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MARBLE FALLS — A religious nonprofit stopped letting Texas house foster kids in a facility it owns this fall, days after two teenage girls staying there snuck out and were allegedly sexually assaulted.
The girls were 13 and 16 when two men picked them up on the side of the road and allegedly assaulted them at a hotel in Burnet, roughly 14 miles north of Marble Falls, according to court documents. Burnet County, home to Marble Falls, is about an hour northwest of Austin.
The Department of Family and Protective Services was responsible for the care, custody and control of the children staying in the facility, according to a memorandum of understanding between the agency and Highland Lakes Crisis Network, the nonprofit that owned the building.
The two girls were among 29 youth who stayed at least one night at the Marble Falls facility last year, which served as temporary housing because the state did not have long-term placements. Both girls remain in foster care and have attorneys and special advocate volunteers appointed to them, DFPS spokesperson Patrick Crimmins said in an email to The Texas Tribune.
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“It is important to state immediately that the safety of children and youth in foster care is paramount, and the reason our agency exists is for their welfare and protection. Nothing means more, and we will continue to work to find ways to safeguard those in our care,” Crimmins said.
He also said DFPS employees followed the agency’s runaway protocols when the girls left the facility, and therefore no employees were disciplined for their actions.
The two men accused of assaulting the girls, Isaac Medina and Michael Morales, were arrested shortly after the alleged incident and remain in jail. Medina is charged with indecency with a child and aggravated sexual assault of a minor. Morales is charged with indecency with a child and sexual assault of a minor. Their attorneys could not be reached for comment.
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The Marble Falls closure came months after a state-contracted foster care facility for sex-trafficking victims in Bastrop was closed following allegations that a caretaker there sold nude photos of children. The employee at the Bastrop facility was fired over the allegations, but a grand jury did not find enough evidence to indict her.
“Children without placement” is a term for kids in Child Protective Services’ care who don’t have relatives or foster families to live with or licensed facilities to stay in. These kids frequently have significant behavioral and mental health issues, often caused by the trauma of the state taking custody of them. DFPS struggles to place these kids because Texas’ privatized foster care system means children with difficult behaviors can be turned away from placement. Without alternatives to house these kids, the state turns to unlicensed facilities, like the one in Marble Falls.
Texas’ troubled foster care system has faced a yearslong lawsuit for violating Texas children’s constitutional rights. A federal judge who has ordered reforms has long criticized state officials for not moving fast enough to overhaul how foster children are cared for and in 2015 said kids “often age out of care more damaged than when they entered.”
Court monitors in the federal lawsuit have found that children in the state’s care have been given the wrong or improper doses of medication, have been exposed to sexual abuse or have engaged in self-harm.
Meanwhile, the agency has weathered swift leadership changes and an exodus of thousands of staff in recent months. Former DFPS Commissioner Jaime Masters was recently replaced after three tumultuous years leading the agency. In November, Gov. Greg Abbott announced he was appointing Stephanie Muth, a consultant and former Medicaid director at the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, to replace Masters. In that same announcement, Abbott said that former DFPS Commissioner Anne Heiligenstein was returning in a senior adviser role, weeks after the agency announced she was departing before her contract expired.
The problems occurring in temporary placements stem from gaps in the foster care system that leave children without stable homes, said Lori Duke, the co-director of the Children’s Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law. She added that Texas doesn’t have sufficient services to address the problems that result in children being taken from their parents: substance abuse, mental health issues and domestic violence.
“The problems are entrenched. They are often multigenerational and they’re really hard to solve, and the tools that CPS has and the legal system [has] are blunt instruments instead of surgical,” Duke said.
The girls who were allegedly assaulted in October were staying at a Marble Falls facility owned by HLCN, a religious nonprofit that provides support to disaster victims, foster families and others in need in Burnet and Llano counties.
Kevin Naumann, the nonprofit’s executive director, said his group hosted a meeting to brainstorm how to best help children in foster care. At that meeting, CPS officials told Naumann the agency needed space to house children without placement. Naumann offered one of the nonprofit’s buildings, which wasn’t being used by HLCN. With no other options to house children without placement in Burnet County, DFPS accepted the offer.
According to an agreement, HLCN provided and maintained temporary lodging for up to five children at a time who were removed from their homes and didn’t have an alternative placement. DFPS said two adults, at least one of whom was a CPS caseworker, would supervise the children living there while continuing to search for “appropriate placement for the child.”
