Texas Youth Commission Trouble

Scandal enveloping Texas Youth Commission has only gotten worse in last week

The scandal enveloping the Texas Youth Commission has only gotten worse in the last week. There's been a torrent of revelations – including that the privately run Coke County Juvenile Justice Center hired a registered sex offender – and the arrest of the superintendent at Ayers halfway house in San Antonio for shredding files. Last Tuesday, in a shock move, law-enforcement officers took over all 21 TYC facilities. But the Legislature is still working on investigating the abuse, the alleged cover-up, and the future of the commission.

Last Thursday, the TYC-busting Joint Select Committee on Operation and Management of the Texas Youth Commission met for the first time. It includes Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, and Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, two legislators who have pursued the commission most aggressively through other committees. It's supposed to tackle all three of the big allegations – sexual and physical abuse, gross financial mismanagement, and why serious charges about both were not investigated. It'll also be making recommendations on how TYC can change its operations and looking at how youth-corrections bodies in other states work.

The committee's first meeting had a clear message for the TYC board – get out. The board claimed that it didn't know about the abuse and shouldn't be held responsible. The committee didn't agree. Midmeeting, it bluntly asked members to resign. When they refused, the committee passed a unanimous no-confidence vote. The board's testimony stood in stark contrast with powerful evidence from Texas Ranger Brian Burzynski, whose original investigation first unearthed the abuse at the West Texas State School in Pyote. His evidence raised the question of why Attorney General Greg Abbott's office had yet to get involved. The Lone Star Project, funded by the federal Lone Star Fund political action committee, is now alleging that Abbott's staff moved the local DA from the abuse investigation to prosecute a misdemeanor electoral violation instead.

On Friday, committee member Sen. Chris Harris, R-Arlington, filed Senate Bill 1921, which would fire the entire board. And Rep. Valinda Bolton, D-Austin, filed House Bill 3521, demanding that TYC establish a permanent Office of Inspector General. Beyond the Legislature, Gov. Rick Perry's special master, Jay Kimbrough, is talking to former TYC inmates now serving in adult facilities, and State Auditor John Keel is examining financial records his office seized. Thomas Stickrath, director of Ohio's Department of Youth Services, who cleaned up the department after a similar scandal in Ohio in 2004, has been called in by Perry to give advice. Not that Stickrath has a perfect record: In the first six months of 2006, there were still 10 staff-on-inmate assaults in the Ohio system. Even TYC itself has set up a 24-hour hotline (866/477-8354) for any allegations of sexual abuse.

The joint committee has yet to schedule its next meeting, but it better get moving: Its initial findings are due March 31.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Texas Youth Commission, Coke County Juvenile Justice Center, Ayers halfway house in San Antonio, Joint Select Committee on Operation and Management of the Texas Youth Commission, Sylvester Turner, Juan Hinajosa, Brian Burzynski, West Texas State School in Pyote, Greg Abbott, Valinda Bolton, Jay Kimbrough, John Keel

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