Governor calls for investigation into ‘potentially illegal behavior’ by Texas Juvenile Justice Department staff

Texas Politics

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Governor Greg Abbott has requested the Texas Rangers investigate allegations of illegal behavior by staff at the state’s Juvenile Justice Department.

According to a letter written by the governor on Monday, independent Ombudsman and the Office of the Inspector General for the Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD) reported “multiple” instances of TJJD staff engaging in potentially illegal behavior with young people in the system.

The letter was addressed to the Director of the Texas Department of Public Safety and called for an “immediate” investigation. The Texas Rangers is an division of DPS, conducting investigations into public corruption, violent crime and officer-involved shootings.

  • To read the full letter, click here.

TJJD’s Executive Director Camille Cain said in a statement, “I am thankful to Governor Abbott and Colonel McCraw for providing the assistance of the Texas Rangers to investigate allegations of illegal conduct among TJJD staff members. Our agency will, of course, cooperate fully in an effort to ensure that our facilities are as safe as possible for our youth and that any criminal behavior is identified and punished appropriately.”

KXAN investigators found a complaint filed against the agency just a few months ago with the U.S. Department of Justice.

In October 2020, Disability Rights Texas and Texas Appleseed wrote to the federal law enforcement agency to express their concerns about TJJD’s “inability to ensure safety of young people” due to staff turnover, inadequate mental health care, and reports of abuse, sexual victimization, and inappropriate use of force.

 “Children end up in worse shape leaving, than when they came in.”

Brett Merfish with Texas Appleseed

“We know that this is an unsafe and unhealthy environment, and we need to be taking action to change things,” said Brett Merfish, Director of Youth Justice at Texas Appleseed.

She said they were particularly concerned about children at the state’s five remaining youth detention centers in Edinburg, Gainesville, Giddings, Mart and Brownwood.

Their complaint outlines staggering rates of sexual misconduct, coercion and even abuse.

For instance, they stated that 14% of the young people at the Ron Jackson State Juvenile
Correctional Complex in Brownwood reported being coerced or forced into sexual activity by staff or other youth. The complaint also states that one in six young people detained at the Gainesville State School, reported abuse.

Just last month, a youth development coach named Todd Hanks was arrested — accused of improper sexual activity with a person in custody, in addition to indecency with a child, at the Evins Regional Juvenile Center in Edinburg.

At the time of Hanks’ arrest, the Executive Director Cain said, “This agency has zero tolerance for any employee who preys upon or endangers the youth in our care, and we will always respond swiftly to such allegations.”

The governor’s letter did not indicate any connection between his call for an investigation and Hanks’ arrest. Merfish said she was also not sure the Governor’s letter had any connection to their DOJ complaint, either. In fact, she noted that the Governor’s letter said the reports were made “recently” — indicating to her it referred to new and likely “serious” incidents.

  • To see the full complaint filed with the DOJ, click here.

 “Staff need to be background-checked. They need to have experience working with youth who have been through trauma, and we should be sending our most experienced staff into these facilities,” Merfish said. “They need the most help. They need our best mental health providers. They need the most help we can give them, and that’s not what they are getting right now.”

A spokesperson for TJJD told KXAN their department has “a rigorous background check and training program for our direct-care staff,” along with other safety measures such as required body-worn cameras. They also said they had already begun a review of all cases going back to 2017, prior to the Governor’s letter calling for the investigation, “to ensure that we are as vigilant as possible in identifying potential illegal conduct and isolating any patterns of behavior that could help remove staff members before they can prey on the youth in our care.”

“This agency has zero tolerance for any employee who preys upon or endangers the youth in our care…”

Camille Cain, Executive Director of TJJD

In 2017, the Governor made a similar call to the Texas Rangers, to investigate reports of sexual abuse within the agency. The investigation resulted in four arrests of TJJD employees and a change in leadership at the agency.

Still, Merfish said Texas Appleseed would like to see the agency and the entire juvenile justice system move to a different model — with smaller, residential facilities replacing the five large detention facilities.

 “We know that sometimes young people make rash decisions that aren’t always in their best interest, and that doesn’t mean that they are lifelong criminals who need to be put into a state facility,” she said. “It means that they are young people whose decisions might have landed them in a tough spot. We need to recognize that, and ensure that we are helping them the best we can. By putting them in state-secure facilities that mimic prisons, we are not doing that.” 

TJJD said they were currently implementing a statewide Model Plan for Reform, which in part aims to house youth in lower population settings, designed to provide “more individualized and specialized care.”

The plan notes that these young people would be best served in facilities housing no more than 48 juveniles, with an “appropriate and sustainable level of direct-care staff who are well equipped to meet the unique
needs of these high-need to intense-need populations.” The report then acknowledges that level of care is lacking at the state’s five facilities currently, as those facilities face “extraordinary difficulties.”

  • To read the Texas Model Plan for Reform, click here.

The report goes on to emphasize the need for more funding and higher salaries to attract the appropriate number of qualified staff to meet the needs of kids in the system. The agency presented this plan to the state legislature this year, as the basis for their appropriations request.

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