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'We are the victims,' say the former residents of The Refuge

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Paul Flahive | Midjourney | Texas Public Radio
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This is the last story in TPR's three-part series "Justice Ignored: Texas has a long way to go in helping child victims of sex crimes." Read the first story here and the second story here.

The Refuge provided treatment to child victims of sex trafficking until its license was suspended in March of this year over sexual exploitation allegations.

Eleven girls were pulled out of the Bastrop, Texas, facility when multiple accounts of sex abuse were reported to the state.

Law enforcement alleged Iesha Greene, a Refuge overnight worker, sexually exploited youth by plying them with drugs and then conspired to sell nude photos of the girls.

Despite a scandal that rocked Texas causing state legislative hearings, no charges will be filed against the alleged perpetrator.

TPR learned Thursday that Bastrop County failed to get an indictment in the case.

“The Grand Jury did not indict Iesha Greene, or any other person, for any offense(s). The Grand Jury did not find sufficient evidence to support an indictment on any criminal offense,” said Conor Brown, a Bastrop Sheriff’s investigator in a letter to The Refuge staff.

The initial report about The Refuge from an investigator at the Department of Family and Protective Services was explosive. It said there were eight reports of abuse and possible trafficking at the facility created to treat victims of sex trafficking. An employee — who also had multiple family members working in the facility — was the alleged culprit. It added that a senior director at the organization was aware of what happened.

A Refuge employee at the time was quoted as telling an administrator they thought trafficking was going on under their noses.

Ultimately, the allegations would be disputed and whittled down, producing two concrete accusations of sexual exploitation against Greene, who had been terminated on the day the allegation was made. Three staffers were also fired for allegedly assisting a youth in running away from the facility.

TPR could not reach Greene for comment.

The tumult over the initial report drew federal court scrutiny, statehouse hearings, and an uncertain future for the organization that often cast itself as the victim of media attention, misinformation and over-reactive state overseers.

“We are deeply disappointed to experience yet another day in which our organization is grossly misrepresented by entities whose responsibilities require them to understand the unique challenges of caring for the child victims of sex trafficking as The Refuge was created to do,” CEO Brooke Crowder said in June.

But the girls (now women) at the center of the sex abuse report said The Refuge failed them by not taking action sooner, and they are now grappling with the fact that no charges will be filed against the woman who victimized them.

TPR interviewed both women for their first-hand perspective on what happened and the fallout. Both woman asked to remain anonymous because they were victims of sexual exploitation. TPR will call them Abby and Grace.

Finding out that Greene had not been indicted was not a surprise for Abby, who described a very combative interview with law enforcement at the time.

“The entire time when (police) were asking me about it, like he was literally accusing me of like, making it up to get back at (Greene),” Abby said.

Grace hoped that the Refuge will not be allowed to continue.

“I believe in God, and it will work out how it's supposed to work out, and they're lying. I hope that they never get to open their facility again,” said the woman who was a resident of the facility for a year.

The two described an organization with problems — from staffing issues to rule violations.

The Refuge started treating girls in 2018 and said it has helped 70. It does not track their progress after they leave the facility. While it has capacity for more than 40 girls it never exceeded a couple dozen at one time.

Advocates for victims of trafficking say treatment centers like The Refuge provide a desperately needed service.

“We're just in a huge gap of not having even the right place for our kids who are surviving trafficking,” said Judge Aurora Martinez Jones, a state district judge in Travis County overseeing Child Protective Services cases. “And we are in a huge gap of not having any kind of mental and behavioral health supports that are appropriate for kids in general.”

Another domestic minor sex trafficking treatment center, Nicole’s Place, was also shut down in early 2022 over a variety of licensing citations and complaints from neighbors. In one instance, a girl was able to use a phone to contact her alleged trafficker who then picked her up from the facility — according to a report from monitors in the federal court overseeing Texas’ foster care system.

Losing The Refuge and Nicole’s Place has exacerbated the treatment crisis.

Later investigations showed The Refuge had a number of runaways, including one girl who allegedly used a staff member's personal phone to flee. She would die two months later while on the run from authorities.

