At least one staff member at a Texas foster-care facility designed to help young girls who are victims of sex trafficking is accused of trafficking them all over again, according to state officials and court documents.
Nine current and former employees at the Refuge Ranch, a state-contracted rehabilitation facility in Bastrop County are accused of criminal activity amid allegations of neglect, physical and sexual abuse, and exploitation of seven girls at the facility about 30 miles southeast of Austin. The girls were left at the facility for more than a month after the abuse was first reported, officials said Thursday during an emergency court hearing, the San Antonio Express-News reported.
"The most appalling thing about this is the disregard of these children," U.S. District Judge Janis Jack said during the hearing, the Express-News reported. Jack has been overseeing a years-long lawsuit against the state over conditions in its foster-care system. The sex-trafficking allegations are the latest development in that case.
"You had to wait to get eight calls before you took 11 female, already-trafficked children out of this trafficking situation. This is a system that remains broken," she said.
In January, a staff member at the Refuge Ranch contacted the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) to report that two children had been abused by an employee who had since left. The staff member said the employee sold nude photos of the two children and used the proceeds to purchase illegal drugs and alcohol, which were given to the children, according to a statement DFPS filed with the court.
Over the six weeks that followed, at least seven additional reports of human trafficking were made against the former employee, the statement read.
An official said local law enforcement and the Texas Department of Public Safety were alerted to the allegations and a DFPS investigator was assigned to the case. An investigation revealed that several other employees who were still working with the children also appeared to be involved, according to the statement.
Steven Phenix, a spokesperson for the Refuge for DMST (domestic minor sex trafficking), a nonprofit organization that opened the Refuge Ranch in 2018, said in a phone interview with The Washington Post on Friday that not all of the nine accused staff members took part in the alleged sex trafficking. He said that there was at least one other incident, which involved a runaway child, and that the details of the investigations have been getting conflated.
He said the sex-trafficking allegation stems from an incident in December in which an employee had allegedly coerced two residents into creating commercial sexual exploitation material. He said the employee was fired and management immediately contacted the Bastrop County Sheriff's Office and the DFPS.
"Our hearts are broken and we are outraged by the actions of former employees whose intent was to harm, not help," Brooke Crowder, founder and executive director of the Refuge for DMST, said in a statement to The Post. "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."
Despite the repeated reports of alleged child abuse, it appears the allegations were not reported to the court or the governor-appointment DFPS commissioner until this week.
DFPS Commissioner Jaime Masters told the court that she was not informed of the situation until Wednesday, the Express-News reported.
"What is the chain of command that you would not know that these children are being sex-trafficked and that it was reported through your hotline as of Jan. 24?" Jack asked her Thursday, according to the newspaper. "What is your chain of command that you would not know until yesterday?"
"There is no excuse for why I didn't know, which is why several people are losing their jobs," Masters said.
Rich Richman, DFPS associate commissioner for child-protective investigation, told the court that the state did not immediately remove the children because investigators thought the responsible party had been fired, the Express-News reported.
Paul Yetter, an attorney who represents foster-care children in the larger class-action lawsuit that Jack is presiding over, said not all of the 11 children who lived at the Refuge Ranch had been removed from the foster-care facility until Wednesday.
"This is a tragic and shameful situation," he told The Post. "Even worse than what's happening to these girls is the fact that the state took six weeks to report it to the court. Beyond that, the state kept these girls in the same facility for six weeks before they finally moved them out. Who knows what sort of additional abuse happened during that time?"
In a statement on Thursday, Gov. Greg Abbott, R, called the reports of child sex trafficking "abhorrent."
"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," he said in the statement.
Abbott said that he has ordered the Texas Rangers to immediately investigate "these horrific crimes," and that he directed them to arrest and pursue criminal charges against anyone who helped perpetrate abuse.
The 50-acre Refuge Range states on its website that it is "a long-term, residential, therapeutic community for girls, ages 14 through 19, who have been recovered from sex traffickers." The live-in rehabilitation facility states that it provides the girls with "trauma-informed, holistic care," including education, medical care and mental health services, with help from community partners.
The accused employees have not been publicly identified, and many of the details surrounding their alleged roles in the incidents are unclear, but the statement from the state's child protective services said many of the accused employees were related to one another by blood or marriage, or were cohabiting.
Yetter, the attorney who represents the children, said this is not an isolated issue.
"The state of Texas's child welfare system has been broken for 30 years, and it remains broken," he said.
Yetter noted that the state's foster-care system is now under a federal monitoring order, "but there is a long way to go before it becomes safe."
"Until the state officials get serious about protecting these children - which is their duty - it's going to put children at risk every day," he said.
The Washington Post