Monday, December 25, 2017

Brandi Grissom Interview: TJJD/Gainesville sex abuse scandal

In the December episode of the Reasonably Suspicious podcast, we included an excerpt from an interview by Grits with Brandi Grissom-Swicegood, who just left her post as Dallas Morning News Austin bureau chief to pursue a second career as a professional triathlete. Brandi's final story for the News focused on the emerging sex-assault scandal at the Texas Juvenile Justice Department's Gainesville State School (see prior Grits coverage).

Find a transcript of our full conversation after the jump.

Transcript: Just Liberty Policy Director Scott Henson interviews Brandi Grissom, former bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News, re: the sex assault scandal at the Gainesville State School.

Scott Henson: Hi. This is Scott Henson, policy director at Just Liberty and creator of the blog Grits for Breakfast. My guest today is the departing Austin bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News, Brandi Grissom, who is already better at journalism than most people will ever be at anything. But now she wants to be one of the world's best endurance athletes, and so is leaving the Fourth Estate for a career as a professional triathlete.

I caught up with this remarkable woman on her way out the door to talk a little about her career as well as her final story, an expose about sex abuse and assault allegations at the Texas Juvenile Justice Department State School in Gainesville. Let's give it a listen.

Hello. This is Scott Henson. I'm here today with Brandi Grissom, one of the top reporters in Texas who is now a reporter no more. She's leaving us to go become, of all amazing things, a professional triathlete, which is the most amazing, wonderful, and ridiculous thing I've heard in a really long time. Thank you very much for doing this with me.

Brandi Grissom: Thanks so much for having me on. I'm excited.

Scott Henson: All right. Well, let me just start by saying thank you for your amazing journalism career, and for listeners who don’t know, Brandi was the bureau chief at the Dallas Morning News until recently, Austin bureau chief at the Dallas Morning News. Before that, she was the managing editor at the Texas Tribune - wasn’t there a brief stint at the Associated Press? - and then the El Paso Times before that, and has essentially been one of the very best reporters in the Texas capital for a decade or more.

Brandi Grissom: Thank you. That’s far too kind.

Scott Henson: Well, it's really well-deserved, and you're going to be missed. I want to just first give you a chance to tell us, give us a few of your thoughts about leaving. What are some of your memories of doing this? Tell me what you're thinking about as you're passing the torch here.

Brandi Grissom: I guess what I'm mostly thinking about is how I'm going to miss all my amazing colleagues in the press corps here in Austin. I've learned so much from so many people, and I'm going to miss them all tremendously. I think some of the people that come to mind most immediately are folks like Ross Ramsey at the Texas Tribune, who, he's just a font of knowledge about all things legislative and political, and Bob Garrett at the Dallas Morning News, who has very generously decided to take on my job in the interim, which is a blessing for the Dallas Morning News, because he is such an amazing journalist.

Scott Henson: That is good news.

Brandi Grissom: Yeah. Yeah, it's been great.

Scott Henson: I didn’t know that.

Brandi Grissom: Yeah. The bureau's in safe hands. Mostly it's the people who I'll miss the most, and I won't miss as much the early morning/late night stakeouts at the Capitol and that kind of thing, but some of the drama of it all, the politics, I'll miss some of that for sure.

Scott Henson: There's an adrenaline rush to it, for sure.

Brandi Grissom: Yeah.

Scott Henson: There's no doubt at all.

Brandi Grissom: Hundred percent. I think two of the most exciting nights that I've experienced in the Capitol, the night of the Wendy Davis filibuster. That was unlike anything I ever experienced before. I can still every time I think about that night being in the Texas Senate and sort of feel that catch in your throat and the palpitation of your heart from just the noise and the excitement and the energy of that night.

Then, I can't remember for sure the year; I think it was 2007, was the walkout in the Texas House staged by Pat Haggerty.

Scott Henson: Right, right, the one where everyone fled town.

Brandi Grissom: Yeah. Well, they fled the House, and it was really late at night and he took his key from his desks and couldn’t vote anymore, and no one could perform, and told everybody else to walk out and take their keys, too. It was just such high drama.

