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In crisis, Texas Juvenile Justice Department looks to an unconventional new leader

With no experience working directly with incarcerated kids, Camille Cain is an unconventional choice to be the new director of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. But experts hope she'll be well-suited to handle problems like staffing shortages and a sexual abuse scandal.

 Camille Cain is the newly appointed executive director of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.

* Clarification appended. 

Camille Cain has worked for multiple Texas governors and one president. She has been a consultant and helped manage billions of dollars in grant funding for statewide and national criminal justice programs. 

But one thing the new head of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department hasn't done is work directly with incarcerated kids. 

That gap in her resume made her an unconventional hire by the TJJD board, which voted 12 to 1 to name her the agency's new executive director last month. The two people who held the job before Cain both ran county juvenile probation departments prior to their appointments. But state leaders hope her bureaucratic experience will enable her to do something those hires couldn't: save an agency that has long struggled under multiple violence and sexual abuse scandals and staffing shortages. 

“I’m very optimistic,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, a Democrat from Houston and chairman of the upper chamber’s Criminal Justice Committee. “I think she’s going out there with a commitment to make a difference.”

Cain, 50, told The Texas Tribune that she plans to use her background to work closely with experts inside TJJD and out, including lawmakers, juvenile probation department chiefs and advocates to immediately make youth lockups safer and, in the long term, place more minors into local facilities instead of state-run ones.

"I strongly believe in the power of bringing together the ideas of diverse groups of experts and weaving those ideas together into solid strategies with a clear, well understood vision," she said. Cain previously had denied an interview request citing her short tenure at the department, but she answered questions in a written response Thursday.

Turning the agency around won't be easy. Last November, after a department report obtained by the Dallas Morning News revealed that guards at the Gainesville State School in North Texas were allegedly sexually abusing committed youth, reform advocates called for the closure of the five state-run lockups that generally house violent juveniles. Last month, several state senators said in a hearing that the department was in need of “drastic action” and a “total shakedown.” Republican Gov. Greg Abbott sent in the Texas Rangers to investigate the alleged misconduct and said in a letter that the department should reduce the number of juveniles kept at the remote facilities.

To most, Cain's hiring was unexpected. With political turmoil brewing, the agency’s board was quietly searching to replace its retiring director, David Reilly. Despite calls for transparency in the hiring process, reform advocates, along with Whitmire and the chair of the department’s advisory council, said they didn’t know who Cain was until the choice was narrowed down to two finalists.

There was no news release announcing her hire, with the department opting to announce the news on their Facebook page after she was selected at a board meeting. According to a record of the meeting, she was given a $205,879 annual salary. No board member responded to requests for comment on the hiring process.

People she’s worked with cited her organizational skills and methodical decision making as reasons why she'll excel in her new role, especially with the department in crisis mode. In multiple interviews, former colleagues described her as thorough and strategic — using evidence, never impulse — in her policy decisions.

“She’s a straight shooter,” said Kevin O’Connor, former U.S. Associate Attorney General who was Cain’s boss when she helped manage national criminal justice funding in the George W. Bush administration. “When an agency or any organization goes through those kind of scandals, it’s important that leadership come in and be people with integrity. And I have no doubts in that regard that Camille has the requisite integrity and experience.”

Still, some juvenile justice reform advocates have expressed concern about new developments since Cain took over. Recently she told the TJJD's advisory council that a longtime push to raise the age of adult criminal responsibility from 17 to 18 would “break us” by flooding juvenile lockups with more youth. Many criminal justice advocates have called for raising the age, saying 17-year-olds are too young and vulnerable to serve time in an adult population. 

The Houston Chronicle also reported this week that the department is reviewing the possible transfer of dozens of violent detainees to the adult prison system.

More simply, the advocates have expressed concern at Cain’s lack of hands-on experience in the field.

“I do think that it’s always preferable for someone who is going to be in charge with tens of thousands of youth to have experience with youth,” said Lindsey Linder, a policy attorney at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, citing the more than 1,000 juveniles in state lockups and the many more referred to probation departments across the state.

A different management style

Cain most recently led Abbott’s Criminal Justice Division, which allocates hundreds of millions of state and federal dollars to justice initiatives, including youth programs. During her more than two years there, the division developed a child sex trafficking team and made investments to reduce the number of children sleeping in Child Protective Services offices, according to the governor’s office.

Early indications suggest that Abbott will remain an ally in her new job. In a letter sent Thursday, Abbott told Cain he would allocate money to the department for things like assisting the Texas Rangers in their current investigation and providing training for agency gang investigators.

Those who worked closely with Cain touted her willingness to learn by reaching out to others in the field. Tony Fabello, a longtime criminal justice policy wonk in Texas who has had a working relationship with Cain for more than two decades, said she understands her limits and has a broad set of national and statewide consultants she can turn to from her years of experience.

“The myth here is that these large agencies, you really have to be getting your hands dirty. You don’t,” said Fabello, now deputy director of the Council of State Governments Justice Center. “You just have to be savvy enough to understand how to reach out to the expert staff that you have and put all their thinking and expertise together.” 

One of Cain’s strengths, which the previous two directors lacked, he said, is her ability to work well with the governor’s office and legislators.

History repeats itself

The juvenile justice system has undergone major shifts before, only to circle back to similar problems. In 2007, after media reports highlighted physical and sexual abuse at state-run facilities, concerned judges stopped committing as many juveniles to state custody and the Legislature implemented several reforms to shift money from the state’s lockups and into local probation departments. By 2012, average populations at the lockups dropped 66 percent, according to a 2015 report.

But with less kids came less funding, and with five remaining secure facilities for juveniles spread out in rural areas throughout the state, keeping staff has been a consistent problem. The Gainesville facility had a guard turnover rate of more than 50 percent last fiscal year. That number skyrocketed to almost 80 percent between September and November, according to a report card of the agency released ahead of a Friday board meeting.

Cain said the turnover rate is "alarming" and that she will be reviewing and adding training for guards and looking to get tenured guards into leadership roles. She also said the department will be "much clearer with candidates about what the job truly entails." 

"We are looking at our resources and what we have available to bring those changes — at this point, no options are off the table," she said.

Reilly, the former director, told the state’s Senate Finance Committee last month that the staffing problems create opportunities for sexual abuse at the lockups, since there aren’t enough guards to ensure committed youth and guards aren’t alone together. Whitmire was outraged at the meeting, calling the agency the “worst-performing agency by any measure.

He and reform advocates called for a national search for Reilly’s replacement. Even though that didn't appear to happen, Whitmire said last week that he is fine with the board's choice.

“Obviously, the governor knew who he wanted to place out there,” he said. “I still think it’s great to do a national search, but I’m not going to argue with the outcome of their in-house search."

In his letter to Cain, Abbott conceded that many of the agency's problems will require long-term, legislative solutions but asked her to work on any possible immediate changes on her own.

"I request that you develop short-term solutions and long-term goals as the focus of significant change under your leadership at the agency," he said, adding that she should include a variety of stakeholders in her decision-making process.

On Wednesday, she met with representatives from several advocacy groups which shared ideas to reduce the population, like by cutting the length of stays at lockups and diverting kids with mental illness to outside treatment centers, according to Deborah Fowler with Texas Appleseed.

Cain said the department will be working on a tangible plan in coming weeks.

"At the core of our priorities in the short term is to improve safety, which is foundational to the success of our system and the young offenders in it," she said. "But our overarching goal has to be making sure that our young offenders are placed where they stand the greatest chance of success."

Clarification: This story has been updated to provide more information about how Cain's hiring was announced by TJJD.

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