Judge calls for federal criminal investigation of foster care facility accused of child sex abuse

AUSTIN, Texas -- The judge overseeing the 11-year-old case to fix Texas' troubled child welfare system will ask federal investigators to look into allegations of sex trafficking at a Bastrop shelter for teens after saying she's lost confidence in the state's investigation into the same claims.

U.S. District Judge Janis Jack's comments came Wednesday during the latest hearing in a lawsuit against Texas on behalf of the children under the state's care. Much of the hearing dealt with the situation at The Refuge, a state-licensed shelter for sex trafficking victims where a former employee is accused of selling nude pictures of two girls. Officials for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services and the Texas Health and Human Services Commission also testified on the progress they've made toward implementing an expert panel's recommendations to fix the foster care system.

Jack said she'll be asking her court-appointed monitors, who act as watchdogs of the foster care system, to make a criminal referral to the U.S. Attorney of the Western District of Texas for an investigation into the possible production and distribution of child pornography and sex trafficking at The Refuge.

After reviewing thousands of documents and recordings, the court's monitors said in a filing on Monday there is "ample evidence" to substantiate allegations of child sex abuse, exploitation, neglectful supervision and physical abuse at The Refuge.

State attorneys asked Jack to allow the Texas Rangers' ongoing investigation into the allegations to "play out." But she said the federal investigation is necessary as she's lost confidence in the state's investigation.

Gov. Greg Abbott had ordered the Texas Rangers to investigate the situation at The Refuge shortly after it became public in a federal court hearing on March 10.

Less than a week later, Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw, who oversees the Texas Rangers, wrote a letter to Abbott saying "there were no allegations or evidence that these residents were sexually abused or assaulted by anyone." The court on Wednesday viewed a March 29 letter from McCraw to lawmakers saying the Rangers' preliminary findings have not changed.

The court monitors called McCraw's letter "premature." Paul Yetter, the lead attorney representing foster children, had also previously pushed back on McCraw's dismissal of sex abuse and trafficking allegations. Jack said Wednesday she thinks the Texas Rangers' investigation is being conducted "very poorly."

DFPS Commissioner Jaime Masters testified during Wednesday's hearing and said she also disagreed with McCraw's assessment that there was no evidence of sexual abuse at The Refuge.

Masters said McCraw made that assertion before the Texas Rangers had interviewed any of the victims. Masters' statement seemingly contradicts what McCraw testified to lawmakers on March 21, when he said the Texas Rangers had interviewed five children as part of its preliminary investigation.

DPS did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A DPS spokesperson said in a statement on Tuesday that the investigation is still ongoing and McCraw had reported the most recent findings at the time. Those have not changed as of Tuesday, according to the statement.

McCraw's letter to Abbott also said there were "material inaccuracies" in the court document that first made the allegations at The Refuge public. However, Jack said the court monitors found no inaccuracies in the document. Masters agreed, except for one portion that said all the forensic interviews had been completed.

The Refuge officials responded to the court monitors' findings on Tuesday.

"While the court monitor's report seems to consist largely of allegations from former employees, many of whom were terminated for behavior that violated our standards, we have seen no mention of any episodes that we did not fully report to DFPS when they were discovered," CEO Brooke Crowder said in a statement. "As multiple parallel investigations advance with our full transparency and cooperation, we're confident their conclusions will reveal that we've continually adhered to the highest standard of care for the girls in our care."

Jack ordered state officials to provide authorities' recorded interviews with several of the children who were at the shelter at the time after she said DFPS had refused to provide them to the monitors.

Eric Hudson, an assistant attorney general for Texas, tried to explain the delay in giving the monitors access to the videos, but Jack dismissed him and threatened to hold him in contempt of the court.

"Which one of you wants to volunteer today to be held in contempt?" Jack asked state officials at one point during the back and forth.

Jack has repeatedly expressed frustrations at delays and difficulties in getting certain information to court monitors, which the state is bound by federal court order to provide.

"I don't want to spend another 20 years - I don't think I have another 20 years to spend - overseeing this case," she said.

Jack instructed DFPS to show the monitors the videos on another occasion outside of the courtroom, which leaders agreed to.

Children without placement and COVID-19 vaccines

DFPS and HHSC officials also spoke about the joint team they formed as part of the expert panel's recommendation to reduce the number of foster children who spend nights in unlicensed placements, such as hotels or DFPS offices.

Sergio Gamino was introduced on Wednesday as the new lead for that team. He comes from an 18-month stint at the Department of Veterans Affairs and spent time working in public transit and a missile company after two decades in the U.S. Army.

However, he has no child welfare experience, which Jack expressed concerns over. He responded by saying his leadership experience would allow him to lead a diverse team of experts.

Gamino said around 81 children are still in unlicensed placements. That's down from over 400 last summer.

State leaders also told the court that 715 foster children are still placed out of state, which includes 518 in the state's long-term foster care. Jack has previously emphasized the importance of bringing children in-state for care.

She pushed back on child welfare leaders' claims that there isn't enough funding to pursue certain solutions.

RELATED: Child welfare monitors say there's 'ample evidence' kids were abused at Bastrop foster care facility

"Lack of funding, when there are constitutional deprivations, is not an excuse," Jack said.

She also suggested state leaders tap into funds from Texas' savings account, which is commonly referred to as the rainy day fund.

RELATED: Victims of sex trafficking endured additional abuse at Austin shelter, according to employee

"It's there for a rainy day," Jack said. "I can tell you it's raining on these children."

Liz Kromrei, director of services at Texas Child Protective Services, also gave an update on COVID-19 vaccination rates among foster care children. She said 35% of eligible youth in the state's long-term foster care system are vaccinated against the virus with at least one dose. The judge asked for the percentage of fully vaccinated youth, but DFPS did not have that information on hand.

Jack also asked for documentation on how many children at higher risk of developing complications from COVID-19 are vaccinated, which DFPS leaders said they would provide.

Masters said DFPS has no formal policy on COVID-19 vaccinations for kids. Jack told DFPS leaders they should not allow very young children to say they don't want to be vaccinated.

"According to the attorney general of Texas, they do not have the ability to give medical consent until 18," Jack said.

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