Dallas commissioner wants more info on solitary confinement from county’s juvenile department
Dallas County Commissioner Andy Sommerman says he was denied juvenile department documents that would show how long detained children spend alone in their rooms.
The newest member of the county’s juvenile board wants to know how long children spend in what's commonly referred to as solitary confinement.
Sommerman, a commissioner from the northern part of the county who was recently appointed to an oversight board for the juvenile system, told his colleagues he had asked for observation sheets, which document the location of the children.
He was denied.
“There’s credible evidence that shows — through interviews with children, through interviews with parents, through interviews with attorneys and interviews with staff at juvenile — that we still are having a problem with this,” Sommerman said at a meeting on Tuesday.
The juvenile justice system in Dallas County has been under the microscope from commissioners since a troubling report on its workings came out in March.
Sommerman asked his colleagues to set up a meeting to take official action to pry loose the observations sheets, which he said is allowed under Texas family law if the identifying information is redacted first.
Commissioners set the meeting for Monday at 11 a.m.
“The problem that we have is we do not know the depth and the breadth of the number of children that are being held in solitary,” Sommerman said. “We can find out that information through these observation records that I have continually asked for in one form or fashion and have been denied.”
Under the microscope
The county juvenile justice system has many components, including courts, the district attorney’s office, public defender’s office, and the county’s juvenile department, which runs the center that houses some of the children accused of crimes.
The March report, from the nonprofit organization Evident Change, found several problems with the county’s system. For example, national model standards say 75% of children in detention should have their cases resolved within 30 days.
But Dallas County takes far longer to resolve juvenile cases. In Dallas, the median child in detention stays there 95 days before his or her case is resolved.
This longer period can make things worse for kids.
“When systems provide more supervision or services and supports than are needed, they can increase the likelihood of negative outcomes for that youth,” the report stated.
Examples of negative outcomes include more risk for self-destructive behavior, more challenges at school, and higher risk of future incarceration.
“If we have children in solitary confinement for more than 24 hours, shame on us,” Commissioner Elba Garcia said.
Darryl Beatty, the executive director of the county’s juvenile department, said the Texas Juvenile Justice Department is already looking into potential cases of Dallas County children being stuck in their rooms longer than is appropriate.
"I don’t know that there is any, and so that’s kind of the piece we’re having the state look into for us,” he told KERA. “It’s not something that we as a department and county want to have occur.”
Beatty said there have been days when the juvenile center is short staffed, so teachers visit the students rather than students go to a classroom.
Sommerman’s presentation said that since the report was released, the number of children in detention dropped to 140 from about 200.
As to the documents Sommerman is seeking, Beatty said it wasn’t up to him to share or not share the observation sheets
“We do have them, but it’s like with all records when they’re requested — the juvenile department doesn’t just have carte blanche to release those,” he said.
He said there was a court process to go through before they can be released.
Commissioner John Wiley Price, who was removed from the juvenile board by a majority of his colleagues, said he was concerned about the county getting entangled in a legal fight over whether it can demand the documents.
“We’ve been down this road before, and we were rebuked,” Price said.
County staff said they would seek legal advice ahead of posting notice of Monday’s meeting.
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