TYC crisis shielded by pattern of neglect
Officials failed to act despite many chances to stop sexual abuse
Ambivalent officials, superficial investigations and a breakdown of management and oversight at almost every level allowed the Texas Youth Commission's sexual abuse scandal to fester for years, a Dallas Morning News review of the case shows.
An aggressive investigation into numerous complaints from the West Texas State School in Pyote might have unraveled the case and allegations at other TYC facilities.
But e-mails, reports, minutes and testimony in the case show that board members overseeing the agency didn't ask follow-up questions about abuse. The local prosecutor consistently put the case on the back burner. And lawmakers and their aides notified of the investigation gave it little attention.
Those failures, along with an inadequate system of internal investigations at TYC and Texas' diffuse state government, let a string of opportunities to deal with the scandal slip by.
Grand jury to consider indictments in TYC case
Investigative Series: Abuse allegations rock TYC "Every single person in this entire system – from the very bottom up to the very top – failed in their duty to protect the children," said Isela Gutierrez, coordinator of the Texas Coalition Advocating Justice for Juveniles. "When you're relying on someone else to do the job, it becomes incredibly easy for no one to do their job."
Now, spurred by media reports and a flood of horror stories from TYC facilities, lawmakers and the governor have dismantled TYC's leadership. And they're working to remake the agency and its culture.
But there were plenty of chances to stop the abuse much sooner.
Between 2003 and 2005, the superintendent at the West Texas State School, Chip Harrison, received a steady flow of complaints from employees concerned about the behavior of assistant superintendent Ray Brookins and principal John Hernandez.
Many of the reports were vague, noting the two were often alone with students but not explicitly alleging sexual abuse. And the men deftly used their authority to sabotage complaints and cover each other's tracks, according to investigative reports.
Mr. Harrison and his bosses either didn't get the message or chose not to read between the lines.
The superintendent believed it was enough to ask the administrators not to spend time alone with youth and keep doors open when they did – even knowing Mr. Brookins had been reprimanded in 2001 for viewing adult pornography on a state computer.
Even after that, the complaints continued, including an e-mail to Mr. Harrison from a TYC caseworker, reporting that Mr. Brookins had watched an inmate shower and asked who "that big black stud" was, investigative reports show.
Mr. Harrison, though, was hardly the only TYC official to look the other way.
The e-mail traffic and speculation at the West Texas campus was enough for officials at TYC headquarters to open a formal investigation. But where a Texas Ranger would find extensive, horrific evidence of abuse just six months later, TYC investigators somehow found nothing.
They declared that the reported incidents didn't "suggest sexual abuse or a violation of policy." They said that staff witnesses contradicted each other and that the reported conduct was "open to interpretation."
Director of Juvenile Corrections Lydia Barnard, a high-level official in Austin, found that Mr. Brookins' actions were rare and that he was merely addressing behavioral problems with his inmates. She asked Mr. Brookins not to have students in the administration building after 5 p.m. When Mr. Harrison took a medical leave at the end of that month, Ms. Barnard even promoted Mr. Brookins to acting superintendent.
There's "no good answer" for how the TYC investigators missed the overwhelming sexual abuse evidence, said Jim Hurley, the agency's recently appointed spokesman.
"How did TYC miss that?" he asked. "It appears their belief in the integrity of their internal investigators' abilities is misplaced."
The complaints continued, some reaching Austin. Youth inmates wrote to TYC officials asking why their comments in the school's complaint mailbox seemed to disappear into thin air. And a caseworker sent a direct e-mail to TYC's top official, executive director Dwight Harris, complaining about Mr. Brookins being alone with youth.
Mr. Harris, who resigned when the abuse allegations became public and declined to be interviewed for this story, does not appear to have acted personally on that complaint.
The TYC inspector general's office passed other complaints up to Ms. Barnard, the same person who oversaw the original investigation. No formal complaint was ever filed. Ms. Barnard, who did not return phone calls seeking comment, was demoted to parole supervisor in December for an unrelated personnel problem.
By late 2004, Mr. Brookins still had not stopped taking inmates into his office for private, after-hours visits. Employees, knowing their complaints fell on deaf ears, started quitting.
