AUSTIN (Nexstar) – A federal judge is questioning the handling of an investigation into exploitation at a Bastrop facility housing sex trafficking survivors. In a hearing Wednesday morning, the judge called for a federal investigation into the matter.
The hearing was originally scheduled to serve as an update before Judge Janis Jack about the years-long federal lawsuit over the treatment of children foster care system she has overseen. However, when proceedings began in a Dallas courtroom, Jack almost immediately expressed concern about the “quality” of the ongoing investigation.
In mid-March, allegations surfaced about potential abuse, and even sex trafficking, involving girls who lived at The Refuge in Bastrop, according to a letter from a state employee filed in federal court records. Leaders at The Refuge immediately responded, confirming that local law enforcement and the Department of Family and Protective Services were looking into two separate incidents they reported at their facility in the spring, but they denied allegations of ongoing abuse.
Gov. Greg Abbott quickly called in the Texas Rangers to investigate, and just days later, a letter from the agency’s director noted their initial investigation had found “no evidence” of abuse or sex trafficking.
This week, a group of federal court monitors — appointed to oversee the federal lawsuit — filed a report filled with new information about the investigation into The Refuge. The report contained details from interviews of the girls involved and the alleged perpetrator, along with information from investigations by the Health and Human Services Commission and DFPS.
The Monitors wrote that they reviewed thousands of documents, finding “significant evidence of serious risks to child safety at The Refuge” — calling the Rangers’ statements “premature, at best.”
On Wednesday, Jack told the court she had “serious concerns” about the quality of the Texas Rangers’ investigation.
She initially questioned attorneys for the state about a recently-filed request, in which they asked the monitors to seal any forthcoming reports about this investigation.
“Have you no shame?” the judge asked, reminding the court of a 2018 order requiring all reports by the monitors to be made public.
The attorneys for the state responded that the intention of their request was to protect the parties involved and the integrity of the investigation.
The judge asked several people appearing in the hearing whether they believed the report revealed any confidential or privileged information. Eventually, she emphasized her belief that the report was “detailed” and only revealed as many details as the head of the Department of Public Safety and other state agency leaders revealed in legislative hearings last week.
“Your people testified about those same details,” Jack said.
The judge also referenced a moment during a House Human Services hearing last week, where Colonel Steven McCraw and other witnesses testified the full name of the alleged perpetrator in the exploitation incident. Since no criminal charges have been filed and no arrests made in this investigation, KXAN has not published this person’s name.
The judge said she planned to ask the monitors to make a criminal referral to the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas about potential child pornography charges, as well as a referral for anyone who participates “in the obstruction of justice.”
Attorneys for the state continued to reiterate their concerns about inferring with the investigation.
“I’m not stopping that investigation. I’m just making sure there’s a federal investigation,” the judge said.
In a statement after the hearing, Brooke Crowder, the founder and CEO of The Refuge for DMST said, “Given our commitment to providing the best possible care to the victims of trafficking, we will continue fully cooperating with the multiple agencies investigating the two episodes of egregious employee misconduct we immediately reported earlier this year. When complete, we are confident their parallel investigations will reveal our continued adherence to the highest standard of care for the girls in our care.”
New push for change after investigations into problem doctors
Our series of investigations is leading to changes from the Texas Medical Board after we exposed doctors coming to Texas to escape their problem pasts.
Less than a month after our reporting, the TMB proposed a rule change that, if approved, would require physicians to self-report any criminal convictions, out-of-state disciplinary actions and medical malpractice claims within 30 days. Currently, those potential red flags are only required to be reported when applying for a medical license in Texas or every two years, when licenses are renewed.
It is unclear at this time what disciplinary actions physicians could face, if any, for ignoring the reporting requirements.
The change “seeks to make clear reporting requirements of certain events by physicians to the TMB that are required to be contained in the physician’s online profile and better align the Board’s physician reporting rule with the existing language in state statute,” TMB Board President Dr. Sherif Zaafran wrote.
