AUSTIN, Texas -- The scandal-plagued Texas Juvenile Justice Department is the target of a new federal civil rights investigation, the four U.S. Attorneys for the state announced at a news conference on Wednesday.
The probe will examine whether children in Texas’ five state youth lockups are suffering from widespread sexual assault and other constitutional violations including excessive use of restraints and isolation along with a lack of mental health care.
“No matter who they are – or what they’ve done – our state’s kids deserve safe environments,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Chad Meacham of the Northern District of Texas. “We cannot expect juvenile offenders to thrive later in life if they emerge from confinement traumatized by sexual abuse, excessive force, or incessant isolation.”
Citing the arrests in recent years of 11 staff members of state juvenile facilities on sex abuse charges, federal prosecutors said the investigation will also examine misconduct by staffers.
Complaints filed with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice over the past year that alleged “grave problems” at the facilities, along with reports from media outlets, triggered the probe. Texas put more than 800 youths in state juvenile detention in 2019, which was more than any other state, according to an agency report published in September.
State officials were formally notified about the investigation ahead of the news conference, federal authorities indicated, and a spokeswoman for Gov. Greg Abbott said Texas would cooperate with the probe.
“State officials have a constitutional obligation to ensure reasonable safety for children in these institutions," said Assistant U.S. Attorney General Kristen Clarke with the DOJ's Civil Rights Division. "The Department of Justice stands ready to protect the rights of children who end up in juvenile facilities and our investigation will ensure that the treatment of these children comports with constitutional standards.”
Federal prosecutors urged those who may have relevant information about abuse and misconduct to contact the DOJ by phone at 1-866-432-0438 or by email at TX.Juveniles@usdoj.gov.
The move by the Biden administration to open a probe is the latest sign of trouble for the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, which for more than a decade has been beset by scandal, staff shakeups and investigations into allegations of abuse. Just last week, a former coach at a west Texas facility was arrested on charges alleging that he touched the breast of an 18-year-old in custody.
In 2007, Texas lawmakers shuttered youth lockups across the state after authorities believed at least 13 boys in custody had been sexually abused. Five juvenile lockups remain today but are spread out in rural areas, which juvenile advocates say has made finding and retaining qualified officers difficult.
The five facilities are: (1) Evins Regional Juvenile Center, in Edinburg; (2) Gainesville State School, in Gainesville; (3) Giddings State School, in Giddings; (4) McLennan County State Juvenile Correctional Facility, in Mart; and (5) Ron Jackson State Juvenile Correctional Complex, in Brownwood.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)