Shawna Rogers died at 17, after years of abuse, violence and exploitation. The compounding cost of failures — from law enforcement and rehabilitators as well as family — finally proved fatal. In the end, she was blind to those who wanted to help her as they had been blind to her needs for years. Her life stands as a haunting example of how far Texas still has to go to help victims like her.

Both of the former Refuge residents expressed appreciation for The Refuge, but they felt their lives were placed at risk, and the evasions of responsibility frustrated them.

“They're grown, and they can't even take responsibility for what they've done and what they let happen,” Grace said. “In the beginning, all I wanted was for them to say, ‘I'm sorry’ and that they're going to do better for the next girls that come. I didn't want the place to get shut down but honestly, it's not gonna get better.”

Both women said if the Refuge had taken more seriously the early concerns about Greene’s behavior, the facility might still be open.

Issues reported and ignored

Abby and Grace said the first time Greene offered them drugs, it rang out like a clarion call.

“We got happy as hell. We lit up like that was candy,” Grace recalled.

These girls, like many at The Refuge, had both been hard drug users. Despite their young ages, both had been addicted to methamphetamines and used a laundry list of other drugs.

Abby described herself and Grace as having some of the worst addictions at The Refuge. Long conversations about which drugs they wanted or would be using if they weren’t stuck at the facility filled large portions of their days (when staff wasn’t around). It occupied even larger portions of their thoughts at night.

They admitted that had they known the offer would lead to them fearing for their lives, being exploited, and shutting down the facility they lived in, they may not have taken it.

But Greene allegedly started slowly and innocuously with the girls.

Greene worked the overnight shift, overseeing the cottage Grace and Abby shared. They noticed right away she was different. She would share too much about her life. She slept on the job. She befriended the girls there.

Also, the two said Greene let them use her phone at night – another violation of the rules. So when the offer of free drugs came it was just one more escalation.

“The word for it is ‘grooming,’ ” Abby said. “She was giving us free drugs and letting us use her phone and being really nice to us for months.”

The girls said Greene gave them Xanax, ecstasy and marijuana. The two didn’t tell anyone about the drugs. They hid them and used them clandestinely in their cottage on The Refuge campus.

Then, they said, it got weird.

Greene’s stories got more intense. She told Grace and Abby that she was a “plug” or a drug dealer. She showed them a photo on her phone of a table filled with the drugs she was giving them.

She told them she had trafficked girls herself.

“She told us that she used to pimp girls for her baby daddy at motels,” Grace explained.

Before long the free drugs weren’t free anymore. Greene told them they had to pay.

Money at The Refuge was strictly controlled. Every purchase was monitored by staff. The girls had accounts. Their relatives could deposit funds into them. The girls’ pay from campus jobs and from selling arts and crafts were directed there. They couldn’t readily access it for no reason.

For Grace, the answer to the predicament was simple.

“The only thing we can do, I think, is sell our nudes,” Grace recalled suggesting. Greene quickly agreed to help. Greene provided the phone for photos and the use of her CashApp for the transactions. The girls would post teaser photos on social media offering nude photos for cash.

“I did take pictures and I gave all that to the police. Like there's literally evidence There's pictures of me in The Refuge. You can see everything in my room there,” Abby said.

But Abby said she didn’t go through with it, and she doesn’t think any of the photos were sold. Grace agreed, saying the only transaction was $5 her friend sent to Greene’s CashApp. As far as they know, none of the photos of them were sent to anyone. The Refuge CEO would testify that the photos had been sold.

Throughout her time there Greene started stealing from them, they said: a gold chain, a massage gun, a hair straightener. Abby said Greene also stole her $220 gift card but she returned it after Abby complained to staff. Abby also estimated the value of the items Greene stole from Grace was in the hundreds if not thousands of dollars.

“And it took months — literally it took month — for The Refuge to do anything about it,” Abby said.

A former case manager at The Refuge confirmed the girls had told her a staff member was stealing from them and made vague references to other issues that they wouldn’t discuss further.

Zaneta Castro — Grace and Abby’s former case manager at the facility — said she took it to her supervisor in November and then again in December.

