SAN MARCOS, Texas (Nexstar) — In San Marcos, two kids in the Hays County Juvenile Detention Center are on their second month of waiting to be transferred to Texas Juvenile Justice Department state schools.

They — and more than 100 other minors — are supposed to be starting their court-ordered rehabilitation and treatment programs on TJJD campuses.

Instead, the agency is scrambling to develop and start treatment for kids stuck in 43 local juvenile detention facilities scattered across the state — while it works to fix crippling staffing shortages at the state level.

The agency’s Director Shandra Carter announced on June 29 it would temporarily not be able to take any of the youth awaiting transfer to TJJD.

The department has let some minors into the facility since then. This week, the agency had 135 youth on the waitlist and says it will likely have 126 minors still pending at the week’s end.

In a letter, Carter said she was concerned about providing “basic supervision” to the youth already in their custody, some of whom are experiencing “increasing suicidal behaviors,” the Texas Tribune reported.

“The impact on juvenile justice is enormous.”

Kameron Johnson, Travis County Public Defender

The state’s juvenile justice department has also had to cut its own treatment programs, including one aimed at the facilities’ most violent youth.

Some county detention facilities are faring better than others. According to TJJD, larger counties like Harris, Denton and Bexar told the agency they would help youth start treatment while at their local detention facilities.

But that is not the case in smaller, more rural counties — and even some in urban cores.

The 114-bed Hays County Juvenile Detention Center is currently only capable of caring for a little more than 30 minors at a time due to staffing, according to administrator Brett Littlejohn.

“We do not have access to those programs here,” Littlejohn said. “Now, we do have certain services here — minimal.”

Officials with TJJD said Wednesday all minors on the waitlist for state facilities will get credit for time spent waiting in local detention facilities.  

But for most of the minors on the waitlist, their time in state custody — and release —  is entirely dependent on their progress through the agency’s treatment programs.

The agency is struggling to implement that in every county impacted. 

“The nature of that work can be highly variable and individualized, depending on the child and the capacity of the detention center,” department spokesperson Bobbi Kessler said. “County detention centers are, in some cases, struggling with the same staffing shortfalls that have afflicted TJJD.”

TJJD officials said they are trying to assess minors while they are still on the waitlist so that they can start their treatment programs as soon as they are transferred to one of the state facilities.

“This shouldn’t be happening.”

Kameron Johnson, Travis County Juvenile Public Defender

Travis County Juvenile Public Defender Kameron Johnson worries how those on the waitlist facing the harshest sentences will be affected when they are considered for release.

He’s particularly concerned with those on the waitlist with determinate sentences — which allow them to start their time in the juvenile system and then be considered for adult parole at age 19, instead of transferring to the adult prison.

“Imagine if you got a 16- or 17-year-old and you are talking about six months to a year where you can’t even get into a program,” Johnson said. “When it comes time to be able to see and look whether you’ll be released to adult parole or to the institutional division, you know — prison — then the court has less to work with.”

“They also are in school and have access to services at the county level while awaiting transfer to TJJD. Their cases are being reviewed while they’re on the intake list and their behaviors and progress recorded,” Kessler pointed out.

Another concern shared by juvenile probation officers in the state is if the waitlist, and ongoing staffing problems on the state level, will impact how minors are sentenced in the state.

“If it continues on, or if it becomes a political issue and it drags out session to session, it’s not going to be good,” Littlejohn said. “You are going to have kids probably instead of getting committed to TJJD, all of a sudden certified as an adult and you are going to clog up that side of the house — right, wrong or otherwise.”

The number of juveniles who are sentenced as adults in Texas has not changed significantly since 2011, according to data from the Office of Court Administration.

The Interim House Committee on Justice Reform heard from the agency and local probation officers about the ongoing issues with the waitlist in late August. The committee’s chairman said he talked to Gov. Abbott about ways to intervene before lawmakers convene in January.

“My hope is it will be a major item in the session we can address immediately,” Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano) said. “But even between now and the next session, the next four to five months, we have options. We have available tools at our disposal to devote more resources to make sure our staffing issues are fixed.”

Survey reveals how many Texas senior living facilities have backup power

Hundreds of Texas nursing homes and assisted living facilities have generators on-site for backup power, but hundreds still do not, according to a survey conducted by Texas Health and Human Services.