The rule change will be considered for adoption at the board’s June meeting, according to TMB spokesperson Jarrett Schneider. The new measure comes on top of “improved internal processes,” including “proactively updating” online physician profiles, he added.
By law, the TMB is required to show out-of-state disciplinary actions on physician online profiles. Our investigation revealed, in at least dozens of cases, that is not happening.
The nonprofit Texas Medical Association, which is based in Austin and represents more than 55,000 physicians, residents and medical students, supports the rule change.
“TMA understands the Texas Medical Board will consider proposed rules to increase reporting and transparency, and we support efforts to remedy this issue,” said TMA President Dr. E. Linda Villarreal. “TMA always has supported a fair medical board with the overall goal of achieving the best care for Texas patients.”
“The Board’s goal as it considers any rulemaking is to improve its processes,” Zaafran added in the TMB March bulletin, “while maintaining the right balance of regulation and public safety.”
At least one state lawmaker, however, says the proposed changes don’t go far enough.
State Rep. Julie Johnson (D-Farmers Branch) reacted to KXAN’s investigations with plans to draft a bill.
“My immediate reaction was, well, if the Texas Medical Board isn’t going to do it on its own, as a member of the legislature, I’m going to file a bill,” Johnson said. “I’m going to do something about it.”
Speaking to KXAN from her Dallas law office, located around 10 miles from where Dr. Christopher Duntsch once operated, Johnson says she will ask for a hearing. She plans to cite KXAN’s investigations as evidence for why the problem needs more than a Band-Aid.
“That would, I think, need to be provided to the committee so people can see this is not just a one-off problem that we’re talking about,” Johnson said. “This is a chronic problem. And, unfortunately, for [some] patients of Dr. Duntsch, they’re now dead. And we don’t need to repeat that again.”
Duntsch — dubbed “Dr. Death” in media reports — killed or injured more than 30 patients in botched spinal surgeries. He was sentenced to life in prison five years ago in a case that made national headlines and sparked a hugely successful podcast and Peacock miniseries.
For several months, KXAN reviewed thousands of out-of-state disciplinary records from multiple states and found dozens of doctors with suspended or revoked medical licenses. All are either still practicing in Texas — or able to — with “clean” records on the TMB’s license lookup portal.
Among the examples KXAN uncovered: A neurosurgeon who operated on the wrong part of the spine, a surgeon who operated while intoxicated, and a doctor who prescribed excessive quantities of Oxycodone leading to a patient’s death. In each of these cases, and dozens more, the TMB’s website lists “NONE” for out-of-state disciplinary actions.
“That’s not going to fly,” Johnson said after watching our investigations. “And I intend to do something about it.”
“I think that the reporting you did where you uncovered all of the physicians who have lost their licenses in other states and that was not disclosed on the Texas Medical Board’s website,” she added, “is ‘Exhibit A’ as to the problem.”
In a direct response to KXAN’s investigations, Johnson plans to file a bill next session that would force the TMB to be more transparent. Among her proposals:
- Prevent doctors who had licenses revoked in other states from being able to practice in Texas.
- Make it a crime to lie on TMB license applications.
- Require physicians report any discipline for medical negligence or arrests within 30 days, instead of every two years. The TMB is already proposing action that would address this.
- Require an audit of the TMB. The Texas State Auditor’s Office had no comment.
- Close a “loophole” that allows hospitals to suspend doctors for less than 30 days to avoid reporting them to the National Practitioner Data Bank.
- Adopt a model similar to North Carolina, which KXAN revealed puts all disciplinary records online indefinitely.
Johnson and others — including Dr. Robert Henderson, who helped stop Duntsch — say the TMB is not meeting its own mission statement to protect the public in addition to not following the law. The Texas Occupations Code requires the TMB to make out-of-state disciplinary records public.
Johnson met with her former law partner, Kay Van Wey, to discuss ideas for legislation. Wey is a medical malpractice attorney in Dallas who represented victims of Duntsch.
