Friday, March 02, 2007

Two Valley Lawmakers Appointed to Panel Looking Into TYC Scandals

AUSTIN - Two Rio Grande Valley lawmakers have been appointed to a newly created Joint Select Committee to look into the scandal-ridden Texas Youth Commission.

Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, have long demanded action over the TYC’s troubled Evins Juvenile Detention Center in Edinburg.

On Friday, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Speaker Tom Craddick announced that the Joint Select Committee would be charged with studying recent allegations of sexual abuse at certain facilities administered by the TYC.

The Austin American-Statesman reported Friday that an internal report on the abuse was sanitized to delete references that top agency officials. The Statesman said the officials were alerted to the abuse more than two years ago but did nothing.

“Like many Texans I am outraged at the culture of neglect and deceit that is seemingly apparent at the Texas Youth Commission,” Peña said.

“Since late 2005 when my office first received complaints out of the TYC's Evins unit we have exerted considerable pressure on administration officials to address allegations of abuse and neglect.”

Peña said that despite assurances that the problems at the Evins unit were isolated incidents “it is abundantly clear that there are systematic deficiencies that must be addressed.”

Peña said he would be demanding accountability for a system that “appears broken.”

Dewhurst said the Joint Select Committee would also examine the TYC’s policies and procedures, and make recommendations for how to improve its future oversight of youth being rehabilitated in these facilities.

”As leaders of this state, we will not tolerate abuse or cover up in any state agency,” Dewhurst said.

“Our recommendation of a conservatorship allows immediate action to hold those involved accountable, correct any problems that still exist within TYC and put in place measures to prevent further abuse of those in the state's custody and of the public trust.”

The committee will be co-chaired by Senator John Whitmire, D-Houston, chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee and Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Richardson, chair of the House Corrections Committee.

Along with Hinojosa, the Senate appointees are Houston Republican Chris Harris, Amarillo Republican Kel Seliger, Plano Republican Florence Shapiro, Dallas Democrat Royce West, and Tommy Williams, a Republican from The Woodlands.

Along with Peña, the House appointees are Houston Democrats Harold Dutton and Sylvester Turner, Sherman Republican Larry Phillips, and Houston Republicans Debbie Riddle and Corbin Van Arsdale.

“The disturbing allegations about certain activities at the Texas Youth Commission warranted the immediate creation of this committee,” Craddick said. “I trust that the committee members will thoroughly review the situation in the Texas Youth Commission and ensure this agency gets back to helping our troubled youth.”

The Legislative Audit Committee, a permanent standing joint committee headed by Dewhurst and Craddick, met Friday to examine the conduct and fiscal management at the TYC.

The committee voted unanimously to recommend that Gov. Rick Perry appoint a conservatorship. The LAC also gave Perry the option to use the state auditor’s office to formulate a rehabilitation plan for the agency.

Perry immediately utilized the new tools and appointed Jay Kimbrough as Special Master of the TYC.

Kimbrough, who will report directly to Perry, will lead a commission-wide investigation of TYC policies and procedures, reports of failures and wrong-doings by commission staff and specific instances of abuse.

Perry said Acting Executive Director Ed Owens, who took office on Thursday, will be responsible for developing a comprehensive Rehabilitation Plan in consultation with the State Auditor that corrects the failures identified by Kimbrough’s investigation.

“I welcome the additional authority provided by the legislature because it will empower the state to more swiftly identify and fix the pervasive problems at the Youth Commission,” Perry said.

“With a Special Master, the state will aggressively investigate reports of abuse and hold people accountable for their actions. And we will develop a long-term plan that will rebuild this broken agency from the ground up, and refocus it on its mission of rehabilitating young Texans.”

Perry said there was "no one better" to lead the transformation than Kimbrough and Owens.

Also Friday, Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle announced his office would begin an investigation into allegations of wrongdoing by officials with the TYC in Austin.

“It has been reported that documents relating to TYC officials in Austin and their handling of allegations of sexual misconduct at a TYC facility in West Texas were altered at TYC headquarters in Austin,” Earle said, in a statement.

“The allegations of sexual misconduct must be prosecuted in the county where the conduct allegedly occurred, but the allegations of altered records at TYC headquarters, if true, are within the jurisdiction and venue of this office.”

TYC Chairman Pete Alfaro was fired by Perry earlier this week, while the agency’s Executive Director Dwight Harris resigned two weeks ago.

Problems at the Evins unit were first made public in 2005, with guards saying they feared for their safety. Alfaro and Harris appeared before a Senate Criminal Justice Committee hearing in McAllen last August.

“Unfortunately, we’ve had incidents for which we are not proud,” Alfaro said, at the McAllen hearing. “You're familiar with the past abuse cases at the Evins facility here in the Valley and at other locations. I'm here to report that those incidents of abuse at Texas Youth Commission are the exception.”

Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, said Friday’s actions by the LAC did not go far enough.

“We need to do more than send accountants from the State Auditor's Office to an Austin TYC office - we need to take real action immediately to protect the victims in the TYC schools across the state,” Dunnam said.

“This scandal is not about dollars and cents; it is about sick abuse of troubled children and a government cover-up.”

Dunnam filed legislation – HB 2340 - Friday that would place the TYC into a conservatorship immediately.

He said he applauded the senators on LAC for strongly recommending the conservatorship but was disappointed that the House members gave Perry a “watered down” alternative.

“We need to take immediate steps to create statutorily a conservatorship for the agency, provide for immediate law enforcement assistance through the Texas Rangers and establish a DPS hotline for confidential tips,” Dunnam said.

“The Senate voted 31 to 0 along these lines, and we hope the full House has the opportunity to act on Monday to protect the children of this state.”

Rep. Tommy Merritt, R-Longview, a former federal law enforcement official, has agreed to joint author HB 2340.

Legislation filed by Hinojosa would require TYC to provide 300 hours of training to guards before they begin duties at state facilities, increase staffing to at least one guard for every 12 youths in each facility, and prohibit the current practice of housing youth as young as 11 and 12 with those as old as 19.

SB 103 would also authorize the Texas Rangers to make monthly unannounced visits to facilities and submit reports to the state’s Sunset Commission for inclusion in TYC's review evaluations.

In addition, SB 103 would create a criminal investigations unit, reporting to TYC’s board of directors instead of the agency’s executive director. The investigators would be commissioned peace officers who would investigate criminal acts among TYC youth, guards, and other commission employees.

Courtesy of the Rio Grande Guardian.

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