87th LegislatureState SenateTexas Senate Probes Abuse Allegations at Bastrop Shelter for Trafficked Girls

While the Texas Rangers found no evidence of abuse or trafficking, concerns about child pornography at The Refuge remain.
March 21, 2022
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A court document warned a federal judge of “an urgent situation” involving a Central Texas foster care shelter for female victims of sex trafficking on March 10, including allegations of sexual abuse at the shelter that drew attention from around the state.

Not long afterward, the Texas Rangers said they found no evidence of abuse or sex trafficking at the shelter but acknowledged “allegations of two major incidents of employee misconduct.”

In the settling dust, a special committee of the Texas Senate convened on March 17 to sift through the evidence and discuss how best to respond. As with other aspects of the foster care system, navigating the straits between burdensome regulation and dangerous heedlessness remains one of the legislature’s most stubborn obstacles ahead.

A lawsuit against the Texas foster care system has been proceeding for over a decade in federal court. The court employs independent monitors to review the foster care system.

A state official told these monitors in a March 10 letter that troubling reports from a Bastrop shelter called The Refuge had gone unaddressed since late January. Alongside the allegations of trafficking and sexual abuse that the Texas Rangers discounted, the reports — known as “intakes” in the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) — included allegations that Refuge employees had helped some shelter residents run away from the facility and that a Refuge employee had sold nude pictures of two residents for illegal drugs and money.

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The Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) later reported on March 16 that investigations found no evidence of sexual abuse or trafficking at The Refuge.

“There is no evidence that any of the residents at the Refuge shelter have ever been sexually abused or trafficked while at the shelter,” the DPS letter reads, addressed to Governor Greg Abbott.

“A review of the March 10, 2022 DFPS letter to the federal court monitor identified material inaccuracies and contained information that had not been properly verified.”

While the Texas Rangers found no evidence of abuse or trafficking, criminal investigations are continuing against Refuge employees for the incidents involving nude pictures and the runaway residents. According to the DPS letter, the Bastrop County Sheriff’s Office is conducting these investigations.

Two agencies oversee the Texas foster care system: the DFPS, which includes Child Protective Services, investigates abuse, and employs caseworkers, and the Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC), which licenses foster care centers. Officials from both agencies spoke to the Texas Senate Committee on Child Protective Services yesterday.

DFPS Commissioner Jaime Masters presented a timeline of events and said the allegations slipped under the radar at DFPS for weeks in part because a supervisor and her employees, whom Masters did not name, wanted to avoid more work.

“When we talked with [the supervisor] about, ‘How did you miss this?’ The full statement that I was given is not only was she disengaged, but her staff knew that if they tell her too much, she will require a lot of work of them. So the culture that this supervisor had created was unbelievable,” Masters said.

According to Masters, DFPS was first told about misconduct at The Refuge on January 24 in an intake describing Refuge staff having nude pictures of the girls and trading them for drugs or money. Authorities at that time thought the threat was neutralized because the accused employee was fired.

It was later found out that this employee, who said her boyfriend trafficked her in the past, was related by blood or marriage to several other shelter workers — including some in upper management.

On February 2, DFPS and HHSC determined the facility was at a high level of risk for harm to children. Masters said this information was not “sent up the chain” to her due to reluctance and slip-ups at the middle management level.

“The caseworker did their job. The caseworker elevated this to their supervisor. The supervisor and the program director at DFPS staffed this on [March 3] and neither raised this up the chain as policy would have directed them to do,” Masters said.

“I was told that the supervisor stated she was disengaged. The program director stated it slipped her mind.”

DFPS received the intake about staff assisting a runaway on February 22.

The supervisor and another DFPS employee were fired, along with several Refuge workers.

Committee Chair Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham) moved the conversation into a broader examination of the system statewide, noting that residential treatment centers have experienced a threefold increase in misconduct allegations since 2019.

“Those are kind of a trend that would be alarming,” Brenham said.

Specifically, there were 1,181 allegations against residential treatment centers in 2019, and 43 were confirmed. In the following year, there were 2,817 allegations, 108 of which were confirmed. In 2021, there were 3,608 allegations, and 293 were confirmed.

Another DFPS official said the agency has decided to widen the category of cases that are deemed high-priority, leading to more reports and investigations.

Masters said caseworkers’ response time is “doing very well” and said failure to follow the process, rather than the process itself, has led to misconduct slipping through the cracks.

While Masters and Kolkhorst both said that heightened monitoring ordered by the court has helped cull bad centers from the system, they agreed that the monitoring may also have the unintended effect of squeezing the system’s capacity to care for enough children.

According to Masters, foster center managers responded in a survey saying Texas has a more highly regulated foster care system than any other state, even including the dozens of other states undergoing similar lawsuits.

Out of the 78 centers on heightened monitoring currently, only one has been able to exit monitoring under the court’s standards.

“This is a yin and a yang,” Kolkhorst said.

“A push and a pull.”

The HHSC’s tally of misconduct at The Refuge is included in the agency’s presentation.

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Isaiah Mitchell

Isaiah Mitchell is a reporter for The Texan, a Texas native, and a huge Allman Brothers fan. He graduated cum laude from Trinity University in 2020 with a degree in English. Isaiah loves playing music and football with his family.