Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price Tuesday called for replacement of Juvenile Department Director Terry Smith after a series of detainee escapes and allegations of sexual activity between detainees in confinement.
The latest escape was Sunday morning from the Marzelle Hill Transition Center, part of the county’s juvenile justice complex at 2600 Lone Star Drive, off I-30 near Hampton Road.
Two teenage girls walked out of an open gate from a recreation area around 9:30am. A 13-year old girl quickly surrendered. A 16 year-old girl was found hiding in a pond nearby about 5 hours after she escaped.
Price was on the scene during the search Sunday.
“I just think it’s another example of problems,” he said. “We’ve had a number of young people abscond lately.”
Price said young male detainees have also walked out of the same facility in recent months along with escapes this year from the North Dallas Letot Center and Dallas County Youth Village near Hutchins.
Furthermore, Price said parents first contacted him last month about allegations of sexual contact between boys at the Lyle Medlock Treatment Facility near Hutchins.
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“It wasn’t a matter of touching,” Price said. “It was a lot more explicit than that as evidenced by all of the reports that have been sent to the Texas Juvenile Justice Division.”
Price said those reports indicate as early as January, boys were told to sleep on mattresses on a floor together in a multi-purpose room because of inadequate staffing in other parts of the facility.
The Successful Thinking and Responsible Sexuality program (STARS) included 28 boys at the Medlock facility.
“It’s unacceptable. These are young people who are already in a program for being sex offenders,” Price said.
After reports about improper contact and supervision of STARS participants last month, Price said Director Smith promised changes in staffing and supervision at the juvenile department.
Price said Sunday’s escapes show problems still remain.
“She’s had plenty of time to get this right,” Price said. “Things have not changed and the administration has been derelict and I think it’s time for a change in administration.”
Juvenile Department Director Terry Smith declined comment Tuesday. On Wednesday afternoon, she provided a statement by email:
The Department remains dedicated in its goal to provide the highest quality of services for youth under Juvenile Court supervision. Our agency is working closely with local and state authorities to thoroughly investigate incidents involving our clients. We have made immediate changes to address ongoing concerns, including moving our juvenile sex offenders from the Medlock Youth Treatment Center to the Henry Wade Juvenile Justice Center where they will be an individual cells. We have also made personnel changes and are now conducting weekly staff meetings with Human Resources in attendance to ensure my administration is abreast of all current events, staffing issues, building concerns, and actions occurring in every facility.
We continue to work on hiring staff to address our shortage and are hopeful the county will authorize overtime payments to our staff, as they do in other departments who are faced with working overtime and/or double shifts. We cannot discuss specifics of these investigations, as they are ongoing, but we are addressing and correcting as the process continues to unfold.
I am sensitive to Commissioner Price’s concerns and echo his sentiments in some areas, but feel that the agency remains on track in providing the best care for the youth in our care. The agency has received numerous accolades for the work we have done under my tenure.
• We have one of the lowest recidivism rates of large Texas counties as outlined in the “Closer to Home” report;
• We are keeping youth closer to home and working closely with families for successful family reunification;
• Significantly reduced out of home placements keeping youth closer to their families to support family engagement;
• Our commitments to the state institutions have been reduced by more than 60%.
The state continues to request counties to do more, with less resources, but Dallas County, the Juvenile Board, community partners, private citizens, public and private organization have banned together to ensure the youth in our system receive the best possible outcomes with sustainable community resources. Dallas County has been able to achieve these milestones with dedicated staff, providing community resources and implementing evidenced based and best practices. The recent incidents are not reflective of the good work that has been accomplished.
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins serves with Price on a board overseeing the juvenile department. Jenkins said he is not willing to blame just one person yet.
The Dallas County Juvenile Department has about 1,000 employees to serve around 7,000 kids each year.