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Amid Reports of Violence, Calls for Accountability, Reform at Youth Lockups

Five years after Texas lawmakers overhauled the juvenile justice system, reports of violence, inappropriate staff behavior and poor mental health services at youth lockups are spurring calls for accountability and continued reform.

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Five years after instituting a sweeping overhaul in the wake of sexual and physical abuse scandals at Texas youth lockups, a senior lawmaker is again calling the situation at the facilities a crisis that jeopardizes the safety of youths.

Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who helped devise the overhaul in 2007, is upset with administrators of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, who say that they are making improvements.

“They are failing, and in this business they can’t afford to fail,” said Whitmire, chairman of the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice.

Officials of the juvenile agency confirmed last week that they are investigating allegations of inappropriate cell phone communications between a juvenile offender and a former employee at the Giddings State School. A recently released report said that delinquent youths are essentially in control at Giddings, the state’s largest lockup, from which a staff member was taken to the emergency room last weekend after an altercation involving six youths. The school’s recently fired superintendent filed suit against the agency last week, alleging that he had been terminated for voicing concerns about the conditions. And an internal audit this month found individual counseling sessions were lacking at 89 percent of the facilities surveyed.

Whitmire said he wants administrators held accountable. And some advocates are urging lawmakers to consider closing more state youth institutions.

“These big facilities in remote locations are never going to be a good model,” said Deborah Fowler, the deputy director of Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit organization that advocates for juvenile justice reforms.

After reports of terrible abuse in 2007, lawmakers instituted policies that keep more young offenders close to home for rehabilitation and treatment. Population at the state institutions dropped to about 1,200 last year from about 3,000 in 2007. The agency closed 8 of its 14 secure facilities, and Texas has been praised nationally for the changes.

In November 2010, though, an independent report on the reforms raised concerns about youth violence and gang activity at the institutions.

A February report by The Texas Tribune that analyzed agency data showed the rate of confirmed assaults among youths more than tripled from 2007 to 2011.

And this month, the independent ombudsman for the department said that ringleaders at the Giddings lockup had established a hierarchy in which the weakest offenders were “bought and owned” with drugs, cigarettes and money.

Juvenile Justice Department administrators denied Whitmire’s allegations that they have tried to hide the troubles from lawmakers. They said they were working to improve staff training and to hold youths and staff accountable for improper and illegal behavior. Conditions, they said, were improving.

“The safety and well-being of all the youth in our care and of our staff are my highest priority and concern,” said Cherie Townsend, the agency’s executive director.

Advocates of juvenile justice reform said that while the recent reports were troubling, they did not indicate that the overhaul had not worked. They said the state should continue the reforms by keeping even more youths in smaller, local facilities that are like group homes, where they can be closer to their families and to better rehabilitation and mental health care.

Eventually, the large institutions could be closed and the state’s role could be limited to oversight of county care, advocates said.

Results have improved in states like Missouri that have moved toward smaller facilities, said Bart Lubow, the director of the juvenile justice strategy group at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a child advocacy group.

“If we’re going to deprive a youth of his or her liberty,” Lubow said, “we have a substantial responsibility to make sure we’re not making them worse.”

The Annie E. Casey Foundation is a major donor to The Texas Tribune.

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