AUSTIN (KXAN) — A group of court monitors appointed to oversee the Texas foster care system are now calling for an investigation into what appears to be a “systemic problem” of runaway children from a facility housing underage girls in Bastrop.
Leadership for The Refuge for DMST (Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking) said they were “grateful that the court monitors are shining a light on the challenge of runaways” to help people understand.
Authorities were already investigating The Refuge, after reports surfaced earlier this year about potential abuse at the facility.
One of the reports detailed how a former employee, who was working at the ranch at the time, allegedly sold nude photos of two youths in their care, then used the money to buy illegal drugs and alcohol to give to the youth. In March, leadership at the Refuge confirmed they had reported an “exploitation” incident to authorities. At the time, The Refuge said they also reported a “flight” event, where some employees reportedly helped two girls leave the facility without approval a month earlier.
On Friday, a new report by the court monitors detailed other incidents of children who were able to run away from the facility and “fall back into trafficking.” The monitors argue that these incidents “show the dangers associated with failing to address what may be a systemic threat to child safety.”
The report outlines one particular incident involving a resident, who was involved in an ongoing criminal case when she moved to The Refuge. The report states this resident “escaped” while on an approved visit with a family member. Two months later, just after authorities had located her, her family reported she was hit and killed by a car.
The report said this information comes from two emails sent from the Vice Chair of the Texas House Human Services Committee, Representative Gina Hinojosa, in mid-May. One email was sent to the head of the Department of Public Safety Colonel Steven McCraw. The other was sent to the Executive Commissioner of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission Cecile Young.
According to the monitor’s report, the letter reportedly said, “It is alleged that [the resident] died while she was supposed to be in the care, supervision, and custody of The Refuge.”
The Refuge did not respond to the specific claims about this case. However, its founder and CEO Brooke Crowder told KXAN that it was a “well-documented, sad fact of life” that running away is a “default coping mechanism” for children who have experienced trauma.
She cited a national Health and Human Services study, which found 44% of children in specialized foster care for youth with severe emotional or behavioral issues ran away at least once in the study’s timeframe.
“So, The Refuge has always applied prevailing best practices to predict and prevent it,” she said in part.
Crowder acknowledged the “uptick” in runaway incidents in 2021, outlined by the monitors, and said they updated their procedures in response. She explained they adopted a “new, standard” approach, known as “Handle with Care.”
“With its stronger emphasis on de-escalation, the new standard helped us reduce incidents,” she said.
Crowder ended her statement by referring to the ongoing investigation into an incident of a former staffer at the ranch facilitating nude photos of two residents.
She said, “We hope the powers that be will devote the same attention to the arrest of the perpetrator who remains at large 130 days after we reported her for exploiting youth in her care.”
After the reports about this exploitation incident became public in March 2022, the governor called on the Texas Rangers to begin looking into the claims, and lawmakers in both the Texas Senate and House of Representatives held hearings on the matter.
At the time, Judge Janis Jack, however, expressed concerns about the “quality” of the ongoing investigation. In a hearing originally scheduled as an update for the years-long federal lawsuit over the treatment of children in the Texas foster care system, Jack reminded the parties involved about a court order that requires all reports by the court monitors to be made public.
This latest monitors’ report was released just days before a hearing scheduled in Judge Jack’s court on Monday, June 6. KXAN will be following those proceedings and will update this article with more information.
This report on The Refuge was also filed alongside another, 200-page report on the progress of the Texas foster care system more broadly. This filing noted an increase, this past year, in incidents of sexual abuse of children after they enter the foster care system. Among these children, the monitors found almost half of these incidents occurred while they were on “runaway status.”
Read about the contents of that report here.