Unsupervised boys at Dallas Co. juvenile
detention center engaged in sex acts
DALLAS, TX – Boys locked up for sex offenses were left unsupervised at a Dallas County juvenile detention center long enough to engage in sexual acts with each other on at least two occasions.
The misconduct occurred while the youths were sleeping on mattresses on the floor of a multipurpose room at the Lyle B. Medlock treatment facility in southern Dallas. The boys were required to sleep on the floor as a group “intermittently” from December through April because of severe understaffing, said Terry Smith, the county’s juvenile department director.
At least five boys were found to have engaged in sexual contact during that period — three boys in one instance and two in the other, Smith said.
“I’m madder than hell,” said Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, who sits on the juvenile board. “They’ve turned it into a free-for-all out there. Nobody’s minding the store.”
About 28 boys, ages 13 to 17, are in a treatment program known as STARS at the facility because they were found to have committed sex offenses.
Staffers learned of the sexual incidents in April during routine polygraph tests that are part of the STARS program, Smith said. The youths said the incidents occurred while they were housed on the multipurpose room floor several months earlier, Smith said.
At least one boy’s parents called Price’s office to complain about the sexual incidents. At a juvenile board meeting last week, Price asked about what happened.
Medlock superintendent Marilyn Boss told Price that the sexual incidents involved “touching” but “no penetration.”
After reviewing investigative reports related to the incidents this week, Price said Boss’ characterization was false, although he declined to answer whether the contact did include penetration. He said the reports aligned with the parents’ accounts.
“They lied publicly,” Price said. “It was a lot more than touching. It was sexual shenanigans.”
In addition to the sexual contact and sleeping on the floor — which could violate state standards — detained children have escaped from low-security county juvenile facilities as recently as Wednesday.
Two juveniles who’d been adjudicated for offenses ran from the cafeteria at the Youth Village on Wednesday, Smith said. At least two escaped in April after they broke a window by throwing a drawer through it. One of the juveniles has yet to be found.
This is all evidence, Price said, that the juvenile department is plagued by mismanagement.
“The fact that staff had access to this kind of information and no heads have rolled is unacceptable,” he said.
Smith said she has taken steps to hold officers accountable for the lapses in supervision and to address the issues created by understaffing. She recently held a job fair to boost recruitment.
“There are things we must improve upon, absolutely,” Smith said. She said she plans to move the boys in STARS to another lockup by the end of June, where each youth will sleep in his own cell. Smith said she planned that move six months ago — before the allegations. Price expressed skepticism about that, sarcastically calling the decision a “eureka moment.”
Smith said the department is doing the best it can with a group of deeply troubled children. None of the youths involved in the sexual incidents alleged any force or coercion, she said. Regardless, juveniles in confinement aren’t legally able to give consent for sexual activity.
“Those kids have been abused and exposed to horrific situations themselves,” Smith said. “Part of the problem with our sex offender kids is they don’t have appropriate ways to express themselves sexually because of their own sexual trauma history. Those are the cycles we try to break.”
County Judge Clay Jenkins, who sits on the juvenile board, said he was “concerned” about the “failures” but stopped short of calling the department mismanaged. All juvenile lockups struggle to prevent sexual contact between youths and none are “100 percent successful,” he said.
“There were clearly issues here that need to be corrected and improved on,” Jenkins said. “I can’t take a jump from that, to saying that the entire juvenile system is headed in the wrong direction or there’s a leadership problem systemically. But I can say that any time there’s sexual contact between children in confinement, that’s unacceptable.”
Smith said she was disappointed in the managers at Medlock, where STARS is housed, for not telling her about the severity of the understaffing there. She was unaware that youths were sleeping on mattresses on the floor until Price brought it up at the public meeting last week.
Raises and hiring boosts at state Child Protective Services caused some of the staffing woes, Smith said, as juvenile officers jumped to jobs they were qualified for at higher pay.
She said she needs about 40 more employees and hopes to hire them by the end of June. Exacerbating the staffing issue, she said, the number of teens being placed under Dallas County’s supervision has risen 14 percent this year.
The department has been careful to stay within the staffing ratios required by the state, which are one employee for every 12 juveniles during waking hours and one employee per 24 youths during sleeping hours, Smith said.
The county’s Juvenile Board is responsible for inspecting and certifying that its facilities are up to state standards to keep receiving state funding. The board is made up of Price, Jenkins, five judges and a community member. Last week, Price voted not to pass the Medlock center, but the other members did approve the building’s certification.
Price plans to file a complaint with the Texas Juvenile Justice Department asking the agency to investigate Dallas County’s problems. Besides a lack of supervision, Price said the lockups have violated the standard that requires juveniles to sleep at least 6 inches above the floor.
After a sex abuse scandal roiled the TJJD in 2007, state lawmakers created the Office of the Independent Ombudsman to investigate state-run juvenile detentions. Years of reforms have caused more youths to be held in county lockups closer to their homes rather than in remote rural detention centers. But the ombudsman office is not staffed or mandated to keep tabs on county juvenile facilities, though watchdog groups say it should be.
The state pays $126 per day per youth housed at Medlock, which has the capacity for 96 juveniles. That funding could be cut or suspended if state regulators find the lockup to be out of compliance and it fails to correct the problems.
There are signs that Medlock’s conditions are improving, at least in some ways. In the first quarter of this year, Medlock logged five uses of physical restraints and zero instances of suicidal gestures or staff injuries. That’s down compared with the first quarters of 2016 and 2015, when the facility logged more reportable incidents, including 18 and 38 uses of physical restraints, respectively.
Still, the issues coming to light are disturbing to observers. They could cause youths to end up in worse shape than when they went in, said Lindsey Linder, juvenile justice policy attorney at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. She called the sleeping on mattresses on the floor “dehumanizing.”
“This is horrific,” Linder said. “The idea that we’re putting these kids in situations that is going to further perpetuate their sexual trauma is abhorrent. It should be common sense and obvious that we should do everything we can to make sure that doesn’t happen.”