Three decades ago, Jennifer Toon spent two years at a Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD) facility in Coke County when she was 15.
She said she witnessed physical and sexual assaults while at the institution. She managed to escape abuse, she said, because of her ability to quickly run from dangerous situations and hide in safe areas.
“I turned my light off in my cell and I would close the door,” Toon, who now works as a policy fellow at the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, said.
Toon wrote grievances to officials and tried to smuggle letters to media stations about what was happening at the facility. Yet, she said, nothing ever came of her efforts.
At times, she tried alerting her parents on the phone, but the line would disconnect.
Despite the alleged violations occurring 30 years ago, she says not much has changed in how the department handles similar cases.
“Things seem a lot worse,” she said.
Texas facilities under scrutiny
The U.S. Department of Justice is currently investigating TJJD facilities after reports of sexual and physical abuse at the hands of staff came to light by activist organizations, including officers engaging in inappropriate relationships with children.
The DOJ is expected to release its findings on the agency’s five facilities soon, though there is no set timeline. Similar investigations can take years to complete, advocates say. The probe was launched in Oct. 2021.
The forthcoming report will examine whether Texas provides children at the facilities reasonable protection from abuse by residents and staff members, in addition to excessive use of chemical restraints like pepper spray and isolation, according to a news release.
The facilities under investigation are the Evins Regional Juvenile Center, Giddings State School, McLennan County State Juvenile Correctional Facility, Gainesville State School and Ron Jackson State Juvenile Correctional Complex, which are located across the state.
The department will also assess if minors are given access to adequate mental health care and if their rights are being violated under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which entitles disabled students to public learning under federal law.
“Too often children held in juvenile detention facilities are subject to abuse and mistreatment, and deprived of their constitutional rights,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in the release.
“State officials have a constitutional obligation to ensure reasonable safety for children in these institutions.”
A federal complaint filed by Texas Appleseed in conjunction with Disability Rights Texas, two nonprofit justice and legal organizations, alleges that high staff turnover, sexual and physical abuse, excessive use of force and inadequate mental health care severely hinder the agency’s ability to rehabilitate the nearly 800 youth who are incarcerated at its facilities.
After the DOJ announced its investigation, Camille Cain, then-TJJD’s executive director, said that the agency would “cooperate fully” with the federal government.
“We all share the same goals for the youth in our care,” she said. “Providing for their safety, their effective rehabilitation, and the best chance for them to lead productive fulfilling lives.”
‘Inhumane and unconstitutional’
The state has attempted to tackle the issue in the past. In 2017, reports of sexual abuse led Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to replace David Reilly, the department’s executive director, with Camille Cain, who resigned in May.
Shandra Carter, the agency’s executive director for state services, was elevated to the post in December.
The Texas Rangers subsequently investigated the claims and arrested four former and current employees the following year.
Though some of the agency’s staff members were given a 15 percent permanent pay raise in July, advocates say it isn’t enough.
The department has a $600 million biennium operating budget. In 2020, the agency requested additional funding to meet mental health needs among juveniles and address staffing shortages.
But in June, the agency shut its doors to additional children because of a “hemorrhaging of staff.”
“We don’t think that is a long-term solution to the issues that are plaguing Texas’ juvenile justice system,” said Martin Martinez, youth justice policy advocate for Texas Appleseed.
He expects the probe will find that minors in the agency’s custody have been kept in inhumane and unconstitutional conditions.
The claim that the department is violating the due process clause of the 14th amendment, which governs the standards for conditions of youth confinement, by exposing juveniles to undue restraint and excessive force was a key argument in the complaint.
“Texas really needs to take brave steps to reimagine how juvenile justice is done in the state,” he said.
Many of the issues laid bare by advocacy groups were present long before the COVID-19 pandemic, the document alleges.
In 2019, two TJJD employees were arrested over allegations of sexual assault. One was later booked for charges of possession of child pornography and sexual performance on a child, according to the complaint.
The other allegedly forced a male who was incarcerated at a juvenile justice facility to perform oral sex on him. The officer eventually admitted to sexually assaulting the minor in his cell.
However, stories of those who are incarcerated at TJJD facilities going to the bathroom on lunch trays and in water bottles during the pandemic, along with other potential violations, showed that the virus had exacerbated the agency’s difficulties.
And despite the department’s history of rampant abuse and funding crisis, TJJD may soon expand.
The Sunset Advisory Commission, a branch of the Texas Legislature that evaluates and makes recommendations for agencies, suggested that the department continue operating until Sept. 2025 and open additional facilities.
Still, advocates including the Austin Liberation Youth Movement are campaigning for the closure of the five open facilities and pressing the Legislature to invest funds into communities to support kids.
The legislature has until March 10 to introduce a bill that’ll keep the department running. If legislation isn’t introduced, the agency will be forced to shut down.
On Wednesday, Texas House leaders introduced a preliminary budget that would boost TJJD’s operating expenses to over $595 million in 2024 and $410 million in 2025, a significant increase in funding.
Alycia Castillo, director of policy and advocacy for the Texas Center for Justice and Equity, an organization advocating to end mass incarceration, said she’d be shocked if the DOJ did not uncover injustices within the probe’s outlined allegations.
“The level of abuse occurring at [at the facilities] is heartbreaking and astonishing,” she said. “I think if most people knew that it was even happening, there would just be mass outrage and outcry about it.”
Yet, she’s optimistic that the investigation will lead to change.
“There might finally be some appropriate level of attention on the impact of the violations that are happening,” she said.