AUSTIN (KXAN) — A letter from the Texas Department of Public Safety claims “there is no evidence” girls at The Refuge Ranch in Bastrop County were sexually abused or trafficked while at the shelter.
The letter was sent to Gov. Greg Abbott Wednesday and gave an update on ongoing investigations into the shelter, which is contracted by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to house victims of sex trafficking — typically girls between the ages of 11 and 17.
A court document obtained by KXAN last week described reports DFPS said it had received of alleged abuse at the shelter.
Texas DPS on Wednesday said it reviewed that DFPS document and found “material inaccuracies,” and that it “contained information that had not been properly verified.”
DPS said Texas Rangers interviewed Refuge residents, employees and DFPS workers as part of its investigation and reviewed reports and internal DFPS files as well. Discussions also took place with the Bastrop County Sheriff’s Office, which investigated one of the reported incidents.
DPS focused on clarifying details surrounding two major incidents that reportedly occurred at The Refuge.
One of them, reported Jan. 24, involved a woman employed at the ranch who was accused of getting nude photos of two girls to sell in exchange for money and/or drugs. DPS said the shelter fired that worker and reported what happened to both the sheriff’s office and DFPS. No arrest has been made at this time, and BCSO continues to investigate that former employee.
The Refuge for DMST (Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking) last week addressed this particular report, saying it learned in December an employee had allegedly coerced residents into making commercially sexual exploitation material. The organization confirmed last week it fired that one worker and reported the incident to both DFPS and BCSO.
Paul Yetter, the lead attorney representing foster children in a lawsuit against the state, said in a statement this particular incident is still troubling:
“The letter in question confirms the existence of pornographic photographs of these children in state care, and that the children’s photos were sold for drugs and alcohol. Based on that alone, an initial finding of no evidence of sexual abuse or trafficking is both surprising and extremely troubling, especially since the investigation is still ongoing.”
The second incident took place Feb. 20, according to DPS, when two girls ran away from the ranch. There were claims ranch employees helped with the escape.
DPS said this incident was also reported to DFPS and BCSO, and four ranch employees were fired. Another criminal investigation by BCSO into these employees is being done, and DPS said one employee has been arrested so far on charges of making a false statement to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Refuge leaders also addressed this incident last week, saying three staff members helped two residents, who were witnesses in a federal case, leave the ranch. The organization said one staffer lied to a federal officer, which is the one charge and arrest in the investigations so far.
“There were no allegations or evidence that these residents were sexually abused or assaulted by anyone,” DPS concluded its letter to Abbott.
Brooke Crowder, founder and CEO of The Refuge for DMST, said in a Wednesday statement they are “deeply relieved” by the Texas Rangers’ findings:
“We are grateful to state leaders for maintaining an intense focus on the issues related to interdicting sex trafficking and supporting us in our efforts to protect and rehabilitate the victims that enter our care. We are committed to continued close cooperation with DPS, the Texas Department of Family Protective Services and the Bastrop County Sheriff’s Office as they pursue justice for the girls involved in the cited incidents.”
Crowder said last week they hope to reopen the ranch and have residents return for continued care after the investigations are finished.
After DFPS’ own investigation, the department said it removed all residents at the ranch on March 9 — more than a month after the initial report of alleged abuse.
Shortly after media outlets started reporting on the DFPS document last week, Abbott ordered the immediate investigation by the Texas Rangers into the ranch. Abbott’s office released a statement to KXAN Wednesday regarding DPS’ initial findings:
“While it is a relief that no instances of child sex trafficking were found at The Refuge in the investigation conducted by the Texas Rangers, it is unfortunate that the letter DFPS submitted to the federal court monitors became the conclusion before the investigation by law enforcement was complete. Governor Abbott is committed to ensuring that any allegations of abuse or neglect are properly investigated by DFPS. The Governor thanks the Texas Rangers for their efficient and thorough work,” governor’s office spokesperson Nan Tolson said in a statement.
Abbott later stated in a tweet, “Many people jumped to false conclusions.”
O’Rourke campaign responds
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke on Wednesday called for a reform of the Texas foster care system in the wake of the investigation.
“I wish that this were an anomaly within the state of Texas … it is not,” O’Rourke said during a press conference.
O’Rourke said the investigation into The Refuge was a symptom of larger issues with state oversight, a point conceded by both parties.
But state Democrats said the responsibility ultimately falls on Abbott.
“He’s been repeatedly warned, given many opportunities, been mandated by the court to fix this three separate times,” said O’Rourke.
Abbott’s campaign fired back, accusing O’Rourke of “politicizing the well being of Texas children.”