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Texas takes $30 million from troubled juvenile justice department to fund border initiative Operation Lone Star

Governor Greg Abbott unveiling new border wall construction in Rio Grande City
Office Of The Governor
Gov. Greg Abbott at an appearance at the border on Dec. 18, 2021.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is now paying for his controversial border mission Operation Lone Star with money from the state’s cash-strapped Texas Juvenile Justice Department.

About $31 million of the nearly half billion dollars he raked from a half dozen state agencies earlier this month to fund national guard troops on the southern border came from the state’s juvenile justice fund.

The move perpetuates a system that hurts Texas children, and could hurt the state when Justice Department officials finish their investigation of the agency. The Justice Department announced an investigation last October into Texas’ five secure detention centers over sexual and physical abuse of youth by staff and other children.

Since 2017, more than two dozen TJJD employees have been arrested for sexual assault, having sexual contact with children, or oppression — which often involves physical abuse of youth in its care.

TJJD Daniel Holmes
Daniel Holmes is just one of more than two dozen TJJD employees arrested since 2017. He pled guilty to indecency with a child and improper sexual activity with a person in custody.

Violence is also a regular occurrence at the department’s rural, secure detention facilities, with the agency’s quarterly reports showing dozens of assaults on guards, on youth as well as the use of physical restraints.

One reason has been personnel. TJJD identified the need to raise salaries as a major reason people were leaving the department in a September 2021 self-evaluation for the state’s Sunset Advisory Commission — which regularly audits and reviews state agencies.

According to a spokesperson, TJJD increased salaries 15% since then. But it wasn’t enough — jobs that were already hard to fill pre-pandemic, became nearly impossible to staff as the agency hemorrhaged people.

“In a four-month period, I think it was November, December, January, February, we recruited 57 employees, but we lost 70,” said Shandra Carter, a-then deputy executive director of TJJD at a February 2022 board meeting. She was recently elevated to interim executive director.

At the time she said that all the state’s secure facilities were overcapacity.

“And we're not seeing a way out of it with the current resources and situation that we're in,” she said.

So it surprised many when Gov. Abbott removed $30 million from the agency, redirecting funds to the now $4 billion dollar “Operation Lone Star.” The controversial border security state initiative has been criticized from both the left and the right of the political spectrum. The numbers of apprehensions and drug seizures have been challenged by media reports that showed Abbott was taking credit for arrests with no connection to the border.

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Abbott funneled federal COVID relief dollars from the CARES Act into state salaries and operations offsetting hundreds of millions across the government. The $30 million taken from TJJD was actually one of the lowest among the top six state agencies.

“These transfers are meant to support the deployment of the National Guard with $465.3 million and to support border operations in other state agencies with $30 million,” said a press release from the Governor's office.

The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment about this story by the time of publication.

Republican leadership is essentially saying— yeah that money was on TJJD’s books — but it was more than the $600 million the legislature gave them for the combined 2021 and 2022, so it wasn’t really TJJD’s money.

Then TJJD executive director Camille Cain along with five other agency heads wrote letters requesting the money offset by federal dollars be transferred to the state’s disaster fund — which is funding Operation Lone Star.

Cain — who fought for four years to increase funding and change the culture of the organization — resigned the next day.

The idea that TJJD got what was budgeted — so no harm was done in taking the $30 million — doesn’t fly with Alycia Castillo of Texas Center for Justice and Equity.

“It's the budget as it is that is not enough to keep kids from being traumatized by the department,” she said.

And it isn’t just her. Former DOJ attorney Julie Abbate investigated juvenile and adult detention centers for 15 years before leaving the agency, and she said this is a red flag for the Justice Department.

“That just seems to go beyond perhaps deliberate indifference standard under Eighth Amendment violation to like a flagrant disregard of what's happening on the ground,” said Abbate.

Abbate — who now works for Just Detention International, a nonprofit devoted to ending sexual abuse in detention — added that announcing the civil rights investigation was akin to an arrest. It tells the public there is enough to suggest a systemic problem. She also takes issue with sending money to a project viewed as both political and redundant — rather than using it to help kids who are at risk.

“It is beyond reprehensible. And it's the most grotesque example of political theater ever. If that, if that's what Governor Abbott is going for. Kids are being sexually abused. There's really good reason to believe that kids are being sexually abused under his watch,” said Abbate.

While it won’t affect the investigation this minute — she is certain when the DOJ sits down to negotiate a settlement in its civil rights investigation — this money will come up.

Many who have watched TJJD struggle over the years agree that its problems extend beyond money.

It is beyond reprehensible. And it's the most grotesque example of political theater ever.
Julie Abatte

The $30 million is just a fraction of the more than $600 million TJJD biennium budget — but from mental health needs, to staffing shortfalls, to facilities upgrades — it’s hard to imagine a scenario where it wouldn’t have helped.

“It may be that money can't solve these problems. But that would be the exception,” said Abbate.

Texas has a problem caring for children as evidenced by this DOJ investigation, but also by the embattled Child Protective Services. A federal court judge who oversees the Texas foster care system called it “broken.”

“The problem is with our youth, whether it's CPS or the Juvenile Justice Department, is that it’s ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ and that's a shame,” said John Whitmire, a state senator.

He also expressed a reluctance among the legislature to invest in the system that is seen as broken.

For Elizabeth Rodriguez, something must be done now. One of her loved ones was released from TJJD custody in February. And they are grappling with the aftermath of a system that made things worse, she says.

Billy is her niece's son, who she now often cares for in Abilene. She asked TPR not to use his real name. When he was 10, he was already getting into trouble for his ADHD and showing signs of trauma and anger problems.

After a fight he ended up in Taylor County’s juvenile center. There he tried to hang himself. The family wanted to put him in a mental health facility

“They said he was too young, nobody would take him,” Rodriguez said “He just turned 11. So that's really odd that a mental facility won't take a child, but they'll put him in a prison cell.

He ended up in TJJD custody and spent about a year between a halfway house and two of their secure detention centers. He doesn’t talk about that time period much, Rodriguez said.

“He has flashbacks. So he doesn't want to think or talk about that,“ she said.

She said the family knows he spent much of the time isolated because of his age. When he wasn’t she says he did get into some fights. Each time he got into trouble they got a call. She worried about what else they weren’t hearing about.

“In the sexual assaults, we have no idea. He will not tell us,” she said. “He just told us that he saw boys having sex with each other — the boys in the facility. He also said there was a woman guard having sex with a juvenile teenager.”

Rodriguez has spoken to legislators — she has spoken to Justice Department lawyers. She talks about it to whoever she can.

“I didn't realize that kids were treated like this, like, I had no idea that I was just appalled by it,” she said.

Billy doesn’t draw anymore like he used to. He doesn’t play sports. He doesn’t hang out with kids his own age. He attempted to kill himself again after getting out, too. And the family still struggles to get him mental health help. She said she felt hopeless.

When she found out about the governor’s money swap, she felt something else.

“That's horrible,” she said. That makes me feel sick. I mean, I feel really sick.”

TPR was founded by and is supported by our community. If you value our commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.

Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org and on Twitter at @paulflahive