For one volunteer math tutor at the West Texas facility, the lack of action was too much. In February 2005, he called Texas Ranger Brian Burzynski at his Fort Stockton office to report sexual misconduct at the prison.
It took Mr. Burzynski just days to uncover what TYC investigators couldn't – accusations that two administrators performed explicit sex acts repeatedly with at least 10 inmates.
The evidence he found was overwhelming, from log books that documented after-hours activity to sex toys and traces of semen on an office carpet. At the time of the investigation, a 16-year-old boy was actually living with Mr. Brookins on school grounds.
Both Mr. Brookins and Mr. Hernandez, who could not be reached for comment but have previously denied allegations of abuse, were suspended, and they later resigned. Mr. Harrison, now in an Austin job with TYC, has been suspended with pay.
TYC officials kicked off yet another internal investigation – this time to determine what they had missed and why.
In their report months later, TYC investigators concluded that Mr. Brookins had been given increased responsibility in spite of "a history of misconduct, widespread suspicion of misconduct, and reports of unusual behavior."
They said the central office was unable to fully grasp the problem because student victims were afraid to report crimes and because employees were reluctant to say they suspected sexual misconduct. And they blamed administrators for not taking reports seriously.
Top officials later removed incriminating information from these reports to protect their colleagues – specifically Ms. Barnard. The unsanitized version quoted TYC's security coordinator, Melody Vidaurri, as saying she had relayed student and staff complaints to top agency executives but been told by Ms. Barnard that the allegations had been cleared.
Uncomfortable with this answer, she asked for a meeting with the executives but never heard back. A formal complaint to Ray Worsham, the agency's new inspector general, also went unanswered. And the investigators never addressed the most pervasive cultural problem inside the agency – an overwhelming belief that the inmates were not victimized children but criminals trying to manipulate the system.
Nor did they question why top agency officials granted almost unchecked authority to local administrators.
"It's this idea that these kids and their parents are less believable, and in a way require less protection from the state," said Ms. Gutierrez, whose organization has been monitoring the TYC since 2004.
When the report was complete, agency officials believed their job was done. But they didn't distribute it to anyone – not even to their own governing board. Part-time prosecutor
Meanwhile, Mr. Burzynski was pursuing law enforcement action – but the Ranger ran into a busy part-time local prosecutor.
Mr. Burzynski informed Ward County District Attorney Randall Reynolds of the case in February 2005 and sent him his final investigation report in mid-April. By July, Mr. Burzynski was concerned about the slow pace, and Mr. Reynolds assured him the case would go before a grand jury in January 2006.
When that didn't happen, Mr. Burzynski reached out to other district attorneys and to the attorney general's office for help.
Mr. Reynolds could've used the help. The district attorney, who did not return repeated phone calls for this story, serves three remote West Texas counties, and lacked the money and manpower for a high-level investigation. The Associated Press reported this week that Mr. Reynolds prosecuted few of the felony cases referred to him in 2005 and 2006.
He was also maintaining a private law practice – a point that has led lawmakers to accuse Mr. Reynolds of being more interested in his own business than the sexual abuse problem.
And officials with the attorney general's office, acting under a longstanding assumption that they aren't allowed to intervene in local cases unless they're asked to, told Mr. Burzynski they couldn't step in until Mr. Reynolds requested it. Officials with the attorney general's office said this month that the lawyer who talked to Mr. Burzynski didn't notify his supervisors. If they had known the seriousness of the allegations, they said, they would have gotten involved sooner.
Once Mr. Burzynski launched his investigation, TYC officials moved to inform the lawmakers and directors who oversee the agency.
Mr. Harris, the executive director, had his chief of staff send heads-up e-mails and memos to the agency's board of directors, to the governor's office and to the staffers of several key lawmakers – though he didn't approach any of them directly.
By mid-March 2005, Mr. Harris had delivered a three-page status report to the Senate's Criminal Justice Committee. And while he made vague mention of the West Texas case in remarks before that committee, he didn't demand lawmakers' attention on it and didn't try to dissuade them when they said they would discuss it another day.
For the staffers on the receiving end, no alarm bells sounded. They're notified of investigations all the time, they say, and they trusted the agency or its board to follow up.
"I use the analogy of cops in a city doing a routine drug bust," said Ted Royer, spokesman for Gov. Rick Perry. "They don't pick up the phone and call the mayor."
