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'Children were denied a safe placement' | Federal report shows more allegations against Bastrop child sex trafficking rehab facility

Allegations mount against the Bastrop sex trafficking rehab facility and the Texas foster care system.

BASTROP, Texas — Editor's note: The documents referenced in this report are linked at the bottom of the article for reference.

The last week of March brought a new round of accusations and federal filings in a decade-long foster care civil rights case against Texas.

On Monday, federal court monitors overseeing Texas foster care, Deborah Fitzgerald Fowler with Texas Appleseed and Kevin Ryan with Public Catalyst Group Corporation, filed a report in federal court showing the results of their investigation into a sex trafficking rehab facility for girls.

It lists problems they found with how the State conducted investigations into The Refuge for DMST (domestic minor sex trafficking), which rehabilitates sex-trafficked girls ages 14-19.

The monitors pulled The Refuge’s records dating back to January 2021. Their report claims the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) closed three cases without a proper investigation.

“The monitoring team’s review revealed evidence that numerous children were denied a safe placement while at The Refuge in contravention of the court’s orders,” the report shows.

Monitors wrote there is a “strong possibility of human trafficking based on staff’s inducement of children to sell nude photographs in exchange for drugs.”

Texas Rangers and The Refuge reported a former employee agreed to use nude photos of two girls at the facility to buy and smuggle in illegal drugs for those girls.

Public scrutiny began after a letter filed March 10 with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas shows DFPS received several calls alleging sex abuse and sex trafficking at The Refuge. The letter said some Refuge employees may be responsible for trafficking children at the facility.

Gov. Greg Abbott called the Texas Rangers to investigate and the Senate Committee on Child Protective Services and the House Committee on Human Services each held hearings.

Department of Public Safety Director Steven McCraw wrote a letter to Gov. Abbott about the Rangers’ results.

“There is no evidence that any of the residents at the Refuge shelter have ever been sexually abused or trafficked while at the shelter,” the letter shows.

McCraw told lawmakers that investigators did suspect child exploitation and child pornography from a former employee, but they needed some digital evidence returned before making an arrest.

During the legislative meetings, DFPS gave a timeline of reports they received. It included a runaway incident where two girls escaped with the help of Refuge employees. Those employees were fired immediately.

The Refuge Founder and CEO Brooke Crowder spoke during the House meeting.

“We exist to protect these girls and, in this case, because of the deliberate actions of one perpetrator with evil intent and three irresponsible individuals, our protection of these girls was unacceptable,” Crowder said.

Crowder also told lawmakers that the facility followed State reporting mandates and notified both law enforcement and DFPS immediately.

“This incident involves a female staff who was employed by The Refuge to serve as a nighttime monitor. When she engaged in predatory and criminal behavior at The Refuge Ranch, she had been employed for less than five months. During that time, she groomed two vulnerable resident youth, persuaded them several times to create commercial sexual abuse material (CSAM) using a smuggled burner phone, and sold the images online for her personal commercial gain. The predator offered to reward the two youth with drugs the predator promised to smuggle into The Refuge Ranch. When discovered by supervisory staff following an outcry by one of the girls, the incidents were immediately reported to the Texas Department of Family Protective Services (DFPS) hotline and the Bastrop County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO). The individual employee had no contact with residents at the time of the outcry and was not allowed to return to The Refuge Ranch. She was immediately terminated the same day the outcry was made,” attorneys for The Refuge wrote to the court on Tuesday.

Court monitors accuse The Refuge of not having adequate safety standards.

“The managerial lapses at The Refuge, which permitted serious risks to child safety to recur over time, were not isolated and require a comprehensive, monitored plan to address safety threats and compliance with this court’s orders for safe placements,” the monitors wrote.

The Refuge provides psychiatric care from Dell Medical School. It has an on-site charter school through the University of Texas-University Charter School (UT-UCS). Therapy includes PTSD and trauma-based care, as well as holistic approaches like art and equine therapy.

The KVUE Defenders went inside The Refuge to see what life is like for teens housed there. The Ranch is 50 acres. Each girl has their own room. Rules posted in one house showed limited television time and restricted movement around the ranch grounds.

"No sharing or borrowing ...  No using staff's personal devices ... No use of laptops by youth in the cottages (Computer Lab only)," showed some of the rules.

The girls were removed by the State on March 9.

"The fear on the girls' faces as they've got pulled out, just as motivating to me to make sure that never happens again," Crowder said.

Since the human trafficking investigation began, The Refuge hired two consulting firms to do in-depth background checks and psychological screening for staff.

“As this process continues, know that The Refuge, its staff and its supporters are wholly devoted to transparency and cooperation with this honorable court, the legislature, regulators and law enforcement. As stewards of the resources invested in these precious girls by the State and The Refuge donors, it has taken significant actions to ensure predatory and criminal behavior never again materializes at The Refuge. The Refuge is committed to the safety and wellbeing of the girls in its care and they are its top priority. Their return to The Refuge is the most important next step in their recovery from the trauma of trafficking,” Refuge attorneys wrote.


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