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Abbott requests probe of lockups

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Lauren McGaughy, The Dallas Morning News

Governor wants new inquiry after reports of violence, sexual abuse

AUSTIN — Gov. Greg Abbott has asked the Texas Rangers to investigate the state's juvenile lockups after reports of widespread sexual abuse, drug use and violence raised serious questions about the safety of staff and youthful offenders.

On Wednesday, Abbott sent letters to Department of Public Safety Director Steven McCraw and Camille Cain, the newly named head of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, asking them to address problems in the lockups. The request was made after The Dallas Morning News reported detailed accounts of sexual misconduct, violence and drug use in the facilities, including allegations that at least one guard was impregnated by a youthful offender.

"Recent reports of sexual misconduct and inappropriate relationships by state employees at the Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD) are reprehensible and necessitate an appropriate response," Abbott wrote to McCraw. "While I commend the TJJD Office of the Inspector General for investigating these recent allegations and submitting them for prosecution, additional action is needed to guarantee the protection of the youth in the care and custody of the State of Texas."

Abbott added in his letter to Cain, "These egregious acts must be dealt with to the fullest extent of the law."

State Rep. James White, chairman of the House Corrections Committee, praised Abbott's move.

"Once again the Governor is leading and taking ownership of another tough issue," White, R-Hillister, told The News. "I look forward to working with him in creating safe communities and safeguarding youth in state custody."

Four were fired

Texas confines lawbreakers who are 18 and under in five lockups across the state. In November, The News reported four staff members at the Gainesville State School — the largest such institution, which is located about 25 miles north of Denton — were fired and faced prison time due to improper sexual activity with youths in custody. One staffer, a 29-year-old who was allegedly impregnated by a juvenile offender, was charged with a second-degree felony and is currently free on bond.

But the problems are much deeper than these handful of troubling incidents indicate, watchdogs say.

Violence and sexual abuse is rampant at Gainesville, The News reported last month, where youthful offenders attacked guards and claimed staff paid them to fight each other, an allegation the agency could not substantiate. In at least one case, a psychologist at the campus gave pornography to a boy confined there and encouraged him to masturbate in front of him, the agency said. The psychologist denied those allegations.

"It's a bad culture," TJJD Ombudsman Debbie Unruh, whose job is to ensure the safety of youthful offenders, told The News. "It's a dangerous culture."

Staff shortage

The recent sexual misconduct allegations came to light as the agency continues struggling to find enough experienced staff for the state's five juvenile lockups. A decade ago, a similar sex scandal involving at least 13 boys led to the agency's overhaul and exposed beatings, a lack of medical care and a culture of retaliation against whistleblowers.

At the time, lawmakers called for changes, including diverting youthful offenders to community programs closer to home rather than shuttling them off to rural campuses in remote areas. Now, more than 10 years later, state officials are asking for many of these same reforms.

"Our current model is just absolutely not working," State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, told a meeting of the Senate Finance Committee last week. Whitmire called for the overhaul — or even the complete dismantling — of the state's sprawling youth lockups and said the agency needs to figure out how to slow staff turnover, which he said was at 40 percent.

Outgoing TJJD Executive Director David Reilly has said the agency worked hard to improve conditions in juvenile lockups, but admitted funding shortages led to staffing and other issues.

"Today, TJJD is not financially able to provide the staff presence necessary to minimize incidents and fully prevent misconduct. The lack of sufficient safety contributes to turnover, which exacerbates the already critical situation, and makes it difficult to achieve our goal that no staff is ever alone with youth," he told The News last month.

Whitmire rejected the funding argument last week, warning the agency that changes need to happen, and fast, or the results would be disastrous.

"We are sitting on a powder keg," he said.

FEATURED PHOTO: Four staff members at the Gainesville State School were fired and faced prison time due to improper sexual activity with youths in custody. One staffer was allegedly impregnated by a juvenile offender. File photo/The Dallas Morning News