Egregious Constitutional Violations in Texas Youth Facilities Lead to Advocacy Groups Seeking Federal Help

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Texas Appleseed and Disability Rights Texas have filed a complaint with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, citing “grievous violations of children’s constitutional rights” regarding the five state secure facilities run by the Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD). Violations include both sexual assault and gang violence due to persistent staffing issues. Unfortunately, the latest criticism is nothing new. TJJD has faced criticism in the past from reform advocates, the state legislature, and Governor Greg Abbott. This includes a 2010 letter signed by multiple organizations highlighting similar issues within the complaint.

Since media reports surfaced highlighting physical and sexual abuse at state run facilities in 2007, Texas has worked towards reforming its juvenile justice system.  Reform has included closing state secure facilities, moving money into the probation budget, and reducing the number of children housed in the state’s remaining facilities – yet it failed to address the unsafe conditions in the remaining facilities. Now, these remaining five TJJD state secure facilities continue to be plagued with conditions which violate federal Constitutional standards as well as jeopardize the health, safety, and rehabilitation of young people.

The complaint, using reports from the Office of the Independent Ombudsman (OIO), open   records requests to TJJD and the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), and direct communication with TJJD-involved young people and families, states the following issues persist:

  • Inability to ensure safety of young people (ex. staff turnover, reports of safety issues, and excessive restraints);
  • Abuse, including sexual victimization, within the facilities (sex abuse, inappropriate use of force, etc.);
  • Inadequate mental health care; and
  • Over-reliance on short-term security and lack of programming for youth in security (segregation).

Findings from the complaint include staffing shortages among all facilities, inadequate staffing and supervisor driven chaos, higher instances of sexual victimization among Texas youth, unnecessary and excessive force, and inadequate mental health care among the children. Each contribute to negative facility outcomes that run counter to the rehabilitation goal of Texas’ juvenile justice system. Brett Merfish, Director of Youth Justice at Texas Appleseed said it best, “The state facilities are not just failing the youth in them, they are hurting them [.]”

The current director, TJJD’s eighth director since 2007, has outlined a plan called the “Texas Model” to be introduced in this legislative session to address the ongoing problems. However, a lower staff-to-youth ratio is needed, and the plan fails to address the issues inherent to the facilities which are highlighted in the complaint.

The complaint concludes pointing out concerns with the ability to have outside monitoring since facilities have been closed due to COVID-19 and a plea for further investigation into the well documented, ongoing Constitutional violations.

The complaint can be found here.

For more information see the Disability Rights TX’s Press Release and additional coverage of the story at the Texas Tribune.

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