‘The Refuge’ Allegations Referred to U.S. Attorney for Criminal Investigation

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Judges gavel | Image by WESTOCK PRODUCTIONS

A federal judge in Corpus Christi wants a U.S. Attorney to consider criminally investigating a Bastrop residential treatment facility. Sex trafficking survivors from the facility allege a former employee paid them for nude photographs and posted them on Snapchat.

U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack in Corpus Christi asked court officials to make a criminal referral to U.S. Attorney Ashley C. Hoff of the Western District of Texas. Judge Jack’s request comes after a Texas Department of Public Safety (TDPS) investigation found no evidence of abuse or trafficking by staff at the facility in question, The Refuge for Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking (DMST).

Hoff did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“If I was a prosecutor on this case, I would want the records of the agency and then any communications with the oversight entity to determine, ‘What did they know? What didn’t they know? What did they investigate, and what did they overlook, if anything?'” said Adriana Alcalde, an attorney who worked as a sex crimes prosecutor for 16 years and prosecuted public corruption.

The alleged perpetrator in the exploitation incident has not been charged, according to Steven Phenix, communications director with The Refuge DMST. Phenix added that the alleged abuse was reported to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) and the Bastrop County Sheriff two months ago.

DFPS did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“Unfortunately, I have seen … these types of situations occurring in biological homes, kinship homes, foster and adoptive homes, treatment centers, and other state and federally sponsored environments,” said Dr. Kelly Bohnhoff told The Dallas Express. “This is not a new phenomenon; it is just very difficult to uncover.”

Bonhoff is an R.N., a marriage and family therapist, and a nationally certified trauma therapist.

“For us to eliminate sex trafficking, we need to help vulnerable families heal from generations of abuse, neglect, violence, exploitation, and trafficking,” she said. “This is an intergenerational pattern that needs to be addressed at the family level around the world.”

After The Refuge DMST endured a 30-day license suspension, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) extended the suspension on April 11 for another month while current DFPS investigations continue, according to Phenix.

“We still intend to provide long-term therapeutic care for trafficking survivors as soon as the parallel investigations conclude,” he said.

Though the TDPS investigation found no evidence of abuse or trafficking by The Refuge DMST staff, the Texas Rangers continue to investigate.

“At the Senate and House hearings and then again in the federal hearing, the Rangers stated that the first report that made headlines was just their initial findings,” Phenix told The Dallas Express. “I expect they will probably make an announcement when their investigation officially concludes.”

The Texas Department of Public Safety did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“Sometimes, especially when you are prosecuting public corruption at the state level, it’s hard to get cooperation from the players because everyone is a stakeholder and everyone is invested,” Alcalde told The Dallas Express. “I worked with FBI agents and had them help me gather evidence in state cases. A prosecutor can do that.”

In addition to the TDPS and the Texas Rangers, multiple state and federal agencies are currently investigating the accusations. These agencies include Bastrop County Sheriff’s Office, DFPS, HHSC, the Texas Attorney General’s office, House and Senate committees, and the U.S. District Court’s federal monitoring team.

“The monitoring team’s review revealed evidence that numerous children were denied a safe placement while at The Refuge in contravention of the Court’s orders,” the federal monitoring team wrote in their March 28 report to the court. “There is ample evidence of violations of high and medium-high standards related to child safety and of child abuse, neglect, or exploitation. The managerial lapses at The Refuge, which permitted serious risks to child safety to recur over time, were not isolated and require a comprehensive, monitored plan to address safety threats and compliance with this court’s orders for safe placements.”

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas in Corpus Christi began monitoring the foster care system statewide after Children’s Rights, a nonprofit advocacy organization, sued the State of Texas in 2011.

As previously reported in The Dallas Express, the federal court granted an injunction to Children’s Rights that requires the State of Texas to implement safety structures into the foster care system, but progress has been slow.

The Refuge DMST is the largest long-term live-in rehabilitation facility for child survivors of sex trafficking, housing forty-five girls between the ages of 16 and 19 and offering 18 to 24 months of treatment.

“Where the girls are now and what kind of treatment they are getting is a very good question,” Phenix said. “Thirty-one days after they have been removed, we are still waiting for the girls’ caseworkers to retrieve their things. Everything is boxed up and ready to go, but only one caseworker has even responded back about where we can mail their belongings.”

Since opening on August 1, 2018, The Refuge has served seventy girls from nineteen counties across Texas, California, Idaho, Mississippi, and Virginia.

“We heard from someone in the Attorney General’s office that one child was [a] Child Without Placement (CWOP) for 14 days,” Phenix added. “That means she was on a couch somewhere, perhaps in a state office building, while a CWOP investigator stands watch over her until she has a real placement.”

According to the Houston Chronicle, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found Texas has the second-highest number of sex trafficking cases nationwide.

“I tend to believe survivors when they speak up because there is no glory that comes along with it,” Alcalde said in an interview. “As a matter of fact, usually survivors are questioned, not believed, and it’s a hardship to come forward and talk about these things. So, if these girls are complaining about something happening to them, I’d probably venture to believe that something is happening to them.”

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