'Grim' staffing shortage is forcing Texas juveniles to await transfer to state facilities

Gov. Greg Abbott recently shifted millions of dollars from the long-troubled agency to his controversial border security mission.

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Saturday, July 9, 2022
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The Texas Juvenile Justice Department doesn't have enough staff to keep minors safe or deal with increasing suicidal behavior, its interim head says.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- A Texas Juvenile Justice Department letter reveals the staffing shortage is so 'grim' that it can no longer accept juvenile inmates.

A letter from the interim executive director, Shandra Carter, to juvenile probation county leaders revealed how a staffing crisis has forced the agency to stop accepting new youth inmates. Across the state, the agency said 140 inmates are waiting to transfer.

ABC13 reached out to the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department. They said only three inmates are stuck, and they can to manage the situation right now.

However, it's alarming to Brett Merfish. She's the youth justice director at Texas Appleseed, who has been fighting for changes in the state juvenile system.

"The goal of the juvenile is to rehabilitate kids and we shouldn't throw away the key and assume that just because they exhibited some law-breaking behavior or done something that is bad that we should give up on them, and that's what I fear is happening right now," Merfish explained.

A TJJD spokesperson told ABC13 they need more staff. Less than 50% of budgeted correctional officer positions are actually being used.

There are currently 330 openings. Eyewitness News learned Friday, that in order to fix that, the agency will increase pay by 15%.

Starting salary will go from $36,238 to $41,700.

"Those are short-term fixes, and they're not really going to solve what's an ongoing and worsening problem," Merfish said.

The agency believes increased by will attract new talent, and reduce turnover. More staff will not only allow them to accept inmates again, but work to rehabilitate youth. Merfish said she'd lobbied lawmakers to close state facilities and move juveniles closer to home at county facilities.

"There are staffing shortages all over the juvenile system, these are just worse," Merfish explained. "So, what we're advocating for is a staggered closure model where basically you close one facility, transfer those funds to a planning process."

TJJD is halting new inmates at a time when it's losing millions of dollars. In April, Gov. Greg Abbott announced he's re-allocating more than $30 million from TJJD to help at the border.

Abbott's spokesperson, Renae Eze, sent ABC13 this statement:

"The safety and security of TJJD staff and youth is a top priority for Governor Abbott. Under Interim Director Carter's leadership, TJJD is implementing permanent raises to address the urgent issue of understaffing at facilities and ensure they remain secure and safe. To maintain greater transparency, TJJD is updating the legislature and probation chiefs across the state of the situation on a weekly basis. This is a completely inaccurate, unsubstantiated narrative that this transfer of funds negatively impacted any state agency and their ability to provide services or resources to Texans. The transfer of funds, which acted solely as a placeholder, did not impact the agency's operational budget in any way and is not related to any operational decisions made by TJJD."

Merfish said the movement of money wasn't great for TJJD, but she believes it didn't contribute to the staffing shortage.

"Every dollar taken away is a dollar that could've been used to help kids," Merfish said. "It's not something I like to see, but I don't see that as a driver of this problem," Merfish said.

There's no word on when juveniles would once again be moved to state facilities. However, lawmakers and county leaders will receive weekly updates from TJJD on the situation.

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