Officials: Texas foster care center sex-trafficked minors

March 11, 2022 GMT

HOUSTON (AP) — State officials told a federal judge Thursday that employees at a foster care center under a state contract to shelter children who had been trafficked for sex had been trafficking those children themselves.

The matter arose at an emergency hearing before U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack, who has been presiding over a 2011 class-action lawsuit against the state Department of Family and Protective Services that alleged that children were held in unsafe conditions, the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News reported.

The allegations involved a Bastrop facility called The Refuge, which housed 11 children ages 11 to 17. On Thursday, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered an immediate investigation of the reports by the Texas Rangers.

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State officials said a staffer reported in late January that a former employee had sold nude photos of two young girls and used the money to purchase illegal drugs and alcohol for them. Further investigation revealed several staffers still employed at The Refuge were involved in the criminal activity.

There are seven alleged victims and nine alleged perpetrators, state officials said. One staff member has been arrested, and additional criminal charges are expected, officials said. The children were finally removed from the facility by Wednesday, 1 1/2 months after the first report, state officials said.

“The most appalling thing about this is the disregard of these children,” Jack said. “You had to wait to get eight calls before you took 11 female already-trafficked children out of this trafficking situation. This is a system that remains broken.”

Department Commissioner Jaime Masters said she was only made aware of the situation Wednesday.

“There is no excuse for why I didn’t know, which is why several people are losing their jobs,” Masters said.

In a statement, The Refuge said it was “fully cooperating with authorities and we hope the alleged perpetrator will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, and we will assist the Sheriff and the Bastrop County District Attorney’s office in their prosecution.”

“Our hearts are broken and we are outraged by the actions of former employees whose intent was to harm, not help,” said founder and CEO Brooke Crowder.