The protection offered to children in the long-term foster care system in Texas has been the subject of an 11-year-old lawsuit. Earlier this month—after discovering that a caretaker accused of exploiting children at a Bastrop shelter had previously been fired from a state juvenile facility for misconduct—Texas foster care watchdogs said in a court filing the lack of communication between the state’s child welfare agency and its juvenile justice system puts foster care children at risk. Even more troubling, the watchdogs voiced concern over whether the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) thoroughly investigated allegations that the same caretaker, Iesha Greene, had previously trafficked children and that she was dating another victim’s former trafficker.

The state-contracted facility in Bastrop, called The Refuge, is meant to care for female foster children who are victims of sex trafficking. However, according to U.S. District Judge Janis Jack, these children were being trafficked by the facility instead of being protected. Several weeks ago, the facility became the focus of attention after Greene was accused of soliciting and selling nude photos of the children and then purchasing illegal drugs and alcohol, which she then supplied to the children.

Screenshot / The Refuge

The children remained in the facility, suffering physical and sexual abuse, for more than a month after a current Refuge employee reported the abuse to state authorities on Jan. 24. Nonetheless, both the court and the court-appointed watchdogs were not informed of the situation until Mar. 10, after local law enforcement and the Texas Department of Public Safety were alerted following the filing of a letter from DFPS telling the court of the incident. Immediately, Judge Jack asked, “Has the governor seen it.

That same day, Gov. Greg Abbott said the Texas Rangers would investigate, arrest, and seek charges against any suspects related to the Refuge allegations. Less than a week later, Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw, who oversees the Texas Rangers, wrote a letter to Abbott stating “there were no allegations of evidence that these residents were sexually abused or assaulted by anyone.” On Mar. 29, the court viewed a letter from McGraw to lawmakers saying the Rangers’ findings have not changed.

Having just reviewed thousands of documents and recordings, the court’s monitors stated in a Mar. 28 filing there was “ample evidence” to corroborate allegations of abuse, exploitation, neglectful supervision, and physical abuse at The Refuge. Still, state attorneys asked the judge to let the Texas Rangers investigation “play out,” but Jack indicated a federal investigation was necessary since she’d lost confidence in the state’s investigation.

On Mar. 30, Jack commented the Rangers’ investigation was being conducted “very poorly.” Agreeing with the judge, the court monitors called McGraw’s letter “premature,” as reported by the Texas Tribune. In a hearing for the ongoing case against Texas on behalf of the children under its care, Jack asked federal investigators to look into the allegations, remarking she planned to ask her court-appointed watchdog monitors to make a criminal referral to the U.S. Attorney of the Western District of Texas for an investigation into the likely production and distribution of child pornography and sex trafficking at The Refuge.

Surveillance video from the facility where Greene was fired for misconduct revealed on the day of the misconduct, she allowed the children to use a staff phone and computer—against policy—where they accessed social media and pornography, some of which they printed out on a staff printer. She also left boys unattended for 90 minutes. The report also states Greene was flirtatious with the teens. After determining her conduct had a “significant risk of causing substantial emotional harm” to the youth, the Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD) fired Greene in April 2020 and banned her from future employment there.

In a court filing on May 4, the court monitors stated the fact Greene was hired at The Refuge despite being previously fired and prohibited 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.” In March, McGraw (of the Texas Dept. of Public Safety) said he was confident Greene would be arrested on charges of sexual exploitation of a child and child pornography. Still, as of May 4, the Texas Tribune reported Greene, whose relatives also worked at The Refuge, had not yet been arrested. 

The monitors highlighted more than 100 findings of abuse or excessive use of force by staff in state and county facilities for each year between 2019 and 2021. However, those findings are not transmitted in a state database, meaning employees fired for abuse or neglect in that system can find employment working with children somewhere else—such as at a foster care facility. The monitors, who noted they encountered barriers to reviewing certain interviews related to events at The Refuge, wrote:

“This is deeply concerning. 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.”

Moreover, the monitors reported that even though they had been granted access to several video interviews of children at the facility, they have not had access to others. Many of their essential questions have yet to be answered. Notably, a Senate hearing in March revealed the monitors indicated they had additional questions after reviewing a half-page summary of one of the videos detailing an interview with a girl at The Refuge conducted by a child advocacy center. The girl said Greene’s boyfriend had trafficked her at least two years earlier. She also said Greene was a trafficker. 

According to the brief summary, the girl shared she saw Greene “collecting money from young girls” in an area in Austin known for criminal activity. The girl stated she was frightened Greene and her boyfriend would retaliate against her for divulging information to investigators. Uncertain if or how the DFPD has responded to some of the allegations, the monitors said the investigators should have interviewed the children themselves to assess the claims Greene’s boyfriend was a former trafficker. The monitors maintain that even the inadequate and short interview summary exposes substantial concerns. They wrote:

“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.

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.”