In the months following the 2021 winter storm, KXAN spoke with families of residents who died in long-term care facilities during the freeze. Lawmakers and advocates worked to address problems that led to days-long power outages in some of these homes housing vulnerable Texans.

One proposal to require generators in these facilities failed, and lawmakers instead decided to send out a survey in order to get a better idea of what backup power sources already exist.

  • Explore the survey results here

The survey revealed 99% of nursing homes that responded to the survey had a generator, and 47% of responding assisted living facilities reported having them.

According to the report, state law does not require assisted living facilities to have a generator, while new nursing facilities have faced that requirement since 1996. Federal law has also required generators in new nursing facility buildings since 2016.

When asked why more than half of responding assisted living facilities don’t use generators, the Vice President of Public Policy for the Texas Assisted Living Association Carmen Tilton said she believed high costs and location constraints specific to assisted living were major factors.

Tilton said many assisted living facilities are located in residential neighborhoods that may have homeowners’ association rules. Meanwhile, these properties are still considered health care facilities and therefore must abide by National Fire Protection Association standards — meaning “if a generator is located outside of the building, it must be in its own separate fire resistant protective structure” and if it is “located inside the building, it must be in a separate closed off space with fire rated walls/doors and specialty ventilation,” she said.

Tilton went on to say facilities in some parts of the state had contradictory risks to consider, such as tornados or wildfires, that could be complicated by having a large on-site fuel tank and generator. She also noted many of the facility operators she spoke with expressed interest in installing generators or backup power, but supply chain issues were slowing them down.

These are all considerations and conversations State Rep. Ed Thompson (R-Pearland) said he wants to have with industry leaders and experts next year. He brought forward the original bill and said the survey proved to be “enlightening.”

After the survey results were released, the representative said he was pleasantly surprised by the number of homes that reported having generators, but said there was still work to be done.

In the survey, facility operators with generators were asked to indicate which systems it powered. Most facilities answered that their generators powered emergency evacuation equipment, such as emergency lighting, exit signs and fire alarm system. Less than 60% of facilities responded that their generators served air conditioning equipment or heating equipment.

Tilton confirmed more facilities likely prioritize emergency evacuation systems because state regulation and fire protection rules require these kinds of systems to be hard-wired to a power source. Additionally, residents at assisted living facilities can be evacuated more easily than those in a nursing facility.

  • A screengrab from the results of HHSC's generator survey for long-term care facilities.
  • A screengrab from the results of HHSC's generator survey for long-term care facilities.

Assisted living facilities “faced with a prolonged outage are going to evacuate if they need to,” she explained, adding these operations are already required to have emergency preparedness and evacuation plans in place.

“I think assisted living communities, much like all Texas residents and businesses, are still working through the best way to appropriately respond [to] the risk of an extended blackout,” Tilton said.

Thompson said he did not want to be “overly onerous” for facilities, as a small business owner himself, but said it was important to “do the best we can for as many people as we can.”

He told KXAN he plans to re-submit the bill this fall for consideration during the 88th legislative session, but the filing would likely look a bit different. He believes the survey will help in crafting better legislation the second time around.

“I’m willing to work with anybody, anytime, anyway,” he said.

Death in Texas raises questions about response to monkeypox

On Tuesday, Texas confirmed its first death of a person infected with monkeypox. The Department of State Health Services said the adult patient lived in Harris County and was “severely immunocompromised.” Health investigators are trying to determine what role monkeypox played in the death.

While case numbers are growing nationwide, deaths are rare.

“It’s not a very lethal disease,” said Dr. Gerald Parker, Director of the Pandemic and Biosecurity Policy Program at the Scowcroft Institute for International Affairs at Texas A&M University.

“It is related to smallpox…but it’s not smallpox,” Parker added. “Monkeypox does not have that high lethality, but it can cause very painful sores.”

Parker said the response nationwide to the monkeypox outbreak has faced some of the same problems as the response to COVID-19.

“I think we dropped the ball, nationally, with testing and just not making it readily available quick enough,” Parker said. “It’s getting better now. But I think we had the same problem with COVID-19 very early on with some of the stumbles in testing.”

Parker also said the vaccine rollout has been too slow. But he pointed to the fact that there are already vaccines available as an encouraging sign.

