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State investigators find no evidence of sex trafficking at Bastrop facility

A photo of several buildings at Refuge Ranch
Photo courtesy of The Refuge Ranch

This is a developing story and will be updated.

Investigators with the Texas Rangers said Wednesday they found no evidence of sex trafficking or sex abuse at Bastrop-based The Refuge, a facility aimed at helping victims of trafficking.

According to the letter from Department of Family and Protective Services sent to federal court monitors last week, eight girls alleged sexual abuse and human trafficking over the course of its five-week investigation.

Texas Rangers identified two incidents that it said it was still investigating, and it said it had identified material inaccuracies in that letter from DFPS to federal court monitors of the Texas Foster Care System.

“There were no allegations or evidence that these residents were sexually abused or assaulted by anyone,” Steven McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said in a letter describing the agency’s initial findings to the governor on Wednesday.

Allegations of trafficking young girls at a state-contracted facility made public in an emergency federal court hearing last week made national headlines, prompting state hearings to be scheduled and multiple criminal investigations.

"We are deeply relieved by the Texas Rangers' findings,” Brooke Crowder, CEO of The Refuge, said in a statement to TPR.

She added: “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."

Paul Yetter, an attorney representing foster youth in civil rights litigation against the state, called the Texas Rangers statement "extremely 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," Yetter said. "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 about-face from state investigators comes a day after hints of what Texas Rangers might say emerged in another federal court hearing Tuesday.

“That conversation…gives rise to a concern as to what exactly instructions were given to these Rangers, which is really not my business, but I just want to point out. Were they instructed to investigate or instructed to disprove?”
Judge Janice Graham Jack

Deborah Fowler — one of two court appointed monitors in the Texas foster care litigation — was contacted by a Texas Ranger, according to court records.

The investigator’s questions were focused on who from DFPS briefed the court monitors, the language they used and if they had presented the allegations as “unfounded.”

“During the conversation, he indicated that some of the allegations that were included were actually untrue,” Fowler said in the hearing. According to her, the Ranger wouldn’t say which allegations.

The tone and tenor of the conversation concerned Judge Janice Graham Jack. According to court documents, Jack — who has overseen federal court ordered improvements of Texas’ troubled foster care system — wanted to get her concerns on the record and asked state lawyers for answers.

“That conversation … gives rise to a concern as to what exactly instructions were given to these Rangers, which is really not my business, but I just want to point out. Were they instructed to investigate or instructed to disprove?” Jack asked state lawyers.

Jack said the conversation as relayed to her was so troubling she initially ordered the Texas Rangers to appear before the court at its March 30 hearing, an order she rescinded the same day — deciding to ask state lawyers to find out.

She said she has been informed that there are good reasons to believe many of the allegations, and she was concerned they may not be taken seriously. However, Jack said she did have faith in the Texas Rangers.

“I have no reason to believe that the Texas Rangers, which is one of the elite police forces in the country, would be conducting anything other than a factual investigation,” responded Patrick Sweeten, a lawyer with the attorney general’s office in the hearing.

DPS Director McCraw said there were allegations of two major incidents they were still investigating.

One allegation — as noted by the DFPS letter — was a Jan. 24 incident where a female Refuge employee tried to sell nude photos of two girls at the shelter. The employee was fired, and the organization referred the matter to the state. Public Safety officials said the woman had yet to be arrested, which the letter to court monitors said had already happened.

Another allegation was that four employees helped two residents escape The Refuge. The employees were fired. The state was still investigating both incidents, and an employee had been arrested for making false statements to the FBI.

The FBI wasn’t immediately able to comment.

After years of reports showing how flawed the Texas Foster Care System continues to be after so many promises of the opposite, a lawyer for former foster children said, the Judge’s vigilance can be understood.

“The judge is very, very vigilant whether these allegations are true or not still isn't known,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, co-lead attorney for the plaintiffs on the Texas foster care litigation.

“The judge has been put in a position of trying to provide necessary safety and oversight for these children,” said Lowry, “because in many instances the state does not.”

The news comes on the eve of a Texas Senate hearing by a newly created subcommittee to address the allegations against the facility and of the foster care system. On Thursday, eight senators are scheduled to ask state officials how this alleged trafficking could occur.

“I have instructed Chair [Lois] Kolkhorst to pull no punches with agency leadership in these hearings. And if a conservatorship is needed to run the agency, then that is what needs to be done,” said Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick when he announced the formation of the new subcommittee.

Now, it isn’t clear what will happen next.

“One thing we do know because of the course of this litigation,” said Lowry “is that it's important to go behind things with the child welfare agency, because for years, the state has not protected children in foster care.”

Copyright 2022 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit Texas Public Radio.

Paul Flahive is the technology and entrepreneurship reporter for Texas Public Radio. He has worked in public media across the country, from Iowa City and Chicago to Anchorage and San Antonio.
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