Lawmaker Delays Leave Facility for Mentally Ill Youths in Limbo

by  October 29, 2013

Months after lawmakers cut millions of dollars in funding for the Texas Juvenile Justice Department and ordered the closure of a detention facility, movement to shutter a facility for mentally ill youths remains stalled as state leaders seek to reconsider its demise.

In a letter Friday, Gov. Rick Perry urged top state leaders to take action to close a facility or risk putting juveniles and staff throughout the agency at risk. 

“I am concerned that given the reduced funding for TJJD, failure to close one of the facilities could negatively impact the safety and security of staff and youths incarcerated at TJJD facilities,” he wrote.

During the 2013 legislative session, state budget writers cut $23 million from the juvenile justice department’s budget and ordered the agency to reduce the number of secure facilities for youths from six to five. In August, the TJJD Board approved a plan to shutter the Corsicana Unit, which for years has struggled with high rates of violence and abuse among its population. Now, the TJJD awaits final approval from the Texas Legislative Budget Board to begin closing the Corsicana facility.

But local leaders in Corsicana worry it will be a blow to the rural region’s economy. Legislators who represent the area — state Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, and state Sen.Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury — have lobbied vigorously to keep it open despite the reported troubles. In an August letter to TJJD Executive Director Mike Griffiths, Cook wrote that closing the facility would be a mistake. 

“Such actions could prove to be detrimental and even tragic for the juvenile population, without providing any benefit to our state,” Cook wrote. 

The state budget contains explicit orders to shutter one facility by Jan. 1, 2014, but Lt. Gov.David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus, who also are members of the budget board, have sent letters asking the TJJD Board chairman to reconsider the decision to close Corsicana.

“I have several concerns about the closure of this facility,” Straus wrote in an Oct. 2 letter to TJJD Board Chairman Scott Fisher. “Specifically it is unlikely closure will result in cost savings to the state, while transferring youth to another facility may negatively impact the care they are receiving.”

In his Oct. 7 letter, Dewhurst said, "I would like to know and to discuss with you the dramatic effects the doubling of our Texas population over the next 50 years will have on the TJJD population."

The stall in action has sparked concern among advocacy groups that have long urged the juvenile justice agency to house youths with mental illness in facilities that are closer to the treatment providers who offer the care they need. Texas Appleseed, the Center for Public Representation and Disability Rights Texas on Monday sent Dewhurst and Straus a letter asking the budget board to immediately approve plans to close Corsicana.

“The LBB’s failure to act also affects the agency’s ability to focus on the most important priority: a long‐term plan for addressing the mental health needs of youth involved in the juvenile system,” the groups wrote. 

The juvenile justice agency, meanwhile, is fully funded to operate Corsicana through October. Until it receives direction from the budget board, said Jim Hurley, TJJD spokesman, the agency will have to find ways to keep the facility running. Fears that staff at the facility would leave for other jobs before the closure have not yet materialized, he said. The facility, which houses 70 youths, is operating normally for now, he said.

“Everyone understands the position we’re in, and we'll be able to come to some solution,” Hurley said. “We’re waiting for direction.”

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