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Dallas County juvenile department sues commissioners over detention records

Dallas County Commissioner Andy Sommerman wants more transparency from the county's juvenile department.
Bret Jaspers
Dallas County Commissioner Andy Sommerman wants to find out how long children are being detained alone in their rooms by the county's juvenile department.

The Dallas County Juvenile Department and its director Darryl Beatty claim in a lawsuit filed Tuesday that county commissioners have “neither the right to request nor the right to view” records that could show how long children in the department’s custody are confined to their rooms.

Attorneys for the juvenile department argue a recent commissioner court demand for redacted “observation sheets” should be rejected. It asked a judge to rule that the demand is unenforceable.

The fight over the records comes amid claims from Dallas County Commissioner Andy Sommerman that he met children and their parents who claimed they spent long periods in isolation.

Observation sheets would presumably indicate when children in custody were in their rooms, and for how long. Sommerman said he tried multiple times to obtain the redacted sheets from the department but was denied. That led to a subpoena for the records earlier this month.

“I don’t want escalation, I want kids out of isolation,” Sommerman told KERA. “Just tell me how we get kids out of isolation, and assure me it’s not happening, [and] I’m good.”

At issue in the lawsuit is whether state law grants commissioners the right to inspect redacted juvenile records.

Commissioners, who provide much of the funding for the juvenile department, say the observation sheets are needed to know how much money to allocate for juvenile officers. The commissioners court cited a paragraph in the law saying a government agency can obtain a confidential record if it’s for an “administrative or legal proceeding and the personally identifiable information about the child is redacted.”

The juvenile department, however, said the commissioners’ May 8th order “completely misconstrues” the law’s meaning and that the disputed section of the law only pertains to the diagnosis, examination, evaluation, or treatment of a child — not for investigation or fact-finding.

“Even if they’re redacted, they’re still asking Mr. Beatty … to break the law,” said one of Beatty’s attorneys, Frank Adler. "One of his rules of ethics says you cannot violate state law.”

The Dallas County juvenile system — which includes the department, the courts, the district attorney, the public defender’s office, and others who interact with youth accused of criminal offenses — is under heightened scrutiny. A recent report from the nonprofit Evident Change found the system operates under a model “like those found in adult criminal processing systems.”

One consequence is the median child in custody in Dallas County is detained 95 days before the case is resolved – far longer than national model standards.

A Dallas attorney, Jeremy Aleman, recently told commissioners his daughter suffered weeks and even months of extended isolation at the Henry Wade Juvenile Justice Center after a marijuana charge.

“COVID initially was to blame for that,” Aleman said. “The staffing was such that they would not leave their cells except for phone calls, if they had them to make, and for showers.”

Adler, a juvenile defense attorney who practices in Dallas and Tarrant Counties, said both counties have staffing shortages, and children had to spend long periods in their rooms during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the standards were set by the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, and oversight comes from TJJD or the county’s local juvenile justice board.

Sommerman recently replaced Commissioner John Wiley Price on the board after a contentious three-to-two vote. Price was the lone commissioner to vote against subpoenaing the observation sheets.

“We will defend the right of the subpoena and obtain the records,” Sommerman said.

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Bret Jaspers is a reporter for KERA. His stories have aired nationally on the BBC, NPR’s newsmagazines, and APM’s Marketplace. He collaborated on the series Cash Flows, which won a 2020 Sigma Delta Chi award for Radio Investigative Reporting. He's a member of Actors' Equity, the professional stage actors union.