By Reese Oxner, The Texas Tribune, March 11, 2022
Texas ordered a shelter for female foster kids who have been victims of sex trafficking to immediately shut down Friday, a day after a court revealed that staff members were trafficking the children in their care.
The Texas Health and Human Services Commission issued an emergency suspension of The Refuge’s license to care for children and told shelter officials to close the facility immediately. The Refuge, in Bastrop, had been contracted by the state to care for victims of sexual assault between the ages of 11 and 17.
All of the children housed in the shelter had already been removed as of Wednesday.
Nine staff members are accused of subjecting seven children staying at The Refuge to sexual and physical abuse, neglectful supervision and medical neglect, according to discussions held during an emergency court hearing Thursday called by U.S. District Judge Janis Jack.
According to a letter from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services filed Thursday notifying the court about the incident, a shelter employee reported to state authorities that a former staff member sold nude photos of two children in the facility’s care, using the proceeds to purchase illegal drugs and alcohol that were then supplied to the children.
That staff member was fired, but eight other employees also accused of harming the girls remained at the facility. The children also remained in the shelter for over a month after the abuse was first reported before they were removed.
The accusations against those eight employees and their employment status are unknown. The identities of the nine suspects have not yet been made public.
The judge blasted Texas foster care officials for not removing the children immediately when the allegations of abuse were first reported and for not notifying the court right away, calling it yet another failure of the system. She pointed to the numerous bombshell reports that have been released by court-appointed monitors throughout the last decade detailing abuse within the Texas foster care system, neglect and even the deaths of children.
Dozens of facilities licensed by the state have closed down or been forced to close down because investigators found they were subjecting children to dangerous and damaging environments. Officials and advocates have lamented placement woes that led to children being put in unlicensed facilities; many have had to sleep in hotels and Child Protective Services offices.
Lawmakers, state officials and child advocates condemned The Refuge after the court hearing.
In a statement Thursday evening, Gov. Greg Abbott said the Texas Rangers will investigate, arrest and pursue charges against any suspects related to the Refuge allegations. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement that his human trafficking task force will collaborate with the Texas Rangers in the investigation.
Both Abbott and Paxton have recently targeted transgender children and their families, with the governor directing the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate parents who provide gender-affirming medical care to their transgender children as child abuse. Many LGBTQ and child advocates have criticized his decision to task the overstretched agency with those investigations, especially in light of how troubled the Texas foster care system is.
On its website, The Refuge describes itself as a faith-based organization and claims to have cared for 70 girls since opening in August 2018.
“The Refuge for DMST [Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking] was founded on the core belief that each girl is created by God for a special purpose in this world,” a section of the nonprofit organization’s website reads. “As a faith-based organization, we believe every girl can create a new life for herself if she is encircled with the support and love necessary to begin the healing process.”
The organization released a statement on its website Thursday saying that it has been collaborating with DFPS and that it fired the employee accused of coercing the victims to sell nude photos as soon as leadership found out. The statement does not address the other eight staff members who are accused of also causing harm to the girls.
“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,” The Refuge founder Brooke Crowder said in a statement. “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.”
Editor’s note: This article was republished from The Texas Tribune under a Creative Commons license.