Sex scandal grips Texas justice system

March 04, 2007|By New York Times News Service

HOUSTON -- A sexual abuse scandal in the Texas juvenile justice system has state politics in an uproar, with accusations that damning reports were doctored and shelved and sexual predators in high positions were allowed to resign without facing charges.

Late Friday, Ronnie Earle, the district attorney of Travis County, who has jurisdiction over Austin, the state capital, announced a criminal investigation into possible records tampering at the Texas Youth Commission.

And Gov. Rick Perry, pressed by angry legislators to put the commission into conservatorship, appointed a special master, Jay Kimbrough, a former deputy state attorney general and state director of homeland security, to lead an investigation into the agency.

According to officials, at least 13 boys and girls were molested by staff members at two state schools run by the commission. Even before Earle and Perry took action on Friday, there were already inquiries under a previously appointed special prosecutor and legislative committees.

At a state Senate hearing in the capital on Tuesday, parents complained of sexual abuse and other mistreatment of their children in state facilities.

"My son is home, but he is not the same since he was raped in the TYC," said Mary Jane Martinez of San Antonio, who told the Senate Criminal Justice Committee that her 17-year-old son "is so ashamed of himself he built a wall."

Martinez said her son refused to detail what happened to him at the Victory Field Correctional Academy in Vernon.

With the state's Republican leadership under strong challenge, a high-level legislative audit committee called on Perry on Friday to appoint a conservator to take over the commission, or, failing that, to send in state auditors to investigate how it was handling nearly 8,000 youthful felons, misdemeanants and parolees in 36 facilities.

One top Democratic lawmaker with bipartisan support said he would seek to introduce a bill tomorrow ordering a takeover of the agency.

In recent days, top officials of the youth commission have resigned or been ousted. Many lawmakers - already furious with the governor for bypassing them last month on an order that sixth-grade girls be vaccinated against a sexually transmitted virus causing cancer - have criticized the commission as dysfunctional.

Will Harrell, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, which has investigated juvenile mistreatment allegations for years, said the juvenile justice system was overwhelmed and needed alternatives to incarceration, like probation programs.

The furor centers on the commission's handling of allegations of sexual abuse by two former high-ranking administrators.

One, Ray Brookins, a security director at the San Saba State School in central Texas, was allowed to transfer to the West Texas State School in Pyote on Oct. 1, 2003, although - according to a commission report compiled in 2005 - he had been disciplined for having adult pornography on his work computer and had been admonished for regularly taking students into his office alone at night with the blinds drawn.

The superintendent at Pyote, Lemuel Harrison, said he not been told of Brookins' history. But the report criticized Harrison for allegedly ignoring repeated complaints from staff members who claimed that within days of arriving, Brookins began taking boys out of the dormitory at night for sexual encounters.

A caseworker later reported overhearing a boy telling his mother that Brookins had molested him in the dormitory.

When Harrison went on medical leave in October 2004, Brookins became acting superintendent and, the report said, "used his authority and powers of persuasion to keep his victims and West Texas State School staff from reporting his conduct."

Brookins, 41, who was said at the Senate hearing to be working now at a bar in Austin, could not be reached for comment. Two Austin phone listings in his name were out of service, and the youth commission has no way to reach him, said a spokesman, Tim Savoy.

Two weeks after Brookins' arrival at Pyote, the West Texas State School hired a new principal, John Paul Hernandez. Hernandez, too, began taking boys out of the dormitory to private, late-night encounters, the report said.

The Texas Rangers later found that both men "engaged in sexual contact with several students." Federal prosecutors declined jurisdiction in the matter, and the findings were referred to the Ward County district attorney, Randall W. Reynolds, who said LAST week that the case was still active, if delayed.

"Frankly, I wish it had moved quicker," Reynolds said. Now it has been turned over to a special prosecutor.

Savoy of the commission said that Hernandez had "staff sexual contact" with two 17-year-olds and a 20-year-old and that Brookins had sexual contact with an 18-year-old and committed "unprofessional conduct" involving other sex-related offenses with six youths ages 15 to 19.

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