AUSTIN (KXAN) — Texas Rangers’ findings that there was “no evidence” girls at The Refuge Ranch were sexually abused or trafficked “was, at best, premature,” according to a 28-page update filed by court monitors Monday in U.S. District Court.
Monitors said after reviewing thousands of documents, they found “significant evidence of serious risks to child safety at The Refuge.”
The Refuge in Bastrop County is a facility that serves and houses foster girls ages 11‐17 who’ve been victims of sex trafficking. Earlier this month in a court document, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services said it began receiving reports of sexual and physical abuse occurring at the center in late January.
Brooke Crowder, founder and CEO of The Refuge for DMST (Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking), told KXAN Tuesday the court monitor’s report appears to rely on information from past employees. It said many of those were fired “for behavior that violated our standards.”
“We have seen no mention of any episodes that we did not fully report to DFPS when they were discovered,” Crowder wrote.
Gov. Greg Abbott on March 10 ordered Texas Rangers to investigate the facility.
Six days later, Texas Department of Public Safety Director and Colonel Steven C. McCraw wrote a letter to Abbott on the investigation, saying “there were no allegations or evidence that these residents were sexually abused or assaulted by anyone” while at The Refuge.
Court monitors now say one child victim wasn’t interviewed by Texas Rangers “until well after the DPS letter became public, and that the child was upset by the Rangers’ conclusions.”
The evidence strongly suggests Col. McGraw’s conclusion that there was no evidence of sexual abuse or trafficking at The Refuge was, at best, premature.Court monitors’ March 28 update
That child, according to the monitors’ update, was one of two girls allegedly given drugs in exchange for nude photos by one Refuge employee. The monitors said the girl wasn’t interviewed by Rangers until March 23, a week after the DPS letter claiming “no evidence” was released.
That incident was first reported to DFPS on Jan. 24. The monitors said the girl was interviewed by DFPS two days after that and said she used a staff member’s phone to take pictures of “everything.”
The employee involved was fired, according to The Refuge and the Bastrop County Sheriff’s Office is investigating them.
The monitors also said the creation and sale of certain materials that constitute child pornography could be considered trafficking under Texas law.
“The Texas Penal Code’s definition of trafficking is broad enough to include a scenario in which a perpetrator ‘entices’ or ‘recruits’ a child to ‘engage in, or become the victim of’ possession or promotion of child pornography, or ‘receives a benefit from participating in a venture that involves’ possession or promotion of child pornography,” the monitors wrote.
Based on this incident, the monitors said there’s “ample evidence” for DFPS to substantiate child sex abuse, exploitation, neglectful supervision and physical abuse.
KXAN reached out to DPS for a statement on the court monitors’ new update. The department said the purpose of Col. McCraw’s March 16 letter “was to provide a summary of the initial findings of the investigation into reports of sex trafficking at The Refuge.” DPS said McCraw reiterated before the Senate Select Committee on Child Protective Services it was still an active investigation, and Texas Rangers had only found evidence of child sexual exploitation thus far.
“These preliminary findings remain the same as we have not identified any additional evidence of sexual abuse or human trafficking occurring at The Refuge. It is imperative that DFPS continue to document and report all allegations – whether they are substantiated or not – so that comprehensive criminal investigations can be conducted. The investigation by the Texas Rangers is still ongoing, and they are committed to pursuing each and every allegation to its end and interviewing all persons necessary before concluding the investigation,” DPS’ statement read.
Not only that, the monitors also wrote they found “recurrent failures to provide 24/7 awake-night supervision of children.” One instance they detailed dealt with an overnight shift employee who was given an informal warning for sleeping on the job in December 2021. The Refuge didn’t report this to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission’s Residential Child Care Regulation or DFPS, even though it’s required by policy, the monitors wrote.
The monitors said it also found one of the girls was left alone in a cottage, only being supervised by a camera, and it’s unclear how long she went without supervision. The girl “had voiced concerns about being in the cottage alone,” and other staffers were worried as well, they said. A house parent also expressed concerns the girls’ behaviors were escalating due to staff who worked overnight at the cottage, the monitors wrote.
According to RCCR, as of March 17, The Refuge was cited 43 times for noncompliance with minimum standards over the three years it’s been open, the monitors said. RCCR claimed to have had issues getting records from The Refuge in the past, telling monitors, “It has been an on-going issue with the operation where the operation will delay sending records, state they’ve sent records, but nothing has been received, will send records that licensing is unable to open, and/or will send records after being requested several times.”
Additionally, the monitors recounted reports from a mother claiming her child was a victim of trafficking and abuse at The Refuge in years prior, and she had been given drugs by the staff. The child has since passed away after leaving the facility, and DFPS closed its investigation due to “insufficient information to conduct a full investigation.” The court monitors wrote they disagreed with this action.
“As multiple parallel investigations advance with our full transparency and cooperation, we’re confident their conclusions will reveal that we’ve continually adhered to the highest standard of care for the girls in our care as they advance toward healing from the trauma of trafficking,” Crowder told KXAN.
There will be another hearing on The Refuge investigation Wednesday at 9 a.m. Judge Janis Graham Jack on Saturday ordered DFPS and the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to bring all video interviews of The Refuge girls related to the investigation to the hearing, according to court documents.