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THE NATION

Texas youth prison board forced out in abuse scandal

All six members step down after reports that officials covered up molestation allegations.

March 17, 2007|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — The entire governing board of the Texas Youth Commission resigned Friday, the latest fallout from reports that officials covered up claims of sexual abuse in state detention centers.

Last month, the Dallas Morning News and the Texas Observer website reported that a Texas Rangers investigation had concluded top officials at a juvenile center had molested youths in their custody. The administrators under suspicion were allowed to resign quietly, and prosecutors did not charge anyone.

Lawmakers since have learned that a convicted sex offender was working as a guard at another center, and that an official suspected of molesting juvenile inmates was living with a 16-year-old boy. (The official resigned.) There also have been allegations that detention officials tampered with reports and concealed evidence of violence and sex abuse.

The Texas Youth Commission houses about 2,700 inmates ages 10 to 20 who are considered violent or chronically delinquent. The system is notorious for a history of riots, a staff turnover rate of nearly 50% a year, and the biggest workers' compensation bills of any state agency.

Over the years, many parents have alleged that their children were beaten or molested in detention. But youth commission officials downplayed the cases, according to lawmakers and juvenile justice groups, and state leaders did not see them as a sign of systemic problems.

After the reports about the Texas Rangers investigation, lawmakers found that allegations of sexual abuse and violence at state juvenile centers were widespread.

Youth authority officials had referred more than 6,000 abuse allegations to local law enforcement, including accusations that employees engaged in sodomy and oral sex with boys and girls. Eighteen of those cases were prosecuted. It is not clear how many resulted in convictions.

"When TYC representatives testified in their suits before these legislative committees, they were seen as more credible than these parents, who were low-income, sometimes had criminal backgrounds and often showed up in jeans," said Isela Gutierrez, coordinator of the Texas Coalition Advocating Justice for Juveniles.

"These are probably the least-wanted kids in this state, and I am glad someone is finally paying attention to them," she said. "But I am also worried ... that the new people who come in may not be any different from the same old players who swept this under the rug."

The U.S. Justice Department notified the state Thursday that one facility, the Evins Regional Juvenile Center in South Texas, was so "chaotic and dangerous" that inmates' constitutional rights were being trampled.

The department said that youth-on-youth assaults at the center were occurring at five times the national average, and that a guard had pushed a boy's eyes back into his face, injuring him, while trying to subdue him. It gave the state 49 days to fix the problems or risk a federal lawsuit.

Since the cover-up allegations surfaced, Gov. Rick Perry and other state lawmakers have been squabbling over how to deal with the agency.

Perry named Ed Owens acting executive director of the Texas Youth Commission after director Dwight Harris retired last month. He also appointed tough-talking attorney Jay Kimbrough to serve as special master of the commission and look into its problems. Kimbrough has dispatched investigators to more than 20 facilities and has found dozens more abuse allegations.

Lawmakers also demanded the resignations of the board's six members. Perry initially opposed that step, arguing there was no evidence that the board knew about any abuses. But on Wednesday, the state Senate passed a measure demanding their ouster, and Perry complied.

The governor, who is pushing to replace the part-time board with a full-time commissioner, said: "Now is the time for lawmakers to take the next step to fix a broken agency and change the culture of TYC by permanently changing the agency's leadership."

Some critics have contended that legislators are not free of blame.

In 2005, Harris told a state Senate committee that officials were investigating claims of sexual abuse at the West Texas State School, a detention facility in Pyote. A transcript of the hearing, however, shows that lawmakers did not ask further about the inquiry.

State Rep. Jerry Madden, co-chairman of a committee created to oversee the Texas Youth Commission, said lawmakers were working on numerous recommendations for reforming the agency, including downsizing it.

"Some of us in the Legislature had been saying for some time that there were serious problems with the Texas Youth Commission, but the board did not aggressively pursue the problems," Madden said.

He credited Sgt. Brian Burzynski, an investigator with the Texas Rangers, for refusing to let go of his sexual abuse inquiry after he became convinced of wrongdoing.

"You have to give him a lot of credit," Madden said of Burzynski, who gave emotional testimony before lawmakers last week, recounting how he promised abused boys that "justice would not fail them."

No one in Burzynski's investigation has been charged with sexual abuse.

miguel.bustillo@latimes.com

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