Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Ombudsman's report may overstate improper abuse case closures

My old boss from ACLUTX, TYC Ombudsman Will Harrell, took a lot of heat today at the Lege for his department's report last week alleging abuse cases were closed without proper investigation. (See prior Grits coverage.)

"It's too early to say" how many cases were improperly closed, said TYC Inspector General Bruce Toney, but of more than 300 cases sent to his office to check if the proper criminal authorities were notified, 94 files did not contain enough information to tell if they should have been closed, he revealed under questioning from Rep. Sylvester Turner.

Sen. Whitmire chastised Harrell for alarming the public unnecessarily and even more so for the fact that the senator first learned of the report from a journalist.

Sen. Whitmire and Rep. Madden were both unhappy to discover that the Ombudsman's report overstated the case when it declared hundreds of cases were not referred to law enforcement. In fact, in many cases there were referrals but they hadn't been properly documented. When the Inspector General began going through them file by file, in the majority of instances there was paper documentation buried in there somewhere. It just hadn't been recorded in the database.

That discussion only refers to criminal allegations, I should mention, not administrative violations. Toney said the state auditor should be brought in to determine whether TYC performed administrative investigations in these cases, that it was impossible to tell from the available documentation (if you disbelieve information in the database that the agency says is flawed).

Meanwhile, having written this morning about the TDCJ grievance system, another data discrepancy showed up in this afternoon's discussions about TYC's grievance process: Assistant Ombudsman Kim Bennink said that 1,072 grievances at TYC remain unaddressed, some of them going back to 2004. However, chief of staff Alphonso Royal said there were only 581 outstanding grievances, not 1,072.

Apparently the source of the discrepancy is that the Ombudsman includes numbers from an older database that contains cases that were never closed but also never transferred into the new grievance database. Legislators asked for more clarification of this discrepancy at some future date.

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

Grits I can tell you with 100% certainty that from March 2007 forward, every single allegation of any type of mistreatment was look at by law enforcement. There wasn't anything those guys didn't look at during the "Great Purge" of TYC staff. So to say any of those cases occurring after March 2007 did not have law enforcement involvement to some degree is absolutely false.

If I were the Ombudsman, I'd be looking at everything my staff writes a little more closely. It seems kind of odd and sort of a surprise that his staff didn't even bother to check the paper files before coming to such a conclusion, which obviously was overstated.

Anonymous said...

Is it just me or did the Ombudsman office get slapped today? It is not nice to file reports without checking facts. Makes your staff look a like they have are going off on a tangent without any facts other than they have to point fingers at someone. Maybe next time you will write a better report that offers some type of remedy.

Anonymous said...

Actually I think Kim needs attention. File a report, alarm the public, and I get to get on TV. Never mind the FACT that the problem was seriously overstated. She looked so stupid up there today. The Ombudsman should be looking over her shoulder after today... This was matter of "I gotcha" where I can drop names and get on TV, and get attention. That's bad business.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more that full and careful review should be made before drawing major conclusions and alarming everyone. However, if the discrepancy in numbers is that more action had been taken than the database shows, there is still a problem. I'm assuming that the agency management outside the OIG itself doesn't routinely monitor and operate from the paper files themselves. They have to rely on some form of summary data - like the database - to tell if the system appears to be operating as it should and things are getting done. I'm glad to hear that perhaps not so many cases failed to get processed as originally suspected, but why did it take the OIO to identify that the agency's own database made the situation look so bad? If management was bothering to look at the data, why hadn't they identified the apparent problem and taken steps to correct it, even if part of the fix was just to ensure more accurate data? So maybe the OIO deserves some feedback on this but there still seems to be a legitimate problem.
>Don Brantley

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Don, you've articulated almost exactly where I wound up after listening to today's testimony.

Anonymous said...

Scott,

To add a further comment, I was told in May, 2007, that the TDCJ IG's had just dumped 500 complaints from the Hotline into the grievance system, which probably is the old data base that they are talking about. From the description I received most should have remained in the complaint system and not in the grievance system.

Howard A, Hickman

Anonymous said...

