Lack of communication between systems hurts foster kids, court monitors say

BASTROP, Texas -- The lack of communication between Texas' child welfare agency and its juvenile justice system puts foster care children at risk, Texas foster care watchdogs said in a Wednesday court filing after learning that a caretaker accused of exploiting children at a Bastrop shelter had been previously fired from a state juvenile justice facility for misconduct.

The video featured above is from a previous report.

The watchdogs also expressed concern over whether Texas' Department of Family and Protective Services fully investigated allegations that the same caretaker had trafficked children before and that she was dating another victim's former trafficker.

The Refuge, a foster care facility for victims of sex trafficking in Bastrop, has come under fire in the last several weeks after a former employee, Iesha Greene, was accused of soliciting and selling nude photos of children in her care. The watchdogs, appointed by a federal judge to monitor Texas' long-term foster care system as part of an 11-year-old lawsuit, are independently reviewing the situation. Greene has not yet been arrested. Attempts to contact Greene for comment have been unsuccessful.

The court monitors said they are particularly concerned that Greene was hired after being fired for misconduct at a Texas Juvenile Justice Department facility, as The Texas Tribune previously reported. The Refuge leaders did not know about her history of misconduct because they didn't verify her previous employment with TJJD.

The state requires state-licensed child care facilities to conduct a criminal background check on all prospective employees but does not require them to verify all former employers before hiring new staff.

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In Wednesday's court filing, the monitors said the fact that Greene was hired at The Refuge despite being previously fired and barred from future employment at TJJD "revealed gaps in reporting abuse, neglect, and exploitation to the Texas Register that pose a significant risk to foster children."

The monitors pointed out that there were more than 100 findings of abuse or excessive use of force by staff in state and county facilities each year between 2019 and 2021. But those findings are not shared in a state database, meaning employees fired for abuse or neglect in that system can find employment serving children elsewhere - such as at a foster care facility.

"This is deeply concerning," the monitors wrote. "Because the agency does not report substantiated findings to the Texas Registry, a state or county juvenile justice employee who has abused a child in their care will only appear in the Texas Registry if they were also arrested or prosecuted for the abuse."

The monitors also said they encountered barriers to reviewing certain interviews related to the events at The Refuge. While the monitors have been granted access to several video interviews of children previously housed at the shelter, they said they haven't had access to others and many of their questions remain unanswered.

In particular, the monitors said they had more questions after reviewing a half-page summary of one of the videos, which detailed an interview conducted by a child advocacy center with one girl at The Refuge. The child said Greene's boyfriend had trafficked her at least two years prior to the interview and that Greene was also a trafficker. Those accusations emerged during a Senate committee hearing in March.

The girl said she saw Greene "collecting money from young girls," in an area in Austin known for criminal activity, according to the summary. The girl said she was afraid that Greene and her boyfriend would retaliate against her for revealing that information to investigators.

The monitors said it's unclear how Texas' Department of Family and Protective Services has responded to some of the allegations in the interviews with The Refuge residents, or whether the agency has fully examined all available evidence to emerge from them.

The monitors said DFPS responded to their request for a video of the interview saying the agency couldn't provide it because Bastrop County Sheriff's Office had the recording. DFPS officials said the sheriff's office responded that the video "is unrelated to what happened at The Refuge and is part of an ongoing criminal investigation," Wednesday's court filing said. DPFS said it hadn't reviewed the footage either and couldn't confirm whether the Texas Rangers, who are also investigating the situation at The Refuge, had done so.

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The monitors said DFPS investigators should have interviewed the child themselves to assess her claims that Greene's boyfriend was a former trafficker. They also noted that the half-page report doesn't say when the child's allegations first surfaced.

"The half-page document fails to include information related to anything (The Refuge victim) may have conveyed as to who she made her outcry to at The Refuge ... and when she made the outcry," the monitors wrote. "Both are critical for determining whether The Refuge ... should have reported the outcry and if so, when."

The monitors say even the short summary of the interview reveals concerns.

"While law enforcement, rather than DFPS, would investigate the underlying allegations related to (the victim's) trafficker and whether (Greene) sold drugs in Austin, (the victim) herself touched on an issue that DFPS could appropriately have investigated: whether information supported (the victim's) claim that (Greene's) boyfriend (or someone associated with her boyfriend) was (the victim's) trafficker and, if so, how The Refuge came to hire someone associated with a trafficker to supervise victims of trafficking."

Interviewing the child or at least viewing the recorded interview "would be critical to this inquiry," the monitors wrote.

"Ongoing investigations reveal significant safety concerns related to care provided to children at The Refuge prior to the suspension of its license," the monitors wrote in their report. "There are troubling lapses in (DFPS') investigation into those safety concerns."

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