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Texas juvenile detention system closes doors to new children

 Gainesville State School in far north Texas is one of five rural facilities that detain high-needs often violent juvenile offenders.
Paul Flahive
Gainesville State School in far north Texas is one of five rural facilities that detain high-needs often violent juvenile offenders.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

The Texas Juvenile Justice Department announced in an email to county chief probation officers across the state last week that they were closed to new kids. Youth from county facilities could no longer be referred to the state’s five rural detention centers due to extreme staffing shortages. The decision came a week after a state hearing where TJJD executive director Shandra Carter said the system was “collapsing” due to a long-running staff exodus.

“The current risk is that the ongoing secure facility staffing issue will lead to an inability to even provide basic supervision for youth locked in their rooms,” said Carter. “This could cause a significantly impaired ability to intervene in the increasing suicidal behaviors already occurring by youth struggling with the isolative impact of operational room confinement.”

The “grim” situation was discussed at length in the TJJD’s sunset advisory review which is essentially a system-wide audit to ensure a department is still necessary to the state government. Carter described youth being kept in solitary rooms for 22 hours at a time due to the ongoing shortage of staff.

State auditors found they needed almost double their current staff to resume normal programming. In addition to millions of open jobs that pay more and require less, the 71% turnover rate has led to increased mandatory overtime shifts, which in turn drives more people to leave, say staff.

The current situation had essentially made any rehabilitation of youth impossible. The announcement comes as the system is being investigated by the Justice Department over allegations of sexual and physical abuse by staff of youth and by youth of other youth.

“The agency is working to resolve underlying issues and resume intakes as soon as possible,” said an agency spokeswoman.

In addition to the suspension of intakes, the email highlights several steps the system will take at its facilities to take pressure off facilities. Sixteen girls will be moved from Ron Jackson in Brownwood due of staffing. A unit of female youth will be moved from Ron Jackson to McLennan State Correctional Facility. They have suspended treatment of their most violent youth due at that same facility to the intensive care required. Reviewing youth for potential early release.

“These are the least worst measures,” said Carter as they attempt to find staffed space for an additional 130 kids waiting to enter TJJD custody from counties.

The youth that go into TJJD’s secure facilities are often high needs who have committed violent crimes.

Those youth are now taking up beds at local facilities who are also experiencing staff shortages. Currently, Bexar county has about 14 youth waiting to be transferred to TJJD.

“We’re in a staffing crisis,” said Jill Mata, chief juvenile probation officer for Bexar County, referring to what county juvenile facilities are experiencing statewide.

Bexar county juvenile detention is one of the largest county facilities in the state. It had to stop taking out of county referrals more than four months ago due to its own staffing problems.

She estimates they would need about double the number of employees to be at full staffing, but it pales in comparison to the TJJD situation — which can’t provide any rehabilitative programming. They are still able to, but this downward pressure will impact her staff. People will work more overtime which means she and the county need to ensure they feel supported.

“They're overworked, they're tired, and that's not a good situation,” she said of her staff.

There is also an open question around whether the delay in kids getting to TJJD facilities will lengthen youth’s total length of stay in state and local facilities. Youth sentenced to TJJD detention have either “determinate” stays that are based on a length of time or “indeterminate” stays that are based on their progress towards completing a sentencing plan. Determinate-length-of-time youth will be credited with time at the county automatically. Indeterminate ones don’t.

Copyright 2022 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit Texas Public Radio.

Paul Flahive is the technology and entrepreneurship reporter for Texas Public Radio. He has worked in public media across the country, from Iowa City and Chicago to Anchorage and San Antonio.
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