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Texas treatment center accused of sex trafficking youth reopens

Photo courtesy of The Refuge Ranch.

When allegations that a treatment center for victims of sex trafficking in rural Texas was the site of sexual exploitation of those victims, it made national news.

The Refuge Ranch outside Bastrop, Texas, was the focus of special legislative hearings and multiple law enforcement investigations. Eleven girls were removed in March, and the organization’s license was suspended.

In the end, despite two girls telling law enforcement they had allowed staff member Iesha Greene to take photos of them nude with her phone so the girls could sell them for money to purchase drugs, Greene was never indicted. And the facily was scheduled to reopen on Friday.

An email from The Refuge Ranch invited supporters to coffee, a question and answer session, and a tour.

“It's very concerning to me to hear that's happening,” said Austin State Rep. Gina Hinojosa. "There were so many oversight problems that were uncovered during the investigation that took place when I was on the [House Human Services] committee.”

The two women, who were allegedly exploited by Greene, said last year they hoped the organization never reopened.

“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 one.

Hinojosa was surprised, especially since Jamie Masters, the now former Department of Family and Protective Services leader, said this would never happen.

“We were given assurances at the time under the prior commissioner that kids would not be placed there,” Hinojosa said.

According to the Health and Human Services Commission, The Refuge had its license suspension lifted.

“The Refuge reached a settlement agreement with HHSC in January and is subject to the terms of the agreement and probation for a one-year period,” said Tiffany Young, an HHSC press officer.

The probation includes increased screenings for applicants, which was the primary problem leading to the scandal. Greene should not have been able to gain employment at the nonprofit.

She had previously been fired from the Texas Juvenile Justice Department for misconduct with children and was not eligible to work at a state facility again. TJJD did not disclose the fact to background checkers, exposing a gap in the system.

Questions loomed about why an organization entrusted with protecting some of the most vulnerable youth didn’t call previous employers.

Despite allegations that made national headlines and drew statehouse investigations and federal court attention, no charges were filed against the facility, which was created to care of sex trafficking victims. Former residents at the heart of the scandal are frustrated by what they see as evasions of responsibility and the lack of justice.

TPR detailed in its Justice Ignored series some of the allegations against the organization made by former residents of the facility, including that they had reported Greene for previous behaviors, such as theft of property.

Greene could not be reached for this story.

Greene was fired the same day as the report of sexual misconduct was released, according to The Refuge.

“[We] fully cooperated with two special legislative committees and investigations by nine local, state, and federal agencies, from the Bastrop County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO) to the FBI, none of which found evidence of criminal wrongdoing by The Refuge Ranch,” said a refuge spokesman in a release.

From the organization’s perspective, they have been unfairly treated in the past and are eager to work with DFPS to treat youth again.

DFPS had fired two investigators over the initial reports. At least one of those investigators would tell TPR they had followed protocol and had been scapegoated due to negative media attention.

A report from the Special Senate Committee On Child Protective Services said that “the department's own testimony revealed systemic breakdown in communications and coordination related to the investigations into abuse, neglect and exploitation at The Refuge.”

Texas had cleared The Refuge.

Additional investigations done by federal court monitors found the organization had several additional problems — especially with youth running away from the facility. The nonprofit defended itself, noting that running away is a common coping mechanism for trafficked youth.

One such girl named Shawna Rogers fled The Refuge’s care while on an overnight stay with her grandmother in nearby Bastrop.

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.

A state investigation determined that Rogers had manipulated a staff member to allow her access to a phone to log in to her social media accounts. She would later use those social media platforms to coordinate her escape. The state did not find Rogers used a staff phone to escape, however.

The investigation did show lapses in the organization's processes around Rogers' time there. Rogers, who was court ordered to be at The Refuge, was not to leave the campus without her probation officer being notified. The nonprofit failed to enforce this three times.

It also found one unnamed girl had run away five times without the state being notified.

“Rather than look backward at false allegations and other issues that led to a year of lost care for traumatized girls and near bankruptcy for our organization, we intend to emphasize the lessons learned from the process, work cooperatively with our state agency partners,” said Refuge CEO Brooke Crowder in a statement.

Not all state partners are ready to work with The Refuge again though.

“We have reviewed the settlement agreement between HHSC and The Refuge. At this time, we have no plans to place children or youth in state conservatorship at this facility,” said DFPS Spokesperson Marrisa Gonzales in an email to TPR.

The Refuge has to rehire staff, and develop many critical plans to successfully take youth again. And while DFPS may not immediately place youth there, many in the courts have bemoaned the critical lack of services for sex-trafficked youth.

“We have a huge gap in having this kind of facility or providers who know how to work with children in a very trauma-informed way,” said Aurora Martinez Jones, judge of the 126th State District Court in Travis County. “Knowing that these children have such substantial needs though, my hope is that anybody — The Refuge included — who would be providing service to our children have to be held to a higher standard of diligence assuring any caregivers in their facility are going to be absolutely healthy responsible and safe people. ”

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Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org