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Sex trafficking allegations get Senate hearing as committee dives deep into foster care system

Sen. Menendez asking questions at Thursday's hearing
Screenshot of legislative committee
Sen. Menendez asking questions at Thursday's hearing

Was there or wasn’t there sex trafficking at The Refuge, the Bastrop-based residential treatment center?

A Texas Senate hearing held Thursday dove deep into the allegations. But despite its charge to investigate it, the committee didn’t have a conclusive answer to the question.

The special committee did however dive deep into all manner of legislative investments and reforms of the state’s troubled foster care system. Accusations that the crimes had occurred at the facility specifically catering to victims of the crimes first surfaced in court documents last week.

The initial question is a big one. It made national headlines, spurred state executive leaders and led to the creation of the Senate committee.

In short, employees of the Department of Family and Protective Services suspected sex trafficking was happening at The Refuge. They reported allegations of child pornography that seemed to fit the code around trafficking as well as an instance where Refuge staff helped two youth run away and who may have assisted them in obtaining a hotel room.

Despite these allegations, the head of Texas Department of Public Safety told the Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday that the Texas Rangers — after six days — had yet to find any evidence of sex abuse or sex trafficking.

“I think that it's too soon, too early to declare whether or not sex trafficking was occurring or the setup for sex trafficking was occurring,” said Sen. Jose Menendez, a Democrat from San Antonio who sits on the new Special Committee on Child Protective Services.

Menendez said he thought the letter to Abbott from DPS Director Steven McCraw was premature in announcing initial findings of no evidence, especially given the allegations it confirmed about nude photos of kids and staff putting “escaped” kids up in hotels.

Thursday’s hearing provided the most comprehensive detail on the alleged crimes to date with both DPS and DFPS leadership testifying about the allegations and failures of some state agencies.

Photo courtesy of The Refuge Ranch.

According to a DFPS presentation, the state failed to act quickly in the case due to inattentive middle managers who didn’t elevate concerns raised by a DFPS case manager. As a result, youth who would have been removed in days languished at the facility for weeks. What impact that had is unclear.

“I can’t make excuses for this. These allegations were significant,” said Jamie Masters, commissioner of DFPS in Thursday’s hearing.

According to a timeline included in the presentation, on Jan. 24, a female employee allegedly used CashApp to sell nude photos of at least two girls. That employee was fired. A third girl later said she also had been photographed nude, and she told investigators that the terminated employee was dating a man who had previously sex trafficked the youth.

In late February, staff allegedly assisted two youth with running away from the semi-rural Bastrop facility and may have assisted them in obtaining a hotel room.
A few days after the escape, Masters testified the then concerns of a staff member.

“I think there's trafficking going on under my nose, and they didn't elevate it either,” relayed Masters.

It was determined that the alleged perpetrator’s sister and cousin both worked at the facility. According to The Refuge, none are still working there nor were they in leadership positions — as had been incorrectly testified to at the hearing.

In testimony before the Special Committee, McCraw indicated the situation was not as widespread as original reports last week from DFPS. Initially, a letter to federal court monitors alleged that seven youth had been abused or trafficked by as many as nine staff members. Both numbers appear to be inflated, and the letter was a draft, including caveats to be addressed, and was not intended to be sent as written.

“Instead, what happened was the caveats were removed,” McCraw said, “and the document was forwarded.”

He said Rangers found that complaints were at times duplicated and some were about issues with medical care and supervision.

DPS’ accusations of child exploitation were troubling enough to committee members.

“I've heard someone say, 'well, they weren't actually trafficking the child.' Well, if you're taking nude photos, and you're helping them escape, then you are putting them right into the hands of those who would exploit them,” said Sen. Joan Huffman, who represents parts of Houston.

The Refuge — which last week had its license suspended and was closed for at least a month — recently had about 20 percent fewer annual infractions than the state average, according to Texas Health and Human Services Commission staff. But it had more than one related to background checks.

In December 2021, a Refuge staffer was flagged as not able to work with children unsupervised but then was allowed to work with children unsupervised. HHSC staff were quick to point out that the person played no role in current allegations against the organization.

The Senate committee was created to investigate reform efforts and past legislative investments in the state’s child protective programs. The foster system has been in federal litigation for the past 10 years, with federal monitors overseeing court-ordered improvements over the past five years.

Despite an influx of cash and positions the past few years, CPS finds itself struggling to keep up. The state now appropriates more than $4 billion a year for the efforts.

Dozens of providers have closed across the state, taking bed capacity with them, which leaves dozens of kids without placements each night — it has dropped from the hundreds seen late last year.

Abuse allegations about residential treatment centers have grown threefold since 2019.

Improvements in the agency’s investigational responsiveness was one of the bright points in the past few years — according to court reports and staff — despite the news of The Refuge.

Committee Chair Lois Kolkhorst indicated the group would hold multiple hearings in 2022.

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Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org