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Changes won't be made to Tarrant County juvenile system anytime soon, following release of audit

Tarrant County leaders call new juvenile detention report 'disturbing'
Tarrant County leaders call new juvenile detention report 'disturbing' 02:00

TARRANT COUNTY (CBSDFW.COM) - The Tarrant County Juvenile Board held off on making any immediate changes to the system Wednesday, following the release of an audit showing ongoing overcrowding issues at the juvenile detention center.

The judge in charge of the court handling juvenile cases, Alex Kim, defended the court's performance, pointing to issues from COVID, state transfer delays, and some children referred to the detention center having no other suitable place where they can be released.

The meeting came a day after strong criticism from county commissioners regarding the overcrowding issue, which hit a record high of 138 children in detention in April. 

County judge Glen Whitley suggested two associate judges handling cases for the 323rd district court should lose funding for their positions if they aren't helping move cases along. Whitley wanted the board to possibly agree to that idea, or come up with another remedy, before the county has to approve its 2023 budget next month.

Some of the judges who make up the juvenile board asked for more specific details from auditor Carey Cockerell, including if he had looked at how many of the children in detention were there being held on firearms charges or for violent crimes. Cockerell said he hadn't looked at that detail, though his report noted any increase for violent referrals wasn't significant enough to account for the records increases.

Another judge asked about when the population started to increase, which Cockerell said happened in 2017, while increasing more dramatically starting in 2019.

Kim said the transfer of children from the county to the state system slowed in early 2020 due to COVID precautions. Transfers stopped entirely this spring for a period, due to extreme staff shortages at the state levels. A board member said 26 children are waiting transfer now.

Kim also said "a lot" of the kids in detention are there because there is no one to take them, saying some are victims of human trafficking with no parents or responsible party who will accept custody. Asked if Texas Child Protective Services would take them, Kim said they could also be trafficked from CPS, or from foster care.

Kim said he agreed with concerns from county leaders that children of color make up the majority of youth held in detention, saying it's not representative of the area population. The audit found 92% of children in detention on a particular day in June, were non-white. However, those were the children being referred to juvenile services by law enforcement Kim said.

Though the juvenile board didn't act, it's still possible county commissioners could take action through their budget process. Whitley said Tuesday the county could choose not to authorize funding for associate judges that the audit said staff sometimes called "ghost" courts because of how infrequently they held hearings. 

The money could still be available in the budget to continue to fund work at the juvenile center, but through another avenue, such as having another district court be given authority to handle juvenile cases.

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