“Somebody needs to take the Texas Medical Board and shake them,” said Wey, shaking her hands. “And say, ‘Follow your mission statement.'”
“Your mission isn’t to protect doctors,” she added, as a plea to the TMB. “It’s to protect you and me: the patient.”
The TMB previously said it would be “staff and time intensive” to post all out-of-state disciplinary records online, even though it is required to do so by law.
So how can lawmakers hold the TMB accountable when it’s not following the law like it should?
“Well,” Johnson said, “we need to look into it and we need to find ways to do that.”
Other lawmakers, like State Sen. Borris Miles (D-Houston), also expressed interest in legislation.
“With the largest medical center in the world located in my district, I have more doctors working in my district than any other member of the Legislature,” Miles said in a statement in response to our investigations.
“The Texas Medical Board must prioritize patient safety and ensure the public can easily find out the disciplinary history of any doctor,” Miles added. “The Board needs to get into compliance with the law immediately by making these disciplinary records available to patients. I am committed to working with my colleagues to close any loopholes that allow doctors and the Board to delay or ignore the release of these records.”
State Rep. Terry Meza (D-Irving) told KXAN this “is an issue I would be interested in taking up next session.”
KXAN also reached out to members of Texas’ Congressional delegation to ask about potential changes on a national level. That could include opening up the National Practitioner Data Bank, which is a national repository of all physician disciplinary and malpractice records. Several members of Congress said they would look into what we uncovered.
Johnson plans to meet with stakeholders and is confident the bill she will draft will get bipartisan support.
“We all go to the doctor,” she said. “Healthcare should not be a partisan issue.”
More Texas schools threaten teacher certificates for those who quit
This month, Gov. Greg Abbott directed the Texas Education Agency to create a task force to investigate the state’s teacher shortage.
This comes as data shows school districts statewide have sent in more requests to the state in the last seven months — to consider suspending or even revoking educators’ teaching certificates for job abandonment — than they have in past years.
In the past, the State Board for Educator Certification has most often decided to suspend the educators’ teaching certificate for a year for contract abandonment, which prevents the person from teaching in Texas for that period. Hiring managers would also be able to view the suspension on their teaching certificate, even after the suspension expires.
Olivia Telebelsarfi, a former math teacher at John B. Connally High School in Pflugerville, was one of eight teachers school board trustees voted to report to the TEA in January. It was the first time they used this practice, according to a district spokesperson.
“Moving forward, we will be holding staff accountable because it’s causing harm to our students,” said Pflugerville ISD trustee Jean Mayer during a Jan. 20 board meeting.
Telebelsarfi told her principal in December she would not return after winter break. She wrote in her resignation letter she was disappointed with an increase in class sizes leading to “diluted teaching quality” and said she was concerned for her physical safety on campus.
She said before she resigned, she learned a student in her classroom brought a gun to school.
“It’s terrifying, because after learning that, how can you go back to work and teach like it’s a normal day? In your mind, you are thinking, ‘does that kid have a gun? Does that kid have a weapon? Is that kid going to do something crazy right now?’ You don’t know,” Telebelsarfi said.
“That’s a lot that the school is asking from a teacher: continue to come to work and teach, take on more students and ignore the fact that maybe one day this is going to happen,” she added.
The district confirmed it sent home multiple letters in the fall to staff and parents regarding the report of a possible weapon. In response to our questions on adding students to teachers’ rosters, the district said it commonly adds students to rosters and levels classes throughout the year for reasons such as teacher hiring, resignations and an influx of students in the course.
Throughout the pandemic, the State Board for Educator Certification has suspended more than 300 teaching certificates statewide for job abandonment. The board is in the process of investigating hundreds more complaints from school districts.
Since 2015, 77% of the cases the SBEC has decided have resulted in the educator having their certification suspended. State data showed only one certificate being revoked in the last seven years and two dozen cases where the district rescinded the complaint.
Paul Tapp, who along with his team provides legal assistance to educators as a part of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said the sanctions fail to address the real reasons why teachers are leaving.
