The U.S. Department of Justice announced Wednesday that it is formally conducting a statewide investigation into the Texas juvenile justice system after reports of violations to children's constitutional rights, including allegations of sexual and physical abuse, staff misconduct and excessive force.
"Over the last few years and as recently as last week, at least 11 facility staff members have been arrested for sexually abusing the children in their care," said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division in an online press conference Wednesday afternoon.
"There are reports of other misconduct by staff members, for example, staff members have reportedly paid children with drugs and cash to assault other children. There are also reports of staff sharing pornographic material with children," Clarke said. "There are also reports of staff members use of excessive force on children, including kicking, body slamming and choking children to the point of unconsciousness."
Clarke was joined by Texas' U.S. attorneys from the Western, Eastern, Southern and Northern districts across the state. Authorities did not name all the facilities they are looking into, although Acting U.S. Attorney Chad Meacham of the Northern District of Texas mentioned a Brownwood facility that houses up to 140 girls, and the vulnerability of young girls when they enter correctional facilities.
"According to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department research, when girls enter the system, they enter with a lot of trauma, 86% reported to have suffered what's called adverse childhood events ... 66(%) are placed on suicide watch, and more than 90% are deemed at risk of sexual exploitation," Meacham said.
"We cannot expect them to thrive after they have been traumatized by sexual abuse and excessive force," Meacham added. "We have been troubled by the news coming out of the facility in our district, especially reports of sexual misconduct by staff."
The Department of Justice said it opened the investigation following an extensive review that included news reports, public information and reports from stakeholders and advocates.
"Today marks day one of our formal investigation. In the road ahead, we will be meeting with state officials, we will be looking at documents. We will look at materials concerning policies and training," Clarke said. "We will conduct interviews of people who work inside these facilities regarding specific allegations. … We are at the starting point and much work lies ahead."
Clarke also noted that last February, federal authorities were made aware of a report that a staff member at a facility pepper-sprayed, handcuffed and body-slammed a child onto a bed. She also said the department has received reports that "suggested that children are not receiving adequate mental health there, [and] there are reports of at least two possible suicides in recent years."
"Children committed to juvenile facilities are entitled to rehabilitation rather than punishment," Acting U.S. Attorney Nicholas J. Ganjei, of the Eastern District of Texas, said. "We look forward to collaborating across district lines to conduct a thorough and fair investigation into this matter and to do so with integrity and professionalism."
The Department of Justice will partner with a team of civil right attorneys to conduct an independent investigation into the facilities. If violations are found, Clarke said, the department will "provide written notice to Texas of the violation or violations along with the supporting facts and the minimal remedial measures."
It's unclear how long the investigation will remain ongoing.
Anyone with information should call the department at 1-866-432-0438 or email at email@example.com.