Children housed at Texas Juvenile Justice Department, or TJJD, facilities routinely suffer sexual assault, physical abuse and other forms of mistreatment, according to a complaint sent to the U.S. Department of Justice by two Texas justice groups last week.
The groups – Texas Appleseed and Disability Rights Texas – culled data from open records requests and spoke to youth housed at the facilities and their parents. Brett Merfish, director of youth justice for Texas Appleseed, told Texas Standard that understaffing is one of the biggest problems at TJJD.
“The youth that are in TJJD’s custody are some of our most vulnerable youth, and they really deserve the best care and were really giving them something that’s completely inadequate right now,” Merfish said.
Children from ages 10 to 17 who have committed crimes can be sent to one of five TJJD facilities around the state. But those facilities are chronically understaffed, and have a high turnover rate. Merfish said that that’s partly because of the remote location of the facilities, which are all in rural areas with a limited employment base.
“When you have that lack of personnel, you really do have chaos,” Merfish said.
In 2019, over 10 assaults per day were recorded in TJJD facilities. Rates of sexual victimization there were significantly higher than the national average. There is also a shortage of mental health workers.
But these are not new problems. They can be traced back to the Texas Youth Commission – the agency that the TJJD replaced in 2011 after children were sexually abused by staff members and experienced other forms of mistreatment.
Merfish said she hopes that filing the complaint with the Department of Justice will help rectify what appear to be systemic problems within Texas’ youth justice system.
“This is clearly the bare minimum, but what we really want to see is that young people that are in the care of any juvenile justice agency are really helped by it, and we’re far from that by now,” Merfish said.
A better system, Merfish said, would include a network of smaller facilities closer to population centers. A 2015 study from the Council of State Governments showed that this kind of community-based supervision led to better outcomes for incarcerated youth.
“Children with the same profile who stay in that smaller facility versus go to one of our state facilities do better,” Merfish said. “The children in our state facilities end up having a higher rate of recidivism, a higher rate of potential for committing a felony after they get out of care.”