Naumann said he had concerns about the safety of children staying at the facility, noting that inconsistent schedules and supervision led to an unstable living environment. Ultimately, Naumann said the alleged sexual assaults contributed to his decision to terminate the agreement with DFPS.
Naumann said his group had little involvement with the children staying at the facility beyond preparing meals and providing maintenance.
According to court records, one of the girls told investigators that they were walking to the Walmart after sneaking out of the facility when a car stopped and one of them began talking to the driver, Medina. The girls lied about their ages when they initially met Medina and when he asked them again later, according to court records. He eventually drove the girls and one of his friends to a Comfort Inn and Suites hotel in Burnet, where the alleged assaults took place, according to court documents. Medina then allegedly drove the girls to First Baptist Church in Burnet, where police arrested him.
Burnet Police Sgt. Steven Vollmar told the Tribune his investigation into the incident is still ongoing.
The affidavit includes information gathered from a forensic interview, a process that law enforcement conducts when children are suspected victims of violence or sex crimes to assess their safety and elicit information for an investigation. One of the girls participated in the forensic interview with the Hill County Children’s Advocacy Center and a Burnet Police investigator. HCCAC declined to speak with the Tribune about the cases.
Days after the assault in October, Naumann emailed DFPS to terminate the agreement, only eight months after the facility was first established.
“Our eyes have been opened to the dramatic issues concerning the [children without placements] situation, and we would like to regroup with our team and redeploy the space in a different way to attempt to have a long-term and lasting relationship with kids in crisis situations,” Naumann wrote in the email to DFPS following the incident.
Morales and Medina have previous felony convictions. Medina was convicted of evading arrest with a prior conviction and possession of a controlled substance, for which he was sentenced to two years in prison. Morales, who also had a controlled substance conviction, was convicted of intoxicated manslaughter and was sentenced to five years in prison, according to county records.
While the need to temporarily house children in the state’s care is an essential part of foster care, Texas has long struggled to find placements for kids turned away from private providers.
Facilities like the one in Marble Falls serve as stopgaps for primarily older youth with behavioral and mental health challenges. And kids who end up staying in these unlicensed, temporary facilities require specialized services that the state can’t provide, said Kate Murphy, the director of child protective policy at Texans Care for Children.
For kids in CPS’ care, the frequent displacement and trauma associated with not having a stable home often leads to behavioral and mental health issues, Murphy said. But children with significant needs are turned away by most DFPS providers, who can choose which kids they serve.
During their time in CPS care, the average child will be placed in a different home, facility or treatment center 2.5 times, according to 2021 data from DFPS. For children who remain in the system until they age out, that figure jumps to 6.4 times.
The number of children without placement spiked in the summer of 2021, with over 400 children sleeping in unlicensed housing in July and August of that year. Since then, the number of children without placement has decreased — on Jan. 10, 67 children had no placement. Children spent an average of 11 days without placement in 2021, and more than 40% of these kids return to similarly unlicensed facilities within three months. Children without placement make up less than 1% of the youth in care of CPS.
Experts selected by the state and plaintiffs in the ongoing lawsuit found that insufficient mental health services and a lack of providers willing to accept children with serious needs contributed to the increase in the number of children without placement.
Advocates like Duke and Murphy argue the current system of housing children in unlicensed facilities such as churches, hotels and nonprofit buildings will always be untenable. Duke said the state needs to enhance resources that serve children with high levels of behavioral and mental health needs, including how providers, such as therapists, are paid.
Murphy urged the Legislature to take advantage of funding opportunities that would reduce the number of children without placement by keeping kids out of the foster system and with their families.
“I see this issue of children without placement as a symptom of the systems’ problems,” Murphy said. “The problem is that no one can offer the level of help that some of these kids in Texas need.”
Murphy noted that roughly one-third of children without placement enter the foster system with preexisting mental health issues too great for their families to care for them. To help these children get the help they needed, their families relinquished care to the state, but Murphy said children in such situations are overrepresented in the group of children without placement because of the lack of mental health care in the foster system.
“The lack of services is driving kids into the system, and then the services still aren’t there even once they come into foster care,” Murphy said.
Disclosure: Texans Care for Children has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.