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Years of abuse allegations spark federal DOJ investigation into Texas juvenile justice system

The Department of Justice will look into the treatment of kids in state custody. Gov. Greg Abbott has twice ordered state investigations into abuse accusations.

DALLAS — The U.S. Department of Justice opened an investigation Wednesday to determine whether there is a “pattern or practice of physical or sexual abuse of children” inside the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.

Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general for civil rights in the U.S. justice department, said there is significant justification for an independent and thorough investigation into the state’s five lockups that house juveniles accused of crimes.

Clarke cited reports that staff members “reportedly paid children with drugs and cash to assault other children.”

“There are also reports of staff sharing pornographic material with children,” she said.

At least 11 staff members have been arrested for sexually abusing children within their care, Clarke said. 

Governor Greg Abbott has twice ordered the Texas Rangers to investigate similar accusations. 

In July, he cited allegations that “certain TJJD staff have engaged in potentially illegal behavior with TJJD youth” when directing the Department of Public Safety to immediately investigate the department.

DPS did not immediately respond to WFAA’s inquiries about where that investigation stands.

In 2017, Abbott also ordered DPS investigators to look into reports of “sexual misconduct and inappropriate relationships” between TJJD staff and children in their custody.

He called the allegations “reprehensible.”

Less than two months after that investigation was opened, DPS announced arrest warrants had been issued for five current or former TJJD staff members.

Four were charged with official oppression for allegedly using excessive force against juveniles in their care.

Advocacy groups Texas Appleseed and Disability Rights Texas wrote to the U.S. Department of Justice in October 2020 asking for a federal civil rights investigation into TJJD.

RELATED: U.S. Department of Justice investigating 5 juvenile correctional facilities in Texas

They cited “recurrent, systemic problems” in the state’s five secure lockups in Edinburg, Gainesville, Giddings, Mart, and Brownwood.

They submitted data showing staffing shortages, increased instances of children harming themselves, and quotes from a former teenage inmate who claimed “gangs ran the facility,” and children were regularly putting “hits” on other children.

The Brownwood facility falls under the jurisdiction of Acting U.S. Attorney for Northern Texas Chad Meachum.

On the video conference call with Clarke, Meachum said up to 140 girls are typically housed in Brownwood.

“I have every confidence that the majority of Texas juvenile corrections officers are doing their dead level best to do right by these kids,” he said.  

“But if there are bad actors or systematic problems that are violating young people’s rights, we are determined to root those out.”

Clarke said the federal investigation will not only focus on allegations of physical and sexual abuse, but also on potential excessive use of chemical restraints, isolation, and a lack of adequate mental health services.

These facilities should be focused more on rehabilitation than punishment, she said.

RELATED: Two Gainesville youth lockup guards arrested over alleged abuse

“Being subjected to harmful conditions doesn’t rehabilitate children, it only leads to worse life outcomes,” Clarke said.

The state will cooperate with the federal investigation, said Camille Cain, executive director of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.

“We all share the same goals for the youth in our care: providing for their safety, their effective rehabilitation, and the best chance for them to lead productive, fulfilling lives,” Cain said in a statement.

A spokesperson for Gov. Abbott also said the state will fully cooperate.

“Throughout his time serving the people of Texas, Governor Abbott has always prioritized the safety and well-being of all Texas children, including those in the state’s care,” said press secretary Renae Eze.