AUSTIN (Nexstar) — One week after allegations of abuse at a Bastrop facility meant to help young victims of sex trafficking gained national attention, Texas lawmakers met to discuss the state’s foster care system.

State agency and law enforcement officials testified before a special Senate committee, revealing new details about the ongoing Texas Rangers investigation into exploitation claims about The Refuge, located in Bastrop.

In a hearing before the committee on Thursday, the director of the Department of Public Safety and the Rangers, Colonel Steven McCraw, told the lawmakers he expected criminal charges to be filed and someone to be prosecuted for sexual exploitation of a minor over nude photos allegedly taken of girls at the facility.

However, he reiterated their initial investigation found ‘no evidence’ of trafficking or abuse, as was originally stated in a document filed in federal court last week.

Amid the investigation into the Refuge, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called for the creation of the Senate Special Committee on Child Protective Services to look into these allegations and other issues with the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. According to a press release from his office, “If DFPS cannot protect vulnerable children, we need to clean house, top to bottom.”

The state and DFPS have been under fire for years, facing criticism and even a federal lawsuit over the treatment of children in the facilities and foster homes DFPS oversees.

The special committee, chaired by Senator Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham), met Thursday and heard testimony about the investigation into The Refuge but also the foster care system more broadly.

Kolkorst opened the hearing by saying the state is facing “a darkness so pervasive that it has even, at times, tried to seep into the very system we’ve designed to protect our victimized children.”

On March 10, a letter from a DFPS employee was filed with the court in the ongoing federal case, stating the agency became aware of reports from The Refuge for DMST (Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking) on Jan. 24.

According to that letter, one of the reports detailed how a former employee, who was working at the ranch at the time, allegedly sold nude photos of two youths in their care, then used the money to buy illegal drugs and alcohol to give to the youth.

One day after that letter was filed with the court, Judge Janis Jack called an emergency hearing about the contents of the letter. According to the hearing transcript, the judge called on DFPS for the names of the “alleged perpetrators” and more details on background checks at the facility.

“This is a system that remains broken,” Jack said.

The Refuge confirmed two of its residents made that first report on Jan. 24, and a former employee is being investigated by the Bastrop County Sheriff’s Office. The Refuge also said the employee allegedly involved was immediately fired. However, it pushed back on several claims in the letter filed with the court and emphasized its other employees “immediately” reported the reports to the state and local law enforcement.

Gov. Greg Abbott called on the Texas Rangers to investigate.

On March 16, Col. McCraw sent a letter to the governor with its “initial findings” of the Texas Ranger’s investigation. The letter stated the investigation found “no evidence” girls at The Refuge were sexually abused or trafficked while at the shelter, but it confirmed investigations into two different incidents are ongoing.

The letter from DPS also noted its investigation found “material inaccuracies” and information “that had not been properly verified” in the letter DFPS filed with the federal court, regarding the reports at the facility.

In the hearing Thursday, McCraw testified their investigation revealed the DFPS letter originally contained notes and caveats that some information might be inaccurate or hadn’t been vetted, but those caveats were removed before the letter was filed with the court.

Still, McCraw said he does expect to see the Bastrop County district attorney prosecute someone for “sexual exploitation of a minor” and “child pornography” — even though there have been no arrests in this investigation so far.

“The only thing that is outstanding is digital evidence — is what they are waiting on at this particular point,” he said.

After the hearing, The Refuge told KXAN there were more inaccuracies in later testimony, given by DFPS officials.

“I’m looking forward to clearing those up on Monday when I testify at the House hearing,” said Brooke Crowder, founder and CEO of The Refuge.

Crowder said they have been asked to testify in front of the Texas House Human Services Committee meeting but were disappointed not to have been called to testify in front of the Senate’s committee Thursday.

Several of the lawmakers pressed McCraw, and later DFPS, on how the state could improve processes for vetting employees at these facilities.

Sen. Borris Miles (D-Houston) emphasized the importance of quality training throughout the hearing and asked whether there was any cross-training between DPS and the state agencies that deal with the foster care system.

Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe) called the Texas Rangers the “best of the best” and asked if there would be any opportunities for this agency to work with DFPS to provide more quality training on investigatory practices, particularly when it comes to cyber crimes or trafficking.