Scott Henson: It was high drama on such low-rent topics, often, but it was very high drama. I agree with that. All right, well, the very last story that you covered at the Dallas Morning News was about the Texas Juvenile Justice Department and the scandal at the Gainesville State School, where, I guess now four employees have been indicted on sex assault-related charges. Those of us who have been around as long as you and I have look at this and our heads just drop and we think, “Oh, my gosh, it's our Texas Youth Commission scandal all over again. Somebody bring in Nate Blakeslee. We need to dredge up-

Brandi Grissom: Bring him back from New York.

Scott Henson: Dredge up all the same issues and topics that we all slogged through 10 years ago.” Why don’t you tell us what happened at Gainesville and sort of walk us through this latest new episode.

Brandi Grissom: Sure. Unfortunately, there are a lot of things that have happened at Gainesville. Sort of the most salacious, I guess, are the most recent arrests. There were four TJJD correctional officers who were arrested under allegations that they were involved in sexual misconduct with youths on the campus. One of them was arrested last year, last fall, and he has since been sentenced to 10 years in prison. The other three were arrested just in the last couple of months, I believe since August and September. One of the women who was arrested was allegedly pregnant with the baby of one of the youths that she had an affair with.

Scott Henson: Yikes.

Brandi Grissom: Yeah. According to the e-mails that we saw and the text messages that she shared back and forth with the youth, she said she wanted to have five of his children and she would allow him to name some of them.

Scott Henson: Oh, good lord.

Brandi Grissom: Yeah.

Scott Henson: Oh, my gosh. How old was this youth? Do we know?

Brandi Grissom: We're not exactly sure. He was over the age of 18-

Scott Henson: Okay.

Brandi Grissom: ... according to the records, but because he was obviously a person in custody, that’s-

Scott Henson: Automatically ...

Brandi Grissom: Automatically makes it a problem. It wasn’t just the sexual misconducts between the youths and the officers. There is also a psychologist who was told he could resign or be fired after there were allegations that he was asking some of the youths to masturbate in front of him and providing them with pornography.

Then, in addition to that, it's just what you could call and what Debbie Unruh, the ombudsman, called in some cases chaos, kids just doing what they call fleeing from apprehension. They essentially run around the campus. They climb up trees, climb onto roofs of buildings.

Scott Henson: Right. Climbing onto the roofs has been happening for decades.

Brandi Grissom: Right.

Scott Henson: Let me just say that.

Brandi Grissom: Right.

Scott Henson: It's like every few years it happens and everyone pulls their hair out. It's a security problem, but it isn't a new security problem. It's a-

Brandi Grissom: Right. The thing with ...

Scott Henson: The sexual assault stuff is really the bigger. Some of this is ... It's hard to understand how you keep youth who are not just simply locked up 24/7 from occasionally running off. It's a lot more difficult to see how anyone allows the sexual assault stuff to go on. Anyway.

Brandi Grissom: Right. Yeah, and that is definitely a problem. One of the other things that we found out about is not just sexual assault but also violence. We got reports from the ombudsman's office about JCOs, correctional officers, offering to pay youths in cash and drugs in order for them to assault other youths on the campus.

Scott Henson: Right. That was astonishing. That, to me, was the piece that almost made this more, I don’t want to say, “more egregious,” because how do you quantify such things? But that sure was an eye-opener.

Brandi Grissom: Yeah.

Scott Henson: How widespread was this? Was this a one-off or is it something that really was ongoing?

Brandi Grissom: Well, so in our reporting, we kind of debated about how much of that to include in our story, because the ombudsman's office didn’t have any ... They didn’t actually witness any of that happening, right? They were able to interview several youths who independently gave similar stories about what had happened to them. The TJJD wasn’t able to verify any of those stories because the youths wouldn’t give names because they were afraid of retribution. There wasn’t-

Scott Henson: They'd either been beaten up or they'd been paid.

Brandi Grissom: Right. We went ahead and decided because so many youths had independently had the same story, we figured we thought it was worth reporting.

