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The director of child custody investigations for the Texas Protective Services agency resigned over the weekend and alleged that two of his recently fired employees were ‘scapegoats’ for treatment by the agency of allegations of child abuse in a foster home in Bastrop.
Justin Lewis told the Texas Tribune on Sunday that he decided to resign after Texas Department of Family and Protective Services Commissioner Jaime Masters and Associate Commissioner Robert Richman testified before a Texas Senate hearing on Friday. Lewis said 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 official has kept agency leaders in the dark about a The Refuge employee accused of selling nude photos of two girls in the care of the establishment.
Still, Lewis said many divisions within DFPS, including high-level regional staff, were aware of the situation at the Refuge but did not inform superiors. Systemic difficulties and communication barriers, not the actions of his team, led to the problems he said. The DFPS declined a request for comment on Lewis’ statements or his resignation.
Details of Lewis’s resignation became public in court documents on Monday. The documents also revealed that Lewis sent profane and disparaging comments about a judge in a long-running case in federal court regarding the state’s foster care system. Lewis was unaware that screenshots of the texts had been shared with the court when he resigned and said on Monday he regretted sending them.
Lawmakers and state agencies are investigating the course of events at The Refuge, the Bastrop-based foster care facility where the victims resided when the photos were sold. They are also looking into why it took weeks for the DFPS to remove the children who were placed there.
Masters told lawmakers on Friday that two DFPS employees who handled initial reports of what happened at the Refuge violated agency policy when they did not share details with Lewis and others. higher fairly quickly. Both employees were terminated as a result.
Lewis agreed that his employees should have informed him of the situation, but disputed Masters’ claim that they violated the policy. They filed the records as the agency dictates, he said.
“While I expect some cases to be high, there was no written DFPS policy requiring it prior to this situation,” Lewis wrote in his resignation.
Masters, appearing before Texas lawmakers again on Monday, did not mention Lewis’ resignation but clarified his comments from last week. She said while there are no formal policies for the Child Protection Investigations Division, workers have ignored other guidelines to escalate issues of particular importance.
The agency’s policies and protocols may 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 year-long federal lawsuit over system failures in the Texas foster care system that led to child deaths, neglect, and abuse while in state custody.
Lewis oversaw a division of around 150 staff before stepping down, he said. His division investigates allegations of abuse and neglect, foster homes, residential treatment centers and state daycares.
“I don’t feel good about some things that are going on,” Lewis said in an interview. “I don’t feel good about the personnel decisions that have been made.”
While Masters blamed the two fired employees for the agency’s failure to investigate The Refuge earlier, Lewis said the issue was rooted in agency policies. DFPS’s 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 trial – the trial doesn’t frustrate me, feeling like we’re not getting anywhere frustrates me.”
Lewis’ resignation was made public in federal court documents filed Monday in which Lisa Drain, a former DFPS employee, wrote to the court overseeing the federal trial. She expressed concerns about derogatory comments Lewis spoke about the judge overseeing the lawsuit against the state’s foster care system. She said Lewis had already decided to quit before telling her she shared his comments.
Drain provided screenshots of a text conversation between the two of them on Saturday. In them, Lewis referenced the backlash to DFPS over the situation at The Refuge, which was first made public at an emergency Federal Court hearing earlier this month.
“Politics makes me sick,” Lewis texted Drain, according to screenshots filed in court. “The judge turned him into this quickly. She is ac—. She needs to get hit by a bus.
Accompanying the screenshots, Drain wrote in a letter that she was concerned about Lewis’ ability to do his job.
“The reason I am sharing this with you is because I believe Justin Lewis does not respect the fostering litigation process and I have lost all professional trust in him due to recent events (finalized by a conversation that took place last night between us),” she wrote in a letter accompanying the screenshots.
But a day later, Drain wrote a second letter, regretting to have shared his previous comments. She and Lewis spoke again, she said, at which point he shared his plans for resignation and remorse for his actions. She then informed him of the letter she had filed with the court.
“My faith in his integrity has been restored,” Drain wrote in court.
She also said he was scared and drunk when he wrote the text messages and that his comments were “extremely irrelevant to him”. Drain said she wished she could “remember [her] previous email entirely.
Lewis said on Monday his text messages were “inexcusable”.
“It was a horrible thing to say and to go against everything I am and was raised to be,” he said in a text message to the Tribune. “The comment was made in a moment of frustration after several drinks with my wife. I really regret having made them and I am ashamed that it was said. I would like to apologize to Judge Jack for my childish and hateful comment.
Along with his resignation on Sunday, Lewis recommended that one of the employees fired for handling The Refuge case, Ashley Wisdom, return to his post. Wisdom’s role in The Refuge case was discussed, although his name was not used, at Friday’s Senate committee meeting.
Lewis said he disagreed with the decision to fire her and did not believe she deserved to be fired, but was instructed to do so by Richman, the associate commissioner of the DFPS for child protection investigations.
“I don’t think the actions she took or didn’t take warrant her termination,” Lewis said.
“But I was told she had to go.”
Lewis said the two terminated employees could have told superiors about The Refuge sooner, but argued they had not violated any CPS policies. He also said Wisdom had taken steps to ensure the proper action was taken.
“One thing I told myself I would never do when I took on this job is sacrifice my ideals while facing political pressure and throwing anyone ‘in front of the bus’ and the way what this happened to… I’m not sitting in my gut,” Lewis wrote in his resignation letter.
After Friday’s Senate committee hearing, Wisdom told the Texas Tribune that she felt she was blamed for the situation to appease lawmakers and that she was fired so senior officials in the agency could say that they had acted on what had happened at Le Refuge.
“I loved what I was doing. I felt like I was trying to make a difference here and I trained the staff on how to do it the right way, even with the limited resources I had,” she said.
Wisdom also pushed back on comments from Masters on Friday calling his team culture hostile. She said she would send social workers back on assignment if they missed important information, but that’s because of the importance of getting the details correct in these situations, not as a punishment.
She said in an email on Monday that Lewis “coming forward won’t take away the pain and anguish I’ve been feeling for the past week, but it will help start the healing process as I recover from the worst day/week of my professional life. ”
Wisdom said she hopes her position, as well as that of her colleague who was also fired, will soon be reinstated.