“The idea of just sanctioning teachers, penalizing teachers — that is not going to solve the problem,” said Tapp said. “We’ve got to deal with why these teachers leave even though, again, they are risking sanctions, they are risking their careers by doing so.”
Not every school district is using this method to prevent teachers from leaving mid-school year. Austin Independent School District said in a statement it “does not currently engage in the practice of sanctioning an educator’s certificate for contract abandonment.”
The Texas Legislature has given school districts statutory discretion to choose whether to report an educator who abandons a contract, according to the TEA.
Del Valle and Pflugerville ISDs have reported multiple teachers and support staff to the TEA for job abandonment in recent months.
“Every year, we have staff members who resign before the end of their contract. However, this year we have seen an unprecedented number of staff members leaving during the school year, leaving our classrooms without a teacher and our students and staff members in a lurch,” said Pflugerville ISD Chief Communications Officer Tamra Spence.
The district started the school year with more vacancies, roughly 60 across the district, which has left it spread thinly on staff to cover all the classrooms, Spence said.
The district has given multiple incentives for teachers and staff to stay on, according to Spence, including offering teachers pay intended for substitutes to the teachers filling in, which was not offered in previous school years. Spence said Pflugerville ISD also leads the Central Texas area in teacher pay.
The Del Valle ISD spokesperson said many teachers have either not shown up for work or resigned before the district found a suitable replacement.
Recently, the State Board for Educator Certification changed its rules on what qualifies as “good cause” for an educator to resign mid-school year. The TEA, which oversees the board, said the changes were the result of more than two years of discussions.
Under the new rules, the SBEC “must consider” any mitigating factors relevant to the teacher’s conduct, according to the ATPE, and depending on the circumstances, it could reduce the sanction.
The changes include four new mitigating factors, including changing careers, an unexpected reduction in base pay, a change in the educator’s campus assignment that caused a significant adverse impact on the educator’s health condition or family needs, and working conditions that reasonably posed an immediate threat of significant physical harm to the educator.
Update on the state of bridge safety in Texas
As Monday afternoon rush hour reached its typical peak, an outbreak of tornadoes bore down on Central Texas on March 21. The unusually powerful storms tore through urban and suburban cores. One twister in Round Rock swirled directly over the crossing of Interstate 35 and State Highway 45. Dramatic footage showed drivers hitting their brakes as a funnel formed and swept across a highway flyover.
Possible damage to a high-use urban bridge led us to ask the Texas Department of Transportation: is that flyover still safe? And with Central Texas getting rocked by both winter and spring storms, is the state checking our bridges as frequently as required?
We discovered TxDOT checked the structural integrity of the Round Rock flyover within hours. The agency closed that bridge to allow engineers to check the structure and removed a folded light pole. Inspectors found the bridge was structurally unharmed.
We also learned TxDOT appears to be checking the state’s bridges within the prescribed timeframes –two years for all highway bridges – outlined by federal National Bridge Inspection Standards.
TxDOT’s bridge division oversees inspection of more than 55,000 bridges. The agency’s bridge inspection data is publicly available here.
As we dug into that database, we found fields showing the last inspection date and the required inspection frequency for each bridge. Some quick math showed more than 500 bridges across the state could possibly be overdue for inspections, including many with low sufficiency ratings and classified as obsolete or deficient. We sent that list of bridges to TxDOT. The agency’s bridge division checked and found that the inspections were not, in fact, late.
According to TxDOT, the majority of the bridges that appeared to be overdue for an inspection don’t carry vehicular traffic, such as railroad or utility bridges, so many NBIS standards don’t apply. Those bridges are included in the database “because TxDOT and DMV need that information for rerouting oversized vehicles.”
Also, many of the bridges that appear to be a month or two late had actually been inspected, but reports were being finalized within a 90-day window permitted by federal regulations. There are also some bridges in the database that are closed, yet haven’t been removed, TxDOT said in an email.