Castro said The Refuge eventually spoke to Greene in December. She denied the accusations and continued in her job.

“Nothing was done about it,” Castro recalled telling CEO and Founder Brooke Crowder, not long before resigning. “I keep telling (her supervisor) about this, and nothing is being done about it.”

“I was told, 'We’re handling it. It’s being handled,' ” she said. But she didn’t see anything happen.

The Refuge’s founder Brooke Crowder would later tell legislators in a state hearing that allegations of thefts by Greene had come to light, but that it was a “few days before” the abuse accusations were made.

The girls also said someone was going to get fired over other things going on, but they couldn’t say what those were until they were 18.

Grace felt trapped. She was still on probation, and she said Greene threatened to make sure she got drug tested — violating her probation — if she talked. If she kept quiet, she would be out at 18. If not, she could end up in adult prison.

With Greene continuing on staff, the girls said they were scared.

“She knew a lot of information. She knew our social security number. She knew our full names. She knows our address. It's all on our paperwork,” Grace said, “So I feel like they put my life in danger. They put (Abby)'s life in danger by even hiring someone like that.”

According to a Child Protective Services report sent to court monitors, the girls reported the drugs and photos on Jan. 24, 2022. Greene was terminated when they did.

Castro was shocked by what they told her Greene had done. She said it never would have occurred to her this could happen at The Refuge — a feeling shared by leadership of the organization.

The Refuge did not address in its responses to TPR whether it received complaints about Greene that would have removed her from the organization sooner.

After the accusation

After Greene was fired, Abby and Grace worried about retribution from Greene’s family, who were also on staff. They said Greene’s sister was assigned to their Cottage for three days.

Grace said The Refuge asked them if it was ok, and while uncomfortable, Grace said yes without much thought. They recalled Greene’s sister assured them she harbored no ill will over what happened.

But the two girls were still paranoid.

One day, Greene’s sister took them to get fast food off campus. It was just the three of them. Before long, their imaginations were going wild. They thought she would try something, plant contraband on them or bring them to Greene.

At one point during the drive, Greene’s sister drove the car up to a dumpster. And they thought the moment they dreaded had come

“I thought that b*** was going to f**** kill me,” Abby said.

The two both locked eyes and braced for what was coming.

Greene’s sister tossed some trash in the dumpster and drove them back.

“So, the last three months, these girls had been so terrified,” Castro said. "(They thought) that either, 1. they were gonna go to jail, or 2. they were going to be basically exploited or hurt by the staff member,” she added.

The Refuge disputed the accusation. In an email a spokesman said the girls requested Greene’s sister be assigned to their cottage.

“We not only repeatedly queried the girls on their expressed preference for (her) presence, but also know she was never implicated in the exploitation event during the initial investigations and in subsequent investigations by BCSO, Texas Ranger, DFPS and HHSC,” said a spokesman.

Brooke Crowder said she would have handled it differently in hindsight.

Grace disputed the idea that they requested Greene’s sister, as well as that they repeatedly checked in on the girl’s comfort with the plan.

It was later reported in the media that Greene had also worked at a Texas Juvenile Justice Department secure facility and was fired. She was found to have sexually abused boys — without contact, according to a court monitors report. No charges were brought against her, and the department didn’t report its finding of abuse to the state’s child abuse registry — so it didn’t show up on her background check.

Many have asked why The Refuge hadn’t taken what is often a standard hiring practice by contacting Greene’s past employers. The Refuge has defended itself saying Greene passed a state-mandated background check, and they had hired new consultants to improve their process.

“After countless investigations, (more than) 240 days after our report, this alleged perpetrator would today still pass a DFPS background check if she tried to get another job caring for children,” said a spokesman for The Refuge in an email.

That may remain the case because Bastrop County failed to obtain an indictment in the case, and no charges against Greene were expected.

Castro gave her two weeks notice shortly afterwards in February 2022. She was with the agency for three years, or nearly the entire time it was open. She sent a long email to Crowder, and the two had a two-hour conversation about the issues she saw.

