The U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights division and the four U.S. attorneys in Texas announced Wednesday a civil rights investigation into allegations of physical and sexual abuse in five of the state’s juvenile lockups.
The probe will also examine whether there is excessive use of chemical restraints and isolation, and a lack of mental health services, said Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s civil rights division.
“All too often, children in correctional facilities — like those at issue here — are abused, mistreated and deprived of essential services,” Clarke said during a virtual news conference. “And because they are children still growing and developing, they are uniquely vulnerable to harm and abuse inside these institutions.”
The facilities being investigated are located across the state. They house juveniles under 17 who have been found responsible for felonies, including aggravated robbery, burglary or aggravated assault. The current population, according to the state agency, is 670.
This is far below the number even a few years ago, when it dropped below 1,000 for the first time in decades.
Gainesville State School in Cooke County is the closest lockup to Dallas and is a subject of the investigation. The other facilities are Evins Regional Juvenile Center in Edinburg, Ron Jackson State Juvenile Correctional Complex in Brownwood, Giddings State School in Giddings and the McLennan County State Juvenile Correctional Facility in Mart.
Camille Cain, Texas Juvenile Justice Department Executive Director, vowed to “cooperate fully” with the federal agency.
“We all share the same goals for the youth in our care: providing for their safety, their effective rehabilitation, and the best chance for them to lead productive, fulfilling lives. That has been the agency’s mission since I joined TJJD, and it remains our constant focus,” Cain wrote in a prepared statement.
The announcement of a federal investigation was the latest problem for an agency long beleaguered by reports of widespread mismanagement and abuse. In 2011, the agency created an independent ombudsman position after another sex scandal. Then in 2017, The Dallas Morning News exposed problems of physical and sexual abuse at the lockups, including one adult officer who was allegedly impregnated by a juvenile offender.
At the time, Gov. Greg Abbott dispatched the Texas Rangers to investigate. That investigation resulted in at least four arrests of former employees. On Wednesday, the Texas Department of Juvenile Justice confirmed charges were dropped against two of these employees in April 2020, including the pregnant officer and another who admitted to writing letters of a sexual nature to a juvenile offender.
The department’s board chose new leadership. Cain, previously a top criminal justice aide in Abbott’s office, told The News in a 2018 interview that as the new executive director of the agency, she was shifting its priorities to lowering the population and moving juvenile offenders closer to home.
In July of this year, Abbott again asked the Rangers to probe allegations of illegal behavior at the state’s juvenile lockups. In a statement, his spokesperson also promised to work with federal investigators.
“Throughout his time serving the people of Texas, Governor Abbott has always prioritized the safety and well-being of all Texas children, including those in the state’s care. The State of Texas will cooperate fully with the Department of Justice’s investigation,” Renae Eze said.
Clarke, of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, said that in the last few years, at least 11 facility staff members were arrested on charges of abusing the juveniles under their watch. Other reports of abuse include staff members allegedly paying young offenders with cash or drugs to assault other juveniles within the facilities, staff sharing pornographic material and using excessive force.
In an incident last February, staff at one facility pepper-sprayed a juvenile, restrained him with handcuffs, a belly chain, shackles and a spit mask and then body slammed him on a bed, Clarke said.
Clarke also pointed to juvenile suicides and self-inflicted injuries as reasons for concern that facilities lack adequate mental health services.
“Children are committed to juvenile facilities, like those in Texas, in order to receive treatment and rehabilitation,” Clarke said. “This is the very reason that the juvenile justice system exists: to keep children out of the criminal system and to provide them with rehabilitative treatment and services instead of punishment.”
Children of color are disproportionately affected within these institutions, Clarke said, and in Texas, Black children are more than five times more likely to be incarcerated than white children.
Texas Appleseed and Disability Rights Texas, two justice and legal organizations, filed a complaint in October 2020 with the Justice Department’s civil rights division saying that juveniles within the state’s juvenile facilities faced widespread sexual assault and other constitutional violations.
The complaint noted that while an estimated 7% of those in youth lockups across the country reported sexual victimization in 2018, in some of the Texas facilities the rates were significantly higher.
Texas Appleseed officials did not receive prior notice about the federal investigation. Brett Merfish, the nonprofit’s director of youth justice, said Wednesday they were pleased with the news.
“We know that they’ve spent time looking into our complaint and we appreciate their attention to it,” Merfish said.
Merfish said previous attempts at reform have mostly centered on replacing the leadership, which hasn’t worked to fix the same problems that have persisted for years.
“We just think that these facilities are broken and we need to sort of abandon this system and understand this is not working for young people. In fact, it’s hurting them,” Merfish said.
The investigation will be conducted under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act and the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.
“The Department of Justice is committed to ensuring that children who end up in secure correctional facilities are safe and provided with the services, care and protection that the Constitution and federal law require,” Clarke said.