AUSTIN - The Texas Youth Commission has asked the U.S. Department of Justice for help in assessing the way it reports and investigates abuse against youth in state juvenile prisons.

If the TYC does not turn the tide of abuse, the state may face legal action, a representative for the American Civil Liberties Union told a state House committee Wednesday.

TYC Executive Director Dwight Harris asked the DOJ for help March 16, after a months-long investigation by Rio Grande Valley Freedom Newspapers - which includes The Monitor - of juvenile abuse in the TYC system.

Findings published Sunday in Freedom Newspapers showed that by 2005, three of every 100 youths in the TYC were being physically abused, a seven-fold increase from 1999.

And injuries by youth against officers increased 70 percent in five years, official records used in the investigation show.

Joy Anderson, chief of staff for TYC, said no single event spurred the request to the federal government.

"We just want to make sure that everything is being looked at," Anderson said. "We think the more eyes, the more expertise that can look at the issues that are facing us, the better."

In simultaneous hearings Wednesday, the House committees on juvenile justice and corrections heard from agency officials who said turnover and training problems are contributing to the abuse.

They also heard from juvenile correctional officers who said agency policies give inmates the upper hand in the high-security facilities, and from parents of incarcerated youth who said their children have been abused in the agency.

Many employees came from San Saba, the high-security facility in rural Central Texas where staff members suffered a 250 percent increase in injuries due to youth aggression from 2004 to 2005, worker's compensation records show. Youth abuse rates increased as well.

Juvenile Justice Chairman Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, and many who testified, cited findings of the Valley Freedom investigations when addressing the committee.

State Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, said he was particularly struck by the findings that point to youth who were taken out of view of security cameras before they were abused, and that "minor infractions" such as a youth "making a face" prompted an attack from an officer.

"I envision possibly a big bill coming out of this next session," Castro said after the hearing.

Many of the cases of abuse are similar to those that spurred a years-long lawsuit against the TYC in the 1970s and dictated its current structure, said ACLU's Texas legal director, Lisa Graybill.

It is too soon to say whether the state will face legal action, but the Legislature can prevent the possibility by increasing staffing ratios and taking other actions to prevent abuse, she said.

"We're worried that, despite the good intentions of staff at TYC, the increase in the number of substantiated reports may indicate over time the kind of conditions that provoke that litigation," she said.

Harris' request to the DOJ went to its Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. He expects to hear a response within a month, he said.


Elizabeth Pierson covers the state capital for Valley Freedom Newspapers. She is based in Austin and can be reached at (512) 323-0622.