Texas child welfare official resigns, saying top agency leaders scapegoated employees

The director of child care investigations at the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services resigned Sunday, saying that top agency officials scapegoated employees over their handling of abuse allegations at a foster care facility. (Eddie Gaspar, Eddie Gaspar)

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The director of child care investigations for Texas’ protective services agency resigned over the weekend and alleged that two of his recently fired employees were being “scapegoated” over the agency’s handling of alleged child abuse at a Bastrop foster care facility.

Justin Lewis told The Texas Tribune on Sunday he decided to step down after Texas Department of Family and Protective Services Commissioner Jaime Masters and Associate Commissioner Robert Richman testified before a Texas Senate hearing Thursday. Lewis said the top DPFS leaders inaccurately characterized who was to blame for the mishandling of abuse allegations at a state-contracted center that cares for victims of sex trafficking.

Masters told lawmakers last week that the team culture created by a Child Protective Services manager kept agency leaders in the dark about an employee of The Refuge who was accused of selling nude pictures of two girls in the facility’s care.

Yet Lewis said numerous divisions within DFPS, including high-level regional staff, had knowledge of the situation at The Refuge but did not notify higher-ups. Systemic difficulties and barriers in communication, not the actions of his team, led to the issues he said. DFPS declined a request to comment on Lewis’ statements or his resignation.

Details of Lewis’ resignation became public in court documents Monday. The documents also revealed that Lewis had texted profane and disparaging comments about a judge in a long-running federal court case over the state’s foster care system. Lewis was unaware screenshots of the texts were shared with the court when he resigned and said Monday that he regretted sending them.

Lawmakers and state agencies are investigating how events unfolded at The Refuge, the Bastrop-based foster care facility where the victims were residing when the photos were sold. They are also looking into why it took weeks for DFPS to remove the children placed there.

Masters told lawmakers Thursday that two DFPS employees who handled initial reports about what happened at The Refuge violated agency policy when they failed to share details with Lewis and other higher-ups quickly enough. The two employees were fired as a result.

Lewis agreed that his employees should have notified him of the situation but disputed Masters’ assertion that they had violated policy. They filed the cases as the agency dictates, he said.

“While it is my expectation that certain cases be elevated up, there was no written DFPS policy requiring it prior to this situation,” Lewis wrote in his resignation.

Masters, appearing before Texas lawmakers again Monday, did not mention Lewis’ resignation but clarified her comments from last week. She said although there aren’t formal policies for the Child Protective Investigations division, the workers ignored other directives to escalate issues of particular importance.

The agency’s policies and protocols might come under further scrutiny as the investigation into The Refuge case and DFPS’ handling of the incident continues. The agency has been at the center of a yearslong federal lawsuit over systemic failings in Texas’ foster care system that have led to children dying, being neglected and suffering abuse while in the state’s care.

Lewis oversaw a division of around 150 staff members before resigning, he said. His division investigates abuse and neglect allegations, foster homes, residential treatment centers and day cares in the state.

“I do not feel right about some things that are going on,” Lewis said in an interview. “I don’t feel well about the personnel decisions that were made.”

While Masters blamed the two fired employees for the agency’s failure to investigate The Refuge case sooner, Lewis said the problem was rooted in the agency’s policies. DFPS’ handling of child abuse allegations and investigations is convoluted and leads to a lack of communication, Lewis said.

“I’m frustrated with the system,” he said. “I’m frustrated with the federal lawsuit — the lawsuit doesn’t frustrate me, seeming like we aren’t getting anywhere frustrates me.”

Disparaging comments

Lewis’ resignation letter was made public in federal court documents filed Monday in which Lisa Drain, a former DFPS employee, wrote to the court overseeing the federal lawsuit. She expressed concerns over disparaging comments Lewis made about the judge overseeing the lawsuit against the state’s foster care system. She stated that Lewis had already decided to resign before she told him she shared his comments.

Drain provided screenshots of a text message conversation between the two of them Saturday. In them, Lewis referenced the backlash toward DFPS over the situation at The Refuge, which was first made public in a federal court emergency hearing earlier this month.

“Politics make me sick,” Lewis texted Drain, according to screenshots filed in court. “The judge turned it into that quickly. She is a c—. She needs to get hit by a bus.”

Accompanying the screenshots, Drain wrote in a letter she was concerned about Lewis’ ability to do his job.

“The reason I am sharing this with you is because I feel Justin Lewis does not respect the foster care litigation process and I have lost all professional confidence in him due to recent events (finalized by a conversation that occurred last night between us),” she wrote in a letter accompanying the screenshots.

But a day later, Drain wrote a second letter, expressing regret for sharing her previous comments. She and Lewis spoke again, she said, at which time he shared his plans to resign and remorse over his actions. She then informed him of the letter she had filed with the court.

“My confidence in his integrity has been restored,” Drain wrote to the court.

She also said he was fearful and drunk when he wrote the text messages and that his comments were “wildly out of character for him.” Drain said she wished she could “recall [her] previous email entirely.”

Lewis said Monday that his text messages were “inexcusable.”

“They were a horrible thing to say and go against everything I am and have been raised to be,” he said in a text message to the Tribune. “The comment was made in a moment of frustration after several drinks out with my wife. I truly regret making them and am ashamed it was said. I would like to apologize to Judge Jack for my childish and hateful comment.”

Along with his resignation Sunday, Lewis recommended that one of the employees who was fired over the handling of The Refuge case, Ashley Wisdom, take over his position. Wisdom’s role in The Refuge case was discussed, though her name was not used, during Thursday’s Senate committee meeting.

Lewis said he disagreed with the decision to terminate her and doesn’t believe she deserved to be fired, but he was instructed to do so by Richman, the DFPS associate commissioner for Child Protective Investigations.

“I don’t think the actions that she took or didn’t take warranted being terminated,” Lewis said.

“But I was told she had to go.”

Lewis said the two employees who were fired could have let higher-ups know sooner about The Refuge case, but argued that they had not violated any CPS policies. He also said Wisdom did take steps to make sure appropriate action was taken.

“One thing I told myself I would never do when I accepted this position is sacrifice my ideals while dealing with political pressures and throw any person ‘in front of the bus’ and the way this has played out ... well it just doesn’t sit right in my gut,” Lewis wrote in his resignation letter.

After the Senate committee hearing Thursday, Wisdom told The Texas Tribune that she feels like she is being blamed for the situation in order to appease lawmakers and that she was fired so the agency’s top officials could say they took action in the aftermath of what happened at The Refuge.

“I loved what I was doing. I felt like I was actually trying to make a difference over here and trained staff on how to do this the right way, even with the limited resources I had,” she said.

Wisdom also pushed back on Masters’ comments Thursday characterizing her team’s culture as hostile. She said she would send caseworkers back out on assignment if they were missing important information, but that is because of how important it is to get details correct in these situations, not as a punishment.

She said in an email Monday that Lewis “coming forward will not take away the pain and anguish I have felt this last week, but it will help me to start the healing process as I recover from the absolute worst day/week of my professional life.”

Wisdom said she hoped her position, along that of with her colleague who was also fired, would be restored soon.

Correction, March 21, 2022: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the day of a Senate hearing on child welfare. It was Thursday, not Friday.