WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Justice Department said on Wednesday it was opening a civil rights investigation into juvenile detention centers in Texas after reports of child sexual and physical abuse at the hands of members of the staff have emerged from the media and advocates in recent years.
The Department found “significant justification” for opening an investigation following 11 recent arrests of staff members who allegedly sexually assaulted children in juvenile detention. In other incidents, children have been thrown to the ground, kicked and suffocated, said Kristen Clarke, head of the Department of Justice’s civil rights division.
Clarke said an incident that sparked the investigation happened last February when a child in a Texas juvenile detention center was allegedly pepper-sprayed, handcuffed, an abdominal chain, shackles and a mask anti-spit, then the body was slammed. Other staff are said to have paid children with money or drugs to harm other children, she said.
“Too often children in correctional facilities like the ones involved here are abused, abused and deprived of essential services. And because they are children, who continue to grow and develop, they are particularly vulnerable to harm,” Clarke said.
The Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice has the power to initiate investigations into police departments, municipal governments, detention systems and other local jurisdictions if it has reason to believe that civil rights are systematically violated. Recent high-profile investigations involve police departments following the deaths of black men at the hands of police, such as the ongoing investigation of the Minneapolis Police Department following the death of George Floyd.
The inquest announced Wednesday follows a series of legal measures Biden’s Justice Department announced regarding Texas, including challenging the state’s near-total ban on abortions.
The investigation will determine whether the Texas juvenile detention system shows a pattern and practice of physical and sexual abuse of children, harm using chemical restraints, excessive use of seclusion and ‘a lack of adequate mental health services,’ Clarke said.
A team of civil rights attorneys from the Department of Justice will conduct an “independent, thorough and fair” investigation in Texas, Clarke said.
“If our investigation reveals reasonable grounds to believe that there is a systemic constitutional violation, we will provide written notice to Texas of the violation or violations… and corrective action,” Clarke said.