DOJ Complaint Urges Investigation into Abuse, Constitutional Violations of Youth in Texas Juvenile Facilities

Posted on

October 21, 2020

Kelli Johnson, Texas Appleseed, 512-773-7452, kjohnson@texasappleseed.net
Edie Surtees, Disability Rights Texas, 512-407-2739, esurtees@disabilityrightstx.org

Complaint to U.S. DOJ Urges Investigation into Abuse, Constitutional Violations of Youth in Texas’ Juvenile State Secure Facilities

AUSTIN— Staff-on-youth sexual assault, physical abuse, rampant gang activity, chronic understaffing, and inadequate mental health care are some of the many systemic issues outlined in a complaint filed today with the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division regarding the five state secure facilities run by the Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD). Texas Appleseed and Disability Rights Texas, two nonprofit justice and legal organizations, are filing the complaint citing unconstitutional conditions and grievous violations of children’s constitutional rights.

TJJD operates the five state secure facilities and is legally charged with the safety and rehabilitation of youth in their care, along with their wellbeing and education. Early documented reports of these inherent problems date back over a decade and continue through today.

“The state facilities are not just failing the youth in them, they are hurting them,” said Brett Merfish, Director of Youth Justice at Texas Appleseed. “Ongoing understaffing leads to an overall lack of safety.” The facilities’ unsafe conditions are highlighted in the complaint: the high rate of use of force by staff on youth; general chaos in the facilities; overreliance on administrative segregation or solitary confinement; and the high rate of youth who refer themselves because they feel unsafe.

The complaint includes open records data from TJJD and the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) and reports from the Office of the Independent Ombudsman (OIO). The organizations also identified problems from site visits and via personal accounts by family and youth.

“Another issue is the lack of qualified and licensed counselors to provide quality mental health care,” said Beth Mitchell, Senior Attorney and Co-Litigation Coordinator at Disability Rights Texas. “Mental health is key to youth rehabilitation. Without quality mental health care, youth are more likely to be a danger to themselves and others.”

Select findings from the complaint include:

  • Texas youth cite higher instances of sexual victimization. In an analysis released by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, an estimated 7% of youth in juvenile correctional facilities nationwide reported sexual victimization in 2018. Sexual victimization was alarmingly high in Texas: Mart (16.1%), Gainesville State School (16%), Ron Jackson State Juvenile Correctional Complex (14%) and Evins Regional Juvenile Center (13.5%). Giddings State School had 2.5% of youth report sexual victimization.
  • Staffing shortages extend across all of the facilities. In December 2019, the rate of staffing fell well under sufficient coverage needs for various positions: Juvenile Correctional Officers/Youth Development Coaches (66% staffed), Case Managers (84% staffed), Treatment Services (54% staffed) and Education Services (81% staffed). At Mart, for example, corrections personnel reported working 12-hour shifts or longer without relief, some working 14- to 17-hour shifts. Gainesville State School had a 64% turnover rate in 2019 for the Youth Development Coach position, and there was a total turnover rate of 48% across all five facilities for that position.
  • Inadequate staffing and supervision drive chaos. In 2019, there were 2,620 instances of youth assaults on youth and 1,465 instances of youth assaults on staff. Across all facilities, there were 2,140 instances where youth spent more than 24 hours in security for a violation, and a third of those youth (34%) were at Giddings. Across all facilities, there were 435 instances where youth spent more than 24 hours in security for a non-violation, and a third of those youth (34%) were at Gainesville. The Independent Ombudsman also reported that one clear result of the staffing shortages and lack of supervision are residents tattooing themselves. Gang tags, and even once genitalia, are the focus of many tattoos.
  • McLennan Co. State Juvenile Correctional Facility (Mart) had the highest number of youth referred to security for a non-violation due to danger to self or suicide attempt. Ron Jackson facility had the second highest number of youth referred for this. In 2019, 138 youth were referred to security for a non-violation due to danger to self or suicide a total of 271 times, a rate of almost two referrals per each youth. The rate of referrals was similar in 2018, with 186 youth who were referred to security for a non-violation due to danger to self or suicide a total of 417 times, a rate of two referrals per each youth.
  • Youth are subject to unnecessary and excessive use of force. In 2019, 1,236 individual youth were subjected to use of force, including various types of restraints and OC spray, a total of 6,884 times, a rate of nearly 6 use of force instances per youth. Evins Regional Juvenile Center had the highest rate of use of force instances, with 257 youth subjected to use of force 2,409 times, producing a rate of 9 use of force instances per youth. The methods allowed include mechanical restraints, manual restraints, OC spray, physical escort, and planned team restraint. When looking at three categories of use of force (mechanical restraints, manual restraints and OC spray) 2,685 youth experienced at least one or more of these three restraints — a total of 10,802 times, amounting to 4 restraints per youth.
  • Staff on youth physical abuse is prevalent. In the second quarter of FY18, the Independent Ombudsman noted that youth on youth assaults, as well as youth offenders assaulting staff had become an increasing concern. In one example from 2018, a Juvenile Correctional Officer at Gainesville kicked a youth who was passively resisting going to his room and removed his body camera before then going into his room. The incident report did not include what happened next.
  • Children are not receiving the mental health care they require. There is a shortage of counselors for youth in TJJD facilities, and a high percentage are not licensed. Across all five state facilities, just over half of all youth in 2019 were on at least one psychotropic medication. Further, in 2018, across all five facilities, 40% of counselors were unlicensed, while in 2019, 34% were not licensed.

“We owe it to Texas youth in the custody of TJJD to ensure their safety and constitutional rights. The issues presented in the complaint are serious and merit a thorough investigation so that youth are safe and can receive the help they deserve,” said Merfish.

Read the full complaint or see attachment below.

About Texas Appleseed
Texas Appleseed is a public interest justice center that works to change unjust laws and policies that prevent Texans from realizing their full potential. Our nonprofit conducts data-driven research that uncovers inequity in laws and policies and identifies solutions for lasting, concrete change. For more information, visit www.TexasAppleseed.or​g.

About Disability Rights Texas
DRTx is an independent, private, nonprofit agency established under the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act. [1] Our mission is to help people with disabilities understand and exercise their rights under the law, ensuring their full and equal participation in society. DRTx lawyers and advocates fulfill this mission by monitoring, providing advocacy, and investigating abuse and neglect on behalf of youth committed to Texas’ Juvenile Justice Facilities.

[1] 42 U.S.C. § 15001 et seq. Congress subsequently expanded the responsibilities of the system under the Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Illness Act, 42 U.S.C. § 10801 et seq. and the Protection and Advocacy of Individual Rights Program of the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 794e.

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Attached documents