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Texas' Juvenile Justice Department could be on the chopping block

TJJD headquarters in Austin

The head of the Texas Juvenile Justice department says without more employees the system will fall apart.

Shandra Carter, interim director of TJJD, was adamant that raises were the best way to stem a massive 71% turnover rate. According to sunset advisors — last week the agency needed 788 staff members for normal programming in its five secure detention centers that dot the state, and they currently have 450.

“We have placed so much strain on the system and asked so much of people that it is collapsing. Even the people who are the most dedicated are unwilling to stick around,” Carter said.

The only way to keep up is to add more people quickly. The agency is requesting a 25% raise in starting pay from around $36,000 to $45,000.

Carter was speaking at a hearing of the Sunset Advisory Committee Wednesday.

Sunset staff made a host of recommendations including increasing incentives to divert youth to county facilities, redirecting the governing board, and pushing a more regional approach to juvenile justice as well as additional funding to stabilize staffing.

The hearing was the first to determine if the agency is still necessary for the state; another is scheduled for October. Sunset is an opportunity for radical reform of an agency. Legislators pitched ideas like changing the composition of the governing board to include some nonprofit and private business persons. Currently the 13-person board is composed of judges, and representatives from mental health, juvenile probation, counties, and education.

Another was combining TJJD with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice which oversees the state's prisons and private jail contractors.

“The populations in the adult system in the juvenile system are very different. They have different needs, they have different rights, risks, brain development. So just operationally… we're not really comparing apples to apples,” said Rachel Gandy, with the Sunset Advisory Commission staff in response to multiple questions about combining the two.

Beyond the philosophical — staff determined the cost and logistical challenges would not achieve what the organization needs most, which is stability.

Sexual abuse scandals broke up its predecessor agency the Texas Youth Commission, a decade later, the system has reduced the number of secure detention facilities from 10 to five and cut the number of youth inside in half.

Despite these gains the system is still under tremendous strain from a lack of employees, new allegations of physical and sexual abuse at its facilities, as well as a rotating cast of new leaders at the top of its leadership system. Both the head of its Board and its executive director resigned in the past 4 months.

The Justice Department announced an investigation into the state’s five secure youth detention facilities last October.

“Since TJJD’s creation, the agency has been caught in a seemingly endless cycle of crises and instability,” reads the report from Sunset staff.

The composition of the youth inside is often more traumatized and violent as well in response to the idea of increased regionalization — serving the kids through county facilities.

The hearing lacked the fireworks of some Sunset commission meetings, including the one immediately prior to TJJD which dealt with the state’s environmental regulators.

“Usually it seems to me you'll see some pushback from the agency to Sunset saying ‘Hold it. You’re a little out of line — we’re actually doing a good job on this — you’ve quit your preaching and gone to meddlin.’ I think without exception, as I read through the commission’s comments, it was a cry for help. Without exception it’s ‘we agree with this recommendation.’ They know they are in free fall,” said Travis Clardy, a Republican legislator at the hearing, representing Nacogdoches.

For some nonprofit advocates the recommendations don’t go far enough. Texas Appleseed has been pushing for dismantling the state’s system and pushing the responsibility onto communities closer to where the kids live. Some pointed out there was broad overlap between the needs of TJJD, the state’s foster care system and other areas especially around early mental health intervention resources.

Lawmakers will meet in October to decide the fate of the agency but Sunset staff did recommend continuing the department another six years.

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Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org