the DFPS lawsuit, said.

The homes and hotels sprinkled across the state have no permanent staff assigned to them. The children are supervised in rotating shifts by overloaded caseworkers who have scant training in restraint or de-escalation and no authority to enforce curfews or house rules, school attendance or medical regimens.

As a result, there is little adult control over the youthful residents, some of whom regularly consume marijuana and bring underage friends into the homes, the report says. One 16-year-old runaway from the Belton girls’ home, who had a confirmed history of child abuse and was a victim of child sex trafficking, spent an entire night hiding in one of the boys’ rooms at the Belton boys’ home — just down the street — before a supervisor discovered her, according to the report.

At the Bell County girls’ homes, monitors reported underage girls with histories of sexual abuse engaging in prostitution and other sexually risky behaviors with men. They also frequently ran away only to be discovered at one of the other homes or hotels with boys who lived there, the report said.

One 13-year-old, a resident reported, “would call her boyfriends and set up dates and do things for money.” Another 13-year-old, who was in and out of psychiatric hospitals for the entire 10 months she’s been in children-without-placement settings, was offered a chance at selling her body in exchange for $2 by another girl living in the house, the report said.

The 14-year-old girl offering to “pimp her out” was at one point found in her own room after midnight “in a small bra and men’s underwear when she was talking [online] with [an] older man making sexual gestures and telling him she was going to perform certain sex acts,” the report said.

“She reported that she can get whatever she needs and can have her friends send her money for everything,” the report said.

Two and a half months earlier, the girl had given birth to a child who was turned over to DFPS custody. She’d been living in a Bell County house since May. She had run away 10 times in August and September alone, the report said.

One 16-year-old, who had run away from Bell County homes, hotels and treatment centers 49 times in 2023 alone, was found by police in a Fort Worth hotel “with other adults, observed rotating through multiple hotel rooms with different persons,” according to the report. “Youth was found to be in an alternate state and under the influence.”

In one incident, the father of a 14-year-old boy in the Belton group home — who said he “didn’t want anything to do with” his son — reported to staff that the boy was sending his father “texts, pictures and videos indicating that [he] was in possession of firearms and that he had sold some of those firearms,” the report said.

“He also sent a video of himself shooting a weapon in what appeared to be a park,” the report said.

Another boy in the house, age 16, told caseworkers that the teen had hidden a gun in the backyard but it had been sold to a relative in another city. A gun was never found, the report said.

“Nobody here to help you”

DFPS staff depend on local police as “a default option in place of therapeutic support” when the kids have breakdowns or become triggered or “dysregulated” because caseworkers are inadequately trained to deal with them, the report says.

“In most of those instances, physical restraint through handcuffs appears to be the only resource available at the site to prevent a child from self-harm as there are no other available resources for the caseworkers, working as caregivers, to assist children in crisis,” the report says.

In May and June 2023, the report says, there were 92 serious incident reports statewide at these children-without-placement locations. Those incidents involved 54 children in permanent state custody, the report says. One-third of them were arrested — some several times — including a 10-year-old arrested in one of the Bell County rentals twice, right after she was released from a psychiatric hospital, the report says.

The children were arrested “because of the inherent chaos of housing children in this environment,” the report reads.

The uncontrolled environment has turned into a threatening situation for both the children and their neighbors in the Bell County neighborhoods where the three homes are located.

Photo of a the Department of Family and Protective Services children without placement (CWOP) home in Killeen visited by court-appointed monitors checking on the living conditions of children in the care of the state.

A home Texas rents for foster children in Killeen is dirty and disheveled, according to photos court-appointed monitors for the Department of Family and Protective Services took. Credit: Court-appointed foster care monitors

Earlier this year, residents in Killeen grew so angry at the disruption and lawlessness the homes were causing on their street that they told city leaders they feared they would one day be forced to shoot one of the unruly teenagers.

That whole region, staffers say in the report, is a “problem” area for trafficking.

There is no round-the-clock security for the kids or the caseworkers, several of whom report physical and sexual abuse at the hands of the teenage residents when police are not around. One reported being trapped in her chair at a group home in Belton and groped by a teenage boy who had a history of sexual aggression and inappropriate behavior.

“There is nobody here to help you,” the 16-year-old reportedly told her.

He still lives in Bell County, either in that placement or one nearby, according to the report.

Workers have no means of protection against aggressive residents when security guards are not around — and no incentive to stay with an agency that puts them and the children they care for in danger, the report says.

[One-third of Texas foster care caseworkers left their jobs last year as the agency continued putting kids in hotels]

There is also a troubling lack of training that creates friction both between the caseworkers and the kids, and among the employees themselves, Gedutis said.

In a recent survey by the state employees union, caseworkers reported feeling ineffective, unproductive and unsafe.

“It’s exhausting,” one respondent wrote. “I am constantly on edge with certain children due to their violent behavior, propensity to run away, and their refusal to follow all rules and regulations. We are told that we are responsible for enforcing rules/structure, but are given no backup to do so. Kids can smoke/vape, skip school, and do whatever they want on their electronic devices because they have free hotel wifi.”

Caseworkers described the shifts in those houses and motel rooms as “very sad,” “horrible” and “nightmarish,” according to the survey.

The workers have said that those shifts are a key reason for high turnover within DFPS — causing a staffing crisis that is at the core of the agency’s problems, Gedutis said.

“It’s a very small population of kids causing enormous strain on the agency,” Gedutis said. “It’s unsustainable. Absolutely unsustainable.”

Recommended Videos