“We worked very hard over the last 20 years to make sure that we had a vaccine available, actually for smallpox, because we were worried about smallpox and a potential bioterror attack,” Parker explained.

He said the JYNNEOS vaccine currently being used to help control the monkeypox outbreak is the result of those preparations.

“I think we can thank some of our investments over the last 20 years and in public health preparedness that is a reason and rationale we even have a vaccine available today for this unusual outbreak,” Parker said.

Parker said another lesson from COVID-19 could help better track monkeypox: wastewater surveillance. That’s the process of testing wastewater to detect viruses.

“It sounds simple, but it’s an extremely novel approach to do genomic surveillance of wastewater,” Parker said. “Certainly, we need to turn the gain up for that for monkeypox and other infectious diseases as well.”

Ads highlight importance of women’s vote in race for Texas Governor

Women will play a critical part in deciding who becomes the next governor of Texas. Right now, the race to win their votes appears to be close.

The latest polling on the Texas governor’s race from the University of Texas at Tyler and The Dallas Morning News shows an almost evenly divided electorate among female voters. The women who responded to the August poll said 44% of them plan to vote for Abbott, while 42% said they’re going to support his Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke.

The importance of the women’s vote can be seen in some of the campaign ads on the air right now across Texas.

A catchy country song accompanies a new political ad showing the familiar routine of a mother getting her child ready to go back to school, but it concludes with the startling image of the boy holding a “first day of school” sign dressed in body armor. Words then appear on a black screen reading, “Our children are not soldiers. Vote for change on November 8th.”

The ad, which debuted in August, came from the Mothers Against Greg Abbott political action committee. The group formed after Nancy Thompson posted a photo of herself on Aug. 6, 2021, protesting alone at the Texas Capitol with a homemade sign reading “Mothers Against Greg Abbott” which went viral on social media. Her grievance centered at that time on Abbott’s executive order banning mask mandates.

She created a private Facebook page with the same name soon thereafter, and it’s now grown to include almost 57,000 members. Thompson, who lives in Austin, created a PAC earlier this year and has since rolled out several political ads targeting issues where the grassroots group feels Abbott is most vulnerable, like school safety, abortion rights and stability of the power grid.

“Our children are not soldiers — they’re not, and we’re taking away their childhood,” Thompson said. “We need to start thinking about this seriously, and it’s no longer okay to be okay with the way things are.”

A day after the back-to-school ad went live, Texans for Greg Abbott, the governor’s reelection campaign, put out its first commercial of the year voiced by his wife. It begins with the smiling couple sitting at a table, as Cecilia Abbott talks about how they met, what it was like raising their daughter and the accident that paralyzed Abbott. She concludes the ad saying, “Hard work, perseverance and family — that’s what defines Greg Abbott and how he governs Texas.”

Emily Sydnor, a political science professor at Southwestern University in Georgetown, said both ads take vastly different approaches to emotionally connect with a key demographic: women. She explained the Abbott team is possibly seeking to remind them about who he is after a politically contentious time.

“If you think about a set of maybe moderate Republican women in particular,” Sydnor said, “that are frustrated with the decisions in the wake of the Dobbs court case and the overturning of Roe v. Wade, who are worried about their kids going to Texas public schools in the wake of Uvalde — you want to convince them that he is still a good leader, that he shares their values, that he’s going to protect and serve you.”

It’s a message Abbott’s campaign believes can resonate with many Texans, women and men.

“As far as reaching out to women voters, it’s the same as what we’re doing with all Texas voters,” explained Renae Eze, communications advisor for Texans for Greg Abbott.

“It’s making sure that we’re engaging them on the issues that they care about, the issues that are facing our state,” Eze continued. “Whether it’s female voters or male voters, young or old, people are concerned about can I put food on the table? Can I take care of my family? Do I have a say in my kid’s education? Is my community safe?”

Without knowing what types of pro-Abbott ads will come out next, Sydnor said it makes sense to roll out a more personal, positive one first. That’s because she argues that kind of messaging tends to not have as much of a rallying effect as, say, what Mothers Against Greg Abbott is putting out now.