Scott Henson: Oh, absolutely. That really, like I say, between that and the larger number of people ... People forget, there were only two people at the end of the day indicted and prosecuted in the TYC scandal. One was convicted; one wasn’t. This is by volume a bigger number, but at the same time, one of the things I'd written about on Grits and we talked about a little bit was that, unlike the scandal 10 years ago, and let's talk about that in just a little bit because ...

To back up, in 2007 Nate Blakeslee, who was then at the Texas Observer, then went on to the Texas Monthly for a while, wrote a blockbuster story that basically uncovered sex assault scandals at another youth prison out in West Texas, and this basically blew the entire system up. At the end of the day, the legislature essentially abolished the agency, changed the Texas Youth Commission to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. 

They brought in a couple of dozen administrators from the adult prisons to run it, and they were terrible and didn’t know what they were doing and had no idea how to run juvenile facilities, so then they had to leave. For a while, it was this big, big mess, but eventually, it shook out and it seemed like that we got some changes in terms of at least identifying these types of problems, giving youth an opportunity to speak out and to complain.

Do you think those mechanisms work? Is any of this at least some good news? Because last time, there wasn’t anyone in the agency that was overseeing it. A reporter had to come in from the outside, break the story, and it was years later that anyone was prosecuted. Now, the story's about a prosecution, and that’s the first story. That seems to be a little different scenario to me.

Brandi Grissom: Yeah, that’s true. There have been a lot of what you could call positive changes that have happened as a result of what happened in 2007 and the overhaul that lawmakers implemented. We have fewer units and fewer kids. Opposed to 5,000 kids, there's only about 1,000, maybe 1,500 right now. There are also fewer units, so instead of 12, there are five now.

Scott Henson: But they're still these very large units.

Brandi Grissom: Right. I think that’s sort of the key problem that still exists is that the units that remain are huge, sprawling units in the middle of nowhere, where it's hard to find really quality staff and to maintain-

Scott Henson: Mental health services.

Brandi Grissom: ... mental health services, substance abuse treatment. All of those things are really hard to find out in these rural, remote areas where the units are. Back on the vein of some positive things, a couple of things that are different about this story as compared to the one in 2007. Now, Debbie Unruh, the ombudsman, is in place. When these problems are happening, youths have an office that they can report to, who's there making regular visits to see what's going on. 

Then the other thing that I think is different now is that there are more cameras in place. There are more security measures to ensure that at least if they aren't preventing these things from happening, they're getting caught.

Scott Henson: Right. One of the things that the smaller units are supposed to do to help actually prevent instead of catch, because that is really what they did in 2007 and 2009 is they put in sort of after-the-fact systems that if something happens, the ombudsman will catch it, that the camera will catch it and then we can prosecute. They set up new systems. Remember that DA wouldn’t prosecute for so long. He just didn’t prosecute JCOs for anything, and so they had to finally get the AG to come in and do it, and there wasn’t really a law for that.

It seems like some of those post hoc things have been fixed, but it's the preventive piece, and a lot of that is just about staffing and having enough warm bodies there that are skilled and trained to deal with troubled youth.

Brandi Grissom: That’s exactly right.

Scott Henson: They have the highest turnover of any agency in the state, I believe. It's around 40%.

Brandi Grissom: I'm not sure what agency-wide the number is, but-

Scott Henson: JCOs, I'm ... Yeah.

Brandi Grissom: At Gainesville, the turnover rate is the highest among the five units, and that was 39%. But not a single one of the units had a turnover rate that was less than over 20%. They're all experiencing huge amounts of turnover. The problem, of course, that that creates is that the people who are there are inexperienced. They're constantly having to train a new crop of JCOs, and the youths know that, so they're easily able to take advantage of the inexperience of the JCOs. Then, also because the turn is so high and they're so anxious to find people, there's questionable quality of the kinds of employees that they're able to find.

Scott Henson: And you're just out there in the middle of nowhere. You’ve just been to Gainesville. Tell us about Gainesville. Are they attracting large numbers of potential employees there?

Brandi Grissom: Well, I didn’t actually get to go to Gainesville for the story, but what the numbers show is clear that they're not.