Don & Howard,
Problems with the database were identified long before either of you left office. The problem was the IRD did not put a priority on re-vamping the database. This is still a problem and IG Toney pointed out. They were supposed to have delivered a new database by Sept 1, but it got put on the back burner. Hopefully, the attention this has gotten will up the priority for IRD.

The main problem with the OIO's investigation is that after they discovered that the database was sorely lacking, they relied on it to make conclusions in their report. They did not interview a single person in the department.

I think IG Toney was the only credible witness today. He has identified the issues and is addressing them. I'm afraid the OIO got egg all over their faces. That is too bad. I had high hopes for that office. His investigator may have been influenced by a former YCI who had some scores to settle. I hope that is not true, but, for whatever the reason, the OIO lost a great deal of credibility today.

Anonymous said...

I remember that "dump," Howard. It hit down in the facilities in June and July and it was overwhelming -- dozens of stale allegations from and about kids who were long gone. We had to research them all and file them as youth complaints. Some of them had already been addressed in the youth complaint system or as alleged mistreatment, and some of them were pretty serious. It was unbelievable that some investigator from one of the other entities had apparently sat on them all that time.

Anonymous said...

3:41, it's fair to say that every single allegation BEFORE March 2007 was presented to law enforcement. It was TYC policy and was followed 100% at the facility I worked in. In most counties, especially ours, they had no interest. None.

Anonymous said...

7:47 -
I've been gone almost 18 months. If this is a problem that has lingered that long and IRD needed to prioritize it, then who exactly is responsible for establishing IRD priorities??
>Don Brantley

Anonymous said...

Whitmire, pull the trigger and put us out of our misery!!!

Anonymous said...

If Bruce Toney was the only credible person, TYC has a bigger problem than what I thought.

Whitsfoe said...

With respect to all, I just wanted to point out a few things with regard to where we're at now, and how things have changed for the better.

No one would have heard these alarms of cases that went unheard of and/or were only minutely considered as a civil rights violation in the past 5 years, even after a "careful review" by Central Office Personnel. It doesn't matter that they were glanced over, or eye-balled at all.

It doesn't matter to anyone of us in Old TYC that today, that alarm was addressed as being somewhat false.

The fact is it rang and got attention.

Could we say that in 2004? Like now? Sad enough, the answer is no.

What matters to all of us is that the damn alarm went off.

It rang, and it got attention, and folks, considering the past, that is evidence of reform. In the past, these allegations were spoken of in denial and in very dark places, and often dismissed.

Not today.

Today, these recent allegations were made very public, and that's a big change from the past.

This agency has now proved itself capable of opening the doors to let the world see. And I'm proud of that. Own up to your mistakes as you work through reform, and get to know one another a little better. Turner, Madden, and even Whitmire were singing that tune today, though they seemed pissed.

Also, it's apparent TYC has big wobbly baby legs right now as it reforms. Again, considering the past, those were some huge baby steps today. They're trying to walk again. I see a bunch of worried stakeholders trying to catch the baby. Those babies are gonna fall every now and then, but let them learn to walk again. Then criticize their new momma after she's addressed these stumbles!

Today may have seemed victorious for one side or another, but the fact is, it's evidence of reform and thus a victory for all.

Anonymous said...

You can revamp a database all you want, but the bottom line is: garbage in, garbage out.

IRD has ranted on deaf ears for MONTHS about this data integrity. If you think this is bad, you should see what the HR data looks like now. Or even some of the CCS data.

Nobody cared, nobody listened - once upon a time, IRD was a highly respected department whose opinion, insight, and feedback was regularly sought.

Over the past year and a half, they've been relegated to nothing more than a support services division, i.e., "shut up and make my computer work."

Nevermind that the only tenure and institutional and historical knowledge LEFT is in the friggin IT department.

Anonymous said...

TO 12:54

You speak great sense and I regret to have slipped into the norm of missintg the data folks who are invisible compared to others who might speak louder--but who know far less.

I urge you to say more here on this blog where you don't risk termination and where you will reach an audience far outside your ool

Anonymous said...

IRD is filled with some amazing folks that are both hardworking and ethical. I have had hit them with last minute requests time and time again and they are always, cooperative, informative and very helpful.

Anonymous said...

