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Lawmakers question DFPS following abuse allegations at Bastrop sex trafficking shelter

One former employee of The Refuge is under investigation for allegedly having nude photos of girls staying at the shelter. That person has not been arrested.

AUSTIN, Texas — Lawmakers are looking for answers as to what happened at a Bastrop, Texas, shelter for child victims of sex trafficking.

The Texas Senate Special Committee on Child Protective Services held its first meeting after there were allegations of abuse at The Refuge shelter in Bastrop County. The bipartisan group of state senators at the Texas Capitol asked questions of the Department of Family Protective Services (DFPS) after information indicated in federal court revealed several girls were trafficked by nine employees at that shelter.

The Refuge for DMST (Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking) serves sex trafficking survivors between the ages of 11 and 17.

While an investigation is underway and an arrest has been made, the Texas Rangers said on March 16 that there is no evidence that any of the girls at the facility were sexually abused or trafficked while at that shelter.

The senate committee grilled the head of the DFPS about what was initially reported compared to what subsequent investigations found. 

DFPS administrators said an issue with middle management is what led to inaccurate reports of sex trafficking at the Bastrop shelter.

"None of us can be everywhere at all times. Everyone depends on everyone up the chain to do what they are tasked with doing. And this is what happened. Policy was not followed," said DFPS Commissioner Jaimie Masters. "Naked pictures of children in our care should have rang every bell."

Masters told senators that her staff didn't follow policy in this case and that two supervisors lost their jobs as a result. 

The head of the Department of Public Safety said the reports may have all been misunderstood because notes about missing information were left off a document filed in court. 

"For example, caveats of this information is unverified. This information may have some inaccuracies. This is a summation of conjecture by Child Protective Service investigators or special investigators," Steven McCraw said. "So those caveats existed. However, they were removed before they were forwarded to the federal district judge."

"It was alleged sex trafficking in some of those things weren't sex trafficking at all," he said. "Some of the incidents that were referenced in, when you go back to look at the intake, it had to do with employees sleeping on the job or a medical neglect or another negligence report in that regard, that had nothing to do with sex trafficking or sexual abuse."

DFPS and local law enforcement have been looking into abuse allegations since January and last week, Gov. Greg Abbott asked the Texas Rangers to get involved. In a letter to the governor, the Department of Public Safety director wrote, "There is no evidence that any of the residents at The Refuge shelter have ever been sexually abused or trafficked while at the shelter."

However, one former employee of The Refuge is under investigation for allegedly having nude photos of girls staying at the shelter. That person has not been arrested.

Another former employee has been arrested for lying to investigators about girls who ran away from The Refuge last month. 

A spokesperson for The Refuge said they are continuing to cooperate with this investigation and that they are "deeply relieved by the Texas Rangers' findings." 

DFPS officials said they are reviewing all management positions and the department public safety director said they're waiting for digital evidence. 

Brooke Crowder, founder and executive director at The Refuge, shared a statement with KVUE following the committee hearing: 

“We are grateful for the legislature’s keen interest in the issues related to the two episodes at our facility earlier this year that we immediately reported and acted upon. While disappointed we were unable to directly respond to certain inaccurate assertions made, we understand the limitations of the hearing structure and commend Chairman Kolkhorst for her management of such complex issues. I look forward to testifying in Monday's House hearing and being fully available for any additional Senate hearings and meetings. We remain fully committed to full cooperation with law enforcement, regulators and the Texas Legislature.”

Next week, a House committee will take up the issue as well and continue pressing these state agencies for answers about what happened at the shelter.

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