Scott Henson: Right. It's a tiny place, and there's simply not the sort of services around that you need for troubled youth that you might have if they were closer to the-

Brandi Grissom: If it's any indication, there were 160 people who left or were otherwise fired from Gainesville alone in the year and a half.

Scott Henson: Wow.

Brandi Grissom: That’s an incredible number.

Scott Henson: That is an incredible number. Where do we go from here? It's like we're having this déjà vu moment, and yet, a lot of the same legislators are even still here in charge of some of these systems, Harold Dutton in the House or John Whitmire in the Senate. We've been through this once already, and so what options are there to try and do this differently or better, because obviously we didn’t solve the problem 10 years ago?

Brandi Grissom: I think the advocates who I spoke with said, "You know, when we went through this in 2007, lawmakers made a good start at this overhaul, but then they just stopped so we got down to where we are now with five of these units, but they're still out in far-flung areas. They're still these sprawling secure facilities that really are not conducive to the kind of rehabilitation that youths really need."

Lawmakers started this move toward the smaller home-like settings, making sure that kids are staying in their communities that are closer to families, closer to urban areas where they have access to resources that they need, but the advocates will say that they didn’t finish the job. To them, finishing the job means closing down the rest of these facilities and really making a transition to home-like settings where kids can get the kind of access to sources that will really help them to rehabilitate, because they're still young and their brains are still forming. If at any opportunity we might have the chance to fix these kids' lives and help them get on track, now is it.

Scott Henson: I think that’s right. The one thing I would add to that is that 10 years ago, one of the really good things they did, the legislature did, was to create something called a blue-ribbon panel where they really did get some of the top minds, not just in Texas but in the country, to come in and advise them and do a big report on how they should do these reforms. They had this enormous laundry list. I recently looked at it again. After I saw your story, I pulled it back up to remind myself sort of, okay, well, what did we and didn’t we do? They had dozens and dozens of recommendations, and they did implement quite a few, but when they got to the ones that you're talking about, about the smaller facilities closer to urban areas, it just stops. Then there's a big part of the list that just no, no, no, no.

Brandi Grissom: Yeah.

Scott Henson: Just to give listeners a little refresher, the blue-ribbon panel had recommended that we shift to something called the Missouri model, which is smaller units, all under 48 beds or less, with higher staffing ratios, and basically more treatment and occupational opportunities and training and all sorts of things that you're just not going to be able to give them out in Gainesville.

Brandi Grissom: Right.

Scott Henson: We did have sort of a blueprint for this, and it was, frankly, a money issue as to why they didn’t do that. Someone would have to fork over and pay for it, and-

Brandi Grissom: Well, I think you're right. It's a money issue, but it's also a political will issue, because in order to do that, they have to close down the rest of these facilities, and in some of these small, rural towns where the facilities exist, the local economy relies on those facilities to continue operating. Shutting them down will be a big political fight for the lawmakers who live in those areas. We saw it happen with the ones that have shut down. Remember what a big fiasco it was with Corsicana when that shut down.

Scott Henson: That’s right.

Brandi Grissom: It's not something that lawmakers really want to jump into, and it's going to require a lot of political fighting if it's going to get done.

Scott Henson: Well, that is probably a good note to end this on, or a depressing note to end it on, I should say.

Brandi Grissom: Sad, but true.

Scott Henson: It is a sad but true note, yes. Thank you so much again for talking with me. I really appreciate it and just appreciate you and everything you’ve done for the state. Good luck in your career.

Brandi Grissom: Thank you so much, Scott. Thanks for all you've done as well.

Scott Henson: All right.


Unknown said...

I listen to and read news reports about how a problem can be fixed, but nobody steps up to help fix the problems.


thanks for your time.

rozmataz said...

Seems like prison-loving Texas is just keeping these kids locked up 'til they're old enough to go to big boy prisons.

Anonymous said...

One part of the issue is attraction. Some females see a juvenile correctional facility as a perfect place to meet the "bad boys" they have long been wanting to get their hands on.

The second part of the equation is the idea of "service." Some staff members see their role as providing a sexual service to these young men who appreciate their efforts.

Maybe gang affiliation is a third part.

Anonymous said...

