Federal lawsuit blames TYC in ill boy's death



AUSTIN — The last thing Cynthia Cavazos remembers her son telling her
from the Texas Youth Commission facility where he was locked up was not
to worry about his poor health.

"'Mom,' I remember him saying very clearly, 'don't worry. I'm OK.
They're taking care of me. They're getting me my medication,'" Cavazos,
of San Antonio, recalls of the 20-minute telephone conversation she had
with 17-year-old John Rodriguez in May 2004.

Rodriguez was still in TYC custody when he died two months later of
brain swelling and an infection left untreated, says an attorney for
his mother.

A federal lawsuit blames the TYC for Rodriguez's death, saying it
violated its constitutional and legal duty to provide adequate medical
care.

"This is not just about incompetence; they showed a cold, calculated
disregard for his life," San Antonio lawyer James Myart Jr. said.

The agency, under siege amid allegations of sexual and physical abuse,
has been placed under conservatorship and is being purged of employees
with criminal records.

"We think there are some major issues we need to look at" regarding
medical care to inmates, as well, said Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Plano, who
chairs the joint legislative committee overseeing the overhaul. "We're
just skimming the surface. ... We're not sure what needs to be said or
done."

Last month, a top official for the University of Texas Medical Branch,
which provides medical care to the TYC, said the agency's system was in
such disarray that his institution wanted out of its contract.

The annual turnover rate for nurses in the TYC is 32 percent, UTMB vice
president Dr. Ben Raimer testified.

A TYC investigation of Rodriguez's death faulted several employees for
the care he received in his final weeks.

Whether Rodriguez, a tall and skinny boy who grew up with his mother
and two sisters on San Antonio's west side, would be alive today if TYC
staffers had not made mistakes might be up to a jury.

Myart has notified the court he is ready for trial.


No examination

Here's what is known:

In April 2004, Rodriguez was serving time as a general offender at the
Coke County Juvenile Justice Center, then a privately run facility
operated by the GEO Group in Bronte. He had been incarcerated before
but was back for a parole violation when he began complaining of a body
rash.

Medical staff saw him at least eight times between April 18 and May 13,
and as time progressed, Rodriguez told them he was experiencing severe
pain, itching and a sore throat.

A doctor who prescribed medication during the visits often phoned in
the order without actually examining him, the internal report notes.

When Rodriguez's condition did not improve, the same doctor ordered him
taken to the local hospital.

While there, Rodriguez developed a fever and reported severe pain;
tests indicated he was suffering from splenomegaly, acute pancreatitis
and leukocytosis.

On May 15, 2004, he was moved to Hendricks Medical Center in Abilene
and put under the care of a physician specializing in infectious
diseases.

He was there until June 2, then was discharged with an aftercare plan
devised by medical staff at Hendricks and the TYC. He would require
24-hour nursing care, need to be near an emergency room and have weekly
tests conducted, the internal report notes.

TYC staff decided to put Rodriguez in a van and send him across the
state to the Al Price State Juvenile Correctional Facility, 525 miles
away near Beaumont.


Transferred

Myart says Rodriguez was handcuffed the whole way and was provided with
almost no follow-up care.

He saw a doctor only once between early June and the day he died, July
6, and that was for a knee injury, Myart said.

His fevers and pain worsened, he began feeling dizzy and faint and he
stopped taking some of his medication, but nurses failed to notify
doctors of those problems, the agency report states.

"The whole purpose of the transfer was to get him closer to a medical
facility that could (better) treat him," Myart said. "What they did is
drive him 500 miles and put him in another TYC facility that happened
to be closer to (a more specialized hospital), but they did not get him
the specialized medical care he needed."

On July 5, Rodriguez was found unresponsive, his eyes open. He was
taken to a local hospital, then transferred to UTMB in Galveston, where
he died.

Released from prison herself not long ago, his mother says she visits
his grave at the San José Mission Cemetery twice a week.

Cavazos says she brings her son's favorite food along — a Big Mac,
fries and a Coke — and eats while talking to him beside his headstone.

In their last phone conversation, she says, he told her he was going to
introduce her to his new girlfriend.

lsandberg@express-news.net


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