(CN) — Texas lawmakers grilled state law enforcement and child protective services officials Monday about a shelter worker accused of selling nude photos of two teenage girls in her care and the status of a class action in which a judge is overseeing reforms to the state’s foster care system.
The Refuge, a nonprofit that operates a 50-acre residential treatment center in Bastrop, Texas, for teenage girls who are victims of sex trafficking, had its residents removed and was forced to temporarily close March 11 after the state’s Health and Human Services Commission suspended its license.
The suspension stems from a report that one of the shelter’s staff members made on Jan. 24 to Texas Department of Family and Protective Service investigators that a colleague had given two girls her phone, had them take nude photos of themselves and then sold the photos for Percocet and Xanax pills — prescription drugs frequently sold on the street for recreational use — which she gave to the girls.
The Texas House of Representatives’ Human Services Committee held a hearing Monday on the scandal and how it had been publicized in a class action that is now in its 11th year with no signs it will be resolved soon as officials struggle to comply with court-ordered reforms of the state’s foster care system.
Brooke Crowder, The Refuge’s founder and CEO, told the committee the former employee who sold the photos was as an overnight supervisor in a cottage where four girls lived, including the two who took the pics of themselves, and was immediately fired Jan. 24 when management learned of the situation.
Crowder said The Refuge works closely with the Bastrop County Sheriff’s Office because girls who are placed there by the state’s juvenile detention system, child protective services or their own parents are the most “traumatized girls in our system” having endured sexual trafficking by pimps.
“We call them quite often for various things,” Crowder explained. “Sometimes if girls have gotten into a terrible fight … sometimes if one of our girls has homicidal ideation.”
The Refuge promptly notified the sheriff’s office about the photograph seller and its investigation is ongoing. But after the shelter's problems were publicized in a March 10 filing and hearing in the class action, sparking widespread media coverage, Governor Greg Abbott ordered an immediate probe by the Texas Rangers.
Steve McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, which oversees the Rangers, told the committee they had reviewed the sheriff’s investigation and he believes an arrest is forthcoming.
“Clearly there is evidence and probable cause to believe that Refuge employee was involved in the sexual exploitation of a child, two minors specifically,” McCraw said.
He testified police are waiting on a cellphone service provider to comply with a subpoena and provide records proving the former employee distributed the photos. He said he expects the woman to be arrested once they get that info and she may also be charged with production of child pornography.
“I’m really confused about the nonarrest,” said Representative Toni Rose, a Democrat from Dallas. “And you said that you all are waiting. I mean if it’s already been determined and you have evidence that these things have happened, I’m just really unclear about why this person hasn’t been arrested.”
“That last piece of information. OK? Which is important, is that exchange which will come with the electronic data, the digital evidence," McCraw replied. "Law enforcement, you know, we’re in a position to make the case to a prosecuting attorney. But in the end they get to decide when charges can be filed or not.”