AUSTIN (KXAN) — A federal judge is questioning the handling of an investigation into exploitation at a Bastrop facility housing sex trafficking survivors. In a hearing Wednesday morning, the judge called for a federal investigation into the matter.
The hearing was originally scheduled to serve as an update before Judge Janis Jack about the years-long federal lawsuit over the treatment of children foster care system she has overseen. However, when proceedings began in a Dallas courtroom, Jack almost immediately expressed concern about the “quality” of the ongoing investigation.
In mid-March, allegations surfaced about potential abuse, and even sex trafficking, involving girls who lived at The Refuge in Bastrop, according to a letter from a state employee filed in federal court records. Leaders at The Refuge immediately responded, confirming that local law enforcement and the Department of Family and Protective Services were looking into two separate incidents they reported at their facility in the spring, but they denied allegations of ongoing abuse.
Governor Greg Abbott quickly called in the Texas Rangers to investigate, and just days later, a letter from the agency’s director noted that their initial investigation had found “no evidence” of abuse or sex trafficking.
This week, a group of federal court monitors — appointed to oversee the federal lawsuit — filed a report filled with new information about the investigation into The Refuge. The report contained details from interviews of the girls involved and the alleged perpetrator, along with information from investigations by the Health and Human Services Commission and DFPS.
The Monitors wrote that they reviewed thousands of documents, finding “significant evidence of serious risks to child safety at The Refuge” — calling the Rangers’ statements “premature, at best.”
On Wednesday, Jack told the court she had “serious concerns” about the quality of the Texas Rangers’ investigation.
She initially questioned attorneys for the state about a recently-filed request, in which they asked the monitors to seal any forthcoming reports about this investigation.
“Have you no shame?” the judge asked, reminding the court of a 2018 order requiring all reports by the monitors to be made public.
The attorneys for the state responded that the intention of their request was to protect the parties involved and the integrity of the investigation.
The judge asked several people appearing in the hearing whether they believed the report revealed any confidential or privileged information. Eventually, she emphasized her belief that the report was “detailed” and only revealed as many details as the head of the Department of Public Safety and other state agency leaders revealed in legislative hearings last week.
“Your people testified about those same details,” Jack said.
The judge also referenced a moment during a House Human Services hearing last week, where Colonel Steven McCraw and other witnesses testified the full name of the alleged perpetrator in the exploitation incident. Since no criminal charges have been filed and no arrests made in this investigation, KXAN has not published this person’s name.
The judge said she planned to ask the monitors to make a criminal referral to the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas about potential child pornography charges, as well as a referral for anyone who participates “in the obstruction of justice.”
Attorneys for the state continued to reiterate their concerns about inferring with the investigation.
“I’m not stopping that investigation. I’m just making sure there’s a federal investigation,” the judge said.
In a statement after the hearing, Brooke Crowder, the founder and CEO of The Refuge for DMST said, “Given our commitment to providing the best possible care to the victims of trafficking, we will continue fully cooperating with the multiple agencies investigating the two episodes of egregious employee misconduct we immediately reported earlier this year. When complete, we are confident their parallel investigations will reveal our continued adherence to the highest standard of care for the girls in our care.”