WASHINGTON — The Justice Department announced Wednesday that it is opening a civil rights investigation into juvenile detention facilities in Texas following reports of sexual and physical abuse of children at the hands of staff members emerged from media outlets and advocates in recent years.
The Justice Department found "significant justification" to open the investigation after 11 recent arrests of staff members alleged to have sexually abused children in juvenile detention. In other incidents, children were thrown to the ground, kicked and choked, said Kristen Clarke, the head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.
Clarke said one incident that triggered the investigation occurred in February, when a child in a Texas juvenile detention facility was reported to have been pepper sprayed; placed in handcuffs, a belly chain, shackles and a spit mask; and then body-slammed. Other staff members were reported to have paid children with cash or drugs to harm other children, she said.
"All too often children in correctional facilities like those at issue here are abused, mistreated and deprived of essential services. And because they are children, still growing and developing, they are uniquely vulnerable to harm," Clarke said.
The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division has the authority to open investigations into police departments, city governments, detention systems and other local jurisdictions if it has cause to believe civil rights are being systemically violated. Recent high-profile investigations involve police departments after deaths of Black men at the hands of police, such as the investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department after the death of George Floyd.
The investigation announced Wednesday follows a series of legal measures the Biden administration Justice Department has announced involving Texas, including a challenge of the state's near-total ban on abortions.
The investigation will determine whether Texas' juvenile detention system shows a pattern and practice of physical and sexual abuse of children, harm using chemical restraints, excessive use of isolation and lack of adequate mental health services, Clarke said.
A team of civil rights lawyers from the Justice Department will conduct an "independent, thorough and fair" investigation in Texas, she said.
"If our investigation reveals reasonable cause to believe there is a systemic constitutional violation we will provide written notice to Texas of the violation or violations ... and remedial measures," Clarke said.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas sai, “In July, Governor Abbott directed the Texas Rangers to investigate reports of certain [Texas Juvenile Justice Division] staff engaging in potentially illegal behavior. 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.”