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Who’s looking out for Texas’ most vulnerable youth?

Who’s looking out for Texas’ most vulnerable youth?

Picture of Neena Satija
[Photo by Stuart McAlpine via Flickr.]

It all started with a tour of an overcrowded juvenile detention center in Houston in April 2017.

I had just published a project with two colleagues at the Texas Tribune called “Sold Out,” which exposed how hollow rhetoric from state politicians and a broken child welfare system contributed to the problem of sex trafficking all over the state. (We later produced a podcast that explored the same topic). We had talked to countless youth, advocates, lawyers, judges, law enforcement officials and others — but we weren’t able to tour a juvenile detention center, where so many child sex-trafficking victims end up.

The chance came after “Sold Out” appeared on the Tribune’s web site, and in a number of major state newspapers, in February. The University of Houston invited me to attend a conference on juvenile legal representation a couple months later, and I figured that while I was there I might as well tack on a tour of Harris County’s juvenile detention center. Probation officials welcomed my request — especially because their facility was way over capacity and they were worried about losing even more funding during that year’s state legislative session.

What I saw was alarming. Kids staying in juvenile detention — who have not yet been convicted of an offense — usually get their own little room, or “pod.” But because the facility was so overcrowded, many of them had to sleep in the common areas at night, in little plastic beds referred to by the staff as “boats.” Staff members were clearly overstretched, probation officials told me. Records showed that teachers in the detention center were having a much tougher time than usual. As I observed a group of boys — all different ages — learning math, I’ll never forget a sound that penetrated the room. It was a constant “Bang. Bang. Bang.” Later, staff members explained to me that an uncooperative student was confined to a single pod and was banging his hands against the window in protest.

I left the facility thinking I would write a story about capacity issues at the juvenile detention center in America’s third-largest city — and that I’d quote county officials who pointed the finger at the state for cutting their funding. But when I headed over to the juvenile lawyers’ conference, I heard a different story. Everyone there insisted that the probation department and detention judges had become too harsh. They were locking up kids unnecessarily while their cases were pending, the lawyers told me. That was the real story.

A series of public information requests with Harris County and the state gave me the data that I needed: the Harris County Juvenile Detention Center’s average daily population had skyrocketed in recent years, despite a drop in overall juvenile crime in Houston and across the state. The average length of stay for kids in the detention center had gone up, too. I wasn’t able to get any data on the decisions made by detention judges — judges who decide whether a child will stay in detention while his or her case is pending. But the data clearly showed that probation officials, who also play a role in whether kids are detained, were often deciding to lock up kids for very minor offenses.  The data also showed that African American youth were disproportionately affected. And while data indicated that there had been some sort of spike in what probation officials called “egregious offenses” — crimes like armed robbery, for instance — lawyers and advocates insisted to me that overzealous prosecutors and poor defense lawyers were to blame, not kids, in Harris County.

After I wrote a story about the curious trends in Harris County’s juvenile detention center, many people reached out to me urging that I look deeper into what was happening in Houston. Children in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems have long been getting substandard legal representation that completely alters the outcomes of their lives, these people said.  Those who are charged with protecting them — in particular, lawyers — are often working without the kids’ best interests in heart. Politics and perverse incentives get in the way, and while lawyers, judges, and politicians benefit, the most vulnerable kids get left behind.  And it’s not just happening in Houston — it’s happening all over the state.

This is what I aim to expose as a 2018 National Fellow, with the help of a grant from the Center for Health Journalism. I’m thrilled to be a part of this program and I can’t wait to get started.

[Photo by Stuart McAlpine via Flickr.]

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