AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Bastrop facility whose mission is to help sex trafficking survivors held a press conference Friday to address concerns related to investigations of abuse there. The facility said reports of the number of active investigations are not accurate.
The Refuge for DMST (Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking) held a conference in Austin to “address some misinformation and be as transparent as we can be, considering both the need to protect the children’s privacy and the open investigations.”
The Refuge leaders addressed two specific investigations related to the firing of staffers, one an “exploitation” event and another regarding a “flight” event.
While details shared by leaders were slim, four staffers were fired as a result of both events. In the “exploitation” event, leaders said two residents has expressed concern to a resident director regarding exploitation claims. One staff member was fired as a result and is under investigation. According to officials, no one has been arrested in this event.
A court document filed to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services 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.
The Refuge said in a statement on Thursday it learned in December an employee had allegedly coerced the residents into making commercially sexual exploitation material, and that employee was fired. The organization said it then “immediately contacted the DFPS and the BCSO.”
The Refuge said the terminated employee had all required training and clean background checks with DFPS.
In the “flight” event, Refuge leaders said three staff members helped two residents, who were witnesses in a federal case, leave the facility. According to leaders, one staff member lied directly to a federal officer during the incident, which is the one charge and arrest that has been listed. The three staff members involved were fired.
Both residents were located and one was taken into federal care, while another evaded. The resident eventually returned to the Refuge.
The Refuge leaders refuted the claim in the filed court document that said there were eight victims alleging human trafficking by the same ex-employee.
“We’re not sure why they come up with seven [more victims], frankly. But, I think it’s because the two issues were being conflated,” said The Refuge Founder and CEO Brooke Crowder said Friday.
“Our hope is that when we get past this and we have investigations done, that when we open back up, they’ll be able to come back to the Refuge and continue their care,” Crowder said.
DFPS issued a hold on the facility on March 8 and youth at the facility were placed in other places for care. On March 11, the Texas Health and Human Services placed an emergency suspension and closure order for The Refuge.
Gov. Greg Abbott, leaders respond
On Thursday, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered an immediate investigation by the Texas Rangers. According to a statement from Abbott’s office, he is directing Rangers to arrest and pursue criminal charges against anyone who took part in the abuse.
“The reports of child sex trafficking at The Refuge in Bastrop are abhorrent,” said Abbott in a statement Thursday night. “Child abuse of any kind won’t be tolerated in the state of Texas, and we are committed to ensuring these despicable perpetrators are brought to justice and punished to the fullest extent of the law. No child should ever suffer the atrocities of trafficking. I expect a thorough and prompt investigation by the Texas Rangers into these horrific crimes.”
Senator Sarah Eckhardt, who oversees Bastrop in District 14, said she was “all too familiar with the ongoing failures of DFPS to keep children.”
“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,” said Eckhardt.
Eckhardt sent a letter to DFPS Commissioner Jaime Masters, asking for answers.
“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,” added Eckhardt in a statement.
Speaker Dade Phelan said the Texas House will “begin to hold hearings on this issue ASAP.”
Rep. James Frank (D-Wichita Falls) is the chair of the House Human Services Committee and said it planned to meet March 21 and question DFPS and DPS “to get to the bottom of what happened and how to prevent this type of tragedy in the future.”