Report details lockup’s decline
Complacency, staffing woes allowed sex acts to happen, watchdog says
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.”