Abuse allegations at Bastrop sex-trafficking shelter add new problem for Texas’ beleaguered child protective services

Some influential Texas Republicans have championed The Refuge, but its founder claims a worker there exploited sex-trafficking survivors.

By Kristen Cabrera & Caroline CovingtonMarch 22, 2022 10:50 am, , , , ,

On Monday, the Texas House Human Services Committee met to discuss abuse allegations at a shelter for sex-trafficking survivors in Bastrop, known as The Refuge for DMST (Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking). During testimony, the shelter’s founder said a nighttime staff member “groomed” girls staying there, including giving them opioids and sedatives in return for selling nude pictures of themselves online.

The investigation is bringing larger problems within the state’s child protective agency – the agency responsible for investigating claims of minor abuse – into sharper focus. Late Monday, Justin Lewis, director of the Child Care Investigations unit of Texas’ Department of Family and Protective Services, resigned.

Texas Standard spoke with Bob Garrett, Austin Bureau chief for The Dallas Morning News, who’s been following developments with The Refuge and DFPS. He tells the Standard they’re signs of ongoing dysfunction in Texas’ child protection system.

Listen to the interview with Garrett in the audio player above or read the transcript below.

This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.

Texas Standard: At this hearing, were there new details about what happened at The Refuge? Is there still an investigation going on?

Bob Garrett: Yes. Investigations are proceeding by law enforcement and by arms of CPS [Child Protective Services] or the Department of Family and Protective Services. And there was some new information about those nude selfies, the drugs that were allegedly given to the two girls who posed nude in return.

Some other details that are about employees or former employees of The Refuge not sharing or being honest with everything they knew about two other girls who ran away last month. So there was there was a little bit more of the curtain drawn back.

The Refuge has only been open 3 1/2 years, but it’s been kind of a cause célèbre among a certain group of wealthy people and Republicans. The first lady of the state [of Texas] has been out there, the governor gave a grant to it – and it got falsely accused, some would argue, of the worst possible nightmare scenario: that is, revictimizing these girls.

Steve McCraw, the head of [Texas Department of Public Safety], of course, issued a letter saying there had been no evidence of that – that just happened to be timed on the same day Beto O’Rourke was having a press conference blasting Abbott’s record on foster care. So that is the context for how we’re now are learning, well, it may not have been a total re victimization, but there was some bad stuff.

What prompted the resignation of the director of the Child Care Investigations division of DFPS?

You have to go back almost 20 years, when the Republican leaders of the state had crises in CPS, and they had the idea of bringing in former law enforcement officers to improve the quality of forensic investigations of child abuse. Well, that has mushroomed into a considerable presence of former law enforcement at the department.

Justin Lewis is a good example of that. And he was very frustrated by this job, no surprise; a lot of people who do the CPS work are frustrated. And he just went off on [one] weekend. His friend ratted him out and shared his his texts, which were crude, but which, even though [were] ad hominem toward Judge [Janis Graham] Jack, did reflect a larger attitude of frustration of some in the Abbott administration and Republicans in the Legislature about how they’re stuck in this federal lawsuit.

The Refuge is closed right now?

It is, and CPS has a placement hold on it and the girls were all removed – the 11 girls that were living there recently. And we now have multiple investigations: the Bastrop Sheriff looking into some stuff about whether employees lied; we still are waiting to see whether this former employee who used the burner phone to get nude pictures gets charged with sexual exploitation; and the license that was suspended for 30 days – that will be reviewed April 12 by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission; and on top of that, the Department of Family Protective Services has to rule on whether there was child abuse – a civil legal matter.

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