“Looking into their effectiveness as investigators and comparing to your effectiveness as investigators,” he said.

Sen. Sarah Eckhardt (D-Austin), who is not on the committee but sat in on the hearing, asked what steps his agency takes beyond background checks. McCraw responded his agency uses pre-employment polygraph tests before hiring someone.

“There’s a reason for it. I can’t tell you how many criminals that are — that would have been — if not for the pre-employment polygraph — would be employed by the Department of Public Safety,” he said.

Sen. Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio) pointed out HHSC compliance records, which KXAN previously reported, revealed inspections for background check issues at the facility in 2021.

In an interview with KXAN after the hearing, The Refuge addressed several of those HHSC records.

For example, one HHSC record noted a staff member was working with a provisional background check and had a condition to “not be left alone with a child or group of children,” but according to the narrative from the inspection, this staff person was “left in supervision of children in care overnight without supervision from another staff.” Crowder insisted to KXAN this employee had passed her background check to work in Texas, but the facility was “still waiting” on her background check to come back from another state — hence the term “provisional.” Crowder added they “moved her into another role” not working with children until that provisional status had been resolved.

In reference to the exploitation case specifically, Crowder said, “We followed all the rules by the state’s standards, but clearly that allowed a predator to get into our midst, and that won’t ever happen again.”

Several DFPS officials, including Commissioner Jaime Masters, testified before the committee as well.

They began by walking lawmakers through the “intake” process — how reports are made to the agency. They explained calls are classified as either Priority 1 or Priority 2, based on whether there is “immediate risk of death or substantial harm.”

Several lawmakers pressed the officials about how quickly the process takes place and whether intake specialists are instructed to call law enforcement based on the seriousness of the threat.

“We cannot assume — common sense has left the building. Are your screeners educated, informed and independent enough to make that call to 911 immediately, without fear of repercussions from the agency for not following protocol?” Perry said.

The agency confirmed that was the case, but lawmakers requested data from the agency on how many 911 contacts there have been at the intake stage.

Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) said, “It’s very frustrating to sit here any look at these stupid graphs. I’m just wondering why someone just didn’t do something. If there is thousands and tens of thousands of complaints, then you could understand: okay, this is tough. But if there is just a couple of them coming in a day? By God! Do something more than what was done.”

It was revealed the first report about The Refuge was noted as Priority 2.

Sen. Menendez asked if the process would have been different if it had been classified as a Priority 1, and then requested transcripts or recordings of the intake calls.

“I’d like to see what the callers were telling you was going on and then match that up with what happened,” he said.

Sen. Kolkhorst asked Masters, “What is the issue?” and whether training played a role in the incident being investigated at The Refuge.

Masters responded, “We have the proper processes in place — people need to follow it.”

She clarified she was referring to “everyone” from the providers to her own agency.

Masters gave a timeline of the intakes and reports her agency received from The Refuge, and ultimately admitted the case should have been elevated within the agency Jan. 26.

“All bets were off at that point when we knew that everyone was related,” Masters said, explaining her agency learned the alleged perpetrator may have multiple undisclosed relationships with others at the facility. “At that point, this should have been sent up the chain.”

She noted the caseworker “did their job” and elevated this to their supervisor, but the supervisor stated she was “disengaged,” which is why this wasn’t elevated sooner.

Kolkhorst pointed out other instances in the timeline, asking why the case wasn’t elevated.

“There is no good reason that action wasn’t taken,” Masters replied, but noted an unhealthy culture created by the supervisor may have contributed.

“When you have 13,000 staff here, and probably four times that at HHSC, you have to rely on people doing their job, because you can’t be everywhere. If people choose not to do their job, then children’s lives are at risk,” Masters said.

Masters said some agency employees had been terminated as a result.

Sen. Perry also asked DFPS how the court monitors, overseeing the ongoing federal lawsuit, are notified of reports and incidents.

Commissioner Masters explained in the case of The Refuge, the court monitors were notified when the children were being removed from the facility in mid-March, more than a month after the initial intake report.

“We have a $1.3 million check going out to people that have a real conflict, because there is really no reason for them to effectively get out of this — for lack of a better term — scam. Because they are going to get a $1.3 million check as long carry on, as long as we can’t prove we’ve made improvements according to their judgement,” Perry said.