It is “not an option” for a bridge inspection to be late, TxDOT said.
“TxDOT closely monitors inspection due dates to ensure that inspections are performed on time. Further, the FHWA performs an annual audit to ensure compliance with the NBIS, including on-time inspections,” TxDOT wrote in an email.
KXAN requested that audit from both the state and federal governments, and we will update this report when those are provided.
In 2015, an audit of the Federal Highway Administration’s bridge safety program found it was being effectively overseen. Auditors recommended improvements for documenting work and tracking actions taken to correct deficiencies, according to a U.S. Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General report.
Federal oversight ensures states follow bridge inspection protocol. TxDOT regularly updates its public data with an array of information on each bridge, including a sufficiency rating or if a bridge is obsolete or deficient.
KXAN checked into Central Texas bridges in early March and mapped the locations of every bridge in Central Texas, including obsolete and deficient bridges. You can find that report here and see the map we built below.
Obsolete bridges may have out-of-date features – like a deck’s width or approach design – that don’t completely comply with current standards. Obsolete bridges are often older but are structurally sound. Bridges with serious structural problems are classified deficient, according to city and state records.
‘It’s a waste of money’ – Skepticism as Texas border wall segment moves closer to completion
A segment of border wall being built by the State of Texas in rural Starr County is nearly completed but some local leaders question how effective it will be in keeping migrants from crossing illegally from Mexico.
A 1.7-mile segment of the state-funded border wall is about a tenth of a mile short of completion on state lands just west of La Grulla, Texas, Francoise Luca, communications specialist with the Texas Facilities Commission told Border Report on Monday.
Video of the site recently shot by Border Report shows a significantly longer border wall than in mid-December when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott came to the region accompanied by other state leaders to show off the structure to reporters.
This first segment is among a total of 8 miles of noncontiguous border wall that Abbott says the state will fund and build in Starr County in order “to secure and safeguard the sovereignty for the United States as well as for our own state.”
“This unprecedented action is needed for one single reason and that’s because the Biden administration has failed to do its job,” Abbott said during his Dec. 18 visit.
The 8 miles are not to exceed $162 million and are being paid by taxpayer funds, as well as donated funds, according to the state’s contracts.
Luca said the border wall is being built using 30-foot-tall bollards that were surplus from the federal government’s border wall construction program and were sent from southern California.
The Federal Surplus Program is offered through the General Services Administration, and goods are available to state and local municipalities that request it as long as they fund transportation costs.
In the case of the 1,700 bollards received from California, the State of Texas paid big rigs to haul the metal wall segments across the country by early February, according to the TFC.
“Those bollards were in California and shipped them into Texas so that was a cost for the project,” Luca said.
The Texas Facilities Commission in June began oversight of the Texas border wall project. The commission manages most of the facilities where Texas state business is conducted. It oversees hundreds of state office buildings throughout the Lone Star State.
But not everyone approves of the construction.
Starr County Judge Eloy Vera recently told Border Report that he believes “it’s a waste of money.”
Vera says he firmly supports border security initiatives but he doesn’t think erecting a segment of border wall — less than 2 miles long — in a farm field set back at least a half-mile from the Rio Grande, is going to stop many migrants from crossing illegally from Mexico into the United States.
“I compare that to, let’s say, the river, the Rio Grande. If I go and put two telephone poles in the middle of the river, is that going to stop the flow? No. They’ll just go around it. When you do a mile or 2 miles of wall and you have 60 miles of border, they’re still going to come through,” Vera told Border Report on Wednesday standing in front of the Starr County Courthouse in Rio Grande City.
When Donald Trump was president, landowners in this rural county of 65,000 located on the South Texas border between McAllen and Laredo, were repeatedly served by federal officials with court orders requesting they allow border wall construction on their riverfront property.
Now Vera says he fears the state is going to do the same.
Luca said it is possible that landowners will be asked to grant easements for some of the state-built border wall, but she said so far all of the Texas border wall is on state property.