Getting Out of Grover's Tub

Chapter 18: TYC in the Tub

Grover Norquist once boasted about the need to shrink government so “small” it could be drowned in the bathtub.  Here is the Norquist recipe: Tax cuts for the wealthy, plus budget cuts for state programs, plus hostility to responsible governance equals Grover’s Tub. Good governance was in Grover’s view, the enemy—and destroying it was Grover’s goal.
Grover’s recipe worked, which explains repeated failures of government from Austin to Washington, D.C.  In Texas, that recipe has resulted in tragedies such as what occurred at the Texas Youth Commission (TYC) over the last five years. 
In 2004, a riot at the Texas Youth Commission’s (TYC) Evins Regional Juvenile Center in Edinburg, Texas, raised concerns about possible abuse and questionable practices at TYC facilitates.   By March 2007, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice released the findings of its investigation of the Evins facility.  DOJ found that the facility failed to adequately protect youth in its care from peer and staff violence, and recommended wide-ranging changes at the facility.  The DOJ report concluded that the violence was a direct result of the lack of sufficient staff to adequately supervise the residents at Evins.  Staff were extremely overworked and reported frequently being required to work double shifts of 16 hours, often without advance warning.  Often, the investigation found, one staff member was left to oversee an entire group of 24 youths. 
One month before the DOJ released its report, the Dallas Morning News and the Texas Observer reported a TYC cover-up of sexual abuse at its West Texas State School in Pyote.  This scandal ultimately led to the placement of TYC under state conservatorship.

West Texas State School - Pyote, Texas

West Texas State School – Pyote, Texas

In 2005, a Texas Ranger, acting on a tip, launched an investigation and within weeks gathered sufficient evidence to charge the school’s principal and the school’s assistant superintendant, with multiple criminal charges.  Unfortunately, however, since the charges were filed, nothing had changed.  TYC forced both men to resign, but the criminal case stalled in the offices of the local county prosecutor, and the United States Attorney’s office in San Antonio resisted requests to take action.  When news outlets finally broke the story, they portrayed a cover-up orchestrated by top administrators and enabled by, according to the Dallas Morning News, “a culture in which prison officials were free to abuse their power” and “punish children who tried to complain about them.”

Documents would later reveal that, according to the agency’s own internal review, as early as December 2003, staff members were complaining that the school’s principal was taking youths from the dorms late at night and bringing them into the administration building.  The review goes on to say that “in spite of the presence of indicators of risk of misconduct, a history of misconduct, widespread suspicion of misconduct, and reports of unusual behavior,…the principal was placed in positions of great responsibility and authority at West Texas State School.”
The West Texas State School scandal turned out to be only the tip of the iceberg.  Subsequent investigations revealed over 2,000 confirmed allegations of staff-on-inmate violence between 2003 and 2006.  An abuse hotline launched by TYC immediately after the scandal broke generated more than 1,100 complaints in less than a month.  In March 2007, the U.S. Department of Justice declared that the violent conditions at the Evins Regional Juvenile Center in Edinburg, Texas, violated the constitutional right of incarcerated youth to be adequately protected from harm while in state custody. 

Evins Regional Juvenile Center - Edinburg, Texas

Evins Regional Juvenile Center – Edinburg, Texas

After the scandal spread across Texas, and the Governor placed the agency under conservatorship, the first conservator immediately fired 66 employees upon discovering they had criminal records.  A detailed report by the State Auditor, released in March 2007, reveals just what happens to government when you “drown it in the bathtub:"

  • In 2005, the agency suffered a 48 percent turnover rate among staff.  The recidivism rate for inmates was hovering around 50 percent.
  • Insufficient use of surveillance cameras, no maximum occupancy rates, and insufficient staffing-to-inmate ratios imperiled the physical safety of youths in facilities.  The reported conditions at the Pyote school were serious enough that the auditor recommended evaluating the school for closure. 
  • Rather than establishing and enforcing staffing-to-inmate ratios that provided for a safe and effective environment, the number of staff varied significantly within individual facilities. For example, at one facility the ratio ranged from 1-to-8 to 1-to-25.  In particular, the ratio was found to be very high on night shifts.
  • Rather than enforcing maximum occupancy rates, as many as 24 youths of various ages and levels of offenses slept in the same room.
  • Rather than conducting a rigorous training program, staff only had to complete 80 hours of pre-service training.  Worse, staff indicated that they were asked to affirm that they attended training when, in fact, they had not.  In addition, facility staff were given reading and writing exams only after they had accepted employment offers.  This practice was found to increase the risk that staff lacked the skills necessary to carry out their duties.
  • The report found that the commission performed only computerized criminal history background checks on prospective employees using name and date of birth, rather then performing fingerprint checks.  In addition, the commission did not have policies in place to prohibit TYC or its contractors working with youth from hiring convicted felons or sex offenders.  
  • Finally the auditor’s report found that TYC board members were appointed by the Governor without consideration of their legal or criminal justice expertise.

What happened at TYC is an anticipated result of Grover governance. When the goal of those governing is not good government, but drowned government, then events like TYC are only a matter of time. Let’s survey other Texas agencies: UTIMCO HHS ($899 million contract overruns), CPS (scandals from high caseloads, low numbers of investigators), MHMR (the DOJ investigated all 13 state schools), and finally, DPS (Governor’s mansion—gone).
TYC did not just happen—that’s what will always happen—-when Grover is in charge.