“The Mothers Against Greg Abbott ad is trying to target different emotions, right?” Sydnor explained. “They don’t want you enthusiastic about Greg Abbott. They want you angry and anxious about the safety of your child, and those are mobilizing emotions in a different way. The anger in particular tends to get people raring to go, excited to get out there and vote [and] to cast their ballot potentially against Abbott.”

She also said voters should start noticing more and more campaign ads and other political activities picking up now.

“We’re seeing the ramp-up of voter registration efforts, discussions around civic holidays and getting people more engaged from that perspective,” Sydnor said, “so I can only imagine that both campaigns are really going to turn up the volume also.”

According to its latest campaign finance report, the Mothers Against Greg Abbott PAC received more than $106,000 in donations between May and June and still has a little more than that ($107,647.84) of cash on hand. Thompson said her group plans to release a new ad every week targeting Abbott on different issues between now and Election Day.

“Women make the world go round in Texas,” Thompson said, “but when you start treating us like second-class citizens, and you don’t take care of our families, and you don’t take care of our health, and you don’t take care of the things that matter the most to us…then we’re just going to come after you, and we’re going to make sure that you’re not elected.”

O’Rourke is making abortion rights a big part of his campaign. He released campaign ads on the day the Texas trigger law took effect, highlighting his support for allowing women to have more access to abortion. One of the ads includes a voiceover saying some women will die because of the Texas law backed by the Governor.

“An abortion ban with no exception for rape or incest, that is not us. That may be Greg Abbott. It is not the people of Texas,” O’Rourke said at a news conference in Houston.

Eze said that she does not believe that abortion will be a decisive factor in the campaign.

“We just haven’t seen that be a top issue,” said Eze of abortion rights. “Texas is a pro-life state, and the Governor through his time has continued to promote policies that protect not only the life of the mother but also the life of the child,” she added.

While acknowledging that some voters are passionate about abortion rights, Eze said she believes it’s not top of mind for most Texans.

“There are other issues that are more important to voters,” Eze said.

License plates stolen amid paper tag crackdown

An unexpected and unintended consequence of Texas’ crackdown on its paper tag problem — which has ballooned into a $200 million criminal black market — could be putting motorists at risk of fraud.

Anecdotally, some in law enforcement, like Central Texas deputy David Kohler, are seeing an increase in the theft of “hard” aluminum license plates following efforts to stop temporary tag abuse.

“Every day is different. Sometimes, we’ll have several victims in a neighborhood where their plates have been stolen,” Kohler said. “If we’re seeing an uptick in stolen license plates, it’s a possibility [it’s because] of the dent that has been done in fraudulent paper tags.”

Travis County deputies are investigating a burglary that took place on Aug. 21 near Wells Branch. The suspect’s vehicle “had metal plates, stolen from another vehicle on it,” explained Kristen Dark with the Travis County Sheriff’s Office.

This type of crime is “not new,” or specifically tracked by law enforcement, Dark said, noting thieves have been doing this “for years and years.” One tactic is to target license plates that match the make and model of a stolen vehicle.

Kohler, who fought successfully to get the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles to go after paper tag fraud, believes the state’s efforts, along with more eyes in the sky tracking license plates, are driving thieves to now steal aluminum plates.

“We have victims who call and report their license plates — either the front, or the back or sometimes both — have been stolen off their vehicle,” he said. “The primary reason [for the theft] is to conceal their criminal activity.”

It’s the same reason crooks found a way to infiltrate the TxDMV database in order to fraudulently print, and sell, real temporary tags. Recent efforts to stop that, sparked in part by a series of KXAN investigations, could have more thieves turning to what they see as an easier score: the one on your vehicle, Kohler said.

Kevin Breeland holds his TxTag bill for a toll charged to his old license plate (KXAN Photo/Matt Grant)

In February, Kevin Breeland traded in his 2018 Dodge Ram for a 2021 Honda CR-V.

“The dealer asked if we wanted to take the plates off the truck or just let them do it,” he recalled, saying he asked the Austin dealership to properly dispose of them.

Fast forward to July — five months after he thought his license plates were destroyed — he received a bill in the mail from TxTag for a toll he didn’t use, tied to a license plate he no longer owns, records show.

“I thought it was a mistake,” Breeland said. “Just bizarre that this popped up months later on another vehicle. And, how did that happen?”

Breeland said he was “just dumbfounded” when he saw the $7.15 bill. The charge, his bill shows, stems from a toll fee on May 31.