Masters said she believed the role was data collection, and Perry said there needed to be an “honest conversation” about their role.

Paul Yetter is the attorney representing the state’s foster children in the ongoing federal lawsuit involving these monitors. He released a statement regarding the exchange between Senator Perry and Commissioner Masters, saying: “The monitors were appointed because the state refused to fix dire problems that have plagued this system for decades. Conditions for children in Texas foster care have been so bad for so long that the system requires federal oversight. Without the monitors, countless innocent children would still be in danger of terrible abuse. Their vigilance directly resulted in removal of children from unsafe conditions that the state was ignoring. Attacking the monitors now is shameful. It’s a sad effort by obstinate state officials to divert attention from this broken system that continues to put Texas children at risk every day.”

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke on Wednesday called for a reform of the Texas foster care system in the wake of the investigation.

“I wish that this were an anomaly within the state of Texas … it is not,” O’Rourke said during a press conference.

O’Rourke said the investigation into The Refuge was a symptom of larger issues with state oversight, a point conceded by both parties.

But state Democrats said the responsibility ultimately falls on Governor Greg Abbott.

“He’s been repeatedly warned, given many opportunities, been mandated by the court to fix this three separate times,” said O’Rourke.

Abbott’s campaign fired back, accusing O’Rourke of “politicizing the well being of Texas children.”

How will Texas address problems that led to rejection of thousands of mail-in ballots?

Thousands of Texans who voted by mail in the March primary had their ballots rejected. Around 13% of mail-in ballots were rejected statewide. This comes after lawmakers passed a new voting law last year that created additional ID requirements.

The Texas Secretary of State’s Office told us most happened because voters didn’t provide any identification on their carrier envelopes. Thirteen percent statewide amounts to more than 23,000 votes that were never counted.

For perspective: in a smaller, more conservative county, Potter, home to Amarillo, more than 16% — roughly one out of every six voters — had their ballots rejected.

In Austin, it was a little better at 8%. But if you think about it, that’s still roughly one out of every 12 people who voted by mail who had their ballots rejected. 

At first, Pam Robers, of Travis County, experienced issues first hand.

“It’s notice of carrier defect,” Robers said, showing Capitol Correspondent Jala Washington her alert her ballot was rejected.

She got an email from an address she didn’t recognize.

“Then you scroll down, and it says your carrier envelope did not contain your driver’s license number,” Robers said.

She voted early, so she still had time to fix it.

“There were lots of hurdles to try and to make this happen,” Robers said. “Instructions that weren’t clear, telling you to do one thing in the tracking system, then if you did, it wouldn’t work. It’s no wonder a lot of people’s votes were rejected or weren’t counted.”

Robers knows others weren’t as fortunate as her in being able to correct mistakes. Sam Taylor with the Texas Secretary of State’s Office said they plan to make the process more clear.

“It’s a very easy mistake to fix,” Taylor said. “We’re looking at ways that we can highlight that section [where personal identification information is required], draw more attention to it for mailing voters and also engage in a more robust voter education campaign statewide, including TV advertisements. We’ve already run radio advertisements, digital advertisements, billboards. We’re looking to get feedback from a lot of the major counties, with small, medium and large-sized counties, to share best practices.”

Grace Chimene, president of The League of Women Voters of Texas, feels more awareness should’ve been spread upfront. She’s also now working to educate voters, but she wonders if that’ll be enough.

“Really what needs to happen is this legislation that created this problem needs to be fixed,” Chimene said. “This is not necessary.”

The Texas voting website does detail the new mail-in process, though Robers questions how useful that’ll be for elderly people like her.

“It would have been nice to have more time to get the public educated,” Robers said.

The law isn’t going anywhere, at least for now. On Wednesday, a federal appeals court ruled in favor of Texas in three separate legal challenges.

The U.S. 5th Circuit said the civil rights and political groups challenging the mail-in ballot provisions and elimination of straight-ticket voting sued the wrong entity.

The judges ruled they can’t sue the Texas Secretary of State’s Office, because it is not responsible for enforcing the challenged laws. 

Teachers get more representation on Teacher Vacancy Task Force

This week, the Texas Education Agency announced it will be adding 24 teachers to its Teacher Vacancy Task Force, which is aimed at addressing teacher shortages statewide.

