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Criminal Justice

Critical of Texas Rangers investigation, judge calls in feds to investigate Bastrop 'Refuge' home

Gov. Greg Abbott speaks at a press conference outside Bexar County's Freeman Coliseum. He alleges child abuse is occurring inside the emergency care facility for unaccompanied migrant children.
Dominic Anthony Walsh
/
Texas Public Radio
Gov. Greg Abbott speaks at a press conference with Texas Rangers - File photo

A federal judge hammered Texas’ investigation into a Bastrop-based facility charged with helping female victims of sex trafficking.

U.S. District Court Judge Janis Jack said the Texas Rangers handled the investigation “very poorly.” She referred allegations of child pornography and possible sex trafficking at The Refuge to the U.S. Department of Justice for its evaluation. She added another referral to anyone who participated in obstruction of justice in the investigation.

Allegations made about employees there earlier this month caused a torrent of hearings, investigations, and court hearings.

Law enforcement agencies continue investigations into the sexual exploitation of two girls. Thus far, a single employee had been identified as giving drugs to girls there and then helped two girls sell nude photos of themselves to purchase more.

Jack has publicly expressed concern about the investigation since a March 15 hearing when she asked if Texas Rangers had been instructed to investigate allegations of trafficking and sex abuse at The Refuge or instructed to disprove them.

“Defendants assured me of the reliability of the (Texas) Rangers. But lo and behold the very next day, a letter was published from Mr. McCraw head of DPS and The Rangers,” she said.

In the letter, McCraw said they found no evidence of sex abuse or trafficking, which contradicted a letter from Department of Family and Protective Services to federal court monitors. McCraw said the letter contained “material inaccuracies,” later testifying that the letter was sent without many caveats from other staff.

Jack criticized what she called premature findings of the investigation that was six-days-old and had yet to interview all the girls at the facility.

“What was the purpose of the letter rather than a publicity? What was the purpose of the letter?” she asked.

Lawyers for the state disagreed but said they couldn’t speak for McCraw.

DFPS Commissioner Jamie Masters agreed with Jack under questioning that the letter was premature. Plaintiffs lawyers asked masters about whether her agency would have released a letter like that under the circumstances.

“I would not accept that information until they were finished…It would have been an incomplete investigation,” she said.

Masters said that she stood by what DFPS sent to federal court monitors contradicting McCraw’s claims of “material inaccuracies in what was reported.”

“These preliminary findings remain the same as we have not identified any additional evidence of sexual abuse or human trafficking occurring at The Refuge,” said Ericka Miller, press secretary for the Department of Public Safety, in a statement.

Court monitors filed their own report after three weeks, finding serious infractions and “strong possibility” of child sex trafficking at the facility.

“While the court monitor’s report seems to consist largely of allegations from former employees, many of whom were terminated for behavior that violated our standards, we have seen no mention of any episodes that we did not fully report to DFPS when they were discovered,” said Brooke Crowder in a statement after the report came out.

The court monitor’s report did report unconfirmed allegations of staff covering up issues between Dec. 21 and January 2022, “including allegations that staff assisted girls in escaping from The Refuge and “returning to trafficking multiple times” and that management “did not act quickly enough or at all when it was discovered.”

It also notes unreported instances of overnight staff sleeping on the job. 24/7 awake staffing at these facilities was part of a 2018 court order upheld by the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

"While the monitors' findings from their investigations into reported sexual abuse and trafficking at The Refuge are shocking, it's just as troubling to see what it reflects about a culture that seems to pervade the state's child welfare agencies and some of its private providers," said Paul Yetter, a lawyer representing plaintiffs, in a statement.

Crowder said they were confident the investigations would show they had been transparent with the state and that they do have high standards of care.

The court hearing had been intended to check on the state’s progress in remedying multiple problem areas identified by an expert panel in January aimed at improving placements for kids in permanent conservancy. Several hundred children last year spent weeks without a residential placement, sleeping in hotels, uncertified placements and in DFPS offices.

But much of the first two hours revolved around competing investigations into The Refuge.

Uproar from the findings led to the suspension of the facility’s license and the removal of all the girls there. Two staff members were fired from DFPS, which led to the resignation of the head of Child Protective Services Investigations. In his resignation letter, Justin Lewis said his employees had been scapegoated in what he called a system-wide failure.

State officials repeatedly said two people were fired because they didn’t elevate the investigation of trafficking to higher ups. Lewis said no policy existed.

“So how did I take the fall?” asked Ashley Wisdom, a program administrator at DFPS who lost her job. “They knew they were firing me that Monday. And they waited until Thursday, before the Senate meeting to tell me that speaks volumes to me. That makes me that y'all didn't want me to have a chance to intervene. To change the narrative that y'all planned to present.”

Battles over the refuge represent one of the biggest blow ups between the federal courts and the state of Texas over its foster system in years.

The Texas foster care litigation turned 11 years old Tuesday. It has seen two governors and outlived several DFPS commissioners.

The state battled the case and court monitors for years after it initially lost, appealing twice to the 5th circuit court of appeals.

In recent years though under Masters, the court has offered praise for a more cooperative spirit. Jack also praised Abbott at times for his work trying to get foster care in compliance.

Among the threats of contempt, criticisms and consternation found at Wednesday’s hearing, there was little if any praise.

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