“With all of the issues regarding temporary tags I was really shocked when I got this bill in the mail,” he said. “Sure, it was only for $7, but those are plates that should have been destroyed. They shouldn’t be on another vehicle.”

That small charge, he said, could carry a potentially big problem.

Kevin Breeland stands near a toll road next to his new vehicle and new license plate. (KXAN Photo/Matt Grant)

“No one wants to have the police knock on their door in the middle of the night because a crime occurred,” he said. “And you’re the one that the plate is registered to.”

Under state law, the dealership should have destroyed Breeland’s license plates.

When a car is traded in or sold, the dealer must destroy the plate or have them “disposed of in a manner that renders the license plates unusable or that ensures the license plates will not be available for fraudulent use on a motor vehicle,” state law requires. If the plate isn’t destroyed, it must be returned to the customer, the TxDMV said.

The Austin dealership Breeland went to says it believes his license plates were stolen off its lot. Police were not called, the owner said, citing a belief that he “sincerely doubt[ed] that they would take any action on a scenario like that.” After KXAN started asking questions, the dealership said it is retraining staff “on proper license plate disposal.”

KXAN is focusing on the larger, systemic issues of paper tag and license plate fraud, which is why we haven’t named the dealer.

TxDMV said it doesn’t know how often license plates are stolen because it doesn’t track that information. The FBI, Austin Police and TxDOT also could not say.

While TxDMV does not track the number of license plate thefts, it does track how often license plates are replaced. Plates can be replaced if they are lost, damaged, stolen, or for cosmetic/readability reasons.

In 2020, records show 529,730 license plates were replaced. That number jumped to 651,278 in 2021. So far this year, 465,996 Texas license plates were replaced.

Whether the thefts are in any way new, old or simply an ongoing problem, tag fraud is taking a toll on law enforcement’s efforts to catch criminals, Kohler said.

“The car you’re behind could be a stolen vehicle,” he said, explaining if the license plate matches the type of car, it would not necessarily raise an immediate red flag. “You just don’t know.”

So, how can you protect yourself?

Experts say when selling or trading in your car, you should: make sure your plates are removed and destroyed if you don’t plan on transferring them to another vehicle; ensure any toll stickers are removed and deactivated; notify TxDMV and TxTag about the sale; and notify law enforcement immediately if your license plate is stolen.

“If the customer does not choose to transfer or keep their license plates, a dealer should deface and dispose of the license plates so they may not be used in a fraudulent manner,” said TxDMV spokesperson Adam Shaivitz, “One way TxDMV recommends to deface license plates is by drawing a large ‘X’ on the face of each place with indelible marker. After defacing the license plates, a dealer would then dispose of them by delivering the defaced plates to an aluminum recycling center.”

Breeland said TxTag waived his bill after he proved the plate didn’t belong to him. TxTag said it bills customers based on information in the TxDMV database. That’s why, Shaivitz said, it’s important for the customer and dealer to report a vehicle sale by filing a Vehicle Transfer Notification Form (VTR-346) with TxDMV in order to protect against toll charges incurred after the sale date. TxTag said customers should also contact its customer service center at (888) 468-9824 after receiving confirmation of the title transfer.

The dealership Breeland went to said customers should “demand…proof that their former vehicle is no longer in their name from a DMV standpoint.” Any dealer should easily be able to provide the customer a “submission confirmation” to verify the Vehicle Transfer Notification has been completed, the owner said.

Breeland’s name is no longer “currently assigned” to his old license plate, Shaivitz confirmed.

TxTag said toll charges received after a license plate has been changed can be resolved if a customer provides proof the vehicle was sold.

“It’s important for people to follow the TxDMV’s process when they sell a vehicle and to update their TxTag account so they will not be billed for tolls charged to a vehicle they no longer own,” TxTag spokesperson Veronica Beyer said. “If a toll is incurred before DMV updates its database, TxTag will work with the customer to ensure the tolls are charged to the registered owner of the vehicle….All vehicle owner information is provided by the TxDMV database which is why it is important to ensure all customer information is up to date.”

Breeland contacted KXAN after watching our investigations into paper tag fraud. He hopes what happened to him steers other drivers, and dealers, toward being more alert.

“I don’t want this to happen to somebody else,” he said.