To me it is a sad statement of affairs that all the hype is about wether the Ombudsman statement that hundreds of cases were closed without law enforcement investigation is completely accurate. Even Mr. Grits has hedged that way.

First of all, that is not what the report says or what they said at the hearing. They said hundreds were not closed with proper investigation by law enforcement in some cases or by YRD investigators in other cases. All the OIG was saying was that so far, it looks like many cases were reviewed by law enforcement afterall but they OIO can't tell that from the crappy database TYC keeps. Toney didn't say that those cases were not administratively closed without administrative investigation.

In any case, what if it turns out that only 100 weren't, or 50, or 25. Does that mean it's OK? And why aren't we talking about the other elefant in the room--the cutting of staff made it imposible to investigate cases in a timely or detailed manner--if at all.

The mere fact no one can say with certainty that all these cases are being fully and timely investigated by law enforcement or administrative investigation is a huge problem itself. That means no one is monitoring the system and there is no accountability. That's what brought us West Texas State Scholl and the colapse of this agency that followed. All you self-interested people should demand and accountable system or another crisis like that is bound to occcur.

But let's be real. Anyone who has been at TYC for any significant period of time knows in their heart the Ombudsman is right. They will be vindicated. The question is, will you acknowledge that when it happens?

Anonymous said...

Greeting from Afghanistan ..Enough! Many of you have great points, but the fact remains that revamping an agency as large as TYC takes time. While changing directions multiple times during the last 2 years; new directors, superintendent's, tenured staff, policies, lack of direction, figure pointing, and political posturing. The agency still remains and will once again will light the way for other juvenile facilities to admire. But, first personal agendas must be laid aside, common sense pushed more to the forefront, and leadership not egos championed. One is slapped down for having a different opinion then those that are in charge or better yet fired. Many great American's die for just the freedom of expression we take so lightly there in the US, I urge all to lay the politics aside and put the safety of the community, youth, and the staff in charge of these youth the priority again.

You can not bargain with convicted youth and expect that they will become respectful when they have not been taught it. They pray upon weakness. I don't advocate abuse but just check the workman's comp claims and you will see another side of the story. The youth are in control. Maybe, this is where they want it to be. But, remember these youth will be released and what have they been taught; "break the law and you still get the same freedoms, heck better ones, behind bars". We are not assisting them in making better choices or becoming better people, we are creating career criminals.

I serve a great country and work for a great agency. While I applaud the direction, it has come at the expense of many great staff and administrators. The military would never undertake a massive overhaul without a clear direction because many would die. This is what has happen to this great agency. HOOAH!

Anonymous said...

No, I don't think the OIO investigators will be vindicated. They were grandstanding and got caught. It is unfortunate that the sloppy work of an unqualified investigator in OIO undermined confidence in the office. Mr. Harrell should have been more careful in his selection. The OIO is a tremendously important entity.

Anonymous said...

Don raised a good point. Who does set the priorites for IRD? The good folks in IRD get their marching orders from outside IRD. No-one can rightfully say it is their fault the database was not prioritized.

This goes to a much deeper point - who set the priorities for the agency? The OIO report touched on, but missed the main point - the "reform" administration put a very low priority on investigating allegations of abuse and neglect. The OIO report hit all of the problems, but failed to emphasize that core issue.

The OIO correctly identified that tere were serious problems with the database. They also correctly identified the fact that at a time when allegations were skyrocketing, Ms Pope elected to cut the investigative force by 2/3s. They also have pointed out that Ms Pope made the decision to keep the YCIs in a so-called "Youth Rights Division" instead of allowing them to come under the aegis of the OIG.

That one decision was a major contributor to the duplication and confusion with regard to who was doing what. The OIG is a law enforcement agency. Law enforcement entities from outside TYC were able to freely share investigative information with the OIG, but since the YCIs were outside of law enforcement, that same information could not be shared with them. Now that the YCIs are Admin Investigators, directly supervised by a law enforcement officer, hopefully a major portion of that duplication and confusion will be abated.

As for the OIO assertion that the YCIs were poorly trained and had little experience doing investigations - that was an unfortunate assertion given that many of the YCIs have much more training and experience than the chief author of the report.