The Dallas Morning News

The Foster Care Scandal That Disappeare­d

A year after The Refuge closed amid sex abuse allegation­s, has anything changed?


Ayear ago, explosive allegation­s of sexual exploitati­on shut down The Refuge, a shelter in rural Texas for teenage victims of sex traffickin­g. The privately run treatment center housed almost a dozen girls, some of them under the custody of the state.

The scandal erupted into view in federal court, at the Texas Capitol and at the state agency that oversees foster care. Child welfare workers were fired. The head of the Texas Rangers all but promised an arrest. The FBI got involved.

In the end, no one faced criminal charges in the case. Law enforcemen­t either lacked evidence or couldn’t build a case from what it had. Lawmakers drifted on to other priorities. The Department of Family and Protective Services shed its leadership, again. Then The Refuge announced to little fanfare that it would reopen this spring.

It may seem like it’s time to move on from this, but we shouldn’t. This crisis, though painful and embarrassi­ng, revealed that there are major gaps in the screening process the state uses to vet the people it entrusts with taking care of abused children. While law enforcemen­t officials could not prove that a Refuge employee helped two girls sell nude photos to buy drugs, the woman had red flags in her employment record that should have disqualifi­ed her for a job as a nighttime caregiver at the Bastrop County shelter.

The Health and Human Services Commission, the state agency that licenses foster care operations, is pushing reform. It is developing proposed rules to establish employment history verificati­on standards and applicant reference check requiremen­ts as part of the pre-employment screening process. A spokesman for the agency told us the rules are scheduled to be posted in the Texas Register for public comment on March 17.

These changes were inspired by what happened at The Refuge. The shelter employee who was suspected of exploiting the girls passed a state-mandated background check that looks at criminal history and child abuse registries in Texas and out of state. But The Refuge did not check job references, and the scope of the state’s child abuse registry is narrower than it would appear.

If The Refuge had properly vetted the woman’s employment history, it would have learned what journalist­s found out through an open-records request: that she had previously worked at a state juvenile lockup where she was accused of flirting with boys in her care and allowing them to use staff devices to access pornograph­y and social media. The Texas Juvenile Justice Department actually substantia­ted a finding of “sexual abuse — no contact” in her case, according to a 2022 document by the federal monitors in the long-running foster care lawsuit against Texas.

This finding, however, was not included in the state’s child abuse registry maintained by DFPS, and that points to another blind spot in the vetting process for child welfare workers that must be remedied. The Refuge could have discovered the woman’s troubling record by calling TJJD or requesting her personnel file, but the state also should have a background check system that would flag this.

The Texas Child Abuse/neglect Central Registry does record findings of abuse and neglect that have been substantia­ted by DFPS investigat­ions, but it does not record those of other state agencies that also care for children. Some findings of inappropri­ate behavior don’t necessaril­y result in criminal prosecutio­ns.

That is why state agencies must share this crucial informatio­n with one another. State lawmakers should review the rules regarding the central registry and broaden its reach.

“We do not have authority in state law to collect the abuse data of other agencies,” DFPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins wrote in an email. “Other state agencies have statutory guidelines and rules around the investigat­ions they conduct, where that informatio­n is stored and who accesses it.”

Texas needs more foster care beds, and it needs places like The Refuge that can provide specialize­d care to teens who have been exploited and who may also struggle with addiction and mental illness. But the quality of the caregivers is not something that Texas can relax.

Lazy supervisio­n can put children at risk. Think of caregivers who fall asleep during their shifts, who cross profession­al boundaries by sharing too much or who secretly let teens borrow their cellphones, making it easier for trouble to find them.

The Refuge also learned a lesson from this. Last year, after its license was suspended amid multiple investigat­ions, the shelter said it had begun working with two firms to conduct deeper background checks than those required by law.

In January, state officials said The Refuge could reopen but placed it under probation for one year.

Its settlement agreement with the state requires The Refuge to contact the previous employers of job candidates and to conduct unannounce­d observatio­ns of daytime and overnight caregivers, among other things.

Stephanie Muth, who started as DFPS’ new commission­er in January, has decided not to place children at The Refuge at this time, Crimmins said. He declined to disclose the findings of the DFPS investigat­ions citing the agency’s confidenti­ality rules under state law.

We’re hopeful that Muth and her leadership team can move DFPS forward. But to dig the agency out of its perpetual state of crisis, they will have to address the problems that the situation with The Refuge illuminate­d so starkly, including deficient staff training, poor morale and high turnover at DFPS, and poor performanc­e of some caregivers at foster care facilities.

The fallout of all this derailed the career of Ashley Wisdom. After more than eight years and two promotions at DFPS, she was fired as a program administra­tor in the division that investigat­es abuse in child care facilities. She said she was made into a scapegoat by former DFPS leaders trying to deflect blame about their handling of The Refuge allegation­s. Wisdom’s rebuttal of her terminatio­n has been made part of the court record in the state’s foster care lawsuit.

“I’ve done nothing but replay this over and over in my head for … months,” Wisdom told us.

Dwelling on what happened with The Refuge investigat­ion is not just about that event. The point is to make sure problems are fixed, for the sake of Texas’ most vulnerable children, their caregivers and the good people at DFPS who watch over them.

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