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Foster girls who’d been victims of sex trafficking endured fresh abuse at a state shelter, report says

The children were sexually abused and neglected while at The Refuge, a Bastrop facility contracted by the state, according to a report from a current employee.

EDITOR'S NOTE - MARCH 16, 2022: Since the story below was published, there has been a major update in this case.

Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw wrote in a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott that “there is no evidence that any of the residents at the Refuge shelter have ever been sexually abused or trafficked while at the shelter."

Information submitted to and given in federal district court had claimed several girls at the shelter were trafficked by nine employees.

McCraw wrote there was no sexual abuse and no human trafficking. He wrote that the federal court monitor “identified material inaccuracies and contained information that had not been properly verified.”

Click here to read the updated story

ORIGINAL STORY

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can receive confidential help by calling the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network’s 24/7 toll-free support line at 800-656-4673 or visiting its online hotline.

Employees of a Texas-contracted facility meant to care for female foster children who are victims of sex trafficking were discovered to be trafficking the same children, according to a federal judge.

Seven children, ages 11 to 17, were victimized by nine alleged perpetrators, according to discussions held during an emergency court hearing called by U.S. District Judge Janis Jack on Thursday. The children remained in the facility for over a month after the abuse was first reported before they were removed.

The children were sexually and physically abused and suffered from neglectful supervision and medical neglect while at The Refuge, a facility located in Bastrop contracted by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, a current Refuge employee reported to state authorities on Jan. 24. The court and the court monitors — watchdogs of the foster care system appointed by the judge — were not notified until Thursday.

That employee said a former staff member sold nude photos of two children in the facility’s care, using the proceeds to purchase illegal drugs and alcohol that were then supplied to the children, according to a letter from DFPS filed on Thursday notifying the court about the incident.

Local law enforcement and the Texas Department of Public Safety were immediately notified, according to the letter.

The identities of the suspects have not yet been made public. 

Rich Richman, DFPS associate commissioner for child protective investigation, told the court the children weren’t immediately removed from the facility because investigators thought the person responsible had been fired.

However, several staff members were found to be allegedly responsible for the abuse of the children, some of whom were not immediately removed. A suspect has been arrested by law enforcement, and DFPS anticipates further arrests will be made.

In the meantime, a spokesperson for The Refuge confirmed an employee was terminated after staff found out they had "allegedly coerced the residents into creating commercially sexual exploitation material." For now, all children at The Refuge have been transferred into "alternative care" while an investigation continues. 

"We are fully cooperating with authorities and we hope the alleged perpetrator will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, and we will assist the Sheriff and the Bastrop County District Attorney’s office in their prosecution," the facility's statement goes on to read. "Because this is an ongoing investigation, and especially because we want to protect the confidentiality of the minors in our care, there are specific details we cannot share."

Between the first report on Jan. 24 and March 4, DFPS received several additional reports about the staff member who was removed from the facility. However, during the investigation, DFPS “discovered several additional staff members still employed at the operation appeared to be involved, and that many of them were related to one another by blood or marriage and/or were cohabiting,” according to the letter. The operation’s residential care director is now believed to have known about the sexual abuse.

DFPS did not remove all of the children until Wednesday, five weeks after the first documented report of sexual abuse. The department sent Child Protective Services staff and off-duty law enforcement to the facility to “ensure the youth’s safety” a day prior. Eight of the nine children who were in The Refuge at the time have been placed with other facilities that specialize in serving victims of commercial sex trafficking, according to the letter. The remaining child refused to be placed in another facility and DFPS is searching for another placement.

Jack, who is overseeing a decade-old lawsuit against Texas over its foster care system, expressed horror over the discovery during Thursday’s hearing.

The judge blasted DFPS for not immediately removing the children when the allegations of abuse were first reported, calling it yet another failure of the system.

DFPS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The judge instructed the state to provide the court with the identities of the alleged abusers and victims by noon on Friday. She also asked for details on the care the children have received since they were removed.

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