The governor's office confirmed Wednesday that it received an e-mail in 2004 from Randal Chance, a former TYC internal investigator, alleging abuse within the agency. His e-mail alleged that he was being threatened for writing a self-published book about the abuse, but the governor's office forwarded the message to the TYC.
The governor has said he personally was unaware of the scandal until reading Dallas Morning News reports last month.
Reports surfaced this week that Alfonso Royal, a criminal justice aide in Mr. Perry's office, asked the TYC for a status update on the West Texas case in June 2005. It was only two months after Mr. Burzynski had finished his report, and Mr. Royer said that Mr. Royal did not think it unusual that the case hadn't been prosecuted yet.
Rep. Jerry Madden, chairman of the House Corrections Committee, said he has agonized over whether better policies could have prevented such cases.
"We probably should've done something earlier about the organization," said Mr. Madden, R-Richardson. "It takes a long time to determine what an agency's overall culture is. But we could've done things to tighten up on them."
The group directly charged with overseeing the TYC, its board, wasn't actively engaged in the case, either.
Though board members were notified about the Ranger's investigation by e-mail in early 2005, it apparently didn't stand out as something they needed to monitor. And they didn't take any action until September 2006, when they set up a subcommittee to look at abuse across the TYC system.
Even during those meetings, board members never mentioned the West Texas case by name or asked for copies of Mr. Burzynski's report or the TYC's internal investigation, discussing abuse in general terms instead. Nor did any of them ever call the district attorney to find out what was taking so long with the case.
Lawmakers have come down on the members for not digging into the agency, some even raising questions about the legitimacy of the basic structure of state government: executive agencies overseen by boards appointed by the governor.
But the members – who all resigned Friday after legislators began moving to fire them – say they were acting as policy advisers, not criminal investigators. As long as the administrators had resigned or been suspended, they believed the youths who had been abused were no longer at risk.
"The incidents at West Texas, what happened there is terrible, no board member that will disagree," said former TYC board chairman Pete Alfaro. "But we followed our procedures that we had."
Mr. Hurley, the TYC spokesman, said all state-appointed boards are "limited as to what they can do." They don't have investigative power but can direct staff members to refer a case to an investigator, he said.
Plus, board membership is hardly a full-time job. The unpaid volunteers overseeing TYC met every other month. Board members have said that they didn't have the budget to hold meetings on site at the facilities.
It took until last November for the case to get the attention it was due – and only then because of a casual conversation and an aggressive aide to a state lawmaker.
Alison Brock, chief of staff for Rep. Sylvester Turner, was having dinner with Ms. Gutierrez, the juvenile justice advocate, who mentioned that she had heard rumors of a West Texas sexual abuse case that had yet to be prosecuted.
Ms. Brock called Mr. Burzynski to get a copy of his report. Then, she said, she went to "everybody I knew" to discuss the case, including Mr. Royal, the governor's criminal justice aide.
Mr. Royal called the Ranger, the district attorney, and then the attorney general's office to ask why the case hadn't been prosecuted. In January, close to two years after Mr. Reynolds was given the case, he formally asked for the attorney general's help.
Meanwhile, Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa had started a campaign of his own. In late January, he sent copies of the Ranger's report to many of his colleagues and directed his staff to pull reports and conduct interviews. At a Feb. 1 meeting of the Senate Finance Committee, he was the first lawmaker to publicly question Mr. Harris, the executive director, about the report.
About two weeks later, The News and the Web site of the Texas Observer broke stories about the West Texas case.
Heads started rolling: Mr. Harris resigned, followed by Mr. Alfaro. Now, an investigator appointed by Mr. Perry is on the case, and a new executive director is implementing a plan to overhaul the agency.
So far, authorities have opened more than 900 abuse or neglect cases, and several people have been arrested, suspended, fired or forced to resign.
Mr. Worsham, the TYC investigator who is being accused of redacting internal investigation reports when they were made public to protect his colleagues, is suspended. He declined to be interviewed for this story.
So who, ultimately, is to blame for the failure to act sooner?
Nothing can excuse the actions of TYC officials, said Sen. John Whitmire, the Criminal Justice Committee chairman who, with Mr. Madden, is leading a special committee on the TYC case. The officials, he said, "knew children were being abused, and they either changed the records to deny that, or in some instances looked the other way."