When it was first established, the task force only had two teachers on its 28-member team.

At the time, teachers like Stephanie Soebe, a fourth-grade teacher in Round Rock, expressed disappointment with the imbalance of teachers versus administrators on the task force.

“I was kind of disappointed when I saw that. Teachers know about the reality of the classroom more than the superintendent,” Soebe said last week.

TEA Commissioner Mike Morath explained, though, teachers were always going to be part of the process, in the form of presenting to the task force. That changed after the first meeting.

“We have teachers that come in front of the task force and sort of opine on their experience,” Morath said. “But during the first deliberation meeting of the task force members, it became clear that rather than just have teachers present to the task force, and in fact, we have an independent teacher advisory group here as well.”

The goal of the task force is to improve both teacher retention and recruitment across the state coming out of the pandemic.

“What we’ve seen during the during the last 24 months is a notable increase in attrition rates. So teachers who are retiring effectively or teachers who are leaving the profession. The annual attrition rate is up about 1% from its historic average,” Morath explained.

In the 2020-21 school year, there were a total of about 370,000 teachers across Texas. That means an uptick of 1% leaving the profession would mean 3,700 more teachers are leaving the workforce annually compared to years past.

“Part of that can be explained right now, because the economy is fairly hot, but it’s also the disruption of the pandemic was difficult. I mean, last year, teachers were teaching roomies and Zoomies, as it were the kids in the classroom and kids that were remote, sometimes at the same time, and that is quite difficult,” Morath said.

The task force will spend 12 months examining what specific operational changes the state can recommend to improve the professional experience teachers have in Texas schools.

“What kind of first year experience do you need to have? What kind of preparation do you need to have to be successful? What are the specific duties and workload that happen each day to make sure that you have enough time to bring your ‘A’ game to your kids while you’re in front of them, but you also have time to sort of reflect, to think about what the kids will need tomorrow?” Morath said.

Lampasas ISD Superintendent Chane Rascoe, who is already on the task force, said he welcomes any hiring help his district can get.

“10 years ago, we would have candidates that would apply numerous candidates, probably 10-15 candidates that would apply for a given teaching position. With COVID, it’s gotten to the point now to where we simply just don’t have applicants to pick from,” Rascoe explained.

He said he’s glad the task force decided to add more teachers.

“It’s hard as an administrator, I’ve been a principal before and moved up to the superintendency. It’s hard to see a group of kids in a classroom that that is not taught by quality teacher, because you simply don’t have the supply that’s there. And as a system, we have to work to fix that issue. And I’m hoping that the work of this taskforce will be able to achieve that or at least make it better,” Rascoe said.

At the end of the 12-month period, the TEA will provide a summation of its findings and offer recommendations to lawmakers in time for the 88th Regular Legislative Session.

In the meantime, school districts can follow updates online.

“Between each meeting, we’ll be posting updates related to promising practices and other sort of best-practice policy approaches that have been gleaned from each task force meeting,” Morath said.

The TEA is currently in the process of accepting applications for the 24 new teacher spots.

Senators push to end mask mandates for air travelers

Federal officials say travelers will be required to wear masks on planes and public transportation for one more month. The requirement has been extended through April 18th.

The decision, which comes as the country rolls back most coronavirus rules and restrictions, brought a backlash from lawmakers who say Americans should be free to fly without a mask.

“This is stupid,” Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said during a news conference Tuesday.

“It’s not health related. It’s not science related. It’s not medicine related. It is political theater and it’s time for it to end,” Cruz said.

The Senate on Tuesday approved a resolution calling to end the requirement to wear masks on public transportation. The vote was 57-40 for passage.

The resolution would reduce Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) requirements that most people wear masks on public transportation, including trains, airplanes and buses. 

“It is time to end the COVID mandates,” Cruz said.

White House COVID Response Deputy Coordinator Natalie Quillan says more time is needed to carefully review and revise the policy.

“We can give some predictability to when masks should be on to protect public health, and if the conditions are right, when they might be able to take them off,” Quillan said.

That’s not soon enough for the Senators who voted for the resolution to end the mandate. But while it cleared the Senate, it’s likely to hit a wall in the House. It would also need to overcome a likely veto by President Biden.