Abby and Grace said at times it felt like The Refuge prioritized looking like a treatment center rather than being one. Abby said that compared to other facilities, The Refuge was a good placement.

Abby described placements where you weren’t fed on time or with any variety. She talked about degraded facilities with bugs that had furniture that was falling apart.

By contrast, The Refuge had nice furniture. They let girls go on outings (when sufficiently staffed). It fed them well and gave them clothes. They had campus jobs that paid $15 an hour. They also had the opportunity to create pieces of art that they could then sell. Abby raised thousands of dollars this way, which she is using to pay for college.

But she said The Refuge did not live up to its fundraising image.

“They act like they're constantly watching out for our best needs, they're not,” she added. “They're watching out for their best needs, while just making sure we're being taken care of enough to not get in trouble with licensing.”

The two complained of high turnover of staff that left them at times without therapists. Abby said the staffing issue came up often.

“For an entire week I didn't have a staff with me, so they just left me in my house by myself for a week and just (watched) me with the camera,” she said.

A Refuge spokesman said that this was a mischaracterization of their model of therapy and their staffing numbers.

“As a reward for manifesting the independent living skills they have learned, they are occasionally granted independent time alone, but never overnight,” he said in an email.

The spokesman also said they kept higher ratios of staff to youth and when youth are alone in a cottage there is a staff person next door.

Grace said she felt the facility left her without the life skills to navigate an independent life.

Federal Judge Janice Jack — who presided over the court overseeing the state’s foster system — held an emergency hearing in March after receiving the report CPS gave to court monitors on what was going on at The Refuge. It was the lead news story for weeks.

State hearings were launched, and state troopers investigated.

Within days, Steve McCraw, the director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, told Texas Gov. Greg Abbott that the story was not true. In a letter he said his investigators found “no evidence” of sexual abuse. In the same letter he outlined the girls’ allegations.

"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," said Paul Yetter, who represents children in permanent custody of the state. "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."

More succinctly, Grace said the Texas Rangers were full of “shit.”

“We’re deeply relieved by the Texas Rangers’ findings,” Crowder said at the time.

The official pushback on reports of abuse at The Refuge enabled the organization to start fighting, positioning itself for a comeback. Facility officials claimed that knee-jerk bureaucrats had overreached to overblown news reports.

They argued that they reported Greene to DFPS when they found out what she had done and terminated her employment. They questioned DPS’ progress on the case against Greene in court filings. They bemoaned the facility’s closure and staff layoffs.

“It confounds us to know that its license continues to be suspended solely because of the Department’s failure to find that there is a reason to believe that former staff (Iesha Greeene) committed an act of abuse and neglect,” Refuge officials wrote in a filing with the federal court.

“While The Refuge and its former residents have suffered serious harm for systemic agency failures," the filing added, "The Refuge, its staff, and its supporters continue to cooperate and be transparent with this Honorable Court, the legislature, regulators, and local, state and federal law enforcement.”

TPR questioned statements made in the facility’s court filing regarding Shawna Rogers. Rogers was a 17-year old girl who ran away from the facility in August 2021. Despite the two girls above and others telling staff that she had plotted her escape using her Instagram account on a staff member’s phone, the facility denied any “calls” had been made using a staff phone.

With both Shawna and Greene, Abby said The Refuge was not being honest.

“Instead of just trying to make people like, be quiet. And just like, pretend like they did nothing wrong and play the victim in the media and act like everyone's out to get them,” said Abby “They just need to take responsibility for what they let happen.”

The Refuge said in a statement that they have been honest and have not shied away from the abuse that took place.

“We must take issue with any assertion we have not been truthful in our conduct. We reported the incidents that launched the initial investigations,” said a spokesman in an email to TPR.

The future of The Refuge is still in question, despite the lack of charges against Greene. It continues to say it hopes it can reopen soon.

Now — in the wake of the grand jury’s decision to not indict Greene — Grace and Abby are left to wonder if they are believed at all, and what, if any justice might look like.

TPR was founded by and is supported by our community. If you value our commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.

Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org and on Twitter at @paulflahive