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Texas will investigate whether foster care officials reap travel rewards from vulnerable youth

A girl walks in a dark hotel hallway.
istockphoto by Getty
A girl walks in a dark hotel hallway.

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Program directors for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services are using the plight of vulnerable youth to gain free hotel rooms and vacations, claimed a former employee in an email to the federal courts.

The allegation — published in a court filing Tuesday — said that officials responsible for booking hotel rooms for foster youth with nowhere else to stay are reaping huge rewards. At least 800 youth this year have spent at least one night in a hotel room, classified as a child without placement or CWOP.

Directors were connecting bookings to hotel points programs they later collected on, said the court document.

“Some are even boasting from region 6B [Houston] that they went on a free vacation to Dubai because they used all the hotel points they accumulated from CWOP hotel stays,” said Shaun Santiago, a former Child Protection Investigations program director in an email to the federal court on Sept. 15. Santiago did not name any individuals.

Santiago may have left the state’s employ due to the state’s push to investigate families of transgender youth. He couldn’t be reached for comment by the time of publication.

The state now says it will investigate the allegations.

"These are serious allegations that must be investigated fully. We will refer the matter to the Texas Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General," said Marissa Gonzales, DFPS spokeswoman.

In 2021 the problem of youth in CWOP had grown to 416 children concurrently staying in unlicensed placements with one in four staying 36 nights or more. That number has dropped but is still unacceptably high, according to the federal court.

The act of collecting rewards points itself does not appear to be illegal because the state doesn’t see these discount programs as having an inherent value.

“This means that personal or private use of travel awards accrued on state business is not a crime,” said the Texas Ethics Commission website.

Texas government agencies are allowed to ban the act, but it isn’t clear if DFPS has. The agency did not respond to TPR's question about it in an email.

While not technically illegal, the act of collecting luxury rewards on youth who are often some of the most vulnerable and needy is likely to draw criticism. It also raised several questions about what hotels are chosen and if rewards programs are driving choices.

Hotels in high-sex trafficking areas have been chosen in the past to house youth in CWOP, some lawyers have argued.

“My child client was able to walk out of the hotel room and hotel itself and was immediately able to sex traffic herself within the hour,” said Emily Miller, in an email to child protection judges earlier this month.

The issue of the housing of youth in CWOP was so bad there that three judges asked for a meeting with foster care officials to address their concerns.

Federal court monitors called CWOP an “unreasonable risk” to youth containing serious risks of harm. CWOP youth stay at rented homes or hotel rooms staffed by contractors or Child Protective Services staff far removed from normal duties.

“DFPS is relying on staff members who are not trained caregivers and are, therefore, unfamiliar with many of the standard protocols and guidelines that inform care for children with mental and behavioral health needs in congregate and foster home settings.” wrote federal court monitors in court documents.

Youth in CWOP have been known to go without proper medications as a result of staff. Lawyers have complained their minor clients often go without school. CWOP youth have been found soliciting themselves for sex or leaving hotels and quickly trafficked, or worse. More than one youth has run from CWOP only to be killed.

“TDFPS and hotel staff were physically unable to run after or restrain the child,” wrote Miller of a child client. “The child was found by law enforcement, and in two counties felony prosecutions are taking place of the men who sexually assaulted this child.”

Overworked CPS personnel are often staffing the hotels along with security guards. Neither is allowed to stop a youth if they choose to run. Some have expressed concerns about personal safety as the youth who end up there are often those with the greatest needs.

A 2021 analysis found nearly all the youth required treatment for physical aggression and/or psychiatric hospitalization.

Foster care officials have said they are working to bolster services and increase beds for youth to reduce the numbers in CWOP.

But the idea that middle managers may be profiting off of a chaotic situation while youth and staff suffer could cause consternation across the system.

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Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org