The unexpected resignation last week of the head of the Texas Department of Juvenile Justice has rattled reform advocates.
After four years at the head of the beleaguered state agency, the departure of executive director Camille Cain comes at a pivotal moment.
Cain leaves TJJD as he faces extremely low staffing levels and is audited by the state’s Sunset Advisory Commission. The department faces even greater scrutiny from the Justice Department, which has launched an infrequent federal investigation into state secure detention facilities for allegations of physical and sexual abuse.
Cain was appointed in 2018 by Governor Greg Abbott and tasked with addressing personnel and violence issues that have plagued the organization for more than a decade. But like its predecessors, it has seen mixed results.
“Camille Cain has been deeply invested in trying to reform the agency and transform it into a trauma sensitive environment for young people in a way that meets their needs,” said Michele Deitch, Director of Jail and Prison Innovation Lab at the LBJ School at UT-Austin. of Public Affairs.
Supporters have seen Cain’s work dovetail with their own – trying to reduce the number of safe facilities and advocating for smaller treatment centers closer to children’s homes.
Many have expressed concern about the state’s five oversized secure facilities that are out of the way, in rural settings.
“I think there were limits to what she could accomplish given the inherent problems of large gathering facilities in the middle of nowhere,” Deitch said.
In recent years, Cain has pushed to change the whole system which she described as lagging behind national trends – to detain more young people, more aggressively and for longer.
“We need to start thinking differently about our juvenile justice system. The only thing Texas World Class is going to do is catch up,” Cain said at a February 2022 TJJD board meeting.
“And to fundamentally change our system in a way that makes sense for both Texas and kids…”
Many supporters saw her fighting a system that didn’t want to change.
Understaffing is a persistent problem throughout TJJD and particularly in its secure facilities. One official described the turnover rate north of 70% for direct care staff at a recent TJJD board hearing.
It bottomed out during the pandemic when – at one point – the Texas National Guard was brought in to help. Members of the guards replaced workers who had left or were ill.
According to an agency self-assessment last fall, TJJD needs more money to raise salaries to attract and retain people.
The agency has increased salaries by 15% for direct care staff and mental health jobs since the report.
But last week, a $30 million surplus was withdrawn from the TJJD and directed to border security instead.
The money was extra, Governor Abbott’s office said. Texas has funneled COVID relief funds — money intended to help states recover from the lean tax years of the pandemic — to meet its minimum commitment to the TJJD. Then, instead of using the $24 million this year and the next $6 million to bolster staff or build regional treatment centers, they went to the governor’s pet project. Operation Lone Star.
Cain resigned the same day.
A TJJD spokesperson said the agency used the funding as it was asked and that just because the money was there didn’t mean it should use it for raises.
For many reform proponents like Texas Appleseed’s Brett Merfish — the answer to many of TJJD’s problems is clear — shut down these rural, hard-to-manage, secure facilities.
“Yeah, shut down those five state-secured facilities, probably the halfway houses that go with it, and, you know, look at what we know works, which is smaller, closer facilities. home communities,” Merfish said.
These secure facilities are outdated, agreed Democratic State Sen. John Whitmire.
“They can’t hire the professionals they need to treat the students. And when you are in a rural area with several buildings, they lose control of the young people,” he said.
Whitmire helped shut down many detention centers when the state reformed its juvenile system in 2007.
He praised Cain for doing his best under the difficult circumstances. He said he was more concerned about the continued violence at state facilities. Assaults on guards and other young people are a well-documented part of life in these facilities, with hundreds sometimes occurring in a single ward of a single detention center.
“She was never ready to give up on a child. And that’s very admirable. And I wish I could say the same about myself. But when someone is a violent repeat offender, I think they have to be controlled,” Whitmire said of Cain.
He would like to see more referrals to jails and adult prisons.
This is not a popular view among most child protection experts who believe that more mental health staff and services are the answer.
Advocates like Alycia Castillo of the Texas Center for Justice and Equity said Cain’s tenure has been marked by progress, but she worries about the current trend of harsh criminal narratives.
“We’re on a precipice, it looks, it looks like it could be a huge step backwards.”
For now, one of Cain’s assistant directors, Shandra Carter, has been named interim executive director while they search for a permanent replacement.
Whoever it is will be bound by the results of the state’s Sunset Advisory Commission — which is an assessment of their work — as well as the Justice Department’s investigation. Both could mean big changes.