BASTROP COUNTY, Texas — Editor's note: 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.
KVUE is learning more about the child abuse allegations made against a Bastrop County shelter for foster girls who were previously survivors of sex trafficking.
That shelter is called The Refuge for DMST (Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking). The shelter serves sex trafficking survivors between the ages of 11 and 17.
According to a letter filed in federal court Thursday, the abuse allegedly happened at the shelter. The accusations include sexual abuse, neglectful supervision, physical abuse, exploitation for licensing and medical neglect.
The court documents show a current Refuge employee reported to the state that a former employee sold nude photos of two sex trafficking survivors and used the money to buy illegal drugs and alcohol and gave them to those girls at the shelter.
The document went on to say that between Jan. 24 and March 4, the state received eight reports alleging human trafficking by the former employee.
The Refuge administration held a press conference Friday at noon, one day after the allegations surfaced to the public.
“We remain committed to first taking all of the necessary steps to comply with the investigators to help them find out what they need to know, to work with law enforcement and make sure that we have the internal protocols necessary so that this never happens again," Brooke Crowder, The Refuge CEO, said.
Crowder and Communications Director Steven Phenix said the court record covered two separate incidents: a sexual exploitation case and a runway case.
Read the full review of the two incidents at The Refuge here.
The court record shows, "several additional staff 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."
Phenix said that referred to the runaway case where two minors escaped from the facility on Feb. 20, 2022. Three staff members are accused of helping girls get out and all three workers were fired immediately. One of them was arrested for lying to a federal officer.
A spokesperson with The Refuge said the alleged exploitation incidents happened in December 2021, but shelter leaders weren't made aware of the incidents until Jan. 24. They said they fired one employee allegedly involved in the exploitation case.
The Refuge said they immediately notified the Bastrop County Sheriff's Office and the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) after each incident.
DFPS removed all children from The Refuge Wednesday, March 9. And a court watchdog tasked with overseeing DFPS did not find out about everything until Thursday, March 10.
“As every girl left, we stopped them and looked them in the eye and we said, ‘We love you and we will never stop fighting for you, and our goal is to get you back here where you belong. Because we are a family. We want to continue to take care of you,'" Crowder said.
The letter said authorities are expecting more criminal charges in the cases.
According to court records obtained by KVUE, Judge Janis Graham Jack oversaw the hearing on March 10. The judge ordered the state to provide the names of the alleged abuse survivors and perpetrators by noon Friday. The judge is also ordering the Health and Human Services Commission to confirm whether there were faulty background checks done on the alleged perpetrators.
On Friday, The Refuge confirmed to KVUE that DFPS suspended their license for 30 days while the department investigates. The Refuge said there was not any youth there on Friday, so there was no order to "close the facility."
Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, who represents the district where the facility is located, issued the following statement on Friday:
"Having served Texans as a State Senator, a County Judge, and a County Commissioner, I am all too familiar with the ongoing failures of DFPS to keep children in the custody of the state safe. That failure has resulted in a continuing nightmare for these children, a decade of federal court involvement, and millions of wasted dollars fighting responsibility rather than taking responsibility. We owe it to the children of Texas to end their continuing nightmare and begin their healing by committing the necessary resources towards solving that problem. DFPS should be laser-focused on healing traumatized children and making sure the horrific events that took place at The Refuge never happen again. An important first step towards that end is to stop the cruel harassment and abuse directed at families with trans children, and direct the time and attention wasted on that needless bullying towards keeping children safe from abuse.”
The House Committee on Human Services is holding a hearing Monday, March 21 to talk about The Refuge investigation.
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