BASTROP, Texas (KXAN) — A Bastrop facility that aims to serve underage victims of sex trafficking is being investigated after the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services received reports of sexual and physical abuse at the center. One staff member at the facility has been arrested as a result, according to a court document.
The document stated the facility is The Refuge Ranch in Bastrop, which serves girls between the ages of 11‐17. DFPS heard from youth alleging sexual abuse, physical abuse, neglectful supervision and medical neglect, among other things, occurring at the ranch. The agency started getting those reports Jan. 24, according to the document.
The Refuge responded to the investigation on Friday, stating that not everything listed in the court document was accurate.
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.
We reached out to The Refuge for comment on the investigation. The organization confirmed two of its residents made that first report on Jan. 24, and the former employee is being investigated by the Bastrop County Sheriff’s Office.
The Refuge said 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.”
According to the court document, between Jan. 24 and March 4, there were eight victims alleging human trafficking by that same ex-employee. After further investigation, it was found more staff still working at the ranch appeared to be involved as well, with many of the staff being related by blood or through relationships.
The Refuge disputed the number listed in the document, stating that there were not eight victims, stating it was unclear where the number came from.
On March 4, DFPS learned the operation’s residential care director appeared to have known of the alleged sexual abuse, according to the document.
The Refuge addressed these claims during a press conference Friday, stating that the facility’s resident director immediately notified the appropriate officials of the claims as soon as they were made.
DFPS issued a hold on the facility on March 8 and started looking for new places to relocate the youth residing at the ranch. CPS staff and off-duty law enforcement were deployed to the facility and stayed there until all youths were removed on March 9. That means the children had stayed at the ranch for over a month after reports of abuse first started coming in to DFPS.
The Refuge said in its statement the youth in their care were removed “out of an abundance of caution,” saying the organization understands and respects the decision made by DFPS to do so.
More arrests and charges could be coming, according to the document. The DFPS investigation of the ranch has been extended, and Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday night also ordered an additional, immediate investigation by the Texas Rangers.
According to a statement from Abbott’s office, he’s directing the Texas 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.”
An emergency court hearing about the case was held Thursday before Judge Janis Jack. Discussion held during the hearing revealed seven children were victimized by nine alleged perpetrators, according to the Texas Tribune.
The Tribune said DFPS Associate Commissioner for Child Protective Investigations Rich Richman told the court the children weren’t immediately relocated from the facility, because investigators thought the person involved had been fired. Judge Jack called DFPS’ decision not to remove the children immediately after reports of abuse yet another failure of the system.
Other calls for change
Speaker Dade Phelan said the Texas House will “begin to hold hearings on this issue ASAP.” Earlier on Thursday he had sent out a list of interim committee charges, which are issues he wants the House to study in the coming months. This process happens in between legislative sessions.
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.”
Background on The Refuge Ranch
The Refuge Ranch was opened in August 2018 by founder Brooke Crowder, who at the time had spent 25 years in the nonprofit world, according to previous reporting from KXAN. The ranch is part of the larger organization, The Refuge for Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking, which launched in November 2013, according to its website.
The website also claims the ranch is the “largest, long-term, live-in rehabilitation facility for child survivors of sex trafficking in the United States.” It was intended to protect the privacy and safety of the girls and staff, while providing housing, music and pottery rooms, science classrooms, an equine therapy program, a chapel and medical care.
Crowder released the following statement Thursday night after news reports of the DFPS investigation were published:
“We understand and respect an over-abundance of need and caution for DFPS to get to the bottom of the facts and we have cooperated fully with DFPS since two un-related events were brought to our attention. The authorities know we acted promptly and swiftly and in full compliance with the law. We work with the most vulnerable population and we care deeply for each of the 70 girls that have been in our care since we opened in 2018. Every girl that comes to The Refuge has her own unique life story, but each one endured the horrible trauma of child sexual exploitation. Our hearts are broken and we are outraged by the actions of former employees whose intent was to harm, not help. While we are limited in what we can say in order to protect the confidentiality of the girls, I know that the truth will prevail. We are looking forward to a positive resolution from these investigations, and we are confident that we will be providing child survivors of sex trafficking with excellent care for years to come.”
Past issues with background checks at facility
KXAN investigators discovered Texas Health and Human Services Commission compliance records that show previous issues with background checks on employees at The Refuge.
For instance, HHSC records from June 2021 note one staff member was working with a provisional background check and had a condition to “not be left alone with a child or group of children.” According to the narrative from the inspection, however, this staff person was working night shifts “alone in cottage 2” and “left in supervision of children in care overnight without supervision from another staff.”
Another staff member had been working for nearly six months with an inactive background check.
Inspections from June and December reveal several staff members were not “inactivated” in a timely manner after being terminated.
In January 2022, state inspectors noted three violations over record-keeping for prescription medications.
These HHSC records do not indicate any direct link to the latest investigation into The Refuge.
During a Friday press conference, leaders of the Refuge said it had planned to revisit its background checking/hiring process following the two investigations earlier this year.