Texas juvenile detention system halts admissions due to staffing issues and federal investigation

The Texas Juvenile Detention Center has closed its doors and is not accepting any new children because of “bleeding” among staff and officials fear they cannot ensure the safety of the nearly 600 juveniles already in their care.

According to a letter from the Texas Juvenile Justice Department published Wednesday to The Texas Tribune, the state’s five juvenile detention centers implemented emergency protocols “as staffing levels at each secure facility grow dire.”

“The current risk is that the ongoing staffing problem in secure facilities will mean that juveniles locked in their rooms cannot receive even basic supervision,” Shandra Carter, the agency’s interim director, wrote to parole officers last week for youth across the state. “This could result in a significantly impaired ability to intervene in the increasing suicidal behaviors already emerging in adolescents struggling with the isolating effects of confinement in an operating room.”

The agency has 331 vacancies for juvenile correctional officers and only 391 officers available for its facilities, an agency spokesman said Thursday.

Minors serving sentences at a TJJD facility remain in local detention centers, many of which have their own bed shortages. In her letter, Carter said 130 youth were waiting at the county’s facilities before admissions were suspended.

Carter said the agency is trying to resume admissions as quickly as possible by moving people to other units, halting intensive intervention programs for those who have committed violent crimes, and evaluating whether juveniles may be eligible for release.

Texas juvenile prisons have long been plagued by physical and sexual abuse and unsafe environments for the juveniles held there. In October, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it was reviewing whether the agency was providing “adequate protections from physical and sexual abuse by employees and other residents, excessive use of chemical restraints, and excessive use of isolation.”

Carter was appointed head of the agency by the Texas Juvenile Justice Board in April when former director Camille Cain resigned without notice after four years at the helm. Hours before Cain’s departure was made public, Gov. Greg Abbott announced he would be accepting money from their troubled agency to continue funding Operation Lone Star, his multibillion-dollar border security operation.

RELATED: Justice Department is investigating Texas’ Operation Lone Star over alleged civil rights violations

Cain, who previously worked for Abbott, has not publicly discussed the reasons for her departure. Records from the Tribune show Cain requested $31,225,360 in coronavirus relief funds from Abbott’s office in April, weeks before the governor took the same amount of money from her agency.

In a statement Thursday, TJJD said the funds transferred from Abbott’s hands had a “net zero” impact on the budget. A spokesman said the agency used federal coronavirus relief funds to pay salaries that would normally come from its general income.

“Once these expenses were incurred out of federal dollars, we repaid the same amount from our general income,” TJJD spokeswoman Barbara Kessler said in the statement.

On Thursday afternoon, an Abbott spokesman said the money transfer was only a placeholder and “had no impact on the agency’s operating budget.”

“The safety of TJJD personnel and youth is Governor Abbott’s top priority,” spokeswoman Renae Eze said in a statement. “Led by Interim Director Carter, TJJD is implementing permanent pay increases to address the urgent issue of understaffing at the facilities and ensure they remain safe and secure.”

A month before Abbott announced that he was transferring money from TJJD to fund Operation Lone Star, Carter, then associate executive director for government services at TJJD, told an advisory board that juvenile prisons were being stretched in terms of staff-to-juvenile ratios .

ALSO SEE: Gov. Greg Abbott Authorizes State Agencies to Return Migrants to Border Crossings

Only one facility accepts new prisoners, she said according to the minutes of the meeting. Others have often been unable to provide educational or therapeutic programs and have been in regular lockdown due to staff shortages. In December, she said, staff screened youth 1,000 times for suicidal concerns.

In recent years, Texas counties and cities have been sending fewer and fewer minors to TJJD, instead of detaining them near their homes or giving them probation. In May, fewer than 600 youths were being held in TJJD’s secure facilities, a number that has declined significantly over the past decade, according to a state report.

For advocates who have been pushing for the closure of state juvenile detention centers, the staffing crisis only points to the need for a new approach to juvenile justice. Advocates have long asked that counties handle the juvenile justice system and hope the ongoing staffing crisis at a time with fewer juveniles in prisons will prompt the state to reconsider the system when the agency faces a statutory review next year.

“We already had a backlog of benefits…they didn’t have enough people to offer the therapy [youth] needed,” said Brett Merfish, director of juvenile justice at Texas Appleseed. “How extreme does it have to be to say, ‘Okay, we have to do something differently’?”

REFERENCE: The letter from TJJD Director Shandra Carter regarding the agency’s hiring of new recordings.

Disclosure: Texas Appleseed was a financial contributor to The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization funded in part by donations from members, foundations, and corporate sponsors. Financial backers play no part in the Tribune’s journalism. A complete list can be found here.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that educates and collaborates with Texans on public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

RELATED: In custody: Daily life at the Harris County Juvenile Detention Center

https://abc13.com/texas-juvenile-justice-department-halts-intake-of-juveniles-detention-system-closes-its-doors-staffing-issues/12032473/ Texas juvenile detention system halts admissions due to staffing issues and federal investigation

Dais Johnston

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