Wednesday, January 31, 2018

TJJD Ombudsman Firing: Shooting the Messenger

When one reads the press accounts which broke the recent scandals at the Texas Juvenile Justice Department or talk to the reporters who covered it, one thing becomes clear: Much of what we know would have remained a secret if it weren't for the work of Debbie Unruh and her staff at the Ombudsman's office.

So naturally, Gov. Abbott has fired her, the Houston Chronicle reported. The chair of TJJD's board is also gone, and the executive director of the agency had already been replaced by the head of Gov. Abbott's Criminal Justice Division (which is in charge of dispensing mostly federal grant money). See also coverage from the Texas Tribune.

Incidentally, the new board chair, Wes Ritchey, comes from the same job Grits' paternal grandfather had for 29 years: County Judge of Dallam County.

State Sen. John Whitmire defended the changes, declaring, "Surely they can't say that the status quo was working well." To which Grits would reply, "No, it's not, but the only way we know that is because of the good work of the Ombudsman who's now being fired."

I get firing the ED and the board chair, even if I wasn't happy with the subsequent ED's initial missteps. But firing the Ombudsman is a different breed of cat. Hard to see that as anything but shooting the messenger, which breeds skepticism about whether the Governor would rather solve the problem or cover it up.

Rather than embracing modern best practices on juvenile justice like Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Gov. Abbott is doubling down on failed big-government solutions from the past and shutting down voices that exposed its shortcomings. That's a discouraging start to what will surely be a long and painful process.

If Unruh's office had never documented and exposed some of these problems, they would continue to have been swept under the rug. Same goes for problems at county detention centers.

My own takeaway on this remains the same as when the latest scandal first broke: "The mechanisms the Legislature created [in 2007] to identify, prosecute and punish sexual misconduct by staff actually appear to have worked. But the corrections culture that produces these illicit relationships at TJJD and TDCJ continues to afford opportunities for predatory behavior." The Ombudsman's office is part of what worked in this case: It's the management and ultimately decision makers and budget writers in the Legislature who decided to keep these large facilities in rural areas far away from treatment or mental health resources, then underfund them to the point that, in some cases, staff turnover approaches 40 percent annually.

Will the next Ombudsman be anxious to expose problems at juvenile detention centers knowing that doing so got the last person fired? Not likely.

Unruh wasn't technically a "whistleblower" because her JOB was to expose this stuff. She wasn't doing it against the interests of the agency, it was part of her job description and the Ombudsman's explicit mission.

But the circumstance is essentially similar to firing a whistleblower: She's being punished after exposing problems everyone agrees shouldn't have been going on. Indeed, given that most of the changes at TJJD so far are non-responsive to the details of the recently reported scandals, punishing her seems to be prioritized over fixing the problems.

RELATED: "Shifting youth to adult prisons puts Texas on the wrong side of history."

13 comments:

He's Innocent said...

Which then leaves those of us who are family and friends of TDCJ guests all the more unwilling to bother taking any problems to the TDCJ Ombudsman's office!

My experience with TDCJ's Ombudsman is that they always wait their allotted 10 business days to respond and then both only to regurgitate TDCJ policy without addressing the issue directly. Which of course, usually affirms your contention that the rules are not being followed, or followed in a fair manner, or best of all is a haze of BS meant to simply shut down any argument.

It's too bad TJJD was fired for doing as they should have been - watching for the welfare of those incarcerated there. We as a supposed civil society need more of these kind of people. This firing is simply more proof positive that Abbott and his band of GOP thugs do not give a rats ass about any human being (or their family) once they are labeled a felon of any stripe.

Anonymous said...

I agree it is unfortunate that Debbie will no longer be Ombudsman. But, the position is one that serves at the pleasure of the Governor and must be reappointed every 3 (?) or 4(?) years. Debbie Unruh was originally appointed by Perry and has been up for reapointment for more than a year. This change has been expected by most folks for the last year - even if we hoped it didnt happen. Personally, I dont see why the new Ombudsman will have to worry about retribution for doing their job. Now Abbott just gets to feel like he gets more credit if they uncover something that needs to be uncovered.

Second, it should be made clear David Reilly- the Former ED - was not fired. He retired. That was expected and had been in his plans for a long, long time.

The previous board chair had wanted to retire many, many times. He too was appointed and reappointed by Perry, and then Abbott asked him to stay on longer when he came up for reappointment even though he was ready to be done. You know he threw himself a party when he got to leave the board.

Abbott's getting a lot of credit for a shakeup at a scandal ridden agency that I dont think he really deserves. But lucky him, he gets to look like he cares and is trying to help kids he could care less about.

Lindsey Linder said...

Grits always has the smartest take.

Anonymous said...

The Ombudsman did a decent job of reporting abuse, but she failed at preventing abuse. The children and staff were continuing to get hurt. I expect that in the coming weeks and months we will see many personnel changes within TJJD.

Creator_of_SOFAQ SOFAQ said...

I am definitely posting this after posting the story before this. All hail the Great Grits for Breakfast!

Unknown said...

How can you get fired for whistle blowing if that is your job. Maybe it was a conflict of interest.

Anonymous said...

She did an excellent job of investigating and reporting to the executives but thats where her job ends. As always it is a case of the upper echelon in the ivory tower not doing their jobs.

Anonymous said...

Hopefully, the new ombudsman will put systems in place that will prevent abuse before it occurs. The former ombudsman was a reporter not a preventer.

Anonymous said...

@ Unknown 7:51-

The Whistleblower laws in Texas are extraordinarily weak. Moreover, if the Superiors know that whistleblowing may happen, they can premeditate documents and reasons for firing the whistleblower.

Anonymous said...

Why re these positions of Appointment? Why are they not positions of Employment? I bet if you tie someone's paycheck to their position they would be more willing to do a better job. People who are appointed aren't really accountable if something goes wrong. (See John Bradley's destruction as the Forensic Science Commission Chair)

JERRY DAY said...

...SHAME ON YOU STATE OF TEXAS FOR TAKING A WELL OPERATING CHILD CARE OPERATION AND PLACING IT UNDER THE ADULT MANAGEMENT SYSTEM...AS WAS EXPECTED KIDS GET THE SHORT END OF THE DEAL..I AM A FORMER SUPERINTENDENT OF SEVERAL TYC FACILITIES FOR 25 YEARS.PROUD OF THE WORK DONE UNDER THE LEADERSHIP OF RON JACKSON ,EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR. THEIR ALWAYS WILL BE CHILD ABUSE SITUATIONS GOING ON AT ANY TIME AND CONSTANT OVERSIGHT HAS TO OCCUR...OMBUDSMAN ARE A PAIN TO DEAL WITH BUT NECESSARY FOR ACCURATE OVERSIGHT..STAFF MUST HAVE CONSTANT TRAINING AND OVERSIGHT AND DIRECTION GIVEN AT THE SUPERINTENDENT LEVEL OR CROWDED FACILITIES ERUPT AND MORE ABUSE OCCURS NOT JUST OF KIDS BUT STAFF AS WELL...TAKE CARE OF THE KIDS AND STAFF OR SHUT THE FACILITIES DOWN...THANK YOU.

Anonymous said...

Well operating child care operation????? HUH???? Really?????

Anonymous said...

TYC functioned well from 1973 until about 2005. The wheels fell off when changes occurred in Executive Leadership and at the Mid-Level Management level. Present leadership is well educated academically and are nice people mostly but lack common sense. Unfortunately, leadership does not have a clue when it comes to proper child care practices, rehabilitation services, security, training staff and providing appropriate supervisions to employees at all levels. The agency can benefit from a return to the basics