AUSTIN (KXAN) — A Bastrop County nonprofit meant to help young victims of sex trafficking announced it will voluntarily suspend its license to operate — blaming security risks and other problems as it tried to open its doors.

The Refuge for DMST (Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking) first shut down its residential treatment facility in March 2022, following allegations employees exploited girls in their care. The claims sparked several investigations and, ultimately, intense scrutiny by a federal court and a special legislative committee.

However, a Texas Department of Public Safety report determined it could not identify any evidence in the case, and by September 2022, a Bastrop County grand jury did not find sufficient evidence to support an indictment on any criminal offense.

In the days following the initial allegations, The Refuge leaders admitted they were investigating two separate incidents but have maintained that their organization properly notified state regulators and fired staffers involved.

In February 2023, The Refuge announced its license would be restored and it planned to reopen, but according to a memo posted to its website on Wednesday, those plans have been put on hold.

In the memo, The Refuge blamed their request for the suspension on “pattern of hostility” from state regulators, as well as threats and “security risks” at their Bastrop location in the wake of last year’s controversy.

A newsletter sent to supporters of the nonprofit Wednesday afternoon revealed more details, including that its previously protected address was revealed during the course of the investigations. The newsletter stated the location became subject to “stalking and harassing activity from dangerous people, including criminal networks, who had trafficked the girls before they reached our community of care.” 

The Refuge said it had hired armed, licensed security to try and protect its residents and staff but was ordered by state regulators to remove it.

According to the Texas Administrative Code, employees, volunteers and contractors are not allowed to be in possession of a handgun while at a residential treatment facility or while caring for children.

Brooke Crowder, founder and CEO of The Refuge, said in part, “They have made it impossible to continue serving the girls who urgently need our care. Our hope is that while we suspend our license, we can have meaningful conversations with DFPS to find a logical solution to the severe security risks we face.”

KXAN reached out to the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) for comment about this and other allegations made by The Refuge in the online statement and the emailed newsletter.

A spokesperson for DFPS declined to comment further, aside from noting that residential treatment operations are licensed by another state agency, the Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC). DFPS is tasked with protecting children in state custody.

A spokesperson for HHSC said the agency received a letter from The Refuge on Wednesday requesting a voluntary suspension of its permit, but they explained there is a process that must be followed for voluntary suspensions, laid out in the Texas Administrative Code.

The code allows facilities to suspend their permits for a few reasons: if repairs or changes are being made to the operation, if no children are their in care or enrollment is too low to operate, or if they are unable to operate because of an illness, an extended absence, a staffing shortage, personal reasons, or a declared disaster.

The agency can approve, deny, or add conditions to these requests, based on whether the facility currently has any enforcement actions currently pending or whether the agency is considering imposing an enforcement action against the operation. The agency also has to consider whether it can confirm that the operation does not plan to care for children during the voluntary suspension period. Finally, the code says the agency can also review the reasons a facility wants to suspend its request and the length of the time it plans to suspend its permit.

The HHSC spokesperson said the agency plans to meet with the operation “to discuss their letter and determine next steps.”

KXAN will update this article with additional details as this story develops.