AUSTIN (Nexstar) — The Texas Juvenile Justice Department is temporarily halting the intake of committed youth, saying ongoing staffing shortages at its five secure facilities could threaten youth safety.

This comes as it’s already being investigated by the Department of Justice.

In a June 29 letter, TJJD Interim Executive Director Shandra Carter told the Texas Juvenile Probation Chiefs there are concerns about being able to provide adequate supervision for youths and prevent suicidal behaviors.

“The current risk is that the ongoing secure facility staffing issue will lead to an inability to even provide basic supervision for youth locked in their rooms. This could cause a significantly impaired ability to intervene in the increasing suicidal behaviors already occurring by youth struggling with the isolative impact of operational room confinement,” Carter wrote in the letter.

Carter said while she was in contact with the chiefs previously about options for committed youth intake, she said the staffing situation “has further deteriorated,” and the department has “no other option.”

Jennifer Toon spent two years in the Coke County Juvenile Justice Center in Bronte, Texas.

“I look at that picture, and I remember not telling them [my family] what was going on,” Toon said. “Still haunts me, still keeps me awake.”

Toon spoke out then about problems she said she dealt with within her facility.

“Locked in an empty cold cell for hours and days and days,” Toon said.

She worries how understaffing will continue impacting those who are where she once was.

“The more that kids don’t get the mental health services they need, that exasperates whatever underlying conditions they already have,” Toon said.

Toon is now a mental health peer policy fellow with the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities. She advocates for youth who may be struggling.

“As the staffing strength at each secure facility becomes more grim, we have no other option.”

TJJD Interim Executive Director Shandra Carter

A TJJD spokesperson said the pause on intakes began last week. As of Thursday, there are 140 committed youth in detention centers across the state waiting to be transferred to TJJD.

Carter wrote in the letter a list of steps the TJJD will carry out during this intake pause, which includes shifting some youth in their care to other facilities, as well as reviewing some youths to see if they’re ready to be released.

  • Move the female behavioral stabilization unit from the Ron Jackson unit to the McLennan County State Juvenile Correctional Facility
  • Reduce female population by 16 at the Ron Jackson State Juvenile Correctional Complex to meet the current available staff and move them to the McLennan County State Juvenile Correctional Facility, currently holding 242 males
  • Cease the Intensive Intervention Programs (IIP) for violent youth at the McLennan County State Juvenile Correctional Facility and Evins Regional Juvenile Center
  • Review youth about to age out of TJJD jurisdiction for potential safe release to the community
  • Identifying if any determinate sentenced youth may be eligible for early release to TJJD or TDCJ parole

Carter described these steps as “the least worst measures,” explaining to probation chiefs the TJJD understands the strain this further creates.

The TJJD spokesperson said the agency is working to resolve the issue as soon as possible and will keep the probation chiefs updated on the situation.

Investigative reporter Keri Blakinger with The Marshall Project has followed the TJJD for years and points out it has been struggling.

“They have around a 71% turnover rate when it comes to corrections officers,” Blakinger said.

According to Blakinger, the TJJD has 889 positions with 331 that are currently unfilled.

“Because there are so few staff kids are being locked in cells for hours on end,” Blakinger said.

Some are reportedly being left alone for up to 22 hours because of staffing.

The TJJD said the halt on new intakes and keeping youth confined to their rooms is temporary, but the department did not give a timeline for when that would change.