Re­port de­tails lockup’s de­cline

Com­pla­cency, staffing woes al­lowed sex acts to hap­pen, watch­dog says

The Dallas Morning News - - Front Page - By NAOMI MARTIN Staff Writer nmartin@dal­las­

Boys locked up for sex crimes at Dal­las County’s ju­ve­nile de­ten­tion cen­ter lost count of how many times they were left un­su­per­vised and en­gaged in sex acts with each other over six months, a state watch­dog found this week.

Con­di­tions de­te­ri­o­rated due to in­dif­fer­ence to­ward the kids’ safety cou­pled with a se­vere staffing short­age — two prob­lems that fed off each other, said Deb­bie Un­ruh, chief om­buds­man at the In­de­pen­dent Om­buds­man for the Texas Ju­ve­nile Jus­tice De­part­ment. The om­buds­man’s of­fice drafted a re­port that was ob­tained by The Dal­las Morn­ing News.

Guards at the Lyle B. Med­lock Youth Treat­ment Cen­ter grew ac­cus­tomed to mak­ing the boys sleep on the floor of a mul­ti­pur­pose room — a mea­sure taken to main­tain re­quired staff ra­tios. And the guards grew ac­cus­tomed,

in­ves­ti­ga­tors found, to leav­ing the boys un­su­per­vised. It was at those times when the boys would en­gage in sex acts, in­clud­ing oral sex, they later told in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

“It’s not an in­ten­tional dis­re­gard for their safety — it’s maybe a com­pla­cency,” Un­ruh said. “It had be­come so com­mon that it re­ally wasn’t thought much about.”

Ac­cord­ing to the re­port, ju­ve­nile de­part­ment lead­ers had no idea about the cri­sis of un­der­staffing at Med­lock. Even Med­lock lead­ers said they didn’t know about the ex­tent of the use of the mul­ti­pur­pose room floor for sleep­ing, but “this is not some­thing they would ex­pect to know, as the use of the [mul­ti­pur­pose room] is not con­sid­ered se­ri­ous.” They ex­pected staffers to tell them about any ma­jor in­ci­dents, but “did not con­sider the staffing short­age and hous­ing ad­just­ments to be a ma­jor in­ci­dent.”

At the root of the staffing short­age was a lengthy four­month hir­ing process and the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s prac­tice of forc­ing guards to come to work early or stay past the ends of their shifts with­out over­time pay, caus­ing a cy­cle of guards call­ing in sick or us­ing med­i­cal leave to catch a break.

The re­port de­scribes that cy­cle as ex­ac­er­bat­ing both un­der­staffing and of­fi­cer morale. Though the guard ranks had been thin for two years, the prob­lem grew crit­i­cal in Novem­ber when part-time staffers were no longer able to work be­cause the county’s yearly bud­get for them had been spent. In in­ter­views with in­ves­ti­ga­tors, of­fi­cers and shift su­per­vi­sors em­pha­sized that they were all stressed and ex­hausted due to their long shifts, not be­ing al­lowed to take time off and lack of over­time pay. That, in turn, led to more peo­ple tak­ing fam­ily and med­i­cal leave or call­ing in at the last minute.

When of­fi­cers don’t show up, their spots have to be filled by of­fi­cers stay­ing late from the prior shift or start­ing ear­lier from the next one. On one oc­ca­sion, an en­tire shift of of­fi­cers didn’t show up for work, the re­port said. On av­er­age, more than a third of the of­fi­cers on the night shift were staff holdovers or staffers called in early.

Last Novem­ber, it be­came clear that the night shift would not meet its re­quired ra­tio of one guard for ev­ery 24 youths dur­ing sleep hours. So the res­i­dent man­ager de­cided to merge two dorms in the mul­ti­pur­pose room. No other op­tions were dis­cussed, staffers told in­ves­ti­ga­tors. Soon, the boys in the treat­ment pro­gram known as STARS would be forced to bring their mat­tresses to the floor of the cafe­te­ria nearly ev­ery night to sleep. That prac­tice con­tin­ued most nights through April, when a boy ad­mit­ted to a ther­a­pist he’d taken part in sex acts while his group was left un­su­per­vised on the floor.

Terry Smith, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the ju­ve­nile de­part­ment, said she has be­gun per­son­ally re­view­ing staffing lev­els since May, when the in­ci­dents and un­der­staffing came to light at a pub­lic board meet­ing. Un­til then, she said, she had been un­aware of both is­sues. Since then, of­fi­cer va­can­cies at Med­lock have de­creased from 12 to three, she said.

But Com­mis­sioner John Wi­ley Price, who re­quested the om­buds­man re­port, wants Smith fired. He said that she should have been re­view­ing staffing lev­els all along and that he ac­tu­ally found her to be over­staffed since the de­part­ment was able to cut $3 mil­lion in bud­geted po­si­tions in the new fis­cal year.

“That whole is­sue of man­age­ment is one that has been lost on the ad­min­is­tra­tion,” Price said. “What we’re hav­ing to put in place is man­age­ment.”

County Judge Clay Jenkins has crit­i­cized Smith’s lack of over­sight but de­fended her as ca­pa­ble of over­haul­ing the op­er­a­tion. He said he be­lieved the staffing lev­els were “on the right track.”

“These were se­ri­ous prob­lems that need to be reme­died,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins said he be­lieves Smith should stay on to hold to ac­count those re­spon­si­ble for mak­ing the mis­takes. Smith an­nounced in June that she plans to re­tire in March.

Smith ac­knowl­edged the un­der-staffing may get worse once she re­ceives the names of the em­ploy­ees ac­cused of neg­li­gence in the re­port. The youths told in­ves­ti­ga­tors they took ad­van­tage of the lack of su­per­vi­sion to en­gage in sex with each other — cit­ing times when the guards left the room, had their backs to the youths and, in one in­stance, watched foot­ball in a boss’s of­fice.

“If I can get the names of some of these staff they will be out,” Smith said. “They weren’t mak­ing de­ci­sions that were best for the kids — they were mak­ing de­ci­sions that were best for them. They have no place in this busi­ness nor this de­part­ment.”

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