AUSTIN (KXAN) — Five staff members at the Travis County Juvenile Detention Center have tested positive for coronavirus, according to officials at the county.
KXAN Investigators received a tip about several confirmed cases at the county’s juvenile probation department. The department’s general counsel, Chris Hubner, confirmed the cases to KXAN on Tuesday.
Hubner explained that none of those staffers were in close contact with the juveniles at the Gardner Betts Juvenile Justice Center.
Hubner also noted that all of their staff are temperature checked and complete a health screening each day. Plus, face coverings are required for staffers. The department has also increased the amount of times the facility is cleaned and disinfected.
He said none of the kids at the center have been symptomatic, and their department is requiring temperature checks for them twice a day. They are also working to encourage social distancing wherever possible.
The Travis County Juvenile Public Defender Kameron Johnson said he believes more can be done to “mitigate” the spread of COVID-19 at the center.
“So when they are coming into detention they are not being tested, and when they are leaving they are not being tested,” Johnson said. “So what do we need to do? What’s the best practice so we can keep them safe when we remove them from their home?”
Hubner confirmed the department is not doing any widespread testing, but he told KXAN they had tests on-site reserved for the kids if there’s any indication for a need to administer a test.
The Juvenile Public Defender’s office handles nearly 2,000 juveniles’ cases a year . For the past few months, they have been working with law enforcement to prevent juveniles from being detained and held at the center, to allow for more social distancing.
“We’ve seen what has happened in the adult facilities, where you have these really, really hot-beds when you have all these people together,” Johnson said. “This is not a hotel. It’s not a hospital. It’s supposed to be there to provide a temporary residence for youth,” Johnson said.
Hubner noted they’ve seen the affects of those efforts, saying, “Law enforcement referrals have decreased drastically.”
Right now, 16 young people are at the Juvenile Detention Center. Before the pandemic, the facility housed an average of 43 young people.
Johnson explained that for kids who are detained, there’s no option to be released on bail. They spend a limited stay at the detention center while they await their court proceedings.
“So it’s a fluid population that can change on average really daily,” he said. “Not just youth are coming in and out — we’ve got staff coming in and out. Typically there are three separate shifts of staff coming in and out.”
Additionally, Johnson said there are close to 40 kids housed in their residential facility on a more long-term basis, post-adjudication.
He said he’s also concerned about the lack of access to communication with family and loved ones for the young people because of the pandemic. He said there needs to be more of an emphasis on finding safe avenues to provide avenues to connect.
“They are going through trauma and they have concerns about their families,” he said.
He said they understand community safety is important, but “we can’t just lock people up.”
That’s why his office is looking at ways to continue reducing the amount of kids who are detained, but instead finding other community resources to help wherever possible.
Johnson noted the disproportionate amount of youth of color who are detained and coming through the system.
“Right now, 100 percent of them of are youth of color. That is something we need to ask ourselves, ‘Why?’ and ‘Are we treating all of our youth, regardless of their race and gender, the same? What we realize is… ‘No, we are not.'”
He said his office is committed to finding equitable ways to keep these kids safe.
“Let’s do whatever we can so we don’t get to the point where we have youth being held in detention and we aren’t taking care of them.”