By Reese Oxner, The Texas Tribune
“Founder of state-contracted child abuse shelter hopes to reopen after employee was accused of exploiting two girls” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
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The founder of a state-contracted shelter for child victims of sex trafficking told lawmakers Monday that she was troubled to learn of the exploitation of a girl in her organization’s care and that she hopes that her facility will be able to open soon.
The Bastrop shelter, known as The Refuge, ordered a background check before hiring the employee who was accused in late January of selling nude pictures of two girls in the facility’s care. Nothing showed up, the founder, Brooke Crowder, testified.
Crowder revealed that the employee worked at six other state-licensed child care facilities before working at The Refuge, according to her resume.
“Despite doing background checks on all of our employees, fingerprinting checks, drug checks, a predator still got in,” Crowder said. “We’ve learned a lot of things, but I would say that has been the most immediate thing that we realized we had to do differently.”
The employee, who has not been charged with a crime, was identified as Iesha Greene by both Col. Steven McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, and Crowder. The Texas Tribune attempted to contact Greene by phone and text via a publicly listed cellphone number but did not receive a response.
Crowder said the shelter is working to incorporate a deeper employee screening process with the help of a company recommended by the governor’s and attorney general’s offices.
She spoke at a hearing by the Texas House Human Services Committee, the second legislative committee hearing in a week over the alleged abuse at The Refuge. Monday’s meeting was the first time an employee of The Refuge has addressed lawmakers since the allegations were made public.
McCraw said he is confident Greene will be arrested on charges of sexual exploitation of a child and child pornography as soon as law enforcement can provide prosecutors with further evidence and a digital footprint. Several former employees of The Refugee were also involved in helping a child run away from the shelter, but their identities have not been revealed.
Previously, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services disclosed that Greene had several relatives also working at The Refuge. A state official and Crowder gave conflicting accounts as to how Greene is related to them. Crowder said there were two sisters and two cousins. DFPS Commissioner Jaime Masters said there were a sister, a cousin and an aunt, plus the aunt’s roommate, not related to Greene. Neither lawmakers nor those who testified addressed the discrepancy during the hearing.
The Refuge staff did not know the employees were all related when hiring members of the family, Crowder said, but once officials learned, they made sure none of them supervised one another, per the shelter’s nepotism policy.
The committee’s chair, state Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, took a sympathetic approach to Crowder and said he hopes The Refuge can reopen.
“I feel like if we use the standards that we’re using on you right now, there wouldn’t be a school in Texas open,” Frank told Crowder during the hearing. “At the same time, we gotta figure out a way for this stuff not to happen. We look forward to trying to work to make the entire system better, and we hope that you all can be a part of it in some way.”
Texas child care officials said a review of The Refuge is ongoing, and a decision on whether it will be allowed to reopen should come within the next week. The state closed the shelter on an emergency basis March 11 after the children had been removed.
Details of the allegations first became public March 10 during an emergency federal court hearing. Since that hearing, lawmakers and state employees have scrambled to get answers after a number of allegations, some unsubstantiated, have come out.
On Monday, Masters emphasized that a communication failure across the board led to higher-ups being kept in the dark over the abuse. DFPS did not remove all of the children until five weeks after the initial report.
Frank said there’s been a focus on this particular case from a process standpoint to see how to improve the entire system.
“This egregious of an issue ought to be a priority,” he said. “It ought to be, ‘Drop everything.’ … It seems like it took two months to get this done.”
“Absolutely. Everyone dropped the ball,” Masters replied.
Masters said she told her leadership team to talk with staff “to reiterate why they took these jobs, what my expectations are of them and the importance of always escalating something for abuse of any kind for a kid in our care.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s naked pictures, or no matter what it is. No child should be being abused while they’re in the state’s care,” she said. “No matter what level it is, it should be escalated.”
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/03/21/texas-child-abuse-shelter-reopen/.
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