Residential home in Angelina County for sex trafficking victims plans to reapply for license

Light of the Pines Residential Treatment Center in Angelina County
Published: Feb. 18, 2022 at 9:46 PM CST

NACOGDOCHES, Texas (KTRE) - Young girls who are at risk or who are actual victims of sex trafficking had lived for a year at a residential treatment center near Hudson in Angelina County. Now other girls’ future care and housing are in jeopardy.

Eight girls called Light of the Pines home. The youth were uprooted recently when owners withdrew its license following an oversight by the state, opposition by the Diboll school district, and a letter by a state representative.

Now the operators tell us they are resubmitting their application, but the challenges reflect a bigger issue.

“This is where they watched tv and hung out,” said the facility’s CEO Jenny Nielsen. She pointed to a large room with a couch, tv, and tables.

Jenny Nielsen, along with her husband, have a place where teens as young as 14 were restoring their lives from exposure or risk of sex trafficking.

“We see change that needs to be made. We see these girls have a lot of potential,” explained Nielsen.

The state’s new way of providing services to youth in foster care is called Community Based Care. The state contracts the private sector to draw from local communities in caring for foster care youth.

They can be non-profit or LLC. Light of the Pines is the latter.

“A for-profit takes less time to get the necessary credentials, but the state pays both non-profits and LLCs the same amount,” explained Nielsen. “We don’t ask for donations from places like United Way and pay property taxes.”

Light of the Pines was licensed to house up to 30 youth in foster care.

The residential treatment centers are expected to care and counsel the youth. This includes education.

“We paid for tutors to come in and tutor the girls. And school wise, they did an online program,” said Nielsen.

Then, Diboll ISD was approached last year.

“They asked we provide on onsite teacher starting Jan. 1,” said superintendent Vicki Thomas.

The school district opposed the idea.

“It’s a huge cost on a small school district with limited resources,” explained Thomas.

So, Nielsen said another option was pursued.

“We said OK, and we wanted to move on with Trinity Charter School.” Trinity Charter School is not affiliated with Trinity, the city or school district.

Meanwhile, Diboll ISD did its homework.

“We discovered that they failed to have a public hearing,” said Thomas.

The district discovered a law which waivered the need for public hearings for facilities servicing girls of sex trafficking had been amended to reestablish the requirement.

The oversight was found a complete year after Light of the Pines had been in operation.

Former consultant and now executive director Sonya Brookins was called in to help Light of the Pines through the next steps.

“And licensing, yes, they dropped the ball on it, but at the end of the day the girls in the facility are the collateral damage of what licensing failed to do in the beginning,” said Brookins.

A public hearing was hastily planned. The school district rallied opposition.

State Representative Trent Ashby submitted a letter. He wrote in part, ‘Given the community’s strong opposition, I respectfully request that you refrain from issuing a permanent license to the facility.”

The state listened.

“We were told that the state had the intent to deny our permit. We decided to withdraw our application,” said Nielsen.

By withdrawing, the Nielsens will avoid a five-year wait to submit a second application. It could go to the state as early as next week.

And Rep. Trent Ashby submitted to East Texas News the following statement:

‘I have heard from a growing number of constituents in support of the facility. I will not be taking a position and wish them well.”

But victims are speaking out.

A teenager in the foster system since she was six months old wrote she was “snatched” from Light In the Pines and “There has been no change in this very bent system ever! Not only that, it is getting progressively worse.”

The state will review the new application. If accepted, a second hearing will be advertised.

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