Your Cheuvanism is showing, or do you have something to back up your perverted fantasies?

Speak up so Chapter 62 of the Code of Criminal Procedures can hear you

Anonymous said...

Abel Reyna, the District Attorney of McLennan County was selected to serve as the chairman of the executive board of the Special Prosecution Unit for the State of Texas earlier this month. He will have decision-making abilities over these folks. He has an enormous amount of alleged criminal charges against him presently. I don't know how he got 'selected', nor do I know how he plans to carry out his new duties while defending himself against the allegations brought against him, while simultaneously prosecuting what most agree are innocent bikers (154 of them). He will then face over 100 civil suits. I, for one, cannot see how the physical safety and mental health of these juveniles is in capable hands with Mr. Reyna at the helm.

But, that's just my opinion.

Anonymous said...

Some very good conversation in this podcast but let's examine a few of the issues:

The Blue Ribbon panel was a great idea but it had a lot of academia involvement, not enough practitioners involved.

With Dutton as chair of the JJFI committee the past few sessions since it was revived again very little progress was made in actual secure facility reforms. Dissolve this committee and let corrections again take it back over. Nothing will get done if Dutton carries the vendetta against Whtmire through another session.

The point was made about funding. County operated departments continue to have basic probation funding cut but replaced with specialized funding streams that is limited in its use. If we really want to keep kids closer to home we MUST make sure that CPS and local MHMR's are doing their part to treat the kids according to their afflictions and not criminalize behavior of juveniles just so they can obtain services. On average 12% of the youth referred to county departments could be diverted immediately into community services if the working relationship between probation, CPS and MHMR could become one.

The Missouri Model is a false model to implement. That system hand picks the kids that go into the smaller, less secure settings. They still have a state facility for the very incorrigible youth much like TJJD has now become.

Shutting down all 5 facilities with no place for the heinous offenders to go will only decrease safety for citizens. Look at the full profile of youth committed. It is evident none of the advocacy groups have been victims of crime. Where do the victims rights advocates stand on this issue??

Yes move facilities to the larger urban areas where you have many more employees and services to choose from. Better yet, privatize and incentivize the treatment process to pay for positive outcomes.

With the new executive director set to take over in January I expect to see an immediate reorganization first in the central office and then a very heavy handed approach to solve the secure facilities woes as long as legislators do not hinder progress by letting the LBB continue to trim funding.

After 30 years in the juvenile justice field in Texas I am tired of educated idiots attempting to solve issues they only hear about in sensationalized news reports. If a new "Blue Ribbon" planning committee is formed bring in actual probation and parole officers, supervision officers, community leaders in juvenile services, not inexperienced individuals with a lofty cause. Get practical with the ideas.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@6:47, nobody has suggested, "Shutting down all 5 facilities with no place for the heinous offenders to go," but rather shifting to smaller facilities in urban areas, likely including private vendors. Which you agree with. But somehow you're upset because the group that came up with the suggestion wasn't filled with JCOs? Other than just parochialism, I'm not sure where that line of critique is coming from.

Agreed that the Dutton-Whitmire feud has kept some of this from being addressed.

However, every part of the blue-ribbon panel's recommendations that were implemented worked well. The problems remain in the areas where they didn't follow recommended reforms. It had nothing to do with whether or not you or your friends got to be on the panel. Y'all had LOTS of input, and even here you're not suggesting anything they didn't.

Unknown said...

Nice interview Grits. You and Brandi hit the nail on the head in re the politics of shutting down these places. Gainesville's been around since 1915 and has withstood attacks before. But they all need to go. - Bill Bush

Anonymous said...

Beginning in January 2018, the new TJJD Executive Director needs to purge TJJD of the old so called executive leadership team at central office and current management at the institutional level. Then she can put her team in place and implement new research based treatment and educational programs

Anonymous said...

02:27 said, "Beginning in January 2018, the new TJJD Executive Director needs to purge TJJD of the old so called executive leadership team at central office...."

Some in the executive leadership (holdovers from the old TYC culture) have long had a "funny" attitude toward the pattern the staff/student inapppropriate relationships.