And while some, including the governor, have placed the blame on Mr. Reynolds for failing to prosecute the case, Mr. Madden said he's just a sliver of the problem – one that includes a TYC investigation system so outdated that thousands of cases have been left to collect dust in local police departments, instead of being passed to prosecutors.
"He alone didn't cause the agency to implode," Mr. Madden said of the district attorney.
Lawmakers instead point to an agency crippled by its self-preservationist culture – where officials, trapped by a rapid expansion in the 1990s that was never adequately funded, were afraid to raise problems or demand more resources.
"There's pressure in this building not to talk about how poorly they're funded, not to talk about what budget cuts did," Mr. Whitmire said. "The nature of the Legislature is to react to problems. But [TYC officials] never said a damn word about West Texas."
ABOUT THIS STORY
This report was compiled using formal investigation reports, internal documents, memos, e-mails and hours of testimony from the Texas Rangers, the Texas Youth Commission, the TYC board of directors, the governor's office and the offices of several state lawmakers.
How the TYC scandal unfolded:
Employees at the West Texas State School in Pyote send numerous complaints to superintendent Chip Harrison about assistant superintendent Ray Brookins and principal John Hernandez spending time alone with inmates. Mr. Harrison advises them not to be alone with the inmates after hours.
Aug. 23: A caseworker writes to TYC executive director Dwight Harris about Mr. Brookins being alone with youths. A month later, the same caseworker reports overhearing an inmate complain about Mr. Brookins touching him.
September: An internal investigation fails to turn up evidence against Mr. Brookins and Mr. Hernandez.
November 2004-January 2005: More complaints are lodged, including a young man alleging sexual contact with Mr. Hernandez. The youth tells an administrator. Mr. Brookins demands that the administrator not talk to anyone about it.
Early February: Mr. Harrison is warned by volunteers that Mr. Brookins is having sex with youths. Mr. Harrison conducts some interviews, but there is no immediate response.
Feb. 23: Texas Ranger Brian Burzynski begins a criminal investigation into allegations against Mr. Brookins and Mr. Hernandez. Mr. Burzynski consults with District Attorney Randall Reynolds and unsuccessfully makes the case for a federal investigation. The school administrators are suspended, and Mr. Brookins later resigns.
Feb. 24: TYC board members receive an e-mail from Joy Anderson, then-Texas Youth Commission chief of staff, informing them of an investigation at the West Texas State School.
March 9: Ms. Anderson sends an e-mail to staffers for four senators letting them know about the investigation. The TYC notifies the governor's office at about the same time.
March 11: Officials from the Texas Youth Commission provide a status report to the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, specifically Chairman John Whitmire.
April 14: Mr. Burzynski's report is approved by his lieutenant. He sends it to the district attorney the next day.
July 28: The U.S. attorney's office declines to prosecute the case, saying the facts would yield only a misdemeanor conviction. Mr. Reynolds assures Mr. Burzynski he'll take the case to a grand jury in January 2006.
August: The TYC completes its internal investigation.
January: Concerned about the slow pace of the prosecution, Mr. Burzynski approaches another district attorney, who agrees to handle the case. Mr. Reynolds says he'll think about the offer, but he never acts.
Feb. 21: Mr. Burzynski e-mails the Texas attorney general's office, explaining that he is afraid the statute of limitations will run out before the case is prosecuted and urging pressure on Mr. Reynolds. Officials later responded they could only get involved if Mr. Reynolds asks for help.
September: TYC board members set up a panel to deal with abuse allegations – a year and a half after they were first notified about the abuse in West Texas.
Early November: Mr. Burzynski receives a telephone call from one of Rep. Sylvester Turner's staffers asking about the West Texas State School investigation and requesting his offense report. An aide to the Houston Democrat contacts the governor's office, where aide Alfonso Royal begins to contact Mr. Burzynski, the attorney general's office and Mr. Reynolds, the local prosecutor.
Jan. 17: Mr. Reynolds writes the attorney general, asking for prosecutorial help.
Feb. 13: Mr. Reynolds and Mr. Burzynski meet with the attorney general's office to discuss details of the prosecution for the first time. No charges have yet been filed