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Fallout continues from sex trafficking allegations at Texas-contracted foster center

Photo courtesy of The Refuge Ranch.

Texas' troubled foster system was roiled by allegations at a facility intended to help victims of trafficking. Since the news emerged, criminal investigators said the allegations documented by the state's foster system have been inaccurate. Now the state's foster care investigative director is leaving his position.

Legislative hearings continued Monday into sex trafficking allegations at a state-contracted residential treatment center as more turmoil broke at the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services.

Justin Lewis, the director of Child Care Investigations at DFPS, resigned Sunday because, he said, the job had become too political. His resignation came as text messages from an allegedly inebriated Lewis to a former colleague called a federal judge overseeing the state’s foster litigation an expletive, and those texts were sent to the federal court system.

Lewis oversaw the office that investigates abuse in the foster system for a year, according to his resignation letter.

“As someone who generally abhors politics, it is something I can no longer deal with at the expense of my family, my health, and my self-worth,” he wrote in the letter.

Lewis is at least the third person to exit the agency since allegations of sex trafficking emerged at The Refuge in Bastrop — a residential treatment center for female victims of sex trafficking.

State criminal investigators later said that those allegations were overblown, duplicative and at times incorrect. Investigators found two chief offenses. One was that two girls were coerced into taking “sexualized” nude photos of themselves in exchange for money or drugs. A second offense was when two children ran away from the center and it was alleged staff had helped them.

The headline-grabbing news emerged in a federal court hearing of Judge Janis Graham Jack, who has been in charge of the federal civil rights litigation against the state’s foster care system for a decade — and ordered court monitors from child-advocacy agencies five years ago.

In one of two of his resignation letters, Lewis criticized how DFPS leaders sacrificed his staff while glossing over the system-wide breakdown and other divisions “with far more folks involved.”

“This total blame of two people for a system failure was unwarranted” he wrote in another letter.

DFPS didn't respond to TPR's questions about Lewis' letters by the time of publication.

The DFPS Commissioner testified last week that two mid-level managers had been fired for not “elevating” the investigation to agency leadership immediately. The agency was criticized widely for leaving girls in the facility for an additional five weeks after the first allegations emerged.

“While it is my expectation that certain cases be elevated up, there was no written DFPS policy requiring it prior to this situation,” he said.

Lewis attached a letter of support for Ashley Wisdom, a program administrator under him for CCI and presumably one of the people fired.

 Drain suggested that Lewis may have been inebriated in the exchange
Drain suggested that Lewis may have been inebriated in the exchange

Text messages sent to court

Unbeknownst to Lewis, a text exchange between him and a former colleague were sent to the federal court wherein he called Jack an expletive used to refer to the female anatomy.

“Politics make me sick. The judge turned it into that quickly. She is a C**T. She needs to get hit by a bus,” he wrote.

The handful of text messages allegedly written two days after news broke about the Refuge broke in Jack’s courtroom paint a picture of a state worker at the end of his rope. In the exchange, he indicated the case had become political, referencing the two committee hearings.

Lisa Drain sent the email to Jack’s court manager with screenshots of the texts. Drain said she formerly worked for DFPS. According to an online search, a Lisa Drain did work for CPS as an investigator. She said after the threatening and demeaning message about Jack, she lost all confidence in Lewis.

“This will not end if DFPS leadership continues to refuse accountability for systemic failures, disregard the guidance provided by legislature (sic), and fail to meet very basic expectations set by the court,” Drain wrote.

In a second email, Drain said she regretted sending the initial note and that Lewis regained her confidence after a long conversation as well as telling her his plan to resign. She added that he had often talked about his frustrations with the federal litigation “and with the Department’s inadequate responses,” but had never disparaged the Judge before.

The Refuge tries to correct the record

Refuge CEO Brooke Crowder said in a letter to lawmakers that she was disappointed with the descriptions and timelines given by state foster care leadership last Thursday in a special hearing.

Foster care officials presented a timeline where at least three girls were coerced into selling nude photos of themselves for drugs, that one girl said the staff member's boyfriend had once trafficked her and that multiple relatives of the employee were “top level staff.”

Crowder’s said only two girls were groomed by a low-level employee who worked there for fewer than five months. She was fired along with her sister. A cousin resigned. None were high-level staff.

She said all those fired had passed state-mandated background tests — pushing back against claims the org had failed to screen properly.

In another episode, staff allegedly helped two girls flee the facility, and multiple people were fired as well.

Crowder’s letter hews closer to state public safety officials — further defining a split in narratives between the two agencies.

At a state hearing on Monday, DPS head Steven McCraw defended his team’s investigations and descriptions of the events — and said that the third child who described being exploited wasn’t.

He defended law enforcement’s decision to hold off on arresting the alleged perpetrator. He said there was probable cause to arrest for exploitation of a minor.

McCraw faced criticism from several lawmakers over his decision to send a letter to the governor last week saying they found no evidence of abuse at The Refuge.

"That letter came across kind of like, nothing to see here move along. McCraw: [Well, if there was I guarantee you, we'd pursue it," said Irving Democrat Thresa "Terry" Meza.

McCraw said he expects the former Refuge employee who allegedly had the photos will be charged with sexual exploitation of a minor.

"The only reason that one person hasn't been charged is we can't prove the criminality until we get that back, until we get the digital evidence back and that's what we're awaiting," he said.

Copyright 2022 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit Texas Public Radio.

Paul Flahive is the technology and entrepreneurship reporter for Texas Public Radio. He has worked in public media across the country, from Iowa City and Chicago to Anchorage and San Antonio.
Becky Fogel is the newscast host and producer for “Texas Standard.” She came to the show from Science Friday in New York where she produced segments on zombie microbiomes and sneaker technology. She got her start in radio at KWBU-FM in Waco and she’s happy to be back in the great state of Texas.
Sascha Cordner