DALLAS (AP) — Juvenile justice advocates say operational and behavioral problems have persisted at a Texas lockup under state control for more than a decade.
Documents collected by the Dallas Morning News show the Gainesville State School for delinquent juveniles has been on the verge of crisis for more than a year.
"It's a bad culture," said Debbie Unruh, an independent watchdog assigned with ensuring juvenile safety in the state's custody. "It's a dangerous culture."
Officials with the Texas Juvenile Justice Department said the troubles are largely due to their inability to hire and retain qualified staff to supervise hundreds of youth, many of whom have severe mental health and behavioral issues.
"The constant churning of staff presents significant operational challenges, and has a detrimental effect on youth outcomes," said David Reilly, the department's executive director. "TJJD is continually evaluating options within available resources to address these concerns."
In monthly reports from August 2016 to September 2017, Unruh found the facility housed dozens more students than it had the capacity to monitor. The reports each month also documented how critical the staffing shortage was.
During that time, data show 160 employees at the facility either quit or were fired. The department reported that the staff turnover rate at Gainesville in 2017 has been nearly 40 percent, the highest of the state's five youth lockups.
Unruh said that the few staff members who do show up to work are often exhausted and less attentive due to overtime.
"If you're not able to supervise these kids, they act up and they do things to each other," she said. "That makes it a very unsafe environment."
Lawmakers who were told this week about the facility's troubles said that the department should be investigated. But youth advocates said the state can't wait any longer to fix problems in the department.
"There needs to be an urgency among people who have the ability to change the system," said Lindsey Linder, attorney at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. "You can't say as a lawmaker that you care about public safety and not respond to a situation like this."