After weeks of unrest over Dallas County’s care for incarcerated juveniles, commissioners on Monday ordered the juvenile department to turn over documents regarding the conditions of children at its detention center.
In a special session, the commissioners directed the department to provide “observation sheets” of every child held at the Henry Wade Detention Center between January 1, 2023 and April 4, 2023. These sheets detail where each child was during controls during the day.
State law requires guards to check child detainees every 15 minutes and every 10 minutes when a child is placed on suicide watch.
Jeremy Aleman told the court during the public comment portion of the meeting that his daughter had been held in the detention center for nearly two years. He said she was kept in her own room—the size of a bathroom—for months apart from going out for phone calls and showers. She lay down on the floor to look under the door and talk to other girls, he told her.
“You have to be aware of what extended periods of isolation do to an individual,” Aleman told the commissioners. “There is psychosis. There is anxiety. There is depression. There is a worsening of conditions that these children may have suffered before.”
Dallas County Youth Department Executive Director Darryl Beatty disagrees with the order.
He said in a statement that he has been involved in juvenile justice for more than 30 years and that the order to provide confidential juvenile documents is a clear violation of state law.
“Furthermore, following the order would expose me to violating my commitment to fulfill my duties as a certified juvenile probation officer and director of the Dallas County Department of Juvenile Probation,” he said in a statement.
She said The Dallas Morning News in July that children were safer in county custody than with the state juvenile justice department, where children were locked in their cells for up to 22 hours a day.
A report released in March found that Dallas County is holding children for longer periods of time pending a judicial decision and that judges are ordering harsher punishments than other Texas counties.
Dallas County’s juvenile system also sends more children to its detention center than any other county in Texas. Many children held in the detention center are assessed as having a low risk of recidivism.
On average, the number of children in the detention center was around 200 in early April, but has since dropped to around 140, Commissioner Andrew Sommerman said.
In most other counties, more than half of these children would have received probation rather than wait for a decision in the detention center. About 64 percent of the time, a Dallas County juvenile judge will release them into the community after weeks, sometimes months, of waiting in the detention center.
After the report exposed systemic failures in their juvenile system, Dallas County officials in March publicly promised an overhaul. The meeting to discuss the potential changes has yet to take place.
Sommerman, who was recently named to represent the commissioners on the juvenile council, said at the meeting that the court needs more information from the juvenile department to adequately address the concerns.
He said last week his requests for observation sheets were denied three times, even when he agreed the names of the minors could be withheld. Sommerman said she wants the county to fund positions for enough guards to properly monitor the children.
“We have to do our administrative duties to make sure we can send the dollars we need,” Sommerman said Monday morning.
Sommerman asked Aleman if his daughter’s incarceration had an impact on his daughter’s mental health. Alemanno answered yes.
As he adjourned the open meeting to executive session, Judge Clay Jenkins shook his head in exasperation. The commissioners met after public comment to discuss whether the court has the authority to require a department to turn over that information.
Once the meeting resumed publicly, all but one of the commissioners approved the order.
Commissioner John Wiley Price opposed the decision, saying the court lacked the authority to order the observation sheets to be shared. He said later in an interview that the Court of Commissioners has only budgetary authority.
“They’ve jumped the gun and they know they have no authority,” said Price, who served on the juvenile justice board for many years.
Following a confrontation between Price and County Judge Clay Jenkins during the March juvenile council meeting, the commissioners removed Price and replaced him with Sommerman.
District Attorney John Creuzot, who was present during the commissioners’ executive session, declined to comment on whether the commissioners hold the authority to order the sharing of documents.
Price blamed the district attorney’s office for the amount of time Aleman’s son was locked up. He said lawyers always postpone court dates.
Creuzot declined to give details of a specific case but agreed that there were problems within his office. Prosecutors in the Juvenile Department did not separate children who are a “nuisance” from those who are “dangerous,” but rather sent nearly all of them to the detention center, Creuzot said.
The report found that in 91 percent of the cases, the district attorney’s office sent the children through a formalized judicial process.
“I’m not going to deny it. It’s true,” she said in an interview. “We’re working on it.”
Once locked up, these Dallas County children languish far longer than anywhere else. The report found that while national court associations recommend that 75 percent of Dallas children in detention centers be resolved within 30 days, only 1 percent of Dallas cases are resolved that quickly.
The average stay in the Henry Wade Detention Center is 140 days. Creuzot has previously said that this wait is because the juvenile court system is inundated with cases because so few children are diverted to probation, rehabilitation or alternative programs.
This isn’t the first time Dallas County’s juvenile system has come under scrutiny for child care. In 2018, The news reported that boys at the Lyle B. Medlock Youth Treatment Center were rarely allowed outdoors. Some teenage boys have reportedly gone months, sometimes more than a year, without going outdoors more than a few times.