How Texas Youth Commission Fell
The scandal engulfing the Texas Youth Commission has claimed some scalps, but will the Legislature demand more?
By Richard Whittaker,
10:39AM, Thu. Mar. 1, 2007
Texas Youth Commission (a happy, skippy euphemism for the juvie people) is in trouble, and the Legislature is leading the charge to burn it to the ground. It's all over allegations of sexual abuse, cover-ups, and incompetence. TYC is built on the idea of taking young offenders, often from the big cities, and dumping them in what are (again, euphemistically called) schools in the furthest corners of West Texas. It's supposed to keep them away from bad influences, but what it also means is a lack of state oversight of the people into whose tender mercies they have been delivered.
The worst of all possible outcomes came with allegations of serious sexual abuse of inmates at the Evins Regional Juvenile Center in Edinburg and the West Texas State School in Pyote by ranking staff, and the almost complete failure of the state to do anything about it. (visit The Texas Observer for overviews of the allegations in Pyote and Evins.) Two years after the original allegations, 18 months after reports landed on prosecuting attorneys' desks, and almost a year after the Observer ran a major story on them, the Lege has finally rumbled into action.
Feb 1 - A Senate Finance Committee meeting turns ugly when Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, sternly questions TYC Executive Director Dwight Harris over the events on Pyote. Harris gives answers that have been seen as, well, less than forthcoming.
Feb 22 - In a hearing before the House Appropriations Committee that makes his bout with Hinojosa look like a coy first date, Harris is questioned about both Evins and Pyote and why exactly his office has done little short of nothing. When he tells the committee that he did not feel it was his "responsibility to contact the attorney general" about any possible prosecutions, the shock and anger of the representatives is audible. Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, calls for demolishing the whole system of shipping young boys to the desert and calls for smaller units nearer to their families. The committee proposes pumping another $12 million into the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission, mainly for prevention programs, so that fewer kids end up in the "care" of TYC.
Feb 23 - Harris announces his resignation at close of business on a Friday. He's replaced by commission general counsel Neil Nichols.
Feb 28 - In a "swapping deck chairs on the Titanic" move, Gov. Rick Perry replaces current TYC Chair Pete Alfaro with his vice chair, Donald R. Bethel, and suggested the board replace Nichols with Texas Department of Criminal Justice Deputy Executive Director Ed Owens. The Senate has an emergency debate, and, in an unanimous vote, tells Perry they want him to place TYC into conservatorship. They also ask the Legislative Audit Committee to look into "gross fiscal mismanagement" by the commission's managers. In what can only be seen as another slap to the face to Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst says the TYC board should be replaced. Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, has a quick suggestion for the whole TYC management structure: "Fire everybody and start over."
The Lege is going toe-to-toe with Perry over what they see as his "too little, too late" approach, but there's another question being asked by reps and senators alike: Why have there still been no prosecutions? Will the trail of incompetence and foot-dragging finally lead to Attorney General Greg Abbott's door?