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Justice Department opens investigation into Texas juvenile facilities

The Justice Department has launched an investigation into five juvenile facilities in Texas to determine whether a pattern of physical and sexual abuse exists, and whether minors are subjected to the use of chemicals, isolation, or a lack of adequate mental health services. 

Top Justice Department officials and federal prosecutors in Texas announced the investigation Wednesday, saying they formally opened a probe after reviewing news reports, other publicly available information and information from stakeholders and advocates. At least 11 staff members at juvenile facilities in Texas have been arrested for sexually abusing children in their care in the last few years, said Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general for civil rights at the Justice Department. Clarke also cited reports that minors have been paid with drugs and cash to assault other children. Staff members have also reportedly shared pornographic material with the minors, and used excessive force, including kicking and bodyslamming. 

"Young people even though they are confined in a juvenile facility, should not be abused, mistreated, or deprived of essential services," acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas Jennifer Lowery said on a call with reporters.

The juvenile system exists to help rehabilitate young people, but "all too often" those minors are instead abused and mistreated, Clarke said. Because they are still growing, minors are "uniquely vulnerable to harm," Clarke said. 

"Children of color as well as those with disabilities disproportionately bear the brunt of harm caused by dangerous institutions," Clarke said, noting Black children in the U.S. are four times as likely to be incarcerated as White children, and five times as likely in Texas. 

Justice Department officials didn't elaborate on what else might have prompted their review in addition to publicly available information. 

State officials have been notified of the probe, which officially launched Wednesday. The Civil Rights Division's Special Litigation Section is conducting the investigation with the U.S. attorneys' offices in Texas' Western, Eastern, Southern and Northern districts. 

A state investigation into reports of certain juvenile facility staff engaging in possibly illegal behavior has been under way for several months. 

"In July, Governor Abbott directed the Texas Rangers to investigate reports of certain TJJD staff engaging in potentially illegal behavior," said Abbott press secretary Renae Eze. "Throughout his time serving the people of Texas, Governor Abbott has always prioritized the safety and well-being of all Texas children, including those in the state's care. The state of Texas will cooperate fully with the Department of Justice's investigation."

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