AUSTIN, Texas (KTRK) -- Employees of a Texas-contracted facility meant to care for female foster children who are victims of sex trafficking were discovered to be trafficking the same children, according to a federal judge.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can receive confidential help by calling the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network's 24/7 toll-free support line at 800-656-4673 or visiting its online hotline.
Seven children, ages 11 to 17, were victimized by nine alleged perpetrators, according to discussions held during an emergency court hearing called by U.S. District Judge Janis Jack on Thursday. The children remained in the facility for over a month after the abuse was first reported before they were removed.
The children were sexually and physically abused and suffered from neglectful supervision and medical neglect while at The Refuge, a facility located in Bastrop contracted by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, a current Refuge employee reported to state authorities on Jan. 24. The court and the court monitors - watchdogs of the foster care system appointed by the judge - were not notified until Thursday.
That employee said a former staff member sold nude photos of two children in the facility's care, using the proceeds to purchase illegal drugs and alcohol that were then supplied to the children, according to a letter from DFPS filed on Thursday notifying the court about the incident. Local law enforcement and the Texas Department of Public Safety were immediately notified, according to the letter.
"Has the governor seen it?" Jack asked, referring to the letter. No one answered.
Additional reporting by ABC13, "We fired the obvious perpetrator of that immediately," said a representative from The Refuge Ranch in a press conference. "There were other concerns that some of her family members might be involved in that as well."
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In a statement Thursday evening, Gov. Greg Abbott said the Texas Rangers will investigate, arrest and pursue charges against any suspects related to the Refuge allegations.
"The reports of child sex trafficking at The Refuge in Bastrop are abhorrent," Abbott said. "Child abuse of any kind won't be tolerated in the state of Texas, and we are committed to ensuring these despicable perpetrators are brought to justice and punished to the fullest extent of the law."
The identities of the suspects have not yet been made public.
Rich Richman, DFPS associate commissioner for child protective investigation, told the court the children weren't immediately removed from the facility because investigators thought the person responsible had been fired.
However, several staff members were found to be allegedly responsible for the abuse of the children, some of whom were not immediately removed. A suspect has been arrested by law enforcement, and DFPS anticipates further arrests will be made.
Between the first report on Jan. 24 and March 4, DFPS received several additional reports about the staff member who was removed from the facility. However, during the investigation, DFPS "discovered several additional staff members still employed at the operation appeared to be involved, and that many of them were related to one another by blood or marriage and/or were cohabiting," according to the letter. The operation's residential care director is now believed to have known about the sexual abuse.
Additional reporting by ABC13, the executive director of the nonprofit legal aid group Foster Care Advocacy Center, Tara Green, spoke with Poojah Lodhia.
"My biggest question that I can't answer is how the department knew about this for six weeks and sat on it and did nothing about it," said Green. "To me, that's the most egregious part about this. That is inexplicable and indefensible."
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DFPS did not remove all of the children until Wednesday, five weeks after the first documented report of sexual abuse. The department sent Child Protective Services staff and off-duty law enforcement to the facility to "ensure the youth's safety" a day prior. Eight of the nine children who were in The Refuge at the time have been placed with other facilities that specialize in serving victims of commercial sex trafficking, according to the letter. The remaining child refused to be placed in another facility and DFPS is searching for another placement.
"This is just shocking and shameful. Children are being subjected to terrible abuse in state care, and the agencies say nothing," Paul Yetter, an attorney who represents foster care children in the federal lawsuit, said in a statement Thursday. "Texas is failing its most basic duty: keep these innocent children safe. And we all know who pays the price. Without the vigilance of the court monitors, and the Judge's jumping into immediate action, who knows what kind of further abuse would be happening."
Jack, who is overseeing a decade-old lawsuit against Texas over its foster care system, expressed horror over the discovery during Thursday's hearing.
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The judge blasted DFPS for not immediately removing the children when the allegations of abuse were first reported, calling it yet another failure of the system. Numerous bombshell reports have been released by the court-appointed monitors detailing abuse within the system, neglect and even the deaths of children.
Dozens of facilities contracted by Texas have recently closed down or had their license revoked after racking up numerous offenses and subjecting children to dangerous and damaging environments. Child advocates and the judge have repeatedly criticized Texas officials for failing to ensure facilities are safe for kids in the state's care. From summer 2019 to May 2021, the court monitors discovered that at least 23 children died in Texas' long-term foster care system in shelters and facilities licensed by the state.
DFPS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The judge instructed the state to provide the court with the identities of the alleged abusers and victims by noon on Friday. She also asked for details on the care the children have received since they were removed.
For more on this story, follow Pooja Lodhia on Facebook,Twitter and Instagram.
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