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Victims of sex trafficking allegedly trafficked again in state-contracted treatment facility

Courtesy The Refuge Ranch

A facility intended to assist sex-trafficked girls was allegedly abusing them.

Multiple employees at Bastrop, Texas-based residential treatment program “The Refuge Ranch” have been accused of trafficking girls aged 11-17. One former employee has been arrested, but more have been accused. Gov. Greg Abbott has ordered the Texas Rangers to investigate the facility.

The discovery was revealed public in court filings and an emergency court hearing Thursday before Federal Judge Janice Jack, who ordered federal oversight of Texas' Foster care system five years ago.

An employee reported abuse of girls residing there in January. Eleven previously trafficked girls were placed in the facility by Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.

One employee of the facility allegedly sold nude photos of two girls placed there and then purchased drugs and alcohol for the youth with the proceeds.

Law enforcement investigated the claim for six weeks. During that time, eight children in the state’s care alleged human trafficking by a former employee — though several forensic interviews with youth have yet to take place. Multiple perpetrators have been alleged from the facility.

“Out of an abundance of caution, all the youth in our care have been placed in alternative care until this is all resolved. We understand and respect the decision by DFPS,” said a press statement on The Refuge Ranch’s website Thursday.

The Refuge Ranch has been in operation since 2018, and according to its website, 70 girls have stayed there.

Judge Janice Jack berated state officials for not immediately removing youth from The Refuge. According to court documents, the state only confirmed all had been removed from the facility this week.

“The most appalling thing about this is the disregard of these children. And you had to wait to get eight calls before you took 11 female already-trafficked children out of this traffic situation. This is a system that remains broken,” said Jack.

According to state officials, many staff were fired and they believed the facility to again be a safe place. Then they discovered more who may have been involved or had knowledge of the abuse, including one of the facility directors. State investigators also discovered a group of employees hired under a new administration were either related by blood or by marriage and were living together.

“So they just hired a whole family of people to sexually abuse these children,” asked the judge.

Words like “stunned” and “egregious” were used by Jack to describe the horrific scenario of children wrested from the hopeless situation of commercial sex trafficking only to be thrown back into it by Texas officials.

“These are children that have already been subjected to sex trafficking, and they’re put into a state authorized placement and being sex trafficked again. I can't imagine what they're going through,” said Paul Yetter, an attorney for youth in long term foster care.

State representatives from the DFPS and Texas Health and Human Services were caught flat footed by the judge’s interrogatories. Questions often went unanswered, with several absent from the remote emergency hearing.

“I guess you all knock off early, with the state,” Jack chided them regarding the absences from the 4:30 p.m. hearing.

DFPS Commissioner Jamie Masters was said to be in transit and joined the hearing in the last 10 minutes. She said she had only been informed of the trafficking the day prior and had immediately removed the girls. The timeline drew more rebukes from Judge Jack, who questioned why Masters didn’t know about the investigation sooner.

“There is no excuse for why I didn’t know, which is why several people will be losing their jobs,” said Masters.

The judge was adamant that situations like this one at The Refuge would not have been discovered without court-appointed monitors. In a previous January hearing, monitors found abuse of youth in out-of-state contracted facilities.

“Texas should thank the monitors and 5th circuit (Court of Appeals) for allowing these monitors to go forward,” said Jack.

The judge chastised state leaders for sacrificing tens of millions of dollars in federal funding rather than working to improve the licensing at state contracted facilities. She also alluded to the possibility that recent moves by Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton to equate medical care with child abuse — as they have with gender affirming therapies and treatments for children — opened the door to looking at the state’s problematic medical treatment of children in foster care.

“I think that's opened the door for looking at these to see if there's some abuse going on. Not the kind that the governor was talking about, or Mr. Paxton. But see if there's some kind of child abuse category for the lack of these medical records, the lack of medical treatment,” she said.

HHSC and DFPS were ordered to present more information about the investigation into The Refuge by noon Friday. Judge Jack wanted the names of alleged perpetrators and background checks, as well as licensing information and records of any problems at the facility.
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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