AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Amid investigations into a Bastrop County facility that houses underage victims of sex trafficking, the head of child care investigations at the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services has resigned, according to court documents.
Justin Lewis, the now former child care investigations division director, announced his resignation in a letter addressed to DFPS on Sunday. In his letter, obtained via court documents, Lewis said he can no longer “acquiesce to the political nature of this job.”
His letter details discomfort he felt from two of his staffers being “put on display to the legislature, and consequently the media, while other divisions (with far more folks involved) were not mentioned.”
KXAN has reached out to DFPS for comment on Lewis’ resignation. We will update this story when we hear back.
Last Thursday, Texas lawmakers questioned law enforcement and several state agencies, including DFPS officials, about the ongoing Texas Rangers investigation into exploitation claims about The Refuge, located in Bastrop County. Some senators on the committee expressed frustration with DFPS, asking why complaints about The Refuge weren’t escalated sooner.
“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’ resignation letter reads.
Prior to Lewis’ resignation, a former DFPS employee sent an email to the court on Saturday at 10:48 a.m. showing a personal text message conversation where Lewis called District Court Judge Janice Graham Jack a derogatory term, saying she made the ongoing investigation into allegations at the state-contracted facility “political.” Lewis said in the text message that Judge Jack “needs to get hit by a bus,” according to court records.
The email stated “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…”
The woman sent a follow-up email to the court again on Sunday at 8:30 p.m. about additional correspondance with Lewis, saying he called her to apologize for his word choice and actions, and he had intentions to submit a resignation letter to DFPS. In the woman’s email to the court, she said her confidence in Lewis was “restored,” and she is “proud of his courage to rectify the damage he participated in causing.”
Lewis’ resignation letter does not mention the text correspondence between him and the former DFPS employee about Judge Jack.
“I can’t even begin to say that I understand that political pressures associated with being in the top leadership — but 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.”
“Considering these things, I must step down from my position effective immediately to preserve my family, my health, and my own opinion of myself,” the resignation letter reads. “My family needs me home and I needed to speak my mind in an attempt to ‘protect the unprotected’ to be able to look at myself in the mirror each morning and not be unhappy with who I see looking back at me.”
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.
Background and testimony on The Refuge investigation
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 then called on the Texas Rangers to investigate.
On March 16, Col. McCraw sent a letter to the governor with “initial findings” of the Texas Rangers’ 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.
Avery Travis and Dalton Huey contributed to this report.